Espresso FAQ

Home Espresso FAQ

(This document was originally found on the alt.coffee newsgroup, it was written by David Bogie and appears here without anyone’s permission.  I’ve reformatted it for more comfortable viewing with an html browser, it was previously in a text-only format).


Greetings Seekers,
In the March, 1996, issue of Fresh Cup magazine columnist Darcy Varney quotes Phillip Janssen (author of the excellent “Espresso Quick Reference Guide”) predicting that, by the turn of the century, one-half of all American households will own an espresso machine. This is a potential market of more than 50 million units. Small wonder the appliance manufacturers of the world are trying to get you to buy their products!
The alt.coffee & alt.food.drink.coffee newsgroups are often crowded with questions about espresso machines for home usage. The traffic in such inquiries gets especially heavy around Christmas time. I post this MiniFAQ to help fend off this flood. Please read this document and do yourself (and the rest of the newsgroup regulars) the favor of exploring the archives at DejaNews before posting your questions. Take a field trip to your local library and check out everything on the subject of coffee.
Past readers of this document have accused me, in jest, I trust, of trying to terrify the innocent; of attempting to scare the dickens out of espresso newbies by portraying the cuisine as messy, inconvenient, and a potentially dangerous kitchen science. My intent, of course, is to demonstrate that espresso at home can be as intimidating as your first souffle’ or as wonderfully satisfying as a well-crafted omelet.
Read on. Well, stop reading this online and download it. Print it and take it with you to your kitchen.
Before I answer your Frequently Asked Questions, allow me to inquire of you, dear reader, about your reasons for wanting to add an espresso machine to your stable of kitchen appliances.
Have a look around and open a few cabinets. Where have you hidden your feeble, the ineffective, and trendy culinary baggage? Where are the impulse purchases you have made late at night watching those stupid infomercials. Where are the useless gadgets you’ve received from people who don’t cook? You know, where are all those devices that promised to make your meals nutritious and delicious; the toys that promised to simplify the drudgery of food preparation: yogurt maker, pasta extruder, ice cream system, food processor, dehydrator, bread maker, flour mill, juicer, waffle iron, corn popper, sausage stuffer, on and on.
Look, I can save you five hundred dollars! Just be honest with yourself. If your kitchen is filled with the ghosts of appliances you used only once and then forgot you do not need an espresso machine. You won’t even like having one in your kitchen. You don’t need to read this document. Save your money. Buy something important like a new set of tires or take your squeeze out for sushi. Here are few more questions you need to answer honestly. Why do you think you want an espresso machine? What do you know about espresso? Do you want to make cappuccino like they do at Cafe Rialto? Or is espresso an ingredient, merely a coffee flavoring to be blended with hot milk and sweetened syrups? I don’t mean to dismiss your tastes in espresso out of hand but a cheap pump or steam-powered machine is entirely adequate for your needs. You don’t need to read the rest of this document. Make a quick run to WalMart, put your $50 on the counter, and you’re done.
Do you love your espresso? I mean, REALLY love it? Are you a fanatic about it? A hopeless snob? Do you piss off your friends when you go out for coffee? Do you take your espresso straight? A double ristretto? Do you want that ephemeral taste sensation in the comfort of your own home? Do you want it whenever you feel like it? Then you will need all of the information I am going to give you — and much more — in your pursuit of “espresso perfetto,” the perfect espresso.
Are you giving a machine as a gift? What makes you think the giftee wants to be saddled with the upkeep of what you think is a cool gift? Does he or she have the patience to care for an espresso machine and learn how to operate it? Do you know that the giftee enjoys their espresso straight? If so, are you prepared to spend the appropriate amount of money on a machine that is capable of satisfying their passion for coffee or are you just looking for a cheap way to impress them? Hey, get them whatever you think you can afford but save yourself some future embarrassment and include the store receipt so the giftee can return it without involving you.
How weird is espresso at home? Go hang out at your favorite coffee bar for a few hours. Find a comfy seat where you can watch the action at the espresso machine. So, what do you think? Are you sure you want to bring some of this weirdness into your kitchen?




Bogie’s MiniFAQ CONTENTS (v6.0 September,
1998):

  • C. Avoid The Steam-Powered Toy
  • D. The Miniature Collection of FAQs
  • E. Closing Disclaimer


  • A. Opening Disclaimer:
    There are oceans of incredibly bad coffee served everyday in America. Unskilled operators and innocent consumers mistakenly refer
    to this grunge as “espresso.” I’m on a mission to improve this culinary tragedy.

    As a child I developed a taste for straight shots of espresso while my parents were stationed at an Air Force base in Europe. I take my espresso seriously. Shoot, ask my coworkers. I’m insufferable on the subject. No one will go out for coffee with me. I’m not in the coffee business.

    This MiniFAQ document has been assembled after several years of experimenting with dozens of home machines and reading everything on the subject on which I can get my hands. In pursuit of the latest espresso information I’ve paid my own way to attend coffee trade shows and conventions. However, I’d gladly consider an offer from an underwriter or sponsor. In the document that follows, I’ve tried to indicate where my personal opinions cross the line of objectivity. I’ve tried to be thorough but you’re not going to learn everything about espresso and espresso machines here. You will not find recommendations for brands or models of machines in this document. No way, folks. You make up your own minds. As a result of reading this document it is my sincere hope that you will make your purchase decision wisely only after you have shopped carefully, asked difficult questions of sales people, and demanded hands-on demonstrations of all the units you are considering.

    I don’t make recommendations because my tastes and requirements probably don’t match yours. Besides, the market is continuously changing, new machines and revisions to old standbys are entering the market all the time. I have no problem informing the attentive reader which machine I currently own. Keep reading, you’ll find it.

    There’s a short Espresso Bibliography at the bottom of this document. A separate document containing the fax numbers of dozens of home espresso equipment manufacturers is posted every now and then to the coffee newsgroups by Usenet participant and coffee roaster Barry Jarrett.

