I recently got a Rancilio Silvia espresso maker, generally considered the best consumer espresso model available. Trouble is, I can't seem to get it to make a shot with crema. It's shooting blanks, so to speak. The next issue of Make magazine is going to feature a couple of coffee hacks that should help espresso fanatics produce precious crema. I'm going to give them a try.
In the meantime, I'll just drool over these photos over at espressoporn.com. The photo here shows a machine using a "crotchless" portafilter. Some people might consider that a cheater's way to get creama, but I'll take it any way I can get it.
Link (thanks, Kate!)
Coffeegeek comment: Rob N.says: "I can only say this: if you're not getting crema from Miss Silvia, then you've got a breakdown somewhere in your technique or your ingredients. You can fake crema by using false filter bottoms with pressure disks and such to "whip" up your coffee into something foamy. However, thin, bitter espresso with a fake layer of foam is still thin, bitter espresso. Properly made espresso from fresh beans, ground, tamped, and brewed properly, will make plenty of its own crema - the quality of qhich is generally indicative of the shot.
"First - what grinder did you get to go along with Silvia? If you're using a whizzy-blade or other inexpensive bean basher, you're not getting the best grind. Espresso must be made with coffee that is ground uniformly fine, with no large chunks and little dust. The Racilio Rocky or Gaggia MDF are considered to be basic workhorses of home espresso. The MDF's the least expensive unit that will produce a uniform espresso grind. Alternately, you can use a Zassenhaus hand-crank mill with the plates set very close.
"If you're using pre-ground coffee, shame on you. To get the precious crema and the best shot, you need to use whole beans, ground moments before using. Pre-ground coffee stales faster than the first season of 'Joey.' You want to try to get your hands on those beans within 24-48 hours of roasting, too. Seal 'em up air-tight in a cool place for storage (they only give you a bag so that you don't have to carry the beans in your bare hands - it's not long-term storage). If you must freeze beans, don't make that your working stash - every time you take the beans from the freezer or fridge, moisture (bad) condenses on your coffee. Buy what you'll use in a week and keep it sealed up. If you can't use a pound of beans in a week, freeze half and only take them out from cold storage when you're ready to transfer to your air-tight working container.
'You also need a tamper sized properly for your filter basket and has a sturdy handle. Grind your coffee to fill the basket, tap the portafilter on the counter 4-6 times to settle the grounds. Grind 'til full again, strike off the excess, and tamp lightly. Tap the tamper against the side of the portafilter to settle any grounds stuck to the side of the basket, and tamp again firmly. Lock the portafilter into the machine and brew. For a single, you should get 1 oz in 25-30 seconds. For a double, you should use twice the coffee, grind a little bit coarser, and you should get 2 oz. in 25-30 seconds.
"Always make sure your machine, portafilter, and basket are hot before brewing, and pre-heat your cup with water from the steam wand.
"Sorry to be so long-winded, but anyone venturing into crafting their own caffeinated Nirvana at home deserves a helping hand."
Coffeegeek comment: Aaron says: "I also had the same trouble with my fancy-pants machine, but solved the problem through experimentation. Here are some possible solutions.
"The number one problem is the espresso not being ground fine enough - in needs to be quite a bit finer than coffee to get the crema.
"Try putting a larger dollop of grounds in the holder.
"Try pressing down on the grounds harder before attaching the holder to the machine.
"So as you can see, the problem most likley isn't with the machine, but with what and how you load up the machine. I've found espresso prep to be rather subtle, but after getting to know the machine, things get fast, easy, and crema filled.
Coffeegee comment: "Crotchless portafilters aren't really for 'cheaters' who want crema; if the coffee's fresh and roasted well, it'll get crema either way. Professionals and hobbyists alike have noted a slight difference in the body of the espresso, but not much difference in crema quantity has been noted. A good resource, by the way, for all your coffee needs, is http://www.coffeegeek.com/"
Coffeegeek comment: "Your cry for help won't go unheeded, especially by the crema fanatics at alt.coffee where I learned my stuff.
"Don't wait for Make, though. There will be too many bad coffees consumed by the time they post the feature.
"* Start with the grinder. (You're not buying preground, are you?)
"* Then, look at the tamping. Twenty pounds or so -- do it on a scale to see how hard you're pushing.
"* If you do it all correctly, it's supposed to take twenty or so seconds, and you'll have a beautiful cup.
"I'm drinking Intelligentsia's Black Cat from a Gaggia Classic. It's great. They're great, too.
"Best of luck, and happy drinking.
Coffeegeek comment: Jack says: "I've had a Silvia for nearly two years now and can attest to its finicky nature. However, with a little patience and the rights tools and materials, you are on your way to pouring God Shots, my friend.
"There's plenty of good stuff online about the Silvia. http://coffeegeek.com is a good place to start.
"Things to consider (worked for me, anyway):
"1) Grinder. You have a good burr grinder, right? NOT the kind with little spinning blades.
"2) Grind. Probably the biggest factor. You'll have to play with this. Having a consistent, quality grinder is key. Different beans make a difference. Hell, different HUMIDITY can make a difference in the fineness of the grind. Really.
"3) Beans. Get 'em fresh and not over-roasted (a la *$). If they're oily, this is not good. Someone else's idea of the perfect 'spresso roast may not be yours.
"4) Tamp. Not too hard, not too soft. Again, experiment.
"5) Warm up. Leave it on for 30 minutes before pulling a shot. Leave the portafilter in while it's warming up.
"6) There are no crema gimmicks."
Coffeegeek comment: Dylan says: "I read boing boing and saw your post about the Silvia and Crema.
"I literally just bought a Rancilio Silvia yesterday and made about 20 shots so far. The first few sucked... in fact the first one didn't actually produce any liquid at all :) But by the 10th I'm having some pretty wicked crema happening :) Even got the wonderful guinness effect on my last one (the wonderful cascade as the crema and coffee separate).
"I've found that it takes a nice balance of good beans, a good grinder, the right grind, the right amount of coffee, the right tamp, the right polish, the right water temperature, and of course a good pull. :) Easy, no?
"This is the page that got me my crema:
"And here are some excellent other references.
"And of course just a general search for "Rancilio Silvia HOWTO" on google is pretty impressive as well.
"Take it easy. Enjoy your machine."
Coffeegeek comment: Graham says: "Coincidental to your Silvia BB post, last night I happened across this page dedicated to Silvia tricks and upgrades.
"I thought the DIY PID upgrades were pretty slick. Also, the method the 'Cheating Miss Silvia' article shows seemed to work well when I adapted it to my (non-Silvia) machine."
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects