In my last post on converting my portafilter to bottomless, and embarking on my first adventure with an unpressurized basket, I mentioned how the 51mm tamper didn’t quite fit in the basket all the way. I had a 49mm tamper so I ended up using that, but the problem was getting a level tamp since the 49mm tamper would push down further than the 51mm, but didn’t quite seal around the edges of the basket so there was always a skinny ring of un-tamped grounds around the tamper. I was never quite happy with this setup, so I ended up enlisting a friend to CNC the bigger 51mm tamper down to 49.5mm, but I still had a hard time getting a level, even tamp, so I ditched that tamper and started looking around.
Digging around the net, I stumbled across IMS brand baskets. From the Whole Latte Love description, “IMS, or Industria Materiali Stampati, is an Italian company founded by Nullo Dandolo Monti in 1946. From the heart of Pavia, Italy, the IMS mission is to bring their four generations of metalcraft experience to the art of coffee.” Four generations of metalcraft goes into this little baskets! In other words, this basket would probably perform better than the cheap no-name basket I previously had which didn’t fit my 51mm tamper right anyway
Soon after I began making espresso shots on my newly-repaired Breville 800esxl, I went down a rabbithole of coffee Youtube, and discovered the likes of James Hoffman and Lance Hedrick making espresso shots that looked nothing like mine. Not only that, I kept seeing these beautiful video shots of coffee dripping out of their portafilter in a mesmerizing waterfall of syrupy-looking coffee goodness. HOW?! And why?
The espresso coming out of my machine and portafilter looked nothing like that! Turns out, it’s for two reasons:
My machine came with a pressurized portafilter basket (the steel basket that holds the coffee grounds) meaning the coffee all comes out of a single pinhole in this steel basket.
my portafilter has a bottom that hides the bottom of the portafilter basket, and instead has two holes so espresso can run into two separate espresso glasses.
There’s an enormous different in pressurized vs unpressurized portafilter filter baskets, and the long and short of it is that pressurized baskets are newbie-friendly because they don’t require the super-fine coffee grind to create pressure and pull an “espresso.” This is why all entry level home espresso machines like this one come with pressurized filter baskets. On the other hand, with a non-pressurized filter basket, there are many holes on the bottom, and the only way to build pressure against the coffee without a pinhole is to grind the coffee super-fine and super-consistent. And it turns out, as I’ve learned, coffee grinders that can grind to an espresso-level of fineness is NOT CHEAP. Here I was, thinking my $90 OXO coffee grinder was fancy, and meanwhile, I’m learning on r/espresso that folks are dropping $1-2k on a grinder alone. Holy moly!
Turns out having a naked, “bottomless” portafilter can help in espresso training and extraction troubleshooting, so it’s super useful for a newbie like me to have a visual on the quality of my espresso shots. There are several characteristics of this waterfall that tell you about how well you’re pulling your espresso, apparently. And since this new hobby is a learning exercise for me, I was all in.
The second thing I had to do was convert my portafilter to bottomless. I could have bought one of the many 3-wing 51mm ones on amazon, but decided I was just going to buy a 2″ drill bit and drill out the bottom of the one I have myself.
So now that I had an unpressurized basket and a bottomless portafilter, I realized there was a third piece to the puzzle of pulling an espresso shot with an unpressurized basket that I didn’t need to worry about so much before: the need for a MUCH finer grind size.
One thing I had yet to figure out is a good tamper size. The problem with the 800ESXL is that it has a 50mm/ 51mm portafilter size which is smaller than the commercial standard, and even smaller than the 54mm size that all the new Breville machines use. I had a 49mm tamper, which worked, but still left a gap between the pressed part and the edge of the portafilter. So I set out for a better solution…
Ever since the start of the pandemic, I’ve missed taking trips to my local cafe, where I’d sit down and enjoy a latte made from the barista’s seemingly magical operation of the mysterious espresso machine, where a series of knocks, hisses, and whirls resulted in a delicious beverage placed on the counter with a beautiful leafy milk foam artwork. While my daily drip coffees made at home were sufficient for my daily caffeine kick, I started to miss the whirl and buzzing of espresso machinery, and variety of milk drinks a cafe brought to my life.
One thing you should know about me is that I’m a tinkerer by nature, and had a 15-year career in computer repair and IT support that began as a kid when I began picking apart, breaking, and repairing the family computer. So I’m not afraid to dig into electronics and break stuff before repairing it. Sometimes, the challenge to repair things is irresistible.
