A barista champion’s guide to cleaning your home espresso machine
2022 German Brewers Cup Champion, Nicole Battefeld-Montgomery, outlines the value and necessity of properly caring for and maintaining your espresso machine.
Having a home espresso machine is the dream for many coffee enthusiasts and prosumers. However, unless you’re professionally trained, getting café-quality coffee from your own kitchen is a challenge, requiring both cost and effort.
In recent years, this skill requirement has been somewhat offset by fully automatic espresso machines like the Carimali CA250.
But whether you’re learning the intricate skills needed to pull a good shot or simply filling the hopper and pressing a button, it’s important to take good care of your espresso machine, particularly when it comes to cleaning.
According to experts, there are two main problems encountered when it comes to cleaning espresso machines. The first – and most immediate – is that the coffee will start to taste bad. Secondly, a lack of cleaning and maintenance damages the coffee machine, and may damage your health, too.
Champion barista Nicole Battefeld-Montgomery explains that there are a few flavour-clues which might indicate that an espresso machine is overdue for a clean. She says that even untrained palates can easily recognise the telltale signs.
“The taste can become quite astringent and bitter and it’s quite an obvious taste to recognise,” she explains. “Even if you put really fresh, delicious coffee in a dirty machine, it doesn’t taste good. It can often taste burnt because there is old coffee oil or small coffee grounds stuck inside.”
For home coffee enthusiasts, buying a home espresso machine – like an Elektra Micro Casa Semiautomatica – is the best route to enjoying a brew at home. Though many espresso machines require an initial investment, there’s almost no limit to how long these machines could last if maintained correctly.
“I have a machine from 1991,” she proudly says. “Because I always take care of it, I feel that this is a pretty good benchmark for a home coffee machine.”
Nicole adds that the very best approach is to prevent any issues before you even notice them. Keeping your home espresso machine in tip top condition – whether it’s a Bellezza, Carimali, Elektra, or Heylo – requires commitment to good habits.
The villains of bad espresso
In addition to the flavour clues, Nicole advised to look out for some key visual indicators that your machine needs some attention.
“The first sign is channelling,” she says. “This shows that the shower screens may be blocked.”
Channelling is when water follows the path of least resistance through the bed of coffee in the portafilter. Instead of infusing all the grounds, the water simply flows through channels, over extracting small amounts of coffee.
Sometimes, this is caused by bad tamping and grinding too fine or too coarse. Other times, it’s an issue of cleanliness.
“You need to look at the coffee puck,” Nicole says. “If it’s very wet on one side and dry on the other – or if you can see distinguished holes – you should clean your shower heads.”
Limescale is another killer of both domestic and commercial coffee machines. Dissolved calcium deposits in water – particularly troublesome in areas with hard water – can solidify and build up within your machine.
When internal pipework and other components become coated, your machine begins to struggle and pressure issues may cause it to fail.
Further blockages in the steam arm and group head can be caused by lack of cleaning. Small particles of milk or coffee or a buildup of coffee oils can obstruct water and steam flow through your machine, resulting in lower pressure and ineffective functionality.
Even though you can’t see them, the interior mechanisms of your machine still need cleaning. Nicole likens not doing so to putting used cooking pots and pans back into the cupboard without washing them.
“I wouldn’t eat out of a pan that I haven’t cleaned for two months,” she asserts. “You should always clean your cooking equipment, because otherwise it’s really, really gross. The same sort of thing happens in your coffee machine.”
Perhaps the most stomach-churning possibility is the development of virtually invisible mould within your coffee machine. Water – or worse, milk – may sit in parts of your machine for extended periods. This creates the ideal environment for mildew and mould.
Not only is this unsanitary, but it can pose a serious health hazard. Once it happens, it will take considerable effort to ensure your machine is safe to use again.
How to keep your espresso machine clean
Each manufacturer will have its own guidelines for machine maintenance, so it’s important to check your manual or get in contact with them if you need specific advice.
Water makes up around 98% of each cup of coffee. If you can’t use filtered water, you’ll need to check the machine’s manual for instructions on how to compensate for hard water.
Whatever your machine is, Nicole emphasises that there are several key ways to maintain and clean it.
First, she recommends flushing group heads before and after extraction. If your machine is a super-automatic, you can just initiate a rinse function.
Second, it’s vital to purge the steam wand before and after use, using a cloth to wipe off any milk residue. Likewise, if possible, you should backflush the group head once a day in six six-second bursts.
It’s also good practice to wash all removable components regularly to prevent a buildup of coffee oils. Specialised cleaning powders help with this. There are also cleaning agents that aid with descaling.
Surprisingly, Nicole adds that her favourite cleaning tool is a simple microfibre cloth.
“Their surface and texture is great for cleaning coffee machines, even inside the group heads – just put it over a spoon,” she says. “I have never been able to clean anything effectively with plastic, so don’t use those little brushes and especially don’t use sponges.”
Nicole also recommends that machines should get an annual service, too. Manufacturers typically replace rubber gaskets to prevent perishing, and the machine gets a thorough once-over from an engineer or technician.
None of these suggestions are particularly expensive, and once you get into a good cleaning routine, your machine will be purring for years to come.