Espresso is one of humanity’s greatest inventions, rich and luxurious and, some might say, decadent. Espresso is a strong, black coffee brewed under intense pressure that alchemically releases one of the most robust pleasures of the Earth. To make espresso, one typically needs a very expensive Italian-made machine and a moody (and sometimes condescending) tattooed barista to force very hot water through a bed of finely ground dark roasted coffee beans, resulting in a highly concentrated beverage.
While coffee was known to most Europeans during the Renaissance, espresso didn’t arrive until the early 20th century, invented by an impatient Italian businessman named Luigi Bezzera who wanted a faster method to brew coffee. Bezzera discovered that by brewing with steam instead of boiling water, he was able to produce a much stronger coffee in a much shorter time. Espresso literally means “fast” in Italian, and Bezzera’s first machine produced 1,000 servings in an hour. Just before World War II, another Italian named Achille Gaggia built a better espresso machine that quadrupled steam brewing pressures to deliver a much smoother flavor profile and crema caffe naturale — that lovely reddish-brown foam that floats atop properly crafted espresso.
Today’s commercial espresso machines are adorned with names like La Marzocco, Rancilio, and Nuova Simonelli, and they’ll set you back between $6,000 and $20,000. The good news is that there’s been a revolution in home espresso brewing machines led by companies like Breville, De’Longhi, and Capresso that will put a smaller, less capable one on your kitchen counter for $300 to $1,200. The real challenge has been in developing a truly portable espresso device, and that’s the challenge Wacaco embarked upon with the creation of the Picopresso. The Picopresso is Wacaco’s third and most successful innovation on handheld espresso devices, following the $85 Nanopresso and $53 Minipresso. New for 2021, we wanted to test drive Wacaco’s latest device to see if it could deliver truly portable and great-tasting espresso at a competitive price point.
Making great coffee is a weighty responsibility in some corners, and Wacaco reinforced this notion with the design of the Picopresso’s box. It was heavy. Damn heavy. And it felt regal — like I was just presented with Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona chronograph. The exterior of the jet black box arrived wrapped in a sleek, high-quality black cardstock sleeve with Wacaco’s brand name and the words Picopresso embossed in metallic silver. A photograph of an outstretched and overly-tattooed arm holding the Picopresso lusciously dripping with espresso, adorned the top — a clear sign that by using this device, you’ll be joining an elite and secret society of exquisitely caffeinated Illuminati. Did I see this before in a scene in the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, or was I imagining things? I was intrigued, so I slowly slid back the cardstock sleeve to peer within.
The main box continued the Picopresso’s luxe motif and sported a platinum relief strip circumnavigating the exterior separating the top and bottom. I removed the top of the box to discover the Picopresso, an instruction booklet, a flat black faux leather carrying case with a chrome zipper that reminded me of James Dean’s motorcycle jacket, a heavy stainless steel and black plastic tamper, a metal funnel ring, and a mysterious “distribution tool,” all nestled like expensive camera lenses within a bed of environmentally unfriendly single-use polyurethane foam (boo!) soon to be headed to the landfill to live for millenia (ugh).
I individually extracted the items from their polyurethane foam sarcophagus, and when I picked up the Picopresso, I heard a faint rattle like a handcuff key so I began to disassemble it by unscrewing the water reservoir lid on the top of the device and the portafilter chamber on the bottom. Within the water reservoir, I found a small cleaning brush, and within the portafilter chamber below, I found a black plastic dosing scoop with a foldable arm.
I appreciated how the unit was fairly compact at 4.15 inches (10.5 cm) tall and almost three inches (7.5 cm) in diameter. In hand, the Picopresso’s heft conveys a reassuring sense of quality craftsmanship. It’s not light. The base unit weighs just over 12 ounces (345 grams) and the entire kit, with the carrying case and accessories, weighs 1.2 pounds (545 grams). The Picopresso’s pump piston arm is hidden behind a raised logoed seal located in the center of the barrel. If you utter a few words in Latin and give it a quarter turn counterclockwise, the piston arm deploys. Again, secret society stuff. The hand-powered piston creates nine to 12 bars of pressure during extraction, enabling true espresso from a portable unit. The 52mm portafilter basket will accommodate 18 grams of ultra finely ground coffee (4 teaspoons), and the water reservoir holds a maximum of 80 mL (2.7 fluid ounces) of water. This struck me as a bit odd since the normal water-to-coffee ratio for espresso is 2:1 and the capacity for the Picopresso is 4.44:1. I wondered how that would impact extraction and thereby flavor.
How we tested to Wacaco Picopresso
I have five basic criteria for evaluating portable coffee devices:
- Ease of use
- Performance – can it produce a delicious cup of coffee?
I used the Wacaco Picopresso exclusively for a week to make my morning brew and tinkered with various coffee grind settings, coffee and water ratios, water temperatures, and brew times. I always follow the manufacturer’s instructions to a T on the first test, and then experiment to dial things in to get the best brew.
