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How to Buy an Espresso Machine - The Guide
Espresso Machine Buying Guide - Accessories to Consider
Introduction | Get a good grinder | Life of Ownership | Using CG's Reviews | Vendor Tips & Tricks | Choosing a Semi / Auto | Choosing a Manual | Accessories to Consider

Welcome to the fluff section of this Guide. Just kidding!

Accessories are what make espresso in the home more fun. And more importantly, they are often what make espresso more personal. For me, they complete the process of building that wonderful little drink that is the epitome of what coffee has to offer. Be it a $100 piece of metal and wood that presses down ground coffee (a tamper), or that perfect volume, perfect thickness, perfect size cappuccino cup, here are some tips and discussion on what accessories might suit your home espresso bar

The Tamper

Click for larger image
Coffeelab Tampers
A great tamper is something you feel perfectly comfortable with; it should enhance the experience of making a great shot of espresso.

Painters have their preferred set of brushes. Wood crafters have their lovingly cared-for set of chisels. Fishers have their favourite hand-tied flies.

Espresso professionals and enthusiasts have their tampers.

Tampers can cost as little as $5 and as much as $150. Heck, CoffeeGeek will soon be selling a tamper that, at least in one variant, will cost nearly that much. Often a tamper is included in the box your machine came in - a plastic, poorly manufactured thing that kinda does the job, but doesnít really give a sense of connection or personality while using it.

Iím not going to recommend one type of tamper. Instead, Iím just going to say you really, really should get one. Get one sized for your machineís basket. Get one that appeals to you most.

Weíve recently added a lot of individual categories for reviewing tampers on CoffeeGeek, including models from Bumper, CoffeeLab, Espro, and the venerable granddaddy of the tamper world, Reg Barber. Use these reviews as your starting point, but remember that at the end of the day, the tamper is a personal thing - your connection to the process of making good espresso. Choose yours based on what appeals most to you.

Just be sure to get one - you wonít regret it.

Cups and Saucers

Illy Cups
Illy Collections
Illy makes some of the finest espresso cups (and saucers) in the world.
Polish espresso cups
Polish Find!
Our news editor found these excellent tulip style cups at an open air market in Krakow, Poland - about $8 each.

Iím fond of saying, ďYou wouldnít put the Mona Lisa in an Ikea frame; so why brew espresso into paper cups or just general, non-descript coffee cups?Ē

Espresso and cappuccino cups come in literally thousands of different incarnations. Some cost a fortune. (How about $1,000 for a set of illy collector espresso cups? Check eBay some time for the Trazzine set by Luca Trazzi!) Some, even from Ikea, can cost $1.50 for a cup/saucer set.

Cups arenít just an aesthetic choice to be made - they also play an integral role in how the espresso develops (and declines) in taste. Weíre talking about a beverage that, on average, is an ounce in volume. With that small an amount of liquid, the environment can radically change how it tastes, how it ages, and how it degrades.

Even the shape of the interior of the cup can play a role. The common opinion of espresso professionals and even judges in the World Barista Championships is that squared off edges inside a cup lead to deficiencies in the overall taste of a shot of espresso: the ideal interior shape of a cup is believed to be a bowl shape.

Thickness is another concern. Thicker porcelain usually retains heat better. But it also leeches away more heat from the beverage it holds, if the cup isnít preheated. So important tip: always preheat your cups, especially espresso sized (under 3 oz) cups - donít let your espresso heat the cup and leave you with a tepid beverage. Preheating isnít just a matter of leaving the cup on top of the machine in the cup warming tray; it means running hot water into the cup first, letting it heat up, and dumping the water before brewing into it.

Thick, high fired porcelain is the preferred medium for espresso and cappuccino cups. What does high fired mean? Porcelain is baked (fired) in an oven to set it and its glaze - and some porcelain is fired at higher temperatures than others. Most Italian espresso cup porcelain is fired at 1200F, 1400F, or higher temperatures. This makes the cup stronger, and less prone to breaking. How do you tell what cups are fired at what temperature? Well, itís often hard to find out - some manufacturers state this information on their websites, most donít. But generally, if the porcelain has a heavy, dense feel to it, itís high fired; if it feels light and ďairyĒ, chances are it is of lower quality and a lower firing temperature.