    I enjoy receiving suggestions on how to improve this MiniFAQ. I cheerfully ignore criticism so don’t bother. E-me: bogiesan@aol.com

    Here we go …


    B. Definition of ESPRESSO:
    Francesco Illy, in his magnificent “Book Of Coffee,” calls espresso a romantic, remarkably aromatic, and complex liquid. It is at once a solution of sugars, caffeine, acids, and proteins; a suspension of tiny 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.”

    David Schomer, owner and operator of Espresso Vivace!, Seattle WA, calls espresso “a polyphasic colloidal foam made by forcing pressurized brewing water through finely ground, tightly packed coffee.” That about sums it up. Interestingly, Mr. Schomer is also known to say, “Forget espresso at home!”

    A single shot of “True Espresso,” as defined in the specialty coffee trade, requires a precise weight of finely ground coffee (7 grams) to be tightly packed (tamped) into a filter holder so that hot water (not-quite-boiling water, between 195 and 205 F — 88 and 92 degrees C; boiling water or steam will utterly incinerate coffee’s delicate essences), moving under at least nine atmospheres of pressure (at least 130 pounds per square inch — or some unknown number of ergs, Newtons, Joules or kiloPascals), will take 20 to 30 seconds to extract exactly one fluid ounce of the magical liquid.

    When everything is working perfectly, espresso dribbles out of the filter in a heavy stream displaying the consistency of warm honey. The Italians call this “coda ti topo,” tail of the mouse. (I just love that.)  Failing to meet a single one of these critical factors — or any combination of possible blunders — will ruin our espresso and produce insipid, runny, bitter, burnt, or completely boring and consummately lifeless coffee. Tragically, this ill-prepared swill is precisely what millions of Americans are served at thousands of coffee bars everyday. Most folks don’t know espresso from bear whiz.  America is a milk-drinking country. Most of our nasty espresso is used secondarily as a coffee flavor added to a large glass of hot and sweetened milk to produce the beverage known as the caffe latte’.

    The incontrovertible source of the word “espresso” is lost in the anecdotal history of coffee cuisine. The only thing we know for certain is that it is never spelled “expresso.”

    While speed or rapidity are seemingly implied, once you have learned how to run your machine you will find there is nothing fast about creating a double tall skinny orange-almond latte with extra foam.

    The etymological source I prefer to cling to is an Italian word saying simply, “I have just now made this with my own hands especially for you.”

    B-1. Definition of Crema

    “Crema” is the lovely layer of thickly effervescent foam that defines well-crafted espresso. It is a polyphasic foam consisting mostly of carbon dioxide in microbubbles that has been liberated from the plant fibers. The foam is the result of the hot brewing water passing through the finely ground coffee particles under pressure.

    Try this image: The teeny tiny bubbles found in naturally fermented Champagne. The bubbles are always there but you can’t see them, the carbon dioxides are hidden in the wine, kept under wraps by tremendous pressure. It is only when the cork has been pulled and the wine is poured that a galaxy of latent bubbles, suddenly liberated, tickles the nose and delights the eyes.

    The presence of a thick layer of richly aromatic, reddish brown crema indicates that all culinary factors were met satisfactorily during the preparation of the shot. Espresso is all in the nose. The aroma of espresso lives in the crema so swirl it around. Get your nose right down in there. Inhale deeply.

    Even exquisite espresso is embellished with ephemiral crema; the elements that make it such a wonderful and integral part of espresso are lost forever in the course of sixty short seconds. Do not delay when serving your best espresso to guests.

    Crema was once the Holy Grail of the proud barista, the professional espresso machine operator. Sadly, this is not the case these days. Contemporary machines manufacture crema through the use of cunningly crafted flow restriction doodads or squirt valves. These devices create an emulsion that resembles crema in most physical properties and is probably indistinguishable from the Real Thing. The presence of this illusory foam does not necessarily mean the espresso will be any good.

    In summary, consider that there are more than 40 individual steps in the preparation of espresso. Most of them, like harvesting, processing, and roasting, don’t involve the consumer directly and they are completely out of our control. Screwing up any of the remaining steps will absolutely ruin your espresso.

    Every shot is a chemistry experiment.

    I prefer to call it alchemy.

    Or even magic.

    B-2. Variations on the “True Espresso”
    B-2-a. Coffee Dose Weight:

    7 grams for a single shot; 14 grams for a double shot; and more than 16 grams if you pull the exquisite double-ristretto shots at Espresso Vivace in Seattle. (A matter of personal opinion, mind you, but I think Vivace’s Dulce Blend is probably the finest espresso you will ever drink on this little blue planet. Sadly, this sensation is almost impossible to duplicate on the commonly available home espresso machine.)

    The amateur barista need not bother with such precision of measure or mass. Fill the filter, tamp the coffee, top it off, tamp it again. Leave about 1/4″ space between the top surface of the coffee and the rim of the filter holder to allow for the grounds to expand when the column of water hits them.

    B-2-b. Liquid Volume:
    A single shot of espresso is 1 fluid ounce made from 7 grams. Two fluid ounces comprise a double shot made from 14 grams; a bit less water if you like your espresso “ristretto.” A double shot is never more than 3 ounces. Don’t let anyone try to tell you differently.

    Most home machines come with instructions claiming a single shot is 2 ounces. This is terrible advice. Absolutely crazy. Who writes this stuff? Espresso is horribly over-extracted at that point. No wonder your guests squish up their faces when they sip your “expresso.”

    There is an astounding number of diverse ways in which the variables of roasting style and degree of roast, blends of single source or varietal beans, freshness and quality of the beans, grind, volume of dose, tamping pressure and accuracy, water temperature, water delivery pressure, water quality and softness, length of pour, and even relative humidity can conspire to botch our espresso. The home enthusiast has little or no control over most of these factors but she can learn to compensate so that every shot is as close to perfetto as possible..

    Learning how to cope with these myriad obstacles and the peculiarities of your chosen machine will eventually allow you to produce, upon demand, in your own kitchen, spectacularly rich and flavorful espresso.


    C. Avoid The Steam-Powered Toy

    C-1. The Unit and The Physics

    Steam-driven coffee makers, including the Italian-style “moka” — a slim-waisted, stovetop device and its numerous variations — with a bit of practice and attention to basic physics, will produce excellent, strong coffee. Since these devices cannot generate the minimum pressure required to emulsify the coffee colloids and suspend gases, they cannot produce “true espresso.” (Don’t confuse moka pots with the popular espresso & chocolate drink known in the United States as “Mocha,” which should not be confused with an Arabica coffee varietal imported from the port of Mocha.)

