"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2021 - All rights reserved
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
A “Decent” Request For a Chapter
Thursday, October 28, 2021
all text and photos unless otherwise noted ©2021 - All rights reserved
| The Decent DE1 espresso machine has raised many eyebrows and created a level of control that will change espresso machine manufacturing for quite some time. If not, it will at least become the cornerstone from which discussions will be built. Even for those users who do not like its looks, there is no doubt that no other machine can match its performance in terms of parameter control.
The previous chapter in my blog covered some of the noteworthy points about the machine. While I stated up front that it was a compilation of personal observations and not a review, I still wanted to make sure that what I wrote was accurate. I sent the review's link to John Buckman, the driving force (and more) behind the Decent, and asked for his opinion of the chapter and to make sure that it was accurate. I would estimate that John works about eight days a week, not only with design and production but personally answering. Yet he took the time to read the recent chapters that led me to my Decent decision as well as the chapter concerning my ownership observations. He replied, “Great article.”
“GOOD NIGHT, FOLKS!” [mic drop]Yes, I could leave it at that, but John brought up three points which bear discussion. Let me begin with, 'Does the Decent create a consistent cup of espresso or just supply a set of parameters within a consistent margin of error?'
We could say that a super automatic espresso maker may supply a consistent cup of coffee, albeit one that I would not wish to consume on a day-to-day basis. A great espresso machine depends on the person in front of the portafilter handle. We have to choose the coffee, we must have a quality grinder that is capable of a grind size and particle-size distribution that is controllable and repeatable. And even before that we must decide on burr diameter and between flat or conical. But all those factors (and more) are where a cup of espresso begins.
From the pouring of beans into the grinder and the locking of the portafilter into the group there is the user. Dare I say, the barista. The grinder's setting, the dose, distribution of grounds in the basket, and, “To tamp or not to tamp. That is the question..” I'm getting carried away. But there is a mass of variables in the distance which exist between the grinder's burrs and the espresso machine before the brew button is ever pressed. So I suppose, in terms of this discussion of consistency in the cup (or lack thereof), no matter the quality, engineering, and design of the espresso machine, there isn't magic coffee fairy in it to wave a wand, sprinkle enchanted Malabar dust, and say the magic words, “Arabica Cadabra,” to make sure the espresso always comes out the way you like it.
John questioned me as to whether we want a machine that performs consistently. He points to the fact that manual lever machines (and I would add that spring lever machines can be included as well) supply virtually no internal control of the extraction process at all beyond the possibility to control temperature. The barista has the entire brewing process literally in hand. On the surface, a lever machine's process appears to be the opposite of the Decent.
Lever machines control the process of passing water through a prepared cake of at a rate or pressure as determined by the barista. If a preparation mistake is made, a lever machine allows the experienced, dare I say the talented barista to control the process through the movement of the lever to compensate by correcting the flow to match what they perceive as the desired result in the cup.
While a temperature curve cannot be manipulated during an extraction, the pressure profile is easily and accurately controlled by an experienced user. I know this to be true as I have done it. I pulled a marvelous extraction on a friend's Cremina. My twenty-some years of making espresso at home on semi-automatic espresso machines allowed me to watch the flow of espresso from the Cremina and adjust the force I applied to the lever for a desired flow rate. So why the Decent?
One may ponder why wouldn't a guy who drives a car with a Millenial Anti-Theft Device installed at the factory want that sort of manual control throughout the extraction.*1 If I wasn't seventy years old, and if I had good rotator cuffs (or just one really good one), and I had the time to leisurely hang around the espresso machine each morning I likely would have bought a Cremina. Another reason I had not chosen a lever machine is that over the years I have become accustomed to multitasking: begin an extraction then step aside for thirty or so seconds and pour milk into a pitcher, grind the next extraction, or perform other such tasks. That sort of work flow is something that cannot be done with a manual lever like the Cremina, and for me, a spring lever is out of the question.
