Home Brew, Part II

Last time, we looked many of the standard ways to brew coffee. Today, we'll examine a couple of methods that produce an increasingly popular style of coffee, but one that is still misunderstood even by those that drink it-espresso.

Double-strength Coffee Makers
Often marketed as "espresso" or "cappuccino" makers, these compact units can be either quite cheap (as little as $29) or horrendously expensive (as much as ¥59,000). Yet they all pretty much operate on the same principle and produce nearly identical brews, differing only in design and convenience.

These low-pressure machines, however. produce not a genuine espresso, but a small pot of double-strength coffee. The machines generally have steaming wands that can produce steamed or foamed milk which can be added to the coffee to create lattes and cappuccinos.

With these machines, steaming and brewing are often parts of a single process, making timing tricky. If you don't start steaming milk at a precise point in the process, you'll end up with either no steamed milk or no coffee. Brewing a second pot requires that the machine first cool to room temperature so that more water can be added.

Yet for all their faults, these units have earned an honored place in the pantheon of coffee brewers. Many drip-filter coffee drinkers looking for a new coffee experience become enchanted with this more demanding brewing process and the exotically named drinks that it produces. Suddenly, the morning cup becomes a romantic drama of roiling steam, shrieking sounds, rich aromas, and split-second timing that magically produces a tiny pot of thick black coffee and an even tinier pitcher of foamed milk. I still have fond memories of my first machine.

True Espresso Machines
True espresso machines work by using very high pressures to quickly force hot water (not steam) through finely ground, dark-roast coffee.

Espresso machines for the home are available for between $169 and ¥60,000. Commercial models run considerably more.

Most machines have separate steaming and brewing processes, allowing you to steam as much milk and pull as many shots of espresso as you wish in any order needed. Most also have a refillable or removable water tank that can be topped off without having to wait for the machine to cool.

A good machine will be able to produce 10-15 atmospheres of pressure. Under such pressures, the brewing process lasts only 18-22 seconds, ensuring that most of the bitterness (as well as some of the caffeine) remains in the grounds.

What go into the cup are 1 or 2 ounces of smooth yet intensely flavored coffee, topped with 'crema,' a creamy, caramelly, highly aromatic golden froth that is the mark of a well prepared espresso.

Espresso is an extremely versatile drink. By itself, or with a bit of sugar, it is the classic French or Italian drink. An ounce or two of hot water added to a like amount of espresso produces an americano, a full mug of coffee that is about the same strength as drip-filter coffee, yet contains all of espresso's rich flavor and complexity. This could be the smoothest, most flavorful cup of coffee you'll ever have.

In America, the most popular ways of drinking espresso are with steamed milk (a latte) or foamed milk (a cappuccino).

In the summertime, espresso can be used to make smooth, intensely flavored iced coffees, including iced lattes and iced cappuccinos. Even better, make up a tray of americano coffee ice cubes and use them in your iced coffee drinks to keep the coffee from becoming watery.

If espresso machines have a fault, it is that they perfectly express the characteristics of the coffee you use. If you use a low quality coffee or one that has been only lightly roasted, the resulting cup will be harsh and very, very bitter. This, unfortunately, is the first, and all too often the last, experience many people have with espresso. Indeed, some restaurants seem to think that the harsher and more bitter the espresso, the more 'Italian' or 'French' it is.

But with a quality espresso-roast coffee, a good espresso machine, and a little knowledge and care, espresso can be a smooth, rich, creamy, full-flavored delight that will remain on your taste buds long after the last drop is gone from your cup.