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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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).
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