How to Choose an Espresso Machine

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Espresso / Wikimedia Commons


By Mark Prince

CoffeeGeek01

One of the most common email requests received here at CoffeeGeek is “Help me choose an espresso machine!” As the senior editor of CoffeeGeek, I get at least five or more of these requests every day.

Unfortunately, as much as I would like to personally assist everyone who takes the time and effort to write in, it is simply too time consuming. I stopped responding to these requests long ago, for a variety of reasons – not the least of which was that my answers inevitably led to more questions and emails. These emails often took up to several hours of my work day, leaving little time for all the other tasks this website generates daily.

But I haven�t forgotten all you folks who want some easy to digest advice on buying your first serious espresso machine! For some time now, we�ve been working on this “how-to” article to satisfy this need, and it got to be so long that it made more sense to break it up into a full blown guide, with clearly defined sections.

I’ve delved into a lot of the past advice I’ve handed out over the years in my email correspondence, in order to compile key points that I hope have helped people over and over again to find a good first espresso machine. The advice in this guide is by no means definitive. It’s designed to help genuine newbies, those who may not know a lot about machines and their abilities. Veterans looking to upgrade from a $1,200 machine to a $2,000 machine won’t find much of value here, except maybe a page to which they can direct their friends who are seeking advice on what machine to buy.

This guide also presumes that you want to buy a hands-on espresso machine – not a super automatic. You want to produce the best espresso you possibly can in the home, and going for a manual (lever), semi automatic, or automatic machine is your preferred route. We may at a future date publish a “how to” on buying a super automatic.

So with the preamble out of the way, let’s get into it – our guide on how to buy an espresso machine. Choose one of the sections below, but I ask – no, I plead with you – if you only read one page in this guide, read the first one – the Grinder Advice page!

Enjoy!

Don’t Skimp on the Grinder

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Hand Grinder / Wikimedia Commons

If you take nothing else away from this guide, please take this advice to heart:

The grinder is an integral, necessary part of making good espresso in the home.

I can’t stress this enough.

As mentioned in the preamble to this guide, CoffeeGeek readers often ask me for help on what espresso machine to buy. Frequently, back when I was doling out advice, I’d get emails from folks who bought the machines I recommended, complaining about how the shots were lousy, running too fast, producing insufficient crema, or tasting excessively bitter. And 99% of the time, the problem was easily diagnosed; they didn’t buy a grinder. They bought preground or prepackaged coffee instead.

Why the grinder is important

Espresso preparation is harsh. It’s just about the harshest brewing method you can throw at a coffee bean and still produce something that tastes heavenly. Percolators can’t do that. Even moka pots are finicky as all heck. Espresso brewing, using over 135 pounds of water pressure per square inch, extracting in 25 seconds, is near-torture for the ground coffee bean.

So why does espresso just “work” for some people? Why do some home baristas and many “third wave” professionals have the ability to pound out great tasting shots of espresso?

If you ask them for their secret, besides talking up good ingredients (quality, fresh roasted coffee, good water) and having a developed skillset for producing espresso, they’ll all mention one other key thing: the grinder. One core item they all have in common is a quality grinder to freshly grind the coffee to the very precise particle sizes necessary to good extraction. Often, the grinder is the rock star of their little espresso show.

I’ve often said that I can make a better shot of espresso with a $200 espresso machine and a $400 grinder than I can with a $2,000 espresso machine and no grinder (or a blade grinder)… and it’s absolutely true.

This isn’t some snobby talker here.

This isn’t some plot to get you to spend crazy amounts of money.

This is based on literally thousands of experiences related in our forums, in espresso enthusiasts’ homes around the world. Nothing has improved the quality of espresso as much as the addition of a good grinder to your home kit. This is so important that I have to say – do not bother reading the rest of this guide if you plan on skimping on this vital necessity.

Budgeting for the grinder

How do you set a budget for the grinder? A simple, hard and fast rule I have offered to people for some time now is, “Spend at least the same amount on the grinder as you do on the espresso machine, up to $200 (the cost of the grinder). Then percentage it down as your budget goes higher.”

That means that, if you have $500 for an espresso machine budget, spend $200-$250 on a grinder, and get a $250-$300 espresso machine. If your budget is $1,000, think $300-$350 or more for the grinder, and $650-$700 or less for the espresso machine.

I know a lot of readers are going to look at this and cry foul, or at least wonder how I can justify spending $300 or more on a grinder. But if you’re thinking about spending $1000 on an espresso machine, $300 for the grinder isn’t so much. You just have to wrap your head around the fact that the grinder is an integral part of the overall purchase. Think of it in terms of budget = espresso machine + grinder + accessories, instead of just budget = espresso machine, and you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to justify. And after you have those shots that will blow away 95% of the cafés out there, it gets even easier. Here’s a suggested budget breakdown for your purchase.

Grinder Budget Recommendations
Overall Budget $300 $500 $1,000 $1,500 $2,000
Espresso Machine $150 $250 $700 $1,100 $1,500
Grinder $150 $250 $300 $400 $500
Grinder % of Purchase 50% 50% 30% 27% 25%

What grinder to choose

So now you’ve budgeted for your grinder and want to know what models to choose.

Your first stop should always be the CoffeeGeek Consumer Reviews for Grinders, but with over 900 reviews posted for grinders (and growing daily), it can be a bit difficult to navigate. Fortunately, one page of this guide gives you tips on how to more effectively use the consumer reviews section. Make sure you check it out.

In addition, I do have some recommendations, fresh as of this writing and amending of the guide (revised on Jan 1, 2010), so keep this in mind if it’s 2012 and you’re reading this! I’ll give my low end, medium price, and high end recommendations, as well as a tip for scoring an awesome grinder at a price way lower than the cost of many new high end consumer grinders.

Manual Grinders

We don’t include manual grinders (like the Hario Mini Ceramic) in this guide for a couple of reasons. First, most hand grinders, especially budget ones, cannot do a consistent enough grind for pump-driven espresso machines (the Hario models are an exception). Second, and probably more important, hand grinders are very, very slow when grinding for espresso. Think two, three minutes to grind. Because immediate grinding is crucial to great espresso (ie, you should be brewing within 30-45 seconds after grinding), a lot of the coffee’s stored Co2 is released from the grounds when using a hand grinder and patiently grinding enough to do a double shot.

Low End Champs

This is going to sound like a paid advertisement for Baratza, but it isn’t – instead, it’s an indication that we consumers are not well served by most grinder makers in the under $200 category.

With that out of the way, the entire line of grinders from Baratza are great starting points for the new home espresso fan. At the low end, the Baratza Maestro grinder (around $100 new, around $75-80 refurb) will do fine. This grinder has seen several minor revisions over the years since first being introduced, and, like the other Solis and Baratza grinders, can handle multiple duties. It is capable of doing what we call an “okay” espresso grind, but it can also handle your press pot and auto drip grinding chores, too. Recently, the grinder has lost its timer dial (it’s now a two position on/off dial), and its front push button on demand button, but gained a lower price, and an improved motor / burr setup. For some espresso machines, it might be a challenge producing a grind fine enough for a “ristretto” shot; but it will be absolutely fine for most budget espresso machines.

I had the chance to use the Breville Ikon Grinder, which is also priced at $100 in the US. While it does not have the grind range of the Baratza lineup, it comes close. You may find the Maestro can grind a tad finer compared to the Breville’s finest setting (in our testing, the Breville at the finest setting produced a normal 60-70ml double shot in 25 seconds on a Rancilio Silvia).  At the coarsest settings, the Breville produces big-chunk grinds that are suitable for press pot coffee, though the fines were a bit more present than other grinders.

The next step up in price are the Maestro Plus at $150 new ($110-$130 refurb), and the Baratza Virtuoso at $200 new ($160-$175 refurb). The Maestro Plus shares the same motor and gearing system with the Maestro, but its upgrades include a slightly larger grind range, more metal on the body, a weighted base, and side timer + front microswitch for active grinding on demand.

The Virtuoso is a bit of a step up. It features a DC motor with different gearing and a lot better torque. It also has a different conical burr set (the Maestro and Maestro Plus share the same burrset). And probably most importantly, the Virtuoso has a wider grinding range and can grind for ristretto pulls and press pot grinds.

The three machines from Baratza can also be accessorized with something Baratza calls “the Portaholder”. It’s a replacement for the grounds bin that allows you to insert and hook a portafilter (even commercial portafilters) into the machine for direct grinding into the espresso filter basket. This is an optional accessory, but highly recommended if you do a lot of grinding for espresso.

If you buy any of these grinders (incl. the Breville), there’s a bit of a bonus here – if, down the road, you want to buy a dedicated espresso grinder, you can still make use of these grinders for your non-espresso grinding needs. On the other hand, they have a good resale value, should you choose to do a straight upgrade to avoid having two grinders on the kitchen counter.

Middle Priced Grinders

This is where we get into the “dedicated espresso grinder” arena, with one exception. From $200 for a Gaggia MDF, to the Rancilio Rocky doser (or doserless) model at around $365, to $385-$425 for the Anfim home grinders all of these grinders are well suited for producing a great espresso grind and, more importantly, will be serviceable for decades to come.

The favourite for many in this category is probably the Rocky, priced at $365 as of this update (Jan 2010). Rancilio has been manufacturing this grinder since 1990 (its introductory price was $175!), and while it has seen some aesthetic and usability upgrades in recent years (including a model using a chute instead of a doser), some things have never changed. The Rocky possesses the same motor and internal parts as the Rancilio MD40 grinder, as well as a precision-milled flat burr set. I know people who have Rockys that are 15 years old, and they’re still running fine today. Amortize the initial cost over 15 years, and that equals about $20 per year – not too shabby. You could go through five Braun KM grinders in that time and end up paying the same amount for a vastly inferior grinder.

