In which I nerd out about Coffee Paraphernalia

Back in early 2010 I posted about my home espresso setup at the time. I recently (finally) replaced it, and I have thoughts. Obnoxious, obsessive, thoughts.

The TL;DR is that I bought a Breville Bambino espresso machine and a Turin SK40 grinder, the former is good, the latter is really good, but there is plenty of rambling and pictures and such below the fold.

The Old Setup

The old setup consisted of a Lello Arite 1375 pump and thermoblock pressurized basket “Espresso” machine that I got for $140 in 2009, and a Capresso Infinity grinder I got for about $90 a couple months later. Any day I’m waking up at home since, I’ve started the day with a shot of espresso. Most days I’m home in the early afternoon I have a second, and if anyone else is around they might have a shot or two as well, so minus travel and such let’s conservatively say an average of a shot a day, or about 5,110 coffees emitted from the setup. Not a bad run for cheap equipment.

The Lello was great at reliably producing a short coffee quickly (both in terms of startup and brew time), but couldn’t really do proper espresso. It also had a drip tray/path made of mystery pot metal that corroded out years ago (I was using a plastic cafeteria tray to contain the mess for the last several years), had various small pats falling off, and was starting to have occasional pump stalls that weren’t remediated by cleaning and descaling.

Oh no.

Just for fun, I popped the covers off the Lello before I junked it, and it’s frankly better put together than I expected. I resisted the impulse to keep it to play with the innards.

Likewise, the Infinity could never really produce proper espresso grind, and sprays static charged fines all over it’s general vicinity. The burrs were getting ever more visibly worn, which makes the fines problem worse.

Those flats and burrs on the leading edges aren’t supposed to be there.

I tended to produce these mutant 10-12g in 40-60 out short coffee things with a slightly coarser grind that are almost relatives of aeropress rather than proper espresso, just because it’s what that setup got the best flavors with. I suppose in view of that “Systematically Improving Espresso” paper from a few years ago that was kind of an unsurprising optimum.

I knew the gear was aging out, and I am not a person with many rituals so the coffee-making ritual is important. I also felt absurd spending “real money” on coffee gadgets, so I saved up my credit card cashback for a while as “guilt-free money” and blew it on a fancy (but not absurdly so) new espresso setup.

The New Setup

The new setup, as pictured at the top of the post, is centered around a Breville Bambino espresso machine ($350) and a Turin SK40 grinder ($200).

Now, don’t get me wrong, a $600-ish coffee setup is an absolutely decadent thing. A drip machine or a cone/aeropress and cheap kettle makes fine coffee for tens of dollars, and a cheaper grinder can get the benefits of fresh ground with those systems, this is an expensive toy. It’s also quite inexpensive by espresso standards – it’s very easy to spend $2000-4000 on an espresso setup without even doing anything ridiculous.

The Machine

The Bambino at around $350 is one of a handful of sub-thousand-dollar “real” espresso machines, situated between the various pressurized basket only machines and the Gaggia Classic Pro. Currently in the US market it comes with four baskets, single and double in pressurized and regular, so it can play in both markets.

I spent a LOT of pleasurable time obsessively nerding out on the market segment before I ordered. I was initially planning to go up market a bit and get a Lelit Anna PL41TEM at around $700 or one of its immediate siblings, which are more traditionally designed machines with even more control and feedback, but they are having availability issues (and Breville bought Lelit back in 2022 so there might be a long term support issue with their lower end machines). I also seriously considered a Gaggia Classic Pro – which is also a more traditional machine design – that I could re-spring the overpressure valve and maybe later rig a gaggiauino controller on – but ultimately decided paying more to get an outdated design that I’d have to screw around with was not actually appealing.

For me, the biggest selling point for Brevelle’s “Thermojet” based machines is that they are staggeringly fast to startup. Three seconds from button press and the block is hot, plus one blank shot to heat up the grouphead and basket for better stability. Classic boiler machines generally take tens of minutes to fully come up to temperature, which doesn’t suit my habits. My usual workflow is turning the machine on when I walk up, then letting it pump a blank single into the cup I’m going to brew into to heat everything up while I prep the beans.

