Thanks guys. I will also eventually scout the local roasters but for value Red Bird seems hard to beat if I want to use a lot to dial in the machine. And I had always wanted to try it, anyway, so I see a 5 pound bag in my near future.
Took a page out of rahimlee's playbook and picked up a 5 lb bag from a fairly new local roaster/ coffee shop about 2 months ago. The price was higher then Red Bird, but a bit less than CC. Flavor intensity sits in between those two; has a decent amount of chocolate and citrus. Company is swingscoffee.com.
A blend I like is Redline from Metropolis. Their prices are decent and shipping is free if you spend 50 bucks (4lbs). There is loads of chocolate, particularly at finer grinds and lower doses.
WDT FTW! I tightened the grind a little (now 1-E, or five clicks from the finest), stirred and distributed, tamped to 35 lbs and let her rip. The result? One of the best cups I've ever brewed at home. The dark streams came together after about 8 seconds into a fine cone, followed by beautiful striping. 32 seconds to 50 ml with no channeling or micro-jets, and it was heavenly!
FWIW, I find Red Bird to be very smooth yet plenty interesting. True, it's not like the Black Cat of yore, but it has lots of subtle notes, great fruit or berry sweetness and excellent mouth feel. It makes great crema, though I find that the crema doesn't last anywhere near long enough for some reason, even three days off the roast. Then again, IC's prices have gotten insane, have you shopped them lately? For the price ($50 for five pounds, shipped) and Jeff's great customer service, it's truly hard to beat Red Bird.
Unfortunately, all the local roasters are out to lunch. Either they base their prices on IC's, or they produce a bland, uninspired Illy/Lavazza knockoff that is marketed specifically to the large, under-informed but patriotic Little Italy community here. Every time I discuss coffee with a local of Italian descent, they always say, "Have you tried 'Prima Goccia'? It's what I buy." Blech.
Thus my choices are rather bad: either spend silly money for good coffees like Black Cat, Saint Henri's God Shot or Pilot's Big Bro, or buy five pound bags of Red Bird, divvy it up into 8-oz packs (yes, I vac seal and freeze them) and deal with the consequences. I split a bag with my mom, and can go through my three pounds in about a month.
Great that your shots are turning out. I know when I started to get them tuned in that suddenly I made a very wise investment. I rarely go out now for coffee, but I will search or go to a few great places (around the world) just to search them out. It is like fine wines, or spirits where they are all different but good.
Here I only have one good roaster, but Berlin Bonanza Coffee Hero's does one of the Best coffees anywhere in the world with awesome machines. Used to be a Synesso then they moved up to the Kees Van Der Western Spirit http://keesvanderwesten.com/spirit-pictures.html. Also there is a great roaster in Hamburg.
The picture I linked was on espresso almost a month old, so you should not be loosing crema that fast. Perhaps its time you became the next famous local roaster ;)
Maybe I should come over to try them! I need some parts for my little smart fortwo cabrio, and have found them in Duisburg, Berlin and Stuttgart at less than half the price I can get them here!
For what it's worth, I am the same way: when I travel, I seek out the best local third wave coffee establishments, like Barista Jam in Hong Kong or Alen's Espresso in Brisbane.
Personally I been considering trying my luck at the roasting also, but so far I have not made the commitment.
I was able to almost choke the Silvia/VST 22 this morning with Red Bird (11 days off roast) with a setting of 1-C and 30 lbs tamp. 43 seconds to 50 ml, but really nice striping and good, lasting crema.
I ordered a full kit of goodies to mod the Silvia last night: liquid-filled pressure gauge and fittings, PID, SSR and thermocouple, silicone insulation for the boiler, group head and steam pipe, a new shower screen... I will also try to mute some of the noise it creates, using Dynamat Extreme and some foam soundproofing, both of which I already have from a long-ago automotive project. Along with the new cowling and a v.3 steam knob (for looks), I think this will be the last money I put into my coffee habits for quite some time.