Make gourmet espresso on the cheap — even after the apocalypse

nate miller makes perfect espresso without electricity 16

When electricity runs out and the world descends into chaos, you’ll presumably be soaking whatever coffee beans your slave scrounged up in the runoff from a sewer crater. A properly roasted, ground and pressurized espresso will seem a distant luxury. But not so for Nate Miller, who has perfected off-the-grid, gourmet espresso.

Nate is an expert in “micro-living”. Aside from its obvious survivalist appeal, it offers the possibility of a high-end lifestyle on very little resources, leaving a small ecological footprint. This post will focus on his scheme for getting the top-notch espresso of a $1000+ home setup (typically: $300 roaster+$500 espresso machine+$250 grinder) for under $200, and without all that electricity. At the end of the post, we’ll talk about the wider implications of “micro-living” and take you into to Nate’s all-around amazing home.

As a long-time friend, I’m totally biased here, so I’ll let Nathalie Frank, a French gal who met him while backpacking across the US, back me up. “The coffee was amazing!” Nathalie says. “This guy has a beautiful art de vivre — homemade coffee, wines, cuisine, and a great love for city life.”

I’ve asked Nate guest blog his recommendations for off-the-grid, gourmet espresso partly as a window into a certain sliver of American culture (who says Americans never appreciate fine food and drink?), and partly because this espresso setup is fucking awesome, and we should all do likewise. (Unfortunately owning ANY equipment is not quite compatible with my presently unsettled, tiddly lifestyle, but someday soon…)


Enter Nate Miller:

Choosing Beans

The origin of your coffee makes a difference. There is a wide range of quality out there, but look for shade-grown coffee produced on volcanic soil. For the home roaster, Sweet Maria’s is the number one place to go for beans, equipment and advice.

If you forgo roasting yourself, find a local roaster that knows its stuff. I happen to work for a source in Chicago that I’m happy shamelessly plug: Misericordia. It’s actually a home for adults with developmental disabilities, but I run a workshop where we package coffee for our own label as well as for Crop to Cup, a company based in Chicago and New York that buys coffee pretty much exclusively from small family farms in rural east Africa. Crop to Cup invests in good relationships with their farmers, who often live in politically and economically unstable areas. They’re also areas with lots of rich volcanic soil, which creates some of the tastiest coffees around. My personal favorite of their offerings is a Ethiopia Sidamo; it’s from the birthplace of coffee and has really strong fruit notes.

Other roaster recommendations: they’re snooty, but Intelligentsia Coffee roasts a damn fine bean; and if like me you’re on Chicago’s northside try The Coffee Studio.

A stovetop roaster with a hand crank.
A stovetop roaster with a hand crank.


Fresh-roasted is the number one concern for the espresso nerd. About 2-3 weeks after roasting, the coffee begins to oxidize and lose much of its flavor and mouthfeel. Plus, with stale coffee you will have a heck of a time getting any decent crema (the layer of foam that tops a proper espresso). 

Of course you can buy freshly roasted beans, but to be truly in the spirit of off-the-grid micro-living, you will roast your own, thereby guaranteeing freshness for yourself and saving bundle of money. Paying $1 an ounce for roasted coffee doesn’t make a lot of sense if you can buy green beans for about $5 a pound and have extremely fresh coffee all the time. Coffee roasters enjoy a certain mysticism around their work that enables them to charge these prices, but roasting your own coffee is really not that difficult.

There are all kinds of high-tech electronic gizmos for roasting involving digital readouts and precise temperature controls. However, being an incorrigible cheapskate and luddite, I prefer the stovetop method. My first experiments with home roasting involved nothing more sophisticated than a wok and a wooden spoon. This method works, but it also makes YOU work. The key to having an even roast is constant agitation, you want to avoid burning one side of the bean while leaving another side incomplete.

For this reason, I decided after a few roasts to upgrade to a device called an aroma pot coffee roaster (sadly, it’s not currently available, but this is a good alternative). Its design is based on a 19th-century home roaster, from when farmers’ wives ordered green coffee from a catalog to roast at home.

Stovetop roasting should last roughly 15-20 minutes over medium-low heat and it is imperative that you actively agitate the beans the entire time. I find it is also necessary to occasionally shake the pan to redistribute the coffee. You will know that you are almost done when you hear a cracking sound, not unlike popcorn popping, and a small amount of smoke starts to appear.

