What to look out for when buying a coffee machine
… 10 things it needs to make your perfect espresso.
Making espresso coffee is an adventure. It involves a lot !
We’ve outlined 10 things to be aware of in order to make the best espresso. Some are under your own control, and some will be governed by the machine you have to help you. So keep these in mind when you’re buying a machine.
The 10 things you need to make a perfect espresso…
1: The best beans for taste and to work with your machine.
2: The best roast type for your taste.
3: The perfect grind of the beans to work with your machine
4: The best quality water
5: The right temperature of water
6: The precise quantity of the water and coffee grounds to make a precise quantity of espresso
7: The optimum pressure to push the hot water through the grounds
8: The timing, of a pre-soak of the grounds and the time taken to push the water through the coffee puck
9: The right barista , or machine for you !
10: The best espresso cup to make it feel just right.
…needless to say the bonus would be to have the best recipient to appreciate all that effort or cost !
1. The Beans…
Size colour, flavour
With coffee beans you pretty much get what you pay for. Enjoy sampling the best beans from around the world to discover their subtle flavours. The quality of the bean depends also on where it is grown, and on the conditions of the soil, the weather, and the altitude.
Things to look out for are acidity, caffeine content, the roast, flavour / taste, body, aroma,
Until I started doing the research I thought there would be so many coffee beans to cover but in fact there there are basically only two beans to choose from – Arabica and Robust – and all the blends are made from these. You can choose beans from different regions of the world to suit your taste, or you could choose a blend.
About 60% of the worlds beans are Arabica, and they come from high altitude areas, needing more rain than sun ! Arabica is the type of bean, but the name on the bean is down t the region – eg the famous Blue Mountain coffee bean. They generally have lower caffeine content, but a fuller more delicate flavour because it has taken longer to grow. So, they’re more best suited to a good black espresso, ristretto or lungo coffee.
Is easier to grow and prefers to be in a hot climate.It has almost twice the caffeine content to the Arabica and is strong and full in taste. So it’s a great choice for only milky drinks or iced coffees.
Some semi and automatic machines provide more than one hopper ( for the coffee beans) so that you can make consecutive cups with different types of bean if your household has varying tastes – or if you just like to taste test. We settled on a Brazilian blend of the Arabica bean.
Once you’ve chosen the bean, the next stage is the roasting. Coffee beans start out green, not brown. How much they are roasted will determine the flavour – so you need to know what you like to drink before you choose the right bean for your daily tipple.
2. The Roast…
You can pretty much tell the roasting process by looking at the colour and hardness of the bean. The longer its roasted for and the higher the temperature its roasted at determimes the colour and flavour. The colour comes from the oils inside heating up and rising to the surface of the bean. Light roasting gives light brown beans, and as the temp and time increases toward medium brown, dark brown and black beans. The darker the bean the shinier it is too as the oil reaches the outside.
A light brown dry looking bean with a toasty flavour and higher caffeine content
A brown bean, a nice full balanced flavour, a little sweet and toasted… needless to say this is the most popular bean to suit all tastes.
A dark brown bean with a full roasty flavour and some hints of other elements in the bean like spice.
Dark roast = almost black, shiny bean with a strong, spicy, even smoky roasty flavour.
Mostly dark roasted beans are used for espresso.
Fully decaffeinated doesn’t exist but it’s worth knowing that the higher the roasting temperature, the less caffeine is held as a result – so the heat literally burns off the caffeine. So for the most decaffeinated bean you would want an Arabica that has been roasted lightly somewhere between 180 – 205℃.
3. The Grind…
There are a number of ways of grinding coffee beans, including blade grinders ( well they chop really not grind ), hand grinders, and electrical burr grinders. And the best and easiest way to grind beans is with an electric coffee burr grinder.
In contrast to the others , an electric burr grinders produce a consistent grind in a way that squeezes and releases the delicious oils and aromas from the beans. They also generate very little heat, so protect the flavour of the coffee as they grind.
Why freshly ground?
