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October 1998 Issue
Home Espresso/Cappuccino Machines
by Chris Schaefer
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Machine Specs and Glossary Terminology
Some new terminology may appear here, so please have patience and an open mind. The first new word to add to your word processor's dictionary file is "portafilter." This is the handled device that sticks out from the espresso/cappuccino machine. It holds a "filter basket" which is where you put the coffee. Next, the brew-head or "group." This is where the portafilter gets locked into place. It's function is to securely hold in the portafilter so the pressure doesn't blow it off. It contains a shower-head where the water comes out that is used for brewing. The shower-head has a removable screen held in place with a screw. The final piece of equipment is the steam wand. It is used to heat up milk for cappuccinos. Other terms of interest include "shot," "pull," and "tamp." A shot is fairly self-explanatory. To "pull" is the brewing and extraction process. And to "tamp" is to flatten and compress the ground coffee so as to provide a uniform bed for proper extraction. There is also the term "wetting." This refers to the initial stage of brewing where the grounds first come into contact with the brewing water.

Machine Features and What to Look For
Steam-driven units
If you plan on taking the lowest-cost route, you have very limited options in machine choice. The steam-driven unit is packaged with a glass carafe and occasionally is sold with cups and saucers, an instructional video, and perhaps an attachment that "enhances" the milk frothing experience. Outside of these, practically every steam-driven unit is identical.

Pump-driven units
Your choices for machine blossoms in the category. The first feature you want to investigate is whether the machine uses a boiler to heat the water, or a thermo-block. After that, consideration must take place as to the material selection (is the machine housed within metal or is it a plastic case?), the size of the water reservoir, the style of portafilter (I'll get to what a portafilter is), and the controls. In addition are such things as steam wands, drip trays, and plumbing.

Pump machines use two different methods to heat the water, as mentioned above. The first method is with the use of a metal block- the thermo-block. Simply put, water is pumped out of the reservoir and into the heated block where it is quickly heated. It then travels out of the block and into the showerhead where it is distributed and forced through the grounds. Boiler units pump the water out of the reservoir and into a boiling chamber, where it too is heater then pumped to the showerhead and into the grounds. Read the Pros and Cons section for a discussion between these two heating devices.

Both types of pump machines produce heat and that heat has to go somewhere. Escaping heat travels upward and it makes it very convenient to place a "warming tray" atop the machine. Whether it looks it or not, every machine can be said to have one of these. The real debate is whether or not they work. It takes a long time to get a surface warm enough to heat up small china cups sitting on it, and to keep them warm. Home units are rarely on for this length of time.

Water makes coffee. Simple enough. Where does the water go? Well, internal plumbing is the key. Because pressure is the key to proper espresso extraction, some water tends to leak out of various places due to said pressure. Enter the by-pass valve. Very few machines have this and it is a luxury. Especially when it come to cleaning the machine. The by-pass valve, as on their commercial counterparts, works by allowing the residual pressures to escape via a different path after the pump has been turned off. What this means for you is no more hot, steamy water blowing past the showerhead when you remove the portafilter spraying hot, wet grounds on you.

And that leads me to drip trays. Every machine has one. Be sure to find something adequate for your needs. If you have a tendency to forget to clean up after yourself, or if many people will use the machine, you may think about purchasing a machine with a large, deep drip tray. Easy to remove and easy to clean is the ticket.

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