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Espresso Ecstasy

Espresso drinks with all their endless permutations have been the rage in coffee meccas like Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area for several years. Now, the java flood is spreading.

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If you want great espresso, you can forget about those cute little machines in the housewares section of your local department store. This is one of those times when, the more you pay, the more you get.
Inexpensive machines don't create enough pressure—about nine-and-a-half atmospheres or 140 pounds per square inch—to make proper espresso. Pressure is essential for maximum flavor extraction because the water temperature in espresso making is relatively low, between 192 and 198 degrees.
Look for a machine with an "open system," one that has a pump to create necessary pressure and a water reservoir separate from the boiler. The separate reservoir enables the user to continually refill the water tank without having to shut off the system.
The minimum you can get away with, according to Raich, is something on the order of a Saeco Gran Crema (formerly the Super Idea, about $180). Raich calls it a wolf in sheep's clothing because it performs better than some more expensive machines. Bernard Mariano, who has been importing espresso-machines from Italy since 1974, says it's the best value in home-espresso machines.
As you move up the ladder, materials become more solid and more features are added, some of dubious necessity such as attached grinders and utility trays that hold coffee scoops. The Saeco 2002 (about $250) and the Caffè Roma Espresso Prima (about $220), for example, have enameled steel housings instead of plastic in the Saeco Gran Crema. At $370, the Saeco Rio Vapore gives you a pivoting steam wand for espresso drinks and a larger water reservoir. Raich says the staff at Peet's favors the Rio Vapore.
To approximate the quality of commercially made espresso, you must make the leap to a Rancilio Rialto (also known as the Audrey, $495) or the Faema Family ($450). These machines are made with enameled brass, which not only conducts heat well, but has the heft to withstand a good deal of punishment.
Mariano says the Rancilio Rialto is the only home machine that can duplicate commercial machines. "It's got tremendous power and exactly the same filter holder as commercial machines," he says. Another factor that recommends the Rancilio Rialto is a water-level indicator that tells you when the water level is too low. Running an espresso machine with too little (or no) water is akin to running a car with insufficient oil.
If you're the hands-on type and like the old-fashioned espresso-machine look, you might want to try a piston lever machine such as the La Pavoni ($425). Unlike the electric pump machines above, pressure in a piston lever machine is produced by the manual operation of a lever. This can create commercial-quality espresso, but it also requires a certain level of skill in applying just the right amount of power and speed.
The above machines all use a boiler to heat water, but Mariano also recommends thermal-block machines that heat water through tubing, much like radiators. Mariano says thermal-block machines, especially the Krups Novo (about $200) and the Rotel Espressomat (about $300) are very user friendly. But he admits that they have disadvantages such as less forceful steam and a delay in producing sufficiently hot coffee.
Whichever machine you choose, insist on a complete demonstration before you buy and give it the proper maintenance. "People think that because they buy an expensive machine, it will take care of itself. But whether you have a Saab or a Ford Festiva, you've still got to take care of it," Raich says.
An Espresso History
We can thank the Ethiopians for discovering that the seeds of the berries from the coffea arabica and coffea canephora (better known as robusta) plants had certain stimulant, even medicinal properties. And we can thank the fifteenth-century Yemenites for roasting, grinding and infusing those seeds in hot water to create a delicious beverage we now call coffee. But we must give the Italians credit for elevating that brew into espresso, the ultimate coffee drink, as Kenneth Davids puts it in his book, Espresso, Ultimate Coffee (180 pages, 1993, Cole Group, Santa Rosa, California).
The Italians were introduced to coffee through Vienna by way of Turkey in the early eighteenth century. What we know as Turkish coffee, a thick, almost muddy cousin of espresso (with surprising similarities), was developed in Egypt and Turkey in the seventeenth century. The Ottoman Turks left their coffee as a gift to Western Europe after their failed siege of Vienna in 1683. It was the Viennese, says Davids, who perfected the concept of filtered coffee.
The Italians fell in love with this strong, filtered coffee, but insisted on perfecting it further by means of industrial and technological advances that emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although the first large, steam-espresso machine was developed by a Frenchman, Edward Loysel de Santais in the mid-1800s, it was not until 1901--when Luigi Bezzera of Milan, Italy, patented a steam-pressure restaurant machine--that "the technology and culture of caffè espresso was born," says Davids.
Bezzera's concept of brewing one rapid cup at a time provided the basis for the Italian caffè scene--dominated by huge, ornate machines resembling locomotives--in the 1920s. But Bezzera's and similar machines that used trapped steam could only generate one-and-a-half atmospheres of pressure during the brewing cycle. More pressure was needed to achieve maximum flavor extraction from coffee grounds. (Current machines now generate nine atmospheres of pressure).
Another Milanese, Achille Gaggia, achieved that feat soon after the Second World War with the invention of a piston-powered spring activated by the now familiar lever. The Cimbali Co. introduced the first hydraulically powered, piston espresso machine in 1956.
In the early 1960s, the Faema Co. ushered in the age of modern espresso machines with the Faema E61. The E61's innovations included heated water on demand, a pump rather than a spring-driven piston to create brewing pressure and a decalcification system to prevent hard-water deposits.
In the 1980s and '90s, semiautomatic and automatic push-button espresso machines (which can include coffee grinders) have made espresso brewing, if not faultless, at least consistent.
"I'll have a decaf coffee."
"I'll have a decaf espresso."
"I'll have a double decaf cappuccino."
"I'll have a half double decaffeinated half caf—with a twist of lemon."
"Do you have any decaf espresso ice cream?"
-- L.A. Story
If you've ever tried to negotiate the espresso-coffee-drink maze, you know this hilarious restaurant scene from L.A. Story is closer to truth than fiction. In cities like Seattle or San Francisco, ordering a simple espresso can be as pedestrian as asking for glass of Chablis at a wine bar.
It's hard enough to remember the difference between a caffè latte and a café au lait without trying to remember how to ask for a cappuccino with decaffeinated espresso and steamed nonfat milk (colloquially known as a niente or "Why Bother," in Seattle).
Suffice to say that espresso can be made in regular or decaffeinated form and that steamed milk can be made from half and half, whole milk, 2 percent, 1 percent or nonfat milk. When you start mixing these elements (including, for example, half regular and half decaffeinated espresso), you can envision the endless possibilities.
Because Boston, Seattle and San Francisco (to name just a few cities) each has its own espresso jargon, it's much simpler to tell the barista, or coffee bartender, exactly what you want--in plain English. Beyond that, here's a handy guide to espressoterica.
Espresso: Dark, strong cup of coffee, about one-and-a-half ounces, made by forcing hot water under steam pressure through finely ground, dark-roasted beans.
Ristretto: "Short pull"--espresso cut short to about an ounce.
Lungo: "Long pull"--a "longer" espresso, about three ounces.
Doppio: "Double"--a double shot or two servings of espresso (made with a double dose of grounds).
Grande: A triple shot or three servings of espresso. It may also be an espresso drink with extra milk.
Americano: A regular shot of espresso that has been diluted with hot water to a volume of about six ounces (not a long pull).
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