Ok, after a few months of researching, I broke down and bought a Gaggia New Baby and a Baratza Virtuoso grinder.
I've had a very frustrating first two days with this setup and need some help.
Here's what I'm doing:
1. Grind directly into portafilter.
2. Distribute the beans evenly and level-off the portafilter (Stockfleth's move).
3. Tamp the beans at around 30-40lbs pressure.
4. Gently tap the portafilter with the handle of the tamper.
5. Rotate the tamper with about 20lbs of pressure to polish the grinds
6. Flip the portafilter to drop off excessive grinds
7. Insert portafilter into machine.
8. Press the brew switch and the start the timer.
9. Turn off the brew switch and the timer.
That's my process. With the grinder on 9, I get a shot at around 15 sec. Sometimes it's blonded before that. with the grinder on 8 (finer grind), the shot comes in at around 39 sec. I'm told that the ideal time for a shot should be 20-30 sec. I'm also told that this can vary between machines.
Both settings give me loads of crema, but the shots at 15 sec. are sour (like bile). The shots at 39, are quite bitter. I'm told that ideally, espresso should be the consistency of molten chocolate, and although still bitter, should taste almost sweet and not at all unpleasant. I'm told you should be able to drink it straight without need of cream or sugar. If I adjust my tamp pressure, I can get a shot at 18 sec. (hard tamp on coarse grind) or 35 sec. (light tamp on finer grind)
I phoned espressotec, and they told me there's nothing wrong with my grinder, and that an ideal shot should come in between 15-20 sec.
I've got a couple ideas that might help, but I'm far from an expert so no guarantees
1. Don't tap the portafilter after tamping at all - you can loosen the puck and cause channeling down the sides.
2. Adjust your dose amount. I find that if I put too much ground coffee in the basket, then either a) it doesn't fit well into the espresso machine and doesn't produce a good shot or b) I tamp the hell out of it and it doesn't produce a good shot. With my Gaggia, I find it's much better to err on the side of too little coffee versus too much. Combine that with your finer grind setting, and:
3. Experiment with less or even *no* tamping. Overtamping & polishing can really slow things down if your grind is on the fine side.
4. Just to be sure, you're trying to pull doubles, right? Single shots are way harder and finicky...
Other than that, I'd ask what sort of beans are you grinding? I find that if I get desperate and use grocery store beans (like Kicking Horse or Saltspring Island), not only does the taste and crema deteriorate, but the consistency of the shot time and volume goes out the window. When I use freshly roasted beans, and of a lighter roast (no surface oil), it's far easier to get a consistent result.
Like I said, I'm no expert, but there's a few more things you can try before returning your grinder or espresso machine. I think I went through half a pound of beans and poured out many a shot before I was happy enough with my setup.
Also, unless you've got a really defective Gaggia, the grinder is far more likely to blame of the two. There's a couple other grinders cheaper than the Virtuoso to try:
-Bodum Antigua (Colin seems to like this one)
-Le'lit PL53 (totally stepless, but a pain if you grind for multiple brew methods)
-Zassenhaus manual mill (cheaper than anything else, basically stepless, but obviously more physical labour required!)
My suggestion as well would be to try fresh roasted beans and see what you come up with, you may be surprised! You do have 2 good machines and Gaggia New Baby produces very good results with fresh roasted beans ground just right! I had a helped these wonderful folks who purchased a Gaggia Baby and were very fustrated with their attempts to make good espresso. So,I brought my Rancilio Rocky to their place with some fresh beans from Everyday Gourmet and worked my \"magic\". They were so pleased with the results that they went and purchased a Rocky and some fresh beans the next day!You got a good grinder now get some good fresh beans!
I've been on Home Barista all day with the same question and have received more answers than I find helpful.
One of the biggest helps was the suggestion to stay with the finer setting, but to run a cooling flush through the grouphead right before brewing. This seems to slow the shot down considerably. Combine that with a slightly lighter tamp and I had a couple of shots in the 28-30 sec. range. Much tastier, although I still wouldn't drink them straight.
Closing verdict: I think I'll keep the grinder.
1. I've heard both sides on that, and most people seem to be in favor of not tapping.
2. I will try that next once I get things a little closer.
3. That's the next step after this boiler thing.
4. Yeah. No way I'd even think of trying singles.
The beans I'm using are fresh. Not straight-from-the-roaster fresh, but certainly not stale. I pick them up from the local coffee shop, who receives them from Fratello on a regular basis. The roast is called \"Godfather\", and is a nice medium roast. It produced the best results on my old Hamilton Beach, by far. I'm afraid I have few other options out here in small town Sask., besides mail order.
Like I say, the shots have piles of crema. Which should mean I can't be far off. Can't imagine this much crema with stale beans.
What I mean by \"piles of crema\" is at least an inch of crema, thirty seconds after pulling the shot, even on under-extracted 12 sec. shots. I wouldn't think that'd be the case if my beans were stale. Would it?
My only advice would be patience, young Padawan. Espresso is an art, and a hobby. This is the fun part, where you learn to make the coffee EXACTLY the way you like it best. If your espresso is bitter, then it sounds like you are over-extracting. That can come from a grind that is too fine or water that is too hot. Sounds like you are doing all the right experiments. Just keep tinkering.
Also, remember that there is always going to be some bitterness. That's why Italians almost invariably put sugar in their espresso. Also why many of us prefer cappucinos or lattes, as the milk can smooth out the bitterness but we still get the great coffee flavour. Again, just more things to try.