Sunday, January 29, 2012
Girl Making Espresso, Helsinki, 2005
I really like coffee. At the office, it's the usual barely-drinkable drip stuff, although because of the sheer volume being consumed, from freshly-opened packages, so it's not actually rank unless it happens to be the dregs in the pot.
At home, however, I brew my coffee with a moka pot. There are a number of reasons for this choice. My wife doesn't drink coffee, and usually I only make one cup a day, in the mornings, sometimes two on weekends. That rules out devices that need to be used more or less continuously to work. Our kitchen isn't huge, which means that an espresso machine would take up rather a lot of space for little utility.
Real coffee snobs seem to look down on moka pots. I say they're deeply if understandably misguided.
A moka pot is a beast that needs to be tamed. Every model is individual, and behaves differently on different heat sources. The grind of the coffee makes a big difference, as does, naturally, the variety and roast of the beans. Beans that make for superb espresso might not work out all that well for moka, and vice versa.
The quantity of water matters too, but there's less wiggle room there. If the moka pot has a spacer that lets you halve the amount of coffee in the funnel, you can make something that approximates a lungo or americano by using the full measure of water for a half-measure of coffee.
The basics of making good coffee are pretty generally known. Use fresh, good-quality beans, grind them just before brewing, and clear the grinder of any stale grounds first. If you're making drip coffee or using an automatic or semi-automatic espresso machine, that about covers it—it will probably not turn out too bad whatever you do from there on out.
Not so with a moka pot. Moka pots are cantankerous creatures. If you're in an unfamiliar kitchen with an unfamiliar grinder and unfamiliar pot, the odds are that the first cup you brew is going to be pretty awful. In fact, I have a theory that the conventional wisdom about having to "break in" moka pots is a myth: the first cups taste bad not because there's anything wrong with the pot, but because you haven't yet figured it out.
The two variables that most affect the taste of a cup brewed with a moka pot are the grind, and how you've filled the metal funnel containing the coffee. There is no single "right" way to do this. It all depends on the beans, the water, and your heat source. The only way to get it right is to experiment, by making one adjustment at a time and seeing if it makes it better or worse. Here's how to go about that.
First, time it. It should take between 30 seconds and a minute and a half for the coffee to come through, starting from the first drops that come out to the time the crema stops flowing. The exact time varies. If it's faster than 30 seconds, your grind is too coarse or the grounds are packed too loosely and you'll end up with a watery brew, and if it's longer than a minute and a half, you've packed the coffee too tightly, and you'll end up with something that's very bitter, almost burned.
If the coffee is bitter or burned, either your grind is too fine, or you've packed the funnel too tightly. No moka pot needs tamping, like an espresso machine, but sometimes it is better to press down the grounds a bit. Others should just be filled up and smoothed out.
If the coffee is watery, you're using too much water, or your grind is too coarse, or you should pack the funnel a bit tighter, or you're using too much heat to blast the water through the grounds too fast. This can happen on an induction hob. I turn mine down to about 6 once the coffee starts flowing. Moka pots aren't intended to create the kind of pressure you get making espresso, and attempting to push them won't make the coffee better. It'll just make it less like a good moka and more like a bad espresso.
If the coffee is muddy, your grind is too fine or too uneven.
If the coffee is nice and aromatic, but has a "sandy" aftertaste, your grind is too fine.
The coffee beans—as long as they're fresh—only start to matter when you've got your brewing process about right.
A good coffee grinder makes a quite a lot of difference. The difference between good and cheap—even a cheap burr grinder from, say, Braun or Krups—is in how even the grind is. The cheaper grinders produce a lot of coffee dust mixed in with the grounds. These produce a muddy or "sandy" taste. That means that if you're fine-tuning your coffee with one of these grinders, you might not be able to extract all the aroma without getting the sandy aftertaste. Espresso snobs will tell you that it's a waste of a good grinder to brew the coffee in a moka pot. I say they've never had a good cup of moka.
Moka is not espresso, nor an espresso with more water in it. A moka is about the size of a lungo or americano, but richer and more aromatic. It's not as eye-wateringly strong as a short espresso. In my opinion, it does not mix well with milk, although you could make a passable French-style café au lait with it. A moka should be enjoyed straight, or perhaps with just a little sugar if so inclined.
A moka is not at all like drip coffee.
It is possible to make good drip coffee too, though. I know, because I've had it. Once. It was at a party hosted by some Colombians. They had brought their own coffee, from Colombia. I do not know what black magic they used to brew it, but it was good—aromatic, rich, and not at all watery or bitter.
As to beans, I find that I get the best moka from pure Arabica with a fairly dark roast. There's a Peruvian variety that you can find in some supermarkets here which is still my favorite, although I did try one South Italian blend with about 20% Robusta which was extremely good too; the only problem with that one was that it was so high in caffeine that my jaw would only un-seize around lunchtime. Beans are largely a matter of preference, although I doubt very many would find a moka made from, say, a light roast of Guatemalan coffee very enjoyable.
The equipment to brew a really good moka isn't anywhere near as expensive or space-consuming as the gear you need to make an equally good espresso. What's more, it lasts almost forever. Unfortunately, cheap stuff doesn't. I had a basic Krups burr grinder which lasted about ten years, after which time it was producing more dust than grounds and complaining while doing it. The replacement—which did cost a good bit more—produces a much better grind, and promises to give many more years of service. It also looks much nicer.
The same goes for moka pots. They don't really make much difference to the quality of the coffee, but they do have different lifetimes. I've broken the handle off a badly-made one, which had other bits starting to come off at the time too, after less than two years of daily use.
The classic aluminum Bialetti polygon lasts forever, but unfortunately can't be used with an induction hob. I've tried a few that can, before finding something that's truly satisfactory. It is a beautifully crafted hand-made object; heavy cold-worked stainless steel with a Bakelite handle, with everything, even the funnel, polished to a mirror finish. The way the funnel spacer works is especially clever—the floor of the funnel is reversible and held in place by friction, which means it'll stay put when knocking out the grounds. That moka pot is also one of the most robust pieces of kitchenware I've seen. I figure the odds are that it will outlast me.
Together, the grinder and the pot cost about one-fifth of the cost of one of those push-button fully-automatic espresso machines for the home. As luxuries go, that's pretty reasonable.
Not least, that buys you the pleasure of controlling every aspect of your own coffee, just as much as the most devoted of baristas.