The word alone, when mentioned to a coffee drinker, will usually conger up one of two responses; either a smile of delight or an impression of one who just sucked on a lemon. It is a shame that a “lemon face” is a more common response than one of delight.

“Strong and bitter” is the definition most Americans have of espresso, and that is a shame. When properly created, espresso is a rich, full-bodied, delicious representation of what coffee can be. And even more sad is that few have ever had a “straight” espresso. A large percentage of those who have ordered an espresso in the United States have found it an unpleasant experience, but it does not have to be so.

Espresso is the ultimate expression of what coffee has to offer. It is created with special equipment which operate inside a well-controlled, narrow set of parameters. Lets take a general look at the process. To make espresso you need to take finely-ground coffee which is packed tightly and placed in a sealed chamber. Water at high pressure (around 135 pounds per square inch) is forced through the coffee. The water should be in a range of about 198 to 202 degrees Fahrenheit. For a double espresso, it should take about 25 seconds to create about two ounces of beverage. The coffee itself must be from quality coffee beans, properly roasted. And freshly roasted beans! The best espresso comes from coffee that is fresh so make sure you store your coffee properly. The goal of all this is to place into the cup all that is good in the coffee. Sounds simple.

The problem with most coffee shop espresso is that few of those parameters are met. Certainly there are shops who take their espresso seriously, but they are the exception. The rule is that most coffee shop customers are looking for a quick morning fix and a large, hot beverage of some sort. Instead of a two ounce delight they order a 12 ounce hot milkshake. You can draw a parallel to that by comparing a fine steak to a fast-food hamburger. Both are meat and both are cooked, but the similarities end there. It's “cook” vs. “chef.” What to do?

Espresso can be created at home but it's not like plugging in a $10 department store drip maker, opening up a $6 big red jug of coffee, and flipping a switch. At least not if you are trying for the steak and not the burger. Learning how to make espresso coffee at home starts with the right equipment and techniques. Let's take a look at what equipment you'd need for making espresso at home.

Pod Machines

Combining ease of use to its extreme, pod machines have become popular. Pods are proprietary, prepackaged, and ready-to-brew coffee “pucks.” They are roasted, ground, and packed into various forms, ready to brew. Usually it involves tearing open an individually-sealed package, dropping the pod into the machine's brew area, closing the brew chamber and hitting the brew button.

PROS: Ease of use, quick preparation, minimum cleanup, and often small footprint on the counter

CONS: Trading beverage quality for convenience, locked into one style of pod, and higher cost per cup.

Traditional Espresso Machines

We enter a whole new world here. Learning how to use an espresso machine involves learning about the different types of coffee machines. Some of these machines are setup in a way that enables them to operate as pod machines. Remove the portafilter, drop the pod in, lock the portafilter into the machine, ad hit the brew button. But for the best results you absolutely need to use fresh-ground coffee. That involves a coffee grinder. So the space requirement, and possibly the investment, expands.

The grinder is the critical component. Unfortunately, at least for the electric variety, entry level espresso grinders cost a few hundred dollars. These are precision instruments. They need to be able to adjust the grind to 0.001”, and in some cases even to smaller increments than that. This adjustment is what regulates the flow of the water through the coffee.

The espresso machine needs to regulate the pressure of the water as well as the temperature of the water. This takes a pump with pressure control and thermostats designed for the purpose. Combined with the espresso grinder, an entry level combination can easily cost $500-600. Yes, entry level! You very well may be thinking, “If that's entry level, what are we talking about at the other end of the spectrum?” As has been often quoted, “If you have to ask, you can't afford it!” Actually there are grinders that sell for up to $2000, seriously! But there are some very nice ones for home use for half that or less. Yes, just the grinder.

There is also a time commitment. Allowing the machine to warm up for twenty to thirty minutes or more, preparation and clean up, etc. Grind, dose, tamp, brew, stem milk, and all the related clean up. Some have the time for that, others do not. There is also the long-term commitment. Espresso is (or at least can be) an art. Much like learning a musical instrument, the basics are fairly simple, but learning to do it well takes time. But also, like music, it can bring a lifetime's enjoyment. It sounds like a lot, but essentially it is a commitment to a gourmet food.

PROS: Potential for excellent coffee, very often better than what is available in local coffee shops.

CONS: Can be a bit messy, can be expensive to get started, may require practice and attention to detail to create the best beverage possible.

Super Automatic Machines

Maybe you are looking for more than a pod machine can offer but are not ready to put in the time nor dedicate the space for a separate espresso machine and grinder. Maybe the convenience of being able to simply push a button to get an espresso is alluring. If so, then a super automatic (“super-auto”) is what you need.

Super-auto espresso machines are in a group by themselves. They combine a grinder and an espresso machine into one appliance and add the control needed to make espresso and milk-based espresso beverages, literally at the push of a button. They have a hopper in which to place the coffee beans. When a beverage is selected the machine grinds the bean, places then ground coffee in the brewing group, brews the espresso into your cup, then dumps the grounds in its internal waste bin, cleans itself, and is ready to make the next beverage.

Some super-auto machines are very sophisticated allowing the user to create custom beverages and store that “recipe” so you can have your personal favorite at the push of a button. Many will even froth milk and dispense it into your cup as well. Some even have refrigerated milk containers so the milk can be stored either next to or in the machine.

PROS: fast and easy to use with little or no knowledge once set up.

CONS: more expensive than pod machines and generally, in the hands of an experienced barista, the separate espresso machine and grinder have more potential for superior beverages. Prices range from the hundreds to the thousands.

Your Choice?

So which one best suits you? This article was written to familiarize you with the basics of the different machine and system types available. It is by no means more than just a basic introduction. Give us a call and let's talk about your needs. We can help you choose the system which best suits your needs, space, and budget.

Your espresso machine awaits!

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