Espresso coffee is an acquired taste. If you have it, you got it at the local coffee shop at $1.50 a shot. The fancy brews—the latte and cappuccinos—cost twice as much. So why not be your own barista and get your ‘espresso fix’ at home?
Well, the principal reason is that the machines are very pricey and, at that, some do not make a product as good as the coffee shop. Worse still, making the stuff can be messy if one buys a low-end machine that requires handling pre-ground coffee and spent coffee grounds before and after each and every shot. You can get around that by selecting a machine (1) that uses capsules or pods of pre-packaged ground coffee or (2) an automatic machine that makes the espresso from stored coffee beans. The former are expensive ($200 to $500), the latter are very expensive ($800 to $2200). Some machines are both manual and pod capable. Manual machines are less expensive. Of these, the least costly are the “boiler-type.” They run in the $90 to $150 range. I have one. It is slow, messy and produces an inconsistent product. It gathers dust atop the fridge.
After consideration of cost vs. convenience, specifications are needed. Nespresso’s Suzanne Dilenge provided these parameters: The machine makes espresso by forcing hot water through specially blended and ground coffee that is packed into a small, sturdy chamber.
· Water temperature and temperature control are important. (The boiler-type machines fail both.) Water temperature, as it passes through the ground coffee, should be in the range of 186 to 197ºF. Too cold and the extraction process is not complete and the coffee is not hot enough in the cup; too hot and the ground coffee is burned in the process of extraction. (Folklore has it that Starbucks’ espresso is produced at a higher temperature to impart a desired degree of burnness.)
· High pressure is necessary to extract the essential oils from the ground coffee and to produce the crema on the surface of the espresso. This pressure is measured in “bars.” Pressures range from 15 to 19 bars. Higher is better. Nespresso touts 19 bars of pressure as the highest in the industry.
There are many machines out there. If you’re interested, don’t buy without consulting these Web sites:
· wholelattelove.com is a great site in that it provides detailed information on the machines they carry, including customer reviews that are very informative. In general, the reviews confirm that you get what you pay for. But even the high-end machines have design quirks that may annoy you.
· nespresso.com presents Nestlé’s capsule-only machines, their numerous capsule coffee selections and their international support system. Their ‘Nespresso’ machines are very good and very competitively priced, since they make their profit from selling coffee.
· cafemaison.com carries a wide array of machines and sells coffee, as well.
In How to Cook a Wolf, M.F.K Fisher says that, “Coffee is one thing that cannot be made skimpily. If you are going to economize with it, do so by using it less often, but never by trying to make it with less coffee and cooking it longer. Coffee, when it is brewed intelligently, is a perfect accompaniment . . .”