I had been using fully automatic machines and thought I was making good espresso. But a friend told me I was really missing out on using a manual machine fitted with good components such as an E61. After extensive research I found this product to be the best combination of price and features. I decided to buy what would result in no compromises yet still something that wouldn't be unaffordable. This product seems to fill that need quite well. Jim at 1st Line, who I found from my friend's recommendation as well as from reading other contributors here, recommended several options at varying prices. His endorsement of this machine played a major role in my choosing it. He also was helpful in my getting up to speed. The result was an article for my technology column in the San Diego Transcript. Oh yes, the espresso. A vast improvement over what I was making. I used coffee beans from Equatorial Coffees of San Rafael, a local roaster servicing some of the best restaurants, which I found to be superb.
I'm now making some of the best espresso ever. I'm using Equator Coffee's Jaguar Espresso Organic beans. It provides lots of crema and a very smooth sweet taste with no bitterness. I wet back to trying Lavazza Super Crema beans, which used to be my fallback. Results cannot compare.
Here is my review from my weekly newspaper column (San Diego Transcript):
With the popularity of espresso, automatic machines, ranging in price from $400 to more than $2,000, have been all the rage. Add whole beans or a sealed coffee capsule, fill the reservoir with water and push a button to get fresh espresso.
But as convenient as these are, many coffee aficionados prefer a machine that more closely resembles the manual espresso machines that are used in coffee shops.
As one who enjoys a daily espresso, I wanted to understand why people were so passionate about them and to see how the results compared from the automatic machines and my local Pannekins and Starbucks. Do you really get noticeably better espresso? And how much more work is it?
I spoke with Jim Piccinich, an espresso equipment expert and owner of 1st-Line Equipment that designs and imports coffee equipment. I located Jim from the positive feedback on the popular coffee forums, coffeegeek.com and home-barista.com. Jim explained the science behind brewing the perfect espresso.
Making good espresso, or as the experts refer to it, "pulling a shot" is all about extracting the oils from the coffee beans. Do it successfully and you'll obtain a light tan colored liquid called "crema" that sits at the top.
The extraction process involves forcing hot water under pressure through ground coffee packed into a metal cup, called a filter basket. The metal cup has holes in the bottom that allows the water to exit. The filter basket holder and handle is called a portafilter.
The best results are produced at a pressure of eight to 10 bar and a temperature between 195 degrees and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. There's also an optimum time for the water to flow through the grounds, 25 seconds for 16 grams of ground coffee, a double shot. The time varies with the size of the grounds and how firmly packed they are.
It's also important that the flow be uniform through the grounds and there be no voids for the water to escape too quickly. That consistency and fineness of the ground coffee is dependent on the grinder, which Piccinich says is the most important purchase of all, even more than the espresso machine. He recommends a Macap or Mazzer burr grinder because of their consistency and continuous settings that allow you to fine-tune the grind. ($500-$550).
To pack the grounds properly, he recommends the use of a tamper that's calibrated to apply 30 pounds of pressure. ($80).
The espresso machine is simply the device that's designed to heat the water to the required temperature and then dispense the precise amount of water through the grounds at the proper pressure.
The more expensive machines do a better job at maintaining the temperature and pressure and have better heat stability by using massive heat sinks around the portafilter. The best units use a grouphead design called the E61 that weighs about seven to nine pounds.
In comparison, most automatic machines don't grind the beans uniformly, don't pack the grounds properly, have too small of a basket, and don't control the temperature accurately.
I tried out a "mid-priced" Italian espresso machine called the Vibiemme, from 1st-Line Equipment. The Vibiemme costs anywhere from $1,500 to $1,800, depending on finish and features. It's one of the most reasonably priced units that performs much like the more expensive, commercial models.
The Vibiemme has a huge boiler to heat the water, a water reservoir, plumbing, valves, gauges, electronics, and an E61 grouphead. A steam wand and water pipe extend from the front to provide steam for frothing milk and hot water. The large boiler lets you steam milk without waiting after making the espresso, a limitation of most automatic machines.
Piccinich recommended other equipment, including a thermometer, a frothing pitcher for cappuccino and a knock-box for removing the wet coffee ground from the portafilter. I used a colorful, compact unit from Grindenstein, which costs $28
Learning to make a good cup of espresso takes practice. You'll need to experiment with the grinder's setting, in particular. It needs to be recalibrated whenever you change coffee type or even when the room temperature changes.
While the choice of coffee beans is personal, it's important they be freshly roasted and of high quality. I met with Helen Russell of Equator Estate Coffees & Teas in San Rafael (equatorcoffees.com). Russell provides coffee to the French Laundry and other top restaurants in the area and specializes in sustainable, organic and fair trade coffee beans. She brewed several espressos using different blends for me to taste, much like at a wine tasting. The blends varied in intensity, level of bitter sweetness and aroma. I selected their Organic Expresso blend ($12 per pound).
So was all this effort and expense worthwhile?
After struggling for a couple of weeks to fine tune the adjustments and learn the proper sequence of steps, I've been making some of the most delicious espresso I've ever had, noticeably better than from coffee shops or from an automatic machine. It's smoother, less bitter and richer. If you're a true espresso fan, you might be able to rationalize the $2,100 total cost with a payback of about a year and a half. Or if you're a real aficionado, the cost is secondary to making such great espresso whenever you want.