So back on topic: Does the DE1 supply consistency or does it just produce a consistent cup? I wanted a machine that I could not only depend on to be consistent but also be able to consistently deliver the cup I wanted (or deserved after all these years). I possibly was thinking 'predictable' as opposed to consistent. I do not want to get into semantics, but whatever is the best word for what I meant, you need to depend on the machine to perform in a predictable way from one extraction to the next which to me is consistency. If it does not then it will be hit and miss as to whether you get a great shot, one that is just drinkable, or something that just resembles the espresso you want.
What lured me to the Decent was its various parameter adjustments which, when considered as a set, were unavailable on any other machine I could buy at any cost. I could now create a program of water temperature, brew pressure, and flow rate when previously all I had was a way to set a specific temperature and a maximum brew force, and let's not forget an on-off brew switch. But there is more than that. John's letter alerted me to the fact that there needs to be more than precise computer control of the extraction.
There must be some method to allow control of the extraction in real time. Even if an espresso machine performs in a rock-solid predictable manner, the barista does not. Even small variations on the road between grinder and extraction can lead to undesirable results. In order to allow real control of the entire process (or as much of it as is reasonably possible), the machine must make available some sort of real-time, user control system beyond an 'off' switch. All together now: “Well, DUH !”
Lever machines supply a manual means to control the extraction process with their lever. Pull the lever and a piston is moved by way of a direct, mechanical relationship to the lever. The piston moves through a bore pushing water through the ground, compacted coffee. They have no pump to assist the extraction so we can actually use the lever as a real-time flow control or a pressure control device. Flow or pressure; the difference in terms of this discussion is a matter of how you mathematically state what is happening. For us art majors, pull the lever harder to increase the pressure and make more water flow. Lessen the downward force or slow the lever's movement and the pressure decreases and so does the flow. Manual lever machines like the Cremina, which seems to be the gold standard of manual levers, can do that easily. Spring lever machines can as well but to slow the lever you resist its movement created by the force of the spring rather than just apply less downward force. The result of a change of flow in both cases is the same.
The knowledge to know when to create more force against the lever or slow the movement of the lever is gained through experience. Changing brew parameters in real time, during the extraction, in order to compensate for mistakes made in the journey between dropping the beans into the grinder and lifting the cup off the drip tray is not simple. Watch the flow, recognize the problem, decide what needs to be done, decide how to best accomplish that, and make the change throughout the extraction; you have 40 seconds to do all that. GO! For an experienced lever machine user this is all done without thought, much like using a clutch to shift gears. This is why this 'old' system in the hands of an experienced user is so effective and continues to be cherished.
I mentioned in my previous chapter that the DE1 does give the barista manual control much as is supplied by a lever machine, but of course, there is no lever on the DE1. And while that ability exists in the DE1, I also stated that I had not yet used it. In the message from John he asked me, “Why not?” A fair enough question.
As you know, I had never owned a machine which allowed in-process control. Doing something the same way for two decades created some deep ruts in the road. So I opened the owner's manual on the Decent website and searched for manual control.*2 The search quickly led me to the Group Head Controller (“GHC”) page. The GHC is a custom touch panel on top of the group. It has five major touch points located around its circumference.
On the GHC page there is a video where John demonstrates and explains how to change pressure and flow during the extraction using the GHC. The control is actually elegant and easily understood, and since this is prime example where video is more powerful than words, I will just let John himself explain:
There are more videos on the Decent YouTube channel. If you are at all interested in learning about these machines I suggest grabbing a beverage, sitting in a comfortable chair, and heading over there. No kidding- I stopped counting the videos at 250! Me? I am going to watch the GHC Manual Control video a few more times, load the video onto my tablet, and begin using my manual espresso machine tomorrow. We will see how long it takes this old dog get the feel of a new “digital lever machine” trick.
*1 – The Millenial Anti-Theft Device referenced is the five speed manual transmission in my car, otherwise known as a stick-shift transmission.
*2 – Mentioned in Chapter 167, the owners manual contains a mix of information supplied by Decent as well as user questions and conversations. It is a combination of owners manual, videos, and social media that, in my opinion, would be far more effective if it was 'just an owners manual' and left the conversation to take place in another area. It was this that kept me from researching the owners manual for educational purposes to get the most out of my Decent (manual control of my DE1 among other topics). Bottom line- I find the nature of the owners manual annoying but need to dedicate some time to being annoyed.
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