Serious Eats: Drinks
Taking Espresso Off the Grid with the ROK Espresso Maker
If a fully off-the-grid home espresso maker that comes in its own trash can is what you've been waiting for your whole life, the recently rebranded ROK espresso maker is just the thing for you.
Despite an abundance of evidence espoused by the contemporary cafe community that the best espresso requires at least a $7,000 investment (if not three times that cost), coffee equipmenteers and gadget freaks have been trying for a long time to produce the perfect, at-home, electricity-free espresso maker. The Aeropress, which quickly came into its own as a lauded brewing device not really having very much to do with espresso per se, was followed in the mid-2000s by the Mypressi Twist. (The latter was cool enough, if you had a limitless source of whipped cream chargers, and never needed to take your apparatus on a plane.)
Enter the ROK Espresso maker, the artist formerly known as the Presso, throwing its hat into the ring—this time from engineers in the United Kingdom. A standalone, nonelectric brewer that falls somewhere between "machine" and "gadget", this lever-style espresso maker is banking on design aficionados (and possibly campers) to bring this brewer into popularity.
The small footprint of this chrome coffeemaker is its first super-appealing feature. The second being the wonder factor: can this device—which looks sort of like a gigantic Rabbit wine opener—actually make a decent shot of espresso?
Depending on your level of persnickitiness, yes. The ROK can produce a decent at-home shot of espresso with the proper attention to variables. As the device is nonelectric, temperature control is among the most critical factors here, and getting itself hot or heating up water is not one of the features built into this machine. You'll need to supply an outside source of boiling or just-off-boil water, which you can use for both brewing the coffee itself as well as getting the machine and portafilter up to a warm enough temperature to avoid losing heat to cold metal components. (To do this, you can run hot water through the machine's chamber once, and keep the portafilter in a cup of hot water before using.)
ROK comes with its own "measurer"/tamper which fits into the portafilter, and to operate, one simply fills the portafilter with ground espresso, locks it into the machine, and fills the top chamber with off-the-boil water. (The amount of water you prefer can vary depending on how much pressure you'd like the machine to use, and how much liquid volume you'd like your shot to be.)
Raise the ROK arms up, lower slightly to pre-infuse the espresso in the basket, and then lower the arms down to pull a shot. (The manufacturer says that depending on your technique, ROK will generate between 5 to 9 bars of pressure at this step.) You should get a double shot of espresso with visible crema if you do things correctly. For those who wish to go the extra mile, ROK comes bundled with a plunger-style milk frother, which will make a nice fluffy foam you can pour on top of the milk you heated with some other device.
Improvements on the original Presso model are mostly in the domain of durability: the machine is stronger, has better feet, and enough belief from the manufacturer in its longevity that they've upped the 1-year guarantee to a decade. These are all good votes in favor of a machine that can outlast the gadget-fad phase, provided its owners have an attention span that outlasts their newest high design counter toy.
Which brings us to the issue of whether this is truly a good travel device: yes and no. If you're traveling, say, in a car, to a relative's home that's stocked with a kettle or stovetop or microwave, you'll do great at making espresso vaguely "on the go" with ROK. Campers will probably still prefer the lightweight plastic Aeropress, or perhaps simply switching to drip coffee which can be prepared in a simple filter. (ROK's website does suggest "bringing a thermos flask" for people who won't have access to heating water on the go, but getting a good shot of espresso out of this bad boy with thermos water sounds like a long shot. Then again, the website also suggests several recipes using espresso, like beef bourgignon.)
But is it a good stay-at-home device? With the price point around $200, the best owners of this machine are those who want to make simply prepared shots of espresso—reasonably concentrated, viscous, crema-topped shots—without the constraints of a pod machine and who would enjoy the flexibility of being able to adjust pressure, volume, style of coffee, portafilter (a naked portafilter is available, as is a two-spouted), and so on. Furthermore, with the newer-minded thinking in terms of preparing "coffee shots"—longer shots of coffee drawn through espresso machines with the expansion of flavor and sweetness in mind—a home machine under $500 that isn't reliant on electronic tinkering sounds like a toy one could have a lot of fun with.
About the author: Liz Clayton drinks, photographs and writes about coffee and tea all over the world, though she pretends to live in Brooklyn, New York. She is the creator of Nice Coffee Time, a book of photographs of the best coffee in the world, published by Presspop.
Test machine provided for review.