I have to admit I knew nothing about espresso machines, how espresso is made, and how they worked, so step one was to do some googling, which is how I stumbled across this “Repair Notes for the Breville 800ESXL” , an entire website in 1996-style-HTML dedicate to repairing the exact Breville machine I had. And so the troubleshooting began…
When I turned the machine on for the first time, the lights and everything whizzed up as expected. With a full water tank, I began playing with the buttons.
Switching the center knob from “off,” to “pull a shot” mode would cause piping hot water to shower down from the group head where espresso shots were coming. Awesome. Using grounds from my coffee grinder, an OXO burr grinder, I made my first cup of “espresso.” next, I grabbed my carton of oat milk to see if I could get the steam wand working.
Switching the knob to “steam” mode was where things got interesting. I could hear the pump vibrating on and off, maybe about twice per second, and after the heating light stopped flashing, a few drips of hot water came out of the steam wand, then only a very gentle steam came out of the wand. Gentle as in shushing someone in a library, not like a forceful blow-out-a-birthday-candle high pressure kettle steam I was expecting. Hmmmm.
I tried keeping the knob on steam mode and hitting the hot water button, and that’s when hot water would come out of the steam wand in full force. The water was very hot, and came out so forcefully it was spraying everywhere!
One thing that I found strange at first was that toggling back and forth between hot water (which was clearly working) to steam mode (via the buttons, not the knob) would seem to activate full-blast hot steam, but only for 5-10 seconds, before the pressure seemed to delate completely, and the steam would burp out at a weak whisper.
Troubleshooting steam problems
Having discovered the 800esxl repair bible on siber-sonic.com, I started following some of the troubleshooting steps, especially the ones related to “weak steam” which seemed like low-hanging fruit.
I followed the descaling steps above, thinking maybe there was a blockage due to calcium scale build-up. After-all, who knows how old this machine was and if its previous owner ever bothers cleaning the calcium build up on the inside?
I went through several tanks of a 1:1 vinegar-to-water solution to flush out the insides. No change in sad steam wand.
Then I got a descaler solution off Amazon people seemed to like. At one point the liquid coming out of the solution was full of gunk, and yielded several cups of black and brownish water. Yuck. Then the steam wand seemed to a jump into full blast at times. I seemed to be making progress!
I ran about 8 cycles of descaler and clean water until the water come out of the group head and steam wand was completely clear of pee-color or pond-color.
Alas, after about 6 tanks of descaling using vinegar solution, descaler, and even lime juice. I was still having weak steam most of the time whenever I turned the steam wand on.
I thought that maybe the machine was so gunked up on the inside and that the only way to get all the gunk out was to take the entire inside apart and clean with a brush and more descaler So that’s what I did.
I took the heating block apart and to no-one’s suprise, there was still a ton of calcium buildup even after all that descaling, so with the thermoblock apart, I poured a puddle of straight vinegar on the upper and lower blocks and let it soak for a few hours.
After letting the vinegar soak I scrubbed the inside with a plastic brush and got as much calcium buildup off as I could. The result looked much better.
After stiching the machine back up and flushing with vinegar once more, I turned the knob to steam and….
Weak burps of steam were still coming out! 😦
Having seemlingly exhausted all the troubleshooting steps related to descaling and mechanical issues, I moved onto troubleshooting the electrical stuff.
“Site correspondent Mark F. went through all the decalcification cleaning and valve work described in the sections linked above, with no improvement. He eventually found success by cleaning the contacts on the microswitch to the left (when facing the front of the machine) of the flow selector knob, e.g. this one:”
I was at a point that sounded a lot like where Mark F. was, so I went after cleaning some of the contacts of the microswitch to the left of my flow selector knob….except, in the process of pulling the quick-connect contact off the microswitch, I completely cracked and obliterated the plastic housing of the microswitch. F@#$%^&##!!!!!!
I searched online for a suitable replacement, but couldn’t find the exact thing, so I decided to put my JB-weld to use, and carefully was able to piece the entire microswitch back together with JB weld, using a rubber band to clamp everything together overnight.
After gluing the housing back together and making sure all contacts were clean, and re-assembled the switch onto the machine and reconnected the blue wires to the switch.
The knob and switch still worked as expected when switching to steam mode, but even after all that, I was still getting sad, weak, inconsistent steam. 😦
Motor burnout and a breakthrough
Contemplating my life decisions and next steps, I left my machine on steam for a bit, and noticed something else odd: a very slight burning smell. I removed the top since I still had everything unscrewed, and noticed a new, alarming problem: whisps of smoke coming from the pump….but not just smoke, something that looked like a hot, red spark coming from a hole in the pump’s housing!