hating the beast, loving the burden

November 30, 2005 – 12:10 am

it’s been a long time coming, so … denser, more overcooked blather follows. also, the brothers (two of them, anyhow) just spent a week, and we’re the kind whose collective brain power meshes into a stew both potent and murky — sort of sumatra supergrade-ish with an even more resilient aftertaste!

the now throughly worked mazzer major, or chunk o’ burrs: i think i’d rather use a fork and knife. split each bean daintily with a socially respectable cross-cutting motion, then stab, swivel and slice again until the desired grind is achieved. i mean, the mortar and pestle was better. there is no other grinder so pretentious, and so laboriously dull and inscrutable as the mazzer major and its only-somewhat-less-hulksome underlings. i understand the burr size advantage and the the motor speed and the raw power and the tank-like infrastructure, but the genesis of this sullen hatred is (a) the much-bandied notion that the leading professional grinder used today is so clunky, so inefficient, such a pain to maintain and so not subservient to the brew itself, and (b) my personal travails proving that yes, the mazzer produces some superior grounds, but it also creates a host of other problems.

will i be written off as an underskilled amateur if i say i miss the gran macinino? to be clear, i’m not going back — the benefits of a commercial monster are obvious, especially on high-production nights. also, i continue to be gripped by the process of improvement, of unlocking how competitors can pull shots like that with this machine. but the truth is, there are distribution problems. my routine is time-tested and meticulously managed: flip the doser, fill the basket, distribute, tamp, tap the basket and tamp again. with the cheaper gran mac., which did not have a doser but deposited grounds as they came from the burrs in a central heap, i almost never saw an off-center pour, and certainly never got the gushers around the edge of the basket like i do routinely. the mazzer, though, doses up against the edge of the basket, creating the need to carefully and multitudinously tap the basket to get the loose ring of grounds that escapes the pressure of the tamper to fall into the middle. this almost certainly fractures the dry puck. the isomac ridged basket isn’t helping matters. i abandoned the stockfleths distribution move for awhile, and saw some improvement (stockfleths too weak on the basket edges?). then, as the brothers were leaving yesterday, it happened.

i was pulling eight shots for the road — four in each brother’s travel thermos — and thought abstractly that i should down-dose. this was a random thought, like the ones on the edge of sleep that tell you, without warning, “auuugh! cliff!” the down-dosed puck pulled smoothly, with a concentric ease that i have worked strenuously to get lately. i feel stupid for not thinking of it sooner. and of course, should i want to overdose a bit i will have The Issue to still resolve. but i forgot what a joy, what a simple complexity the cup gives with a good, meticulous down-dose. i had gotten away from it, it seems, mashing a ballooning mound of grounds in the effort to fix distribution. stupid. and when i went back, it was the solution to a world of uneven pulls. i guess that means i should apologize to the brothers for the glut of wobbly milk-masked shots i served during the week — and for discovering the fix with mere minutes left in their visit.

what of this mazzer, though? i’m burying the lede here, sort of, but the mazzer’s doser is just so horribly conceived, so prone to hiding stale grounds and forcing guesswork when it comes to grinding enough for a single shot … erg. stop me. also, although i have the mondo burrs and the slower engine speed, it still cooks way too hot, from what i understand. the only reason i bought is because i could get away with $120 for an $800 machine. also, despite all the drawbacks, the beast does make barista skill a paramount factor, masking distribution error much less than the gran mac. (my theory: poorly “chewed” beans gum together better than an evenly ground powder, but i don’t know this.) in any case, adverse factors forcing ever finer skill sets on the butt end of the portafilter are always welcome.

pandering face-saving addendum: i have hesitated to post on the mazzer struggles, to be frank, because, well, so many people seem to do just fine with them — pros in particular. and yes, i realize the major is not the optimal home grinder, though its caricature on my bar has become something of a joke, a heap o’ burrs full of weird and unusual experimenting possibilities. it is still above most other machines as a piece of engineering, though i now think i could really love a la cimbali. but here’s transparency for you, and the results of at least a preliminary breakthrough. the progressions will be blogged.