Mastering the single
Q: What is the best way to make a single?
A: Split a double!
[..hysterical laughter from audience...]
Although the single basket is a commonplace item in the average cafe, it is rarely seen in the circles of most home based espresso enthusiasts.
In the quest for "more is more" and stuffing more coffee in ridgeless double and triple baskets, the lowly single basket that came with your espresso machine is probably gathering dust somewhere - unused and neglected...
If you have been preparing espresso for at least a couple of years, you might think that you are getting pretty good at it. You can bang out double after double - all of them pretty good, some great, and you can't recall dumping a shot in the last several months.
So before you give yourself a pat on the back, be prepared to be humbled by the lowly single.
Put away your double basket for a moment, find the single basket, wipe away the layers of dust and have a look-see. Hmm. tiny little thing, cone shaped and the filter screen is looking awfully small in diameter. Shiny though, not a scratch.
Not a problem. Fire up the grinder, dose in the basket, level the puck with a flourish, tamp with the Reg. No big deal. Hey wait a second! The Reg is sitting way too high - no way you can squeeze that basket in the group!
Grab a spoon and scrape away at your nicely polished puck. Things are not going smoothly as expected.
Re-tamp using your patented modified Carl Staub technique. Admire your handiwork. Gulp! that puck is WAY uneven. Carl would not approve. What the heck is going on? Scrape off some more grounds, retamp, re-level, lock and load.
The shot is uninspiring - early blond. Look at the spent puck. Hmm..interesting, looks like a collapsed souffle. What gives? The problem is the cone. It appears tamping has somehow, not sufficiently compressed the coffee in the central cone portion of the basket. Ok. Let's try double tamping. Fill the cone area, grab the Reg and you find out rather quickly that you can't reach down far enough. What now? More rattling around in the junk drawer. Eureka! You forgot to throw out that cheap undersized black plastic tamper that came with your machine. Yes, you can now tamp the cone, fill the rest of the basket and tamp using your regular temper.
So why is the single so challenging?
- the small basket means that the puck is thin
- thin pucks seem to magnify small errors; small errors leading to big errors...
- if you are used to double baskets, the cone shaped single requires different filling and tamping techniques.
- the height of the tamped coffee puck is critical, especially too little. Too little coffee will cause cavitation between the puck surface and the shower screen resulting in pitting and chanelling.
- creating an absolutely level puck is difficult. Pay extra attention to your tamping technique.
- if you subscribe to the theory that tamping finer grounds creates a cap - leaving the bottom grounds "looser", you may want to grind a bit coarser and tamp a bit harder.
- try the double tamp technique
- practice,practice, practice!
Some of the finest shots I have ever made have come from a single - thick, gloppy and NO blonding at all throughout the shot. Plus, do not forget that the uniquely Canadian espresso drink (the caplatte) always requires an expertly crafted single.
Glenn S. is a senior financial consultant in Waterloo, Ontario by day and a stand-up comic and dancer by night. His dissertation on coffee, espresso and equipment can be found in the coffeecrew pages quite regularly. Photo by Colin, yes Colin... Canon A60 - 2Mp with various light sources...