Barista gear could keep you and your wallet busy for a long time.
There is no shortage of accessories on the market designed to help you make better espresso—or make you believe it will help you make better espresso.
But espresso is a bit like golf. Sometimes all that money spent on drivers, putters, wedges, balls, and shoes would be better spent at the driving range working on your swing. And with espresso, once you’re equipped with the basics, the best investment you can make is practice in pulling your shots. Barista training never ends.
In my opinion, the essential barista gear for the home (besides your espresso machine) is a relatively short list:
- milk frother pitcher
- knock box
Let’s go over them, and I’ll make some recommendations for barista equipment that won’t let you down.
Hand grinder for espresso
Baristas will tell you that the coffee grinder is more important than the espresso machine itself. They are not lying.
Properly ground beans can yield a nice shot of espresso from a so-so machine, but if you can’t get the grind right then the fanciest machine in the world won’t save you.
Grinders might strike you as expensive, but this really is the one piece of equipment that deserves the most you can afford. I’ve tried to make things a little easier here by focusing on hand grinders, which tend to run a little cheaper than their electric cousins.
You need precision and consistency from your grinder. Precision, because you’re going to need to fine-tune the size of your grounds. Once you have it right, the fine-tuning begins again with each new batch of beans. Consistency, because those grounds have to be uniform in size. If your grinder gives you a combination of dust particles, boulders, and everything in between, the extraction will vary wildly between them and your espresso will not be good.
Blade grinders are helpless in this regard, so you need a burr grinder. Where blade grinders essentially slice and dice beans rapidly, burr grinders crush the beans between two abrasive surfaces that rotate relative to each other. The grind size is controlled by the distance between the surfaces.
When you’re looking for a manual burr grinder, you’ll want to consider the following:
- Size: How much space will it take up? Do you need something portable?
- Capacity: How much coffee can it grind at once?
- Material: Steel, ceramic and heavy plastic are usually your options.
- Grind settings: How versatile can it be for different styles of coffee-making?
- Durability: Will it last?
Bean Poet recommends: Hario Skerton Pro
This humble grinder is rock solid and gets the job done at a price point where it’s hard to find such quality ceramic burrs. The Skerton Pro has 12 grind settings that will get you just about any size of grind from French press to fine espresso and beyond—it can even grind fine enough for Turkish style. You’ll spend about two minutes cranking for 100 grams of espresso beans. The grounds are remarkably consistent.
(And if you really want to splurge for a quality electric burr grinder at the most palatable price point, the Baratza Sette 270 is where the good ones begin.)
Scale for coffee beans
You need a scale for coffee brewing because coffee-to-water ratio is important, and different beans have different density. If you measure by volume, what works with one bean might not even come close with another.
A good coffee scale can also save you money in the long run. Once you figure out the amount of beans you need to get the results you want, a scale ensures you’ll never grind more than necessary.
Your scale should measure beans in 0.1 gram increments to get the precision you need when trying to control the variables in your brew.
Bean Poet recommends: Hario V60 Drip Coffee Scale
This sleek scale has a digital display and measures in grams. It’s great for measuring espresso beans, although Hario built it for pour-over coffee. (It has a timer, so pour-over aficionados can do their entire brew on it and control not just the coffee-to-water ratio, but also the timing of the pour.) It runs on two AAA batteries, which are included.
Other solid options: Acaia Black Pearl Laboratory Grade Digital Coffee Scale, Brewista Smart Scale II
Stainless steel espresso tamper
You might have found a plastic tamper in the box that your espresso machine came in. Put it in the drawer and forget about it. You need steel.
Espresso grounds need to be tamped with about 30 pounds of even pressure. That’s hard to achieve with plastic. Choose a tamper that feels comfortable in your hand and has some heft to it.
It’s essential that your tamper fit snugly in your portafilter basket so the grounds near the edges get pressed just as hard as those in the middle. The most common size is about 58mm, but you must check. Otherwise, when you run the water through, it will seek the path of least resistance and you won’t get an even extraction.
Some tampers are calibrated and allow you to set the pressure threshold. They make a sound when you’ve pressed hard enough. That’s a bit of a gimmick, though. With practice, you’ll learn how much pressure is enough.
Bean Poet recommends: Motta Professional Coffee Tamper
A tamper is among the most personal of barista tools, and that’s why you should look into Motta tampers. No matter which one you choose, you should get a solid tamper that feels great in your hand and has the heft to compress coffee grounds just right.
Stainless steel milk frothing pitcher
When you think of barista gear a milk jug might be the first thing that comes to mind. Without it, you’re going to have a hard time making cappuccinos and flat whites. But what do you need to look for?
Let’s start with the material. You want high-quality stainless steel. A steel pitcher will last long, of course, but it’s also going to maintain even heat distribution when you’re steaming milk. And you can clean it in the dishwasher.
Sizes and shape come next. Most milk frothing pitchers come in 12-ounce and 20-ounce sizes. Think about how many coffees you typically make at a time. For two, the 12-ounce will probably do. If you’re serving guests, go with the 20.
You want to make sure the pitcher is wide enough, particular in its lower half. Adequate width allows the milk to swirl around in a whirlpool, which gets rid of the big bubbles and produces that silky, shiny microfoam that you want.
Some people like a pitcher with measurement markings on the inside, so you can know exactly how much milk to put in. I don’t think it takes long to get the hang of this, but if you feel you need it there are plenty of models with those markings available.
Finally, consider the handle and the spout. Avoid milk pitchers without handles. They get hot! Just make sure the handle you get feels good in your hands. Spouts range from short and rounded to narrow and pointed. If you’re using your milk pitcher for latte art but you’re a relative beginner, you’ll want the first kind. The better you get with your free pour latte art designs, the more you’ll find yourself wanting a narrow, pointed spout to pull off those rosettes and swans.
Bean Poet recommends: Rattleware 20-Ounce Latte Art Milk Frothing Pitcher
Pretty standard, but it’s all you need. There’s no measuring gauge on the inside, but I like it for the tapered spout which is manageable for beginners but also allows you to show a little finesse as you progress.
Espresso knock box
Not everyone would call this an essential, but I’m going to say get one. At first glance, the knock box seems pointless. You probably have a compost container somewhere in your kitchen. Why not just toss your spent pucks in there, right?
I can think of three reasons why a knock box is worth the relatively small expense:
- You can keep it and use it right on the counter next to your espresso machine. No more stooping to get under the sink. Your back will thank you.
- It’s sanitary. Bacteria will gather in and around the container where you toss your apple cores and pizza crusts. You don’t want to be banging your portafilter around there.
- It won’t harm your equipment. Most knock boxes have banging bars that are designed to go easy on your portafilter (and stand up to it). This may not be the case with your compost receptacle.
With a knock box, you can dispose of your used grounds quickly and easily, then dump them and wash the box whenever it’s convenient.
Bean Poet recommends: Dreamfarm Grindenstein Barista Style Knock Box
The Grindenstein knock box is durable, but small and stylish enough to look pretty good on your counter. It’s billed as unbreakable, with a solid steel interior that’s covered in thick plastic and a banging bar protected by a thick rubber sleeve. It also has rubber grips on the bottom to keep it from sliding around on your counter. The little box comes in red, black, blue or white and stands an inobtrusive 4.5 inches tall. You can fit it in the top rack of your dishwasher for cleaning.
Anther solid option: Breville BES001XL Knock Box
This list is by no means exhaustive. As you get deeper into espresso, barista gear will tempt you almost as much as the whiff of fresh roasted beans. It’s easy to get carried away, but if you’re still in the early days of establishing your home setup, these essentials are the ones to start with.