Monday, November 24, 2014

Espresso Yourself - Part 1

And now for a post that's not about running!

Not that there's anything wrong with talking about running. I like it, of course. However...this mustang has temporarily been put out to pasture. I've had my first "real" running injury - a minor stress fracture in my left ankle. Luckily due to the minor nature of it (did I mention that already), there's no boot for me and I only have to take a break from running for 2-3 weeks. More on that later...

Now I have more time for blogging!

So what else is new?

Here in TN, it is unseasonably cold. Not crisp, cool fall. We're talking 20 degrees and snow.

This isn't supposed to happen until January!

Surprisingly, Carly seems to like it.

And now it's time for my coping mechanisms for cold - sweaters, SCARVES, boots, COFFEE, my cozy living room with blankets and candles...And let's not forget the best part - fall foods! Seriously, the foods during fall are fantastic - soups, pumpkin, butternut squash, apple, salted caramel, maple, cinnamon...I could go all day.

But did I mention coffee?

It's the perfect time to share a post I'd hoped to share in January (last January, I know). Last Christmas, I received an espresso maker.

How did I ever live without it?

Seriously, I use it almost every day now. I enjoy an Americano as my weekday cup, and I make my own lattes on the weekends.

I didn't even know what an Americano was a year ago.

At first, however, my espresso machine was overwhelming to learn to use.

It certainly isn't a Keurig.

Which leads me to Part 1 of a three part series: Espresso Yourself (for espresso newbies).

In Part 1, I'll share the tools I used to get started (get your holiday wish list ready!)

In Part 2, I'll share my beginner's guide to making espresso AND my recipe for Pumpkin Spice Lattes. The hash tag PSL! Hopefully I'll get the post out before December when you've moved onto peppermint mocha. ;)

Now I that I have your attention...

What Espresso Is

If you're a coffee expert or barista - you probably know more than me.

I'm no barista. When I started researching espresso and espresso machines, it was daunting. I didn't know what made espresso, well, espresso. I didn't know the difference between cappuccinos and lattes. If I found this espresso world intimidating at first, I couldn't be the only one out there. If this sounds like you, keep reading.

According to Miriam-Webster, the definition of espresso is "strong coffee that is made by forcing steam through finely ground roasted coffee beans". Instead of hot water dripping through coffee grounds like the automatic drip machines most of us use, espresso machines force very hot (boiling) water through the coffee grounds using pressure through a metal filter, resulting in a stronger, thicker, more concentrated type of coffee. In order to do this, you need an espresso machine.

The Machine

The most daunting part of espresso might be choosing a machine. Seriously.

Semi-automatic? Automatic? Steam? Pump? It has how many bars? You mean bars like a cell phone signal?

I think a better name for "barista" would be "espresso engineer".

The price points range from under $100 to hundreds (even thousands) of dollars. I did a lot of online research and read a ton of reviews. There are experts who will do a much better job than I could explaining manual, semi-automatic, and automatic machines (try this article), so instead of trying to recreate the wheel, I'll tell you where I landed.

To stay in a manageable price range and give myself a chance to learn how to make espresso, I decided I wanted an entry-level semi-automatic machine. This means I have to fill the portafilter with already ground espresso, tamp it myself (pack it tightly using a tool), flip a switch to start pushing water through the portafilter, and flip the switch off when my espresso cup is full (it doesn't know when to stop to make the right portion). I also wanted a machine that uses a pump for pressure instead of steam (which some lower price point espresso machines use and is less powerful).

See how technical I am? If the "espresso engineers" didn't stop reading before, surely they have now.

At the time (about a year ago), I ran into an article similar to this that listed top espresso machines for beginners. Based on this information as well as online reviews, I landed on the De'Longhi 15 bar pump espresso maker. It's around $100 (for reals!) and it has the features and power for a beginner like me to get started. It even includes a milk steamer, so I can turn my espresso into a latte! Yes - it's entry-level. I'm sure experts would scoff at it, but it's great for a beginner. Maybe one day I'll upgrade.

What You'll Need Besides an Espresso Maker

  • Strong coffee, finely ground - While "espresso" isn't a specific type of coffee bean, there are many brands that have developed special blends of coffee appropriate for espresso. Starbucks Espresso Roast is a good start, as is Trader Joe's Espresso Blend (only sold in stores but learn more here). To learn more than you ever wanted to know about espresso blends, check this out. For espresso, it is important that the coffee is ground fine (see next bullet).
  • Coffee grinder (optional, but not optional) -  If you want that fresh, rich, bold taste in your espresso, it has to be ground fresh. If you're new and want to just get started, you can buy a bag of ground espresso (such as Starbucks Espresso Roast), but it doesn't compare to freshly ground espresso. I had a little Krups blade grinder, but it didn't grind the coffee uniformly and finely enough, so I upgraded to this conical burr model.  It is fantastic - it grinds uniformly to the fineness I want.

  • A metal tamper (optional if your machine has a built in tamper) - I use this metal tamper. It works much better than the plastic one on my machine, and I can do it over the sink, not leaving coffee grounds on the counter. Just do it.

  • Espresso cups - While not the most beautiful, these are 2 oz each and fit well under the portafiler on my machine. From there, you can drink the espresso straight from the cups, or pour into a mug for a cappucino, latte, Americano, etc.

    • However, I saw this GORGEOUS espresso set when I visited C. Wonder (for the first time!) in New York recently, and I may add it to my Christmas wish list...

  • Frothing pitcher - This is important if you plan to steam milk for lattes. I can't find a link to the De'Longhi pitcher I have, but here is something similar. 

  • Vacuum sealed coffee canisters (optional, but helpful) - As a caveat to my earlier point, I totally get that you and I don't have time to grind coffee every morning. I also get that it goes against espresso best practices to grind a supply, as the coffee loses freshness once ground. Argh. My solution - grind a few days worth of espresso and store in these fantastic vacuum sealed containers. I usually grind 4-5 days worth and find it stays fresh.

Once you have the machine, you've overcome half the battle. Get that bad boy out of the box, clean the parts and pieces, and espresso yourself!

Sorry, I had to include that somewhere.

Honestly, just getting the right tools is half the battle!

And hey, it's the holidays, so you could let Santa help you get started. 

These tools will help you get started. In my next post, I'll share how I use these guys to make espressos, americanos, cappuccinos, and of course, lattes.

Do you make espresso at home? What are your favorite tools and gadgets?


I was not compensated by any of the above brands for this post, nor are they affiliated with this blog. I am simply sharing my honest opinions and experiences. The views expressed in this article are solely my own.

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