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Choose the best coffee machine for you

This week we'll look at Manual Espresso Machines.

Manual espresso machines are, for many people, the only way to make coffee. They need some manual work to get them set up, but once you’ve learned the right skills you can produce the best-quality espresso.

First, you need the right type of coffee. For espresso, the coffee needs to have a fine grind, so that it takes the right amount of time to extract the shot. If you are buying coffee beans, you'll need a burr coffee grinder; a blade grinder will both burn the coffee and create a grind with large particles. If you're going to buy pre-ground coffee, make sure it's ground for espresso machines: most specialist coffee retailers will grind to order, so make the right choice when you buy.

With manual machines, you've got an amazing choice of coffee, from speciality single-origin coffee, to dedicated blends. Typically speaking, going to a specialist coffee retailer, such as Two Dogs, will give you the widest range of options, so experiment and find what you like to drink.

With the right type of coffee, it's all about technique and what you do with it. Manual machines have a group handle, which is where you pour the ground coffee, before clipping it into the group head where the pressurised water comes out. Before you insert the group handle into the machine, the coffee must be ‘tamped’, compacting the grounds together and creating a flat top. You don't need a lot of pressure to do this. Some machines have automatic tamping systems, but the best results come from manually tamping. If you tamp too much, the coffee takes too long to extract and you'll end up with a thin crema and burnt coffee; tamp with not enough pressure and you'll end up with light, foamy crema and watery tasting coffee. It can take a bit of experimentation to get it right, but it's easy to tell a good shot of espresso from a bad one.

The right temperature for espresso is around 60-65˚C. This is considerably cooler than instant coffee, but espresso should be drinkable straight from the machine. For this reason, if you want to make a longer drink, such as an Americano or long black, you should add hot water (from a kettle or from the machine itself) to preserve the temperature. It's wise to allow the machine to heat up for a few minutes first, while flushing hot water through the group head and empty group handle to pre-heat all the components first. Look for a machine with a cup warmer on top, so you can pre-heat your cups.

Although a shot of espresso is ideally 30ml, with a manual machine you've got manual control over how long you pour for, so you can pull a longer shot to weaken the flavour (or pour a double). If you want to make longer drinks, as described above, it may be more convenient to pour your coffee directly into a larger mug. Check our reviews to find out the clearance underneath the group head, as some machines don't have a lot of clearance, so you may need to buy dedicated espresso cups.

Most machines come with separate filters that clip into the group handle. These are usually sized for one or two shots of espresso, allowing you to pour a single or double shot, or two single shots at once. For ease, most manual espresso machines can use Easy Serve Espresso (ESE) pods. These look a little like tea bags, except the coffee is more tightly packed (perfect for espresso). They are convenient, but if simplicity is the most important factor for you buy a capsule machine instead.

The ideal pressure to produce espresso is 9bar, but most home machines are rated at 15bar or 19bar. This is the peak pressure and the overhead is there to ensure that the right pressure can be delivered to the coffee consistently.

Most home machines have a single boiler meaning they can pour espresso or create steam, but not both at the same time. For a single boiler to create steam for frothing milk, it needs to increase the heat of its boiler; once you've steamed the milk, you must vent the steam through the machine or the water will be too hot to make coffee and you'll end up with burnt espresso. If you're making milk based drinks, it makes sense to froth the milk first to a higher temperature, making the espresso second, preserving the temperature of the entire drink.

Dual-boiler machines are more expensive. These have one boiler at espresso temperature and a another at steam temperature so you can make espresso and froth milk at the same time. This reduces the amount of time it takes to make milk-based drinks but unless you are really into milky coffee, a single-boiler machine is adequate.

The best manual espresso machines.

1. Sage by Heston Blumenthal, The Dual Boiler: The best manual espresso machine. Price when reviewed: £1,159.

The Dual Boiler from Sage by Heston Blumenthal is a serious machine aimed at people who want the full coffee-shop experience at home. It's exceptionally well made, has industrial-quality components and dual boilers so you can steam milk and pour espresso at the same time.

Key specs - Dimensions 405H x 378W x 377D mm, Water capacity: 2.5L, Cup warmer: Yes, Milk frothing: Yes (steamer wand), Coffee type: Ground.

2. De'Longhi Scultura Coffee Machine: The best affordable manual espresso machine. Price when reviewed: £200.

The De ‘Longhi Scultura looks great and its simple operation coupled with perfect water flow make it easy to produce a great shot of espresso at the right temperature. With a tap to control steam, milk drinks are simple, too.

Key specs - Dimensions 305H x 242W x 382D mm, Water capacity: 1.4L, Cup warmer: Yes, Milk frothing: Yes (steamer wand).

3. Gaggia Gran Prestige: A great basic manual espresso machine. Price when reviewed: £180.

Super stylish and compact the Gaggia Gran Prestige produces a decent, if a little frothy, shot of espresso. With a long wand for steaming milk the Gaggia remains a top choice for quality espresso without spending the earth.

Key specs - Dimensions 297H x 200W x 265D mm, Water capacity: 1L, Cup warmer: Yes, Milk frothing: Yes (steamer wand)


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