MOST OF THE coffee consumed in this country is made from lightly roasted beans that produce what we call "American" coffee. The past decade, however, has witnessed the increasing use of dark-roasted beans, alternately referred to as espresso, filter, European roast or Cuban roast. Today I will examine the best machines on the market for making coffee from these beans.
Dark-roasted beans destined for the preparation of Southern European or Latin America-style coffee should be ground as fine as possible, but not so fine that the particles will clog the drain holes of your coffee maker. And do not grind to the consistency of talcum powder; that will destroy the volatile oils that give the final brew its taste. For the past 20 years I have made this style of coffee in a Chemex coffee maker, invented by Dr. Peter Schlumbohm. It is a simple hourglass into the top of which you place a paper filter. The ground coffee goes into the filter and very hot water is poured over them. It drips into the bottom of the hour-glass in one pass. I have found the Chemex filter to be the finest of all paper filters.
But when it comes to selecting a dark roast coffee maker, you can choose between two basic types: filter and espresso. Both France and Italy share the tradition of cafe filtre, with the Neapolitan Filter Pot being the most widely used equipment.
The Neapolitan Filter Pot consists of an internal can-shaped cylinder with a screw-on basket at the base for holding the ground coffee, plus two external cylinders, each with a plastic handle, and one with a pouring spout. Cold water is poured into the unspoured cylinder. The internal cylinder with the coffee basket on top is placed inside this unit. The spouted cylinder is placed on top, and the entire contraption, looking as if it were upside down, goes on the burner. After a few minutes a small stream of steam will begin to issue from a tiny hole at the top of the lower cylinder. The classic technique, at this point, calls for grasping both handles and inverting the entire thing. This will cause the hot water, which was previously heating on the bottom, to filter downward through the coffee into the pot that has the spout.
The potential for a spill of boiling water from between the cylinders is quite high, and I have seen some nasty burns result from this practice. If you are not obsessed with classic cooking technique, I strongly suggest that you heat the water in the top cylinder and simply pour it through the coffee basket which rests in the spouted base.
When you're choosing a Neapolitan pot be sure to select the pot with a full pouring spout. Some manufacturers have dispensed with the formed spout and have merely made a dent in the top rim for pouring. As the liquid descends into the lower cylinder it displaces air inside that cylinder. The larger, lower pouring spout allows that air to escape quickly, insuring a rapid passage of the coffee from top to bottom. The dented-rim pots do not develop this circulatory system. The liquid does not pass through as easily, and the coffee can be considerably cooler when it finally accumulates in the base. In addition, the formed spout pours better. Neapolitan filter pots are available in 6-and 12-cup sizes ranging in price from $11 to $15.
The Italian word espresso means fast, and it is an apt description for the passage of the steam through the ground coffee in the making of espresso. It is the traditional coffee of Italy, but has begun to replace filtered coffee in both France and the United States. In making filtered coffee, hot water slowly drips down through the grinds. With espresso, steam is quickly forced under pressure through a container of tightly packed coffee. The steam comes in contact with the coffee only long enough to extract a rich, undiluted coffee essence -- leaving behind the less-pleasant chemicals.
The espresso pot used in most Italian homes is the La Moka. This cast-aluminum pot comes in three pieces: the base, which is the water container; the spouted, handled top where the espresso ends up, and a waistband coffee basket between the two. To use La Moka, fill the bottom container with water and the basket with finely ground dark-roast coffee; screw the top and bottom together and place tne entire system over medium heat. As the water boils, and pressure builds, the steam is forced up through the grounds and arrives in the top chamber as deep, rich coffee. La Moka makes a good cup of espresso. La Moka pots come in 3-, 6-, 9-, and 12-cup sizes, and range in price from $16 to $40.
The Euro Espresso Pot is a slick, modern, stainless-steel version of La Moka. The old aluminum hexagon is now a shiny tube, but it still works on the same three-layered principle. This pot comes in a 6-cup size and is priced at $24.
At home in Italy and France, coffee is usually made either in the Neapolitan Filter Pot or La Moka. Electric steam machines are most often found in coffee bars and restaurants, and since the streets of France and Italy are filled with these bars, there is little demand for an electric machine in the home. In this country, there are few Italian coffee bars and therefore a growing interest in the big electric espresso makers.
The Europiccola Espresso Machine, like other big electrics, comes with a certain obligatory number of levers, cylinders, knobs and spouts. This comparatively giant-sized version consists essentially of a cylindrical, chrome-plated bronze boiler rising from a heavy, stove-enameled steel base fitted with a grid-topped well to catch the drips. A rubber pad underneath provides cushioned protection for your countertop or buffet server. Black heat-resistant plastic knobs and handles are attached so you can work all the parts.
Despite its seeming complexity, this machine isn't difficult to operate. Put two and a half measuring cups of water, enough for 6 to 8 diminutive espresso cups of coffee, into the boiler.Put the coffee, ground almost to a powder, into the small metal filter cup beneath the black-handled lever, and plug in the machine. Push the switch to massimo and wait for the steam to rise. Sixty seconds after the water boils, move the switch to minimo. Hold your espresso cup or cups (two can be filled at a time) over the grid in the base and raise and lower the large lever to to release finished espresso. The steam to foam milk for cappuccino, or to heat other drinks, pours from a nozzle operated by turning a black plastic knob.
Although the cylinder holds enough for up to 8 espresso-sized cups, you will have to refill the filter cup with coffee after every two cups are produced. You would find this miniuscule quantity a nuisance if the filter cup weren't so easy to detach and attach. This arrangement certainly does insure the freshest cup of espresso you can get. The Europiccola is priced at about $250.
The Olympia Caffarex electric espresso, cappuccino, and hot-water machine is the ultimate equipment for home use -- and it would not be out of place in an office or small restaurant. Made in Switzerland with the quality and precision of a Rolex watch, the Caffarex will make 50 cups of espresso, one right after the other. (But remember you must change the grinds between each brewing.) Of 18 machines I tested, it made the best steamed and foaming milk for caffelatte (one part espresso to three parts hot milk) or cappuccino (one part espresso to two parts foamed milk.)
There are no levers that need to be pulled and pushed in order to force the steam through the coffee. Everything is carefully controlled by an internal electrical system. Put in the water and the coffee and just press the buttons. In addition, to the espresso and steam nozzles, there is a spout for plain hot water (a boon is there are both tea and coffee drinkers at your gathering). A series of clear glass tubes indicate the precise water levels in the boilers, so you can easily tell when more water is needed. During three blind tastings this machine produced the winning brew each time. If you are going to spend your money on a big electric espresso machine, this is clearly the best of class. It sells for $695.
However, if your budget is not being made up with windfall profits, and the Caffarex looks a bit out of your price range, here's a nice little money-saver. The Cappuccinola Machine makes only the steam, not the espresso. Fill the aluminum tank with water, lock the cover in place, and close the steam valve on top. Place the unit on your range and let the pressure build up. After about 5 minutes submerge the steam-spout just under the surface of a pitcher of milk and release the steam valve. The milk, heated by the steam, will begin to foam. As soon as the foam begins to form, lower the pitcher in order to keep the end of the vaporizing spout just under the top of the foam. When the foam reaches the top of the pitcher, completely immerse the spout in the milk and shut off the steam. This system is the key to getting a good head of foam on your milk, and it even works with skim milk. The Cappuccinola retails for about $50.