Recently, Bodum has come to market with double walled borosilicate glass cups, including cups sized for espresso. These cups do such a good job at insulating beverages that you often donít have to preheat them. They are fragile, but the Pavina line from Bodum is especially well suited for espresso and cappuccinos.

Cups can be found all over. You can find them at just about every espresso machine vendor website, but you can also find them in places you normally wouldnít think to look. We recently found some amazing cups, both with quite unique (and individual) art and the proper shapes and thickness for holding espresso in a open air market in Krakow, Poland.

And soon, CoffeeGeek will (finally!) have very special cups and matching saucers for sale. Trust me when I say these are going to be ideally suited for serving up coffee and espresso.

Whatever cups and saucers you choose, treat yourself - get good porcelain (or Bodum double walled glass), and get something that fits your style, your artistic likes. Espresso is art. Make the cups that hold it a suitable frame.

Knock Boxes

Click for larger image
Grindenstein
Though tiny, the Grindenstein knockbox can still handle a full sized commercial portafilter.

I almost rate knock boxes a higher priority than the tamper. You can sort of make do with the plastic tamper that is enclosed with most espresso machines. Knocking out a spent puck from a portafilter becomes a real chore (and a messy one), if you donít have a knock box.

You donít need something huge or ďbuilt inĒ like most cafes do. The Grindenstein is a nice economical choice that doesnít take up much room (indeed, it can fit under the portafilter on many home espresso machines). I also really like the Bumper Knockbox that Chris Coffee just started carrying - this is the one I have in my main espresso testing room.

You can also go utilitarian and get a basic box / metal knockbox from most espresso supply places for $20 or $30, or you can go all out. I know Reg Barber will make a customized knockbox for you, but donít ask the price - if you have to, you probably canít afford it (or at least justify it). But it is a work of art - in African rosewood, no less.

Steaming Pitchers

Hereís another item that most people buy the wrong thing for. The most common steaming pitcher is the typical ďbell shapedĒ or round pitcher with handle and little or no pointed spout - instead it has a wide lip halfway around the front of the pitcher. Even KitchenAid gives you a pitcher with their Proline espresso machine, but itís the bell shape.

Click for larger image
Steaming Pitchers
A whole gaggle of them.

That style, especially the wide spout design, is just not suited for pouring good latte art, or even pouring decent cappuccinos and macchiatos without the aid of a spoon.

Two designs of frothing pitchers well suited for steaming milk come to mind. The common tapered nose style, like this one from Visions Espresso and the (pretty expensive!) Allesi design that, fortunately, is available in a slightly knocked-off version for much less, like the Europa model from Espresso Supply.

You donít have to go with either of  these two, though - anything with a good, pointed spout should suffice. There are some bell shaped pitchers, for example, with long, pointed spouts that will steam well and pour nice microfoam. As for sizes, 12 oz pitchers are great for doing two macchiatos, one cappuccino, or a small latte. The 16 oz size is good for two cappuccinos, and 20-24 oz sizes are best suited for multiple cappuccinos or one or two medium or larger lattes.

Cleaning Supplies

One of the golden rules - albeit an often overlooked one - to good espresso is clean equipment. This means a clean grinder. A clean work environment. A clean espresso machine and all its parts (portafilter, filter baskets, grouphead, reservoir, etc).

At the very minimum, I suggest three cleaning items: Something like Cafiza or Purocaff for cleaning anything with metal and brass (this includes the machineís grouphead, the portafilter, etc); Oxyclean, for cleaning steel parts like filter baskets and dispersion screens (donít use Oxy in anything with brass or copper - it will turn green!); and something to clean your grinder of old, rancid coffee oils. Believe it or not, rice works great - but you really must run a vacuum on the grinder after to remove all the rice dust. Urnex has a nifty product called Grindz out on the market now that works even better than rice, but again, I suggest using a vacuum as part of the cleaning regimen.

When should you clean? As a home user, I recommend the following regimen if youíre pulling two or more shots a day.