Our one exception to the “espresso only” is a grinder coming in March 2010. Around that time, Baratza is rolling out a fourth grinder in their budget/ midpriced lineup. It is called the Virtuoso Preciso, and it borrows something from Baratza’s top of the line grinder – the Vario – adding some extensive grind controls. The projected price is $300 MSRP, so it may sell for less. The added grind control will make many espresso lovers happy.

Lastly, Anfim. We believe the Anfim “Best” model is probably the best bang-for-the-buck dedicated espresso grinder under $600. We’ve had a model in the CoffeeGeek Lab for 2 years now and it consistently beats the Rocky (and even the Mazzer Mini!) in terms of overall grind quality, dosing, speed, and convenience. If you search hard enough, you can find this grinder under $400, but the price has steadily climbed in the last two years, taking it slowly out of the mid priced category. You should avoid the “Haus” model from Anfim – it has a much weaker motor and smaller burrs – the “Best” model is the one you want.

The High End Models

By the time you get up to the $400-$1,500 price range for grinders, in most cases you’re moving into the commercial world; I don’t just mean commercial parts in a consumer product – I’m talking full-blown commercial grinders designed for light to medium (and even high volume) café duty. Most of these grinders are dedicated for espresso, but one, introduced in 2009, is a bit of a game breaker because of how well it does a multipurpose job of grinding for a variety of needs.

That grinder is the Baratza Vario. It finally hit the market in 2009 after almost 18 months of development. This grinder has impressed the socks off many of our forum participants, including those who have done blind taste tests pitting the Baratza Vario against $1,500, $2,000 commercial grinders. One of the more famous claims is that the Vario bested a Mazzer Robur, a nearly $2,000 grinder!

We like the Vario because of its versatility. It is extremely capable as an espresso grinder, but you can quickly switch grind settings using the macro/micro adjustment feature, grinding for press. Then just as quickly, you can switch back to your espresso setting. We also like the near zero grinds-retention feature. Pretty much every doser equipped grinder we talk about in this guide retains up to 10 grams of ground coffee in their chutes between uses. The Vario retains less than 0.5 grams. Its highly recommended as a do-it-all home grinder.

Then there’s the Mazzer Mini grinder. For a long time I was a big fan. And as long as the grinder was under $450, it was on my most recommended list. The grinder is now $600, and while it is a full blown commercial grade grinder (compared to the Anfim Best’s more consumer build), the main reason for choosing this grinder is probably longevity – it’ll last decades. The stepless grind selection is a big plus as well. Many swear by this grinder.

Some may prefer the Compak K3 Touch and Elite models of grinders. The Touch, priced at $460 (Jan 2010), is a great grinder with stepless grind, a mechanical timer for auto dosing, and the option to do a single or double dose along with always-on functions via the touchbar and three way power switch. The Elite is the doser version and costs about $80 more but is still cheaper than the Mazzer Mini, and very much the Mazzer’s equal.

I’ve also been impressed with the grinders from Macap. Their M4 model has been on the market for the past few years but are only recently getting more attention. They are available in both stepped and stepless models, and I’d recommend going for the latter, unless you get a great deal on a stepped model.

If you want to go full blown commercial grinder, I have three recommendations for you as of this rewrite in 2010. Two models from Compak, and one from Anfim.

The Compak K6, which comes in two flavours – the Barista model ($800) and the regular version ($720) is a great grinder and one that I’d happily pick over the Mazzer Major or Super Joly (at least a new, retail Super Joly). These are full blown commercial grinders, but the size would suit the typical $1,500-$2,000 home espresso machine. Stepless grind selection, a great doser, and a build quality that will last several lifetimes make this an easy choice. Considering it costs nearly half the price of a new Mazzer Major, this is an even easier choice.

If you want ridiculous overkill, and something that even your top cafes would drool over, there’s the Compak K10 WBC model – the CoffeeGeek Lab’s primary grinder – and the grinder I have paired with my Speedster espresso machine, the Anfim Super Caimano Titanium. I’ve tried pretty much every grinder available today, and these are the two best bang for the buck super grinders available today.

The K10 WBC is all manual, which I like. The high-resistance switch is solid and secure for turning the grinder on and off. The doser “action” is supreme, and easily the best I’ve ever used. The dosing itself into your filter basket isn’t as good as the Anfim (the current world champ at this), but its pretty close, and puts the doser Robur from Mazzer to shame in this regard. Of course, it is stepless in grind selection, like all Compaks. And the K10 is crazy fast too – it’ll grind a double dose in under 5 seconds. Built like a tank, but has nice curves. Huge, but not as huge as a Robur. At $1,400, it’s expensive but considering that Mazzer’s direct competitor is $700 more, and doesn’t even dose as nice, this is the king of conical burr, doser grinders.

The Anfim Super Caimano has recently gotten a major upgrade and has one of the most technologically advanced timers found today on a grinder – it digitally times your dose to 1/100th a second. The doser on the Anfim is legendary, and it started a whole trend towards “never touch the coffee” because it doses a nice cone into your filter basket. The Anfim is actually quite small by commercial standards – it occupies maybe half to 2/3rds the “airspace” that the Compak K10 does – and it is a medium speed grinder. The one I have does 18 grams in 6 seconds, which is pretty fast by any standard. The grind selection isn’t stepless, but it does offer subtle grind fineness changes. The grinder is around $1450 as of this writing.

Any of these grinders – and frankly, almost grinder in our review section over $400 – will deliver in the home for decades to come. These are grinders designed to plow through 100 lbs of coffee a week and more. In the home, you’re lucky to do that much in a year.

What to look for

I used a lot of terminology in this part of the guide: stepless, stepped, doser, micro adjustment, action, conical, flat, timer, etc etc. I know much of it can be confusing, so here’s some tips on what to look for in grinders, and what all these terms mean.

stepless vs. stepped – this refers to how you change the grind particle sizes your grinder spits out. Most budget grinders are what we call “stepped” – meaning there’s distinctive settings you click into on the grinder to go from coarse grinding to fine, espresso grinding. Some grinders, like the Baratza Maestro, have 40 steps in their grinding range going from espresso to press grinds. The most expensive stepped grinder we recommend – the Anfim Super Caimano Ti – has about 80 available steps, going from powder (turkish) to a medium grind.

Stepless on the other hand has no set points in grind fineness – the selection is fluid, meaning you can get (hypothetically) grind changes as little as 5 or 10 microns in sizes (that’s really small!). There’s mainly two types of stepless systems. Mazzers and Compaks use resistive collars that have high friction to keep them from moving during grinding, but your brute force is enough to turn the collars coarser or finer. Macaps use a gear system, referred to as a worm gear, that very gradually changes the burr height when you turn a dial.

Baratza’s Vario (and soon to be released Virtuoso Preciso) bring a third system into play – a macro and micro adjustment. One adjuster arm does big jumps in grind selection; the other arm does much smaller adjustments (Baratza claims they are 5-10micron adjustments) which is essentially equal to stepless. That said, the Vario has roughly 240 different setpoints for grind adjustment. One bonus of this is that unlike stepless adjustment systems, it is fairly easy to remember your grind settings on the Vario, when you’re jumping back and forth between press and espresso grinds.

Doser vs. doserless – Some grinders we recommend, including the K3 Touch, are doserless grinders – you grind directly into the portafilter. A portaholder-enabled Baratza grinder does the same thing, making them “doserless”. Other grinders have a doser – a holdover from the 1920s-1950s era of grinder development when it wasn’t understood that filling a doser chamber with ground coffee was detrimental to espresso beverage quality. Grinder manufacturers to this day still don’t get that the doser needs to go the way of the dodo bird, but at the very least we have some nice improvements to the technology. Grinders like the Anfim and Compaks dose quite nicely, putting all your coffee into a nice even mound in the filter basket.

Doserless may seem like the way to go, but even this technology is flawed – doserless grinders are very messy, leaving a lot of sprayed grounds on your counter.

Conical and flat burrs – the budget grinders in this lineup have conical burrs, as does one of our most expensive recommendations (the Compak K10 Conic WBC model). But the Anfim, the Vario and other grinders have flat burrs. What is better? The jury’s still out on this one. Both do a great job of cutting up coffee for the purpose of espresso brewing. Conical burrs tend to spin slower because of their larger cutting surface, resulting in less heat transfer to the coffee, but the flat burr models we recommend have their own heat-dissipating tricks as well.

Timers – some of the grinders we recommend have timers. Basic mechanical ones (on the Baratza Maestro Plus and Virtuoso), advanced mechanical ones (like on the K3 Touch), and advanced digital timers, like the Baratza Vario and Anfim Super Caimano. Basically, the more advanced the timer is, the better it is for repetition and lack of waste. The Vario basically wastes no coffee – dial in your grind time, and from then on (as long as you don’t change brand of coffee), it will grind the near perfect amount based on your setting. The Anfim even more so.

What boon is this? This saves you money. The Anfim Super Caimano’s two greatest benefits are its doser and its timer. The clean doser and the precise timer means very little coffee waste for a busy cafe. Some cafes report saving as much as 400g of coffee per day because of the Anfim grinder. 400g of coffee saved means the grinder pays for itself in the first year, just in coffee savings (at least in a busy cafe). For a home consumer, a high end digital timer on a grinder means you get more shots of espresso per bag of coffee.

And a Buying Tip!

