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The five

What are the five key points I need to look at?

Steam vs. Pump

Pump espresso machines can achieve the 9 pressure bars needed for ideal espresso shot consistency and flavor, but cost more than steam espresso machines. If flavor, not budget, is your concern, go for a pump espresso machine.

Machine Style

Choose a manual espresso machine if you’re coffee-obsessed and want to hone your barista skills. Stick to automatic or super-automatic machines if all you want is to save yourself a trip to the café for that latte.

Milk Frothing

This capability is a must if you want lattes and cappuccinos. Espresso machines usually come with wands to do the job, but if you’re all about automation, choose a higher-end machine that can froth for you.

Temperature

Machines that derive pressure from steam can sacrifice taste, but pump-driven machines are often more expensive. If your drink of choice is a latte or cappuccino, the steam machine might suit your needs without hurting your wallet. Straight espresso drinkers will get better results from the lower-temp pump machines.

Maintenance

Espresso machines can be messy to clean. If you want flavor without fuss, stick with the pod or super-automatic machines.

Shop talk

What are the terms and definitions I need to know about?

Automatic

Any espresso machine that is not entirely manual. Superautomatic machines handle every step of the pull process, including clean-up, while semi-automatic and automatic varieties automate just the “pull.”

Bar

This is the pressure rating on most pump espresso machines. Ideally, machines will produce 9 bars of pressure when the shot is pulled. Steam machines generate 1-3 bars, while pump machines are capable of building an acceptable level to produce intense flavor and a crema.

Crema

A well-pulled shot will have a slight head of foam that is gold and brown in color. It’s also a good indication that the espresso will taste flavorful and balanced.

Manual

On manual machines, baristas are able to pull the shot themselves by depressing a lever which allows pressurized steam to pass through the espresso grounds.

Moka Pot

The moka pot is a manual machine that is used on the stove top to make strong coffee. It is capable of producing roughly 1.5 bars which it then forces through coffee grounds using steam.

Pod

Aone-shot, pre ground, and pre-packed serving of ground coffee that can be used in pod machines for a no-mess espresso fix.

Steam versus Pump

Pulling a balanced espresso shot depends on a multitude of factors: the temperature of the water, the rate at which the water is forced through the espresso grounds, the amount of pressure used to tamp the grounds into the filter-basket, and the quality and size of the grind of the coffee beans.

To handle this delicate balance, today’s machines offer a wide range of automation options. So, when you’re choosing an espresso machine, it’s important to consider how much control you desire over the final product. If you’re looking to hone your barista skills, then you will want a machine that lets you practice your craft. On the other hand, if you are just craving a homemade alternative to the store-bought latte, then you ought to be satisfied by a machine that handles most of the work for you.

The intense flavor of espresso is a result of high pressure, measured in bars, which can be generated by steam or by a pump. Most steam espresso machines can produce only 1-3 bars of pressure, while electric pumps are capable of achieving the 9 bars that are recommended for ideal espresso flavor and consistency. Steam machines boil water in a chamber which is then forced through the espresso grounds at a very high temperature. If it’s flavor you’re after, you’ll want to look at pump espresso machines instead.

Electric pump machines heat the water to an optimal temperature for extraction without boiling the water in the chamber, which can sometimes produce a bitter taste and they can be manual, fully automatic, semi-automatic or super-automatic. Steam espresso machines tend to be noisy, but they do produce consistent shots, and are often less expensive than the electric pump variety, which, though they deliver better flavor and consistency require that you have a more watchful eye unless you choose one with fully or super-automatic functions.

Espresso Machine Style

Manual espresso machines offer the home barista a true, but gratifying, challenge. With this machine, your inner barista controls the entire shot-pulling process; you not only fill and tamp the filter-basket, but also pull the shot by applying pressure to the lever which forces water through the grounds (this is the technique from which “pull” got its name). Sound like too much work? Unless you’ve got your heart set on a steam espresso machine, leave the manual machine to the purists and professionals and consider one of the various automatic espresso machines on the market today.

Automatic espresso machines come in either semi-automatic or fully automatic varieties. In both, an electric pump delivers water to the espresso grounds. On automatic machines, the brew pressure can be controlled by an electronic console, and can turn itself off when it is done pulling the shot. For the best of both worlds, choose a semi-automatic espresso machine where you control everything but the pump extraction process—grinding the beans, filling the filter-basket, tamping it with adequate pressure, and timing the shot. And then there are the super-automatic espresso machines, the primary advantage of which is ease of use. To operate one, you only need to fill the machine with espresso beans and water. A built-in grinder produces an acceptably fine grind, and then tamps it with appropriate pressure. After pulling its shots, the espresso machine even disposes of the used grounds by putting them in an internal waste receptacle. Some super-automatic machines come equipped with an automatic milk-frothing capability, which allows you to produce homemade lattes or cappuccinos in mere minutes. These machines are gaining popularity as more espresso-drinkers are looking for an easy way to make their own shots at home.