  • Daily - rinse grouphead with water - put the portafilter in place loose, and wiggle it as your run the pump. Buy a squirt gun from the dollar store, and squirt tough residue away. Clean out your grinderís chute after your last shot of the day. Clean doser on grinder if it has one by sweeping out all the stale coffee.

  • Weekly - if your machine has a 3-way solenoid valve (the buying literature will say this if it does), do a light backflush on the machine using a blind filter; some machines come with one, some do not. You can buy one from an espresso supply store for $5-$10. Itís essentially a filter basket with no holes. Look in our forums for instructions on how to backflush.

  • Monthly (or bi-weekly) - Take apart the groupheadís dispersion screen, and soak all steel parts in a bath of Oxyclean and boiling water. Soak your portafilter in a bath of Purocaff and boiling water. Scrub everything that touches the espresso brewing process until showroom clean. Take apart grinder, clean out the burrs, remove all built up coffee grinds. Do not use anything wet on the grinderís internals. Use stiff brushes, old toothbrushes, etc.

  • Once or Twice a Year - descale your espresso machine. Follow the manufacturersí instructions to the letter where possible. Check your grinderís burrs, replace if necessary (probably not necessary for several years though).

Other accessories

Click for larger image
Bumper Tamper and Stand
Awesome product. Mine came straight from Hong Kong. Yours can come from ChrisCoffee.com

Thereís a huge accessories market out there for espresso. My two favourite online shops for accessories are Espresso Supply in Seattle, and Visions Espresso. Both shops normally sell to cafes and professional businesses, but will happily sell to you as a consumer. And donít overlook your own vendor - the one youíre considering buying an espresso machine and grinder from. Chances are they have lots of accessories to suit your needs, and will do a package deal for everything in one go that may save you even more money.

The items already mentioned are ones I consider must-haves: tamper, knockbox, steaming pitcher, cleaning supplies, and nice cups and saucers. Other items to consider include:

  • cleaning tools, like the Pallo tool, or grouphead cleaning brushes.
  • brushes for cleaning out your grinderís chute.
  • bar towels to be used specifically for your espresso machineís portafilter.
  • shot glasses, for when itís time to experiment with your shot pulling skills.
  • digital timer, so you have an easy way to time your shots.
  • different sizes of filter baskets - experiment! And donít believe anyone who says the single basket is useless - see it as a challenge!
  • needle thermometer (the kind that usually reads internal meat temperatures is fine) to know your milk steaming temperatures (tip - use this only to train your hand to know how hot to get with the pitcher when steaming - once you know, ditch the thermometer, and just use your hand).
  • rubber mat, to tamp on without damaging your counter or spouts on the portafilter.
  • tamping stand, like the Bumper tamper stand, which is just really cool.
  • gram scales, for obsessive measuring of your coffee doses used for making shots.

Concluding thoughts

This concludes our guide to buying your first espresso machine, but it is far from the last word on espresso. We invite you to visit the CoffeeGeek forums to chat with your fellow espresso and coffee enthusiasts. Youíll find a great deal more to learn there from a friendly and knowledgeable group of folks.

Espresso is an obsession for many, and a passion for many more. You may come to find that one particular aspect of espresso fascinates you - collecting espresso cups, experimenting with mods to your machine, learning to roast your own, or always having the latest and greatest in espresso machine technology. Whatever avenue you pursue, never forget the pure joy espresso can bring to your lips as a culinary delight, one that can be created simply with a $150 Krups and a $100 Solis grinder, and a nice $15 bag of artisan roasted coffee, and nothing else.  

Bottom line? Espresso is what you make of it. The tools help, no doubt, but for the best shots youíll ever taste, the most valuable tool in the process is you, the home barista.

Introduction | Get a good grinder | Life of Ownership | Using CG's Reviews | Vendor Tips & Tricks | Choosing a Semi / Auto | Choosing a Manual | Accessories to Consider
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Guide Sections
Arrow 1. Introduction
Aarow 2. Get a good grinder
Aarow 3. Life of Ownership
Aarow 4. Using CG's Reviews
Aarow 5. Vendor Tips & Tricks
Aarow 6. Choosing a Semi / Auto
Aarow 7. Choosing a Manual
Arrow 8. Accessories to Consider
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