    C-2. If I had one, how would I use it?

    (This section of the MiniFAQ is based on material contributed by David Turnbull.)

    If you own a steam pressure unit you can make good strong coffee that makes excellent stock for iced coffee drinks and fake caffe latte. This pseudo-espresso since it can be used just like espresso in many mixed drinks, but it’s still an imposter, a poser. It ain’t espresso. No way, never gonna be. Doesn’t matter what’s printed on the box or what the sales person claimed.

    A burr grinder is a necessary tool in obtaining repeatable and satisfying results. Any adjustable burr grinder will suffice. You’ll be experimenting with different grind settings. If your brew is noticeably gritty, use a finer grind. Are you clogging the brewer? This is a dangerous practice so use a coarser grind.

    Whatever the capacity of your steam unit, only the first half of the coffee is worth drinking. Capture the initial liquid for consumption and then replace the carafe with another heat resistant vessel and discard whatever else flows, dribbles, or spits out. Some machines have valves that you can close after brewing. Some only let you turn off the heating element or remove the device from your stove.

    When filling the filter basket with coffee, use the amount indicated in the instructions. Don’t try to restrict the flow of coffee so tamp or pack the coffee very lightly or not at all. You do NOT want to test the safety pressure release valve.

    Steam-powered machines represent a severe burn hazard. Place the device out of reach and let it cool down completely between uses. If your unit produces steam for frothing milk be sure you know how to depressurize the vessel before attempting to refill the reservoir.


    D. Miniature Collection Of FAQs
    Home Espresso Machines
    v6.0 (September, 1998)
    Posted roughly every four-five weeks to the Usenet coffee newsgroups.

    D-1. Where should I shop for a home espresso machine?

    These days, many of us shop on the Internet (I mean, here you are, right?), cruising Web sites, clutching our Visa cards, searching for the best price on a machine about which we might know little more than the manufacturer’s name. This is clearly a waste of time and bandwidth.

    Don’t go looking for the lowest price when it comes to the purchase of a serious culinary tool like an espresso machine. Find some coffee experts who sell equipment and patronize their establishments. This might be an online emporium but give your local merchants and coffee shops a chance to help you out and earn your patronage.

    There are specialty coffee shops in most cities owned and staffed by people who make a living brewing and selling fine coffees which they may actually roast on the premises. Some offer home brewing apparatus for sale. Presumably, these business people know their coffees and they know the products they sell. Reading this document will prepare you for dealing with these people. You will be able to tell immediately if they know what they’re talking about or if they are just yankin’ your filter handle.

    Friendly and helpful service from coffee experts is important. Certainly it’s more important than saving a few bucks on your initial purchase. It is unlikely you will find coffee and espresso experts at an online auction site, a cut-rate store, an outlet mall, or a catalog showroom.

    No coffee bars in your town? No kitchen specialty or department stores at your nearest mall? If you’ll spend five or six hours on the Web or do some research at your local library you will turn up many good mail order sources for espresso equipment.

    You’ll need some way to make your machine selection other than hands-on experience. Equipment reviews exist but they’re usually out of date or hopelessly superficial. I’d like to change this sad state of consumer affairs by ruthlessly reviewing a large number of home espresso machines. All I need is an underwriter and a sponsor. Are you in the coffee business? Interested in helping me review machines? Drop me some email.

    If you read the coffee newsgroups on Usenet for a few weeks you’ll gather some useful information and valuable opinions. You will also discover some of the regulars are only posting thinly veiled commercials for their retail Web sites. Watch out.

    D-2. What kind of machine should I buy for home use?

    Look, it’s your valuable time and it’s your hard-earned money so let me give you any elusive answer first: “Don’t buy a machine on impulse or base your purchase on price alone.” Think about how you’re going to spend Your Money. Relax and take Your Time to research the subject. This document is an excellent place to start, if I do say so myself.

    Making superb espresso is a culinary skill. Anyone who tells you it’s easy is lying to you. Learning how to run a high quality machine takes time and practice and you’ll go through several pounds of coffee in the process. They are complicated devices to master, especially if your coffee-brewing experience consists of opening a can of Folgers (gak!) and pouring water into a drip brewer. Making espresso is rocket science compared to using Mr Coffee.

    Many people who buy home espresso machines are surprised at the complexity of the process and at how difficult espresso is to make consistently well. They are disappointed they cannot make cappuccinos or latte’s that taste like they came from their favorite coffee bar. And, if they have had the misfortune of acquiring a lousy machine, making good espresso is completely impossible. Such a machine will soon join the other abandoned appliances, stuffed into some dusty corner of a forgotten cupboard.

    D-3. What kind of machine should I get?

    Short answer: Buy a pump-powered machine.

    Do not buy a steam-driven toy.

    Shy away from “lever operated” machines unless you know exactly what you’re doing and what you’re buying and why you want one of these devices. They look cool, they will last a lifetime, and they are capable of producing absolutely fabulous espresso. Because of their complexity they are not appropriate for the beginner, in my opinion. Consider a lever machine only after reading the books in the bibliography below, doing some hands-on tests, and checking out some Web sites devoted to lever machines.

    Most home lever machines are nothing like the classic systems once common in Italian coffee bars and that gave rise to the expression “pulling espresso.” Units made by Elektra and La Cimbali are the only home lever machines that I am aware of using the cock-the-spring method of extraction. Other diminutive home lever machines employ an entirely different mechanical principle to extract the coffee. You provide all of the pressure by leaning on the lever.

    The skilled and enthusiastic owner of a lever machine can achieve a level of control over the quality of her espresso that no other style of machine for home use can possibly duplicate. This capability will cost you, both in terms of financial investment and time required to develop your skills. How did I arrive at these conclusions? I’ve done the research for you by reading the coffee newsgroups for years. The owners often drop in to ask us how to use their beautiful new machines.

