The company that I got the machine from often also sends along a bonus gift pack including some pre-ground espresso coffee that they feel is the best option if you don't have a grinder. Since I bought the machine on a super sale, and didn't wait until I had the money to buy a super-good grinder, too, I started my experiments with this coffee. I am not very picky about my espresso, since I add a bunch of milk and caramel syrup to it, so I was optimistic going in.
Now, espresso is coffee made by pushing water through a compacted bit of finely ground coffee at approximately 9 bars of pressure. In theory, the finer the grind, and the harder the tamp, the longer it will take for the water to get through the coffee. I'll spare you the details, but one is given a guideline for how much liquid you should get in a certain amount of time, and this is how you figure out what the right grind is and how hard it should be tamped.
My first shots were very fast and watery. Since I couldn't grind any finer (no grinder) I tamped harder. Next shot: still fast. I tamped harder: still fast. I added more coffee, and tamped as hard as I could. No matter what I did, I couldn't get the shots to come any slower. Dang.
Plan B: use the grinder at the grocery store. On Wednesday I went to Whole Foods, where they roast their beans fresh, and got some of the freshest variety they had and ground it to the finer of two espresso grinds on their machine. I also went to a Kroger and tried to grind some coffee there, but that was a joke. The grinder not only didn't grind very finely, it ground very unevenly. I tried re-grinding it, but it didn't make much difference. Now, using the Whole Foods coffee, my shots were very slow and long. Still not acceptable, but at least I was having a new problem. I tried very lightly tamping, and barely tamping at all, but I think it was so fine it was clogging the filter. It felt like progress anyway.
My next attempts gave the best results yet. I put a layer of the coarser grounds in the bottom of the filter, and then put the finer coffee on top. This way I could get the flavor and fineness of the Whole Foods coffee, with the original coffee acting as a filter to keep the machine's filter open. The flavor wasn't the best, but I was getting a good time and volume, and semi-ok crema (the brown foamy layer on the top). If only Whole Foods was closer, and it wasn't Christmas: I figured the coarser espresso setting on their grinder would be perfect.
In the meantime I did some searching around the internet for people who might have had similar problems. No dice, but I did find an Intructible for hacking a Cuisinart burr grinder to grind finely enough for espresso for a lot less money than a high-quality grinder. The wheels started turning. I headed to Whole Foods again last night, and purchased some more coffee and ground it at the coarser setting. I also stopped at Biggs and, on a whim, dropped by the small electrics department. They had a Melitta burr grinder on clearance for $20. They had a display model out, and it seemed I could make the same adjustments as were made to the Cuisinart. What the heck? Twenty bucks is worth a try to save the $300 a "real" grinder would be. It's not that well built (in hacking it I found that coffee grounds seem to just migrate all over the insides of it) but it might stave off the larger purchase, I thought.
Arriving home, I gave the Whole Foods coffee a try. And another. And another. Alas! It was too coarse! I needed something in between the two settings. Arrgh!! I was running out of options very quickly.
So, I looked up the grinder on the interwebs and sure enough, one of the first things I found was a review on Amazon describing how to adjust it to grind finely, and it didn't require much work at all. Just a few screws and a gear turn, and it was done. It took two tries, but now it grinds perfectly, and even grinds too finely at the highest setting. I may have to adjust it back so that it will grind a wider range.
I didn't have any whole beans, and trying to grind the too-coarse grounds didn't work too well, so it took another trip to another grocery store, but just about an hour ago I pulled an only-slightly-too-long shot (easily remedied next time) and as I poured my latte, I accidentally made a heart!
All's well that ends well!