A couple of months ago as I was trying to come up with some ideas for this site, I asked my friend Stephen for some suggestions. I wanted to do profiles of local baristas to highlight the passion and talent we have for coffee in this area. He suggested I interview our friend Jeremy.
Jeremy is not a barista. But he is an expert in espresso machine service. He has come to the rescue on more than one occasion when a machine I worked on needed fixing. I asked him a few questions and he answered…
Who are you? What do you do?
I’m Jeremy Cisco. I diagnose, repair and fine-tune all types of espresso machines.
How long have you been doing this work?
I think I have been doing this for about 4 years now.
What do you love about your job?
Debunking myths and theories pertaining to espresso equipment.
What is your favorite machine and why?
I have to name a few here. I love Rios for their engineering and design. They are a workhorse of a machine. I’ve worked on Rios which have come out of a barn, covered in cobwebs, and after a day I can have them running like new. A true gem of a machine.
I like Faemas for their consistency and build quality. They have a much more terminal lifespan than the Rios, but the quality of shot I get from these machines is reliable and true.
Of course I have to mention the flagship La Marzocco. They are very good under a trained hand. A La Marzocco is a true professional machine which highlights the abilities of the barista running it.
What should cafe owners know before purchasing an espresso machine?
It’s important to know what kind of volume you expect. This will help to keep you from overspending. I’ve had people look at $12,000 super-automatics when a $3,000 110v single would work just as well, if not better, for them. It’s good to buy what you need with hopes of expanding at some point. Keep in mind, though, if you buy a 3-group machine, but only use 1 or 2 of those groups, that third group is going to plug up from lack of use.
Also, I cannot stress enough that a person buys a machine that is serviceable and parts are readily available. Almost all machines out there are very high quality in their own ways, most of them being built in Italy, Switzerland, France…all European product. The important thing, though, is to not go with too unique or ‘boutique’ of a brand unless you have access to parts for that machine. I said before that espresso machines are high-maintenance and will inevitably need service at one point or another. It’s important to not get yourself into a position where you need a part and find out there is only one distributor in the US and the part you need is a special order from Italy. Be smart and ask around before investing.
Is it better to buy used or brand new?
Buying used can be smart if, and only if, you know what you are looking at. I would never recommend buying a machine sight unseen unless you have access to parts and are able to repair it yourself. Even then there is a great likelihood you may pick up a machine that you find is unsalvageable after investing more time and money than you actually paid. A great majority of problems with these machines are hidden where the eyes can’t see.
How important is machine maintenance and what are some steps we can take to keep the machines running in good condition?
I can never stress enough the importance of maintenance on an espresso machine. This goes all the way from the water supply to the machine all the way to the shower screen under the group assembly. Every step is important.
First and foremost, you need to ensure the water going to your machine is filtered down to 2-3 grains hardness. Most tap water I see can range anywhere from 10 grains to over 20. The fastest way to ruin a machine is to run it unfiltered. Even after a few months you will start to see limescale buildup not only in the boiler, but through the complex heat exchange system that feeds the group head. Understand that the restrictors and injectors on these machines are the size of a needle…no joke. They plug up quick. Limescale kills espresso machines…nuff said.
As far as basic maintenance goes, you need to backflush the group heads daily with coffee cleaner. It also doesn’t hurt to take out the screen and diffuser to really make sure things are clean up there. Understand that backflushing cleans the coffee oils from the water dispense and the brew valves, that’s it. A common misconception is that backflushing keeps water lines clear all the way back into the machine to keep a good flow. That’s actually taken care of by the filters mentioned earlier.
Another basic item of maintenance, and this needs to be done after every drink…blow out the the steam wand for a few seconds. There are a couple of things that happen if you don’t do this. First, your steam wands get plugged. I can’t tell you how many times people call me to say their machine isn’t steaming only to find the steam wand tip is plugged with nastiness. The second thing that happens if you don’t blow out the milk is that as the steam wand cools between drinks, it gradually draws whatever is in that wand back into the boiler. Once that milk gets in the boiler, it never comes back out…ever. One of the nastiest smells in the world is milk that has been setting in a boiler and cooked for days and months. For this reason, never soak the steam wand in a glass of water to clean it. Always use a wet towel.
As far as parts, expect to change a few common parts every 3, 6 or 12 months depending on drink volumes. Most common is your group gaskets. A good way to tell these are getting bad is if water leaks from the portafilter when you backflush. Also expect to replace steam wand/valve seals and o-rings. You’ll know these are going bad when water starts to drip from the steam wand joint when steaming milk. A couple of common part failures that occur on an espresso machine are the vacuum breaker, pressure stat and water pump.
What’s the most important thing a barista should know about their equipment?
First, I think it’s important to put the whole premise of the espresso machine into perspective. Here you have a 150lb piece of machinery composed of expensive metals like copper, stainless and brass, pulling 220v of power to heat a 13L boiler and engineered to push a couple of ounces of water out at 9 bar of pressure and 196 degrees…all to make tiny cups of coffee. I don’t say this to take the romance out of espresso, but rather we keep in mind that a whole lot of work goes into building a pretty complex piece of equipment for a pretty small amount of product. By their very nature, espresso machines are complicated, high maintenance and in no way the ‘plug and play’ product they are often treated as.
With this in mind, I think the most important thing a barista/shop owner needs to know about their machine is its basic engineering and function. To know the water that goes into the boiler is completely separate from water which dispenses from the brew group. To know what the gauges on the front of the machine mean (Hint: they actually serve a purpose other than decoration). Basic understandings like these are infinitely important when I have to diagnose a problem and describe it to the owner. Many owners know routine maintenance and upkeep, but it’s also important for them to understand what the maintenance they perform is actually doing and what it affects.
As an aside, it’s also important a barista knows how to program and setup their own machine. You’d be surprised how many people buy a $9k machine and don’t know how to program shots or set up grind.
What is your favorite coffee and why?
I wish I could tell you I have a favorite, but I don’t. Honestly, starting with a good-quality espresso, freshly ground, and watching what the barista does with that is what I enjoy the most. I’m most impressed with skill, familiarity and understanding with the machine and the craftsmanship which results from that.
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!
Do you have a question for Jeremy? Leave a comment! or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org