Ready to be an at-home barista? Whether you’re aiming to spend less on your daily caffeine boost or want to make your drink just so, there are plenty of benefits to preparing your favorite espresso-based beverages, such as lattes and cappuccinos, in your own kitchen. And coffee-lovers can rejoice, because these days, there are machines for every skill level and price point. Here’s how to choose the right espresso machine for your needs.
First Things First: What is Espresso?
Put simply, espresso is a method of preparing coffee. Espresso machines use high pressure to quickly force hot water through finely ground coffee beans. The result is an intensely flavored drink with a light brown foam on top - called the crema. The espresso method is often used to produce 1-1.5 oz. of coffee (called an espresso shot), which can be enjoyed on its own or combined with milk to make drinks such as lattes, cappuccinos, mochas, or other coffeehouse favorites.
You can also use the espresso brewing method for a much larger quantity than the standard espresso shot. A lungo, for example, is typically around 4 oz. or up to 8 oz. for a double lungo – roughly the same size as a standard cup of drip coffee. The longer extraction time results in a bitterer flavor. If you’re looking for something similar to a cup of drip coffee, try an Americano – one or two shots of espresso combined with hot water. The result is a rich and full bodied drink.
While you’ve probably seen the word “espresso” on bags of coffee beans in the grocery store, it’s worth noting that espresso is not a type of bean or roast level. Espresso is often made with dark roasted coffee beans, but “espresso” isn’t interchangeable with “dark roast.”
Types of Espresso Machines
Espresso machines come in a variety of configurations. At the most basic level, they can be divided into three sections: steam driven, manual, and pump driven. Steam-based machines (and stovetop pots) use the pressure built up by steam to drive water through finely ground coffee to produce a drink. Manual espresso machines have a lever that’s pulled to produce pressure. Pump-driven machines, on the other hand, use electrical pumps for pressure.
Each of the different methods results in a different level of pressure – measured in bars. The pressure level is important because the frothy, flavorful crema only happens at around 9 bars. Steam-based machines are capable of around 3 bars of pressure and manual around 9 bars. With a pump-driven machine, look for a rating of 15+. Because some pressure is lost during the brewing process, anything rated at less than 15 bars generally would not be able to achieve 9 bars during the brewing process. Of the three methods, pump-based machines are the most popular and common, and they fall into a few different categories.
Key Specs and Features to Consider
Even among the different categories, features can vary from model to model. Here’s what else to consider when it comes to espresso machines.
Espresso machines will have one or two heating elements. The number matters because the water forced through the coffee grounds needs to be a specific temperature, while milk steaming requires another temp. With only one boiler, you may have to wait between the various steps in making your drink.
Drip Coffee Capabilities
Whether you prefer to switch up your beverage or are aiming to please others in the house, the ability to brew drip coffee can come in handy. If that’s the case for you, look for a machine with dual capabilities.
When considering super-automatic espresso machines, take a look at what exactly it can do. Can it make your preferred drink? Can you control the strength of the espresso? Will it remember your preferences?
You’ll need to regularly clean your system according to the machine’s manual, and some units make it easier than others. For example, those with a removable brewing unit are much easier to maintain.
How to Make Espresso
If you opt for a capsule system or super-automatic espresso machine, making espresso only requires a couple of steps. You’ll put in a pod or whole coffee beans respectively and use the machine’s control panel to get things started.
With a semi-automatic espresso machine, after starting the machine to heat it up, you’ll need to follow this basic process:
1. Prep the Beans
You can either grind the beans yourself, opt for preground coffee, or use an ESE pod (single-serve packets of preground and tamped coffee beans shaped to fit in the portafilter). Freshly ground whole beans provide excellent flavor, but it’s important to get the grind just right. Too course and your drink may taste sour. Too fine, and it will be bitter. You’re aiming for something similar in size to granulated sugar. This step may take a little practice, but it’s worth the effort for coffee connoisseurs. A burr grinder will provide the most consistent grind.
The next step is to put the grounds into the portafilter. For a double shot, you’ll use around 18 grams of ground coffee. You’ll also need to add water to your machine per the instruction manual.
3. Tamp & Attach Portafilter
Compact the coffee into the portafilter firmly. The result should look polished and even. Then, attach your filter to the boiler outlet and turn to lock it into place.
Place your espresso cup (a warmed cup is best) under the portafilter, and then start the brewing process as instructed in the machine’s manual. When the pull is finished (around 25-30 seconds), turn it off. The length of the pull will affect the taste as well. It could take a little practice to get your desired flavor.
Have the espresso on its own or add steamed milk, frothed milk, or other ingredients to craft your favorite beverage. No matter which way you go, you’ll love your drink all the more knowing you made it yourself.
From semi-automatic to super-automatic, espresso machines let you indulge in the comfort of your own home. So go ahead, choose the right machine for your needs, and then get brewing.