I'll walk you through the basics of espresso coffee and my personal favorite espresso+steamed milk variation, the latte. I will share my hard earned research and tell you the best espresso machine to buy and how I came to that conclusion.
Why make your own espresso?For me the main reason was that I couldn't order exactly what I wanted. I needed more control over the amount of caffeine and the espresso to milk/foam ratio.
The experience and benefits of making something yourself, no matter how small or trivial, is also something I crave. Starting off the day crafting my drink of choice makes my day that much better.
So let's get started.
Step 1: Espresso Machines
How much should you spend?Let's do the math. My wife and I typically have one latte a day, so at $3, that's $2,190 a year. I expect a quality espresso machine to last at least 10 years and probably more if it's properly maintained. I probably would have spent up to $2-3k if I thought the machine was worth it. I ended up spending about $1,200 for the espresso machine and grinder.
There are too many espresso machines to choose from and it's hard to figure out which is the best one. I stayed away from the pod only machines, since I wanted to have control over where I bought my coffee and what kind of coffee I wanted to use. For example the Nespresso machines don't have an option to buy a half decaf pod and each pod costs $.50. Most of these machines won't do much for steaming milk either. I don't like twist off beer caps or screw-off wine caps, so where's the art is throwing in a pod and pressing a button. Not for me thanks.
The best espresso machine for your moneyThrough my hours of research on forums, reviews, in store investigations, this is what I bought.
RANCILIO SILVIA w/ COMPUTER TEMP (PID)
The Silvia is a great machine and the most popular. It's in the ~$600 price range without a temp. control modification. The temperature control is an custom modification to control the temperature of the water. Without the temp. control, the boiler can fluctuate ~40 degrees. You typically need to spend $2000+ for temperature control in an espresso machine, but you can get the Sylvia for less than half of that . You can also buy kits to do this yourself and there are a number of instructions on how to do this, just google Silvia PID.
Now you'll need a grinderI thought I could get away without buying a grinder, but I was wrong, very wrong. You'll need a burr grinder that you can adjust to match your coffee beans. I'll explain this more in the next step, but trust me, don't skimp on the grinder or you'll never be happy with your results.
Step 2: Pulling Shots
Turn your machine on and let it warm upThe better the machine, the longer it takes to warm up. Make sure the handle is attached to the unit while it's warming up. You want all the brass to be nice and warm. The Silvia takes about 20 minutes to warm up. Also remember to make sure there is some water in the steam wand by turning it on and letting water run through it. You don't want heating components to be dry as they will get damaged over time. The Silvia can make hot water using the steam wand, so you just turn on the middle switch to run a little water through it. I also use the hot water to heat up my mugs before pulling the shots.
Load up your espresso handle with coffeeLevel off any excess coffee before we get to tamping. Here's another item you'll need, a nice tamper. This is what you use to compress the coffee in the espresso handle basket. The Silvia uses a 58mm size tamper. When tamping, use about 30lbs of pressure. If you need a sense of how much pressure that is, try using a bathroom scale and pushing against it. Tap the sides to get any air bubbles out and then finish with a light twisting off motion.
Insert espresso handle and start pullingMake sure the handle is properly locked into your machine before hitting any buttons. This is the area you'll need to work on the most. It is supposed to take around 25-30 seconds to pull one ounce of espresso from start to finish. If it comes out too fast, you need a finer grind. If it's too slow, you may need a coarser grind or you may be tamping too hard. If you don't have a good coffee grinder, you may not be able to get the right grind for your machine. Different types of coffees will need different grind settings.
Before pulling, you also want to know the temperature of the water. Again, some coffees do better with different temperatures and even 1-2 degrees can make a difference. I'm using 219 degrees right now. You'll just need to experiment and if your machine does not have a temperature control, you can probably find somebody who has 'temp. surfed' it enough to know how to get the appropriate temp. With the Sylvia, you can run the espresso switch, water will come out, way about minute and it will be around 200 degrees. My advice, get a PID unit.
Step 3: Milk Frothing
Frothing basicsStart by putting your stainless steel frothing pitcher in the freezer. The colder your milk, the longer you can work with it to get nice foam. Don't use a pitcher larger than 20oz. and don't fill it more than half way. Bleed the steam wand of any water by turning it on and letting the water go out until all you have is steam.
Place the pitcher of milk at a slight angle and insert the wand just under the surface. When you turn the steam on, turn it on until you stop hearing any really loud whining. The surf the tip just at the top of the milk. You want to get some air into the milk without creating large bubbles. You can hear the air getting sucked in as you do it. If there are huge bubbles, lower the tip into the milk.
When the temperature is at 100 degrees sink the tip into milk and get it swirling. This creates finer bubbles with the air that you already got into the milk and is the path to microfoam. Microfoam is not easy and has a lot of subtleties that you'll need to work out by trial and error. I have just ordered a thicker gauge frothing pitcher to try out. I'll follow up if it helps.
Clean the steam wand!After you are done frothing, wipe the wand with a wet rag or sponge. If you leave the milk on there, it's a real pain to get off later.
Here's a short video to help with the sound and tip placement.