As soon as you grind coffee it releases that gorgeous aroma that makes you want one ! That smell that is just released into the air signals that the coffee is starting to break down, so if you leave it without using it it goes stale. That’s why freshly ground coffee is best every time. Grinders grind just enough to go into the ‘group ‘. The group head is the thing you put it into on the manual machine.
If you are grinding and espressing all manually this is so important to get right. Apart from anything else, the smell of beans grinding is just divine and makes you long for that cup of coffee even more – so it’s best done all in succession… straight from bean to cup.
You’ve got to be as fussy as Goldilocks here because you want your grind just right – not too fine, not too coarse. You just want to get the flavour right, and if you over do it or underdo it that will affect the flavour.
The right water is passing through, at a precise temperature, for a set time is so that it exacts exactly the right flavour from your beans. So you have to make it easy for that process to work. Take too much from the grounds and it will taste bitter, take too little and it can taste a bit vinegary ( if that’s a word!)
You’ll probably have visibly noticed the difference in the grind for a filte , cafetiere or French press type of coffee ( bigger granules) compared to an espresso one ( finer). Old fashioned fast brew, pour through type coffee that is long and weak is usually from a coarse grind, whereas the thick strong treacly coffee you get in North Aftrica and Turkey is made from a grind as fine as powder.
Grind too fine…
and the water is picking up too much flavour – in effect it over extracts. All the good and the bad bits that have been ground up get flavour extracted. It can also pull some of the ground through with the water. The flow of the water is also slow since it has to struggle to pass through easily, so it takes too long and is in contact with the grounds for too long, and ends in a strong bitter taste.
Grind too large…
and there are too many spaces between the grains so the water doesn’t get through to enough of the flavour inside – in effect the water is allowed to flow through the coffee too fast and the coffee flavour is under-extracted and can taste weak and acidic.
It’s also so important to have a consistent grind. This is why everyone recommends only a burr grinder for espresso coffee making. Blade grinding creates lots or uneven pieces and the metal can also overheat the oils so you end up with a burnt tasting coffee. Grind with steel rather than ceramic and the coffee tastes burnt.
The grind can be a little forgiving but it’s all about getting the sweet spot between your grind and the water that is passing through it – both the temperature of the water and the time it gets to pass through the grinds to extract the flavour from the specific coffee oils in each grain.
Tamping and levelling.
After loosely filling your filter basket with about 1.5 teaspoons of coffee (i.e. 6-7 grammes ) for a single espresso, you will need to push it down to make a nice firm puck of coffee. The amount is important because if you put too much or too little in you will again get the over or under extraction types of coffee.
A lot of manual machines will provide a simple tamper to push the coffee grounds into the filter container ( the portafilter in a manual machine), if not you can buy these separately. Oncc tamped, (and sometimes before tamping if you have overfilled the container!). A leveller ( like a credit card) can be used to clean off any extra grounds from the edge of the filter so that the filter fits neatly into the machine. If you don’t have one then you can use the side of your little finger !
Other things to maximize the taste of your ground coffee are freshness (stored in an airtight box in a dark place… for up to a month), aroma.
Storing your coffee grounds
Storing is really important because once ground , the bean releases the flavoursome oils from within and the air begins to evaporate them so you lose the flavour over time. It starts to go even 30mins from grinding so that’s why the bean to cup machines are so popular to get the top flavour immediately from the bean. Once it goes stale it still taste like coffee , but just any old coffee and not the complicated amazing mix of flavours that your bean started with !
Using bought coffee grounds
Some semi and automatic machines both a bean hopper and a ground coffee chute. Apart from convenience, this means that you can use the ground chute for decaffeinated coffee if you, or your guests so wish it.
We had a separate espresso machine and bean grinder and used to order our Arabica beans online. If by some chance we ran out, Paul had worked out the best ground coffee to get in quickly while we re-ordered. . For us it was an Illy Espresso blend that worked – and that was because the fineness of the grind worked perfectly with the way Paul had set up the machine. So it wasn’t a case of looking for the nicest tasting coffee to suit us, but also getting the right grind that suited the set up of our machine – otherwise it was pointless !
