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Coffee in Australia by Alan Frew
How to review Domestic Espresso Machines
Author: Alan Frew
Posted: August 22, 2003
Article rating: 8.2
feedback: (10) comments | read | write

One of the hazards of writing about coffee (or anything else, I suppose) is that you get people who don’t like what you’ve got to say. The more precise you get, the greater the possibility that someone will complain, as Mark Prince. found with his Zaffiro Detailed Review earlier this year. Note that the facts of what he’d said weren’t in dispute, just that he’d had the temerity to say it.

I too cop a fair bit of stick for some of my utterances both in Coffeegeek and my own monthly newsletters, but the one that generated the biggest fuss was a few months ago, when I stated that an espresso machine review by the Australian Consumers Association published in the March edition of CHOICE magazine (www.choice.com.au) was a load of bovine excrement.

Well, I’m about to do it again, this time with Domestic Espresso Machine review (under A$1000.00) in the Winter 2000 edition of Crema magazine, published in Sydney, www.cremamagazine.com.au . Look, it’s not that I want to diss the locals, but it’s clear (as much from what the articles don’t say as what they do) that the people doing the testing/reviewing really don’t have a clue when it comes to serious espresso. And (including Choice) they’re all from Sydney!<G> and not the espresso capital of Australia, Melbourne.

If you’re going to be giving people the hard facts necessary for them to make an informed decision on where to spend their espresso machine dollars, then you’d better have some objective yardsticks to measure precisely what makes one espresso machine better than another. Below is my attempt at an initial set of benchmarks which (in my opinion) should be applied any time a domestic machine is reviewed. Note that any of the Coffeegeek “in depth” reviews to date cover these almost automatically.

First, exactly what is an espresso? The Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano, www.espressoitaliano.org  defines it as follows:

Necessary portion of ground coffee = 7 g ± 0,5
Exit temperature of water from the unit = 88°C ± 2°C
Temperature of the drink in the cup = 67°C ± 3°C
Entry water pressure = 9 bar ± 1
Percolation time = 25 seconds ± 2.5 seconds
Viscosity at = 45°C > 1.5 mPa s
Total fat = > 2 mg/ml
Caffeine = 100 mg/cup
Millilitres in the cup (including foam) = 25 ml ± 2.5

I don’t necessarily agree with the definition as it stands, but it’s a reasonable starting point. My definition would be

Necessary portion of ground coffee = 7 g ± 0,5
Exit temperature of water from the unit = 90°C ± 3°C
Temperature of the drink in the cup = 70°C ± 3°C
Entry water pressure = 9 bar ± 1
Percolation time = 25 seconds ± 2.5 seconds
Viscosity at = 45°C > 1.5 mPa s
Total fat = > 2 mg/ml
Caffeine = 100 mg/cup
Millilitres in the cup (including crema) = 28 ml ± 2.5, just a fraction longer and hotter.

IF you accept the definition (and I know that this is the point where some people will start to argue) then a number of factors follow.

1) Filter Baskets. If you’re planning on pulling both single and double shots then you need single and double filter baskets which will hold a minimum of 6.5g and 13g of coffee respectively. The theory that you can use an underfilled double filter basket and a pressurized portafilter to produce an acceptable single shot simply doesn’t work in my experience. Supplying only a double basket (even when singles are available) and recommending underfilling is ludicrous. Filter baskets which hold less than the standard amounts (as in the Krups Novo series) are also unacceptable, although you can produce a reasonable single shot with the Krups portafilter on the double setting.

Testing the temperature...repeatedly!

2) “Crema Enhancing” portafilters (and similar gadgets) produce the appearance of quality without the substance. The yellowish-white emulsion produced by them isn’t crema by commercial (or my) standards. All reviewers should have a reasonable knowledge of what a correct commercial espresso pour looks like before setting out to test home machines.

3) Temperature. Water temperature as it exits the group is a major factor in espresso quality; personally I find 92°C gives me the best results. Testing this requires a 200ml foam takeaway cup and an electronic thermocouple type thermometer. Repeatedly filling, measuring and emptying the cup over a 5 minute period will give a fair indication of the average brew temperature and thermal stability of a particular machine. I have yet to test a domestic thermoblock type machine that gives an acceptable result.

4) Volume (AKA “Water Debit”). A machine MUST be able to produce between 60 and 100ml of water from the group in 10 seconds. Less than this means that it is impossible to produce an espresso shot within the parameters outlined above. More is not a problem, but unlikely with most of the pump machines I’ve seen.

Water debit testing in a 100ml shot glass.

5) Pressure. The “correct” pressure at the group is 9 –10 bar, and in theory any machine fitted with a standard Vibration pump should achieve this. The only way to actually test this is with a portafilter mounted manometer, so it’s unlikely that the average reviewer would be able to check it.

