Espresso Machine Buying Guide
What is a Espresso Machine?
Some say that espresso is like the new moonshine, due to the increasing popularity of making it for yourself at home. But thanks to the advanced espresso machines on the market, making a fine cup of hot brew for yourself is not nearly as complicated as fermenting booze in a claw foot tub. Whether you’re an amateur or a connoisseur you’ll find it easy to make an espresso drink with one of these elegant and user-friendly machines that fits perfectly on your kitchen countertop. And you’ll feel good doing it, knowing that you’re not paying the top-dollar that is being charged for a cappuccino in a cafe.
That being said, those who are new to the practice of pulling their own shots will find it intimidating to find the right equipment, because there are simply so many machines on the market these days. Some of these machines seem quite complicated, and some have price tags so high that even the most espresso-addicted individuals will gasp and have second thoughts. But be confident that the right espresso machine for you is out there somewhere, and it’s truly not hard to find when you know the basics about these devices. When you follow this guide to buying the right espresso machine, you’ll find that it’s not only stress-free but also fun to hunt down your dream machine.
What is Espresso?
To begin, it’s best to have a little background information about this rich brew that you crave. Espresso coffee is a blend of different types of coffee bean from various different countries. The beans are finely roasted until they are incredibly dark and somewhat oily looking. After being roasted, espresso beans are ground very finely, and that’s where there’s the most distinction from regular coffee. Once the beans reach a consistency akin to powdered sugar, they’re ready to brew. The finer the espresso is ground the slower it takes for the water to pass through it, and that’s why there’s so much intense flavor. A good batch of espresso should take 25 seconds for all the water to pass through.
Why Does Espresso Taste So Good?
Coffee nerds agree that espresso is the finest tasting coffee in the world, and this is due to the high pressure of the extraction process which enhances the aroma and the body of the coffee. Because there are so many factors that go into the perfect espresso, such as perfect pressure, temperature, and timing, it is said that, “espresso is the finest drink because it is the harmonious combination of several elements controlled at a perfect level.”Not only is the quality of the coffee and brewing process superior, but there are so many fun and delicious renditions of this coffee that use the espresso as a base for steamed milk, sweetness, and flavor enhancements.
What is Crema?
Crema is that delicious, thick, foamy layer that sits atop the espresso liquid. This is not the foam that comes from milk, but rather the natural downy foam created by the coffee itself. This adds an intense softness and flavor to the espresso, and what makes the coffee so complex and interesting on the palate. Hardly just air, crema is actually a melding of air, gases, water and coffee that is a result of the pressurized extraction process. This adds a fine body and aroma to the espresso that you can never get from plain coffee.
How a Simple Espresso Machine Works
The most basic machines use pressure that comes from heating the water inside the vessel, and this pressure powers the brewing process. All you do is basically pack the coffee into a funnel-shaped piece of metal that has a tube that extends to the bottom of the reservoir. When you put a few ounces into the reservoir and screw on the top, you’re ready to start brewing. Heated water will build pressure inside the vessel, and the only way for it to escape is to come up the tube. This is a simple process, but not necessarily the easiest machine to use because often the temperature of the water can exceed what is the ideal brewing temperature. To avoid this problem, it’s best to find an espresso machine that regulates its own temperature, thus leaving less room for error.
Espresso Machine Categories
You’ll find that there are four main categories of espresso machine, and these include manual, semi auto, full auto, and super automatic. When you get a better sense of which one of these you’re looking for, you can greatly simplify your hunting process for the best machine. We will begin with the most labor-intensive machines, and work our way to the most intuitive and automatic.
Manual machines have all the charm of an antique restored car from the 1900s, but many agree that they’re better to have as an homage to the history of espresso making, and less so for actually making a cappuccino. Yes, there are fewer buttons and bells and whistles on these machines, but what you’re losing is the ability to maintain constant water pressure, and users must push water through the coffee manually which can diminish the quality of the finished product. That’s why, even though these machines are charming and more affordable, they should really only be used by the most experienced baristas.
Achilles Gaggia patented the semi-auto espresso machine in 1938, which introduced electric pumps into the devices. The benefit of this was that users could enjoy more even and hands-free water pressure, which resulted in a better shot of espresso. When operating a semi-auto you can turn the pump on and off, and all boiler temperature controls are automated. This is the most popular type of ‘traditional’espresso machine that you can find today, however there are still many modern advantages that are missing on this basic machine. A great deal of skill and practice is still required to use a semi-auto.
Despite the difference in name, the fully-auto is quite similar to the semi-auto, except that they include an electronic nanny which regulates the amount of water that passes through the espresso during brewing. That is the only innovation on these machines that sets them apart from the semi-auto.
Which brings us to the machines with all the bells and whistles that you crave: the super automatic. Many of these machines take care of a lot of the work for you, and also include built-in grinding features and other fun tools. “Cafe Crema”has come into popularity thanks to these amazing machines, as well as many other coffee creations and innovations. If you’re new to making espresso, and you want to make the most fun and creative drinks imaginable, then a super automatic espresso machine is what you’re looking for.
