A Less Wasteful Home Espresso

After many years dutifully following the “don’t even bother with the single basket” mantra in my home espresso routine, I began to increasingly lament the wasted shot from the other side of the spout at every push of the pump button. To confirm, yes — I’m a single shot espresso drinker. Always have been, always will be. Of course, the term “single” is a relative one these days, however I’ll get to that later. Suffice to say, I felt something needed to change in how I approach things from a waste and cost perspective, while preserving the quality, flavour, and respect for the coffee and those who produce it.

That being said, if you are happily capturing the full yield from say, a 16 – 20 gram dose in your cup and drinking the entirety, much of what follows is moot. Simply to say I acknowledge none of what I’m saying here is groundbreaking, nor does it apply to the majority of full yield-drinking home espresso enthusiasts out there (as You Tube and Instagram would seem to suggest). At the end of the day, writing a blog is perhaps just talking out loud to yourself anyway, which is precisely the case here.

In any event I will press on, and although things will inevitably continue to change, I think stepping back and looking at a few aspects of my “why” turned out pretty well.

Tools

To paint a frame of reference:

As a brief aside, discussions around equipment and tools are very much point-in-time aren’t they? To say things constantly evolve is perhaps an understatement, given 12 months ago this looked a little different, and by the time I get around to writing a planned follow up post it will likely be different again. Thankfully though, the topic at hand is more enduring.

Well served by the Breville Dual Boiler – of course things are apt to change

My puck preparation involves grinding into the Niche dosing cup, flipping that into the filter basket, palm tapping the side of the portafilter, performing the Weiss Distribution Technique (WDT) with a single “needle” followed by a Pullman chisel distribution tool spin (my use of this varies — somtimes yes, other times no), and tamping. The more you play around, the more you realise puck prep is such an important part of the entire process.

I run the Dual Boiler anywhere from 93 to 96 degrees celsius for darker to lighter roasts respectively, with preinfusion set at 55% pump pressure for 5 seconds, though occasionally will play around with this as well. When running longer (ie greater volume), faster flowing shots (lungo and beyond, “coffee shots”, “turbo shots” — see links below), this may run as low as 91 degrees, however we’ll go into that another day.

Dosing, basket foibles, grams, and spouts

I mentioned in the introduction of taking my espresso by the single shot.

When talking grams, a true single is really a double, and standard speciality coffee establishments would typically serve a triple shot. Then again, what is “true” here? My terminology here assumes we are talking the typical Italian style dose of 7 grams as our “single” unit of measure. My “single” has evolved into 13-14 grams (aka a “double” by gram weight), and the typical cafe serving of around 20 grams give or take, therefore approximates a triple shot by gram weight.

The whole single or double reference however (at least in my experience here in Australia), has generally involved a split shot from a dual spout portafilter. That is, do you want both spouts of this 20 gram dose or “just a single”. I think you get my drift here. For consistency and clarity, henceforth I will quote the dose I use in grams as we move through the post. Thankfully most of what you view or read online now has adopted the same approach in terms of gram weight descriptions. Three cheers for standardisation and consistency in terminology!

Single or double? Aka one or both spouts as it were…

My filter baskets are of course matched to the relative doses, with a 14g (La Marzocco), 17-19g (Pullman) and 19-21g (Pullman) sitting by the machine. I must admit to keeping the ridged “single” basket which came with the machine from Breville, however it’s only use being to fit the blind filter attachment inside for cleaning. For a little further clarity, it is this ridged single basket that is the subject of derision and the “don’t even bother with it” mantra I mentioned earlier — not to be confused necessarily with a lower dose in a higher quality, gram-matched ridgeless basket.

The generally outcast ridged basket at left

To close this out: for years I’ve used a 19-20g dose and split the shot. One spout into my cup, the other discarded. More recently as part of this rethink, I’ve moved to a smaller 14g (ridgeless) basket, capturing the full yield into my cup. I’m now using this for both espresso (at 1:2 up to 1:4 brew ratio) and milk based beverages (usually 1:1.5 brew ratio) and couldn’t be happier with the result.

So there is the what, let’s get more into the why.

A changed approach

Why

Waste. Cost. Conscience (though not entirely in a way you might think). The long term viability of this whole espresso set up. All of the above and anything else you might find in this post really. I guess it is sitting back and thinking about why I’m doing certain things and whether they can be done any better — or at least more efficiently, less wastefully, and with no loss in quality.

With a little thought, research and experimentation, the answer turned out to be yes.

Waste

The concept of wasting coffee is of course as much tied to cost as anything, however also bears an important discussion on its own merits.

I’m sure none of us set out to intentionally create waste in any aspect of our lives and this post is the outcome of realising I was essentially doing exactly that. Wasting a heap of coffee (and yes, money) with how I was approaching my espresso making at home. Arguably, the waste is a far more important issue, although sometimes it is the realisation about cost which nudges you to think just that little bit more.

While waste and cost may be inextricably linked, the moral to this story lies somewhere between experimentation, having an open mind, and questioning why you are doing what you’ve always done. Further, despite what you might think, your home is not a cafe – regardless of what you’ve spent(!) on equipment over the years. Generally, the only customer you might lose through experimentaton is yourself, and is a situation that should be pretty easy to turn around in a hurry…

It’s pretty clear that excess and mindless waste don’t quite fit in a world where sustainability and doing better for the environment are so important. As an individual, how much will my contribution of minimising waste make? Perhaps not much, I’d hope the little things do add up when each of us do our part.