Now some nitpicks: The “Single” and “Double” buttons that theoretically emit 30ml/60ml at the factory setting …don’t. Small variations in grind size were producing nearly 2x differences in emitted weight, so I’m doing the “Hold for 1s, keep holding for preeinfusion time, release for extraction duration, press to stop” workflow with a scale and getting much better results. There is a reprogramming procedure, and I suspect it would be reasonable to re-program them from a good shot for a particular bean/grind, but the defaults aren’t doing a very good job, and I’ve been playing with a range of beans. I think they are timed with some specific expected resistance…probably however much the double-walled baskets provide. It’s not terrible, but it’s not the most pleasing workflow.

I’m also a bit annoyed by how tacky the included portafilter is. It’s very light, it contains a plastic channel insert (presumably for managing the spray from pressurized baskets), and it generally doesn’t feel very nice. Fortunately, Breville’s 54mm portafilter system is now established enough that you can get aftermarket portafilters and baskets, eventually I’ll probably spring for a fancy third party replacement. The established ecosystem also means it was easy to pick up some basic accessories for cheap.

A Macchiato…or something, people love to argue the names of short espresso-and-foamed-milk drinks.

After a bit of learning curve, I’m getting some pleasing, balanced tasting, attractive shots around 16g in, 32g out with a grind around “5” on the Sk40’s dial, loaded into the single walled double basket, right around the 30±2s from starting preinfusion time slot.

Breville offers a fancier sibling, the Bambino Plus, which adds a few features and brings the price up to $500. The headline feature on the Plus is auto milk foaming and … that’s not interesting. I taught myself to make nice foam years ago, it’s probably the easiest barista skill to get good at, and I don’t always do milk drinks (though since the base Bambino does have quite a good steam wand, I’ve been doing more of that recently). The more compelling feature is apparently that the Plus has a 3-way solenoid valve to shunt pressure, making it less prone to drip at the end of a shot, leave a soupy mess on top of the puck, sneeze if you remove the basket immediately after pulling a shot, and blow off for some time after turning off steam – These are minor annoyances not a justification for a $150 price bump for me. In one slight non-price advantage, the basic Bambino has a dedicated hot water button for the wand, and the Plus has an annoying combination of swinging the steam wand into the manual position and holding 1 shot + auto texture buttons at the same time to get water.

The Grinder

The grinder is the more interesting part of the equation, both in general as the driver of espresso quality, and in this case because the Turin SK40 had only been on the market for about a month and shipping for weeks at the time I ordered it. The SK40 is part of a wave of approximately $200 “Post Niche Zero” espresso-capable single-dosing low-retention conical burr grinders coming on to the market lately- the Bratza Encore ESP is a serious contender in the same space, the Fellow Opus is …trying… to be in that space, and the older SD40 kind of opened that market up. A comparison video (from someone who is AFIK affiliated with the major US SK40 importer) popped up a couple weeks after I got mine, and agrees almost exactly with my impressions of the spread.

The SK40 is dramatically cleaner and considerably quieter than the Infinity. No more static-driven fines getting everywhere! With a couple puffs of the bellows (which, unlike some other models, don’t have to be removed during normal usage), retention is below the detection threshold of my scale. I’m not even “RDTing” (“Ross Droplet Technique,” coffee hipster for misting the dose of whole beans with a tiny bit of water) to get the clean behavior, though it’s been so humid that I might have to start seasonally. It does have a bit of gearbox rattle, but it’s nothing like the labored screaming my Infinity always made.

The adjustment ring has markings from 1-19 around most of a full rotation of the collar, and 5 lines between each number for tracking smaller adjustments. A grind that gives good shot dynamics for espresso with typical beans is around “5” and a grind suitable for pourover is up near “13” so it has plenty of range as a generalist. I do see a bit of ultra-fine particles in the output, but I don’t have the tools to measure the profile.