Test 1: Portability. I carried the Wacaco Picopresso around for a week every time I left the house. At roughly four inches in height, three inches in diameter, and weighing just over a pound, it’s easily portable. It’s a chunk, though, and won’t disappear in your backpack or shoulder bag like an AeroPress Go will. The Picopresso is reassuringly well-built and can withstand a few drops — especially in it’s Rebel Without A Cause-esque carrying case. The other thing I loved about the Picopresso is that everything — and I mean every ancillary component — had a home on the interior of the device like a stack of Gothic Russian dolls. The dosing scoop fit in the portafilter, and the brush, the mysterious distribution tool that looked like it could be sharpened to facilitate body piercings, the funnel, and tamper all fit nicely inside the water tank. After a week of lugging it around, I concluded I’d take it on chic vacations to the Amalfi Coast to Lake Como when I’m hanging with George and Amal, and other luxe international and domestic travel destinations, but that it was too heavy to toss in my ever-so gram-conscious long-distance backpacking load.
Test 2: Ease of use. Out of the box, the Picopresso isn’t the most intuitive thing to use, and (gasp!) I actually watched the YouTube video and read the directions for the first go. Using the Picopresso is a 23-step process, so you have to be committed. This isn’t some fire and forget unit like the crappy Mr. Coffee currently on your kitchen counter. If you want great home espresso, you’re going to have to go through the steps, and there are no shortcuts. So tube up your favorite moody Joy Division album and do the following:
- Weigh out 16 to 18 grams of espresso beans. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, you’re already behind, Francis. The good news is you can get one, and here’s the one I use.
- Grind ultra finely. Yes, that’s ultra fine like ultra violence because you’ve just joined the secret caffeine Illuminati and everything you do in life beyond this point will be ultra.
- Start boiling water. Pure, clean water.
- Remove the portafilter cover.
- Unscrew the portafilter. (And do it with a bit of dramatic flourish. The world is yours now.)
- Remove the scoop from the inside of the basket and toss it aside because you will be freshly grinding your beans every time and weighing your coffee beans to the gram like good boys and girls (and not scooping willy nilly like some chimpanzee). Recycle the scoop. You won’t need it.
- Unscrew the water tank lid.
- Remove the tamper, funnel, brush and mysterious distribution tool that looks like it could be sharpened and used for body piercings from the water tank.
- Place the funnel on the top of the basket. IT PLACES THE FUNNEL ON THE TOP OF THE BASKET!!! (Important and potentially life-saving recommendation: Avoid Buffalo Bill’s ire here and do what you’re told.)
- Transfer the grind into the double basket.
- Use the mysterious distribution tool to…ah ha! OK! Stir the grounds into an even layer while working out any lumps or clumps. Finally, I understand what this is for. I did a bit of research and found that this tool is to enable the user to execute the very technical Weiss Distribution Technique on the espresso in the portafilter basket. This promotes an even flow of water through the compressed bed of coffee and avoids channeling.
- Tamp with the funnel in place until the tamper touches the funnel.
- Utter a few words of Latin and unlock the piston from its travel position. I say, “Aperta sesame!” (which is really bad Latin for ‘open sesame’ but sounds impressive.) This technique is best executed using the Kubrick stare — tilting your chin down and peering psychotically at the camera through your eyebrows like Francis in Full Metal Jacket, Alex in A Clockwork Orange, or Jack Torrance in The Shining.
- Add boiling water to the tank. (Note: Avoid burning yourself.)
- Pump one cycle above your cup to preheat the machine and your cup (Note: Again, don’t scald yourself, you are precious.)
- Remove excess water from the tank and empty your cup.
- Place the basket inside the portafilter and add the shower head on top.
- Screw back the portafilter tightly.
- Add boiling water again to the water tank. (Note: If you scald yourself, I have no mercy. You were warned.)
- Screw back the water tank lid.
- Move the Picopresso above your cup and start pumping, holding the Picopresso with two hands.
- Count eight strokes and wait 10 seconds so the hot water can pre-infuse the coffee grounds.
- Resume pumping and stop again once you have reached an output of 1:2 (18 grams of grind for 36 grams of espresso)
There’s a lot of steps and there’s a lot of pumping. At this point, I’m really only recommending that Space Force nerds, some of the Air Force nerds, and the nerds at the Center for Naval Analysis be authorized to use the Picopresso. It’s not Marine-proof — not by a long shot. Also, the Picopresso gets hot about half way through all the pumping, so be prepared for that, nerds, and toughen up, goddamnit. There is NO crying in espresso making.
Test 3: Capacity. The Picopresso is designed to pull a double shot of espresso. That’s it. You get to endure a 23-step process for one big double shot (38 to 40 grams) of liquid gold. But you’ll now call that a doppio from here on out, because you are now fancy and a member of the caffeine Illuminati. Want another doppio? Do it again, you caffeine junkie.
Test 4: Speed. Again, using the Picopresso is a 23-step process. The fastest I was able to go from no espresso to having an espresso was four minutes and 37 seconds, and that was a personal record.