Here’s one more tip for you. For many years, I had a Mazzer Super Jolly in my Espresso Lab that I found on eBay almost brand new – but not branded as a Mazzer Super Jolly; it had been rebranded as an Astoria “Manual” and used less than a month. The portafilter fork was pristine, the burrs were practically new… and I paid only $275, including shipping. The tip is this: find out under what names the Mazzers are rebranded, and search often on eBay for those names. The one I bid on didn’t mention “Mazzer” once, and that kept the price low.

Now I know this tip runs somewhat contrary to my advice on another page in this guide, about treating after-sales service as an important part of your purchase, and not ditching one vendor for another just to save $10. But in this case, getting a $750 retail grinder for a fraction of the amount is just too good a bit of advice to pass up. Just keep in mind that you probably won’t get any warranty or any after-sales service if you go this route.

Consider Life of Ownership

It’s bloody hard to recommend with a straight face that someone should spend more on an espresso machine and grinder than most people spend on a refrigerator.

I mention this because this comparison with fridges, along with microwaves and even stoves, is often brought up in discussions of price in my email correspondence and in interviews I’ve done with the mainstream press. Even worse, price comparisons are made to kettles, auto drip coffee makers, and even toasters!

These days, I’d much rather compare the purchase of an espresso setup for the home to the purchase of a good quality stereo system, or even better, a decent quality home entertainment system, including a LCD or plasma TV, surround sound system, the works. But that’s only because of the costs involved.

The fact of the matter lies mainly in a principle called “economies of scale”. Maytag may make 150,000 dishwashers of a particular make and model this year, while Rancilio will make maybe 5,000 Silvias in the same time span. Maytag can amortize R&D, development, factory fabbing, and the works over those 150,000 units; Rancilio has to do it over considerably fewer units.

Along with economies of scale, there’s another significant factor involved in the pricing of espresso machines coming out of Europe: most are handmade, and most involve extremely complex, specialised parts, both of which add to the overall cost of production. And don’t even get me started on importer and vendor markups!

I mention all of this at the start of this section for no other reason than to get it out of the way, because what I think is more important than the initial price (shock) is something called “life of ownership”. It’s about how you plan to use the products, and how long you expect to own them and expect them to work.

Thinking about Life of Ownership

Believe it or not, I’m not a big fan of cost breakdowns, but I’ll delve into that just a bit. I often think of the purchase of an espresso machine as a lifelong investment. I felt this way even back in 1998, when I bought my first serious machine, the Rancilio Silvia. Back then, spending $400 (or about $700 CAD with exchange and duties worked in at that time) was a massive expense for me – I was only a few years out of university, struggling still to find a “career”, and that purchase amount was nearly 75 percent of my monthly rent!

I managed to justify the cost (and saving up for the purchase) because I thought about where I wanted to go with this whole coffee and espresso thing. From my point of view, I wasn’t making a purchase of a non-descript toaster from which I expected a few years’ use – I was buying a machine that I hoped would last for a decade or two with daily use. I didn’t have the benefit you all have today of a ton of online resources to help me select one of these otherwise obscure machines, but I did have the usenet newsgroup alt.coffee; and the consensus was that the Rancilio Silvia was the machine to own, the one that met all my expectations and desires.

The fact that I sold the machine two and a half years later when I did a big upgrade to a Pasquini Livia even plays into this – owning a good quality machine meant that when it came time to sell, I was able to get a good price for it. I think I sold it for around $500 CAD or so, making my investment in it less than $200 for the two plus years of use I got out of it.

Factoring in future costs

When deciding on your budget for buying an espresso machine (after, of course, deducting the amount you’ll spend on a good grinder), think about how long you want this product to be working. Think about the cost broken down over five, ten, and even fifteen years of ownership.

All of a sudden, that $1,200 machine doesn’t look so bad when the cost is amortized over 10 years. The bonus is that most (but not all) of the machines in the $500 plus category are built to last. A machine like the Rancilio Silvia or the Pasquini Livia is built with many commercial parts – some parts designed to withstand the abuse of pulling 50 to 500 shots a day. You’re going to be making between 2 and 10 shots a day. The same goes for grinders.

It’s very tempting to buy the cheapest machine out there; after all, there’s plenty of machines on the market costing $150 to $250 that have the minimum specifications required to brew a great shot. And I stand by my claim that I can make great espresso with a $200 machine. But if that $200 machine ends up breaking down in two years, requiring a $150 boiler replacement, and the plastic outer body cracks, and the pressurized portafilter starts to fall apart, all of a sudden, it makes spending $475 on a more professional calibre machine much more economical and less stressful than mailing a $200 machine cross country for repair and being without your espresso fix for a month or longer.

You also want to think about that upgrade path. Basically, there’s three types of people who buy a $500+ espresso machine: the poser who wants something flashy (I don’t think there’s any of those reading CoffeeGeek!); the user who just wants a good tool for producing a great beverage; and the fanatic who, once they fall in love with something, eventually wants to upgrade to something better.

For the latter two types of user, spending good money right off the bat for a well researched product will pay good dividends. Chances are you’ll be using the machine almost every day, and the commercial quality of the interior parts on an expensive machine means little or no worry about breakdowns or problems. The fanatic gets a machine that can withstand heavy use, which will also, when it comes time to upgrade, give them good resale value.

Keeping these things in mind should help you when it comes time to fret about paying more for an espresso appliance than most people spend on a refrigerator. 😉

Caveat: by no means am I saying that more expensive machines are less prone to problems.

There are plenty of stories in our forums about $1,000 to $1,500 machines requiring trips back to the shop; but one benefit from the more expensive machines is that the parts they use are commercial quality and are readily available to most vendors and machine repair centres. And generally, if problems don’t crop up right away once you open the box and start using the machine, most likely your investment will give years or even decades of worry-free service.

A very important fact to consider is that most of the espresso machines available today are handmade in Italy and other parts of Europe in very small runs. Handmade sounds great, and generally really is, but it also means that there may be a greater frequency of quality control issues than in a prefab factory that churns out 100,000 machines of a particular make each year.

Making the Best of Consumer Reviews

With over 4,000 reviews in our Consumer Reviews Section of CoffeeGeek, it’s easy to become intimidated. What to read? What to look for? How does one sort out the gushing of fanboys from the real facts and honest appraisals?

During the last overhaul of CoffeeGeek, we did some major changes to the reviews section, including putting in warnings about being a fanboy. It helped some, but not as much as we would have liked. But we also added some other features that included a greater variety of ways to navigate the reviews, so you can get the most out of them. The trick is in knowing what to look for.

Let’s look at one example – the Rancilio Silvia, our current review champ with over 160 posted reviews. Daunting, to say the least. There’s even commentary dating back to 2000, predating CoffeeGeek itself! (I used to host more basic consumer reviews on CoffeeKid.com before CoffeeGeek was launched – we imported them all over to this site, way back in 2001.)

When you first load the page, you’ll probably see ten reviews, with the most recent review at the top of the list. You can dive in at this point, but there’s two other ways you can sort the reviews to find the best comments and/or best reviews on our website.

Sorting by Quality Rating

Take a look at the quality rating right beside each reviewer’s name on the page that lists ten or more reviews. That’s a good indicator of just how informative and well written that particular review is.

Better yet, sort the listing by “Quality” instead, and you’ll get a new listing of all the reviews, from the best written one on down.

How do we determine what the best reviews are? Well, we don’t. You do – the reader of the website. Every member can vote once on each and every review posted in our consumer reviews section. Some reviews have had hundreds of votes; some only a dozen or two. But your fellow CoffeeGeek members have done a lot of legwork for you and have given a ranking to many of the reviewers. (Tip – be a part of the quality control movement – rank the reviews you read too!).

Sorting by quality gives us a list of the Silvia reviews, including some excellent ones by people like Eric Larsen, Greg Scace (the inventor of the Scace Device!) Chris Woods, Mick Reynolds, and others. Greg’s review is almost six years old now, but it still stands up as an insightful look into the product, and recently, he’s written a five-year update on owning the Silvia.

Once you’re reading a review, you may notice a sidebar on the left side of the page that says “Quality Reviews”. For every product in our database, we list up to the five best written reviews as judged by your peers on the website. It’s a quick and easy way to navigate through the best written prose in our review section.

Sorting by Rating

Another way to navigate a product’s reviews is to sort by rating. This is the rating given to the product by the reviewer, based on five criteria that are considered when they write the review. We encourage our reviewers to make these ratings realistic, and while the overall quality of reviews has gotten better in the last few years, there still may be cases of serious fanboyism that look at products with rose coloured glasses.

However, with these sorting features, you can make your own determination as to which  products and which reviews are the best. For example, if you sort by quality and look at the top ten ratings of the product you’re looking at, this will give you, with a single glance, a good indicator of just how good that particular machine may be.

You can also sort the major category pages by rating, as in this example for the Consumer Espresso machine pages. There is a trick to using this system – the products at the top probably have very few reviews; for example, when I was writing this, the Ascaso Steel was at the top of the list, with a “10” rating, but with only one review. The Ascaso Steel is a great machine, but definitely not a “10” in any sense.

So, how does one deal with this situation? Scroll down the list a bit, until you see products with 5, 10, 20 or more reviews. If they still rank and rate high, chances are that’s one kick ass machine.

For example, the Isomac Zaffiro has 8 reviews (a decent, if still low, number), and is rated as a 9.1 overall. Further down the list a bit, there’s the Silvia with 162 reviews (!!) and it’s 8.8 overall rating, and the Elektra Lever Machines with 9 reviews and the same 8.8 overall rating.

Once you cherry pick a few products to check out, go to the product’s page and sort by “quality” to quickly get to the best written reviews.

Other review tips and tricks

Every product has its good points and bad ones. If you find a review that says “nothing” in the product negatives listing, chances are it’s not going to be a review that will help you decide on your purchase. Instead, look for honest appraisals of the machines, ones that point out the flaws (and possible ways to overcome those flaws) as well as the good points.

