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Finding the Perfect Espresso Machine

by Rosemary Furfaro

Making great espresso at home, similar to what you get in your favorite cafe, requires a good understanding of the principles of espresso making and a reliable machine that suits your needs. Add a little patience and regular practice and you will soon be making delicious espressos just like your favorite neighborhood cafe.

Before we get into a discussion about the various machines on the market, let's review some basic facts about espresso that may help you in your espresso-making adventures.

Espresso is the process by which a tiny cup of delicious coffee is made. Many people think the word refers to a type of bean or roast and the term is mistakenly used in this manner.

Most coffee roasters have their own special blend of beans. This is usually a mix of arabica beans but may also include some robusta beans to give unusual flavor nuances to their espressos. The bean designated for an espresso is roasted just slightly longer than regular coffee beans so that the rich oils in the coffee are brought to the surface the bean. It is a surprise to most people to learn that this dark roast contains less caffeine than lighter roasts because the espresso process, hot water passing swiftly through ground coffee, leaves more caffeine in the grounds and less in your demitasse.

Another important factor that affects a cup of espresso is the grind. "An incorrect grind will result in a poor quality and inconsistent cup," says espresso machine expert, Christopher Cara of Thomas Cara, Ltd. in San Francisco.

If your beans are too oily and your grind is too fine, your espresso maker can't produce an even flow of liquid -- it will trickle out with no crema. [Crema is the beautiful, brown cream found on the top of a perfect espresso.] If your grind is too coarse, the espresso pours out of your machine like Niagara Falls...too fast for good flavor and definitely no crema.

The best grind for espresso exhibits a fine, gritty, consistent texture. Inconsistency will produce an uneven cup of espresso. As I've discussed in a previous article, electric burr grinders are best at providing the proper grind for your coffee beans.

Lastly, you'll get the best results from your espresso-making if you follow these few important tips:

For every four tablespoons of water (one demitasse cup), use two teaspoons of ground coffee which is gently, but firmly, packed into your gruppa (the metal cup which holds your grounds.)

Before starting your machine, heat your espresso cups under hot running water or on the machine's warmer.

Use low fat milk, preferably skim milk, to make your froth for lattes and cappuccinos.

Now that we've covered the basic components in a great cup of espresso, let's move on to review some of the better-known pieces of equipment available to the home espresso maker.

Stovetop Espresso Makers

The Moka Pot
Made in Italy of aluminum, this simple device is not really considered a true espresso maker because it lacks a steaming wand, although it is used widely in European homes. A bottom chamber (which can range from a single to a twelve cup capacity) holds the water. The top chamber holds the finished coffee. The espresso is created when steam pressure forces the hot water up a tube and onto the coffee grounds located in a filter between the two chambers. The coffee then dribbles into the top chamber where it can be poured from a spout. The Moka Pot makes only espresso as it lacks the frothing wand used to steam milk. The espresso quality is certainly not that of a cafe, as it makes an inconsistent, bitter cup of espresso.

Graziala Steamer
This stovetop model is much heavier than the Moka Pot because it is made of stainless steel. As with the Moka, this incorporates a water tank below coffee grounds and uses steam to make espresso. The major difference is that this model is a true espresso/steam maker for your stovetop. It has a frothing wand, a valve to dispense steam, a pressure release valve and a valve to extract your espresso. Unfortunately, the quality of the espresso is not the best; but, for such a compact, inexpensive device, the froth produced is amazingly light, delicious and long-lasting. The coffee is a heavier extraction, more typical of a European's preference, but not as full-bodied and dense as an espresso. If you desire espresso-making only on rare occasions, you should investigate this equipment.

Countertop Espresso Makers

The Steam Pressure Style
Although the models represented make acceptable frothy milk, I am not impressed with the overall quality of the espresso made. The coffee does not resemble the cafe-style espresso that one would hope for, but I do think the Krups produces the best of the lot. The steam pressure machine seems to be designed for the infrequent espresso brewer who does not want to invest too much in their machine and is not too finicky about their cup of espresso. Pressure for brewing is supplied by a build-up of steam in the boiler. The pressure builds to a point where it forces the water underneath into a pipe that flows onto the coffee grounds. Unfortunately, you cannot open the reservoir to add water while the machine is running: the machine must be cooled before adding water. The steaming wand is controlled by a valve or on-off switch. All water reservoirs are made of aluminum and this makes for fairly lightweight machines.

