Espresso can seem a bit complicated to a beginner. Many of us simply walk into the corner coffee shop, order a $5 brew, and wander out still wallowing in ignorance as to what “espresso” actually means.
There is a simple, fast, and inexpensive way to make espresso at home: the stovetop espresso maker, commonly called “macchinetta” or “moka”.
Coffee drinkers have taken much more interest in sourcing, roasting and brewing in recent years. Through all of that, the classic macchinetta has remained widely popular – even if it was inspired by a washing machine. This elegant coffee maker features a compact iconic design, takes little energy to produce coffee, and is very simple to operate.
And it’s tiny; anyone who has lived in a small city apartment can attest to the importance of counter space. Stovetop espresso makers are probably the most cost- and space-efficient way to achieve flavorful espresso at home.
First up: What is espresso? It’s not just super-strong coffee – it is brewed in an entirely different way from what most of us grew up with. Essentially, espresso is brewed by forcing super-hot water through finely ground beans with a pretty high degree of pressure. It’s not dripping and it’s not steeping, in other words. The pressurized nature of the brewing process draws out more flavor and caffeine from the grounds, creating a much different product than the standard American cuppa.
And moka’s are one of the most popular ways to create that pressure and extraction. There are really only five parts to the coffee maker: the bottom chamber, where the water goes; the funnel filter, where the coffee grounds go; the gasket; the filter plate; and the top chamber, into which your finished espresso will funnel. With the water and grounds in place, the pot is placed on a heat source. The pressure from the mounting heat will build up to the point where it will force the hot water up the funnel, through the grounds, and into the top chamber as espresso. Pour it into a hot cup, maybe add a little sugar, take a sip, and you’ll feel like you’re in Italy.
Remember, “espresso” is defined by the process, not by the type of bean. So you can use any kind of coffee for espresso, as long as it is ground to the correct coarseness. Everyone’s tastes will vary, but you can get more out of certain blends than others. For a strong, tasty cup, we recommend a full-bodied blend such as our Organic Hurricane Espresso. Hurricane is a fair-trade blend of dark roasted beans that yields a smooth, even flavor.
What many people don’t realize is that the size of your grind is more important than the type of bean you’re using. For stovetop espresso, you’ll want a pretty fine grind (think texture similar to sugar). If the coffee is too coarse, you won’t be able to extract as much flavor and you’ll end up with a watery cup (yuck!). But too fine, and the water might not be able to force its way through.
Never tamp down the grounds, just fill the funnel and level off the top. If the pot doesn’t start funneling that mellow fluid into the top chamber within 4-5 minutes, your grind is probably too fine (or packed), and you should stop, let it cool down, and start over.
As always, the best way to figure out what sorts of coffee and grinds work for you is to talk to us. Armed with the essentials, prepare to experiment!
If you’re ready to try it out, the first question you need to ask yourself is about what sort of macchinetta you want: aluminum, or stainless steel? As with cookware, this question goes to both upkeep and distribution of heat. Aluminum is a great heat conductor, which is why it’s commonly found in espresso makers (and in cookware, for that matter).
That means the aluminum macchinetta can get water steaming more quickly than stainless models. Sounds great, right? Well, sort of. There’s a theory that a slower heat-up allows more pressure to build in the bottom half of the pot, and thus the more pressure, the better the extraction. However many will swear by their aluminum pot. Stainless models are considered more desirable mostly for their looks, and for easier clean up.
A smaller macchinetta can be accommodated on large gas burner grids with a heat diffuser.