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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Expressly Espresso

Sharing the Urnings Dept.: Six years ago, fresh from a trip to Italy, I decided to get a handle on the art of espresso. Turned out the days of yanking that brew handle are over. The Saeco machine is still available, although it's been superseded; KitchenAid seems to have gotten out of the espresso machine business, but you can see a listing here.

SHE DIPPED HER FOREFINGER into the rich beige foam and, raising the finger as if to say “shush,” isolated a heavy droplet on the tip. We watched as the little bubble quickly dissipated and a dark brown rivulet ran down toward her palm. “That’s the crema,” she explained. “And it’s not very good.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Anita Johnson is a coffee fanatic, which is good: she works for Minneapolis-based Caribou Coffee, whose gourmet product recently began entering the local market. But this was no run-of-the-mill venue whose espresso we were tasting. We sat in the dining room of a high-end restaurant outside Florence, Italy, so our expectations were similarly high. “They’re using an automatic machine,” said Anita, “so they don’t have a lot of control over the pull. But there are adjustments they can make to fix the problem.”

I don’t want to suggest that I drank bad espresso in Italy; Anita’s criticisms came from a rarefied palate, the gustatory equivalent of finding fault with a New York Philharmonic performance. In fact, nearly a decade ago the Italian government created a regulatory commission, the Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano, which certifies restaurants and coffee bars provided the establishments demonstrate the use of a certified coffee blend, certified brewing machine and grinder and licensed personnel. 

So it was a good place in which to be introduced to art and science of espresso. Like any privileged knowledge, it seduces you, delights you, obsesses you. I entered what I think of as the first stage of espresso fanaticism: I became a crema hunter, drawing puzzled looks from area baristas as I finger-dipped my way through shot after shot.

Crema is a protein-rich emulsion, the product of the high rate of pressure behind the not-quite-boiling water that’s forced through a compressed layer of finely-ground beans. It floats atop the inky coffee and gives espresso its sweet richness.

Of course, that sweetness is gained in the context of a brew that can be intimidating even to those who can’t go a day without coffee. An espresso is almost the opposite: a beverage consumed quickly (ideally, within two minutes) and in minimal amounts, typically half-filling an already diminutive demi-tasse.

Although the history of coffee goes back at least a thousand years, espresso officially debuted in 1901, when manufacturer Luigi Bezzera, seeking to reduce his employees’ coffee break times, patented a machine that brewed the stuff far more quickly than before.

His device was steam driven (a technique still used by lower-cost equipment), but it produced a somewhat bitter brew – a characteristic that became apparent after the development of pump-driven espresso machines some years later.

That’s where the classic espresso-machine look comes from: those tall, gleaming units with long pump handles challenging the barista (as the Italians term the journeyman server) to apply the right amount of pressure to the pull. By the 1950s, they’d become ubiquitous in trendy coffeehouses.

Of course, now the trend is toward machines with built-in pumps that automatically apply the right amount of water and pressure for the number of shots chosen, and that’s what you see in the local emporia. And you don’t have to use all of the conveniences the machines offer.

Mary, one of the lead baristas at Ballston Spa’s Coffee Planet (where I consume many a cappuccino), sees her share of espresso fanatics coming through, many of them with their own home machines who share stories and critical analyses. “We strive for a consistent product,” she says, “and so we’re careful about the grind and the tamp. Our espresso machine offers an automatic brew, but we prefer to control the fill.”

One of my longstanding misconceptions was that espresso requires a specific coffee bean. What’s needed is quality; good equipment and technique does the rest.

I cappuccinoed myself to a fare-thee-well by testing two machines that present two different approaches to home espresso brewing. The KitchenAid Pro Line Series Espresso Machine is a handsome, sturdy, semi-automatic unit with two separate boilers to provide the correct temperature and pressure for brewing espresso and for steaming milk. Saeco’s Odea Giro is a fully automatic machine that handles everything from the grind to the espresso output, although you do your own milk steaming.

The Odea Giro is at the lower-priced end of a new line of machines designed by BMW, and it attractively departs from the boxy look of most espresso units. A topside hopper holds several ounces of beans that are sent through its ceramic burr grinder a portion at a time when you select your brew strength and volume.

Other than regular maintenance – and you do have to refill the water and empty the waste fairly often – that’s all you do. For a cappuccino or other steam-enhanced drink, immerse the moveable Pannarello wand into the milk, choose your steam pressure and froth away. You can also set the spout to produce hot water.

In short, this machine gives you a simple, sure-fire way to get consistently good espresso without any kind of learning curve. It has a feature set typical of much higher-priced machines; with retail pricing at around $600, it’s a bargain.

That’s also about the price at which you can find the KitchenAid espresso maker, an excellent unit geared for a more hands-on fanatic. Its pleasingly retro look comes from the twin boilers that decorate the front alongside corresponding temperature gauges, letting you know when brew-time is here.

You have to take care of the coffee grinding yourself – and you can pay as much again for the grinder as for an espresso machine, so shop around – but you have a professional dual-spout portafilter with two removable baskets (one for single shots, one for double) to fill and tamp (tamper included). A correct amount and tamp pressure are critical to good espresso, and developing your technique is part of the artistry this machine allows. You also control the brew time, helped by an instant shut-off. I’m obsessive enough to have charted my variables, clocking the “pull” (20 to 25 seconds is optimal), pursuing my preference for very strong coffee.

The Pannarello wand at the end of the steam boiler travels a much wider range of motion than most, handy for frothing milk in a bulky mug, but the unit ships with an eight-ounce stainless steel pitcher for that purpose.

Your espresso cup should be pre-heated, so both machines give you warming spaces at the top. Instructions are easy to follow – the KitchenAid maker even has its own DVD – and either one of these units will make it very difficult to go back to plain old coffee again.

Metroland Magazine, 21 Nov. 2007

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