How the Next Generation of Espresso Machines Can Help You Make Great Coffee At Home
written by Celia Nicholls
If there's one thing that 18 months of lockdown life has taught the coffee drinkers amongst us, it's that we underestimated the importance of the barista to our pre-pandemic quality of life. During our collective “quarantime,” while most of us found we could whip up a fairly decent cup of joe with what we had on hand (and those of us who couldn't switched over to the dreaded instant), when it came to more complex varieties of espresso-based beverage, it was harder to replicate anything approximating the flavour, texture and satisfaction of a cafe-crafted drink at home. Indeed, in attempting to achieve the perfect espresso shot—an essential base for almost any coffee creation you can think of—many of us found ourselves on a steep learning curve of fruitless trial-and-error experimentation, often involving a battery of relatively expensive, user-unfriendly specialty equipment. As the newly acquired blade grinders, moka pots, and milk steamers made their inevitable way to the backs of remote cupboards after long series of messy and ultimately unsatisfying kitchen disasters, we were likely all asking ourselves: “why isn't there an easier way to do this?”. Some of us, spending long days on Zoom and long nights on Netflix, probably even wondered why technology, which fast became so central to so many aspects of our lives in quarantine, had seemingly failed to keep pace with our desperate need to keep calm and caffeinate on during extraordinary, and extraordinarily stressful, times.
While many of us likely came to the conclusion early on that an espresso machine was now an essential piece of kitchen equipment, it's both a large investment to make, and a market saturated with choice that can be difficult to navigate when you're uncertain what to look for. In fact, if you have the inclination and the budget, there have actually been some large strides forward in home cafe technology in recent times, almost all coming from industry leader Breville and focused on taking the guesswork out of some of the trickier parts of the espresso-making process with improved component construction and design and some computer-driven automation.
Camano Island Coffee Roasters in Washington—the state that, as birthplace to Starbucks, will be forever central to coffee culture in North America—note that
the five most important elements of the perfect espresso shots are water pressure, extraction time, grind consistency and tamping. As they say, “[i]f any one of these are off, your shots will lose a lot of flavor and you won't enjoy your end espresso drink.” However, in the past, a lot was left essentially to chance in each step of the espresso-making process, basically requiring the barista to feel out things like the best grind for the type and roast of beans; the right size of coffee dose and the right degree of packing and tamping grounds into the portafilter through which the water passes; and the right timing to achieve the correct water pressure and temperature; to say nothing of the technique required to achieve the micro foam milk texturing essential for lattes and cappuccinos.
The perfect espresso shot requires 9 bars water pressure to pass through the dose of grounds within a 25 to 30 second window after the desired water temperature is achieved, slightly off the boil at 201F (or 94C). Assuming your machine is correctly calibrated for pressure and temperature, you must ensure that water is passing through the coffee grounds at the appropriate speed to achieve an optimum extraction time, or else you risk a flavour of high bitterness and acidity. The consistency of the coffee grind and how tightly it's tamped into the portafilter, which are key to controlling the time it takes to extract the espresso, are also closely related to one another. A finer, more tightly packed grind slows down the flow-through of water, while coarser or more loosely tamped grinds speed this process up. In the past it has been up to the barista to experiment to achieve the desired results, though, according to howstuffworks.com an ideal espresso grind is "much finer than regular brew coffee. Almost powder-like, yet slightly gritty, like the consistency of superfine sugar," at an overall tamp pressure of 5 up to about 30 pounds. Ideally, this translates into a proportion of half a tablespoon of ground coffee to 4 tablespoons of water, though it's a moving target dependent on getting each of these variables just right.
If you're not as invested in guesswork and experimentation with beans, grinds and tamping as an outright coffee fanatic and just want to start getting consistently good results immediately, the Breville Barista Touch espresso maker automates a lot of this process and allows you to save it as a preset on the machine so you can return to it again and again assured of achieving the same outcome. It will grind your beans to appropriate coarseness in the integrated burr grinder (better than the more typical blade grinders which produce poor quality coarse chopped grounds); automatically dose and tamp based on your specifications about desired shot strength; and ensure even pressure and temperature throughout extraction. Meanwhile the Barista Touch's milk steaming arm can be programmed to your specific preferences on milk texture and temperature if you're looking to make lattes, cappuccinos or anything else from a wide range of espresso-and-milk combination drinks. And if you feel variety in your morning coffee choice is the spice of life, not to worry, you can create and save up to 8 different presets for different drink recipes so you'll never again have to fly solo in your espresso making adventures.
Domestic technology has progressed enormously in the last decade, and, now that we're spending more time at home than ever before, things that may previously have seemed like luxuries have suddenly become both easily obtained, and essential to our quality of life. While you may not get that unmistakable cafe ambience or the friendly chit-chat with your local barista, Breville has designed a machine that ensures that you can still get the coffee, and in uncertain times like these, it's nice to know that you can count on its quality, consistency and simplicity.
written by Celia Nicholls