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INSPECT YOUR GADGET

Barista-quality espresso won't come cheap

Especially when compared with drip coffee makers, real espresso machines seem so expensive, starting at more than $150 and running upward of 10 times that much.

But people who hand $4 a day to their friendly neighborhood Starbucks barista for a venti skinny latte should probably do the math, because that's almost $1,500 a year, which makes any home machine seem like a wise investment.

It's true, you can buy a $50 stovetop maker or even an electric one, and those make a decent cup of super-strong coffee, but it's not espresso. The real stuff -- the deep, rich brew that comes topped with a layer of "crema" even before any steamed milk is added -- requires pump-driven pressure. It also requires practice, which is why professional baristas get training and even participate in national competitions, and why such websites as Whole Latte Love devote page after page to technique.

Consumers who want to pull their shots at home have several options from machines that offer various levels of convenience. Manual machines require barista wannabes to pull a lever that operates the pump. Many devices let consumers avoid the otherwise essential step of tamping down grinds by instead deploying special paper-coated pods of preground, pre-packed coffee that also save on cleanup. And some machines will even grind the beans, extract the espresso, and dump the grounds with a single push of a button.

In fact, the choices are so vast and confusing that I needed expert help in even picking which machines to test. I found it in Mark Prince, senior editor of the Vancouver-based website CoffeeGeek.com, who has written reviews of many espresso makers that are so detailed they are divided into as many as nine sections. I would have time to devote only a fraction of the attention as Prince does to each machine, but hoped his feedback would help inform my tests.

Pulling the perfect shot of espresso is part art and part science: The baristas' golden rule holds that a double shot, 2 to 2.5 ounces, should be extracted in 20 to 30 seconds. Any faster, and the espresso will probably taste flat; any slower and it will probably taste bitter. Either way, it probably won't be topped with crema, which is an emulsification of the oils in the coffee.

If that sounds complicated, it is. To further muddy the waters, the extraction time is affected by the fineness of the beans' grind and by the pressure you apply when tamping them down.

When I tested the machines, I looked at such issues as warm-up time, water capacity, ease of use and cleanup, steaming function, and quality of shots produced using finely preground coffee, slightly coarser and freshly ground coffee, and special pods made by Illy and Oro. For the most part, I always got better-tasting shots with fresher coffee. The pods couldn't measure up, but for shoppers interested in convenience, they may be worth the trade-off. Just make sure to buy a machine that can also handle grounds, for those times when you want to try making the real thing.

With that in mind, Prince urges serious espresso-maker shoppers to factor in the purchase of a grinder, preferably a burr grinder that will result in the sort of consistency essential to good espresso.

Overall, I pulled the best shots from the beautiful brass and chrome Elektra manual machine, once I got the hang of it. You pull the lever down and let it go, activating a piston system that sends the water through the coffee, and repeating as necessary until you've got the amount you want. After experimenting with the grind and the tamping, I managed to pull shots in 30 seconds, and they had nice crema and a smooth taste. But that was after much trial and error, and using the most expensive machine of the bunch. At almost $900, it's still less than a year's worth of Starbucks lattes, but the initial investment is steep.

My only other initial misgiving about this machine was its long warm-up time, a full 15 minutes or more compared with 1 to 3 minutes for the others. But that worry faded once I realized that virtually any espresso machine performs better after it has warmed up for at least a half hour. So much for the fantasy of a perfect double-shot first thing in the morning.

The funky FrancisFrancis! machine, with an almost cartoonish design that has made it the darling of TV and movie set designers, also performed well, but it's still a steep $650 ($750 for the stainless steel). Of the less-expensive machines, I had mixed results from models by Krups, Gaggia, and Solis, although the latter almost made a believer out of me for the amount of crema it produced. Why was the taste so lacking? According to Prince, it's because of special pressurized filters that are designed to enhance the crema, but they compromise the taste. He suggests that with a simple $15 replacement filter, available from US dealer Baratza, the Solis Crema SL70 becomes one of the best he's seen for the price.

The worst performer, by far, was the most automated. The Saeco Vienna de Luxe may grind the beans, dispense the grounds, and even discard them in a special bin after use, but its setup is full of confusing features, while its shots taste like they came from Dunkin' Donuts. And I don't mean that as a compliment.

Joe Yonan can be reached at yonan@globe.com.

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