Since 2003, every reviewer has been required to fill out the “buying experience” field, where they can review the service they received from the vendor who sold the product to them. This is a good way to find good vendors, especially for machines that may require aftermarket service.

Lastly, make sure you contribute to making the CoffeeGeek Consumer Reviews a good resource for others. Sign up for a membership, and once you have it, you can post insightful, detailed, and objective reviews for products you own (and preferably give yourself a month or more of ownership before writing a review). In addition, you can vote on the quality of other reviews you read from time to time. The more that members vote, the more meaningful the ranking and rating system will become for future visitors to the website.

Vendor Tips and Tricks

Specialised espresso machines are still very much a niche market. While mainstream places like Williams-Sonoma and others sometimes sell tricked out machines like Silvias or Elektra Micro Casas, by and large, your best choice for purchasing a quality espresso machine will be an online merchant.

There are online vendors out there who have nearly a decade of experience (and in some cases, much more) in customer service and espresso knowledge who will not only give you full service before the sale, but great service after the sale too. However, that’s not just limited to vendors who have been around the block a few times – there are plenty of new kids on the block who really want your business and are using their expertise – either newly found or established in other avenues – to make you a happy customer.

Here are some tips and tricks on how to seek these folks out, what to expect, what’s expected of you as a consumer, and a bit about how the industry for specialised espresso machines really works.

Your responsibilities as a consumer

I see a trend in life, in the emails I get, in our forums, and sometimes, even in myself – people will go out of their way to save a nickel. I’ve done it. I can remember spending two hours to drive someplace to save about 10% off my grocery bill. Ridiculous! Then again, maybe not.

Saving money is a good thing. But I tend to balance a lot of long term things into “saving money” these days. In the past, I used to get burned up when I’d buy something – say a memory card for $100 – then six months later, I’d see the same memory card for $50…if I mailed away for it…and if I waited another six months (plus two more weeks for shipping) to get it.

But being upset about that is ridiculous. For me, the time and effort involved are just as important as the dollars. I’d rather spend $100 on groceries and be home in five minutes, than spend $75 on the same groceries with a one hour round trip, the hassle of packing my own bags, and the frustration of dealing with long lines.

I know of far too many cases where a consumer takes up hours of a quality, service-oriented vendor’s time – on the phone (on the vendor’s dime too!), via email, what have you, seeking out the best product for their budget and requirements, only to go to another bare bones vendor who may be selling the machine for $10 less or offering a few more freebies.

There’s so many things wrong with this.

First, there are a lot of vendors of espresso machines based in the US and around the world. Many of those with the best selection are found online. And many, including pretty much all of the companies advertising on CoffeeGeek, are renowned for their service behind the sale. (We vet our advertisers, and have barred questionable ones in the past.) Many of them will happily walk you through purchase choices, often putting together a specific package that suits your needs. They will hold your hand. And they do so because they know (or at least hope) that if they do a good job with you this time around, if you’re in the “fanatic” class, you’ll come back.

This also means that after the sale, they’re most likely going to be very accommodating, or at the very least understanding, should anything go wrong with your product.

Second, you are making use of their time – valuable time and experience – to help make your purchase decision. So I not-so-humbly say that your primary responsibility as a consumer is to show loyalty to a vendor if you make use of their time and expertise.

As a consumer working with a vendor to achieve a satisfactory purchase experience, other things could be viewed as a responsibility. If you had a great experience and are very satisfied, why not tell the world about it? In a review on CoffeeGeek, there’s a field to fill out called “buyer experience”. Here’s where you can go into detail about the vendor and what they did to help you out. Don’t be shy – gush if the experience was great! Also talk up the vendor in an objective way in our forums when other people post questions about finding a good vendor.

If your experience wasn’t so good, we also encourage you to talk about it on CoffeeGeek, both in the forums and in the reviews. But your responsibility here is to, at the very least, establish a dialogue with the vendor first and allow them the opportunity to rectify any mistakes or problems. These folks are human beings, many of whom are just running a small business that struggles to survive, and off-the-cuff negative commentary about a misunderstanding or miscommunication serves no one any good. We really place great value in maintaining CoffeeGeek’s atmosphere of objectivity and fairness and ask you to be fair to the vendor if you have problems.

If problems still persist after trying to establish dialogue, after giving the vendor your side of the story, and after giving them the chance to rectify things, then by all means, let other consumers know about it.

Things to look for in a vendor

Buying products online is risky. It goes against our nature to buy something for a grand or more sight unseen, even though we’ve been doing this now for ten years or more on the Internet.

One of the many resources CoffeeGeek offers is the ability to find out more about online vendors. Using our search feature on the front page for a vendor name will turn up dozens of mentions in articles, reviews, and other parts of the website. By visiting these specific review pages, you can get quick snapshots of how a vendor was perceived by that particular customer writing the review.

Also in our forums, vendors are frequently mentioned and endorsed (and sometimes panned). Your first avenue should be spending a little time surfing CoffeeGeek with a list of three, four, or more vendor names and seeing what other people have to say. You’ll also be able to easily find vendors who support this community as an advertiser by visiting our Active Advertisers page, if that kind of thing is important to you. (It sure is to us – their support is what brings this resource to you – so make sure you tell them you appreciate their sponsorship of CoffeeGeek when you buy from them!)

Good thing: education

There’s other ways to scope out a good online vendor. I’m a particular fan of vendor sites that offer a lot of unbiased education about products. This requires a bit of reading between the lines. But if, while surfing the educational sections of a vendor’s website, you find that they focus on the topic – for example, how to make espresso – while keeping cross promotional things to a minimum (like linking constantly to the products they sell), you will know you have discovered a good vendor who genuinely cares about this industry, promoting good coffee, and educating the public.

Another thing I especially like are videos. There’s an increasing number of “how to use this product” videos being produced by some vendors, and those are good; but I’d like to see more general education videos. If you search long and hard enough, you’ll see these starting to crop up. This is a sign of a great vendor who cares about you having quality coffee – no matter what machine or grinder you’re using.

Bad thing: negative advertising

On the flipside, one thing I’m not a fan of is any kind of negative advertising on a vendor site. I just do not like it when a vendor talks up one product while panning another product that they just happen not to carry. As a consumer, and as someone who’s interested in learning about and appreciating good coffee, you don’t need to hear trash talk that, in many cases, arises out of ulterior motives (such as in case of vendors that cannot buy the product they are criticizing due to exclusive contracts).

Even worse are vendors who leave Google-found pages for products they don’t even sell. But I’ll get more into that below.

Good thing: objective reviews

More and more online vendors of espresso machines are featuring something we pioneered here at CoffeeGeek: consumer reviews of the products they sell. I like this a lot, but what I don’t like are padded or fluffed reviews. Some sites post reviews pretty much unfiltered. A good example of this is Amazon – while they do vet all posted consumer reviews, they do so mainly for language and content – not for something negative or positive.

Some vendor websites allow for truly unfiltered reviews – good and bad. I leave it to you to discern which sites follow this practise. Visit vendor sites and read the reviews posted by consumers. If there is objective commentary that includes positives and negatives about the products, including some reviews that are just totally unsatisfied, I think major kudos is due to the vendor for having the guts to post them. Personally, my trust level with that vendor would go through the roof.

Bad thing: fluff reviews

In contrast to the above, there are, unfortunately, some websites that have consumer reviews that are fully vetted (pre-approved) before posting. At the least, they edit out some negative comments, and at worst, they don’t post negative comments at all. When I go to a vendor website and read nothing but glowing consumer reviews, I have concerns. No matter how great a product you have, there’s going to be problems. There’s going to be days when the customer service rep has a bad day. There’s going to be cases of a machine not functioning as advertised. If a vendor completely exorcises this kind of content from their consumer reviews, they cannot be considered objective and do not present you, the consumer, a fair view of those products.

Bad thing: MAP standards

A dirty little secret about the specialised espresso machine industry is something called “minimum advertised price” (MAP). This practise is questionably “legal” (it may seem illegal, but I’ll explain below why it isn’t), but still it makes things kind of ugly from a consumer standpoint. Basically, just about every importer and distributor of European made equipment sets a minimum advertised price for their product. This is why almost every vendor carrying the Rancilio Silvia sells it for the same price – they show a “list” price (the MSRP, or Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price) and a “sale” price (which is usually the importer-enforced MAP).

This system exists for most specialised products on the market – not just espresso equipment. Sony is notorious for setting a MAP standard for their products, as is Apple, and they come down very hard on vendors who advertise the products for less. MAP is vendor, distributor, importer, and manufacturer friendly. MAP isn’t consumer friendly in most cases (save one – it does help to provide a certain level of service because the vendor can afford to deliver that service, thanks to decent-to-healthy margins).

Good thing: getting around the MAP

I said above that MAP pricing was technically legal, even though price fixing in the US is definitely illegal. How is it legal? Because there’s ways to get around MAP – it’s the minimum advertised price; not necessarily the minimum price a vendor has to sell it at.

There is a caveat: don’t expect every vendor to do this. Sometimes the margins are tiny on certain machines.

With that out of the way, the margins on most specialised espresso machines generally allow for a bit of flexibility on a vendor’s part. Typically, the more expensive the machine, the greater the difference between the price the vendor pays vs the price they charge you. They can never advertise this, nor even state this on their websites, but many vendors will do a “package” deal, cutting 5%, 10% or more off the purchase price for an espresso machine / grinder combo. The catch is…well, you.

First, you have to call and talk to someone on the phone. You won’t get discounts over a website or via email in most cases.

Second, don’t expect a huge discount. If you’re buying a $500 package, don’t expect $100 off, just because you phoned in the order. But if you’re ordering $2,000 worth of equipment, getting $50, $100 or even more off the package isn’t an unreasonable thing to ask for.

Third – here’s the real tip – a vendor is more likely to give you a discount if you are doing several things: a) you’re being clear that you won’t be publicizing the discount in any way; b) you won’t be going to his or her competitors spewing the price you were offered; c) the vendor gets the sense that you’re not going to require a ton of hand holding down the road (or going to be taking up 3 hours of their time on the phone just to get $50 off); and d) you intimate (and follow through) that you’ll be a good word of mouth advertiser for the company. In other words, you’ll show your appreciation for being given a deal.

Fourth, the more you spend, the more you can expect to negotiate off the MAP price, in most cases. Some machines have much lower margins than others – super automatics, for example. But super high priced items may be sitting on the vendor’s stock shelf for some time, and they’ll be happy to lop 20% off the price just to ship it out and clear their inventory. This is where a short but insightful phone call by you can find hidden deals.

Fifth, pretty much every vendor of specialised espresso machines has “open box” and “slightly used’ machines in stock that you can often pick up for 25% or more off the MAP price. Don’t be afraid to ask. One thing that seems to work often is calling up a vendor with your full budget price for grinder and machine, and asking them, “What have you got, new, used, open box, or package price that you can offer me for that price?” This lets them offer you a range of products, including good quality products collecting dust that they might be more than happy to get rid of, and you in turn can go do some research on these products before calling them back to finalise the deal.

Good / Bad thing: playing one vendor off another

I am not a fan of playing one vendor off another, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, at least tactfully. But bear the following in mind:

  • The industry is cut throat. There’s a lot in the way of back room politics and exclusive distributor / importer deals going on, something that’s actually fairly common for a specialised industry that is still trying to make the transition from commercial equipment sales to consumer sales. This means that something you, as a consumer, may say to vendor A about a deal that vendor B offered you will get back to the importer as a complaint, and vendor B could hypothetically be “cut off” by the importer. This is a bad thing all around because it makes all vendors less willing to offer unadvertised deals below the MAP pricing.
  • If you get a great package deal from vendor A, it’s pretty cheesy to call up vendor B and not only disclose this private deal price, but expect vendor B to do even better. If vendor A gave you a good sense of service, knowledge, and a great price, your search should be ended at that point.
  • When calling several vendors, be honest with them – always. Tell each vendor you’re considering another vendor, but are shopping around for the best combination of price and service. Be positive; avoid negative comments about other vendors. Being honest doesn’t mean disclosing everything vendor A said to you, to vendor B. And it doesn’t mean saying the prices vendor A gave you either. Get both prices, then make your mind up.
  • Personally, a warning sign for me is when a vendor trash talks other vendors. As I have mentioned before, this industry is cut throat at times, and it really doesn’t have to be. There’s plenty of room for all the current players and more in the future. This is a growing industry with growing consumer demand. If, when engaging a vendor about service and knowledge, they bring up other vendors and talk about their negatives or lack of service, I think that’s bad – I’d much rather just hear about how the vendor I’m talking to is going to do good. I don’t need their opinion of other companies.
Bad thing: tricky practises

The most important thing for me, as a consumer myself, is a company I can trust. Trust is established a lot of ways, but for me, most of the time it’s something that develops from hearing about the company, reading about the products they sell, and how they conduct themselves as a business.

One of the sneakiest things I’ve seen recently is the practise of “Google trapping”. It’s the practise of leaving web pages up for products they no longer sell or creating pages on their website for products they’ve never sold. These pages are designed exclusively for search engines – you’ll rarely find a easy to spot link to them on the vendor’s website (though sometimes you will). Typically, these pages either just autodirect to another product page or a main information page, but worst of all, these pages contain nothing but trash talk about the products.

This is a despicable practise, I’m not afraid to say. And for me personally, it erodes major trust in that company.

I’m surfing a major minefield here by bringing these things up, so I’d best stop here,  although I do encourage readers to post – in general terms, don’t single out any one company – any “bad practises” they’ve observed on vendor websites – post your comments to the forum thread for this guide.

Choosing a Semi / Auto Machine

When purchasing their first serious espresso machine, people usually choose either a semi automatic or automatic model. Before I even delve into what to look for in these machines, I want to clear up some confusion that may exist over nomenclature used by consumers, vendors, and advertisers.

There are four classes of espresso machines; that is, machines that produce authentic, modern-day espresso:

  • Manual Machines. These are described  extensively in the next section.
  • Semi Automatic Machines. These feature an automated pump, automated temperature controls for the boiler, and activation switches to engage and disengage the pump. That’s what makes it “semi-automatic” – you decide when to turn the pump on and  off.
  • Automatic Machines. These feature a pump, automated temperature controls for the boiler, and automated (and frequently programmable) preset water volumes selected by pressing a button. That’s what makes it “automatic”.
  • Super Automatic Machines. These machines  do it all with the press of a button – grind, dose, tamp, brew, and eject the spent puck. This is about as hands off as you can get and still have espresso. This buying guide doesn’t address super autos much.

There is a fifth type of machine often (mistakenly) called an espresso machine; these are the steam driven machines marketed by companies like Krups and Braun, usually found for under $100. Rather than producing authentic espresso, these machines produce a strong coffee, more akin to what a moka pot or Bialetti stovetop device brews. There’s nothing wrong with these types of machines; it’s just that, for the scope of this guide, we’re going to be pretty much ignoring them.

In addition, there are three subclasses for each machine type. Confused? I’ll try to make it clear!

Three Subclasses

There are actually many subclasses of machines in the semi automatic and automatic machine categories, but really, only three major ones.

  • Single Boiler, Dual Use Machines. This is by far the most common type under $1,000. This type of machine has one boiler and two thermostats (or more) inside. One thermostat controls the water temperature for brewing coffee. The other thermostat is set at a higher temperature, to produce steam for steaming milk. The machine transitions from one thermostat to the other when you flip a switch or press a button. These machines cannot brew and steam at the same time.
  • Single Boiler, Heat Exchanger Machines. These machines are more common above the $1,000 price point. A big boiler maintains water at around 240F or higher, ideal for producing steam. Brewing water makes its way to the grouphead through a coiled tube inside the boiler. As it is drawn from the reservoir, through the coiled tube, it flash heats up to (hypothetically) ideal brewing temperatures. The coiled tube is the heat exchanger. You can steam and brew at the same time on these machines.
  • Dual Boiler Machines. These machines are usually quite expensive – around $2,000 on up (though a few can be found for less, like the Ascaso Steel). They feature two independent boilers (or a boiler and a thermoblock), one that maintains water at brewing temperatures, one that maintains water at steaming temperatures. You can steam and brew at the same time on these machines.

At first glance, it would appear obvious that dual boiler machines are the most desirable type of machine, whether semi automatic or automatic. However, in North America, we have the pesky problem of not having enough power on a standard 110V, 15 amp wall socket to efficiently run two boilers based on European specs. This is slowly changing, and companies like La Marzocco are making great strides in creating an efficient, powerful dual boiler machine; but until more of the European machine makers start designing these machines from the ground up for North American specifications, they will remain rare, and in some cases, troublesome.

As an aside, I remember testing two dual boiler machines that were basically retrofits of Euro-specs, and both of these models (from different companies) performed absolutely horribly on 110V power – no steam power at all and atrocious recovery times between shots (it would take the brew boiler two or more minutes to heat back up to good brewing temperatures). It was just shameful. Thankfully, these products never really came to market over here.

One more tip: If you end up spending the big bucks for a heat exchanger machine, look for one that either has an external reservoir or one that you can plumb in (connect to an external water supply) to either a water bottle system or your plumbing in your house. It makes a big difference in the machine’s temperature stability, if you want to leave it on 24 hours a day.

Going the Semi Automatic Route

Far and away the most popular choice in “traditional” espresso machines for consumers is the semi automatic machine.

Semi automatics are available in all the three subclasses listed above, and as mentioned at the top of this page, automate a lot of things for you while still giving you ultimate control over how your shot of espresso will progress.

Because you decide when to activate the pump and when to turn it off, you control the total water flow for every shot you make. Why is this important? There may be cases where you build a shot and notice it’s pouring very slowly but looking very good. With an automatic machine, the machine decides when to end your shot – and it may end the shot too soon. On the semi auto, you can just let the pump run longer before you hit the switch to stop things.

My preference is definitely for semi automatics. My main espresso machine, a Frankenstein’ed La Marzocco Linea, is actually the EE version (automatic), but Lineas have always had semi-auto controls on the machines as a secondary system, just in case the automatic controls go south. When you look at my Linea, the automatic control panel looks showroom new; the semi-auto switches are so worn from use, the beveled icons on them are almost worn away.

Semi automatics do all the things you want the machine to do. They maintain a good brewing temperature by automatically turning on the heating element inside whenever the machine detects a certain drop in the boiler temperature. In days of old, the barista would have to decide when to engage and disengage the boiler heater – those days are long gone, thankfully.

Semi automatics also regulate and maintain the pump pressure, which means consistent pressure on the bed of coffee. Manual machines require you (or a spring) to push water through the coffee, and that can lead to a wide variety of results in the cup.

Semi automatics also maintain the temperatures for steaming and other important safety concerns within the machine. I mentioned above that there’s usually a third thermometer in most machines, and that’s a safety thermometer. If for some reason the main thermometer malfunctions, a safety thermometer is also reading temperatures; if the temperature passes a certain limit (usually 255F or higher), it will kill all power to the boiler.

