Image of woman's hand holding a cup of espresso in the foreground, man sitting at low table in the background drinking espresso with table full of travel kit of espresso making supplies.

Coffee, coffee, coffee

Pre-script: I don’t make money from any of the links in this post. I just want you to be able to find great ways to make coffee, and if these links help, so much the better.

Disclaimer 2: I am not a coffee expert. I have just read a lot of coffee stuff on the internet

After being an avid green tea drinker for a while, I found that I couldn’t drink green (or black, or oolong) tea anymore, much to my chagrin. This is a shame, as my love for matcha is great. So, I turned to coffee but found the acidity too much for my stomach. No problem: espresso tends to be lower in acidity, so for the last year, I have been an avid espresso drinker.

But, espresso can be an expensive habit: whether paying cup-by-cup at the cafe, or purchasing the adequate equipment to adequately prepare espresso, good espresso can be a substantial operating or capital investment, or both! For a long time, I turned to the handpresso: I was traveling a lot, and needed a solution that would work anywhere, give good espresso, and was compact and easy to travel with. A real challenge with the handpresso is that it doses a single 7 gram shot, which ups-the-ante with respect to grind quality and tamp quality. You must buy a great grinder, and you should probably get a good tamper for it too. But once you’ve done that, you can make some pretty nice espresso and you can prepare it anywhere. I have video of me preparing it onboard the last international flight from Rwanda to the Netherlands via Uganda in March of this year, which I will post later.

Now that I have been traveling less: most days in my work-from-home scheme, I don’t leave my own yard, I’ve moved over to using a Flair Espresso maker. This thing is pretty tight, and makes me realize how lacking all the espresso I have ever drunk has been. There’s lots of good espresso in the world, but precious little great espresso. The pulls from this tend to have great body, lots of crema (which is often delicious crema?!!), and plenty of floral notes. My favorite coffees to pull from it at the moment are from Red Cedar Coffee here in Berea, Ohio. Their Costa Ricans are fantastic honey-processed delights, and their Organic Sumatran is so good. Now with the pandemic, they have stepped up their online ordering setup here:

Picture of Flair Espresso Maker, with Hario scale, Red Cedar Airscape Coffee canister, and a gas stove in the background.

With Red Cedar’s great roasting as inspiration, I decided to dive into a little coffee roasting myself. Not wanting to do anything too fussy yet, I ordered a Nesco coffee roaster, which gives me very little control. This is ideal for me. I am already doing manual pulls for my espresso, and I want something easy for roasting until this hobby also escalates. The Nesco is somewhere between $80 and $100, depending on where you buy it, and it often comes with some free green coffee to get you started.

Image of Nesco coffee roaster with lid removed in forground, multiple items in background including Flair Espresso maker, kosher salt shaker, and manual coffee grinder.

Green beans are nice and affordable, and the Nesco only has two settings: Medium Roast and Dark Roast. You can manually control time of roast for lighter roasts by hitting the Cool Down button early. I have not yet tried this. The beans I tried first were from where I ordered the roaster: a Sumatra Takengon Sara Ate from Burman Coffee Traders: This is a super tasty coffee at medium roast: chocolaty and creamy, with medium complexity, and very clean for a Sumatran. I like more complexity in my Sumatrans, but this is an easy drinker for sure. There’s just a little green flavor at a medium roast (peat is the official designation per the website, but I won’t pretend to be great at coffee lexicon), and a little spiciness.

Hario scale with 112.3 grams of green coffee before roasting.
Hario scale with 90.7 grams of medium roasted coffee after roasting.

The pulls for the medium roast have been fantastic. Super thick crema, decent body, and with a certain complex sweetness which is a pleasure to drink.

Image of top of demitasse with nicely striped espresso crema in full view.

Taking a simple tool further

One concept that a Columbian colleague turned me on to is the idea that in an age of single origin coffees, we can reintroduce some interesting characteristics of blends by roasting at multiple levels from the single origin and combining those in a blend. The advantage to old-school multiple-origin blends is fine control over exactly the characteristics that you get from your coffee. With a good sensory lexicon, and a quality control department, you can also be a massive coffee operation and maintain predictable coffee flavors over time for the sake of branding. The disadvantage is lack of clarity and no terroir or taste of the land that you might get from a good single origin.

While a light roast will give you the best terroir, it might be excessively aciditic, and much more difficult than a darker roast to get the great body that comes from higher extraction rates.The idea of using a blend at multiple roast levels from a single origin is you reintroduce some of that control, while retaining the terroir. So, I tried.

Here’s my darker roast of the same bean. This roast hit the second crack, and just as advertised, it suddenly got pretty smokey. I don’t have a good coffee lexicon to draw from yet, but for anyone who has had Red Cedar’s Organic Sumatran and their Italian Roast Sumatran, it is somewhere in between in flavor. Not as roasty as a classic Italian roast, but a bit smokey. The crema was so thick, it was hard to see through even when stirring with a spoon, and the body was fantastic: super thick with great mouth feel.

Canister of dark roasted Sumatran beans. Mmm. Roasty-toasty.
Demitasse showing smooth surface crema of espresso shot.

So, then it was time to combine the roast levels, and see how the combo came out. The combination was really good: better than either by themselves. It had a little of the smokiness of the dark roast, but not excessively (for my taste). Most of the origin flavor was still there, but with added body that felt equal to the dark roast version. This was a truly fantastic pull, and I am looking forward to the next few.

Demitasse showing some striping/mottling of crema on top of espresso.


So, how expensive is this?

  • Nesco Coffee Roaster: $100
  • Flair Espresso Maker: $159-$239. I recommend getting a blemished one and saving ~20% when they are available ($130-$190), and going for the Signature, because it includes the pressure gauge and stainless steel tamper.
  • Good grinder. I am pretty happy with the 1Zpresso JX Pro, although getting grinders right now is tough. Alternatives include the JE-Plus, Lido-E, Apollo B-plus. I have also heard that Flair will be coming out with their own in the low end of this range sometime in the next few weeks: $160-280
  • Demitasse: $20 handmade tea cup from Incheon International Airport, South Korea (optional, and only if you want to feel super fancy and like you are still jet-setting around the world. Also, this has a super round bottom and the rim perfectly fits over my nose, which probably contributes to the fact that the espresso tastes better from this cup than any of my others.)

Postscript, Coffee, Coffee, Coffee is the name of one of my favorite Cleveland Cafes. It shares space with a bike shop, which works better than you might think. The espresso is decent, and the espresso drinks are fantastic. As there is only one grinder, the espresso blend is optimized for espresso drinks, but their cortado is well worth the visit.

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