Whale Soup — or how to align your EK43

ek43

“Alignment. It’s the modern day quest for Moby Dick. Only without the revenge factor. And the sea. And an actual whale. There’s no Captain Ahab either, and alignment isn’t exactly a clear comparison between themes contained within a classical piece of literature and modern day mechanics. But besides that pretty much the same. Just with burrs. And no whale.”

— Hashtag Mythos Workflow

(NB: The video below was originally on my Instagram Story, so please forgive the portrait orientation)

Ingredients

1 x Flat head screwdriver

1 x Pliers

1 x Paperclip

3 x Feeler Gauges

1 x Bottle Isopropyl Alcohol

1 x Dishwasher Soap

1 x Whiteboard Marker

1 x Permanent Marker

Aluminium tinfoil or Aluminium Tape

Plastic containers (to store screws)

Microfibre cloths (I use around three)

Method

I always start my alignment by turning the dial all the way to the left, as coarse as it will go. I see this as good practice getting the burrs as far away from each other before we expose them. What the video doesn’t show is that I’ve also unplugged the grinder. I’ve seen enough horror movies in my time to never say “I’ll be right back,” “hello?”, or “who’s there?” — and I always unplug the grinder.

Once I take off the two front screws I make sure those screws are placed somewhere safe. It’s incredibly easy to forget where you put them and then spend half an hour freaking out. Or worse, you place them in a paper cup then throw the cup out and spend half an hour searching around in the skip out back … True story.

Though once you have the last screw loose you do have to be careful you’re holding the grinder housing lid carefully. At this point all that’s really holding it up is friction. Once it’s off I brush it clean then place to the side.

I use pliers to get the shear plate out, placing this with my screws. Still using pliers I carefully pull out the pre-breaker / burr carrier, setting it aside to clean later. If you have trouble removing the burr carrier you may need to apply some food grade lubricant to the burr carrier shaft to ease it back in when you reassemble.

Using a paper clip I attack the screw head slot of the three screws holding the stationary burr in, then carefully unscrew the burr loose. Again, I keep the screws in a safe place.

Taking a toothbrush, a liberal amount of dishwasher soap, some elbow grease, and hot water, I scrub the burr as clean as I can get it. Pay attention to the screw holes — coffee gunk can build up and become quite stubborn in there. With a microfibre I clean the burr dry (again paying attention to the screw holes as well) then leave on top of the espresso machine to completely dry out. You could use isopropyl alcohol, a toothbrush, then rub clean with a microfibre. This way you’ll skip past any potential problems with rust, but in over a year of ensuring I dry the burr thoroughly after each soap bath, I’ve not encountered any rust problems. Your mileage may vary. Your rust may too.

If your shop doesn’t have a shitty cheap vacuum cleaner then get one. Life becomes easier. And so does cleaning out the burr chamber of any grinder. So vacuum out the chamber, or spend twenty minutes brushing it out. There is a distance bush (weird name I know) on the tip of the motor shaft that could possibly be sucked up by the vacuum cleaner, so be careful with this too.

After I vacuum I spray a little isopropyl on a fresh microfibre, and wipe out the chamber fully. Leave no grinds behind.

Taking the first of three feeler gauges I separate out all the gauges collecting together those between 0.13 mm and 0.50 mm. The thickness between those two gauges fits perfectly between the outer burr and the inner ring of the burr chamber / grinder housing for my EK43. You may have to mess about with your set until you get the right thickness. The guiding principle here is the burr should not move at all once you’ve positioned three gauges equally apart in between the outer burr and inner ring of the burr chamber, with all three feeler gauges having the same thickness.

Before positioning the feeler gauges I always turn the burr as far counter-clockwise as it will go against the screws. Positioning the gauges on your own can be a pain so either lie the EK on a bench facing up, or rope in someone else to help. When you start tightening the screws make sure you tighten each a little at a time, like changing the tyres on a car.

Moving over to the removable burr carrier / pre-breaker I a use paper clip again to get any coffee crud out of the screw head, then remove the burrs. Once again place the screws somewhere safe.