Even higher on the ease-of-use spectrum is the pod espresso machine which uses pre-packaged disks of ground espresso instead of loose grounds. The advantages of this machine are its ease of use and its lack of mess. However, many espresso traditionalists argue that the product is inferior to the complex cup that a barista can create. These same espresso experts probably wouldn’t use a moka pot, which is a stovetop espresso machine, because the final product lacks the highly-desirable cream. Moka pot espresso machines are easy to use. Simply place the moka pot on the stove to heat the water in the bottom chamber, and the resulting steam travels to the middle chamber where it is forced through the ground coffee. Additionally the moka pot is portable, making them a good choice for tailgating, camping or travel.

Milk Frothing

Most espresso machines have a steam wand which allows you to froth milk for espresso drinks such as lattes and cappuccinos. If you enjoy these specialty drinks, you should determine if you want to froth your own milk, or if you want the machine to do it for you and make your decision accordingly. Some machines let you froth while the espresso shot is pouring. This cuts down on time and prevents either the milk or the espresso from sitting for too long before they are mixed together. If timing’s not your forte, skip the wand and choose an espresso machine with a built-in frother. Want a milk frothing secret without a machine? Here’s how to do it: Start with a microwave safe container with a very tight fitting lid (kid’s juice cups with a screw on lid work well). Fill with ½ cup of milk, microwave uncovered for 1 minute. Remove, and secure the lid as tightly as possible. Shake the container vigorously. Cover the lid with a kitchen towel (for protection from hot steamy milk), and slowly remove the cap. Inside you will find frothy milk without a machine.

Temperature

Espresso machines use varying methods to acquire the high pressure necessary to extract flavor from the extra-fine coffee grounds. The ideal “pull time” for an espresso shot is 25-30 seconds. In this short period, 1.5 ounces of water are pushed through the coffee at a high temperature (roughly 195 degrees). If the water is not hot enough, then the espresso will turn out bitter. If it’s too hot, then the espresso will taste sour. High-end models have internal gauges that produce the ideal temperature for flavor extraction. Steam machines produce a higher temperature at the expense of flavor, but if you are going to use your machine for milk-based drinks, then you might prefer to stick with these less expensive models.

Maintenance

Pod and super-automatic machines are designed to require very little maintenance or clean-up. Manual machines grant you the ultimate control over the final product, but they can be messy once you are done pulling a shot. If you think the necessary cleanup will make you use your machine less often, stick with pod or super-automatic espresso machines. Some espresso-drinkers want the taste without the hassle, while others seek a machine that will allow them to pull their own delicately-balanced shots regardless of mess.

Looks. Trained baristas and regular espresso drinkers alike can tell if a shot has been well-pulled just by looking at it. The color is rich, the consistency is adequately thick, and the crema dances on top of the liquid. But the look of the espresso machine is also subject to the discriminating eye. Espresso machine makers pay attention to how your appliance will look when it sits on your countertop. You’ll pay more for stainless steel, but you can also find some models housed in plastic to cut down on the price. You’ve got options and won’t have to sacrifice form for function.

Experts say

  • Slate.com – “Nespresso D290 Espesso Machine. Espresso machines are the home-appliance equivalent of six-speed sports cars—they take countless hours to get used to and even then continue to act up. Not so in the case of Nespresso's handsome D290 model, which is so simple that a 5-year-old could master it and so consistent that I managed to get a near-perfect espresso shot out of it every time.” Source: slate.com
  • Coffeegeek.com – “It's very tempting to buy the cheapest machine out there; after all, there's plenty of machines on the market costing $150 to $250 that have the minimum specifications required to brew a great shot. And I stand by my claim that I can make great espresso with a $200 machine. But if that $200 machine ends up breaking down in two years, requiring a $150 boiler replacement, and the plastic outer body cracks, and the pressurized portafilter starts to fall apart, all of a sudden, it makes spending $475 on a more professional calibre machine much more economical and less stressful than mailing a $200 machine cross country for repair and being without your espresso fix for a month or longer.” Source: coffeegeek.com
  • Wholelattelove.com – “After taking a deeper look at the Bosch Benvenuto B30 Espresso Machine, it becomes apparent that there isn’t a whole lot about the machine that you can’t figure out just by looking at it. It features a distinct combination of clearly marked controls, an easily visible message center, and high-quality internal components that don’t take a graduate level education to grasp. That intuitive simplicity coupled with its understated appearance make the B30 an obvious choice for freshmen and alumni of the espresso university alike.” Source: Wholelattelove.com

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