Entry level espresso machines & roast profiles.

In this article I'm talking about how users of entry to mid level espresso machines are restricted when it comes to roast profiles.

If you have any entry to mid level espresso machine including (but not limited to) the Sage Bambino & Bambino plus, or any other sub £1,000 espresso machine, then reading this article may save you some frustration.

I know, I know ;-), to many people "sub £1000" doesn't sound like it belongs in the same sentence as "entry level", but the reality is that espresso machine setups really are quite expensive.

You can easily spend two to three thousand pounds on your setup, or even much more than this if you like. You don't have to, of course, but just keep in mind that when you're spending anything under around £1500 on your setup (including grinder) you're going to have to accept some compromises.

One of the compromises of going for a more entry level setup, is that you often don't have the control over brew temperature, and other fine tuning abilities that are required (along with fairly advanced barista skills) to enable great results with lighter roasted coffee beans. 

If you'd have bought an espresso machine some time ago, before the third wave of coffee really started booming, you would probably have ended up with espresso roast coffees, that is, coffee beans that have been roasted to some level of espresso roast.

These days, however, if you're buying high quality, freshly roasted coffee beans - thanks to the growth of speciality coffee over the past few years, there's a good chance that you'll end up with a lighter roast, and while it is possible to use lighter roasted beans for espresso, it can be a real challenge.

Lighter roasted coffee beans challenge both the home barista, and the setup, as it's typically much harder to get good results with lighter roasted coffee beans. 

Traditional espresso roasts are roasted darker, which makes them easier to extract, usually requiring less in terms of both fineness and precision when it comes to the grind, and requiring less in terms of brew temperature in order to fully extract.

This isn't to say that you can't use lighter roasted coffee beans with an entry to mid level setup, it just means that it's probably going to be more of a challenge than darker roasts are, both to the equipment and to your skills.

Grinding to a halt

One issue you may face when using coffee beans that have been roasted to a lighter roast profile than the more traditional espresso roast, is grinding stalls. 

This will depend on your grinder, in terms of what actually happens, but the issue is usually either that the grinder has a failsafe to prevent damage, and that failsafe kicks in when you're trying to grind a lighter roasted bean to fine enough for espresso with standard baskets - or, the grinder doesn't have a failsafe, and the gears are stripped as a result, or other damage is encountered. 

Darker roasts are more brittle, lighter roasts are harder, and while the majority of coffee grinders will cope with grinding coffee more coarsely for espresso with pressurized baskets, or for Aeropress or cafetiere etc., more torque is required from the motor when it comes to grinding lighter roasted beans finer for espresso with traditional baskets. 

The typical symptom of this issue when it happens with Sage grinders including the Sage Smart Grinder Pro & dose control pro, or Sage espresso machines with integrated grinders, is a clicking sound combined with a cease in grinding. 

Thankfully, for owners of Sage machines, this isn't usually the sign of a broken grinder, it's the failsafe kicking in. Sage grinders feature a clutch as a failsafe, similar to the clutch used in cordless drills. 

You'll be familiar with using a cordless drill on the screw setting, and that clicking sound which indicates that you need to twist the grip to a higher torque level to allow more power to be put into the process?

This is known as a slipper clutch, and in the case of drills it prevents you from causing damage both to yourself and to whatever you're screwing into by having it set to deliver too much torque. 

Sage use this same feature in their grinders to prevent damage being done to the motor. It's worth keeping in mind, however, that the clutch kicking in can also be the sign of another issue, such as a worn impeller (which is mainly an issue on older models as they improved their impellers a few years back), or a damaged top burr or misaligned burrs.

It can also be caused due to adjusting the grind finer when the grinder is not running. While it's OK to adjust a grinder to make it more coarse when it's not running, you should only adjust a grinder to make the grind finer, either while it's grinding, or when it is completely free of grinds - and since it's very difficult to know whether the burrs are completely free of grinds, the best bet is to always adjust finer only when grinding. 

If you adjust the grind finer when the grinder isn't running, you can end up, in theory at least, with bits of coffee grounds stuck in between the burrs when adjusting, and you can put the burrs out of alignment. If you suspect this may be the case, the trick is simply to unplug the grinder, remove the top bur and then put it back in place.

