July 31, 2006

Basics on Super Automatic Espresso Machines

We’ve had a lot of people ask about what the big deal is about Super Automatics, and what they can do for you. Well if you have to know, they really can do almost everything but drink the espresso for you. There are a lot of different types, and they offer a lot of really great features that makes having one like having a personal barista in your house.

Overall, a Super Automatic espresso machine will pull beans from a whole bean bin, grind, then tamp them. It will then brew your espresso, using its onboard water reservoir, at high pressure to extract all of the goodness for you to enjoy. The machine will have some settings that will allow the user to set water volume and coffee drop weight so that you can customize the size and strength of your espresso. Super Automatic Espresso makers also have a steaming function through a steam wand. Let’s look at a few features that help set machines apart:

Heating Elements
Single vs. dual heating elements is the question here. It all comes down to timing and throughput. When you have a machine with two heating elements, you have a dedicated element for brewing and one for frothing, which demand two different temperatures. If you have a machine with only one heating element, you are asking the machine to switch back and forth between these different temperatures, and it takes time. Most of the better machines will have two Thermobloc heating elements.

Maximum Control - Grinder Settings, Dosage Control & Liquid Volume Control
You want control; well you can have it. It all starts with the beans. Most machines offer the ability to change the grind setting for your beans. This is a key control that will allow you to adjust the strength of your espresso. Want a bit more strength, grind the coffee a little finer. The issue is that you can start to extract some unappealing flavors, so instead you can up the dosage. A typical brew is 7 grams of ground espresso per shot, but machines often allow you to adjust that up or down according to your taste. You can go as low as 5 grams, and up to a 14 gram dose that will allow you to make a nice double shot or brew two shots at the same time. With all of this said, you can also adjust the water throughput. Some machines allow for big swings in water volume, letting you brew up to 8 ounces of water giving you an Americano type cup that has the taste of espresso, but the hand warming effects of a nice cup of coffee.

Bypass Doser
The bypass doser allows you to live outside the box a bit by letting you drop in pre-ground doses of coffee that are outside your normal house blend. So, that might take the form of a decaf shot for your fidgety aunt after dinner. It’s easy to have some pre-ground decaf and drop a dose in to make that once in a while cup of espresso. It’s just not feasible to dump out all of your normal beans to make that one cup, so the doser makes life easy for those days when you need some variety.

Cup Warmer
It’s all about temperature, and if you drop a shot of espresso into a cold porcelain cup, you’ll be drinking lukewarm espresso. Unlike 12 ounces of coffee, the poor little shot of espresso doesn’t have the heating capacity to warm that cup up and still stay at a nice hot drinking temperature. So, a cup warmer can help warm those cups and keep those espressos at a nice serving temperature. Some machines have an active cup warmer that has its own heater. Other passive cup warmers rely on residual heat from the thermobloc heaters, which can take a while to heat up.

Digital Displays
Higher end machines offer digital displays that can tell you exactly what’s going on instead of little lights that are sometimes used in combination to tell you what process is going on or what needs attention. The digital displays are just easier to deal with, but once you get to know your machine, indicator lights may be just as easy to understand. It’s a personal preference. One indicator that is nice is to have a dump box indicator for when the box is full of the spent grounds. If you aren’t in the habit of cleaning this box on a regular basis, this thing can fill up and you won’t even know it….. I swear it will sneak up on you.

Cleaning – You or Me?
Some machines offer removable cleaning mechanisms that allow for easier cleaning by you. This is great to get the oils and caked on grounds cleaned off of a very important part of your brewer. The other thing to consider is if the machine has a cleaning cycle to clean for you. This will be a water flush after the brew that rinses away left over grounds that will foul your next cup of espresso if left to linger.

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Posted by Scott Martin at July 31, 2006 10:38 AM
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