I'm a little picky about the coffee preparation area in our kitchen. If someone enters this region while I'm making coffee, I will say, "Please step away from the coffee preparation area." This will cause any coffee drinker to apologize, and make a polite exit. They understand their mistake, and that they have been moved to the bottom of the coffee que, but they will eventually be served. A newcomer, or someone like my wife or mother-in-law with rank and privilege, might ignore my request to vacate, in which case I remind them of the risks involved in remaining, i.e. no coffee, or even physical injury. It's a hollow threat with the matriarchs. The coffee area is in the kitchen, so I'm technically on their turf. They know it, and I know it, so I remain calm and make another breve' for myself when I'm able to continue.
Likewise, I'm finicky about my espresso machine, grinder, cups, and everything I use to make coffee. I clean the brewhead between every shot, clean the grinder if it's been more than an hour since the last use, and pre-heat the tamper if it's cold. I know it might seem a little overboard, but everything I've read says the cleaner the coffee path, the more crema, the better the espresso. I've also read that it's very improtant not to "shock" the coffee with sudden temperature changes, hence the tamper heating. I also rinse the portafilter in hot water, pre-heat it, and dry it before each shot, and pre-heat the cups with boiling water from a Hot Spot countertop quickboiler. Making quality espresso involves controlling and balancing many factors, any one of which can profoundly affect the results, so I've become a bit of a control freak.
I use a Pasquini Liveta T2 semi-automatic espresso machine with a 57mm portafilter. I've removed the little divider spout since it traps some crema, and I never make single shots. I've seen special "naked" portafilters online that are open on the bottom so the espresso touches nothing from the filter basket to the cup, but I haven't found one to fit my Pasquini yet. I will purchase one when I find it, maximum sweet crema is the goal.
Before I got the Pasquini, I used a 1973 La Pavoni Europiccola 8 cup manual-lever machine, and later moved up to a 2000 Gaggia Factory 16 cup manual-lever.
Making espresso with a manual-lever machine is so cool. I love the feel of literally pulling the shots by hand. It's also very tricky and it takes quite awhile to get good at it. The filter basket on the La Pavoni was only 49mm, and the Gaggia 51mm, and both manual-lever machines made very small shots without double-extracting. I used the single shot baskets on both manual machines, because the single basket is tapered, and seems to yield more crema. A lot of trial and error and online research is required to learn to use manual-lever espresso machines, but the great feeling of pulling a perfect shot by hand is worth it. On the downside though, I could never get either manual machine to steam suitably to make latte art, so I used a stovetop milk steamer. This combination worked, but the stove is several steps from the coffee area, and production was very slow.
My Pasquini has replaced the manual machines, but I found them good homes with friends whose espresso addictions I have carefully cultivated.
My grinder is a Mazzer Super Jolly that was given to me by the guy that laid the tile in our kitchen. I made him a cup with the Gaggia manual machine, and as soon as he saw my set up he said, "I've got the perfect grinder for you from my old coffee stand!" I couldn't believe it when he brought the Mazzer the next day. They are very expensive, pro-quality, micro-adjustable, and exactly what I wanted. I bought a smaller bean hopper for it so that it would fit under the shelf in the coffee area, and voila! I'm looking like a commercial set up. I thought about removing the doser and replacing with a spout, but I hate getting coffee grounds everywhere. And the doser is more like a real espresso stand, though it's a task to clean it, and there is a small amount of grounds that are wasted.
I heat the cups with boiling water from a Hot Spot countertop boiler by Sunbeam. This was also given to me by a friend, who saw I was still having to go to the stove to boil the cup heating water. I love this little gadget, thanks Jeff!
My Pasquini is one of the fastest heating espresso machines out there, so 10 minutes after I flip the switch, I'm ready to go. I check the water level, switch it on, fill the Hot Spot, switch it on, then put fresh beans in the grinder. I use a small steaming pitcher which I fill with cold water and then dry, so it won't warm or dilute the 1/2&1/2 or milk. I throw a clean dry towel over my shoulder, (handy for drying the portafilter, warm cups, warmed tamper, and cooled pitcher), fill a cup or two with hot water, and it's showtime!
I keep a clean wet cloth next to the steaming wand, which I then fold around the wand, and purge it for a few seconds. This pre-heats the wand, and ensures there is no residual old milk in or on it. Then I start steaming. I have found that one 2 second burst of adding air to the contents of the pitcher (this step is known as "stretch") is about right for the foam texture for free pouring latte art. The next step (called "roll") is to bring the fluid up to the desired temperature. I do this by putting my hand on the side of the pitcher until it gets too hot to keep it there. Thermometers are not really needed unless you want an exact temperature. If it will burn your hand, it will burn your mouth, right? It is very important for the liquid to spin or "roll" rapidly around the inside of the pitcher during heating, so that all but the micro-bubbles are popped.
Any remaining larger bubbles can be popped by tapping the pitcher on the counter a few times. The texture of the milk/cream should look smooth and glassy, but slightly thicker than before steaming. This is described by instructors as "white chrome".
Now I set aside the pitcher, remove the portafilter from the Pasquini, dry the inside of it, and start the grinder.
I haven't started weighing or measuring my grounds into the portafilter yet, but some folks do. I just eyeball it. Once I have enough grounds, I heat the tamper by dipping it in the coffee cup full of hot water for about 2 seconds, then drying it. The tamping standard is around 35 lbs. I checked on a scale, and 35 lbs. is about as hard as I can push down with my arm extended, not getting my elbow above the tamper.
I tamp, tap the portafilter with the tamper once to knock the grounds from around the inside, tamp at full pressure twisting the tamper slightly, and pull it out. Then I pour the hot water out of the cup, dry it, and twist the portafilter into the brewhead. It's good to start extracting as soon as the portafilter is on, so the grounds don't get "shocked" by the heat from the brewhead.
I bought a magnetic programmable timer so I get 25 second shots every time. So I hit the coffee button and the timer simultaneously, and put the cup under the brewhead. I like my shots on the ristretto (short/strong) side, so I pull the cup as soon as the timer goes off. If there is more than 2 ounces of espresso in the cup, I will dump it down the drain and try again. I've been using the same beans, and had the same equipment for over a year now, so I don't extract too many "sink shots" anymore, but it happens.
While the machine is extracting and I'm watching excitedly, I pick up the steaming pitcher and swirl and waft the contents to restore the "white chrome" appearance.
Then I pour the hot dairy into the cup of joy. And when the wind is right, and the coffee gods are smiling, I produce a beautiful, delicious, rosetta breve' latte.