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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.
Sam Gugino
From the Print Edition:
Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94

(continued from page 3)

It may surprise you that the quality of your coffee grinder is as essential, perhaps more essential, than the kind of beans you use and how they're brewed. Beans ground too finely will cause the filter in the espresso machine to clog. Beans that are too coarsely ground will allow water to flow too quickly, resulting in a weak espresso. And beans that are unevenly ground will not allow for an evenly brewed cup.

For these reasons, a blade grinder is not recommended. Blade grinders chop rather than grind. Instead, choose a burr grinder, which uses plates to grind evenly. Burr grinders also have a number of settings (the better the burr grinder, the more settings), which can provide you with the nuances in grind for the perfect cup. If you have to choose between a blade grinder and having your coffee-bean retailer grind your beans, choose the latter.

You don't want a powder that's more appropriate for Turkish coffee. The grind should have grit to it, something like table salt. Illy has a simple guideline to help you in that regard. "When you brew the espresso, time the flow of water through the grounds. It should take 25 to 30 seconds. Less, and the coffee is too coarsely ground. More, and it is too finely ground."

Some grinders, like one from Saeco ($180), come with a "doser," which doles out exact amounts for a single cup, just like a commercial machine. (The ideal dosage is seven grams.) But make sure such grinders aren't designed for specific espresso machines. Carolyn Raich, merchandise coordinator at Peet's, recommends the Saeco and Caffè Roma ($160) burr grinders.

The Brewing Equipment

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.

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