exploding espresso (or, why to clean your machine)

As we’re training staff for our new cafe, the first thing we do when we walk up to the espresso machine is to clean it. We backflush with detergent, we clean water backflush, we scrub the filters and screens and soak them in detergent, we clean the steam wands… The whole shebang.

This is my staff’s first introduction to the world of a La Marzocco Strada. Not pulling a shot, not steaming milk. Maintenance. I try to pound it into their heads how important it is for them to clean their machine, comparing it to changing the oil in their car and talking about buildup.

In the back of my mind, I’m remembering my Capanna days.

Scooped cappuccino from Capanna

Only a couple of months after I started working at Capanna (my first coffee experience), our espresso machine broke.

That may be the understatement of the coffee world.

Our steam wand stopped working one day – at first it would steam, then it would fizzle, and eventually it just died. So, we could make iced drinks, just not hot. Unbeknownst to us poor baristas, the pressure kept building up in the boiler.

Jess was on register, Claire was barback, and I was pulling shots. All of the sudden, there was an explosion of steam and perhaps smoke that shot above the espresso machine. I found myself darting around, trying to find a safe place, while the entire restaurant stood up and backed up towards to doors. Eventually I found myself on the far side of the cafe, huddling with Claire and Jess as we watched our poorly-maintained espresso machine simmer away.

It was our manager’s first day off in two weeks, so I felt awful having to call her.

“We’re all okay,” I started. “But the espresso machine just… guys, how would you describe it? Exploded. The espresso machine just exploded, Hiba.”

Hiba showed up shortly later, touching all of our arms as if to make sure we were okay. Like the rockstar she was, she was able to borrow a portable single-group espresso machine from a friend while sorting out how to get us a replacement machine so we could continue operating.

When the new machine arrived, a lovely Nuova Simonelli Aurelia that I promptly dubbed “Henry” and Hiba argued his name was “Darcy Fitzgerald”, she ensured that each one of us knew how to properly clean it so nothing like that would ever happen again.

So now, as I prepare my baristas to use a machine with the same pump as a Blackhawk helicopter, I, too, try to teach them to treat it with the respect it deserves.

Because exploding espresso machines are not exactly the greatest way to start your day. Just sayin’.


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