    Lever machines start at $300 and climb to $1,200 depending on qualtiy of construction and finish, additional features, the number an function of various gauges, and abundance or silliness of the attached filigree. For a fascinating look into the mind of an obsessive lever machine owner, point your Web browser to http://www.math.columbia.edu/~bayer/coffee.html.

    D-4. Thanks. What’s a “pump” and how much does one cost?

    “True Espresso” requires pressure. At least 9 atmospheres; 130 pounds per square inch. Pressure is needed to emulsify the oils and to suspend the gases that will magically appear as the layer of fine brown foam known as “crema” marking true espresso. Espresso without the crema is just strong coffee; most likely, its absence identifies *very bad* strong coffee.

    Steam machines only produce one to three atmospheres of pressure. Look, any more than that and they’d blow up. (Do not over-fill or over-tamp a steam-pressure device. This mistaken attempt to cheat physics by hampering the function of the safety pressure relief valve can put your kitchen decor — if not your very life — at severe risk.)

    There are two popular styles of pump-driven machines: Those that heat water in a pressurized tank resembling a small boiler and those that use some type of fast-acting heat exchanger, often referred to as a thermal block.

    There are good and bad features of both styles. Each family of machine has its diehard fans. Find an expert salesperson at a well-equipped specialty coffee establishment and engage in a discussion with her. Or tune into the coffee newsgroups for a few months.

    Pump Factoid: The relatively inexpensive home espresso maker uses a motive device called a “reciprocating” pump. They’re cheap, noisy, and produce very high pressure under ideal laboratory conditions. Don’t be fooled by claims of ridiculously high pressure that appears in trendy graphics splashed across the machine’s packaging. Your machine will not be operating in a lab. The performance of these little pumps drops off rapidly under load in real-life conditions.

    Commercial espresso machines — and a very few high end home units — use a far more efficient centrifugal or vacuum displacement water transport system. The pump itself is larger than and costs more than most home machines.

    There are two other types of pump machine recently available on the consumer market: pod/capsule systems, and super-automatics. Using aluminum capsules or paper “pods” containing pre measured and pre-ground doses of espresso-style coffees, these machines can take the tricky process of making espresso and turn it into a smooth and efficient no-brainer. I remain firmly skeptical about these gadgets. The capsules are expensive and create a large amount of waste that may or may not be recyclable in your home town. Pods are just as expensive and after trying many brands and styles I can say without hesitation that the espresso from these systems is terrible. It absolutely sucks. Each manufacturer has created their own unique filter holder so none of these systems are interchangeable, which is stupidly anti-consumer and market-aggressive in a way I find disturbingly short-sighted. Besides, who knows how long the coffee’s been in those little dudes?

    One of the great joys of owning an espresso machine is the freedom to experiment. One can purchase hundreds of different espresso coffees from all over the world. One can alter the grind, dose, and tamp to make subtle changes in the pour. The consumer gives up all of this fun when she buys a pod-based machine. Indeed, the best reason NOT to buy a pod or capsule espresso machine that you are spending your money on a closed system; forever at the mercy of the single source supplier of compatible consumables. Phooey. Nonetheless, this type of machine is growing in popularity and you might consider one carefully if you’re shopping only for convenience. They fit well into small offices and group homes. A recent issue of Fresh Cup Magazine reported on pods or capsules from several highly visible espresso makers including Lavazza, Starbucks, and Illy. This is definitely a trend worth watching. As a side note, commercial-grade pod/capsule machines are popular in areas like ski resorts, health clubs, and national park concessions where customers demand some form of espresso-based beverage service but where skilled operators are scarce or impossible to locate.

    Brief Interlude For Shameless and Gratuitous Promotional Message:
    Does your company make or market a pod/capsule system? Are you interested in changing my mind about your products? I invite you to ship me one of your machines and a supply of your coffee. After careful and objective evaluation by a group of espresso lovers we’ll post our findings on the coffee newsgroups. Email me for my shipping address.

    The other relative newcomer in the home market is the totally automated machine; the “espressobot.” Looking a little bit like R2D2, these units have separate openings into which the user pours whole coffee beans, water, and milk. At the other end is an orifice from which issue-eth espresso and milk-based beverages. With varying degrees of programmability, automation, complexity, and ingredient storage capacity or refrigeration, they start at about $500 and top out around $2,000. Reviews of espressobots that hae been posted on the newsgroups are encouraging. These units are definitely gaining in popularity which means there will be more choices in the near future, perhaps leading to lower prices.

    Brief Interlude For Shameless and Gratuitous Promotional Message:
    Once again, I cordially invite manufacturers or distributors of super-automatic home espresso equipment to ship me sample machines for objective evaluation.

    D-5. Uh, fine. Nice lecture. You didn’t tell me how much a pump machine will cost.

    Good pump-driven home espresso machines are not cheap. There’s a broad range of prices, say, $200 to $1,500. Compare this to the cost of professional bar machines costing $3,000 to well over $10,000. Quality costs. It’s that simple.

    D-6. You’re kidding! Five hundred bucks for espresso?

    Absolutely. This is a serious kitchen tool you’re thinking about buying, no less complicated than a food processor and much more personal than a microwave oven because your interaction with the espresso machine is immediately intimate. What distinguishes these machines from each other besides the price? Quality of the materials and components, care of construction, and perhaps fluctuations in international exchange rates. There are more than 200 models of home espresso machines on the market with more appearing every year. They are made by more than 30 manufacturers in at least 5 countries. Consider that a large department store may only carry models from one or two manufacturers that enjoy huge distribution channels. With so many options, how can you possibly make up your mind without doing some serious research?

