Home Espresso Machine Mini-FAQ V 2.0

by David Bogie

© Copyright 1995, 1996, David Bogie
Reprinted with permission.


I'm not in the coffee business but I teach espresso appreciation and preparation to others, amateurs and professionals alike. Having developed a taste for straight shots as a kid, I take my espresso seriously. There are oceans of terrible coffee served everyday that innocent consumers mistakenly refer to as "espresso" and I'm on a mission to improve the situation.

Definition of ESPRESSO:

Francesco Illy, in his magnificent "Book Of Coffee," calls espresso a remarkably complex liquid. It is at once a solution of sugars, caffeine, acids, and protiens; a suspension of particles of coffee beans and minute bubbles of gas; an emulsion of oils and colloids --- all concentrated into a small volume and covered with a light brown colored foam known as "crema."

True espresso, as defined in the trade, requires a precise weight of finely ground coffee (about 7 grams) to be tightly tamped into a filter holder so that hot water (between 88 and 92 degrees C) moving under at least nine atmospheres (bars) of pressure will take approximately 20 to 30 seconds to extract one fluid once of liquid.

Failure to meet any of these critical factors can ruin espresso, producing insipid, runny, or lifeless coffee.

Steam-driven coffee makers, including the Italian-style "moka," a slim-waisted, stovetop device, with practice, will produce excellent strong coffee. But since they cannot generate the minimum pressure required to dissolve colloids and gasses, they simply do not produce true espresso.

Learning how to cope with variations in bean freshness, relative humidity and the peculiarities of your chosen machine will allow you to produce spectacular espresso upon demand.

Mini FAQ: Home Espresso Machines

Q: What kind of machine should I buy for home use?

A: The short answer is, "Don't buy a machine over the holidays." I'm not kidding. Espresso is a culinary skill. Learning how to run a high quality espresso machine will take time and practice. They are complicated devices. Most people who buy espresso machines for home are disappointed to discover how difficult good espresso is to make.

And if you have purchased a lousy machine, making espresso will be impossible. One of the worst things you can do is buy a lousy machine for someone you love who takes their espresso seriously.

Q: Bull. What kind of machine should I get?

A: Buy a pump-powered machine. Do not buy a steam driven toy. Do not buy one of those "lever" machines either.

Q: Thanks. What's a "pump" and how much does one cost?

A: True espresso requires pressure. At least 9 atmospheres to emulsify the oils and to dissolve the gasses that will magically appear as "crema." Steam machines only produce two or three atmospheres. Any more than that and they'd blow up. There are two general styles of pump-driven machines: Those that heat water in a boiler; and those that use some type of heat exchanger, often referred to as a "thermal block." Good pump driven machines for home use can be expensive, say, $200 to $1,500. There are more than 200 models on the market from more than 20 different manufacturers. With that many options, how can you possibly make up your mind without doing lots of research? There *are* pump machines available for less than $100. But don't buy one of these based on cost alone. Buy one because you tried it and you like the coffee it makes.

Q: Fine. What else do I need to know?

A: Well,

Q: Like what?

A: These cool toys will add fun, flair, and a little class to your coffee bar. Naturally, you can do without these accoutrements and lower cost subsititutes can easily be found. (Items are not listed in any particular order of importance)

  1. Demitasse cups and little bitty spoons: $20 to $50 for set of four (The spoons are actually practical. The first few cc's of properly made espresso are thicker than the rest of the liquid. Stirring homogenizes the straight shot.)
  2. Burr (not blade) grinder: $100 to $500
  3. Airtight storage for fresh beans: $10
  4. Tamper (wood, cast aluminum or machined stainless steel) : $5 to $10
  5. Lots of bad coffee to practice with: $30
  6. Lots of superb coffee to enjoy: $30
  7. Steel steaming pitcher: $10 to $15
  8. Flavor syrups: $15 for two or three
  9. Decalcifying and cleaning supplies (Towels and sponges used for espresso can't be used for much else. Vinegar is acceptable for some -- but not all -- machines as a decalcifying agent.): $10
  10. Couple of good coffee books: $40

Q: Anything else you wanna tell me?

A: Home machines will not allow you to play "Pretend Espresso Cart." A phenomenon known as "dwell time" requires the machine to recover temperature and steaming power between servings.

Home machines just can't put out the volume of "dry" steam that professional machines do. Frothing milk is another technique you will need to practice before performing in public. It can take you a half hour to serve six complicated espresso-and-milk drinks, making them one at a time, to six dinner guests.

As your skill level and familiarity with your equipment increases you'll be able to crank out latte's and cappucino like a pro.

Espresso is messy. Really. If your significant other likes a tidy kitchen your relationship may not survive a home espresso machine.

One of your countertop appliances must die. A machine and a grinder take up about two square feet of space and can draw from 10 to 20 amps of electricity.

Again, it is my humble opinion, based on years of teaching other newbies about coffee and espresso, that you will be happier if you *do not rush out* and buy a machine for yourself or for your loved ones this Christmas.

Think of some of the other home appliances you have invested in and how carefully you researched them before making your purchase decision.

Hang out in coffee newsgroups for several weeks (or even several months) before investing in your espresso machine. Send for catalogs and watch for other people to post reviews of their machines. Watch the baristas do their thing at your favorite coffee bar (don't forget to tip them!). If you know someone with a home machine insist on playing with it.

Please send comments and suggestions to David Bogie

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