Monday, May 28, 2012

Home espresso on a budget in India

In my first month of starting this blog, I did a post about  gorgeous espresso machines which are as much joy to look at as the product they create - the perfect, crema-flecked black and gold shot of joe. I wrote then, that my coffee equipment consisted of a Rs. 200 Madras stainless steel coffee filter and the very decent coffee powder from Mysore Concerns and till today, that's what I have been content with.

The world of Coffee love is a perilous one for penny counting geeks to hang out in. Many years ago, I defected from high-end audio forums to portable headphone forums because it seemed that no half decent home sound system set up could cost less than $4000 and nothing less than tube amps would do. Whereas at least with headphones, I had a hope of getting something within $100 that sounded OK to most people. Coffee geeks induce a similar inferiority complex in me. The very first thing I need to have is a $300 prosumer coffee grinder and it's fine if I only use it to brew French Press coffee, but to buy an espresso machine without a grinder is coffee harakiri and if that machine has a pressurised portafilter that's simply criminal - what I am getting from it is not espresso but engine oil! So a minimum outlay of $500 is needed to get even a semi-decent cup of espresso etc. etc....

I must confess that intimidation has held me back from upgrading my coffee gear for a long long time. And of course, I have had better use for money - upgrading my phone, buying an iPad, headphones, an ultraportable laptop - you know, survival gear first. Having got that in place, I turned my attention to buying an espresso machine.

There are not too many choices in India for espresso machines. Amazon will ship almost anything at a *hefty shipping* price, but these delicate pieces of equipment operate under considerable strain and will need maintenance and probably small repairs at some point in their life cycle. It would not really help to have a Rs.20,000 plus piece of equipment pack up on you because some gasket or valve needed replacing. So I looked at brands which had a service network in India and I was delighted to find that Gaggia, one of the most respected brands, has an Indian franchisee, who is based in Mumbai.

I went to the ID Gourmet webpage and dropped them an email and was pleasantly surprised to receive a call back within 15 minutes from their sales rep to fix an appointment for a demo. ID Gourmet features a limited selection of models from Gaggia. Most of these are fully automatics in a price range beyond my budget and targeted at institutional buyers, but I found a decent entry level machine - the espresso color, priced at Rs. 18,000. It has mixed reviews on Amazon but on the whole, I really like Gaggia which is a legacy brand in the espresso world. And in addition, ID Gourmet offers a 2 year warranty in India and an optional AMC thereafter. They threw in two dozen pods and a couple of frothing jugs free along with my purchase.

My Gaggia Espresso in my kitchen


Interestingly, Gaggia has quietly made a huge change in this model. The website and reviews I have read claim that this machine comes with 3 filter baskets - single/double shot and one for pods. And also that these are non-pressurised (commercial) baskets, which are notoriously unforgiving of poorly ground espresso. Therefore, many complaints online from customers who find that they need to invest in better grinders to get good espresso from the machine.

Now Gaggia has replaced the regular baskets with 2 pressurised baskets (Single/Pod and Double shot) which are included for the original cost of the machine - earlier they had to be purchased separately. So now if you want a regular basket you have to buy it separately - however, these are cheap and standard accessories ($10) and can be easily purchased from a site like WholeLatteLove.

The pressurised filter baskets that came with my Gaggia  Espresso Color


I know that pressurised portafilters are considered fake and all, but right now I am very grateful that I have them, because I still have not purchased a decent grinder! Yet to find a good brand with a service network in India, so I guess I will settle for this cheap option - a manual burr grinder through EBay. These have their devoted followers and apparently grind way better than cheap electric grinders.

Hario Mini Mill manual coffee grinder

Exercise as a motive to get a morning cup of coffee? Not sure if I am capable of so much exertion so I am still considering this. What tempts me is that I pair this with my machine, I would  have spent less than Rs.20,000 on a decent espresso set up (the manual grinder is $30 only) and I am quite happy to save money for some more survival gear. Plus, as my Dad gleefully points out, I would have returned full circle to the days of my ancestors - until the last generation, we apparently used manual grinders to home grind fresh coffee everyday.

I am still working on the espresso, the machine can be temperamental, but I have to say that some shots have been really good and my cappuccino is getting better each day. Coffee has not been my true religion but I can see the hobby growing on me with time and lightening my pocket. I have always found joy in a good cup of coffee but there's a special satisfaction in brewing that perfect cup yourself.