4. The Water…
What’s in the water ? Having done many Guinness tours in Dublin, the one lasting memory apart from the divine taste is that they go on about the how important the water is in the making of it – same thing on the Heineken tour in Amsterdam. ( I don’t drink Guinness apart from there or on St Patricks day …mixed with some fizz to make a black velvet – sweet sacrilege !) .
Anyway, so we know the make-up of water is important, what metals or minerals are in it etc, and what it tastes like matters too. If you don’t like it to drink straight then you won’t like the coffee it produces either. You are usually better using filtered water or mineral water in your machine. Although calcium can add a nice taste element it can also bung up the machine with calcium deposits.
5. The Temperature…
Getting the temperature of the water right is almost as important as the grind. Too hot can have a similar effect as too fine a grind, and too cold similar to too coarse a grind.
Cold water can make coffee ( it could take anywhere from 3-24hrs), but but a cold brew won’t extract the oils and nuances of the bean flavours. You can make a cup with boiling water but it will probably burn the delicate flavour of your ground bean.
The Baristas, specialists and connoisoirs will tell you it has to be somewhere between 90-96℃ / 194-202℉.
The Water Boilers
In a single boiler machine, there’s often a delay in being able to use the steam wand as it takes time to heat the water to the necessary temperature. A dual boiler, like in the Sage / Breville Dual Boiler machine, they have one dedicated to heating the water for the coffee making and the second for heating the water to a higher temperature to steam through the frothing wand. De Longhi has a patented thermoblock boiler system even in their entry level machines like the Dedica, which keeps temperature constant and consistent even if you leave the machine on for a long time between cups.
The steam chamber of the best machines are also usually made of steel, aluminium, or brass in order to maintain the high temperature. Steam is forced through the grounds by the machine pump under 8 to 9 atmospheres of pressure. Some machines have an external pressure guage so you can see the pressure. The idea is that the pressure allows the water to make contact with every grain. The ideal temperature range for hot brewing is 195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit. This is hot enough to extract carefully and quickly, but not so hot that it’s uncontrollable.
6. The Quantity…
The precise quantity of hot water that goes through the precise amount of grounds ( 6-7 grams dose of ground coffee) , to make a precise size of espresso 60ml.
7. The Pressure…
The Barometric pressure is measured in number of Bars. A bar is the atmospheric pressure of air found at sea level.
9 bar seems to be the general consensus for the minimum pressure people say is required for producing a great espresso. ( bars = 130PSI by the way, for those of you that know your car tyre pressures ! ) You’ll find most machines however provide 15bar or more. 15bars seems to be the industry sweet spot for making the perfect espresso. You’ll find a lot of great Pod machines and the latest super automatics use 19 bars to push the water through the coffee as fast as possible !
It’s worth noting that the manual portable machines need a human parts of the machine to press the water through the coffee, so what pressure can a human being exert ! ….. I’ll find out .. and get back to you on it.
8. The Timing…
The flow rate and time the water is allowed to come in contact with the ground coffee.
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You may not be able to control everything so finely depending on how good your machine is. Of course, you usually pay more for precision, quality and robustness but also for the ability to either be able to manually adjust things or have them done automatically for you.
10. The Right Cups…
Make sure that your cups are pre-warmed ! What’s the point of getting the espresso to the correct temperature only to chill as soon as it gets into your cold cup. So make sure you have a pre-warmer on top of the machine – of find another way to warm them.
Fitting the cups in under the espresso group might also be an issue. The more automatic machines give you a minimum and maximum cup height. Manual machines take cups and espresso glasses and you may not get a mug under it. However, we feel that drinking your espresso from a wonderful espresso glass or cup is a bit like drinking tea from a china tea cup ! So, as a final little treat for yourself, or someone else… get yourself some special little coffee cups to enjoy.
We’ll post on all these gorgeous accessories for you as soon as we can. Check out the cups that work with the brand of machine you’re getting – or gorgeous and practical glass thermal ones like these on Amazon UK
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