Test 5: Performance. I was able to make a decent shot of properly extracted espresso using the manufacturer’s directions of 16 to 18 grams of coffee per 80 mL of water, stopping the pumping at 36 to 40 grams of espresso. As I was brewing, I realized that the other 40 grams of water remained in the bed of espresso in the portafilter. My first run didn’t achieve the much sought-after crema that is so prevalent in Wacaco’s ads for the Picopresso. What is crema you ask? Crema is the lovely red-brown foam that you see atop properly made espresso. For more on crema, coffee expert James Hoffman has a great explanation here. At first, I thought my grinds might be too coarse, so I dialed up a slightly finer setting. I brewed, I pumped, and I got just a little faint whisper of crema atop my espresso. I tried a different roast at the same grind setting. Same result. The espresso tasted good. It wasn’t the very best espresso I’ve ever had, but, for homebrew on the go, it was damn tasty. I tried an ultra-fine grind setting (five clicks on the VSSL Java) and, presto, was able to pull a proper doppio with crema naturale! Perfecto! For a compact travel brewer, the Picopresso did a damn fine job.
What we like about the Wacaco Picopresso
With the Picopresso, Wacaco set out to enable people to quickly brew a quality doppio (double espresso) by re-imagining the main elements of a commercial espresso machine and putting them in the palm of your hand. Did they succeed? I can offer an enthusiastic but qualified yes. Is it truly cafe-quality espresso? No. But is it a decent espresso? Absolutely, and it is remarkable espresso for a portable unit that only costs $130. I’m truly impressed with the quality of construction and components to include the tamper, funnel, brush, and distribution tools. Even the plastic elements of the Picopresso feel like well-designed, well-crafted parts. And I appreciated how the entire portafilter basket and housing was made entirely from metal. I also liked that the Picopresso itself is environmentally friendly in that it requires no batteries or other sort of electric power to operate. (Now if they would just get after that polyurethane foam packaging.) I also didn’t mind the 23-step process. I love espresso and it’s worth the investment of time. The Picopresso is a well-designed unit that’s aesthetically and kinesthetically pleasing. There’s a zen in the process, and the distribution and tamping steps are particularly satisfying to execute — just pick your higher GT score folks to operate the Picopresso.
What we don’t like about the Wacaco Picopresso
First, while I appreciated the cool aesthetic of the Picopresso, I wish the packaging were redesigned to eliminate single-use plastics. There’s just too much of that crap in our environment already and high-quality alternatives are readily available. Secondly, the Picopresso doesn’t live up to Wacaco’s marketing hype of, “rivaling barista quality espresso.” You’re just not going to get the same performance out of a $130 portable home unit as you are out of a $20,000 La Marzocco Strada MP or $15,000 Rancilio Specialty RS1 commercial espresso machine. That’s just unrealistic. With that said, it does deliver the best espresso I’ve had to date out of a portable home brewing unit. It’s not the best espresso I’ve ever had, but it’s pretty damn good, especially at a $130 price point. Lastly, the Picopresso isn’t a fast or high-capacity device. You’ll spend roughly four to five minutes to generate one doppio. I found this to be a satisfying solo process, but it will leave you wanting if you’re making espresso for two or more people. In these instances, it may be best for you to toss them their own Picopresso and have them pull their own damn shots — an early birthday gift of sorts.
If you’re a frequent traveler and espresso enthusiast, you should take a serious look at Picopresso. It’s a buy in my book and I’d happily take it along on vacations, to monthly Illuminati meetings, and even car camping. It’s hefty, so it wouldn’t be my go-to coffee device for long-distance backpacking trips, but it is a quality product at a fair price that delivers tasty espresso.
If you decide to buy a Picopresso, also note that you’ll want to invest in a quality coffee grinder. You’ll need a fine or ultra fine grind on your coffee beans to achieve the correct level of extraction during the brewing process. Your standard grocery store pre-ground coffee will produce wretched results.
FAQs about the Wacaco Picopresso
More questions? Here’s Task & Purpose’s additional brief.
Q. How much does the Wacaco Picopresso cost?
A. The Wacaco Picopresso MSRPs for $130.
Q. Does the Picopresso produce true espresso?
A. It does. The main differences between coffee and espresso come down to the roast, the grind, and the brew. Typically, the roast is longer and darker than drip coffee, the grind is much finer, and the brew is done under pressurized extraction. It’s up to you to get and grind the right beans, and the Picopresso will force water through the bed of coffee at around nine to 12 bars of pressure and can produce a maximum of 18 bars (261 PSI).
Q. What’s Wacaco’s warranty?
A. The product is guaranteed for two years.
Q. If I buy a Picopresso, will the coffee Illuminati make me do weird sex stuff?
A. No. The chapter lead will contact you within 30 days of purchase. All activities are fully consensual.
Got questions, comment below & talk with T&P’s editors!
Joe Plenzler is a Marine Corps veteran who served from 1995 to 2015. He is a backcountry expert, long-distance backpacker, rock climber, kayaker, cyclist, wannabe mountaineer, and the world’s OK-est guitar player. He is currently section-hiking the Appalachian Trail with his partner, Kate Germano. He supports his outdoor addiction by working as a human communication consultant, teaching at the College of Southern Maryland, and helping start-up companies with their public relations and marketing efforts.
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