My current espresso machine, a Francis!Francis! X5, has been losing pressure and producing swill for several weeks. After reading tons of information scattered on the web, I’ve decided to write it all down for posterity and save others from doing all this work. First, it’s important to understand that the toilet water served at Starbucks and other cafes is not espresso. Try an espresso or cortado at one of these fine coffee shops to understand why.
Making espresso is simple: water heated to 190F-195F is pushed through freshly ground espresso at 8-9 bars pressure for 20 seconds. There are several classes of semi-automatic espresso machines available. The low-end (< $200) Krups and Saeco machines are worthless. After that, most machines can reliably maintain the proper pressure, so that variable is taken care of. Better machines are either single boilers, heat exchangers or dual boilers. The latter two are great but cost at least $1000, so we are limited by budget to single boilers. The problem with the single boiler machines is that the temperature of the water can vary quite a bit, which can result in a sour or bitter espresso. Therefore, an espresso at a very good cafe will be better, but you can still beat 99% of the coffee shops out there. The temp problem can be mitigated by some “temp surfing” techniques or with an expensive add-on PID controller.
Espresso must be ground properly right before you use it. You cannot pre-grind your beans at the store and use it several days later. The beans must be ground differently for different beans and different machines. Therefore, you must buy a burr grinder, which will cost above $200. A great machine with a bad grinder will always produce bad espresso. Some espresso aficionados claim the grinder is more important than the machine. In addition, you must tamp the ground espresso into the portafilter basket with around 30 lbs of pressure. Again, this is trial and error with your beans and machine until you get a thick, creamy espresso over 20 seconds. Not too fast, not too slow, not too watery, not too thick.
For milk drinks, you need to produce a powerful steam for 1-2 minutes to froth milk into a thick microfoam. A single boiler machine will take 30-60 seconds to heat the water to the proper temp. A heat exchanger or double boiler will be ready instantly, a big win when making several drinks for guests (but we can’t afford it). Therefore, it’s important to get a machine with a larger boiler so it doesn’t lose steam while your frothing 8 oz of milk. Many companies attach a “froth aider” device, which makes it easier for the novice to produce tepid foam. Avoid this and practice the proper technique with a normal steam wand with a single hole tip.
Right now, the most popular machine for high-end consumer espresso is the Rancilio Silvia, which I just ordered. This machine is powerful and reliable, but many have warned that it takes more twiddling to get a good shot from it. The next best machine is the confusing Gaggia line. Apparently, it’s easier to pull a consistently good shot, but it’s difficult to get a godshot (which is what I’m aiming for). Basically, the Classic is close to the Silvia, but it has a much smaller boiler. This means it may lose steam power if you are frothing a large latte, and the temperature of the water falls in the last few seconds of pulling a shot. Will you notice? Probably not. Therefore, one of the many Gaggia machines will serve most people who just want a no-fuss good espresso. Quick heat up time, quicker to get steam. Gaggia puts the same internals of the Classic into its much cheaper Baby line (only Baby!). Some of the Francis!Francis! machines work well (mine was fine), but they are unreasonably expensive. Once you start making good a espresso at home, you won’t be able to stomach anything else. And you’ll actually save thousands of dollars over time.