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THE POWER OF ESPRESSO
WHAT'S BEHIND THE ALMOST MYSTICAL ALLURE OF THIS INTENSE COFFEE?

Dr. Umberto Albanese loves his espresso. The retinal surgeon, who hosts many dinner parties in his Amherst home, uses a Saeco machine that does everything but wash the cups.

It grinds the beans, adjusts for water hardness, dumps the grounds and even features a digital display (in six languages, no less) that tells the number of cups dispensed.

Last Friday, the machine told Albanese that he had prepared exactly 1,357 cups since he began to use the machine 12 months ago.

Albanese drinks his espresso with just a hint of sugar, but no lemon peel (and no powdered cinnamon in his cappuccino, either). He imports his beans from Italy.

"I'm just a purist, I guess," he says.

Then there is Peter Fremming of Kenmore, another espresso fan. He takes things a little easier. Every Sunday morning, Fremming looks forward to brewing a cup or two or three in his old-fashioned stove-top coffee maker and then sitting down to read the newspaper.

"I can relax then," he explains. And because he is the coffee roaster at Premier Gourmet, he drinks his own blend of dark roasted African and South American beans.

Both men are drinking a beverage that seems to have caused a coffee revolution in this country. Espresso bars can be found on almost every corner. And home machines are selling well.

Espresso is made by heating water to force steam though finely ground coffee, pressing or pushing out the flavor. It's a matter of extraction, really. And of pressure.

The coffee thus produced is more concentrated and much richer in taste than regular ("American") coffee, which is extracted by simply pouring hot water over coarser grounds.

Espresso may be stronger in flavor but not in its effect on the nervous system. Many people are surprised to learn that espresso is actually lower in caffeine than American coffee. The beans are roasted longer and part of the caffeine simply burns away.

You can spend as much on espresso appurtenances as you like, because home machines come in many styles. A stove-top machine (not electric) costs about $10; a fancy machine (electric) like Albanese's costs close to $1,000. Most electrically powered machines include a steam nozzle or other frothing device for making cappuccino (espresso topped with steam-frothed milk) or cafe latte (steam-heated milk with espresso).

The least expensive electric espresso makers are the so-called "boiler models." Linda Smithers, past president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, compares them to a car radiator. They retail for around $50.

"They are really a variation on the stove-top coffee maker," she explains over the phone from Akron, Ohio. Both stove-top and boiler-type work on the same principle.

This boiler-type espresso maker heats water in a small boiler controlled by a thermostat. When steam forms, it is forced through the coffee grounds in the filter basket.

Though coffee makers insist it's perfectly possible to make good espresso in a boiler machine, they also say it's more difficult to do so.

"You have to develop the touch," Peter Fremming explains. In other words, it's important to use finely ground coffee (about the consistency of table salt) and to tamp (push down) the coffee grounds down firmly so that proper pressure is produced.

But even if you are a good tamper, a boiler machine often doesn't exert enough pressure to produce "crema."

Crema is the Holy Grail for a true espresso lover.

It's the caramel-colored froth that tops the cup, said to contain the most aroma and thus flavor.

"A good espresso is multicolored," Fremming explains.

Another problem with this boiler machine: There's often not enough pressure to froth the milk sufficiently. (Low-fat milk froths better, most experts say.) Also, the machine has to cool completely between cups.

The other type of electric espresso maker, known as the "pump," is more expensive. It's the most popular, however, and Kathy Tabbi, housewares manager at Premier, says she sells them mostly to "yuppie types."

"Older people tend to buy the plain stove tops," she explains.

In the pump machine, water comes from a tank and is heated as needed. Generally it has higher wattage and more pressure.

The resulting espresso "is more like you would get in a coffee bar," explains Linda Smithers. But be careful when buying them.

"Price should be your guide to quality, but there is a limit," Ms. Smithers says.

"It's like picking out a bread machine. It's an individual decision." For a person who makes espresso once a week, $125 or $145 should buy a good machine, which offers at least 800 watts.

More expensive machines, Ms. Smithers adds, are "just for show." On the other hand, she's quick to add, there's nothing wrong with show, either.

"If you want a signature item, something to be part of the ambience in your home, $600 to $1,000 would not be too much."

Why so much espresso?

No one really knows why it has become such a hit in the United States, but everyone has a theory. Some say it's because Americans are traveling more and have begun to appreciate the taste of Italian coffee.

Others say it's simply because most American coffee is so bad.

"Since World War II, Americans have been drinking coffee made from a type of bean called robusta -- it's often used for instant coffee," says Peter Fremming.

"But it is the arabica beans which are best."

That may be so, but arabica beans do not an espresso fan make. Not a home espresso fan home, anyway.

There are many people with machines -- all bought with high hopes and high resolve -- still sitting in boxes.

Linda Smithers calls these folks "the disenchanted." She thinks part of the problem is the mess espresso-making involves. Tamping grounds is demanding enough -- and because new grounds are used for every cup or two, disposing of the grounds can be a problem, too.

Ms. Smithers has a solution for the disenchanted: Buy a pod adapter for your espresso maker, she suggests. Or buy a pot that uses pods already.

A pod is a cookielike container of grounds, enclosed in filters.

Pod machines were introduced in Italy by the exalted coffee expert Dr. Illy, and are the newest thing on the coffee horizon.

Ms. Smithers predicts they will be the Christmas gift of the year. Price for a pod machine is similar to good-quality pump machines.

Pods eliminate the need for grinding, tamping and disposal of the grounds. They produce a cup of espresso for 55 cents. (Pods should not be reused.) They are, says Ms. Smithers, the answer to a coffee lover's prayer.

"It's getting easier and easier," she said, "to make good-quality espresso at home."

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