Airspresso Espresso Machine - Review
Airspresso in action.

Always eager to try out a new coffee maker, the arrival of an Airspresso from creator, Steve Bolto, was greeted with a fair bit of enthusiasm.

Steve hails from Melbourne, which has the most refined cafe culture in the country, so he understands what good coffee is all about. He's also an avid cyclist and adventurer-type and he's managed to combine his passion for espresso with his enthusiasm for the great outdoors and create a unique product.

The design brief for the Airspresso was simple. Develop a product as lightweight as possible, with minimum bulk, that can make great coffee anywhere. It had to be small enough to stow away in backpack or into the accessory holder on a mountain bike.

How Does it Work?

To quote the Airspresso website:

'Pretty much like any other espresso machine except that air pressure is used rather than steam or pumped water. Making a quality espresso is a simple process - load the basket with coffee. Fill with with hot water and pump. By using Hot water rather than supercharged steam many of the bitter extracts normally flushed out remain in the grinds allowing a smooth almost sweet high crema shot to be produced. As a by product of the production method the final crema layer is foamed by the air pressure.'

Construction

Photographs don't do justice to the materials and craftsmanship that go into making an Airspresso. Our initial reaction before handling this 'extreme espresso machine' was of mild indifference. The fact that the main chamber was made of plastic didn't excite us. In reality the plastic used is a medical grade compound that can be machined to high tolerances and the quality is immediately obvious.

The Airspresso units are manufactured in New South Wales 'by a very fastidious couple' who have done a great job machining the components. The filter basket is turned from bright red, anodised aluminium, in fact anything that gets hot to touch has a red indicator on it. The lid is a simple affair containing a 'Presta' bicycle valve which is used to load pressurised air into the unit and force water through the coffee, resulting in, hopefully - espresso. The three components (lid, main chamber, filter basket) screw together on fine machined threads which prove a bit fiddly to align at first but break in after a few uses.

Our unit arrived with a small plastic tamper which Steve tells us is a new, lighter design. It fits neatly inside the main chamber when the unit is not in use and the whole lot packs away in a lightweight plastic cylinder which can accommodate about 80g of ground coffee as well.

The basic unit weighs in at a 'whopping' 200 grams while a fully accessorised model is 250 grams. The Airspresso stands 110mm tall and has a diameter of 65mm. It's not what you'd call intrusive.

Knowing that we're more diesel oriented than hiking boot or pedal power, Steve threw in a valve adaptor to connect to the 12 volt air compressor on our 4WD.

Not having had a lot to do with pushbikes since childhood days spent on a Malvern Star or wasted evenings on a rental bike along the treacherous streets of Asia, the inclusion of a modern bike pump was a nice surprise. Of obvious quality this compact little pump weighs virtually nothing and is about the size of a good cuban cigar.

Real world drops, knocks and bumps should present no problem to the Airspresso and I dare say it could be sat upon with no resulting damage.

Can it Make Coffee?

The simple answer is, yes it can. The user guide is a funky, retro-comic style A4 sheet with just the basics to get you going. The instructions don't delve into the dark mysteries or science of coffee making, which can verge on obsessive.

The unit came with Airspresso's proprietary blend of ground coffee from 'mycuppa', which was a nice touch and proved to be a very palatable brew. The process involves filling the filter basket with ground coffee, tamping the shot and screwing the basket back on to the barrel. The barrel is then topped up with 120ml of boiling water and the lid reattached. Operating the bike pump pressurises the whole thing. The extraction is very similar to the extraction from another similar, but bulkier system - the Presso. A steady stream of smoky black coffee is finished of with an aerated topping of crema. The taste? - Remarkably good. Add a touch of warm milk and you've got cappuccino.

We have used the Airspresso intermittently over a couple of months and the whole procedure is very simple and repeatable.

Can it Make Espresso?

Having achieved a decent result using the prescribed method we decided to put the Airspresso through the mill and inject a bit of science into the whole process.

We happened to have a Compak bean grinder at hand so we measured out a double shot at a finer grind and used a 'click' tamper to exert exactly 30lbs of pressure onto the 'puck'. Achieving true espresso from any machine involves a bit of fiddling to get the parameters just right and it took a few shots to pull a decent shot from the Airspresso.

Quality electric espresso machines deliver water to the coffee puck at around 92 - 94°C under 9 bar of pressure. Knowing that the bike pump wasn't quite achieving this (and wanting to give it a go) we hooked up the compressor on the 4WD.

We figured that the boiling water added to the barrel at a 100°C would probably drop off to a more acceptable 95°C or so and we dunked the loaded filter basket into the boiling water to bring it up to temperature, just for good measure.

The user guide warns about exceeding 8 bar of pressure and, to be honest we weren't really sure what we were going to get from the ABR-Sidewinder compressor. Twelve volt compressors are notorious for delivering inaccurate gauge pressures while operating. We decided to operate on the 'suck it and see' principle.

The first shot was a gusher that churned into the glass in a flash rather than the prescribed 25 seconds that true espresso calls for. Screwing down the grind saw the next shot choke and the resulting brew was an acrid drip that we gave up on before it could finish. In truth we were a little concerned about over pressurising the Airspresso and have it blow the lid or filter basket off. In practise it didn't budge or wince and just kept attempting to push the water through the puck.

The third shot, with a slightly coarser grind, was a winner and the brew extruded not unlike a commercial machine. It was still a little tight but the crema was more substantial and the shot was more like the syrupy pour you'd expect in coffee from a decent cafe.

So can it make real espresso? So far we've got awfully close. With a bit more fine tuning results should be consistent and repeatable and at the end of the day that is what making good espresso is all about.

Conclusion

Our initial dismay at the plastic barrel proved to be unfounded and in reality it's probably the only feasible material to use.

The unit is robust and consequently you must assume, durable as well. We tested it well beyond its design capability and it didn't look like giving up.

It weighs next to nothing and eats up very little precious storage space.

It needs no electricity and hot water is something nearly all campers, hikers and mountain bikers can easily arrange.

The actual ritual of using the Airspresso is quite satisfying.

The only niggles we had with the machine were the fine threads that couple the unit together. They are a bit fiddly and take a little patience to assemble. After a few coffees things become easier. We handed the retro user guide around and some loved the instructions while others thought they didn't deliver a thorough understanding of the operating procedure. We're fairly well aquatinted with the whole coffee making process and didn't have a problem but we can understand that a new user may struggle a little.

The Airspresso retails for around $180 so it's not the cheapest portable coffee maker around. Much of the cost can be associated with the handcrafting using Australian labour and the quality of materials used in the construction.

When we are housebound we use a fancy commercial machine from Italy but on the road and in the bush we use a variety of gadgets, machines and contraptions to make our daily brew. Would we be happy to use the Airspresso? - Without a doubt.


You may also be interested in - Making Great Coffee on the Road.

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