    Here are some questions to ask yourself or with which you can pester sales people: How does the machine look? Does it fit your kitchen’s decor? Do you care? Does it feel like a tool or does it feel like a toy? Is the housing made of plastic or metal? Does it look like it might break during regular use? Is the filter group a massive chrome-plated, cast brass fixture that uses a pop-out stainless steel filter cup (like my Rancilio Rialto) or is it just bent aluminum with some holes poked in it? (Coffee writer for the Atlantic Monthly and Coffee Journal magazines, Corby Kummer, considers a professional-sized filter group essential on his home espresso equipment. Other knowledgable coffee people on the newsgroups place no value in this feature. You see why it’s tough to depend on others’ opinions? We can’t agree on much around here.) Is the machine heavy enough not to tip over when clamping in the filter group? Do the buttons, switches and knobs look like they’ll stay on for at least five years? What parts can you replace yourself? The first thing to fail will likely be the rubber gasket where the filter cup meets the pressurized brewing head. Can you get to it to replace it? How easy is it to keep the machine sanitary and clean? (Espresso can be quite messy, see below, but your machine must be kept absolutely spotless or your coffee will taste like crap and lower life forms will quickly move in and call it home.) What accessories are included in the purchase price? (Not many, these days see below.) Does the steam wand look like it’s part of a serious kitchen tool or does it seem like it will fall off or easily break? Will you honestly be able to deal with the monster the first thing in the morning? Or are you the type of person who needs a cup or two of coffee just to get your mental gears in motion?

    Here’s what I evaluate upon encountering a new machine for the first time: Exterior finish (I prefer unpainted stainless steel.); placement and size of controls (Bigger and beefier is better than chic.); size and weight of filter holder (Bigger and heavier is better.); size of water reservoir; capacity and ease of removal of drip tray (Can it be removed without sloshing?); and the presence of a heavy duty grounded electrical cord set.

    I would not personally own a machine unless it had this list of features: A cast brass boiler instead of aluminum; a brass steam valve that was carefully machined to operate smoothly; a preponderance of brass and copper tubing instead of aluminum or plastic; at least 1,000 watts of heating power; and an exterior finish that reflects the same quality as the rest of the componentry.

    If I get a chance to demo a new unit I try to discern these things: how long it takes to come to operating temperature; if the water will remain reasonably hot during the length of the pour; how difficult is it to change to steam mode and how long does it take to produce useable steam pressure; and how long the machine takes to recover from steam mode back to brewing.

    Here’s the Most Important Question: * Do you like the coffee it makes? * How do you know? Insist — I say, INSIST — on a thorough demonstration of the espresso-making capabilities of whatever machine you are considering. Why? Besides the obvious reasons, here’s something you might not have considered: Does it purr or does it make the windows rattle? You absolutely want to know what kind of noise the beasty makes. Gracefully request a thorough demonstration of all the capabilities and functions. Don’t be intimidated by stuffy or hesitant sales staff. You are, afterall, offering the salesperson an opportunity to demonstrate his/her knowledge of the product and to close a substantial sale. Okay, not every store will graciously serve you espresso from a demo unit. Find the manager and ask, “Why not?” and consider taking your money (all $200 to $1,500 of it) elsewhere. Competent appliance sales managers will realize you are a potentially serious customer and will try to accommodate your wishes. Don’t be a jerk about it, though. Ask for a demonstration only if you’re serious about a particular model.

    I owned a $250 Krups Novo for more than five years. My Krups was a nice little home appliance and a similar unit will probably fit your needs as a first machine. The Novo performed admirably and dependably and while I was saddened by its death I was excited about replacing it. It was succeeded by a $400 Rancilio Rialto, purchased from Barry Jarrett at Riley’s Coffees (coffe@stlnet.com). The Rancilio is a seriously formidable tool of near-professional caliber and I love it. I wish I had invested in the Rialto long ago. The difference in the price between these two machines does not reflect the remarkably superior quality of the Rancilio machine.

    D-7. Look, I’m on a budget. Isn’t there anything cheaper?

    Yes. There are some pump machines available for less than $100. Some opf these models are stripped down versions of their more costly brethren. Careful research will also turn up “factory refurbished” units at tremendously deep discounts.

    Don’t buy one of these things based on cost alone. Don’t buy one because someone on the coffee newsgroups happens to be totally nuts over theirs and is posting glowing “reviews.” Buy a less expensive home espresso machine only because you have done your homework and some serious shopping.

    Look carefully at several different models and brands of equipment in a broad range of prices so you get an idea of what differentiates the low end from the better machines. Settle for one of those cheap units because you like the espresso it makes. But, hey, let’s be serious. Do you really expect a $100 unit to perform as well as — or last as long as — a machine that costs three or six times as much? I do not.

    D-8. Fine. You’re not just serious about your coffee, you’re a bit of a snob about this espresso thing, aren’t you?

    Absolutely. I’ve played with dozens of machines. I’ve tasted hundreds of espresso roasts. I’ve been served utterly horrible espresso by louts at fine coffee establishments all over the country and I’m not afraid to ask someone to make it for me again.

    Over-extracting espresso is effortless. It’s a no-brainer. Anyone can make bad espresso and most people do. They do it without realizing how awful the stuff is because most do not drink it straight. Even those who should know better will pass off any slop as espresso to an ignorant public.

    It ain’t the machine’s fault. Well, could be … It is my experience that poorly trained baristas all over the world are using the finest technologies and the best coffees to serve up the worst drek to their best customers. “Put the coffee in the filter thingy, push the button, get the money.”

    Making superb espresso requires no more effort or time than making bad espresso. It takes a little practice, sure. And some attitude. Superb espresso requires a passion for everything about fresh coffee and an unabridged understanding of exactly how your machine works. Anyone who tells you espresso is “Quick And Easy” is lying to you for one reason or another. Avoid these people and hang onto your wallet when in their presence.

    If you have easy access to a skilled and quality-conscious barista who makes beautiful espresso for you consider yourself truly blessed. Tip this person often and be bountiful because he or she has spoiled you rotten.

    I serve myself and my guests only the finest espresso I can make. I throw away gallons of bad coffee. David Schomer of Espresso Vivace, even after almost a decade in the business and working with the finest professional espresso machines he can find, says he only creates “perfect espresso” about 20% of the time. What is “perfect espresso?” To Schomer, that means it tastes just like his freshly roasted coffee smells. Sadly, this quality is almost impossible to accomplish on a home unit with any level of consistency.

    D-9. What else do I need to know?

