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The Best Espresso, Bar None

  • Oliver Strand

Early on In Live and Let Die, James Bond makes coffee for M with a lever-operated espresso machine that is all polished metal, black knobs, and bachelor-pad confidence. The coffee is just a feint, a way to keep M away from the curvy young lady hiding in the other room. It is also a lot of work. After grinding, tamping, and pulling the shot, then inexplicably adding milk to the coffee and blasting both with the steam wand, Bond hands the cup and saucer to his superior.

“Is that all it does?” asks M.

Well, yes. An espresso machine makes espresso, which, to be clear, is a method of preparing coffee in the same way that grilling is a manner of cooking a steak. Searing a steak on a hot pan does not make it grilled, nor does packing coffee grounds into a dumbed-down home espresso machine (or popping a pod) and putting a demitasse under the spout make an espresso. Just as one needs a grill to grill, one needs an actual espresso machine to make espresso.

More specifically, the machine must be equipped to produce the hydrocolloid known as espresso, which is a combination of water, solubles, insolubles, and oils that emulsify under high pressure. According to the parameters set by the Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano, one of coffee’s governing bodies, this substance forms when water is brought to 9 bars of pressure (about 130 psi) and heated to 88 degrees Celsius (about 190 degrees Fahrenheit), so that the perfect 25-second extraction will yield 25 mL (about 0.85 ounce) of coffee that has the pleasantly dense consistency of lightly whipped heavy cream and a crown of the mahogany-colored foam called crema. Power is important, but so is stability. If the pressure drops during an extraction, there will be no crema. If the temperature climbs, bitter flavors creep into the cup. If pulling the shot takes longer than 25 seconds, the espresso will be thin and astringent.

Professional machines hit all of these sweet spots every time. Outfitted with two boilers (one for coffee, another for the steam wand) and proportional-integral-derivative temperature controls, or PIDs, they are constructed from heavy materials that maintain heat. These trappings can push the price of the appliance upwards of $20,000, depending on the bells and whistles and the color of the custom powder coat.

For the same reasons, a home machine with professional-level specifications is also significantly more expensive than its more pedestrian counterparts. Dual boilers, PIDs, and welds that could survive a trip through the hadal zone put the cost of a good home machine at a minimum of $1,000, but the better models command much more. Lesser examples are often hampered by cheap single boilers, flimsy housing, and useless digital widgets, all of which yield espresso so watery and angular that it is unworthy of the name. 

Until recently, the market for highly calibrated home machines was practically nonexistent, but today’s growing coffee culture has led to an uptick in demand, and top manufacturers are introducing new models or reengineering old ones. After selecting the model most appropriate for their needs, buyers should certainly savor the moment: One does not often own a machine that is better than the one used by James Bond.

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