Delonghi Cafe Pronto
This Italian-made model is a small and simple approach to the traditional steam brew process. The espresso is brewed directly into a four-cup lidded glass carafe which offers graduated markings for brewing two to four cups. A single on-off switch and a steam valve are on the front of the black or white plastic housing which offers a removable, deep drip pan. This machine is very lightweight. I didn't enjoy the thin, watery cup of espresso that I had from this pot.

Delonghi Cafe Siena
This machine offers a variable brew strength dial which allows the consumer to determine the strength of the espresso. Unfortunately, the retailer I spoke to wasn't clear how this was achieved. This model offers a pressure safety valve and an instant froth dispensing system. A single push button for "on" and "ready" signals controls the machine. The housing is made of heavy black plastic with a removable, shallow, plastic drip pan. Brewing takes place in a four-cup lidded glass carafe instead of directly into your cups.

Krups II Primo
Krups is notorious for producing good quality household products, as witnessed by the high ratings many of its appliances receive in Consumer Reports. This particular model of steam espresso maker is no exception. If you are looking for a machine that will provide decent espresso, not cost too much and will perform comfortably under lighter use conditions, this is a machine you may want to consider. Brewing and frothing work independently. The steam wand has a patented "Perfect Froth" attachment to provide more aeration to your milk, making a better froth for your lattes and cappuccinos.

The Pump Style
According to my research, pump models come very close to making espresso bar quality drinks. Each model reviewed offers a water chamber refillable while the machine is running, without any changes in water temperature or function, a definite advantage. The quality of the espresso may be attributed to the lower brewing temperatures, which range from 186 degrees F. to 192 degrees F. Because the brewing action is kept separate from the frothing function, this affords better temperature control as compared to other types of countertop machines.

This style of espresso maker brews faster and provides a better cup of coffee than steam machines because they provide the necessary pressure, about 15 bars, to function. Steam valves and wands are provided on all models reviewed. Most models reviewed have two thermal units: one to heat the water for the coffee and one to heat the steam for the frothing mechanism. In most models reviewed, a pump is used to force the room temperature water from the reservoir into a boiler and then through the packed coffee grounds in the gruppa.

These are the most popular household espresso machines. They can range in price from $150.00 to $300.00 for the less expensive and lighter weight models. The inside boiler on these machines is usually made of aluminum and the outside housing is made of plastic, hence, their lighter weight. The next range of common household machines are the heavier models costing from $350.00 to $700.00. They usually have a brass boiler chamber and heavier filter holders, plus housings composed partially or entirely of metal. These heavier models stand up to frequent use.

Espresso Gaggia
Housing is composed of plastic, making it a lighter weight unit. Water reservoir holds 25 cups and is removable. You can warm your cups on the heating surface on top of the machine. Has a deep, removable drip tray which facilitates in clean up. Like the commercial machines that Gaggia began making decades ago, this machine demonstrates the company's care and concern for the quality of their products. Evidence of this is seen in the secure chrome-plated brass portafilter and other main components. The machine makes a smooth, bittersweet, delicious cup of espresso with a generous layer of golden brown crema. Switching from brew function to steam function occurs in seconds. Frothing wand has a patented black plastic "Turbo Froth" nozzle which assists in producing better aeration.

Coffee Gaggia
Housing is mostly metal with some heavy plastic, accounting for the price difference in from the previous Gaggia model. The main components are made of chrome forged brass. This model offers a 30 cup removable reservoir and has a deep, removable drip tray. As with the Espresso Gaggia, this model makes a good cup of espresso. Gaggia's patented "Turbo Froth" steaming nozzle is also on this model.

Krups Novo Compact
This, as with all Krups models, comes with a "Perfect Froth" wand for making good froth. The stainless steel boiler makes this is a heavier machine than the previous Krups model mentioned. Offers a 34 ounce reservoir which is visible in the back of the machine, plus a removable, shallow, metal drip tray. Also has a control for pre-heating to reduce the waiting time for a cup of espresso. Has a manually-controlled steam valve for froth. I thought this model produced a descent cup of espresso, but I was more impressed by the froth produced by their patented wand: consistently good. This seems to be a good investment.

