The Last Mile

The year was 2005, the place, Thailand’s stunning island of Phuket. I was on my maiden Asian voyage under the flag of Illy’s University of Coffee, on a weeklong training mission to local accounts. Behind the bar at a big resort, I was pulling shots to establish a baseline. Shot after shot, the results were stunningly horrific.

Tapped out of neat little barista tricks, the culprit finally revealed itself: a strange, thin, icky black layer of something where filter met portafilter. I grabbed a screwdriver and flipped the filter out. And then I flipped out. A thick layer of dry coffee entirely coated the machine’s innards, almost completely blocking its central hose.

I presented the forensic evidence to my two barista trainees. “Wow, there are actually two pieces,” blurted out Barista Guy Number One, remarking on the filters, and clearly stunned by the revelation. “You broke it,” mumbled a misguided Barista Guy Number Two.

This column’s name, The Last Mile, derives from its mission to optimize quality where it counts most: at the point of preparation. While this story’s telling is 100% accurate, of course it isn’t typical. My quality assurance and training visits to hundreds of the world’s finer resorts, restaurants and cafes, over 10 years, have found about 40% of machines thoroughly clean, 25% cleaned just about well enough, another 25% insufficiently clean, and the final 10%…let’s not go there.

But think about that for a moment. Assuming my experience can be extrapolated to the world at large, 35% of the coffee served at better establishments doesn’t stand a chance to deliver on its promise. And this in upscale environments, where one would think quality means more than in your typical setting.

Let’s explore just why keeping espresso machines clean is no quick, casual, rinse-and-go exercise. Like so much in coffee, it comes down to oils, which comprise about 15 percent of Arabica beans and roughly 10-12 percent of Robusta. Oxygen is the arch-enemy of coffee oils, turning them rancid after only an hour of contact. That means every piece of equipment that comes into contact with coffee in any form must be thoroughly cleaned every day. At least.

Some pros recommend basic steps after every session and others every hour. Nick Griffith and Chris Tracy of urge performing a “wiggle rinse” after every session to wash away grinds from the dispersion screen, followed by a quick clean water backflush. Then once every hour, scrubbing the inside of the portafilter and the portafilter basket. And in case you thought lesser-used machines don’t require as much vigilance, think again. Since they don’t benefit from scalding water passing through them frequently, the oils deposited within these machines cook on and cling even tighter, requiring more than hourly basket rinsing. Call it The Paradox of Lower Volume.

If you haven’t already, establish a cleaning schedule with daily, weekly, monthly and yearly actions, and post it somewhere that is can’t-miss. Do a daily backflush with Cafiza (more on cleaning solutions below) and fully soak portafilters and baskets for at least a half hour; weekly, remove dispersion screen and soak in Cafiza along with the filter and portafilter, and clean the drain tube with Cafiza and water; monthly, check status of cartridges for machines with inline water filtration systems; and at least yearly, descale to wipe out calcium (lime) deposits, which can add serious bitterness when present in large quantities. The harder the water, the more frequently you need to descale.

Now about coffee equipment detergent and other cleaning agents. I suspect a big reason why machines are not cleaned often enough is worry about the damage that these products can do. Happily, most of those fears are unfounded when choosing cleaners specifically made for coffee and espresso systems, available from companies like Urnex, which also sells products under the Puro and Full Circle brands, the latter providing a full portfolio of eco-friendly products. Joe Glo, a newer brand, has a cleaner that also inhibits lime.

milos copyCircling back to our Thai barista duo, I am indeed surprised to meet baristas out there who don’t understand that portafilters are comprised of two pieces that need to be cleaned separately. Sadly, I have encountered that layer of “antique” coffee on more than one occasion. (See photo.)

If you just can’t bring yourself or your baristas to clean that equipment often enough, try and have some fun. A company called Medelco may have just the thing: a French roast-scented coffee maker cleaner. That’s right, it smells like coffee. Not exactly my cup of tea (you’re welcome, Tea Council of the USA), but really, who am I to judge? Well, OK, I am one to judge. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ll stick with cleaner that leaves that delightful scent called “clean” lingering after a job well done.

Giorgio Milos is illy’s award-winning Master Barista and illy’s North American Barista in Residence who regularly ventures beyond the cup to study the biology and chemistry of the coffee bean, continually striving to master the beverage that is his passion and profession.

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