Espresso is becoming more and more popular in the United States. It is becoming so popular that it isn’t unusual to see coffee cafes, drive-through espresso shops, and espresso carts within blocks of each other in large cities.  You will also find them in bookstores, grocery stores, laundromats, gas stations and movie theaters.

 

What is an Espresso?

To really appreciate espresso, we need to know what it is.  Many people are wrong in thinking that this type of beverage is a roasting method.  It has nothing to do with the coffee bean or the coffee blend.  In fact, it is all about how the coffee is prepared and it is not a roast at all.  It is usually made by mixing several roasts and varietals together to form a bold, robust tasting beverage.  It’s not bitter tasting, contrary to what some might think. 

To make one of these beverages, you pack the finely ground coffee tightly into a “portafilter” of the espresso machine.  Once the grounds are packed into the “portafilter,” about 1.5 ounces of high-pressure water is forced through the grounds and extracted in small, concentrated amounts and thus, you have your drink.  If the process is done correctly, you should have a dark brown, slightly thick liquid with a small amount of crema on top.  The crema is kind of like a foam on top of the liquid that traps the fine smells and flavors that register on the palate.  It is part of the visual lure of this type of beverage!  Essentially, what you will get is a shot-sized glass that has a small amount of very strong, robust tasting coffee in it.

There are many things that have to be taken into account when making an espresso.  A few of the variables that impact the quality of this drink include the water temperature, the water pressure, how fine the coffee is ground and how tight the coffee grinds are packed. 

You might ask what the difference is between an espresso, a cappuccino and a latte? Most specialty café beverages come from the espresso.  To make a cappuccino, frothed milk is added to the espresso and to make a latte, steamed milk is added to it.  Other flavorings can be added to the beverages to customize them into a wide variety of drinks that you might find at your favorite coffeehouse.

Espresso Machines

Types of Espresso Machines

Steam Espresso Machine:  The simplest espresso machines use pressure that comes from heating water until steam is produced.  Pressure is created by the steam to force the steaming hot water through the coffee grounds.  The pressure in a steam machine is not high enough or consistent enough to produce a true crema like a pump machine produces.  Steam machines may not make a favorable crema, but they do come with a steam wand that makes these machines perfect for preparing cappuccinos and lattes.  Reason being is that the espresso’s taste is softened with milk, making delicious cappuccinos and lattes. 

These machines are affordable and are great for the person that is just beginning to make espresso beverages.  They even make a camping trip model that can be taken on a , so if you are going to be spending some time out in the wilderness and can’t do without your espresso, this might be a unit you want to look into!

Advantages:

  • Very affordable
  • Makes a great gift and won’t cost you an arm and a leg
  • Affordable price for your very first investment in an espresso machine

Disadvantages:

  • The water has to be hot enough to create pressurized steam and may scald the espresso
  • After the unit is used to make your beverage, it has to cool down before another beverage can be made
  • Not enough pressure to produce a true crema
  • Can be potentially dangerous if it is not used correctly

Pump Espresso Machines:  A littler fancier machine than the steam machine, but still easy to operate.  These machines have a thermoblock system that heats the water to the exact temperature, 190°F to 195°F, for the perfect espresso.  Water is forced by the internal pump through the thermoblock at a high pressure.

The thermoblock system lets you heat water to separate temperatures for brewing and steaming thus allowing you to make a true crema.  It also lets you make cappuccinos and lattes by providing a continuous steam.

To produce a true crema, eight bars of pressure are needed.  Most pump espresso machines produce 15 or more bars.

How does a Pump Espresso Machine Work?

First, water is poured into the reservoir of the machine and then pumped out of the reservoir.  The thermoblock system has coils, like a radiator, where the water is flash heated.  If espresso is being brewed, the water is heated to just below boiling temperature.  If steam is required for your beverage, the water will be heated to 275 degrees.

The temperatures required to brew espresso, or for steaming, or for frothing milk are all different.  Because of the difference in temperatures, there will be a small amount of lag time in between when the machine is ready for one function and getting ready for another function.

Advantages:  

  • The machine doesn’t have to cool before opening the stopper so you can keep brewing or steaming
  • The coffee won’t be scalded or maybe even ruined because the temperature that is needed to brew is a separate process than the process needed to obtain the correct temperature for steaming
  • Will be able to produce a true crema
  • Compared to the steam espresso machines, the pump machine has a shorter lag time between brewing and steaming

Disadvantages:

  • May be too expensive for some potential buyers
  • Even though the lag time isn’t as long as the lag time for steam machines, there is still a small lag time between steaming and brewing

What to Look For When Buying an Espresso Machine

Usability

  • Is it easy to see the indicator lights?
  • Is it easy to read the switches?
  • Will it brew into the size of cup you want to drink out of?  Make sure you look to see how much room is between the spouts and drip tray to check this out.
  • Is the cup warming tray usable or is it just there for looks?