In theory you shouldn't actually be able to misalign the majority of burrs, but it's not a bad practice to check that this isn't what has happened if you do encounter such an issue. 

If you encounter this problem frequently even when using espresso roast coffee beans, it's worth inspecting the burrs for damage. I have heard of this issue being caused by a damaged top burr. 

Most of the time however, with Sage grinders, it is simply that when you're trying to grind the beans you're using fine enough to use with your espresso machine, using standard baskets, the amount of torque required is causing this failsafe to kick in. 

When people email me about this, my advice is to check to make sure there's not some issue going on as I've just mentioned, and then once these have been ruled out, to just aim for a darker roast. 

If you want to use the rest of your bag of coffee, I'd recommend either using it with a brew method that works with a more coarse grind (as you'll usually find there's no problem grinding the same coffee more coarse) or if your machine came with pressurized baskets as well as standard baskets, just switch to the pressurized baskets to allow you to finish the bag, as you can use much more coarsely ground coffee with pressurized baskets.

Not ideal, I know, but better than having to waste a bag of high quality, freshly roasted coffee beans.

If you're feeling annoyed by the Sage grinder for doing this, just keep in mind that this may have prevented your grinder from damage. Gear stripping, and other damage is quite common in coffee grinders that don't have such fail safes in place.

As I've said, the main advice here is if you're using an entry level grinder or integrated grinder coffee machine, you may need to set your sights on slightly darker roasted beans.

Sour Espresso

Aside from grinding issues, the other main symptom of trying to work with a coffee bean which is too lightly roasted for your setup, is sour tasting shots of espresso.

This can also present itself as bitterness, but this is usually just the sour-bitter confusion which is quite a common phenomenon especially among people who're just getting into speciality coffee, whereby people use the term "bitter" when it's actually sourness they're detecting.

If you're tasting a sourness, think lemons/limes or vinegar - this can be a sign of under extraction, and it's quite common to experience this with lighter roasted coffees mainly due to not being able to get the brew temperature hot enough. 

If what you're tasting is actually bitterness, think cocoa or very dark chocolate, this is the symptom of an opposite problem, over extraction, so it's important to properly diagnose the issue you're having. 

A great way to train your taste buds to help you to differentiate between under and over extracted, is to pull Salami shots. Not to be confused with espresso mixed with sausage, which would be vile I'd assume - Salami shots are where you get three (or however many you want but I think 3 makes the most sense) shot cups ready, and you separate each part of the shot into a separate cup or glass. 

So for a three-part Salami shot, you'd pull the first 10 seconds of the shot into one cup or glass, then side in the second cup for the second 10 seconds, and finally slide in the third one for the final 10 seconds, and then taste them all.

What you'd expect to taste is sourness in the first cup, more sweetness in the middle cup, and bitterness in the last cup - and then if you launch them all into the same cup and swirl or stir, you should then find a much more balanced shot.

Once you've done this, you should find it easier going forward to detect whether a shot is under extracted or over extracted. 

I do often hear from people with the Sage Bambino Plus, for example, complaining of sour tasting shots, and while it's also possible to under extract with darker roasted beans, I can usually tell when it's an issue with roast profile when people tell me that the shot doesn't seem to be under extracted but it tastes like it is. 

When people tell me that they're getting the expected flow time, and they've tried everything when it comes to things like working on dosing, puck prep and so on, but all they get is sour shots, this would prompt me to reply asking what the roast profile is, and I'd expect to hear that they're not using an espresso roast. 

My personal recommendation for coffee beans with any espresso machine which doesn't have an adjustable brew temperature and which is known to be operating at the slightly cooler side of things, is to stick to medium dark to dark roasted coffee beans. 

If you're going by colour, I'd describe this as from dark brown and matt (medium/dark) to darker brown and shiny (dark).

If you're using beans that are roasted lighter than this, you can do your best to get the brew temp up by heating everything up as much as possible before pulling the shot, and by taking the grind finer if you can, and/or experimenting with the dose. Ultimately, though, the easiest thing to do is to stick to slightly darker roasted beans. 

The coffees I'd recommend from The Coffeeworks for use with the Sage Bambino and Sage Bambino Plus, are: