What are they?
..Cost versus quality?
.....Types of machines?
......Why own one, why bother?
.........What should you look for?
............Care of machines - descale!?
...............What about grinders and roasters?
..................All about coffee - more to know, but not much?
............................. and why you may not need a machine at all!
The following review is written by a long term user of in-home and commercial espresso machines. I have made all the mistakes, so you don't have to!
What are they?
A) brew espresso,
B) steam milk, and
C) dispense hot water.
Some machines, called Superautomatics, also grind beans, tamp the grinds, and brew espresso all with the push of a button. New, over the last year or two, are even higher function automatics that automatically froth the milk and automatically dispense same into the finished drink.
Cost versus quality
Espresso machines run a wide scope of function, quality, and cost. At the lowest end of the scale are the weirdly shaped stovetop devices used to make a "mocha" or "moka". These cost from $15 to $50 and can actually get you by if augmented with a microwave frother/steamer. If you do not want to spend $300 or more on a decent espresso machine, then, in my humble opinion, look no further than these stovetop units. They do put out a nice espresso, and one can then make a Cafe Americano, or a fancy drink such as a latte when used along with the microwave frother. If you are planning on moderate to heavy use, and spending less than $300 or for a machine, my personal choice would be to skip that expense and purchase a moka machine and microwave frother - all for under $50. Then save up for a better machine.
The next level "up" (but on cheap machines, "up" is often far, far, worse than the $25 moka machine) is the steam machine, usually under $75, which across the board do a poor job of brewing espresso or steaming milk. These are usually big disappointments and most often end up in the trash, the attic, or the yard sale. These are cheaply made, with heating elements that cannot reach proper temperatures, and with steaming functions that inject water into the milk. The machine may be pretty but the results are ugly.
The under $150 pump machines have similar woes as the cheap steam machines in that proper temperatures simply cannot be reached, the brew head is too lightweight to sustain proper temperatures, and all components likely have high failure rates under even moderate use.
The under $250 pump or manual machines can produce good output, but to keep costs down, manufacturers had to skimp on a few things and you may experience early end-of-life, and only moderately successfull output, under even the most moderate use. Here, "moderately successful" means that sometimes you'll see crema-finished shots with no burnt taste, and sometimes you will not.
$350 seems to be the threshhold where most manufacturers can bring together reliable components and fully functioning machines that have at least a chance at longevity under daily use. At this price point, the body will likely be made of high quality plastics and the inside mechanics can be just like the $500-tier machines.
At $450 to $650, the better home machines add a quality body to quality components resulting in good performance, longevity, and a rugged body of stainless steel. Here, some machine makers still sacrifice, or trade-performance for looks to some degree; some of the sharpest looking designs, cannot compete with models that are focused more on performance. But, at this price, even the cutest machines can output good quality.
At over $650, up into the thousands of dollars, very high quality and high functionality (built-in grinders and dosers, etc.) machines are available with very clearly, highly crafted bodies. These machines do not necessarily produce better quality output than their next rung down cousins, but they do look nice.
Types of machines.
Manual: These machines have a large hand lever (12" to 24" tall) that is used by the operatore to manually force hot water through the coffee grounds. These machines are often more expensive (over $600) and require more skill than the next machine, the semi-automatic, because the operator must uniformly apply 8 BARS of pressure (135 psi) on the lever. These machines are delightful to look at, and may strike you as a Rube Goldberg contraption.
Semi-automatic: Here the hand lever is replaced by an electric pump which meteres out 8 BARS of pressure. Note that many makes of machine advertise "15 BARS pump", which may be true but the pressure is regulated down to 8 BARS. Lower end machines must use cheaper pumps, boilers and switches, which will likely lead to early failures.
Automatic: A timer is added to stop the pump after 22 seconds, which is the optimum brew time for espresso. Most commercial machines are automatics.
Superautomatic: Add a grinder, doser, tamper, and ejector for the used grounds. Quality superautomatics with quality bodies start at about $650. I suppose I should mention that there is lately available an even more-super-automatic class of machine that start at about $2,500 that provide programmable preferences, AND, will even froth your milk, AND will then dispense the frothed milk into your finished drink. I suppose these machines have their applications, such as work group settings where many users are not likely to be experienced espresso machine users. For now, most of these more-super-automatics do require more routine maintenance and cleaning to keep everything clean and prepared for the next user.
Most home consumers look for semiautomatic machines. In every case, machines within a category have different characteristics. For example, for our own use we most closely examined the Gaggia Classic, and the Rancilio Silvia, both about $500 at the discount sites. Both machines are excellent work-horses, with decades of expected use. We chose the Classic over the Silvia based on our most common use, which is to brew mostly espresso shots, and Cafe Americanos (an espresso shot in a cup of hot water.) In our case we brew 20 or more Americanos per week, and 6 or so lattes. If our use was the other balance, a handful of Americanos and many lattes, then the Silvia would probably be a better choice. You can read reviews and specs at coffeegeek or wholelattelove for details on hundreds of machines.
Why own one?
The output of a quality home machine using quality coffee will usually be better than what you will find at most coffee bars; the coffee bars have all they need to do it right but frequently lack well-trained employees. So, the first reason is quality of output.
The cost of an espresso at home is about 15 cents, but at a coffee bar it is easily ten times that. The at home cost of a fancy drink such as a latte is about 22 cents, but ten times that at a coffee bar. The second reason is economic. These machines can quickly pay for themselves. We still go out for an occaisional coffee, but when you have a good machine at home it just isn't neccessary to to do so very often.
It is simply convenient to enjoy a quality espresso-based drink at home, in your pajamas, or entertaining guests. The third reason is convenience, and the forth, entertaining.
For some, there is another reason, and that is these machines usually add to the looks and ambience of your kitchen. I don't know why my brain cells are pleased when I see a Wolf range in a kitchen, nor why the same cells are happy when I see a nice appliance on the counter. But it happens.
What should you look for?
1) In brewing espresso, all of the quality machines push heated water through grounds in 22 seconds. The combination of appropriate fineness of the grind, appropriate pressure from the pump or lever, appropriate tamping of the grounds, appropriate water temperature from the boiler, and of course, good beans properly roasted, combine to yield espresso nirvana.... a perfect crema.
2) Steaming capability differs between machines. Example: the Rancilio Silvia can steam 10 oz of milk in 66 seconds, while the Gaggia Classic takes 120 seconds. However the trade off is the Classic has much faster warm up and recovery time than the Silvia. A dryer steam equates to higher quality drinks, so look for machines that do not add water to the milk during steaming.
3) Provide hot water for tea, instant soups, hot chocolate.
4) Water reservoir. Larger capacity means less frequent refilling. The Classic offers 64 oz. I would shy away from anything less than 35 oz unless the machine was simply spectacular in other regards. Some reservoirs are top fill, some need to be removed to fill - look for designs that are not major pains.
5) Construction quality. Here, heavy masses lead to better output. Look for machines with heavy portafilters and heavy brewing groups. Some $500 machines, Classic and Silvia included, offer commercial quality brewing groups and portafilters. If you are in a retail store, try removing the portafilter.... is it heavy and substantial? If yes, then the portafilter will absorb and hold the heat generated by the boiler elements. If no, then the lightweight portafiler will bleed off heat as the coffe is brewed, probably ruining the shot.
6) Portafiler size. Both Classic an Silvia offer 58mm grounds baskets, just like commercial machines; wider baskets equate to more thorough brewing and better quality output.
7) Warm up time. Good machines take a few minutes to warm up - most do their best after five minutes or more (even though the "ready light" goes on after 1 minute). I find that warm up times of 20 minutes or more produce better results. It is not just the water that is warming up - just as important, the internal plumbing and brewing group need time to reach temperature.
USE TIP: Some users find that results improve (better taste and better crema in the espresso shot) if one draws a "Blank Shot" before brewing. A blank shot is simply running the pump for 10 or so seconds without ground coffee in the portafilter. Then add the coffee and brew your shot. I would hypothicate that the better results probably come from the stabilization and correcting of temperatures throughout the machine, brought on by the blank shot. In fact, when I draw a blank shot (which I usually do not do) I do see some steam initially coming from the brew group. I see that the steam goes away within a few seconds. My advice is to try it and see if it makes a difference in your machine. In the same line, I always draw a blank shot after steaming milk (and before filling the portafilter and drawing the espresso shot) and find if I don't, the espresso takes on some slightly burnt flavors. This is likely caused by the caramelization of trace sugars in coffee.
8) Pod capable. Many machines may use the prepackaged pods by Illy and other coffee suppliers. Pods are convenient and neat but they drive the shot cost up from 15 cents to about 55 cents, and if you are a regular user that can hurt. The Classic can use pods (the Silvia can not) but I opt to simply have preground decaf and preground regular in a well sealed tin, to get back to 15 cent shots. In our household of two coffee drinkers, our yearly use is about 1,400 cups. At $.15, that's $210/yearly, but at $.55, that's $770 yearly. I'd rather have the $550 in the bank.
9) Controls. Look for quality switches and knobs that look and feel rugged.
10) Housing. Look for stainless steel or very high quality plastic. Look for workmanship that allows ease of use and longevity.
11) Three way solenoid valve. Both Classic and Silvia have this valve, which doesn't help make better coffee but adds to ease of use in that the 135 lb of pressure is instantly relieved when you stop brewing. This helps to avoid the "sneeze: that occures when removing the portafilter from the brewing head.
12) Weight. Better machines weigh more. Look for 16 lbs and up for quality. The Classic is 20 lbs, and the Silvia is 30 lbs.
13) Cup warmer. Most are useless except on commercial machines. Instead, fill cips with water and microwave to preheat the cups.
14) Grinder. While this guide is not aimed at coffee grinders, the grinder is an equal partner with the espresso machine in producing good end results. Grinders fall into 2 main categories, 1) blade grinders, and 2) burr grinders. First, blade grinders come up short because they pulverize the bean into many varied-sized chips and impart friction-caused heat on the bean oils. Both of these characteristics work against good results. Price may tempt you, but resist, and save up for a good burr grinder. The burr grinder has many settings for fineness of grind, and produces a more uniform chip off of the bean, and thus produces better results. Most coffee pundits suggest grinders in the $200 and up price band for reliable machines that can produce optimum grinding results, and I agree. Myself, I am using a $50 Braun burr grinder for more than 5 years with adequate results. I will move to the $200 range once the Braun goes kaput. Why not another $50 burr grinder? Because the good ones at $200 and up use better burr design and slower rotating motors which produce a more uniform grind and less grinder heat that may damage the flavor of the bean.
15) Roaster: Yes, some people do roast their own bean at home. If done properly, and combined with good beans, good grind, and a good espresso machine, this extra step can bring very fine results. Home roasters are sold that convert a gas BBQ grill and its rotiserie into bean roasters for about $200. These have large capacity, allowing the roasting of 2 to3 pounds at one time. Some people are happy using an Air Popper (popcorn machine) to roast coffee at about $25. Also offered are self-contained electic machines in the $50 to $800 range. The higher the price the a) greater the capacity, b) the better the programability,and c) the greater the durability. At $200, for example, one model roasts 4 oz of beans with moderate user intervention, in about 10 minutes. This quanity might demand roasting every 2 or 4 days for most coffee drinkers. Starting at about $200, are machines that store roasting programs which are very useful in achieving good results, repeatedly. Roasting, by the way, stinks, and so must be done outside or under a stove hood. Roasting is an art, and so, expect some failures along the way. Finally, roasting can be a good hobby, and many home roasters enjoy the tinkering that goes into exceptional coffee.... home roasted beans can be a nice gift to friends and family.
Look for a machine that does best what you expect to use most. If you go full bore on this topic, expect to pay $500 for the espresso machine, $200 for the grinder, $200 for the roaster, and another $100 or so for miscellaneous. Or, about $1,000 unless you find bargains on ebay or elsewhere. One may also spend several times $1,000 if one goes the Full Monty with top shelf machines.
Care of your machine
Even the best machine can fail in as little as 50 uses unless you take the time to properly clean your machine. The single biggest user error is the failure to de-scale the machine on a regular basis. The frequency of this cleaning varies depending on your usage and the quality of the water. In my town the water is superbly suited to espress machines, so I use tap water, and clean about every 3 months (250 espressos or so) with a descaling agent. I use Cleancaf brand cleaner (also good for regular coffee makers). When cleaning, also wipe off the showerhead, and the rubber gasket that connects the portafilter and the brew group. If you allow scale to build up you may have to send the machine in for professional repair.
All about coffee.
Dispelling myths: Contrary to street lore that espresso "packs a whollop", espresso and espresso based drinks actually have less than half of the caffeine found in a cheap cup of coffee. This is because espresso is nearly always 100% arabica bean coffee which has half the caffeine of cheap coffee, which is robusta bean coffee. This is why you can enjoy two or more cups of good coffee, but get the caffeine jitters on one cup of cheap coffee.
In all the world there are only two kinds of coffee. Arabica is the premium coffee, growing only at high altitude. Robusta is the cheap coffee growing only at low altitude. Arabica has 22 chromosomes and robusta only 11, which is a big contributer to complexity of taste (good coffee, like good wine, often carries wonderful undercurrents of natural tastes, such as chocolate, cinamon, minerals, and more.)
An espresso bean is any kind of bean, usually darker roasted then most, and ground much finer than other uses. Espresso use requires a grind that is nearly as fine as powdered sugar, hence the need for a reliable and effective grinder.
Expensive coffee? How about $600 a pound for Kopi Luwak! Expensive and weird all at the same time. In the Indonesian Islands, the cat-like-monkey called the palm civet, ingests the ripest coffee beans, disgests off the covering, and excretes the bean onto the jungle floor. The beans are hand gathered and they say it is a wonderful thing..... "crappuccino anyone?"
In summary, espresso machines are a perfect metaphor for life. Unless you find yourself a hands-down bargain-of-a-steal-of-a-deal, a good, long lasting machine is going to cost you at least $300. Yes, you can buy "pretty" for $100, but don't you really want to use this thing? Day in day out? THAT's what I thought. Like life, if good espresso machines could be retailed at $100, then there would be no need for the dozens of machines that sell for $300, $400, $500, and more.... these machines would not exist if the cheap machines really worked. So, if need be, buy a moka for now, then save up for a real machine.... or keep your eyes open for a great deal on ebay.
How to get by without an espresso machine and even a coffee maker:
This may seem somehow anti-capitalistic (I'm no Commie!) but a recent article in the New York Times had me experimenting with cold brewed iced coffee. NYC, of course, is a hotbed of snobbery of all types. These sophisticated people hold their noses in the air on many issues, and rightfully so I might add. Among the categories of snobbery, no subject is too minute, and cold brewed iced coffee was a topic of this summer's snobbery; many New Yorkers will not drink iced coffee unless it is cold brewed. They claim it is a smoother, richer, coffee drinking experience.
My experimentation had me adding 5 scoops of espresso ground coffee to a quart of good water, and leaving it to brew in the refrigerator for 8 to 24 hours. Once brewed, I ran my batches through our coffee maker's gold filter to remove the grounds. This produces a strong enough result that allows pouring the coffee over a glass full of ice without being overly diluted. The result is noticably better iced coffee. The flavors feel rounder and more complex with less harshness.
Next, I tried microwaving the cold brewed coffee, and the result was very good indeed for those times when I wanted a hot coffee.
Next, I used 5 scoops of espresso grind coffee and about half a quart of water, and allowed it to brew in the fridge for 24 hours (or more), and made myself a Cafe Americano (which is my usual hot coffee drink of choice), and the results are very good.
One can do quite nicely without an espresso machine and without a coffee maker of any kind.