    There’s much more to making espresso at home than just buying a machine, pluggin into the wall, and filling it with water. Most of what you need, including a large amount of storage space, is not in the box nor is it included in the purchase price. Heed these words of advice from the School Of The Hard Knockbox:

    Everything you know about brewing coffee is wrong.
    Espresso is messy. Unbelievably disorderly. Seriously sloppy. Good and gloopy.
    Espresso involves many important and subtle steps. Compared to making brewed coffee, espresso is a serious chore. It’s not brain surgery; it’s more like a nightmare. I call it magic.
    The finely ground espresso coffee is like talcum powder and, man, it gets into everything.
    Liquid espresso stains anything it touches.
    Machines are fussy, squirty, and drippy.
    The miraculous elixir known as espresso dribbles into your demitasse because the machines are made of valves, gaskets, tubes, soldered joints, and filters that operate under tremendous pressures and at high temperatures. These mechanical parts will fatigue, burn out, get clogged, bend, wear thin, or break.
    Residual coffee oils will turn rancid in a few hours on a warm machine. The filter, showerhead disk, gasket, and all other parts that contact the coffee must be kept reasonably clean or your espresso will taste awful. Keeping your machine clean is strictly a manual job. Leaving soap on your equipment is just as bad as leaving it dirty; maybe worse. Nothing on a home espresso machine can safely be put in a dishwasher.
    A spotlessly glistening steaming wand is the first thing I look for in a coffee bar. It’s a definite clue that the barista is well trained. The steaming wand will get crusty with hardened milk residue the instant you remove your steaming pitcher. Your wand will play host to an unspeakable slime of lower life forms if not kept absolutely spotless, sanitary, and utterly clean. A quick wipe with a damp towel will keep your wand hygienic but be careful. That little wand is incredibly hot! A wet rag can generate steam and burn your hand in a flash. Watch it.
    Additional quip: A new espresso machine is like bringing home a new baby: Lots of weird noises, new types of messes, unfamiliar smells, many additional and unplanned expenses.

    Beware of marketing scams like milk frothing doohickeys, overstated pressure ratings, crema production or crema enhancement doodads, and worthless accessories meant to trick you into thinking you are getting something for nothing. (see below)

    D-10. There’s more? Sheesh. Like what?

    Can you say, “Accessorize?” The toys listed below will add fun, flair, and class to your home coffee bar. Naturally, you can get by without these accoutrements and lower cost substitutes can easily be found.


    Lovely white china doesn’t necessarily make your espresso taste better but these cute little cups are way cooler than serving espresso in your Dunkin Donuts Coffee Club mug. China should be prewarmed before receiving your espresso. Run a shot of hot water into the cups before brewing. The teeny spoons are practical, not mere ornament. Espresso should be lightly stirred before drinking. The finest 2 oz. demitasse by far are sold by Illycafe. The best 3 oz cappuccino cups are from Lavazza. $20 to $50 for set of four.

    D-10-b. Knock box (for your used coffee grounds)
    Plastic works fine, stainless steel is better. The best have a cushioned bar across the middle upon which to bang your gruppo. Obviously, the bar should be covered with a resilient substance like rubber to prevent damage to your filter group. Ideally, used grounds should pop out in a nicely formed cookie or biscuit. You might need a small plastic spatula to help clear your gruppo. Don’t use metal tools that could scratch or pit the filter gruppo. Don’t flush your espresso grounds down your kitchen drain or your toilet. You’re only setting a date with a professional plumbing-type person to have your drains unceremoniously unclogged in the very near future. Compost the used grounds or put them in the trash. $5 to $40.

    D-10-c. Burr (not blade) grinder (Available in flat or conical burr styles.)
    Once you’ve painstakingly tuned your expensive grinder for espresso you must never use it for regular coffee. You must never use it for “flavored” coffees. Why the quarantine? You will spend much thought and energy tweaking your grinder for the perfect pour. Life with your espresso machine is better if you just invest in two grinders: one very good tool for espresso and a cheap little blade grinder for your other coffee brewing needs. Some espresso enthusiasts swear by their manual, hand-cranked grinders. See the Chrome Peacock Lever Machine Web site, described above, for a source for hand-cranked coffee mills. $100 to $500.

    D-10-d. Airtight storage for fresh beans
    Wide mouth, half liter glass canning jars are great. They have a secure metal closing system and a large rubber gasket. Umm, don’t drop one of these on a tile countertop. Mine are made by Arc of France, each holds about a half pound of roasted espresso beans. If I’ve got two or three different blends on hand I cut the label off the bag and tape it to the top of the jar. $5 to $10 each.

    D-10-e. Tamping tool (wood, plastic, cast aluminum or machined stainless steel, brass or aluminum)
    Tampers come in many shapes and they are made from many different materials. I’ve tried them all and I’m convinced the more massive the tamper the better it does its job. All of my currnet tampers are machined stainless steel and they fit my Rancilio’s filter cup precisely. Reg Barber Enterprises in Canada will make you a stunning custom tamper for about US$50 ppd. Reg’s compact yet massive tampers are lathe-machined, highly polished stainless steel with a beautiful hardwood handle. You can email Reg for his product list and pricing: tamper@coolcom.com (Please say “Hello” from Bogie.) $5 to $50.

    D-10-f. Lots of bad coffee to practice with while you learn how to use your machine.
    Don’t drink this stuff! Just tune up your grinder, try different tamps, and watch for crema development.) $40

    D-10-g Lots of superb coffees to learn how to enjoy your espresso the way it was meant to be drunk: as a double ristretto. $50

    D-10-h. Stainless steel steaming pitcher
    Do not use plastic, you can melt right through it. Porcelain and glass can break if dropped on your counter or floor. I find the smaller sizes more practical. The voluptuous shape of these little pitchers helps keep the milk from sloshing over the rim. $10 to $25

    D-10-i. Sweetened Flavored Syrups
    Use these colorful liquids for caffe latte and iced drinks. They are excellent for milkshakes, sodas, and other cooking chores. Do not confuse syrups with “flavored” coffees. Do not use flavored coffees to make espresso. Do not EVER put flavored coffee in your espresso grinder. $5 each, get two or three if you like this sort of thing, or get several for parties.