It has a lovely static-fighting metal dosing cup and magnets in the base so it self-aligns when you plop it roughly in place. The cup might be a little awkward to dose my 54mm basket from if I didn’t have a ring, it was clearly designed around a 58mm workflow, but works fine, and any flat-bottomed metal thing would probably drop in.

As far as I can tell, the SK40 and SD40v2 are extremely similar mechanically, but the SD40 has a tab-retention quick but stepped adjust, and the SK40 is fitted with a worm for continuous but slower adjustment. I primarily grind for espresso, so the latter is far more useful. The fine adjust is really fun with espresso – you can easily observe the results of tiny nudges to the timing and extraction of an otherwise identical shot. And frankly, it only takes a couple seconds to crank around with the worm, so unless the round body casing on the SD40 really appeals to you, I see no reason not to have the worm.

The only meaningful downside I’ve run into is that it every once in a while has beans catch in the funnel and it needs a little jiggle to free them – it’s been rare enough I haven’t manged to figure out what the deal is, it might be as simple as a burr on some edge.

Gadgets and Coffees

So, of course, I got some accessories:

  • A heavy wood-handled tamper to replace the shitty plastic included one. I don’t love its dimensions and taper enough to recommend (it will stop on the stock basket walls instead of properly packing smaller shots…which is mostly the baskets’ fault), but it looks and feels nice and works well enough.
  • A generic WDT Tool (“WDT = “Weiss Distribution Technique” = Coffee hipster for breaking up clumps and evening out coffee grounds in the basket with a open ended whisk thing. It’s ridiculous, but seems to work.) which is nice enough.
  • A Magnetic Dosing Funnel to both make loading the basket easier and to not splash grounds while WDTing. There were alternative rings that had flanges to engage with the ears of the portafilter, or no attachment mechanism at all; the light, direct, and slightly positive attachment of the magnetic suits my workflow.
  • I also 3D printed myself a little base to hold the portafilter level during tamping, specifically Breville 54mm Portafilter Tamp Station from hyperion917 on Thingiverse. It’s pretty nice but a little light, I might get a pretty wood tamping station thing or …just double sided tape the printed one to the tray I prep on.
  • I have a junky little 0.1g scale that I’ve been using to measure both beans and output, I wouldn’t mind one with a more waterproof design and a timer… but I’m not paying name-brand coffee scale prices so this might turn into a china-export adventure.

And I already covet a couple more:

  • As mentioned above, I’ll probably get a nicer portafilter with no plastic insert, chromed head, solid handle, etc. Likely bottomless since I’m enjoying working my technique. There are plenty of options.
  • I want one of those cute little Cha He style dosing containers all the (said with a little retch) coffee influencers seem to have. I’m telling myself it’s because they look convenient for weighing and loading the grinder, but it’s really mostly because they’re neat.

I’ve also been experimenting with unusual for me coffees. I usually just grab medium roast regionals from Kroger’s Private Selection line, and I’ve had a couple of those around, but the better setup is letting me really play with interesting coffees.

  • A Tanzanian Peaberry from Volcania that is extremely vegetal and winy (and requires a substantially coarser grind than everything else for reasonable shot dynamics).
  • Some Blue Bottle decaf so I can have more coffee without overcaffenating myself (tasty, but they’re owned by Nestle, and that’s distasteful, so I’m going to look for a suitable alternative).

I’m embarking on a tour of local rosters’ espresso blends, so far I’ve had

  • Some 4th Level Roasters espresso blend that is a bit dark and “robusta forward” for my tastes. It’s not terrible coffee, but it’s a little darker than I like even for espresso, and has that distinctive canephora burning tire flavor.
  • Latest is some Nates Coffee Espresso Blend which is absolutely delicious so far, as was the coldbrew I got while I was picking it up… I’m gonna be back there.

I’m having a grand time playing with it.

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