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Espresso and cappuccino makers are steam-driven machines that produce very strong coffee that is much richer and more concentrated than filter coffee and is the base for cappuccinos, lattes and all the wonderful concoctions you'll find in High Street coffee outlets named after stellar formations and the slang word for dollars. There are two basic types of machines: pressure machines, which are now quite affordable; and pump machines, which are much better but more expensive.

With the pressure machines, water is boiled up until it builds pressure and steam, which forces the boiling water through the coffee into a jug. There is a valve switch on the machine that directs the steam down a separate tube so it can also be used for frothing milk. These types of machines, while making a great-tasting coffee, often do not build up enough pressure to create the perfect espresso, and the water can also be too hot, which alters the taste of the coffee. The higher-priced pump machines have a separate tank and a thermostatically-controlled boiler with a 'Thermoblock' system that controls the heat of the water to keep it between 85 and 92°C - the perfect temperature for making coffee. The water is then sent through the coffee holder at the best possible bar pressure.

An increasingly popular alternative to these two techniques is the 'Nespresso' or 'pod' method, which uses little airtight cartridges of coffee that have been blended, roasted and ground in advance. You then just stick the cartridge into the coffee maker, push a couple of buttons and the machine does the rest. Pod machines make great coffee and make virtually no mess, but the downside is that you are then tied to the manufacturer's range of coffee varieties, which are not always easy to find down the 24-hour garage.
If you're going to go for one of the two more traditional machine types, there are a few basic features to look out for. Go for a machine with good bar pressure, which is essential to make the steam meet the coffee granules at the correct speed, as if the flow is too slow your coffee can end up tasting bitter. 15-19 bar is about what you need, although 9-11 bar could be enough if the beans have been ground really finely.
All good pump models should have a Thermoblock-type boiler that heats the water to about 90°C, via a pump, so you don't scald your coffee. The very best ones also have a Thermoblock system for frothing the milk, which needs to be at about 120°C. The material that the coffee holder is made of is also a good indicator of the quality of the overall machine - basic models have aluminium holders, but the best have brass, which keeps the heat in for longer.

Most machines have a mechanical valve to control the water flow. Top-of-the-range machines have solenoid valves that increase the water pressure at the point of delivery and will turn themselves off afterwards. If you're likely to be making several espresso at once, it's also advisable to go for the machine with the highest wattage, as the higher it is, the faster the water gets boiled.

Finally, look at the overall build quality of the machine you are interested in. If it claims to have all the top features, but is festooned with flimsy plastic bits, then it's a fair bet that the quality of the components inside won't be as high as those found in a more solidly-built model.

Author R. Germain
date added Wed 29 07 2009

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