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Espresso Machine?

Q: I'm going to buy my first Espresso machine. Are there certain features I shouldn't go without, with a new Espresso machine purchase? I want a lower end one for affordability reasons, but i still want a decent one. Suggestions?

A: Having owned more than one, I'm happy to share my opinions with you - my current model, a 'Hamilton Beach' that was highly regarded by Consumer Reports, is pathetic! Also, maybe you want a little guidance on how to make the best Espresso with whatever machine you buy? So let's talk in general terms- I agree that you want a pump-driven machine, at least 15 psi. Another thing I've observed is that the filter screen and the tamper are important. Get a model with a deep filter screen - my 'Hamilton Beach' has one that's very shallow, and I'm convinced that the steam doesn't stay in contact with the grounds long enough to accumulate flavor. Now, it will come with the machine a tamper, a little plastic thing that you use to pack the grounds into the filter screen - if the tamper is much smaller than the filter screen (like my HB) then it's difficult to pack the grounds properly. Also, they come with the little steam vent for frothing milk to make Capuccino - some of the vents have a special tip that incorporates air automatically. Others are just plain pointed steel tubing. The air-injector models make it easier. If you're going to be steaming milk, know that skim works best, and get one of those stainless steel pitchers so you can feel the temperature of the milk through the bottom - when it's very hot, but not too hot to touch, the frothing is completed. To make really good Espresso, you need the best beans. Try to find beans that have been roasted super-dark (of course) but that have an oily sheen on their surface - some places burn the beans and dry them out ('Starbucks'); the oils in the beans are essential to flavor and also to the creation of that smooth brown "crema" that floats atop the best Espresso. Of course, the very best way is to buy whole beans, is to keep them cool and dry, and grind them just before use. I have a 'Braun' grinder that adjusts to a very fine Espresso grind. It works well. You need to learn to pack the grounds tightly; most good baristas will try to put 35 pounds of pressure on the grounds, and they practice using a bathroom scale.