A More Than Decent Espresso Machine: the John Buckman Interview

Decent Espresso Machine

For all the talk from coffee professionals about how coffee is a science, there’s not a lot of hard research, especially when it comes to espresso. Much of the received orthodoxy surrounding espresso is a random combination of tradition, hunches, and preferences handed down from barista to barista.

But a new piece of technology promises to usher in a golden age of enlightenment, in which espresso shots neither channel nor under-extract. Or perhaps more accurately, the machine promises to inform the user when channeling occurs, as well allowing for control and customization previously unavailable from an espresso machine. This miracle machine is the DE1+, from the rather modestly-named Decent Espresso. We caught up with Decent Espresso’s founder John Buckman and asked him to explain the technology that has the coffee world buzzing.

Your new espresso machine, the DE1+, has been making waves at coffee trade shows around the globe. Exactly, what’s so special about the Decent espresso machine?

The Decent is a software-based espresso machine. Rather than having a single way of making espresso, it is flexible. It can effectively emulate the entire history of espresso machines (from Lever Machines all the way to Slayer). Being software controlled, it also does things that are new to espresso, such as dynamically changing the water temperature in order to achieve a 1ºC accurate temperature at the puck itself. It can do true flow profiling, by controlling the pumps themselves. Preinfusion ends automatically based on detecting water buildup above the puck. All this is available as presets that you tap-to-load, on the included tablet, and you can modify them to suit your needs.

In addition, the Decent is packed with sensors that show you what’s actually happening inside that group head. Pressure is measured at the puck, and you can actually see sub-second channels open and close as sudden wiggles in the charted lines. Flow is displayed, so you can see the effect of puck erosion as your shot progresses. Temperature is measured 2mm above the puck surface, so you can see the effect of your grounds and portafilter metal on your actual coffee infusion temperature.

All this helps you become a better barista, and make better coffee.

There’s been a lot of debate surrounding distribution and tamping techniques, but little hard evidence. Can your technology help settle some of the debates?

Yes. Peak pressure, puck erosion, channeling, as well as flow-rate-into-the-cup, are all plainly visible with the Decent. That data will help you objectively evaluate different approaches.

Coming to this profession as an enthusiast amateur, I initially embraced techniques like WDT, to hopefully improve my drinks. Then, once the Decent showed me that WDT made my drinks less consistent (sometimes better, but often worse), I spent a year trying to develop a “grooming tool” that the Decent proved actually worked. I eventually gave up, because nothing I tried increased both quality and consistency. One exception: homogenizing the dose by using a milk jug consistently improved all my shots. But, there’s no product to sell there, since everyone already owns a milk jug!

Decent espresso machine

Scott Rao has described your technology as like “Cropster for espresso.” It’s hard to imagine a quality-focused roasting company that isn’t using roast logging software anymore. Do you think the Decent espresso machine can have the same industry-wide effect?

I’d love for our little espresso machine to have an impact, but I don’t want to make any grandiose claims that we’re going to be as successful as Cropster has been. I’d certainly be pleased if it happened, but we’re a new, small company, in a business space filled with giants and a lot of history.

What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve learned about espresso during this process?

My mind was blown when I went to Ditta Artigianale in Florence, Italy), where Rao had consulted a few weeks before, and I found that Rao had managed to dial in the pressure profile on their Strada so that it provided virtually perfect constant flow profiling. I had set up my DE1+ (which has flow profiling) next to their Strada and Scott had nailed it.

This isn’t mean to glorify (just) Scott. What’s blown my mind repeatedly is that there are really amazing baristas out there, who have managed to dial in their coffees with incredible finesse, with their eyes and palettes as their only tools. I can do it because I’ve got a fancy computer-based espresso machine, but wow.

Another thing I’ve found, which is hugely aggravating, is that great baristas prepare much better pucks than I do.

A few weeks ago, at MICE in Melbourne, on the same grinder and coffee, my shots were falling apart after about 15 seconds, whereas Scott’s shots held. Then Matt Perger shows up, and his shots look great too. Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood pulls a few great shots too. Then a random barista gives it a try and blam, bad shot again (shadenfreude!). Puck prep is still really hard, but some people are demonstratedly much better at it.

Your company is based in Hong Kong. What are some of your favorite places to get coffee?

The newly opened Amber Coffee Brewery, launched by a former Cupping Room local barista champion, is really impressive. Barista Jam gets my vote for classic espresso, while Coffee Academics do impressive things with their Slayer. The number of HK cafés that show up on “top 10 cafes in the world” lists is really striking.

Photos by Ben Champion.

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