Article

Drawn together: the espresso machine

Categories: Behind the stalls

Award-winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: the espresso machine

Eduardo Florez at The Colombian Coffee Company

I have been involved with coffee for most of my life. I’m from an area in Colombia that farms coffee so when I look at a flat white, I see more than trendy brands and baristas: I see and know the farms and families behind the beans. I know how coffee grows and can identify varieties just by looking at the leaves of the plants. I think it’s because of this that I want to create a coffee experience that’s a little different to what’s offered elsewhere in the rapidly growing, speciality coffee sector.

We buy directly from the farms, way beyond market prices—but only for high quality beans. To me, that’s much fairer than Fair Trade, in both the short and long term. Once we’ve got the beans and roasted them, we aim to tell some of the story to our customers at Borough Market.

When you come to the stall, we’ll ask you what kind of coffee you enjoy and make sure the beans we use to make it and the type of coffee that we prepare for you is exactly what you want that day. It’s very hands-on and quite low-key, and for that our espresso machine suits us completely. We call her The Old Lady. She’s a total beauty.

I’ve been running the company for four years now and The Old Lady is the only machine we’ve had over that time. She’s a La Marzocco, which is an Italian brand renowned for being both one of the best and one of the most stylish around. I didn’t buy her new though, I think she’s about 17 years old now which means she’s charming, but has certain idiosyncrasies.

Huff and puff away
With a machine like this you have to be more hands-on than with more modern machines. Instead of just pressing a button or setting a digital, virtually automated program, we have to twist knobs, listen to her huff and puff away, and count the seconds that go by.

But this is the kind of machine I learnt on and I actually don’t think I could do it a different way. She also suits what we do, as well as why and how we do it: we want to work in a skilled, artisan, hands-on way, and we need and want to control a number of variables to do so.

We weigh the coffee grinds for every espresso that we make. Depending on the coffee varietal, we aim to use 17-19 grams of coffee for each shot, then we weigh the coffee once it’s been extracted—there’s usually 34-38 grams of liquid in total—which takes between 25 and 30 seconds. We count using a digital timer attached to The Old Lady.

To get to that final weight, we need to ‘dial-in’ at various points in the day. In part this helps us to ensure that the water pressure suits our process. Different coffee beans need to be treated in different ways, depending on acidity and notes.

The Old Lady
The Old Lady has two boilers: one for extracting the coffee, one for steaming milk. It’s set up so our team can do these things at the same time—it works for our service model for one barista to grind the coffee and extract the espresso, while another is in charge of steaming and pouring the milk.

Our milk is raw and unhomogenised, which means the fats are not even and you really need to know how to use it and how the milk behaves, otherwise you’ll destroy it.

I’m not sure what I’d do if The Old Lady stopped working—she’s integral to what we do, often making 500 coffees on a Saturday, which is amazing if you think about it. When we started, one of the valves was really noisy so we had to apologise for that, but she only seems to need servicing around once a year. I think that’s because she’s mechanical rather than digital—there’s less to go wrong. Fingers crossed she’ll keep working forever.