There’s one feature I have yet to see in semi automatics that I would really like  – the ability to program an auto-on and auto-off time. You see this functionality in a lot of “digital” super automatics and even one or two automatics, but I have yet to see it in a semi automatic. Such a feature would allow you to wake up in the morning to a freshly turned on machine, ready to go and pull a shot on.

Going the Automatic Route

I’m not against automatics per se, because in actuality, almost all automatics have some form of “semi-auto” controls built into them. Some are obvious (like my La Marzocco Linea with its huge honkin’ flip switch), some are more obscure. The Vibiemme Domobar Super, an automatic we took a look at a while back, has a “semi-auto” function because one of the panel buttons simply turns on the pump until you press it again to turn it off.

However, I’m wary of the electronics involved in automatic machines; it’s just one more thing that could possibly break down. Not to say that they do, but I think subconsciously I have more faith in a mechanical switch than I do in an electronic circuit for brewing my espresso.

Okay, enough bashing of automatics. How about some praise? Or even a better explanation of how they work?

As stated way up top on this page, automatics are called so because they automate the delivery of water for you. You press a button and the machine delivers a predetermined volume of water, more or less the same amount every time. (If you grind finer or pack more coffee into the basket, the overall extraction will be less.) So you load up your portafilter with coffee, tamp it, lock it into your machine, press a button, and for all purposes, you can walk away at this point. The machine will stop brewing once its internal volumeter hits the preprogrammed amount.

These machines typically feature four brewing buttons or switches: one shot short, two shots short, one shot normal (long), two shots normal (long). A fifth button, usually found to the right of the four preprogrammed switches, is the aforementioned “on till you press me again to turn off” semi-auto button.

On most of these machines (though not all), you can program in any volume you want for each of the brewing buttons. If you want, you can set the far left button (usually single shot short) to push 10 ounces through the coffee if that’s your desire.

Automatic is a convenience and “consistency” feature much better suited for many commercial environments; in the home, I think it just adds unnecessary cost to the machine. But I’m not saying it’s bad, per se.

What to Look For

I struggled with where to go with this section, and I figured the best way to go is to just give you a list of things that you might otherwise not consider the first time you’re shopping for a semi automatic or automatic espresso brewer. Please bear in mind this is mostly opinion, albeit opinion based on using literally dozens and dozens of consumer espresso machines over the years.

Usability

Usability is a huge thing to me, and I’ve found that on some espresso machines, it’s an afterthought by the engineers and designers. As just one example: easy to see indicator lights are a must, but many machines on the market today have lights you can barely make out when viewed under a kitchen’s typical fluorescent or halogen lighting system. Fortunately, more and more machines are solving this problem – and even older machines are getting overhauls to put in better lights or upgrade to bright LEDs.

This is just one example of usability. I want to leave it up to you to visualise, when checking out machines, the usability factors. What should you be looking for?

  • Have a look at the portafilter handle, how it sits in the machine, how far over it has to go to lock, whether you have to hold a clasp in place or not to keep the filter basket from falling out, etc.
  • Check out how much clearance there is between the spouts and drip tray. Will it fit the types of cups you want to brew into?
  • Look at the cup warming tray and decide if it’s actually usable or just some fancy aesthetic.
  • Look at the position of the switches and whether they seem easy to read and understand intuitively.

These are just a few things to get you started really thinking about long term use when you’re scoping out a machine online. I’d also suggest asking questions in our forums and in the comment boxes on consumer reviews – find someone who wrote a good, objective review and ask them for their opinion on the usability of the machine. Look beyond the bells and whistles and try to imagine actually using the machine day in, day out, and whether it would be a joy or a frustration.

Materials used

I’m a big fan of good, solid materials used in the construction of an espresso machine, not only in the boiler and internal parts, but in the exterior as well. In most cases, metal (any metal, really) is better than plastic. Metal drip trays, easy to access bolts for disassembling a machine, nice finish touches like good grippy rubber feet, things like that all make a machine better.

The thing is, there’s always exceptions to this rule: I just wrote that a metal drip tray is desirable? How does that jive with my commentary for the Ascaso Steel, an automatic espresso machine that has a steel and plastic one piece drip tray?

I praised that particular feature in a first look on CoffeeGeek because it combined good materials with good usability: the drip tray features channels or walls, made out of plastic that help prevent sloshing when emptying it when full. This design that would have been too costly to do in all steel – plastic suited it just fine.

So take any comments I make about “all metal construction = good” with a grain of salt – it’s not always as black and white as it may seem. That said, steel… metals. Their use gives me reassurance that the machine will last a long time. I look at the new La Marzocco GS3, and feel sad that the huge side panels on that stellar machine are made out of plastic. Maybe it’s false reassurance, but durable metals are one of the things I value in a major investment – in both the aesthetics and the essentials.

This isn’t to say that plastic is all that bad, and here’s some final thoughts on materials used in machines: metals are easier to scratch; plastic is easier to crack and even melt (though I haven’t heard of any cases of a plastic body melting). Metals also generally mean more weight – and more weight in an espresso machine is almost always a good thing.

Switches and Buttons

Call me an oldskool snob, but I always prefer mechanical switches over electrical buttons. There’s just something to be said for the satisfying “clack” of flipping the Rancilio Silvia’s brew switch. There’s also something to be said for the immensely gratifying feel of lifting the tiny lever on a machine equipped with an E61grouphead.

While I have rarely heard about problems with electronic switches (ie, buttons that electronically switch on an actuator or establish a circuit link) for brewing, it is one more thing that can break down on a machine. Heck, mechanical switches can too, but in most cases, replacing a broken switch will be a lot cheaper than replacing an entire circuit board and machine electronics.

Things that don’t matter much

There’s a lot of things written on the splashy boxes that espresso machines come in and on many vendor websites that, to be brutally honest, don’t mean a thing in actual use. Here’s a short primer on marketing fluff, some of which you can safely ignore, and some of which you should make note of so as to avoid certain products.

Crema Enhancers

If you’re serious about espresso, you should avoid any espresso machine that features anything called a “crema enhancer” or a “crema aiding” device. I say this with a caveat – one of CoffeeGeek’s Editors’ Choice Awards for Espresso is a machine that features crema-enhancing filter baskets: the Solis Crema SL-70. It garnered this award partially because easy to obtain non pressurized filter baskets are available, and with those baskets, that machine brews a great shot and steams milk remarkably well.

Avoid crema enhancers like the plague. They damage espresso.

The umpteen BAR Myth

You’ll find a lot of lower priced espresso machines bragging about 15, 16, 18 BARs!!! of pressure on their packaging and on the websites of many online vendors. This doesn’t really matter squat. Pretty much every machine available today over $200 has a vibratory pump inside that is more than adequate for the task of producing 9 bar of pressure in the machine’s grouphead. Even these 16 and 18 bar machines have restrictor valves (or overflow valves) that reduce the pressure in the grouphead to what is generally considered best for producing espresso: 9 bar.

Froth Aiders
Frothing milk to a nice microfoam may seem difficult at first, but it’s a skill that almost anyone can pick up. If I was able to teach my Dad how to properly steam and froth milk in literally two tries, you definitely can do it. Froth aiders also deny you the ability to maximize the sweetness in heated and frothed milk. Because they essentially introduce heat into the foamed part for the entire duration (or in some designs, flash heat milk from 40F to 140F fractions of an ounce at a time), they kill off most of the sugar transitions that traditional, “normal” frothing allows you to control.

So here’s a quick tip – much more suited for our Milk Guide or Espresso Guide (coming at some point), but I’ll share it with you here. Whenever you’re frothing and steaming milk, stop introducing air into the milk by the time the steaming pitcher reaches about your skin temperature – about 95F maximum. At that point, sink the steaming wand deep into the milk and continue heating the liquid. The result will be milk froth that tastes like you added sugar to it.

Buttons for Steam
You’ll find some machines that feature (!!??) a button for steaming instead of a traditional knob. I’m not talking about a switch or button to put a machine into steaming mode; I’m talking about a button that activates steam.

This is in the category of not a good thing at all. Mechanical knobs allow you to control how much or how little steam you introduce into your milk pitcher. It’s an integral part of making good quality microfoam. Button-activated steaming is an all-or-nothing steam option – full force, or nothing at all. Knobs allow you to finesse – 25% of the steam power, 50%, 75%… heck, if you’re really good with your touch, 82.5% of available steam power!

And the rest…

This page could go on and on for 10,000 words or more. But I need to save something for the Espresso Guide we eventually plan to publish on this website!

Seriously though, I’m sure I haven’t answered all your questions or told you everything there is to know about semi automatic and automatic espresso machines, and that’s by design. I wanted to give you some things to think about, maybe a bit outside the box, to get you started. If you have more questions, make use of our community – there’s hundreds and hundreds of helpful, experienced folks in our forums who will be able to answer just about any question you may still have.

What I hope this page has done is given you a bit of a starting block in understanding these machines better, and how to read between the lines a bit when reading the wealth of information out there, on vendor websites, in reviews on CoffeeGeek, and even on the marketing materials and boxes these machines come in.

Choosing a Manual

Manual espresso machines – or more commonly referred to as lever espresso machines – are about as hands on as you can get and still produce that beverage we know today as espresso. These machines can frustrate, infuriate, and leave you disappointed. They can also produce the best shots of espresso you’ll ever have. Lever machines hands on with a capital H.

Often considered to put the “romance” in espresso, lever machines in history were the first espresso machines to produce what we know as modern day espresso, that is, espresso produced with a high pressure, not with steam power. Since 1947, lever machines have changed what coffee is capable of delivering. They’ve also ruined more quality coffee than just about anything else on the market today that produces espresso.

