The Magic of Strong Coffee
How to get the best out of your home espresso machine and save a lot of money while you're at it.
Coffee has been used for centuries, valued for its flavor and for its caffeine jolt. The popularity of espresso, a special brewing process that forces steam through the ground coffee, is evidenced by the growth of Starbucks, Caribou Coffee and several others in the United States and abroad. If you ever travel through a college town, you will notice coffee shops on nearly every street corner catering to the student cramming for finals. We know there isn't really magic in coffee, but it does have an allure that is hard to resist.
If you've been visiting one of these fine establishments on a regular basis, you may have thought about how great it would be to charge $3.50 for $.25 worth of coffee and why can't you make it yourself at home? Well, it's easier than you might think and you may even like your own little touches better than the vente, half soy, half nonfat, quad, extra-hot, sugar-free-vanilla, latte.
Choosing a Machine
Steam or Pump?
My wife and I have a passion for strong, good coffee so I got into brewing espresso at home many years ago. Without doing too much investigation, I purchased a Krupps Steam Espresso maker, a pound of ground Starbucks Espresso roast and some vanilla coffee syrup. After much trial and error, I did manage to squirt out a respectable, if not perfect, vanilla latte for my wife. From that point on I was hooked.
A steam espresso machine uses a container of water with a heating element inside that heats the water to steam, driving it up and over and through a strainer filled with compacted finely ground coffee. The brew then drains out into a small pitcher below and is ready to consume as espresso or to be mixed into a latte, cappuccino or caffe' macchiato using hot, frothy milk. The machine has a tube, or wand, off to the side that will dispense steam when the control knob is turned in a certain direction. When this wand is dipped into chilled milk and activated, a stream of high pressure steam will roil into the milk, bringing with it a small amount of air to froth, or texture, the milk into a hot, light, whipped cream consistency. I used this little machine on a daily basis and it always delivered as it was meant to.
Several years and three Krupps machines later, I had learned about pump-driven espresso machines. While the steam machine relies on steam pressure to force hot water through the coffee grounds, a pump machine uses an actual water pump with pressures up to 18 bars to drive the water through the grounds for more efficient extraction.
With the aid of my son-in-law I found and purchased a Cuisinart EM-100 Espresso Machine. Fifteen bars of caffeine extracting pressure to drive every iota of flavor from my carefully ground, expensive coffee. Then I use the pump pressure to force steam through the special wand into milk for the finishing touch of hot foamed milk floating upon the dark, fragrant brew. We like sweetened coffee drinks so besides having a shot of choice syrup stirred into the espresso, sometimes I will lightly sweeten the milk before steaming for a slightly sweetened and flavored wisp of foam on the upper lip.
When frothing milk, start with about half of what you think you will need as the liquid nearly doubles through the process. Use a stainless steel pitcher to froth in, as this will let you know when the milk is warming from the steam. As it warms, you will begin to see the tiny bubbles forming and the surface rising toward the top of the pitcher. Keep the end of the frothing wand just below the surface of the froth by lowering the pitcher slowly. When the side of the stainless steel pitcher becomes too hot to comfortably touch, you are near the end. Turn your steam wand control valve off and slowly lower the milk from the wand. Blow a little steam out through the wand to clear any milk that may have gotten into it and wipe the end of the wand immediately to keep fat from the milk burning and sticking to the wand. Dipping a spoon into the froth, you should see peaks forming as you lift the spoon from the liquid. Perfect!
A latte' is generally about 1/3 espresso, 2/3 steamed milk and a couple tablespoons of froth floating on top. A cappuccino on the other hand, is more like 1/3 espresso, 1/3 steamed milk and 1/3 froth. A macchiato is a shot of espresso with a dollop of frothed milk floating on top. This ratio is about 80/20 espresso to latte'. The beauty of brewing at home is that you are able to adjust your favorite drink just the way you want it.
The pump-driven espresso is a bit more complicated in operation and maintenance, but the added flavor and overall ease of use makes it a perfect choice for the coffee lover.
A Problem in Espresso Paradise
The Pump Starts up, Then Nothing!
After some time and a learning curve on the new Cuisinart pump machine, I was pulling some excellent espresso shots and making great lattes and cappuccinos. I was told they far exceeded the best that Starbucks had to offer. That may be because of using the best Italian roast coffee beans I could find or possibly because I mixed my lattes 50/50 espresso and milk.
One day I ground the beans, filled the strainer, hooked up the holder and turned on the pump. It started fine and then buzzed to a halt. No dark, delicious espresso issued from the spout. This couldn't be good. Worse yet, the coffee holder seemed to be stuck in the locked position. I could not move it at all to get it unlocked. This turned out to be a blessing, for if I did happen to get it loose, hot coffee grounds would have sprayed me and the kitchen as the pressure released. What could the problem be?
I had just gone to some new coffee beans. French roast and very dark. They seemed a little more oily than the ones I had used previously. I figured that they might be even more flavorful. Well finally the pressure seemed to release and I was able to unlock the holder. I found soggy grounds and hot water in the strainer.
I remember reading once that as important as the espresso machine is to good coffee, the coffee grinder is just as important if not more so. I have a very nice upright burr grinder made by KitchenAid. It is a retro-look machine shown here that has done a great job for me time after time. I wondered if the oily beans had somehow gummed up the works.
Finding the manual for the grinder online, I determined that it may simply need a good cleaning. After disassembling it down to the burr grating wheels, I brushed out all the coffee bits and put it all back together. The manual also has a very simple calibration procedure that assures the perfect grind. Loading the hopper with coffee beans again I held my breath and turned it on. It made a very steady and satisfying sound and the ground coffee poured out like new again.
Using this newly ground coffee in the Cuisinart worked like a charm. The espresso poured out into the pitcher in a stream and tasted perfect. Looking at the strainer basket, I notice a very small hole in the center that the espresso runs out of. What had happened was the grinder had just enough old coffee grounds plugging up the grinding wheels so as to cause the grind to be inconsistent and would plug up the small hole in the strainer basket, causing the pump to shut off. Thereafter I clean the grinder on a weekly basis to keep a regular and consistent grind.
Taking the Next Step
Is an Automatic Machine in Your Future?
At some point you may tire of the whole mystique of grinding the bean, tamping the grounds, pulling the shots and foaming the milk. When that time comes, there are some fantastic automatic espresso machines on the market that will do it all with the push of a button. They will even dump the used coffee grounds in a handy hidden container and be ready for the next pull.
I have not purchased an automatic machine at this point. I still enjoy the feel and the sounds of grinding and pulling my own espresso. Then the gurgling, skooshing sound of the milk being textured before combining it all into a flavorful, invigorating drink poured over ice or enjoyed hot. I have had the opportunity of watching these beautiful machines work however. It really is nothing short of magic the way they will grind and pull espresso, then clean themselves up. Great for entertaining a crowd or a party.
These machines, while pricey, take the place of the grinder and the espresso machine to use much less space and look very high tech and trendy on your counter.
Espresso From Amazon - Your Gateway to Great Coffee
Amazon has great prices on everyday items as well as specialty gifts.
This is similar to the one I use. Burr is the way to go.
A great little starter machine.
I can't say enough on how much I enjoy using this espresso machine.
One of the dream machines.
More From Amazon
Definitely needed for cleaning that grinder to keep the ground coffee consistent.
A tasty option for those mornings you just want a quick jolt.