TGIFridays: How to use the Flair 58 lever machine and Niche Zero grinder to make great espresso

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Its Friday! And we chillout today with an article on making great espresso. This time, with a manual lever machine – the Flair 58, and a single dose grinder which has gained some notoriety recently – the Niche Zero.

Chillout TGIFridays: How to make great espresso with the Flair 58 and Niche Zero

I was kindly invited to my friend Brighty, who is a frequent commenter in our pages, to see how he does his espresso at home. His setup is at the same time simple, but very sophisticated, and capable of making great espressos.

The setup

The setup is placed on an island counter top in his kitchen.

The items, in sequence of the workflow: Blue arrow is the Niche Zero Grinder. The orange arrow is the Weber Blind Shaker distribution tool, and the yellow arrows point to the leveling and tamping tools. The purple arrow is the Flair 58 Puck Screen, and the turquoise arrow points to the Fellows Stagg EKG Electric Kettle. Red arrow is the Flair 58. Green arrow is the Acai smart scale.

The Niche Zero

The Niche Zero is a single dose, zero retention grinder with 63mm conical burrs. In contrast, the commercial grinder that I use is the Mazzer Mini, which use 58mm flat burrs. The grinder is a beautiful package in white and black, with wood feet. A steel tumbler, with a mouth opening of 58mm is provided. 58mm is the industry standard for professional portafilters, and if desired, the grounds collected after grinding can be directly poured into a standard portafilter.

Conical burrs have a cone-shaped ring that sits inside another cone-shaped ring that’s hollow. In contrast, flat burr grinders have two rings of burrs that sit horizontal to the ground. One faces upwards and the other faces down. Both grind coffee the same way. One serrated ring moves against another ring with jagged edges. As coffee beans go between the two rings, they’re ground to a somewhat uniform size. Achieving perfectly uniform grinds is of course, impossible, and the distribution of the grind sizes are what determine the character of the grinder. Generally, conical burr grinders are said to bring out individual and bright flavours, while flat burrs tend to meld and enhance darker notes.

To prevent a phenomena called popcorning, the Niche comes with a Zero Flow Control Disc, which is a disc with slots to allow the beans to fall into the grinder and prevent the beans from jumping around prior to being fed into the burrs.

The grinder uses a simple friction ring mounted on the top of the grinder to adjust the grind setting. This ring can be set to rest at any position, and thus infinitely adjustable. The ring feels very positive – a nice, smooth resistance when it is moved, and once set, does not move itself until you reset it to another grind level. The Niche is marked from a scale of 0 (very fine) to 50 (coarse). This should be plenty of room for most kinds of coffee, from espresso to filter.

As the burrs are conical, the bean path is straight through, and Niche claims that virtually no grinds are retained. In my trial, and Brighty’s tests, it retains a small amount, which can be cleared by tapping the feed funnel with a cupped palm, the pressure wave created expels the remaining grinds.

The Flair 58

Next, is the Flair 58. This is the top of the line in the manual lever machines made by Flair. The design is quite beautiful to look at. With sensuous curves in the right places, the machine looks graceful on any counter top.

The Flair 58 and the Acaia Lunar scale which fits in just perfectly in a space designed for it. In this photograph, the lever is raised, but the machine can be stored with the lever down which takes up less space.

Described by Flair as their flagship model, the 58 features an industry standard 58mm portafilter. And unlike their simpler machines, the Flair 58 is supplied with a Preheat Control System that allows the user to preheat their brew head to one of three different temperatures. This is an enhancement of thermal management, and simplifies the workflow significantly. An electronically controlled kettle in the form of the Fellows Stagg EKG Electric Kettle is used to heat the water before it is delivered into the brew chamber of the Flair. This a smart kettle has a PID device to precisely maintain the temperature selected, and can communicate via Bluetooth to a smart phone. For espresso, we aim at delivering about 95°C to the group head, so we set the kettle to maintain 100°C, as the water will cool somewhat on its way to be brewed. The long neck of the kettle is helpful in getting into the opening to the brew chamber.

The pressure gauge on the Flair 58, allows the lever pressure to be controlled to a desired level. Manual profiling can also be done by watching this scale, and adjusting the lever pressure. Typically we aim to pre-infuse at about 1 to 2 Bars. And brew from about 9 Bars, and ramping down as the puck degenerates.