Grinding Capabilities

  • Does the machine have a built-in grinder?  Some built-in grinders host the unground coffee beans in a canister until you are ready to brew a cup of joe.  All you have to do is select how much coffee you want to grind.  You might like this feature because you will always have fresh ground coffee for your cup of brew.  Built-in grinders offer a truly robust tasting coffee blend on demand.
  • If the machine doesn’t have a built-in grinder, you’ll have to store your coffee grounds in a canister or receptacle.
  • If you have to add the coffee to the basket, you should see how complicated it is.

Water Storage and Water Filter

  • Make sure you know how the water goes into the machine.  Depending on the machine, your home may need to be rewired or you may need to rerout the water lines to accommodate the machine if it is a self-fill.  If you are not willing to rewire or rerout the water lines, you will want to look for a machine that hosts its own water.
  • Many espresso machines have built-in water filters.  The purpose of these filters is to take out any chlorine or iron tastes from the tap water.  While these are a nice feature to have, they add extra maintenance and cost because you have to replace the filters.

Easy to Clean?

  • When deciding which machine to purchase, you should make sure that it is easy to take apart and put back together again for cleaning purposes.  It is important to clean your machine properly every time it has been used to keep the unit in working order for many years to come.

Storage

  • If you are going to leave your appliance out on the cabinet, make sure you have enough room for it and that it isn’t obtrusive.  Can it slide underneath your upper cabinets so you can tuck it away and keep it out of the everyday kitchen traffic?  If you aren’t going to store it on the counter top, do you have space to store it away in a cabinet?

Pre-Moistening Cycle

  • This is a cycle where the coffee grounds are moistened before your shot is pulled.  This is a cool little trick that pulls out the aromatic oils and thus, you have a better tasting espresso!

Is the Machine Capable of Frothing?

  • To correctly froth the milk, there should be a spout, usually called a frother, for pressurized milk to flow from.  For this to work correctly, the pressure should be at just the right temperature and PSI.  Not all espresso machines have frothing capabilities, but if you want to make espresso-based beverages like cappuccinos, macchiatos, and Americanos your machine should have frothing capabilities.

What are Cappuccinos, Macchiatos and Americanos?

Cappuccino:  A coffee beverage that is made of espresso and hot milk and foamed milk tops the surface.  Cappuccinos are usually prepared with an espresso machine.  The bottom third of the cup is espresso, the next third is hot milk, and the top third of the beverage is milk foam.  The milk foam can be decorated with artistic drawings and is called latte art.

Macchiato:  An espresso coffee beverage that has a small amount of milk added to it which is usually a foam milk.  Macchiato means ‘stained’ or ‘spotted’ in Italian, so caffè macchiato means ‘stained coffee’ or coffee with a spot of milk.

Americano:  Hot water is added to espresso which gives it a similar strength to regular drip coffee but it has a different flavor from drip coffee.  The strength of an Americano depends on the amount of shots of espresso and the amount of water that is added to the beverage.

Questions to Ask Before You Buy

  • If you are buying the machine online, you should ask if it has ever been used.
  • What is the best way to clean the machine and is it easy to assemble and disassemble?
  • Does the appliance have a coffee grinder?
  • If it has a built-in grinder, how long does it take to grind the beans?
  • Are there any accessories you need to buy in order to make specialty beverages like cappuccinos, macchiatos, and Americanos?
  • Are there any recalls on the model you are thinking about purchasing?
  • Is it pod compatible?  Some of the newer models use pods as well as loose coffee grounds.  Pods are little pre-packed discs of coffee grounds that are great because they don’t leave a mess and it’s easier to make an espresso when you use them!

Conclusion

When purchasing an espresso machine, there are several things you should consider before buying.  Make sure you know what the unit does and if it has all the bells and whistles that you are looking for.  Are there any of those bells and whistles that you can do without?  It also might be a good idea to check out the customer reviews on Amazon and see what consumers are saying about the machine you are considering purchasing.  Check out forums and ask questions about the machine.  Ask consumers what they like and dislike about the machine.  It never hurts to find out as much information as possible before you purchase the appliance and reviewing feedback about the product and interacting with consumers will help in your decision making.  Make sure you have all the information you need to make a smart buying decision!

 

 

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