November 30, 2012 7:55 pm

Food frontiers: coffee machines

Small miracles of engineering, yes – but do any of the myriad home coffee makers out there actually deliver extraordinary results?
A photo of Tim Hayward using an espresso machine©Greg Funnell

First, a little history. Espresso coffee is a product of Italian industrialisation. Workers in huge factories needed to be fed hot, strong coffee in their limited breaks. Though there had been brewing machines before, which moved water through grounds with varying degrees of urgency, it took the sort of engineering mind of a Ferrari or Maserati to think of upping the pressure and supplying a rapid load system for a measured quantity of grounds. The espresso machine had a tank like a steam engine, while the “portafilter” was charged with coffee and twisted into position like the breech of an anti-aircraft gun for each high pressure “shot”. The beautifully simple machine “expressed” a metered dose at “express” speeds – the two ideas that gave the shot its name.

When the coffee bug first bit in the UK I was at the head of the queue for a home espresso maker. It was, as I remember, a La Pavoni with an authentic-looking pump handle and was, to be honest, a disappointment. The coffee was inconsistent and lacked the oily texture of the ones I still bought at Bar Italia in Soho. I upgraded to the geek’s choice, the Rancilio “Miss Silvia” – a machine with an electric pump – which, like many other obsessives, I subsequently upgraded and modified. By the time I’d finished with it, I’d ground bits out of it with drills and had hooked up a laptop to show me graphs of temperature against pressure.

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Results were better but never perfect and I realised that no matter how much time and effort I spent in my home kitchen, I would never achieve the consistent brilliance of a barista, turning out a thousand cups a day on a half-tonne, £5,000-monster of Italian design, tweaking and perfecting as he went.

Because I’m serious about what I eat and drink and an utter, unashamed nerd, I’ve spent a lot of time and effort since, experimenting with other methods of making coffee at home, and so – particularly at this time of year – it seemed sensible to share this knowledge in a form you can leave lying around the house, your personal favourite clearly ringed in marker pen.

A photo of Tim Hayward using a Handpresso Auto©Greg Funnell

The Handpresso Auto looks like the thing that carried the dilithium crystals on the Starship Enterprise. For the gadget-minded, there could be few things more exciting than a densely engineered metal pod with a rubberised jacket that has lights, a dial and plugs into your car lighter socket. I mean this thing is gorgeous. You find yourself pulling up next to people in car parks in the hope they’ll catch sight of you through the window and think you’re sending the authorisation codes back to Langley or defusing a tactical nuke rather than making yourself elevenses on a sales trip to Corby.

The Handpresso contains a water heater, a pressure pump, a gauge, enough water for a single shot and a pre-loaded ESE System coffee pod (available in some supermarkets or by mail order) and by a miracle of engineering fits them into something the size, shape and weight of a small Thermos flask – an absurdity not lost on the purchaser as his £139 acquisition makes its rhythmic pumping action, vibrating in a vaguely threatening way and emitting impertinent beeps.

Verdict: reasonable shot with sexy gadgetry; www.handpresso.co.uk

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The Cona vacuum coffee maker has been produced by the same company in Surrey since 1910. It’s made of glass and still looks like the kind of experiment you probably did in O-level chemistry.

A photo of a Cona vacuum coffee maker©Greg Funnell

The current design, substantially unchanged since 1960, takes hot water in the bottom chamber and grounds in the top. When the methylated spirit lamp in the bottom is lit, the pressure in the bottom vessel increases and the water geysers through a connecting tube to soak and cover the grounds. The burner is then extinguished and, as the bottom cools, it creates a partial vacuum, sucking the hot water gently back through the grounds.

It’s unbelievably simple and elegant. The water used in brewing is actually just short of boiling during the process and the grounds form their own filter. Coffee geeks believe that this gentle treatment gives some of the most sublime coffee from fashionable single-estate beans – which explains why original versions of these machines sell for hundreds on eBay and occupy the most agonisingly hip counters from Seattle to Tokyo.

