Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Simple Guide to Buying an Espresso Machine

I wrote this on a whim for one of my colleagues who was considering an espresso machine purchase. Read on if you are in the market for one...

Welcome to the world of home espresso machine owners. Your palate is about to thank you – bringing home an espresso machine is a sign that you enjoy good coffee but don’t want to be at the mercy of the few coffee establishments that peddle their fine concoctions. A note of caution though: Brewing espresso can be a frustrating experience, even for the trained aficionado. Patience is not just a virtue in this case, it is a necessity.

The market is full of options for the neophyte espresso maker, so let me start by laying down a guiding principle. You can only pick two out of, “Convenience, Price, or Quality”. If you want something convenient, i.e. automatic, quick, hands-free, just the right size, and you want it at the right price point, you are going to have to compromise (there are varying degrees) the quality of the finished product. If you want a miniature version of the one at Blue Bottle, you will have the highest quality espresso potentially at the right price point (if you buy it from a restaurant shutting down), but you will sacrifice the convenience factor. Caveat buyer.

With this context established, let me suggest a few options to you that are best in class. Some of this is based on my research, some on my personal experience and anecdotal evidence, and the rest is driven by what I would look for in a future purchase. At the end of the day, it’s all about the person though, which is how I have categorized the machines.

The Budget Shopper (sub-$100)

Walk into your local Target or Walmart – budget shopper, remember – and make a beeline for the Coffee & Espresso aisle. Once there, close your eyes and have someone spin you around. Once you have found your equilibrium again, point in any random direction – you will have about 120-degrees to swivel – and open your eyes. Where your finger points is what you pick up and pay for at checkout. You truly get what you pay for – sub-par espresso, inconsistent results and minimal convenience.
In reality, I suggest you not waste your money buying an espresso machine at this price point, unless you get one of the options I suggest below at a great price (or used).

“I can spell Espresso”

Congratulations on not saying “expresso” – but you are either budget constrained or not all in, yet. All machines in this category are in the $250-range, and are designed to deliver maximum convenience. This said, there are a few companies that have been around long enough to have significantly improved the quality of the output of their machines. If I were to pick a few, they would come directly from the Nespresso stable. Here are two that pack a punch (price and quality-wise):

1. Nespresso VertuoLine
2. Nespresso Pixie

If you are opposed to Nestle for some reason – ecological or philosophical – here is the list of top-rated espresso machines in this category on Amazon: While there are some non-Nespresso options, the pickings are slim and all of them have some compromise that I wouldn’t have anyone live with. The worst compromise is a machine that requires grinding, measuring and tamping the coffee grounds into a mold. It’s messy, requires another appliance, and is prone to error.

The “Enthusiast”

The world is truly your oyster if you are in this category, which features appliances that are slick, chic, at a good price point and deliver a solid product. Unless you are a trained barista, this is the sandbox in which you should play, because you will not be able to coax a higher cost machine (the next category) into giving you the perfect espresso and micro-foam for your cappuccino. My point is, neither should you strive to attain that elusive quality. Leave that to the professionals…

Back to this category then: The price range is wide, $300 - $1000, and a number of appliance conglomerates are vying for your attention. Appliance makers are in a bind because they have to offer convenience, a high-quality build that ensures longevity, a consistently good, almost great, espresso shot, and the flexibility to use coffee beans of varying origins. The number of variables is very high, consumer loyalty is fickle, and the longevity of the appliances has meant that manufacturers have to rely on word of mouth publicity to move more goods.

As you would expect, there has been a wave of consolidation and standardization in this space, which has boded well for the consumer. Like any enthusiast category, you will be inundated by buzzwords and jargon once you enter here – burr grinders, infusion method, single vs. dual wall filters, bars of pressure, etc. These amount to a whole lotta nothing because every machine in this category already has everything you need to make a great cup of espresso every morning. The buzzwords are but a frail attempt at differentiation, and in my two-plus years of owning one of these, I have never once wondered – hmm, what if I could have single wall filters and is the infusion method sufficient?!

Here are the top choices in this category:

1. Breville:
2. The Gaggia Brera: I have this machine and love it.
3. DeLonghi ECAM22110SB Compact Automatic Cappuccino, Latte and Espresso Machine: The form factor is similar to the Gaggia and the price point is way higher, so I wouldn't get it, but it's a great machine.
4. Saeco Intelia
5. KRUPS Espresseria

The “Barista”

If you are reading this guide, there is a good chance that you don't have the professional training to own this title, so let’s not go too deep down this rabbit hole.