written by:
photos by:
May 4, 2009
Originally published in Small Is the New Big
as
Make Your Best Shot

Bitter black brew got you down? Lackluster crema floating in your cup? With the assistance of an espresso expert, Dwell evaluates five home espresso machines that will help you tamp, pull, and froth better beverages.

While there is no 'x' in espresso, there is one in expert. Ours knows which espresso machines make the perfect cup and which deserve the ax.
While there is no 'x' in espresso, there is one in expert. Ours knows which espresso machines make the perfect cup and which deserve the ax.
Photo by 
While there is no 'x' in espresso, there is one in expert. Ours knows which espresso machines make the perfect cup and which deserve the ax.
While there is no 'x' in espresso, there is one in expert. Ours knows which espresso machines make the perfect cup and which deserve the ax.

More than 1,000 years ago, an intrepid Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi popped some bright red berries in his mouth, enjoyed the resulting jolt of caffeine, and thus started the coffee revolution—or so legend goes. Though the name of the Ethiopian epicure might be in question, what is certain is that the discovery of the joys of caffeine started in Africa and centuries later ended up fueling legions of brooding intellectuals all across Europe. Today, gas stations, groceries, and cafés all serve the drink and its multiple variants, from 7-Eleven swill to triple-whip iced caramel macchiatos. But Dwell’s drink of choice remains the venerable espresso.

Making espresso is more than just a simple series of motions: Connoisseurs believe it to be both an art and a science. The science consists of a series of steps that must all be aligned to score the perfect double shot. Espresso is not a kind of bean, roast, or grind; rather, the term means “pressed out” in Italian, and indicates the particular process used to create the coffee. Mark Romano, the national technical director of illy caffè North America, laid out the parameters for us: “There should be 7 grams of coffee for a single shot (1 ounce), and 14 grams for a double shot. The water should pass through the grinds for between 25 and 30 seconds, and the grind must be perfect—grinds that are too coarse will produce weak coffee, and grinds that are too fine will make bitter coffee. The water should be between 190 and 197 degrees Fahrenheit, and bottled water should be used.”

The successful execution of these parameters is depen-dent on the skill of the person making the espresso and the quality of the machine. We can’t help with your level of talent, but we can recommend machines that have the capacity to make excellent shots—and some that don’t require any ability at all on your part.

We reviewed each of the three types of mid-range home espresso machines. There are old-school manual piston machines, in which the user grinds the coffee, fills the filter basket, and pulls the lever to propel the water through the grinds. Semi-automatic machines electronically push the water through the grinds, but require some user interaction. Then there are super-automatic machines, which spit out espresso with the flick of a switch.

We enlisted Christopher Cara, proprietor of San Francisco espresso-machine store Thomas E. Cara, Ltd., to aid us in our assessment of each machine in terms of taste, ease of use, and, of course, countertop appeal.

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