Cost

A standard 250 gram bag of speciality roasted coffee. For arguments sake I’ll call it AUD$18.00 at current prices. If we are dosing our espresso at 20g then we are looking at 12.5 doses per bag. After dialling in and rounding, we are probably left with 10 usable doses per bag, or $1.80 per cup.

The key point to remember here is that for me, half of that 20g dose was going unused. My own fault entirely, however there isn’t another member of the household to utilise it, nor as I’ve said above would I typically use the full yield myself at any given time.

Well it’s sure cheaper than cafe prices! True enough, though a heck of a lot more goes into what you are served in that context, and it doesn’t absolve me from trying to do better at home.

Now, proceeding further into the weeds.

That same 250g bag of specialty coffee at doses of 13-14g will provide us with 17-19 doses. Give or take dialling in, lets say 15-18 usable doses per bag. Already we skip to 50% more doses, the entirety of the shot yield utilised, at a cost of $1.00 to $1.20 per cup. Nicely done.

What if we bought our coffee in a larger amount? Estimating costs for a 1kg bag of specialty at say $60.00 per kg we arrive at $0.92 per cup (at say, 65 doses after dial in). Finally, throwing in something from left field: Aldi’s Lazzio Medium Roast is $12.00 for a 1kg bag (There I said it. For milk based drinks, give it a shot. You might be surprised). That’s about $0.19 per cup.

It takes all sorts…

It is here we proceed with a little caution. Should we be suspicious of larger scale production at cheaper, commodity level prices? What about sustainability, cheap labour and the like? All valid concerns, and I’m not about to propose any answers. To be fair, nor am I casting aspersions on anything or anyone in particular. These are simply considerations in this somewhat complex world we live in.

There is certainly a lot more to say about fairness in price in the world coffee market, however that is beyond the scope of this post.

Conscience

Is this not the typical result of some type of existential thinking – bringing it all back to being about you, and whether “making a difference” is really just a way to feel better about yourself?

Yes and no.

Anyone with a passing interest in specialty coffee, let alone someone who might refer to themselves as an enthusiast, pays some attention to the plight of the coffee farmer, who typically is on the lowest rung of the value chain. Many are doing it tough, and climate change, fluctuating international coffee prices, and the effect of Covid certainly isn’t helping. As for the fairness in price issue? Another reason I’ve looked into utilising my coffee a little better. When you use a lot, it can get expensive, however cheapest may not always be the best option – particularly given this approach has its own issues as I’ve alluded to above. In view of that, I do try and support local specialty roasters who source quality coffee, which may be at slightly higher cost.

There we have conscience part one.

Part two? Well that relates to the guilt many enthusiasts, hobbysists, or whatever you may call your particular self may feel at any given time. None of this comes cheap, and we can, over the course of many years (or let’s face it – in an instant with a simple click), spend a significant amount of money on the “tools” that come with said passion or interest. That dedicated coffee bar; the need for an expensive grinder to do this espresso justice; the natural upgrade creep that occurs in rewarding your “skill” increments over the years; or just a shiny new thing that’s hot right now in coffee…

For some it might be jet skis, bikes, cars, or tech gear. Heck, it might even be some weird fascination with pens (go figure…). Suffice to say, that with every “yes” in this little world of my passion means “no” to something I could pay off faster, improve around the home, or visit with my family. Although, who is to say an espresso machine is anything other than a home improvement. Jokes aside, spending significant amounts of money affects more than just me, and is something which has weighed on my mind at times over the years.

The relevance of this sentiment here? Well, where opportunity exists to change things a little and the result is a more cost effective way of doing things, I see no reason not to try and do a little better.

Using it all

Use it all. Largely a message to myself. Do you need a fancy machine to experiment with dose, shot time and yield? Of course not. Remember most cafes you enter these days are still not pulling a minutely detailed flow, pressure or any other profiled shot. Some might be, they also probably have a better grinder, better water, and have dialled things in far better than our at home once or twice a day heat-up-the-machine-and-go approach. So many opportunities to improve if you haven’t got those things on point already…

So where did I end up? The turbo shot? Chasing the perfect lungo? Something in between? Well, any and all of the above. I’ll leave some links here, given the considerable discussion in the last 12-18 months about different approaches for both accessability (to newcomers in espresso), consistency, and as a beneficial flow on – sustainability (which is, well… for everyone’s benefit).

The links below contain information, concepts and ideas which mirror a fair proportion of where my experimentation took me, and I’ll have more to say in a follow up post. I’ve listed them here in the event they may be of interest, some of the videos are a little lengthy.

The Finish

If I have learnt anything from this process over the past six months or so, it is to give yourself permission to do something different. The best part? At home, no-one can hear you scream, see your “that’s-lemon-juice!” face, or spit things out at the extreme under or overextraction that inevitably results from experimentation. Ironically there will be a little waste as you sort things out, the longer term gains will indeed be worth it.

Having written a couple of thousand words here, I do have more to say, and plan to run through a little more about why I’m particularly enjoying these new found brew recipes and approaches. After all, while less waste and saving money are indeed noble endeavours, they cannot come at the cost of taste and enjoyment, and it is here that I’ve had the most pleasant surprise…

I’ve actually found it far, far better.

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