The manual espresso workflow

The process of making espresso is first to grind the beans. The beans are fed into the Niche Zero by pouring it into the top funnel. The cover is closed and a flick of the switch starts the grinding. Instead of using the Niche supplied tumbler, we let the grinds fall into the Weber Blind Shaker. The Weber Blind Shaker is a special tumbler which acts as a tool to catch the grounds. It is supplied with a cap to allow the grinds to be shaken (not stirred…sorry cannot resist that) to ensure a good, even distribution. The bottom fits the standard 58mm portafilter, and is designed with a plug which can be opened so the grinds can fall out directly onto the portafilter, with minimal wastage.

Despite Niche’s claims, some of the grinds are retained in the burrs, albeit a small amount of approximately 0.2g to 0.4g. These can be expelled by tapping the funnel with a cupped palm to generate a pressure wave. The grinds are weighed on the Acaia Lunar scale and the before/after weights are compared. In our espressos for the afternoon, we used beans which I roasted 4 days prior. The beans are a mix of 1/3 Colombia and 2/3 Brazil, roasted to a mid-second crack. A rather dark roast, which emphasizes body and mouthfeel, and has a chocolaty base with citrus notes.

After being delivered to the portafilter, the grounds are then leveled and tamped. Sufficient pressure is required in the tamp to ensure a solid bed of coffee, to provide a consistent resistance to the water pressure during brewing. Puck preparation is an essential and critical part of the espresso workflow.

Grinding, shaking, delivering the grounds to the portafilter, and tamping.

The Flair 58 is supplied with a Puck Screen, which goes on top of the prepared, tamped coffee bed. This screen ensures that water from the group head is evenly spread across the entire diameter of the puck. To prepare, the Flair 58 is set to pre-heat. We set it at the highest of 3 temperature setting options. Hot water is poured into the brew chamber as shown from the Fellows Kettle. The piston is re-engaged, and when ready, the lever lowered to start the espresso extraction.

And here is the only gripe we have on the Flair 58. Because it does not have an attached boiler, it is that is very difficult to maintain a high enough brew temperature for optimal extraction. Even set at the highest temperature, and delivering close to boiling water to the brew chamber, the shots we got were all cooler than the shots I get with my Electra Micro Casa a Leva, which has a 1.5l boiler attached to the brew head.

Opening up the piston assembly, filling the group head, re-engaging the piston. And pulling the espresso.

For this double espresso shot, I had ground 20g of beans, and extracted about 40g of espresso, for what is known as a 1:2 brew ratio – which is the classical textbook ratio for espresso. Shorter ratios, tending towards 1:1 are known as ristrettos, and longer than 1:3 is known as lungos.

The shot

Here is a video, showing the extraction. The supplied portafilter is what is known as “naked”, and allows a full view of the basket. Extraction can be observed. I did this pull, I can be heard on the video making comments on some of the pertinent extraction points. Brighty is also audible as he chips in with additional pointers as this was the first time I am using the machine.

For this pull, I started off with a pre-infusion of about 10s. This is done by lowering the lever till drops start to form, and pressure on the lever is released, and I just hold it in position for the duration of the pre-infusion. The gauge shows that the pressure is about 1.2 to 2 Bars at pre-infusion. The coffee is seen to start as a circle around the periphery, and gradually fills the entire surface of the basket. The pull then starts, by exerting 9 Bars of pressure on the lever, adjusting while watching the espresso flow. As we had prepared the puck properly, the flow is smooth, coming together in one single stream quickly. Rate of flow is good, and the entire extraction lasts for about 35s. No channeling was observed in this pull.

Concluding thoughts

I thought the espresso I pulled was rather good, though as noted, was a bit cooler than my expectations. The taste was consistent to what I tasted of the same beans on my espresso setup, with a totally different setup. As a reminder, this article has some insights on my home setup. The expresso was thick, rather syrupy, and have the base notes of the Brasil – nutty, chocolate mouthfeel, with a hint of citrus provided by the Colombia.

This was an enjoyable afternoon, spent pulling espressos. The setup is simple, but as noted, does not lack in sophistication. The components are well designed, and excellently built. And the resulting espresso, once one learns the rather steep curve of brewing by a manual machine, is rewarding. One will never order an espresso in a cafe again.

Photo Notes

The photographs were taken at Brighty’s home espresso bar. Fujifilm GFX 50S II, with GF 50, and Hasselblad HC 2.8/80 with H26 Extension Tube mounted via the H Adapter. Available light, and hand held. The video was done with an iPhone 8 Plus.

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