Define What Features You’re Looking For
Finding the right espresso machine for your home begins with asking yourself exactly what you want out of your machine. Begin by asking yourself what kinds of drinks you want to make. Are you planning on brewing straight espresso, cappuccinos, or both? Also, ask yourself how many people in the household will be using machine, and what volume of beverages you will be churning out. If you plan on making yourself a couple of lattes each weekend, then you’ll be looking for a much different machine than if you and your 4 children want to make cappuccinos every morning for the next 10 years of your lives. Some machines are much more geared towards sustained performance and durability than others.
Investigate whether or not you’ll be able to use a direct plumb machine that connects right to your home’s water pipes. This adds a great deal of convenience, but you must first make sure that you’re capable of doing this in your home. Do not fear if you don’t have this capability, because you can simply buy a machine with a water reservoir that you fill manually. Also, determine what kind of power supply you have available in your home, as some machines require more than others.
What do you get for your money?
When it comes to spending cash on an espresso machine, what you’re really paying for are boilers. Most machines that are under $1,000 will use a single boiler with dual-use setups. What this means is that they use a single thermostat to control the water temperature, and therefore cannot brew espresso and steam milk simultaneously. A single boiler espresso machine is not the right choice if you want to make a beverage fast, and perform multiple functions at the same time.
When you’re spending above $1,000 you’re probably getting a single boiler, heat exchanger machine. These feature a large boiler which maintains water temperature at around 240˚, and allows you to brew and steam milk simultaneously. These machines are more user friendly and allow you to make a beverage more quickly.
Lastly, if you’re spending over $2,000, you’re definitely going to be getting a dual boiler, which features two separate boilers to brew and steam simultaneously. Please keep in mind that even though these machines are incredibly impressive, many North American 110V power outlets cannot handle the needs of this caliber of machine. For those living in Europe, owning this kind of machine is much more feasible. There are, however, many North American brands that are finding ways to work around this as we speak.
Tips for Owning an Espresso Machine
Once you find the perfect espresso machine that fits right into your budget, it’s important to take care of it so that it will perform for years to come. One important factor is cleaning. You want to clean your espresso machine every day to avoid the build-up of residue on your machine. When residue does build-up you can get over-extraction and staleness which results in a burnt taste that you do not desire. Many machines on the market today will have a cleaning button that automatically performs a cleaning cycle to remove residue, which makes your life much easier. It’s also best to find a machine that has easily removable parts that you can wipe down, or even put in the dishwasher. All in all, taking proper care of your machine is essential to its wellbeing, and the flavor of your coffee.
Know Your Machine
Knowledge is power, and one of the best ways to maintain your machine is to simply know about it. You want to pay attention to the details of your machine, such as the max pump pressure, and whether or not it’s self-priming. Also, pay attention to what type of boiler setup you have, and if there is a thermostat involved. Knowing these details will inform you as to how much personal effort you need to put into making your drink, and what you need to do to keep your machine at optimal performance level. Pay attention to the water tank, if there is one, and how you can best maintain it. Knowing these details is important to get the most out of your espresso machine.
The Importance of a Quality Bean Grinder
Grinding the beans is the first step in making great espresso, and if you mess that up, nothing that you do afterwards will fix it. That means that you need to invest in a high quality bean grinder and learn how to use it properly. This fundamental step in the process is not to be overlooked. Many espresso machines come with their own bean grinders these days, and if it’s a high quality machine, then it’s probably going to be an equally high quality grinder. Follow the instructions, and become a master at grinding to the optimum consistency.
Once you find the perfect espresso machine, delving into the world of accessories is even more daunting. You will not believe how many things there are out there to enhance your espresso-brewing experience. That being said, many of these accessories are considered to be obsolete by seasoned espresso makers. Take for instance the crema enhancers. These attachments can actually damage a good cup of espresso, and not enhance it at all. Also be mindful that espresso machines with bar ratings, such as 15, 16, or 18 are not always completely accurate due to restrictors and overflow valves, so take that with a grain of salt. There are frothing aids out there, and they may seem helpful, but in the long run it isn’t too hard to get a handle on frothing, and with time this aid will seem obsolete. They can also reduce the natural sweetness of the milk froth because they continuously administer heat. Lastly, be weary of steam buttons that can be switched on and off, as these do not allow you the same leverage as steam knobs.
With this knowledge under your belt, you’re ready to dive into the world of espresso machines, and find the one that’s just right for you. Do not fear enormous price tags because, after all, you are looking to purchase a machine that is ultra-specialized, precision made, and able to produce incredibly refined espresso that costs a fortune in most restaurants and cafes. The added convenience and luxury of being able to make these drinks in your own home is something that you can’t put a price tag on anyhow. It seems like a serious endeavor to purchase an espresso machine, but once it’s in your kitchen, you’ll be amazed by the impressive, delectable, and invigorating drinks that are right at your fingertips.
And a final thought: don’t be afraid to take your time when looking for the right espresso machine for you. What you’re purchasing is an investment piece, and something that is sure to bring great pleasure to your home and daily life. Get to know the machines you’re interested in, learn about them, how they’re constructed, and how they work optimally. Fostering this knowledge and understanding will only enhance your enjoyment of purchasing a machine, and tasting the fruits of your labor.