Almost all of the espresso machines on the market can be divided into two categories: steam systems and pump systems. Because these appliances are so often bought as Christmas gifts, they are timely candidates for this column.
Six steam units and eight pump units were borrowed from their manufacturers for evaluation. The 14 machines included models manufactured in Italy, Switzerland, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Prices of the units range from $66 to $500. (Dollar amounts listed are suggested retail prices; units can often be purchased at reduced prices.) Although machines within each of the two categories operate similarly, there are subtle differences and it's important to read and follow the manufacturer's instructions.
Steam units currently account for about 70% of espresso machine sales in this country. They are the least expensive, ranging from $66 to $200.
In steam machines, water heats in a chamber until enough pressure has built up to force it through the ground coffee. In most steam machines, the entire amount of water in the chamber flows through at once.
These units produce coffee that is denser than that made in a drip or filter coffee maker, but do not produce the crema, or tan-colored foam, that is a sign of high-quality espresso (Please see Tips for Using an Espresso Machine on Page 47 for a full explanation). Steam produced by these machines typically increases the volume of 1/4 cup of milk to 1/3 or 1/2 cup.
Five of the six steam machines tested offered the option of producing either two or four cups of espresso, plus steam for frothing milk to make cappuccino. The sixth unit, Neon Cafe Amore, had the capability of producing from one to six cups of espresso plus steam.
Only one of the machines provided much space for overflow. This is not a problem when the coffee flows into a carafe, but it can be when a two-cup adapter is used and the unit produces more than two cups of liquid. It was also a problem when the coffee valve on one Neon Cafe Amore machine malfunctioned.
Pump machines are more expensive than steam machines ($235 to $500). In these units water is stored in a reservoir then heated and sent under pressure through the coffee grounds. Pump machines offer the option of making one or two cups of espresso at a time. The steam generated by these machines typically increases the volume of a 1/4 cup of milk from 1/2 to a full cup.
All of the units tested had good overflow space and removable drip trays. This is important since the machines tend to drip water and coffee.
For optimum flavor, the temperature of the water should be just below boiling when it comes in contact with the coffee grounds.
It takes time and experimentation to produce the best espresso/cappuccino from any machine. Follow the manufacturer's instructions plus the guidelines on Page 47 for selecting and grinding coffee.
If you truly care about good espresso, you won't be satisfied with a steam machine, even though they are less expensive, easy to use and typically have fewer mechanical problems. They cannot produce a high-quality espresso with crema, so are best used for making cappuccino.
Pump machines produce better to excellent quality espresso with crema. These are higher in price, more complicated and messier to use and subject to more mechanical problems.
With the exception of units that had mechanical problems, all machines were tested several times, following the manufacturer's directions as closely as possible.
STEAM SYSTEM MACHINES
BRAUN ESPRESSO MASTER (7)--Makes two or four cups espresso. To prepare cappuccino, half the espresso is brewed, the milk is steamed by moving a lever to the steam-only setting, then returned so the remaining espresso is brewed. Three cups of water yielded 2 1/2 cups espresso and steam for frothing. Milk steamed increased from 1/4 to 1/3 cup. Water temperature was 185 degrees; coffee, 180 degrees. Coffee appeared murky. Grounds were fairly dry.
Ample overflow capacity. Frother is stationary and has limited clearance; "Turbo Cappuccino" attachment detaches for easy cleaning.
NEON CAFE AMORE (5)--Only steam machine evaluated that offers controlled brewing from one to six cups of espresso/cappuccino. Milk is steamed after brewing espresso.
Milk steamed increased from 1/4 to 1/2 cup. Water temperature was 190 degrees; coffee, 190 degrees. Coffee appeared murky. Grounds were fairly dry.
Limited overflow capacity. Frother oscillates and has limited depth clearance. No brew basket guard. No cord storage.
GAGGIA FANTASTICO II (3)--Makes two or four cups espresso. For cappuccino, milk is steamed during brewing. Three cups of water yielded 2 1/2 cups espresso plus steam for frothing.
Milk steamed increased from 1/4 to a scant 1/3 cup. Water temperature was 180 degrees; coffee, 165 degrees. Coffee appeared murky. Grounds were fairly dry.
Fifteen-inch cord for safety. Limited overflow capacity. Frother is stationary and has limited depth clearance.