No, this section isn’t about Honeybees, Honey or Beekeeping. You can find plenty more of that here. This section is about my fascination – that is, obsession, with coffee. If you are looking for the section on replacing a Starbucks portafilter handle, search for “Salvage.”
Don’t want to read all this? Don’t.
The First One Is Always Free
Remember that when the barista in the airport smiles at you and says “You look like you are having a bad day. Take this.” With that I walked away on the darkest day of the year, in the airport in Seattle, drinking my first mocha. The first of many. Where I come from there are two types of coffee – Folgers and Maxwell House. For the uppity there was always the crème de la crème – Instant Coffee. From this my wife and I were transplanted to Seattle Washington. It was like being thrust into a coffee powered fusion reactor. We were quick converts to the Order of the Bean.
Worshipping the Green Goddess
We were hooked, hooked, I tell you. We went every day, sometimes two times a day. It was expensive, but we both felt there was no way to equal that rich black gold the barista produced. We tried, with the assistance of my parents (avid coffee drinkers).
“What you need to do is add more coffee,” said my dad. He brought a can of Maxwell house on the plane because coffee here tastes “bad.” “What you need to do is make it and then drink it the next day,” said my mom, who regularly drank the previous day’s coffee from the pot. We made a double strong pot and left it to simmer over night. The next day it was like a coffee yogurt, practically solid. “It’s good, isn’t it?” asked Mom.
As soon as their plane left we went to Starbucks.
Fast forward a few years, and change to the local thrift store. I’m holding a plastic and metal contraption that looks like something you’d find in a nursing home shoved up someone’s nose and making a weird hissing. My wife stared at it. “It’s only three dollars,” I said. We took it home that night. It didn’t have a brew switch. It didn’t have a steam switch. It didn’t have an on/off switch. You plugged it in and away it went, belching steam like the world’s only counter top carpet cleaner. I spooned in the coffee and locked it into place. One twist of the steam knob unleashed the howl of a demon and sent milk flying everywhere. I brushed it from my goggles (donned after the first time the thing erupted) and kept going. Close the steam knob and the machine began to hiss, to bubble, to breath. Suddenly it belched and heaved and vomited brown bile into my cup. I combined it with the milk and offered it to my wife. She took a drink. I took a drink.
We went to Starbucks.
Sometime that night, someone dropped the machine into the trash can. I won’t say who. I won’t say I’m sorry. The next day I went back and upgraded. I bought the nine dollar one. It was bigger. It was blacker. It was on-er and off-er. My wife regarded it as though I’d just set a dead skunk on the cabinet. “So what makes this different?” she asked.
“That just means it caught fire before, for all we know.”
“It has an on/off switch.”
“I think you better leave it in the ‘off’ setting. It’ll make better coffee that way.”
I brewed four cups, the last of which was so good my wife avoided spitting it on the cat. I didn’t. The black coffee maker went in the goodwill box that night, and I conceded defeat. I must be part French.
Pump it Up.
My defeat only lasted until I saw it on clearance. For just a hundred dollars I drug home a Krupps espresso machine with an open box and a portafilter full of brown sludge that I convinced myself was old coffee. Regardless of what anyone says the Krups is a good low end machine, far better than the Brevilles that cost so much more and look only slightly better. My wife was not amused while I set it up. She was not amused while I worked out which way the switch went. “There’s three switches. How hard could it be?” she asked. Finally I flipped the switch and watched as a golden brown espresso poured into my cup. Soy, Vanilla, Cinnamon were invoked in the magic ritual and I presented to her the offering.
“You know what you need to do?” She asked me.
“You need to practice. Make another, double with half the vanilla and use the light soy.” I went to work.
Free at Last
I outgrew the Krupps machine. I graduated to a beautiful Gaggia with major brew problems (since it cost fifteen dollars I could hardly justify the $45 element), and then to a Starbucks Barista machine that is serving me well despite my heavy use and abuse. Every morning begins with a session, and each afternoon probably has one too. We worship at the altar of the green goddess now, but it’s in our own home. The quality of the coffee leaves us unwilling to drink what they shell out. I’ve out grown you, Starbucks. We had a good thing for a while.
The Cult of the Cow
My wife and I are avid members of the cult of the cow. That means we take our espresso with milk, instead of drinking it raw, snorting it, or injecting it into our aortas like other junkies. In the coffee religion milk is a lot like grace – it covers a multitude of sins. With enough milk even Folgers tastes good. With enough milk I could probably drink motor oil. Soy and Milk, Vanilla and Hazelnut, we have it all. There’s a pleasure to making your own coffee, to sharing a cup of warmth. Now, if you don’t mind, the machine is nice and warm, the water tank is full, and the night air has me chilled.
I can fix that.