Repeat the soap, brush, wipe, dry cycle with the burr. Wipe clean the removable burr carrier with isopropyl and a microfibre, setting aside on top of the machine to dry thoroughly.

In the video you’ll see I have some tape already on the underside of the burr (this ain’t my first rodeo) and what you see there is my attempt to show you where the tape lines up from the burr to the removable burr carrier. It makes much more sense to use a permanent marker, marking on the side of the removable burr carrier the spot you had the tape on the burr. I’m skipping ahead here slightly though so bear with me.

I have a second set of feeler gauges that truth be told were actually the first set I bought. I thought individual gauges of each singular set combined would have enough width to fit in between the stationary burr and the inner ring of the burr chamber, but they weren’t thick enough. Keep that in mind when you buy your own set. The 0.40 mm thick gauge however fits perfectly between the inner ring of the burr and the outer ring of the inner burr housing (not making sense? Look at the video). I used to use pink post it notes here, but times have changed. I’m all about feeler gauges now. I use the same technique though; three equally apart around the inner ring of the burr. Same deal with the screws; turn burr counter-clockwise, tighten each screw a little at a time.

This next part though is seriously the most difficult out of all of this. Up to now it’s hard to actually mess up; you’re really only following a recipe. But now you’ve got to exhibit a fair amount of patience, because  concentric alignment (what we’ve just done) is relatively easy. We have straightforward physical points we can align to. Co-planer alignment (what we’re about to do) requires us to build those physical points. And it’s a pain in the ass.

Watch this video closely. Matt has done an excellent job of showing how to do co-planer alignment for your EK. Essentially mark the removable burr with a whiteboard marker (not permanent) reassemble, take a screwdriver and turn the dial screw clockwise, right up to when you hear the burrs touching, or “chirping”. Where the burrs meet, they will rub off the whiteboard marker. Upon removing the burr carrier you’ll be able to see these points, and build up areas that weren’t rubbed off with tin foil, or for me, aluminium tape. This is where the permanent marker pen comes in handy (and what I was trying to show earlier with the tape marks). Wherever you place foil or aluminium tape on the burr, mark on the burr carrier where it lines up.

I use aluminium tape because I really can’t be assed doing co-planer alignment that often. What you don’t see in my video is the additional four times I removed the burrs, marked them, reassembled, zeroed, removed, added tape, marked, reassembled, zeroed, removed, added more tape, marked, reassembled, zeroed, screamed, zeroed, screamed again …  It requires a lot of patience, and ensuring you dampen down the rising fear that you’ve somehow fucked up. You haven’t — co-planer alignment just requires nerve and patience. Stay strong and keep at it. Aluminium tape can have some extra “squishiness” due to the adhesive, which is pretty much the only argument against using it instead of foil. I’m willing to take the risk simply for lack of repetition later on.

You could also then repeat the process with the stationary burr, but I’ve always been of the opinion you’re aligning the removable burr to the stationary burr. But if you want to be thorough then by all means go for it.

Once you’ve hit the level of alignment you’re happy with — and there seems to be a direct correlation between “level of satisfactory burr alignment” and “how long it takes to fucking align them” — you can at least check your zeroing of the burrs against Matt’s amazing audio guide to alignment level awesomeness here.

Once satisfactory alignment has been reached, you’ll need to re-calibrate your zero point and tighten the dial. I always throw a few doses through to see how they’re pouring. In a perfect world, if this is your first time aligning your burrs, you’ll either use the same setting you were using before on the dial, or turning it coarser to achieve the same flow rate. If your alignment sucks, you’ll be dialling finer instead — and be heading straight back to alignment jail, no passing “Go,” no collecting $200. It pays to be methodical in your preparation and execution, be patient, and to hold your nerve.

In my mind proper cleanliness and alignment of your burrs is really important. It’s another variable you can control, taking it out of the equation when diagnosing how best to get flavour into the cup. You don’t need any good luck — you just need to be methodical and patient, and this is within anyones reach.

But good luck all the same.

Michael Cameron

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