They say you should have a hood vent above your stove. However, I don’t, and I find that the smoke is only minor annoyance. Turn off your smoke alarm and enjoy the wonderful smell. I recommend roasting before entertaining guests!

I always get the best shots from coffee that I roasted the day before (sometimes I get anxious and brew the same day as roasting but ideally it should have some rest time). 

The Grinder

The most frequently overlooked element of this process is the grinder.  Your standard electric rotary grinder will result in an uneven consistency. This means that when you apply hot water and pressure you will achieve what is called “channelling”; a mix of courser coffee and finer pieces will create a tiny delta inside your portafilter, forcing coffee quickly through the larger bits and not allowing it to infuse properly with the smaller ones. You will not get a nice even pour; it will sputter and probably pour too fast, resulting in a bitter, weak brew. You need a grinder that creates easily calibrated, extra fine, consistent coffee that will be infused uniformly and create a homogenous puck (the disk of grounds through which the espresso is forced). 

Since we’re staying off the grid we’ll skip the electric burr grinder (otherwise it’s a fine option). Instead we’ll go with the Hario Mill. These are hand-cranked Japanese ceramic coffee mills that can be adjusted to any fineness. They only run about $30-40. The slim model fits nicely right over the portafilter of the Presso, which is our next element.


presso-in-action-9The Machine

The Presso a 100% manual espresso machine that uses two hand levers to create the pressure needed for good extraction. While it doesn’t quite match a good italian machine, you can pull a nice shot with good crema from this thing, and it will only set you back about $150.

As with any unfamiliar espresso machine, there will be a learning curve. With the Presso it is no different; there are several tricks to get the most out of your Presso. The first and probably most important is to overfill the reservoir, so as to get the maximum available pressure. I have seen elaborate hacks to adjust for this, involving widdling your own custom widget to insert in the reservoir, but I find this unnecessary. Just fill the reservoir to the top rather than to the suggested fill lines on the plunger and you will achieve a significant improvement in pressure.

I would also recommend priming. Start with a dry run using the hottest boiling water you can get. This heats up the machine so it is ready to pour a nice shot.

As you use this setup, you will learn how to adjust your grind and the pressure you use on the levers to pull a decent shot. Too fine a grain will clog the portafilter, too course will cause the shot to pour too fast.

One thing I love about the Presso is its simplicity. Everything on can be taken apart by the consumer and easily replaced. (I cracked a plunger once when I was getting a little too ambitious with the pressure and when I ordered a new one online I was contacted by a customer representative who noticed I had just bought my Presso a few months before; he bounced the charge and gave the part to me for free.)

The Presso’s instruction manual is worthless, by the way. I would recommend checking out the many blogs on how to get the most out of the machine, and is always a good resource for general caffeinated geekery. 


My Micro-Palace

I’ve managed to fit a queen-sized bed, a fully equipped kitchen and dining area, an office, artist’s loft and living area for my girlfriend and I in one 12’x15′ room with a 9′ ceiling (the kitchen, squeezed underneath our bed, is pictured at the top of this post). We have a decent library of books and DVD’s as well as a respectable collection of vinyl. I’ve got my espresso setup in the kitchen. Under the counter I keep four three-gallon fermenters for making my own beer, wines and hard ciders. There’s a full sized Yamaha keyboard in my office that’s mounted on a hinge so it can hide behind my desk (which is on casters) when not in use. My girlfriend uses our three windows to grow herbs and we are excited to have a go at cultivating mushrooms on a log suspended over the doorway this autumn. We keep our fridge stocked with home-cooked meals made up of organic ingredients (I was a professional cook in a previous life and have recently started a one-man catering service), and I pretty much always have a cranberry wine or hard cider on tap to help me unwind from a long day.

I once spent some time living on a 100%-off-the-grid farm in Costa Rica. It was a seven-mile hike from the nearest gravel access road and we had a little Coleman solar panel that could power a 40-watt lightbulb for approximately 3 hours. It taught me a lot about what is really necessary to live a good life.

I am convinced that while all of humanity need not go to quite such extremes as these, conservation is the key to our future survival on this planet. The rate at which we have been using non-renewable resources for the last 60+ years is criminal, so I try to enjoy life while using a little bit less of those resources.

More on Nate Miller and micro-living can be found at his blog.

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