Espresso at your fingertips
By Sam Gugino
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Despite the proliferation of espresso in cafés and restaurants today, a well-made espresso -- without the mask of steamed milk and whipped cream -- is as difficult to find as a rare hamburger. The most reliable way to get really good espresso, one with a lusty crema (the thick, caramel-colored head that is the heart and soul of any espresso) and a rich bittersweet-chocolate flavor, is to make it yourself, with your own espresso machine.
After testing an assortment of machines costing from $250 to $1,500, I found that about 90 percent of the time the espresso I made in my kitchen was better than what I could get elsewhere. And this small luxury didn't require a separate waterline, special voltage or a small fortune.
At one end of the spectrum is La Pavoni, which has a small capacity (either 8 or 16 cups) and requires your active participation (via hand-pulled lever) when brewing each cup. At the other end is the fully automatic Saeco Magic De Luxe, which grinds the beans, tamps them into a filter, brews the espresso and dumps the spent grounds into a waste container. Most models fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Although brewing is usually more or less automatic, with most machines you'll need to measure, grind and tamp the coffee yourself.
An increasing number of machines use "pods," preground beans compressed into wafers. Some machines can use either freshly ground beans or pods. "The quality of pods has improved since they first came out, but they still don't make espresso as good as properly roasted, freshly ground beans," Harrison says. Nonetheless, pods give a consistent dose of evenly ground coffee every time and eliminate the mess involved in grinding your own beans and removing the used grounds. "Pod machines are more user-friendly, because the consumer has one less art to learn," says Frank Fracasso of HealthCafé in Greendell, N.J. HealthCafé's sales are 80 percent pod machines. If all you want is espresso drinks like cappuccino or caffe latte, you'll notice less difference with pods.
Starbucks Barista Athena
From the very first cup, this machine made near-perfect espresso, with an excellent crema and rich espresso flavor. It handled easily, too. You can program the machine to adjust the amount of coffee (the "pull" in espresso lingo) you want. The instructional video with the machine was by far the most comprehensive and user-friendly. Excellent technical support is available via a toll-free phone number. ($399)
Saeco Magic De Luxe
After working out some initial kinks, this machine worked like a charm. (The technical support via a toll-free phone number was very good.) It took about 45 seconds for it to go through the entire cycle, from grinding beans to dumping grounds. The quality of the espresso was good, though I would have liked a more intense crema. Steaming milk was smooth and easy. You can adjust the grind, the amount of coffee you want brewed and how long a pull you want. There is also a neat attachment that allows you to bypass the grinder and add preground coffee. ($995)
It doesn't have the programmability, the ground-coffee bypass or the cup-warming area of the Magic De Luxe. Still, steaming milk and brewing espresso with this model was easier than making a simple pot of French press coffee. The espresso was comparable to that made by the Magic De Luxe. With this machine or the Magic De Luxe you can make a single- or double-shot of espresso or a full cup of coffee. ($495, black; $549, silver with a swivel base)
This one is less than 12 inches high and is only 8 inches wide, but it pumps out very good espresso; it was even better when I shortened the pull. (Most Americans want more than the usual 1- to 1.5-ounce pull favored by Europeans. However, as the pull increases, more of the coffee's desirable elements are leached out.) This machine uses pods or freshly ground beans. ($329, stainless steel; $239, black)
The automatic frothing attachment makes perfect foam for cappuccino even if it's 6 a.m. and you're bleary-eyed. The machine can also froth milk and make espresso at the same time. The espresso had a nice-looking crema and a luscious, bitter-chocolate flavor. However, I question whether this machine is worth so much more money for such a small advantage. ($1500)
Instead of pods, this one uses capsules filled with ground coffee. It's a bit noisier than other machines, but it makes very smooth, almost silky espresso with a nice crema that's better than the brew from some pod machines costing two or three times as much. ($249)
Keeping your espresso machine clean ensures longer life and consistently good espresso. Flush out the brew unit with clear water every day. Remove and clean the brew-unit screen every month, and run a commercial cleaning solution through the machine every 30 to 60 days. Wipe the steam wand with a damp towel, and run the steam for about 5 seconds after each use. Use the machine often, to keep the gaskets from drying out and cracking.
This will keep you out of Starbucks, too. With home espresso machines this good, who needs it?
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock, to be published in December.
For the complete article, please see the Nov. 30, 2000, issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 25.
(800) 443-2683; www.fantes.com
(973) 383-9833; www.health-café.com
Peet's Coffee & Tea
(800) 999-2132; www.peets.com (and through Peet's outlets)
(800) 933-7876; www.saeco.com Starbucks
(800) 782-7282; www.starbucks.com (and through Starbucks outlets)