I love coffee, and I enjoy writing about it. As a former barista, I tested various coffee preparation methods and equipment.
Espresso is my favorite way of brewing coffee. Everything from the intoxicating aroma and pungently sharp flavor, to the astounding amounts of caffeine per ounce, make it the most desirable coffee cup. I brew a cup every morning, from the comfort of my home. It’s my ritual;
I own two espresso machines, though one is catching dust in the basement. Sometimes I can’t prepare my daily lungo, double shot at home. In these crisis situations, I pass by the neighborhood cafe and grab one.
What if I didn’t own an espresso machine? I would get it daily from the coffee shop, as I used to at some point in life. How about preparing an espresso alternative? I own almost all the coffee makers in the world. I could probably use one of those, but not all of them can make a cup that can pass as espresso. The subject of this guide is to help you choose the right equipment, and give you the instructions to make a great espresso alternative. Why do I keep calling it an alternative? You’ll see in a bit why.
How Is Espresso Different from Drip Coffee?
Many drip coffee lovers don’t like espresso. Some find it gross, even. Turkish coffee lovers will not touch drip; the stuff that comes out of the coffee maker is too weak and has no flavor.
On the other hand, the thickness and the amount of fines in a Turkish coffee make it at least unappealing for most drip coffee drinkers.
These are just a few examples to show you that coffee is a matter of taste. My point is that you can’t replicate the espresso taste with a regular coffee maker.
Sure you can get a stronger, or more concentrated coffee. (You do that by adding more grounds per cup.) But the sharp, pungent, slightly sweet, and somewhat bitter taste of espresso is unique.
Espresso also has a layer of crema on top. The thicker the crema, the better the espresso. Crema holds distinct aromas and flavors, specific to high-pressure extraction.
In conclusion: you can’t brew espresso without pressure. You can brew a concentrated and robust coffee, but that’s not espresso. It doesn’t taste like one, and it doesn’t smell like one.
You can call me a snob, I know I am a little, but espresso needs 9 bar of pressure. Anything else is an “espresso alternative.” Does it mean you need to buy an expensive espresso machine? In many cases, it doesn’t. You can make a delicious latte with minimal spending.
So if you are still up for it, the fun part follows. We will teach you how to prepare an espresso alternative, and I will show what equipment you need for that.
Spoiler: It’s cheap.
What Coffee Makers Can you Use as Espresso Alternative?
For real espresso, we recommend you use a pump driven espresso machine. If you want real espresso and your budget is low, look at this selection of inexpensive espresso makers. If you have a more generous budget for your home coffee bar, you can look for a super automatic, or maybe a decent semi-automatic espresso machine.
For a low-cost home espresso brewing the best three options are these three methods:
- Moka pot,
- Steam espresso maker.
Do other methods work? Not really, but if you have to, you can make a latte with any strong coffee. We don’t recommend it, and we explain later in the article why.
I have another article that reviews most popular coffee brewing methods, if you need to understand what kind of coffee you will get from them. But from a taste perspective, I would stick with the methods I describe here.
AeroPress is the cheapest and the most forgiving brewing method of the bunch. You exert pressure by manually pushing a plunger, and you can probably achieve more than 3 bar with an AeroPress. That is pretty good.
Now the interesting part is that you can brew at lower temperatures, as you do with real espresso machines. Brewing at a low temperature will avoid burning your shot, (it’s called over-extraction). AeroPress will deliver a smooth flavorful and bold coffee cup, and it is my favorite manual brewing method. Here is an excellent step by step infographic.
AeroPress Coffee Brewing Guide Infographic
Moka pot is a great way to make a strong delicious cup of coffee, but you need to master the method. It’s almost harder to learn than pulling a shot with a lever-operated machine, (kidding). Well, if you don’t care much about the taste, and a bold, bitter, coffee is okay with you, the process is not that complicated. But if you want to get a smooth tasting coffee, you need to learn the process.
The problem with Moka pots is that they need a high temperature to reach the necessary pressure. Water that is too hot extracts bitter flavors from the beans. There is a procedure to cool down the pot immediately after the extraction is done, so that we avoid over-extraction.
Check this infographic for a quick brewing guide.
Steam Espresso Maker
A steam espresso maker is a decent coffee machine, though it suffers from the same problem as the Moka pot. Coffee tastes a little burnt when brewed with it. Coffee from a steam espresso machine has less of the burnt taste than coffee from a Moka pot. There are some mechanisms in place to cool down the vapor before reaching the brew head. However, they are not very effective.
The advantage of steam espresso machines is the higher pressure that can be obtained, compared to a Moka pot. The extra pressure helps with making a stronger cup with a fuller body.
What You Cannot Use
Let me get this straight: You can use anything to make a stronger coffee if that’s your objective. But if you want a cup that resembles with espresso, you need pressure. For this reason, any brewing method that doesn’t use pressure during extraction is not a good fit in my eyes.
You cannot brew it with a French press, or as a Turkish coffee and call that espresso. Even though these coffee brewing methods give you a full-bodied, robust cup, the taste is different from espresso. The reason is the lack of pressure during extraction.
I know the next question, “Can I use a drip coffee machine?” No, you can’t. And the reason is the same, no pressure. Drip is even worse because has less body than most brewing methods.
Take a look at my article comparing drip coffee to espresso and Turkish coffee. You will understand a little more on the subject, if you are interested.
I kept the best for last: “Can you use a Keurig to make an espresso?” The answer is also no unless that Keurig machine is a Rivo. The regular Keurig machines don’t have enough pressure for an espresso extraction. Even worse, you can’t adjust the volume on a Keurig. That means you can’t brew a concentrated shot, similar to espresso.
Rivo, however, is equipped with a 15 bar pump, and it is designed to pull espressos. If you are still reading this, Rivo is probably out of your budget range.
What about the Milk Steaming and Frothing?
If you get a steam espresso maker, they all come with a steaming wand. It’s very easy to use the steaming wand to froth your milk. You just need a little training.
If you use an AeroPress or a Moka pot and do not want to blow your budget, you can take a look at some handheld milk frothers. Those are the most cost-effective ones.
I know you need to stay on budget for this, but you can also take a look at some automatic milk frothers. These are a bit more expensive, but they are the better choice for steaming and frothing like a pro.
Don't let coffee heads tell you how to drink your coffee. Italians use the Moka pot for their daily espresso and cappuccino, when they get it at home. If it's good enough for the inventors of the espresso, it's good enough for you too.