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I'm the (self-proclaimed) "Espresso Guy." I created this website to educate the home espresso making newbie and to provide recipes, tips, and troubleshooting steps for those already pulling their own espresso shots. If you're having trouble deciding what to buy, there's guides on buying beans and equipment.

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Italy’s coffee culture could be overdue for a shake up

Happy 2019 everyone! I wanted to mention an article that’s been going around online from the Washington Post: Italy invented coffee culture. Now it’s a coffee time capsule.

The gist of the article is that while Italy was pioneer in coffee and espresso, in recent years many cafes haven’t kept up with the times. They’ve cut corners with the quality of their beans in order to keep prices from rising with inflation and other costs. Despite Italy’s ingrained coffee culture, the “third-wave” coffee trend is slowly coming to the country with higher quality espresso (and higher prices to match.)

Personally I’d say it’s far too early to say if Italy will accept this change, but I bet tourists from big cities outside of Italy will welcome high end espresso even if the locals are uninterested.

Similar changes happen all the time on a much smaller scale. For example someone might work for years on coming up with the best tacos and open a new taco restaurant with customers lining up out the door on day one. Customers rave about it and with stellar reviews, the place claims to have the best tacos in town. Then ten years go by and nothing changes — they’re still making the same tacos they were ten years ago. Now a new taco place opens down the street with an amazing new recipe, better ingredients, and a more up-to-date interior. Customers flock to the new place and the former “best” taco restaurant sees their customer base dwindle. Why? It’s not because the old place changed, it’s because it failed to keep up with the times. They could have tried new specials, updated their ingredients, etc. but instead of embracing change they rested on their reputation.

In the business world there’s a name for this: The Innovator’s Dilemma, which comes from the title of a book. It’s often talked about in the technology industry (think Yahoo vs. Google Search) but the core concept applies to any business; it’s cheaper to adapt to your customer’s ever-changing needs than to continue doing the same thing and eventually get surpassed by a rival.

I brought up tacos only because food trends tend to move pretty fast, and we’ve all seen restaurants stagnate and go out of business. The world of espresso is no different: the best cafes in the world are subject to the same market pressures. What’s interesting about this article though is the latest trends in espresso seem to have skipped an entire country, not just a single establishment.

Time and money permitting I’d love to revisit Italy in a few years and give their cafes another shot.

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Cafelat Robot

Recently a Kickstarter project called the Cafelat Robot came to my attention. It’s a minimalist espresso machine that’s barely a machine at all, let alone a robot. In fact, the “robot” is you! As a user of this device you have to grind the coffee, tamp it, and heat the water — then you have to apply the pressure on your own, just like a manual lever machine.

After a few prominent high tech crowdfunded espresso machines went bust it’s refreshing to see an extremely simple espresso machine hit Kickstarter, let alone one that covers pre-infusion, recommends against blade grinders, and takes food safety seriously. The only reason I can think of to be skeptical of this project is the low goal of $50,000 USD. Physical products cost a ton to manufacture. It’s unclear how much investment this project has outside of Kickstarter.

That said the video does make it clear this is their first production run, so I’d expect a beta quality product. Even if you do wind up getting a Cafelat Robot via Kickstarter (which is not guaranteed) it’s unclear if and when replacement parts will be made available.

My verdict is to wait and see. For the price of $300 USD I’d expect a little more, like a quality hand-cracked burr grinder such as the one shown in the video. Still I’d love to see this project succeed in the long run, if for no other reason than how little counter space it would take up in my kitchen.

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Conan drinks espresso in Naples

Recently American late night talk show host Conan O’Brien visited Italy with his Italophile associate producer Jordan Schlansky. Among many other clips posted online, in one video Conan and Jordan order espresso in a cafe in Naples.

While the video’s humorous intent is clear, the reaction of one Italian man when Conan tries to order a pumpkin spice latte was a look of genuine disgust. He’s not wrong; I had to pause the video because I was laughing so hard at his expression.

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Ordering espresso in Italy

Earlier this summer I was fortunate enough to visit Italy for the first time, spending about two weeks total in Venice, Florence, and Rome. Of the three cities Venice was wonderful but unfortunately quite lacking in the overall food and drink quality — including espresso — though I highly recommend visiting Venice regardless.

On the other hand, Florence and Rome have cafes serving good quality food and espresso on almost every corner. Surprisingly, even the most run down looking cafes almost always beat my expectations, particularly when it came to espresso.

Clearly, Italians care a great deal about their coffee — and it shows.

While many Italians speak at least some English they may be confused if you order “espresso.” In Italy the default way of preparing coffee is espresso, so just order a “caffè,” which means “coffee.” I found this out the hard way after getting a lot of blank stares.

If you want an espresso prepared the same way as you’d get at any American third-wave espresso cafe, order a “doppio ristretto” which is literally translated as “double tight”, but in English we’d say “double short.” If you just order a “doppio” or “double,” it’s going to be a little watery compared to what us Americans are used to.

The average cost these days for an espresso in Italy is about one euro per shot. In addition to the espresso, some places will also include a small glass of sparkling water, like many contemporary cafes in the US often do.

Oh, and one last practical matter: public bathrooms in Italy are few and far between, but I found that most cafes will let you use theirs if you order anything. That’s a tip every tourist should know, whether they like espresso or not.

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No, you can’t make espresso with a phone case

Recently a Kickstarter project from Italy made headlines, the Mokase, which claims to be able to make a shot of espresso using a case for several popular smartphone models.

There’s only one small problem with this idea: it’s completely insane. Tech news site The Verge offers a skeptical take, pointing out a lack of specifics on how the device actually works.

As an espresso fan, software engineer, and longtime iPhone user, I can point out a few ways in which this project doesn’t pass the sniff test:

  • Espresso requires heat, which is the enemy of a battery powered device like a smartphone. Remember when Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 phones overheated and (in some cases) actually caught on fire? My previous iPhone 6 had a similar issue where the battery expanded due to overheating, pushing the screen out of the phone’s case. Heat is an issue for lithium ion batteries in general. However this device works (assuming it does at all) it’s located in the worst place you could put, up against your phone. The Verge’s article above points out that there seems to be no real reason to tie this to a phone.
  • Espresso pods with no pricing information — how much will this cost per shot? The Kickstarter doesn’t say. Pod-based coffee in general isn’t a good investment, and it’s bad for the environment. If you’re not going to invest in a quality espresso machine, you’re better off going to a cafe for your espresso fix. This project only differentiates itself from the mediocre espresso pods on the market already based on size. That’s not enough.
  • Does it even exist? As of this writing, Kickstarter has suspended funding for the project. For hardware projects, Kickstarter requires a working prototype. Given the lack of specifics it seems reasonable to question whether Mokase has any prototypes.

All that said, I’ve already booked my first visit to Italy this summer. If anyone from the Mokase team wants to reach out and provide a demonstration of their working prototype, I’m willing to test it with an open mind. But as a consumer, I have serious doubts about both this project and the general concept overall. To me, this sounds like an even more questionable version of the Juicero, but for espresso. At least I’ve heard of people trying the Juicero — that’s more than I can say for the Mokase.

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