Starbucks Portafilter Salvage Operations
As the proud owner of a used Barista machine from Starbucks, I couldn’t help but beam with pride at the espresso it produced. The problem of course was in the portafilter. Starbucks’ portafilter handle narrows where it meets the brass head, unlike the Estro version. This is probably for asthetics but it makes for a weak spot, and my used Barista came with a portafilter that was heavily cracked. I needed a new basket (the previous owner did only pods) and screen (the black goo on the inside of the group head looked like it had bubbled up from La Brea. Since these all come in one package from Starbucks’ excellent warranty services, I ordered all of them together.
That left me with the old portafilter, which despite its cracked handle and tendency to clog still seemed fine, and that got me to thinking. A portafilter is basically brass and a handle, so why not just swap handles? The pressurized portion was clogging anyway, so I would do away with the plastic bits and bolt on a new handle, and use it unpressurized.
I’d like to point out that if you are the type of person who routinely modifies their toys this isn’t going to be terribly interesting to you. If you wouldn’t hesitate to say “Yeah, I could bolt on something else,” go read something else – this is a waste of your bandwidth.
If, however, you are the type of person who has a few tools but doesn’t take things apart for fun, who could follow instructions but wouldn’t necessarily go out and buy things just to cut up, stick around, hang on. Each step has a picture. Each step has a description. You too can modify your Starbucks portafilter to replace that nasty plastic handle. Let me warn you ahead of time – that pressurized portafilter is much more forgiving of coffee mistakes, so don’t do this if your portafilter is working, ok? If you have to purchase tools to do this it probably isn’t worth it. If, like me, you already have them then for $5 you can get a portafilter back into service.
War is Shell
The underside of your portafilter has three bolts, each with a metal sleeve that lets the handle slide slightly when you adjust pressurization. Flip the portafilter over and remove the three bolts and their sleeves.
Once the bolts are removed the black portion will lift away. Put the bolts back in the holes they came from to keep them safe.
Now you are looking at the pressurization portion of the portafilter. When the handle is turned the tiny plastic spike is forced toward or away from the hole in the portafilter metal body, varying pressure.
Place a flat screwdriver top under the edge of the white plastic and pry upward – the pressurization portion will pop right off, leaving you only the metal head with the inside insert.
Turning the head over, you can see the plastic insert inside.
With a Phillips screw driver, push the insert out from the underside, leaving you with only the metal head
Can you Handle That?
That wasn’t so bad, was it? Now flip it over and we can see what we need to work with.
We will make a metal handle to bolt to the three points there, with a large hole cut out in the center. Rather than make a handle from scratch, I decided to use something I could acquire easily – a putty knife. A three inch putty knife is the right width to form a good handle base.
Blade Your Woes Goodbye
Note that there are many styles and shapes of handle for this kind of knife – you care primarily about the blade. It should be thin, but not bendable at the base by the plastic. Don’t use a paper mud blade. The ideal handle is a cheap Chinese steel affair, the lower the quality steel the better because it won’t be as hard. Once you select the blade you will need to cut the mounting holes for the bolts.
To do this, I used permanent ink and inked the screw heads, then flipped it over and transferred it on to the blade. A rotozip cutting bit made quick work of producing three bolt holes (I could and did bolt the portafilter on to test it). You can also make the first hole with the rotozip, then enlarge it with a drill bit.
WARNING – The steel here is hardened and tends to dull/cut bits like they are butter. Use good quality bits, ear and eye protection, and cut slow.
Round is a Shape
With the portafilter head in place, trace the arc of the head on the knife blade. You’ll cut this piece off next, using either the rotozip or a sawzall if you are smart, leaving a stubby, rounded putty knife.
Next, trace out the inside path on the handle – you want to leave enough steel around the mounting points so that they will be strong, but cut away as much as possible (in case you decide to make the portafilter bottomless later). I did this free hand, but if I had to do it over again, I would use a jig to cut out the area. Get out the rotozip and go slowly through the blade.
Some Assembly Required
I snapped the insert back in for this picture when I was testing to see if it would extend past the blade. It does not, and I removed it later. Take the bolts out of the portafilter head and bolt it to your handle, you now have an unpressurized portafilter with a new handle. Clean it very, very well before you use it. These pictures are from my assembly phase, which was followed by a “cleaner & dishwasher phase” before I decided to let something that touched this enter my mouth.
Warning: Sharp Learning Curve
The unpressurized portafilter made me want to cry at first. Suddenly the grind and tamp were critical. I got over it, advanced the grinder from “Obliterate” to “Vaporize” and learned to tamp hard. You can do it too.
What Dreams may Come
I don’t have a spare head to play with but a 1 ¾ inch hole saw fits the outside edge of the portafilter perfectly. If I get one I’ll try and make a bottomless version. The metal on the head cuts very easily, so I think it’s perfectly feasible, but would make attention to having as little steel left in the center as possible absolutely necessary –