Espresso machines: Master of the black arts

An espresso machine can transform your kitchen into a café.

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by Julie Cazzin
May 16th, 2008

From the May 2008 issue of the magazine.

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My lust for the ultimate home espresso machine began when I visited my Uncle Frank’s house. My uncle, a retired bakery shop owner, has spent a lifetime perfecting two skills — making crusty ciabatta bread and brewing a smooth cup of espresso. But although he made espressos for years at his bakery, he only recently bought an espresso maker for his home.

He was eager to show me what he could do with his new toy — a huge semi-automatic stainless steel model intended for commercial use. “The espresso it makes is unbelievable,” he told me, as he motioned for me to take a seat at his kitchen table.

Uncle Frank opened a vacuum-packed pouch of Lavazza coffee beans and poured the beans into the machine’s built-in grinder. He packed the ground coffee in the filter, snapped the filter into place and flipped on the switch. Thirty seconds later, creamy black liquid filled the tiny cup. With the smell of fresh espresso filling the kitchen, he calmly awaited my verdict. “It’s wonderful, zio,” I said, “it’s the best I’ve tasted yet.”

Seeing — or in this case, tasting — is believing. I immediately wanted an espresso maker too. But as much as I loved my uncle’s machine, I knew it was too big for my own kitchen. Could a smaller unit do the job as well?

With a few leads from my uncle, I set out to find the perfect home espresso machine. I visited half a dozen suppliers of coffee machines. Over the course of several days, I tasted more espressos and cappuccinos than I could count. My sleep suffered, but I went away assured that, yes, the ultimate in-home coffee could be mine — for a price.

Creating what the coffee mafia calls “good shots” requires an investment of at least $800. The price is high because you need lots of heat and pressure to extract flavor from espresso coffee, and creating that heat and pressure requires heavy duty construction. “In the more expensive machines, the pump and brew unit is stainless steel — not plastic like you’ll see in cheaper units,” says Terry Macaulay, owner of Gaggia House, a coffee machine distributor in Toronto. “The steel construction is why these units can maintain the high temperatures you need to make a great espresso. It also means they can easily last 10 or 20 years.”

Psychology matters too. As I inspected dozens of different espresso makers, I realized that finding the right machine for me was more than a matter of comparing engineering specs. It came down to how involved I wanted to be in the process of making my coffee.

Semi-automatic models require you to grind your own coffee beans. You have to press the grounds into a removable filter and switch the pump on and off by hand. That all adds up to a lot of work — but if you’re a coffee purist, you’ll love the personal control these units give you.

Super-automatics, on the other hand, do everything with the press of a button. They grind coffee beans, dole out the correct dose, brew and eject the coffee grinds, all automatically. No fuss, no muss. But the lack of personal control means that the quality of espresso is just slightly below what you can achieve with a semi-automatic model.

For my money, the following machines make the best espressos and cappuccinos.

FOR THE ESPRESSO PURIST. If, like me, your beverage of choice is a robust shot of dark espresso, the Gaggia Classic ($799) will give you everything you desire and more. In fact, this machine makes some of the best espresso I’ve ever tasted. It’s comparable to Uncle Frank’s in every way. The only catch? You have to be prepared to experiment. The Classic is a semi-automatic, so you do the coffee grinding, then tamp down the coffee by hand. “If you tamp the coffee down too lightly,” says Macaulay, “you’ll get a very weak cup of coffee. But tamp too much and it will take 40 seconds or more to brew, giving you a dark and bitter coffee.” The golden rule of espresso making is that 25 seconds is what’s needed to brew a perfect ounce. With a little practice, this machine produces a perfect espresso every time. (Just one caveat: if you want this unit, shell out $395 for the Gaggia MDF grinder as well. It’s a must to give you the fine coffee grinds that work best with the Classic.)

FOR CAPPUCCINO AND LATTE FANATICS. If creamy lattes are your desired drink, consider the Nuova Simonelli Oscar Professional ($1,495). Matthew Taylor, co-owner of the Mercury Espresso Bar in Toronto and champion barista, says these machines are tops. “The Simonellis are all user-friendly and not difficult to master,” says Taylor, who has used them for years. “Other machines can be a bit more high-tech.”

I loved the Simonelli Nuova because it had an extra powerful pennarello, a frothing tube attachment, so the quality of the steam and froth produced was superb. This pennarello also makes it easy to master latte art, the latest trend among espresso fanatics. (If you’re interested in latte art, check out www. youtube.com and search ‘latte art.’ You’ll find a series of short films that show you how it’s done.)

A MACHINE EVEN A KID COULD USE. If you want the ultimate in convenience, and don’t mind a minor sacrifice in quality, superautomatics are perfect for you. These one-stop coffee-making centres do everything with the press of a button. All you do is pour in the beans, fill up the water reservoir and press a button to produce enviable espresssos, lattes and cappuccinos.

My favorite super-automatics are the sleek Jura machines, made in Switzerland by what was originally a steam iron company. The Impressa F9 ($2,295) allows you to program settings for different sizes of espresso shots. But if you do a lot of entertaining, the more expensive Impressa Z5 ($3,895) is worth the added cost. It can make espresso and cappuccino at the same time and its Dual Frother Plus system has two touch-button settings, one for lattes and one for cappuccinos.

Still too much work for you? Then consider the Nespresso machines. These units simplify espresso-making by using prepackaged coffee capsules sold through the company’s website at www.nespresso. com. The capsule system means no measuring and no clean-up. The drawback, of course, is that you can’t use any other coffee and are locked into buying only from Nespresso.

As annoying as I find that set-up to be, I have to admit that the espresso produced by the fully automatic Nespresso Romeo ($899) was exceptional and second only to that made on the much more laborintensive Gaggia Classic. Cappuccino drinkers can add on an aeroccino for $109. This stainless steel container with a lid whips up perfect froth with no irritating motor noise. Matter of fact, I think it would satisfy even my Uncle Frank.

3 comments on “Espresso machines: Master of the black arts

  1. I really like what you have acquired here, certainly like what you’re stating and the way in which you say it.

    Reply

  2. Very true! Makes a change to see smoeone spell it out like that. :)

    Reply

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