Scared yet? No? Well let’s find out what makes manual lever machines tick, and whether or not they are a match for you.

Within the scope of “manual machines” there are two subclasses, with one being even more “hands on” than the other. The two subclasses are “spring piston lever” machines and “direct lever” machines. And there aren’t many models available in either subclass. Let’s start with the easier of the two to use.

The Spring Piston Lever Machine

Spring piston lever machines operate on the principle of having an internal, calibrated spring that is used to push water through a bed of ground coffee at a specific and declining pressure. You, as the operator of the machine, use a lever to compress or “cock” the spring into its starting position. Letting go of the lever leaves the spring to do the actual work of pushing water through the bed of coffee. Typically, these machines have a boiler that runs at “steaming” temperatures, and they are designed so you can pull a shot and steam milk right away.

You can usually recognize a spring piston lever machine  by the resting position of its lever – it will be pointing up. Pushing down on the lever cocks the spring, and letting go of the lever lets the spring do its thing. One example of a spring piston machine is the Elektra Micro Casa a Leva.

These machines are still very much a manual, hands on way to make coffee, even if the spring is doing some of the physical work. Why? Because as the home barista operating this machine, it’s up to you to determine:

  • how long you want the preinfusion to take place
  • how much overall water you want to flow through the bed of coffee (by recocking the spring in the middle of the pull)
  • the optimal time to pull the shot, based on your knowledge of the machine’s operation .

I’d like to address each point more specifically, to give you more of an idea why  a manual espresso machine may (or may not) suit you. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive look at this machine class; just something to give you an idea of what you may be in for! And please note, a lot of these points also relate to direct lever machines.

Preinfusion
Preinfusion is a big factor in producing a quality shot of espresso. With both spring piston and direct lever espresso machines, you control something that most semi automatic and automatic espresso machine users have no control over – how long the brewing water “sits” over the bed of coffee, resting as it were at neutral or boiler pressure. Boiler pressure in a spring piston lever espresso machine is typically 1.2 to 1.4 bar, or barely above atmospheric pressure – just enough to push water into the piston grouphead, and soak and infuse the bed of coffee. (Springs in lever machines are usually calibrated to around 9 bar or about 135 lbs of pressure per square inch, the pressure that most pump driven machines are also set to.)

Preinfusion is one of those tricky things that can make or break a shot. To take maximum advantage of preinfusion, you really have to be in tune with your grind, your dose, the machine’s water temperatures, and every other variable that comes into play in making good espresso;  , simply knowing how to preinfuse properly is not enough. That’s the reason that I’m not just giving you a hard and fast rule here on how long to preinfuse.  I can’t – it’s different for every machine, every coffee, every freshness level, every grind, every filter basket size, the works. It is something that comes with practise. And manual machines require a lot of patience and practise to get the most out of them.

Amount of water used
Just like with a semi automatic espresso machine, a manual machine allows you to control how much water is used overall in the shot output. (Automatic machines do too, but once you program it, it always uses the same amount, until you change the programming.)

With a manual machine, you get to control not only how much water flows through the bed of coffee, but when you want to introduce the extra water. Manual machines, both the spring and direct lever types, have a cavity in the grouphead that fills up with brewing water once you’ve fully engaged the lever (known as cocking the spring on the spring piston machines). What happens is at some point in the lever push (or pull), a valve opens up between the boiler and grouphead, and brewing water moves over to the grouphead. thanks to the boiler’s slightly elevated pressure. You can’t really change this initial volume, except with a little tweaking on how long you preinfuse (as you continue to preinfuse, a bit more water creeps in as the bed of coffee becomes more and more saturated).

The real control comes in at the point when you decide to introduce more water, after the initial load. You do this by recocking the spring on the piston lever machine – pushing the lever down again, and once again opening the valve between boiler and machine so the piston once again fills up. You can do it when only 1/4 of the initial brewing water has been used, when 1/2 has been used, or when almost all of it has been used – and by doing so, you also control how much volume of new brewing water is brought into the grouphead piston. This is another one of these hands on elements that really teaches you a lot about what goes into making a great shot.

Knowing when to get the best shot
Spring piston lever machines (and direct levers as well) are designed, for the most part, to let you steam and brew at the same time. This means the water in the boiler is under pressure and maintained at a temperature range of about 225F-250F –  or dozens of degrees above boiling, if it were at normal pressure (water stays in liguid form at higher temperatures than boiling, if under pressure). Water temperatures that high normally torch ground coffee, resulting in a very bitter shot. The water needs to be at this temperature to a) provide enough steam for frothing milk, and b) to “push” water from boiler to grouphead while pulling a shot.

These machines are engineered to overcome that high initial temperature, so you don’t end up with bitter, burnt shots. The piston / grouphead is a physical mass separated from the machine, and is engineered in a heatsink / radiating design that leeches off just enough temperature, so by the time the brewing water is drawn into the grouphead’s water cavity, the water is at better brewing temperatures – around 190-205F. Under ideal conditions.

There are several problems with this design. It all works when you use the machine the way the engineers and factory workers did when first designing and then testing the machine – typically, they turn the machine on, let it warm up, flush a bit of water through the brew group, then pull their shots. The design falls down when you leave the machine on for hours, or pull back to back shots – eventually, the heatsink engineering built into the machine loses part of its ability to dissipate heat, and the temperature starts to climb up. It rarely gets above 212F (boiling at sea level) on most machines, but it can climb.

So what do you do when you have a coffee blend that you know likes its water around 200F? or 196F? or 204F (through a lot of trial and error)? You have to learn how to temperature “surf” your machine. Fortunately, manual machines allow for a lot of temperature surfing ability. For instance, you can pull a shot with the entire machine turned off (or even unplugged), once it is heated up. Or you can heat it up, warm up the group with a water flush, pull your shot, unplug it, let it rest for a minute, and pull another shot, getting more or less the same grouphead temperature.

How do you find out these things? Again, it’s not in the scope of this guide to tell you how – this is where the hands on stuff comes into play – you’re going to have to learn this through your own trial and error, and this is why you have to be really keen on being a hands on barista in the home if you want to own a lever machine. And that is the point of this page – to give you an understanding that these machines are very hands on.

Direct Lever Machines

A lot of what has been said above about spring piston lever machines also relates to direct lever machines. You can control the preinfusion; some of the machines (though not all) are set up to brew and steam concurrently; and you control how much water flows through the bed of coffee.

Also, as mentioned previously in regard to spring piston lever machines, you can usually tell a direct lever machine by the position of the lever at rest.  Whereas spring pistons usually have the lever elevated in the resting position, direct lever espresso machines rest with the lever in the down position.

One other big difference between direct lever and spring pistons is that you are the “pump” on a direct lever. You are the one applying pressure to the water, by pushing down on a lever, to brew a shot. That’s about as hands on as you can get. And it requires a lot of practise and a good “touch” to get a great shot.

And since every coffee is different, you may find that one coffee blend requires one type of pressure, and another blend needs a different pressure to achieve the proverbial “god shot”. You may find, as many high end baristas are just starting to suspect, that varying the pressure during the entire shot pulling process leads to a better shot. (Pressure profiling, as it is called, is absolutely bleeding edge stuff for pro barista discussions these days – but La Pavoni owners have been doing it for decades already!).

This is all true romance and hands on stuff, but also something that can be incredibly frustrating. To go this route, the route of a direct lever, and get so good at it that you intrinsically know how to get the most out of every shot you pull, is to pretty much reach barista nirvana.

Pavoni is the main manufacturer of direct lever machines on the market today, but they also make machines that are rebadged as various Gaggia models. Pavoni has two popular versions, the Europiccola which has two thermostats and cannot steam and brew at the same time, and the Professional, which can, because of the heatsink design of its grouphead. The Olympia Cremina is a direct lever machine as well.

So is a manual machine for you?

If you started reading this Guide with the impression that manual espresso machines would be simpler to operate than their high-tech cousins, you’re probably having second thoughts now. The process of creating good espresso depends on a number of variables, and semi auto / auto machines can take some significant ones off of your hands – whether that’s for good or bad is a matter for you to decide.

In some respects, choosing between a manual espresso machine and a semi auto / auto espresso machine is much like choosing between a get-around-town car with automatic transmission and a classic sports car with four on the floor. It’s your decision – do you just want a no-fuss cappuccino every day? Or do you want to immerse yourself in the art of creating espresso?

Whichever route you choose, enjoy it! It’s only your first machine, after all… and if the espresso bug really bites you, it probably won’t be your last.

Accessories to Consider

Welcome to the fluff section of this Guide. Just kidding!

Accessories are what make espresso in the home more fun. And more importantly, they are often what make espresso more personal. For me, they complete the process of building that wonderful little drink that is the epitome of what coffee has to offer. Be it a $100 piece of metal and wood that presses down ground coffee (a tamper), or that perfect volume, perfect thickness, perfect size cappuccino cup, here are some tips and discussion on what accessories might suit your home espresso bar

The Tamper

Painters have their preferred set of brushes. Wood crafters have their lovingly cared-for set of chisels. Fishers have their favourite hand-tied flies.

Espresso professionals and enthusiasts have their tampers.

Tampers can cost as little as $5 and as much as $150. Heck, CoffeeGeek will soon be selling a tamper that, at least in one variant, will cost nearly that much. Often a tamper is included in the box your machine came in – a plastic, poorly manufactured thing that kinda does the job, but doesn’t really give a sense of connection or personality while using it.

I’m not going to recommend one type of tamper. Instead, I’m just going to say you really, really should get one. Get one sized for your machine’s basket. Get one that appeals to you most.