    D-10-j. Decalcifying and cleaning supplies
    Towels and sponges for mopping up espresso can’t be used for much else because of the brown stains. Water is rarely “poure.” It’s loaded with all kinds of chemicals and minerals. When water boils some of these dissolved substances precipitate out and cling to the insides of your machine as a calcine deposit. Vinegar is acceptable for some — but not all — machines as a decalcifying agent. Chemical compounds specifically designed to safely clean espresso machines are available from restaurant suppliers and specialty coffee suppliers. Most are based around trisodium phosphate (TSP), a powerful cleaning agent normally used to clean walls. The TSP is cut with inert ingredients to bring down the concentration and buffers are added so it will not attack the rubber gasket. To keep your drains clear of espresso grounds, professional strength drain cleaning chemicals and enzymes can be found at plumbing suppliers. Use these compounds with extreme caution and follow the label directions to the letter. $10 to $25

    D-10-k. Treat yourself to a couple o’ three good coffee books
    The coffee literature is a rich source for the standard milk and-espresso beverage recipes, lots of coffee history, coffee tasting instructions and blending guidance, facts about coffee and the people who produce it for our enjoyment, oddball baking recipes, and advice on how to shop for your next (better) machine. $40 to $100

    D-10-l. Clear glass shot glasses (Most are 2 ounces and these can encourage careless overextraction. The classic Libbey Glass “1 ounce to the top” shots are almost impossible to find these days. If you come across a good supply, let the coffee newsgroups know!)
    The preferred method for espresso preparation is to let the machine dispense directly into preheated demitasse, bypassing the shot glasses entirely. If you are creating mixed espresso beverages, though, shot glasses will help you transfer the espresso. Use clear glass because you want to see the crema developing. This will tell you much about how your system is performing. Preheat the shot glass with hot water before extraction. $2 to $10

    D-10-m. Thermometer
    (rapid-read digital or fast-reacting analog dial) Use this to check your machine’s water temperature accuracy and to monitor your milk while foaming and steaming. Milk shouldn’t get much higher than 145 to 160 F or you run the risk of scorching or boiling it. Ick. $10 to $50

    D-10-n. Water Filtration System
    Your water supply might be soft, hard, or laden with all kinds of trace chemicals that affect the taste or possibly threaten your health, but let’s not get paranoid. You might not notice the presence of these taste enhancers but you will notice that they have been removed. There are many kinds of water purifying and softening systems on the market ranging from giant reverse osmosis tanks and sodium canisters to little replaceable podlets you put on your kitchen faucet. I don’t know anything about these things. I just know that I clean my machine less often and I like the flavor of my espresso more when I carefully filter my water. I once used a simple charcoal filter disk in a drip funnel but I have recently installed an OmniFilter on the kitchen faucet. The cartridges are replaced once a month for about $10.00. I also have a “Brita” jug in the fridge cuz that’s my sister’s name. $5 to $10,000

    D-11. Got it. Expensive hobby. Not a toy. Anything else you wanna tell me?

    Sure.

    Professional baristas make espresso look fun, easy, fast, and, above all, profitable. A good barista is hard to find. Cultivate the relationship if you know a talented espresso craftsperson. Patronize their shop. Tip them well.

    Tell their boss about their performance and mastery.

    Only after you have tweaked and fiddled and crouched in front of your machine and watched several thousand shots dribble into your demitasse will you recognize the horrible truth: You are hopelessly obsessed with this pungent brew. Seek counseling if your behavior threatens your marriage or job. Home machines will not necessarily allow you to play “Pretend Espresso Cart.” A phenomenon known as “dwell time” requires some machines to recover operating temperature between servings. Pressure must bleed off the brewing head before you can remove the filter and reload for another shot. (Just try to reload before the machine drains off the pressure in the head. go ahead, try it. One experience is all it should take to teach you how long you must wait between shots. Barry Jarrett, coffee newsgroup junky and professional coffee roaster, calls these messy events “sneezes.”)

    The Rancilio Rialto features a solenoid activated pressure bypass valve that eliminates this problem completely. The bypass valve is standard equipment on a professional machine. A nice thing to look for in better home machines but I know of no other manufacturer that offers this nifty feature.

    Dwell time, dancing with your machine, swabbing the steam wand, and trips to the fridge, the sink, your grinder, and your knockbox all add up. It can take you half an hour to serve six complicated espresso and steamed milk drinks — making them one at a time — to six dinner guests. As your skill level and familiarity with your equipment increase you’ll be able to crank out lattes and cappuccinos *almost* like a pro.

    Frothing milk is another technique you will need to practice privately prior to performing in public. Most home machines just can’t put out the volume of dry steam that professional machines effortlessly spew so you may never achieve stardom as a cappuccino master. The chemical changes milk’s elemental parts undergo during steaming are topics for someone else’s FAQ but I think you will find steamed milk tastes much better than milk that has been microwaved or heated in a pan. You can steam milk for hot chocolate and other beverages with your espresso machine. After each use be sure to jet some steam to clear the tube of residual milk and to clean the wand carefully.

    Never immerse the wand in a pitcher that is filled with a liquid, whether it is milk or water, unless you’re actively using the machine. Once the steam system begins to cool, the lower pressure will suck stuff up into the wand and possibly all the way into the boiler. This can utterly destroy your machine. North Americans tend to want their milk foamed until it forms into dry peaks and that’s tough to do with home machines. Personally, I prefer a softer and gooey froth. It tastes better and insulates the drink just as well. Then there is “milk chiffon;” the velvety thick micro-bubbly foam that is so difficult to prepare at home. The remarkable mouth sensation of delicately chiffoned milk makes cappuccino an unbelievably elegant drink. Takes practice. Get a copy of Schomer’s book or videos to learn the details.

    D-11-a. Cleaning the machine
    Here’s a scary topic … You thought all you had to do was buy the thing mand plug it in? An espresso machine is not maintenance-free. To ignore it is to invite a disease-ridden slime to take up residence and an internal encrustation to prematurely clog the waterways. Gross, dude.

    Do you need to be compulsive about the cleanliness and sanitation of your espresso hardware. Well, no. But it helps. Here’s my routine … The first thing I do is put the plug in the kitchen sink because I don’t want anything falling down the drain or into the disposer. The second thing I do is lay out all my tools, supplies, a couple of towels, and tall cool beverage.

