Making the Most of Your Home Espresso Machine

by Mauro Cipolla

Devoted specialty coffee consumers have the luxury of tasting their favorite espresso beverages made by professional baristas on commercial espresso equipment in their espresso bars of choice. The results are often worth the travel time or expense incurred. Today's baristas are properly trained (at least most see the feature on choosing your barista by Don Holly) at espresso extraction methods, and most of the commercial espresso machines being used in good retail shops are well-built and fine-tuned to deliver the best extraction and therefore, the best resulting beverage.

Upon their return home, many consumers find themselves befuddled. "How am I going to make my espresso drink at home taste the same as it tasted at my favorite espresso bar?" Most find their drinks to be a far cry from the earlier commercial retail flavor experience. Next question: "Why does this happen and, most importantly, can I make drinks at home that match the quality found at my favorite espresso bar?" I believe the answer may be directly linked to the fact that most home consumers may:

  • Not be buying fresh coffees in small enough batches to allow for the coffees to be consumed in the proper time frame.
  • Not be storing coffees properly.
  • Not be able to grind the coffee beans properly (possibly due to grinder design and/or maintenance).
  • Not own an espresso machine that is engineered properly for best extraction.
  • Not be trained properly in the extraction of espresso.
  • Be trying to use extraction methods that are best suited to commercial espresso machine users, not to home machine users.

Let us now identify some important elements of each category listed above. Coffee needs to be purchased so the entire supply can be consumed within seven to ten days. Coffee beans should be stored in a dark, dry, room temperature (50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit) location and in an airtight container. Metal containers are not advisable. Ceramic "mason-jar" containers work best. Do not refrigerate or freeze your coffee beans. Grinders need to have two grinding disks (single blades or single disks should not be used), which need to be replaced after every 50 pounds of coffee beans ground. Most home espresso machines simply do not have enough water pressure to give proper extraction. You are basically stuck if you have a water pump that will not deliver a minimum of 130 pounds per square inch of water pressure at the group head of your espresso machine. Consult your owner's manual for details. Also, most home espresso machines have a single boiler without a separate heat exchanger for the water brewing the espresso drinks, and thus have a situation where hot water is mixed with steam. Using both steam and hot water in extracting flavors from the coffee oils results in a thin, bitter espresso, as high temperatures (water) and much higher pressures (steam) are being exerted onto the coffee grounds.

Mauro All home baristas should be trained on their own equipment to understand how to grind coffee beans properly (how and when to make the grind finer or coarser as daily conditions vary), how much ground coffee to place in the portafilter basket, and how to pack (tamp) it properly. Lastly, the trained home barista must shut the water extraction off at the appropriate time for proper taste. This means the "barista" must know how to "read" the espresso pour by speed, color and body.

Baristas who have been professionally trained must not use the same techniques on their home machines. In most cases, the home barista will have to use a little coarser-grind coffee, pack the coffee grounds with less force and settle for a bit faster extraction time. Steaming will also have to be modified to achieve acceptable results using a unit that will probably deliver less steam pressure for a shorter period of time.

In conclusion, I believe that optimum espresso extraction can be achieved at home, with quality that can come very close to that of your favorite retail espresso bar given the above variables are adequately controlled.

Mauro Cipolla is vice president of Caffe' D'arte, a specialty coffee roasting company in Seattle, WA. He can be reached at (206) 762-4381; darte@ix.netcom.com .


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