We’ve recently added a lot of individual categories for reviewing tampers on CoffeeGeek, including models from Bumper, CoffeeLab, Espro, and the venerable granddaddy of the tamper world, Reg Barber. Use these reviews as your starting point, but remember that at the end of the day, the tamper is a personal thing – your connection to the process of making good espresso. Choose yours based on what appeals most to you.

Just be sure to get one – you won’t regret it.

Cups and Saucers

I’m fond of saying, “You wouldn’t put the Mona Lisa in an Ikea frame; so why brew espresso into paper cups or just general, non-descript coffee cups?”

Espresso and cappuccino cups come in literally thousands of different incarnations. Some cost a fortune. (How about $1,000 for a set of illy collector espresso cups? Check eBay some time for the Trazzine set by Luca Trazzi!) Some, even from Ikea, can cost $1.50 for a cup/saucer set.

Cups aren’t just an aesthetic choice to be made – they also play an integral role in how the espresso develops (and declines) in taste. We’re talking about a beverage that, on average, is an ounce in volume. With that small an amount of liquid, the environment can radically change how it tastes, how it ages, and how it degrades.

Even the shape of the interior of the cup can play a role. The common opinion of espresso professionals and even judges in the World Barista Championships is that squared off edges inside a cup lead to deficiencies in the overall taste of a shot of espresso: the ideal interior shape of a cup is believed to be a bowl shape.

Thickness is another concern. Thicker porcelain usually retains heat better. But it also leeches away more heat from the beverage it holds, if the cup isn’t preheated. So important tip: always preheat your cups, especially espresso sized (under 3 oz) cups – don’t let your espresso heat the cup and leave you with a tepid beverage. Preheating isn’t just a matter of leaving the cup on top of the machine in the cup warming tray; it means running hot water into the cup first, letting it heat up, and dumping the water before brewing into it.

Thick, high fired porcelain is the preferred medium for espresso and cappuccino cups. What does high fired mean? Porcelain is baked (fired) in an oven to set it and its glaze – and some porcelain is fired at higher temperatures than others. Most Italian espresso cup porcelain is fired at 1200F, 1400F, or higher temperatures. This makes the cup stronger, and less prone to breaking. How do you tell what cups are fired at what temperature? Well, it’s often hard to find out – some manufacturers state this information on their websites, most don’t. But generally, if the porcelain has a heavy, dense feel to it, it’s high fired; if it feels light and “airy”, chances are it is of lower quality and a lower firing temperature.

Recently, Bodum has come to market with double walled borosilicate glass cups, including cups sized for espresso. These cups do such a good job at insulating beverages that you often don’t have to preheat them. They are fragile, but the Pavina line from Bodum is especially well suited for espresso and cappuccinos.

Cups can be found all over. You can find them at just about every espresso machine vendor website, but you can also find them in places you normally wouldn’t think to look. We recently found some amazing cups, both with quite unique (and individual) art and the proper shapes and thickness for holding espresso in a open air market in Krakow, Poland.

And soon, CoffeeGeek will (finally!) have very special cups and matching saucers for sale. Trust me when I say these are going to be ideally suited for serving up coffee and espresso.

Whatever cups and saucers you choose, treat yourself – get good porcelain (or Bodum double walled glass), and get something that fits your style, your artistic likes. Espresso is art. Make the cups that hold it a suitable frame.

Knock Boxes

I almost rate knock boxes a higher priority than the tamper. You can sort of make do with the plastic tamper that is enclosed with most espresso machines. Knocking out a spent puck from a portafilter becomes a real chore (and a messy one), if you don’t have a knock box.

You don’t need something huge or “built in” like most cafes do. The Grindenstein is a nice economical choice that doesn’t take up much room (indeed, it can fit under the portafilter on many home espresso machines). I also really like the Bumper Knockbox that Chris Coffee just started carrying – this is the one I have in my main espresso testing room.

You can also go utilitarian and get a basic box / metal knockbox from most espresso supply places for $20 or $30, or you can go all out. I know Reg Barber will make a customized knockbox for you, but don’t ask the price – if you have to, you probably can’t afford it (or at least justify it). But it is a work of art – in African rosewood, no less.

Steaming Pitchers

Here’s another item that most people buy the wrong thing for. The most common steaming pitcher is the typical “bell shaped” or round pitcher with handle and little or no pointed spout – instead it has a wide lip halfway around the front of the pitcher. Even KitchenAid gives you a pitcher with their Proline espresso machine, but it’s the bell shape.

Click for larger image
Steaming Pitchers
A whole gaggle of them.

That style, especially the wide spout design, is just not suited for pouring good latte art, or even pouring decent cappuccinos and macchiatos without the aid of a spoon.

Two designs of frothing pitchers well suited for steaming milk come to mind. The common tapered nose style, like this one from Visions Espresso and the (pretty expensive!) Allesi design that, fortunately, is available in a slightly knocked-off version for much less, like the Europa model from Espresso Supply.

You don’t have to go with either of  these two, though – anything with a good, pointed spout should suffice. There are some bell shaped pitchers, for example, with long, pointed spouts that will steam well and pour nice microfoam. As for sizes, 12 oz pitchers are great for doing two macchiatos, one cappuccino, or a small latte. The 16 oz size is good for two cappuccinos, and 20-24 oz sizes are best suited for multiple cappuccinos or one or two medium or larger lattes.

Cleaning Supplies

One of the golden rules – albeit an often overlooked one – to good espresso is clean equipment. This means a clean grinder. A clean work environment. A clean espresso machine and all its parts (portafilter, filter baskets, grouphead, reservoir, etc).

At the very minimum, I suggest three cleaning items: Something like Cafiza or Purocaff for cleaning anything with metal and brass (this includes the machine’s grouphead, the portafilter, etc); Oxyclean, for cleaning steel parts like filter baskets and dispersion screens (don’t use Oxy in anything with brass or copper – it will turn green!); and something to clean your grinder of old, rancid coffee oils. Believe it or not, rice works great – but you really must run a vacuum on the grinder after to remove all the rice dust. Urnex has a nifty product called Grindz out on the market now that works even better than rice, but again, I suggest using a vacuum as part of the cleaning regimen.

When should you clean? As a home user, I recommend the following regimen if you’re pulling two or more shots a day.

  • Daily – rinse grouphead with water – put the portafilter in place loose, and wiggle it as your run the pump. Buy a squirt gun from the dollar store, and squirt tough residue away. Clean out your grinder’s chute after your last shot of the day. Clean doser on grinder if it has one by sweeping out all the stale coffee.
  • Weekly – if your machine has a 3-way solenoid valve (the buying literature will say this if it does), do a light backflush on the machine using a blind filter; some machines come with one, some do not. You can buy one from an espresso supply store for $5-$10. It’s essentially a filter basket with no holes. Look in our forums for instructions on how to backflush.
  • Monthly (or bi-weekly) – Take apart the grouphead’s dispersion screen, and soak all steel parts in a bath of Oxyclean and boiling water. Soak your portafilter in a bath of Purocaff and boiling water. Scrub everything that touches the espresso brewing process until showroom clean. Take apart grinder, clean out the burrs, remove all built up coffee grinds. Do not use anything wet on the grinder’s internals. Use stiff brushes, old toothbrushes, etc.
  • Once or Twice a Year – descale your espresso machine. Follow the manufacturers’ instructions to the letter where possible. Check your grinder’s burrs, replace if necessary (probably not necessary for several years though).

Other accessories

There’s a huge accessories market out there for espresso. My two favourite online shops for accessories are Espresso Supply in Seattle, and Visions Espresso. Both shops normally sell to cafes and professional businesses, but will happily sell to you as a consumer. And don’t overlook your own vendor – the one you’re considering buying an espresso machine and grinder from. Chances are they have lots of accessories to suit your needs, and will do a package deal for everything in one go that may save you even more money.

The items already mentioned are ones I consider must-haves: tamper, knockbox, steaming pitcher, cleaning supplies, and nice cups and saucers. Other items to consider include:

  • cleaning tools, like the Pallo tool, or grouphead cleaning brushes.
  • brushes for cleaning out your grinder’s chute.
  • bar towels to be used specifically for your espresso machine’s portafilter.
  • shot glasses, for when it’s time to experiment with your shot pulling skills.
  • digital timer, so you have an easy way to time your shots.
  • different sizes of filter baskets – experiment! And don’t believe anyone who says the single basket is useless – see it as a challenge!
  • needle thermometer (the kind that usually reads internal meat temperatures is fine) to know your milk steaming temperatures (tip – use this only to train your hand to know how hot to get with the pitcher when steaming – once you know, ditch the thermometer, and just use your hand).
  • rubber mat, to tamp on without damaging your counter or spouts on the portafilter.
  • tamping stand, like the Bumper tamper stand, which is just really cool.
  • gram scales, for obsessive measuring of your coffee doses used for making shots.

Concluding thoughts

This concludes our guide to buying your first espresso machine, but it is far from the last word on espresso. We invite you to visit the CoffeeGeek forums to chat with your fellow espresso and coffee enthusiasts. You’ll find a great deal more to learn there from a friendly and knowledgeable group of folks.

Espresso is an obsession for many, and a passion for many more. You may come to find that one particular aspect of espresso fascinates you – collecting espresso cups, experimenting with mods to your machine, learning to roast your own, or always having the latest and greatest in espresso machine technology. Whatever avenue you pursue, never forget the pure joy espresso can bring to your lips as a culinary delight, one that can be created simply with a $150 Krups and a $100 Solis grinder, and a nice $15 bag of artisan roasted coffee, and nothing else.

Bottom line? Espresso is what you make of it. The tools help, no doubt, but for the best shots you’ll ever taste, the most valuable tool in the process is you, the home barista.

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