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January 2000 Issue
by Chris Schaefer
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Pump-driven Espresso Machines

If you own a pump-driven espresso machine, and had previously owned a steam-driven one then you already know of the potential difference in coffee quality you can achieve. However, in some few cases I've experienced, the steaming capabilities of a steam-driven machine are just as good if not better than some pump-driven models. They "why" of this falls out of the scope of this article. Suffice to say, the bigger the buck, the bigger the bang. Or, in other words, the more you spend on a machine, the more likely satisfied you will be because of increased performance and quality. There exists a LARGE number of machines that fall in the beginning and middle of the quality range that exhibit mediocre brewing and steaming capabilities. Just because a machine is "pump driven with XX bars of pressure" doesn't mean that it's a performer.

Having said that, let's assume you own an average, middle-of-the-road pump machine and that you want to coax the best possible coffee and cappuccino from it. Not a problem!

Again, I can't stress this enough. GRIND The grind is so very important. For your machine, you should find a grind that permits you to extract 2 - 2.5 fluid ounces (59ml - 74ml) of coffee in 24 - 30 seconds time when using 13 - 15 grams of ground coffee. Start with a salt-like grind and work around that.

Also important is your "tamp" or how hard you press the tamper into the coffee. Keep the tamper level by flexing your arm at the elbow and tamping onto a flat, level surface at about waist height. This ensures proper and comfortable ergonomics as well as repeatability for tamping. Practice your tamping by pressing onto a bathroom scale- get a good feel for what 35 - 45 pounds of weight feels like.

OK, so your coffee isn't too bad but you still can't make a decent cappuccino. Going back to our instructions for steam machines, understand that the checklist applies to your pump machine as well. You still need a good milk, a proper pitcher, and some practice.

I see many machines today, both steam and pump, coming with these wacky frothing attachments. In my experience over the years, I find that a tapered tip -- either single or multi-holed -- provides better frothing. Those attachments work by throttling air into the milk. You don't need that. What you're looking for is a nice, consistent micro-bubble structure throughout the volume of the milk.

There are arguments for and against steaming milk first and pulling your shots afterwards, and pulling shots first then steaming your milk. I camp with those who steam first, get the machine nice and hot, then pull my shots. I leave it up to you to practice until you find which camp you want to belong to. But here are some generic steps to help improve your chances of getting great micro-bubblized milk.

  • Bleed the line of excess water by allowing the first moment's steam to blow into an empty cup. Turn off the steam.

  • Place the wand's tip just below the milk's surface, in the center of the pitcher. Then re-activate the steam. Control the output so that you can pull a slight vacuum at the tip. Slowly work half-way down into the pitcher's depth. Then back up again. Remain steady.

  • When the bottom of the pitcher is warm to the touch, but not hot, bury the wand to the bottom, just shy of bottoming out. Force the steam to swirl the milk as if a toiler were flushing. When the bottom of the pitcher is hot but not burning you, cut the steam and remove the wand. Be careful of excess, residual steam that may splatter the milk.
I hope you preheated your cups. That is an important step. Put your shots into their cups (I use cappuccino cups that hold exactly 6 fluid ounces). Now, teaching you Latte' Art is also not in the scope of this article. You'll have to learn that on your own or by purchasing "Latte' Art" from Bellisimo (available at www.espresso101.com). Suffice to say, I hold fast to the 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 rule. That is, a cappuccino has equal parts of coffee, milk, and foam. However, a good cappuccino is not coffee dredged in hot milk with a thick, dry, meringue-like cap of foam atop it. No, it is a creamy, velvety smooth mixture of micro-bubblized milk and espresso. So, the alteration to the rule is 2/3 micro-bubbles and 1/2 espresso. But the pour is the trick.

Hold your cappuccino cup, now with coffee, at an angle and pour your milk, also at an angle into it, so the two's differing densities cause a charge of flow and they intermix. To get a better idea of what this all looks like, visit my illustrated guide.

The most important thing to remember is PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. You will learn over time the best way on your machine, to produce wonderful drinks. And, of course, should you need advice or wish to express any comments, please email me here at .

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