Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Delonghi Challenge

"I decided to write something about every coffee I drink."
Hmm. Allegedly, that is what this blog is all about. My Twitter bio says something to the same effect. It doesn't take much scrolling-down to notice that I have not been fulfilling that promise very well over the last few weeks. My main excuses is that for the last few weeks I have been travelling around on a bus equipped with one of these:

It's a Delonghi. It was great to have a machine on the bus, but honestly I didn't expect great results. Many espresso machine magazine ads feature a photo of the machine, with a cappuccino parked in front of it. Delonghi, unfortunately, tend to always use a terrible-looking cup of coffee as the vital demonstration-of-machine's-potential. So, based on this, I assume you can only make terrible coffee. Furthermore, I generally find it hard to trust any machine that does everything behind the scenes for you. You can hear all the grinding and tamping back there, but you can't see it. Quite suspicious. Wouldn't it be more fun to have the whole thing made of perspex so you can see all the magic? Anyway, I had serious doubts about the machine's ability to know how to do all the vital human observation stuff.

And so The Delonghi Challenge is, very simply, to make something good with this machine.

The first shot poured in about five seconds. Not fun. Just to see how far off we were, I turned the water knob (essentially the volume of the shot) to minimum, the dose knob (how much grounds goes into each shot) to maximum, the grind knob to finest, and pressed the double shot button. My logic was, "Hopefully this will result in a shot that either never finishes, or takes about a minute to do so. Then we can back off on the dose and/or grind to something acceptable."

That didn't really work out. It still took about 18 seconds. That's as close as we're getting, and the shot tasted pretty bad. Mind you, the bus driver said he never uses the machine, so those beans might have been sitting there for possibly months. So let's move on to the milk.

The steam wand has a very irritating attachment on the end with two large holes on an angle, kind of like a pig's snouth, I guess. Luckily, it unscrewed to reveal a single small hole. That would do just nicely. As for what to use as a milk jug, I had either a mug, a paper cup, or a plastic cup to choose from. I went for the plastic cup: it was washable, and I would feel the temperature changes a lot quicker than through paper. To get steam, you turn the steam knob to full, and a pulsing hissing sound starts to very slowly build up. It sounds like there is some very pissweak pump in charge of sending the water through something that takes a while to heat up. Hence, "ssssSSSsssSSSssssSSSssSSSsss," and then finally, "SSSSSS". So once the steam was going as strong as it seemed it was going to get, I turned it off, put the plastic cup underneath, and turned the steam back on.

This is where it starts to quite rapidly not make any sense. Even if you only turn the steam off for a fraction of a second, it kind of starts again from the beginning with the heating-up thing. A bit annoying. Putting the jug underneath while it is still steaming will only blast milk all over the room. Turning it off for a fraction of a second is as good a chance as you'll get. So anyway, my steaming technique is still pretty amateur, as is my pouring-from-a-plastic-cup technique. But I got some okay-ish results.

Stepping away from the challenge for a second, I have to say I'm pretty impressed with the machine's self-cleaning regime. Every time you switch it on or off, it uses up about half a cup of water doing some sort of cleaning thing. It's good to know there isn't any stale espresso sitting around in there during downtime. I also like how quickly the machine heats up. It feels like only about a minute, and the lights have stopped flashing and you're ready to go. More heatup time may not help you out too much: I'm assuming it's a very small thing in there that needs to heat up. Unfortunately, that also probably means that it won't hold that temperature for very long, and there is no thermostat light to indicate what's going on. Not ideal, to say the least.

Anyway, in yesterday's post I mentioned that Dan bought some beans from Starb$%&s. It turns out that Les the bus driver also bought some beans. I have no idea what they are. But they appear to have made a difference. The first shot I pulled this morning took about 32 seconds. I turned the grinder back one notch, and then we were well within the zone (the time zone anyhow - the temperature zone we may still be miles away from). The shot still tasted kind of bad though. I guess there are a few components in there not covered by the automatic-switch-off-rinse-cycle.

This is our last day on the bus. This is as far as I got with the challenge, with Les's unknown beans:


And again, in the light of day, after a few sips:

Well, it still didn't taste great. But it looks a hell of a lot better than the ones they use in their promo photos - albeit in a takeaway cup. I guess bad-tasting and okay-looking vaguely supercedes unknown-tasting and horrible-looking.

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