    Once a week I disconnect or move all of the hoses and tubes that sluice or slurp water through my Rialto and I remove the water reservoir. I scrub it with a baby bottle brush and a mild vinegar solution. I place the unit’s tiny water softener cartridge in a cup of salty water to recharge the resins. I use a shorty screwdriver to remove the disperser screen (the showerhead) and I place the parts in a 4-cup glass measuring cup. I remove the double shot filter basket and replace it with a “blind insert.” I fill the blind insert with 2 teaspoons of PuroCaff (TSP and some buffering agents) and run through a backflush cycle that takes about five minutes. ** This backflushing can only be performed on a unit that is equipped with a “triple action bypass” valve! ** Don’t try it on a conventional unit.

    I dab a clean dishtowel in the diluted backflushing liquid that has filled the drip tray and I carefully wipe down the outside of the machine, trying to get into all of the nooks and crannies between the switches and in the joints between pieces of the housing. I use a special stiff bristle brush for stubborn stuff. Then I carefully wipe it down with a damp towel.

    I place all of the filter groups parts in the large measureing cup with the showerhead, add a teaspoon of PuroCaff and fill the measuring cup with very hot water.

    I replace the reservoir, fill it with a mild vinegar solution, and run the acidic water through the system, catching the effluent in a glass cup. I turn on the steam heater and run some acidic water through the steam wand. Then I shut the machine off for a few hours and go climb the Boise foothills to put some singletrack miles on my mountain bike.

    I will then fill the reservoir with clear water at least three times, running it through the main system and the steaming system. Then I let everything cool down for an hour or two and carefully reassemble all the bits and pieces.

    This chore takes about an hour (not including the bike time) but the rewards are immediately tangible. My espresso tastes great.

    D-12. What about caffeine?

    If I drink double shots of espresso regularly won’t I tend to be moving quite rapidly and won’t my friends try to avoid me? Just because you take your coffee as espresso doesn’t mean you’re a speed freak. You won’t be moving into the Folgers Wing of the Betty Ford Center. A properly made shot of espresso contains significantly less of the bitter alkaloid caffeine than an 8 ounce mug of your basic office or supermarket swill. See the FAQ on Coffee and Caffeine for the exact milligram measurements of caffeine in a curious collection of consumables including coffee, colas, and candies.

    Why is this so? Espresso’s water-to-coffee contact time is short, leaving some of the caffeine molecules locked into the plant fibers. A darker roast also tends to reduce caffeine content (this topic really gets people excited on the coffee newsgroups!) Fine Arabica coffees contain one half of the caffeine found naturally in the cheaper Robusta beans that are used in supermarket coffees. (Using Robustas in espresso blends is another controversy that tweaks the regulars around the newsgroups.)

    The results of chemical analysis performed by Lauk’s Testing Labs in Seattle were recently posted at the LucidCafe Web site by David Schomer. Check out these numbers:
    Espresso Ristretto (18.5 grams of finely ground coffee, 1 3/4 fluid ozs) 230 milligrams of caffeine.
    Paper Filtered, Cone drip brewed coffee (18.5 grams of Arabica coffee, about 16 fluid ozs) 340 milligrams of caffeine
    Those are interesting numbers but I don’t know anyone who makes a 16 oz pot using only 18.5 grams of ground coffee. Seems to me so little coffee would produce 6 to 8 ounces of brew worth drinking.

    Espresso is the concentrated essence of superb coffees. The brewing process is designed specifically to get the best out of the coffee and to leave all the bad stuff behind.

    Making espresso at home resembles only superficially brewing regular coffee.

    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. Do you have the space and the circuitry to support your espresso compulsion?


    E. Closing disclaimer:

    It is my not-so-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. Think of some of the other appliances or tools in which you have invested and how carefully you researched them before making your purchase decision …

    Did you buy the $150 dishwasher or the $400 model? The $99 table saw or the $899 model? The $149 “mountain bike” from K-Mart or the $3,000 dual suspension monster from a real bike shop? Did you order your golf clubs from the back of a comic book or did you have them custom fitted by an expert? How did you decide which juice extractor to buy just so you could end up hiding it in your closet?

    Hang out on the newsgroups for several weeks (or even several months) before investing in your espresso machine. Send for catalogs, cruise the Web, and watch for other people to post reviews of their machines. Watch the baristas perform their jobs at your favorite coffee bar (don’t be a cheapskate, tip!). If you know someone with a right now and insist on playing with it.

    Happy shopping.
    David Bogie
    Hopeless espresso hound
    After Effects/Media 100/double ristretto


    Coffee and Espresso Bibliography:
    “An Espresso Hound’s Search For Crema At Home” by David Bogie, published in Cafe’ Ole’ magazine, October, November, December, 1992.
    “Espresso, Ultimate Coffee” by Kenneth Davids, 1993, published by the Cole Group.
    “Espresso, from Bean to Cup” by Nick Jurich, 1991, published by Missing Link Press. (Rare these days)
    “The Perfect Cup” by Timothy Castle, 1991, published by Aris Books.
    “The Joy of Coffee” by Corby Kummer, 1995, published by Chapters. (Revised in 1997)
    “The Book Of Coffee” by Francesco and Ricardo Illy, 1992, published by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.P.A., Milano, Italy.
    Various issues of Fresh Cup magazine (the only editorial voice in the coffee industry to challenge the Starbuck Way) email: freshcup@aol.com and on the Web at www.freshcup.com
    Various issues of Tea And Coffee Trade Journal, email: teacof@aol.com. (May have changed, do a search on your own.)
    Various issues of Coffee Journal magazine, on the Web at http://www.tigeroak.com/coffeejournal/index.htm (May have changed, do a search on your own.)
    Tim Nemec’s “Over The Coffee” Web site at www.cappuccino.com (back after a long hiatus)
    Lucid Cafe`s Web site: www2.lucidcafe.com
    >> > > > end of document < < < < <

    David Bogie, aspiring boxmaker
    hopeless espresso hound
    Keeper of the MiniFAQ on Home Espresso Machines