Then come the physical aspects of the machine. An absolute requirement for great espresso is reasonable thermal stability of all the components involved in the shot, in particular the group and portafilter. The only practical way to achieve this is with a fair mass of metal, usually brass. One of the things about the “Choice” review that got me really angry was the criticism of the Gaggia portafilter as being “too heavy” compared to all the other lightweight aluminium and plastic junk. In fact, being chromed brass, and locking into a fairly massive brass group, it was the only acceptably thermally stable portafilter in the whole review!

Filter basket diameter and showerscreen water distribution also have their own effects on shot quality, although not to the extent of the items outlined above. Other aspects of machines such as maximum cup height, tank volume, drip tray volume etc. are important from an ergonomics point of view but don’t impact directly on shot quality. Besides, these sorts of things are the type of stuff that experienced reviewers do in their sleep, since most of the info comes directly from the manuals.

Then comes the REALLY important bit, the coffee used in the review, its freshness, suitability for espresso and most important of all, its grind. Reading “We used preground brick packed XXXXX coffee from the Supermarket” is likely to cause me to hurl the reviewing magazine into the nearest wastebasket in blind rage! For each brand of espresso machine which can pass the basic benchmarks above there is a single combination of coffee, grind, dose and tamp which produces the best shot. Trying to judge espresso machines with preground  brick packed coffee is like trying to judge high end sound equipment with downloaded MP3’s; not a realistic proposition. Any test which doesn’t use freshly roasted and ground coffee is simply not a reliable guide to an espresso machine purchase.

(As a side note, I’m still waiting for the ultimate “crema gadget” review, to find out which machine puts the best head on the stalest coffee!)

In order to properly evaluate a number of machines side-by-side you need to first of all set up each machine individually, determining the correct dose, grind and tamp to achieve a 25 second shot of the right volume. This obviously needs a good-to-excellent grinder. The reviewer should be able to provide details such as the grind used, the exact amount dosed and the volume produced in the standard time.

It’s only at this point of the testing and reviewing process that you can literally line them all up, pull your best shots, and start taste testing. If you have the industry contacts you can even assemble an expert panel to judge the quality of the various shots. At the least, the reviewer should know what a good espresso tastes and looks like.

Click for larger image Click for larger image
A Good Shot
If your shots don't start out like this....
To the Last Drop
and finish like this, then you're not doing it properly.

The final part of a review should then be able to assemble all of the data generated above into comprehensive summary of the pluses and minuses of each machine and generate a recommendation based on actual performance. It’s wise to remember that at this point of the process the OTHER important part of a domestic espresso machine review, the milk frothing capabilities, haven’t even been addressed.

Frothing Milk

In many ways, assessing the frothing performance of a machine is far easier than its espresso performance.  The basic equipment consists of a good supply of a single batch of milk, a 600ml stainless steel jug, the thermocouple used in the temperature tests above and a 1000ml graduated pyrex beaker. Oh, and somebody who already knows how to froth milk on domestic machines. The procedure is as follows:

1) Measure 200ml of cold milk into the stainless steel jug.

2) Insert the thermocouple.

3) Switch the machine to “Steam”. (We’re talking “domestic” not “HX”.)

4) Measure the time it takes to reach steaming temperature.

5) Start frothing milk, measure the time to reach 65ºC.

6) Stop frothing, pour the results into the 1000ml beaker.

7) Observe the foam height, foam structure, rate of separation over 5 minutes. Take photos if you have a digital camera. Easy.

What you’re looking for, of course, is a fine, persistent foam raised to the correct temperature in the shortest time. The type  of foam can be subject to argument (microfoam for Latte Art, stiff peaks for Cappuccinos) but the amount, type, persistence and production time make for easy comparisons.

Finally, I’ve been asked many, many times why I don’t do my own big review of the wide range of domestic machines available in Australia. There are 3 main reasons:

1) Bias. I sell domestic espresso equipment. Magazine reviewers are normally journalists/technicians who have “no personal interest” in the outcomes of the review, although it’s amazing how often the biggest advertiser's product wins.

2) Availability. Machine suppliers are NOT deluging my phone and email with offers of machines to review. This isn’t North America. In my recent evaluation of “high end” home machines I had to buy them in order to check them out.

3) Cost. See (2), plus which no one’s paying me to do this, and serious reviewing demands serious time. Time spent away from my business is a luxury I can only afford when there is some income at the end of it.

This will probably be the last column I’ll do before the end of November this year. I’m off to HOST 2003 in Milan in mid-November, the humongous Italian trade show where EVERY Italian espresso machine manufacturer is represented, especially the domestic ones. It won’t be much fun (fly 2 days, show 2 days, fly back 2 days) but it will give me the opportunity to preview the best gear coming out of Italy in 2004!

Article rating: 8.2
Author: Alan Frew
Posted: August 22, 2003
feedback: (10) comments | read | write
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