A well-made espresso is photogenic and I often share pictures of my brews on social media. Admittedly, it’s easier to pull nice looking shots of espresso on the ROK espresso maker when you use super-fresh, high-quality beans. A more budget-conscious coffee drinker who buys less fancy beans from the local supermarket may end up producing coffee that’s not as photogenic (for what it’s worth) as the ones I put up on Instagram. I’m often asked by ROK users why their espresso doesn’t look like mine. It’s probably a bit short-sighted of me to just encourage folks to buy better beans, but that’s often my first response. Obviously, it’s not only about the beans, but also method and equipment play a big part.
Recently I decided to challenge myself to a trial by bad beans. Can I produce decent looking espresso on manual gear, using crap coffee? I bought cheap, low-quality coffee beans to run through the ROK coffee grinder and ROK espresso maker. There was no roast date on the coffees, so I’m not sure how old they were. I used two different blends: a “medium” roast and a “medium-dark” roast. I don’t know a lot about the components of the blends as the packaging didn’t reveal much. Neither blend smelled particularly appealing, and I knew that no amount of brewing voodoo was going to make them taste nice. It’s no wonder many folks resort to milk and sugar.
For the test, I settled on a 17 gram dose of coffee beans. I tared the basket and weighed it after I tamped the coffee to ensure I had consistent doses and wasn’t losing too much due to static. Using the Ross Droplet Technique ensures that grind retention due to static is minimised. Because of the open top and bottom of the bean hopper on the ROK grinder, static can make things messy. A couple of drops of water sorted that out.
I prefer to brew at a ratio of around 1:2 (beans to water). With a dose of 17 grams of beans, I’m aiming for an espresso of around 34 grams. Ideally, the shot will extract somewhere between 25-30 seconds. Timing can vary a little depending on how much force I apply to the levers.
The ROK grinder makes fluffy grounds, and I had to work to fit all of the grounds in the portafilter basket. With our other grinders, it is possible to fit up to 20 grams of coffee in the ROK espresso maker’s basket. Those other grinders don’t produce fluffy grinds like the ROK grinder does. With the ROK grinder, 16 grams could look like 20 so it’s possible to under-dose if you’re not using a scale. A low dose would result in a fast running and under extracted espresso shot. We always recommend using a scale when brewing coffee, and I’d say this is even more important when using the ROK grinder.
I opted to use the grinder in stepped mode i.e. with the infinite washer removed. Using stepped settings meant that while I had less fine control of the grind, it was easier to reproduce my settings between coffees. For general use, I’d probably be more inclined to put the infinite washer in for greater control.
Communicating ROK grinder settings is challenging as it is for some of our other grinders, like the LIDO range. The zero point is a little subjective and doesn’t always align with the numbering on the grinder. For my ROK grinder test, the fully closed position reads as 11 on the number dial. That’s what I consider to be zero. For my tests, I used relative settings of between two and four from zero (closed). At a setting of two, I had some noticeable rubbing of the burrs. I’m learning to live with this as I believe I’m getting better espresso results in that range.
I won’t detail my method with the ROK espresso maker as that’s covered in some other blog posts like this one.
It took me three test shots to dial in the grinder. Over the test shots I adjusted my dose lower and grind setting finer. My final two shots (shown in the feature photo) ran well, with 34 grams of espresso extracting in the expected time range. The slightly darker blend produced slightly more crema than the other. Visually, I’d say the espresso shots were both Instagram-worthy. That answers my main question: it is certainly possible to produce rich, well-extracted espresso with manual ROK gear even with bad beans.
As for the taste, well I’m sure you can imagine, low-quality beans make for poor tasting espresso. Despite looking pretty, none of the coffees were appealing to me. As I was packing up, my wife came home and said: “It smells like a 7-11 in here!”. She was not being complimentary.
If all you care about is nice looking espresso, then I’d say you can cut corners and buy cheaper coffee. You can still get an impressive visual result if you take care in preparation. If you do care about the taste, my fall back position is always to buy better beans.
Where To Buy
ROK Coffee Grinder
New Zealand: http://presso.co.nz/rok-coffee-grinder
USA / International: https://espressounplugged.com/rok-coffee-grinder-us
ROK Espresso Maker
You can find all the bad coffee you need at your local supermarket. Do yourself a favour and visit your local coffee roaster instead.