In fact, before forking out a very reasonable £116.40 for your version, why not check your parents’ attic. They probably have one of the really desirable 1960s ones in its original package as a forgotten wedding present. Failing that, contact Cona direct to find your local stockist (020 8941 9922).

Verdict: a British design classic, which makes delicate and beautiful coffee; www.cona.co.uk

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The Aeropress was invented by the same company that brought us the Frisbee. And as a massively affordable plastic facilitator of an absurd global craze, I confidently predict it will do just as well.

A photo of Tim Hayward using an Aeropress©Greg Funnell

The Aeropress reduces the mechanical process of extraction to its most basic element in what is fundamentally a giant syringe with a filter paper in the bottom. At £19.99 the Aeropress could easily find its way into the digs of a discerning student and, at roughly 230g, into the backpack of anyone needing a coffee in an odd spot. I recently sent one, along with a small hand grinder, to a mate in Afghanistan and treasure the picture he sent back of it sitting next to his bunk between a steaming mug of excellent coffee and his pistol.

Because the Aeropress can make a very consistent shot with little or no set-up, it’s beginning to feature in more and more coffee bars for single servings of high-quality, single-estate coffee for real connoisseurs. It seems odd, at first, to get an expensive cup of a premium coffee served out of what’s basically a piece of plastic camping equipment, but the geeks are definitely not complaining.

For authenticity, we tested the Aeropress over a military Hexamine burner at the bottom of the garden. But since then I’ve been using it every day for a breakfast cup, using the simpler expedient of a domestic kettle.

Verdict: superbly fit-for-purpose on and off the battlefield; www.aeropresscoffee.co.uk

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A photo depicting the Nespresso©Greg Funnell

The Nespresso system has justifiably swept across the breakfast nooks of the civilised world. If your requirement is for a decent cup of coffee from a choice of interesting blends, and the barista’s goals of a technically perfect microfoam or a well-defined crema mean little to you, then the Nespresso is a godsend. It will certainly give you a happier result than an expensive and unpredictable espresso machine.

Until recently Nespresso enjoyed a monopoly on the pods that fitted their machines, but the market is diversifying to cheaper alternatives. We tested the new UK brand Café Pods. Though they offer a considerable cost saving over the originals, they have little else to recommend them. The “Intense” was extraordinarily bitter and unpalatable, the “Light & Lively” approximated to the stuff you’d find in a motorway service station while the “Smooth” will appeal to those who find Mellow Bird’s too challenging, or perhaps don’t actually like coffee.

The combination of the Nespresso system with high-quality coffee from specialist independents could potentially be the holy grail for home coffee makers. Sadly, the Café Pods don’t live up to that promise.

Verdict: Disappointing, though the potential is there. £3.30 for a pack of 10 capsules, www.cafepod.com

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The Verismo™ System promises to “bring all your favourite Starbucks® beverages home, with uncompromising quality and push-button simplicity”. The 580 model does so in a sleek machine with a satisfying chromey lever on the top that almost makes you feel a tiny bit like a barista.

A photo depicting the Verismo™ System©Greg Funnell

You begin your “beverage” by inserting one or more pods containing a milk powder which the machine reinflates into your mug, followed by a similar pod which contains some sort of coffee concentrate and completes the mix.

Being reasonably benevolent I think the US giant has simply failed to understand the peculiar revulsion with which the Brits regard powdered milk. Over there – indeed, in much of Europe where Ultra-Heat Treated milk is the norm – a reconstituted product might be acceptable, but for the Brits it’s difficult to associate premium coffee with the depressing little capsules of near-milk one’s offered on trains and in low-end motels.

I really wanted the Verismo to surprise and delight me, but I honestly had to pour the coffee down the sink after a single sip.

Verdict: a clever attempt to bring coffee back into the home, undermined by the fact that it tastes like it has been passed through a live cat. From £149, www.selfridges.com.

Tim Hayward is contributing writer, FT Weekend. tim.hayward@ft.com; Twitter @TimHayward

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