Cuisinart Coffee Bar
This machine won my award for best in the lighter weight pump style category. You will have to spend a little bit more (unless you can track down a coupon from Coupon Sherpa) but, for the extra dollars, you are getting the quality and reliable testing that are the benchmarks of Cuisinart. It offers a brew mode selector (no separate steam valve control) which can be switched from brew to froth without a wait. It produces unlimited amounts of steam because it has no boiler. Instead, a thermoblock unit maintains a continuous water temperature by pumping it through a heated coil to arrive at the brew temperature. This thermoblock unit allows you to get continuous cups of coffee, allows you to add water as it brews, and, after use, it empties itself so water doesn't stale in the brewing system. The housing is made of heavy black plastic and includes a warming tray. Cuisinart provides it's own style of frother attachment. The cup of espresso was delicious and quite close to cafe quality with golden, thick crema. The latte had a dense, thick froth which lasted longer than many I've tasted.

Rancilio's Miss Rancilio/Audrey
This model is also known as Rialto. This is as close to a commercial espresso maker that I tested and am including this for those who are seriously addicted to their several daily cups of espresso. It's a very sturdy model that will stand up to the heaviest use. Espresso is near cafe quality and the crema has a nice body (thick, golden and delicious). The machine is solidly built with a brass boiler, a commercial strength pump and a commercial size and weight portafiller that is made of chrome-plated brass. It has a separate on/off switch, a steam switch and a brew switch with a quick transition between each function. The water tank offers a large 52 ounce capacity and is removable. Although it has a water filtering system, Patrick McAllister of Peet's Coffee in Berkeley recommends using filtered water to prevent build up of chemicals in the interior piping. As a safety feature, the pump won't run if the water level is too low. The steam wand has a nice range of motion so that both large and small pitchers of milk can be frothed easily. The housing is made of white enameled cast aluminum and a black plastic base. This was the least attractive of the models I reviewed but it certainly does the job well. According to Patrick of Peet's, "It's easy enough for a beginner to use but offers all the amenities that an expert would want."

Countertop Espresso Makers

The Piston Style
This style of espresso maker's piston are driven by either manual pressure or spring-loaded action. When lifted, the piston pulls heated water from the reservoir and into a small chamber where it is forced into a filter of ground coffee by the lowering of the piston. These beautifully crafted machines have sleek, atomic-looking chrome exteriors which beg to be kept on your kitchen countertop for all to admire. Basically, they are fairly quiet and simple to use, once you've mastered them. They make good espresso and have a valve and frothing wand which make steamed milk reminiscent of the froth I found on cappuccinos in Italy. All have visible water level indicators. A disadvantage of these models is that the machine has to be turned off, cooled, and the steam must be allowed to escape before you can refill the boiler chamber. Then, you must wait until the water reheats, which can take up to fifteen minutes, before coffee can be brewed again. Also, one chamber is used for both the brewing and the frothing and this results in water temperature that is hotter than the preferred 186 degrees F. to 192 degrees F. range. But, if you are a romantic at heart who has the patience to learn the art of making espresso like a seasoned Italian barista, these models just might be what you want.

Europiccola Pavoni
A popular home brewing model that comes either in combination chrome body with a black base or an all chrome machine. Makes 1-2 cups at a time. Tank capacity is 12 cups. Makes a good cup of espresso with pleasant amount of golden crema. The all chrome model cost more than the chrome/black model.

Baby Lusso, by Riviera
A favorite among the piston-driven home model . This also offers a 12 cup capacity reservoir. All chrome housing. Provides a delicious cup of espresso and crema.

Professional Pavoni
An all chrome model with a large 16 cup capacity water reservoir. The larger size may be a drawback for many households as you have to wait quite a while before refilling the water tank. The machine's appearance is a plus: it made of attractive, gleaming chrome. The cup of espresso wasn't as snappy and bittersweet as the smaller Pavoni models.

Alessi Gaudensio
Although I didn't have an opportunity to taste the espresso from this model, I couldn't resist putting this on my list. It's made by the reputable Riviera espresso makers and was just released for sale this year. The exterior boasts the sleekest chrome design of all models I've seen. It has a domed appearance similar to those Alessi-designed chrome cream and sugar sets that are in some of the better design and housewares stores. It offers a 12 cup capacity reservoir.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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