Stuart Colville

About Stuart Colville

Stuart is a Python hacker and web geek with a penchant for blueberry muffins and fine coffee. By day Stuart works as a Ops Engineer for the Online services team at Canonical, the company that works with the community to bring the world Ubuntu Linux When he's not slaving over a hot terminal Stuart occasionally writes a blog at Muffin Research Labs where's he's been threatening to publish his research on Muffins and other baked goods for some time. Stuart also blogs about coffee at Cafe Research.

Espresso Machine Buyer’s Guide

Photo Credit: Jimmy G

When looking into buying an espresso machine it’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed with choice, and it can be hard to know where to start. In this guide I’ll point out some of things you need to know when choosing the right machine for brewing espresso at home or in an office environment.

Budget

The first thing you need to do is decide how much you want to spend. This will then inform which bracket of machines you should be looking at. Also, it’s important to note that spending a lot of money on an espresso machine will not get you very far if you don’t have a reasonable grinder to tweak the grind of your coffee for your shiny new machine. One solution to this is to accept that you’ll get ground coffee for the first few months of owning your machine and then get a better grinder when you can afford it.

This is the route I’ve taken and it worked out well because I ended up with a better grinder having been able to save up for it and research it properly. It’s not uncommon to spend at least £300 GBP to get a really good quality burr grinder.

Note all prices quoted are based on prices of products available in the UK at the time of writing.

The Anatomy of an Espresso Machine

Before we dive into different machine technologies, let’s take a look at the anatomy of a typical espresso machine.

First, you have the portafilter (or group handle) for brewing espresso, which fits into the grouphead. Usually you’ll have one grouphead on a home machine while in cafes it’s common to see 2, 3 and 4 groupheads.

The portafilter is the part with the handle on one end and the basket on the other containing the coffee. This plugs into the grouphead. When brewing, hot water from the grouphead pushes through the coffee in the portafilter and then pours out of its spouts into your cup.

Next you have the steam wand. This provides steam controlled via a tap for heating milk. It’s used to make micro-foam for milk drinks. It’s also ace for hot chocolate!

Lastly you have a hot water tap. On some machines this function is shared with the steam wand. On more expensive machines it’s a dedicated tap. This simply provides hot water in order to make Americanos and can be used for tea too if you want!

Manual, Semi-automatic or Automatic?

Machines come in four types; manual, semi-auto, auto and super-auto. Let’s take a look at the differences of each one.

Manual

A manual machine is typically a lever operated machine where you manually control the pumping of the water through the coffee. Some are spring assisted but you get the idea. Whilst these machines look cool it takes a lot of patience to get good results especially with machines that don’t have a spring that does the work for you.

Semi-automatic

This kind of machine is probably the most common and a good choice all-around. Semi-autos allow you to control the pump so you can switch it off when you decide it’s time to stop. This is handy as it allows fine control over the whole process and is especially good for when you are experimenting with different coffees and grinder settings. Unless you are setting up a cafe or providing a machine for a large office where a machine with auto modes would probably be useful, this is the type of machine to go for.

Automatic

An auto machine is one which provides preset volumes for single and double espressos etc. This feature is a necessity in commercial machines where you are likely to be cranking coffees out with everything dialled in. In high end machines you’ll find they often have semi-auto style controls in addition to the presets.

Super-automatic

There’s a fourth type of machine called “super-automatic” which does the whole coffee-making process including grinding, tamping, brewing and milk-frothing. As this requires no user interaction (which removes all the fun imho) I haven’t included that type of machine as part of the guide.

Espresso Machine Price Brackets

So once you’ve got the money you’ll be looking at machines in one of the following 3 brackets, which are really divided by the type of technology used.

Single Boiler (£100 to £400)

Single Boiler machines use the same boiler for brewing and the provision of steam. This compromise means that you have to wait to get steam after brewing and also if you’ve just used the steamer you can’t jump straight back to brewing because you’ll need to clear the steam first. These machine are a good starting point if you’re not sure you’ll really get into coffee. The downside of such machines is that it’s fairly easy to outgrow them if you start to really geek out over coffee. The main issue is that single boiler machines generally lack precise temperature controls. This means the temperature of the water at the grouphead will vary slightly every time you brew your coffee. This will mean you won’t have enough control to get the best out of “fussy” coffees where a few degrees of temperature difference will radically change the flavours extracted from the coffee. That said, you’ll find that there are plenty of coffee’s available where you’ll get perfectly reasonable results.

Pros:

  • Cheap
  • Can provide really good results
  • Great for modding to add digital temperature controls

Cons:

  • No precise temperature controls
  • Can’t brew espresso and use the steamer simultaneously
  • Fine for home but wouldn’t be suitable for use in the workplace unless it would see limited use

A good example of the higher end of this bracket would be something like the Rancilio Silvia, which is a semi-auto machine. It’s a good choice because it’s tough, and the portafilter is the same as one you’ll find on a pro Rancilio machine. They’re also popular candidates for modding; there’s a number of places you can get kits to add digital temperature controls to these models or even hack together your own using an arduino board.

Single Boiler Heat Exchanger Models (~£600 to £1300)

This next level retains the single boiler approach but adds a heat exchanger. The way this works is that water for the brewing process is heated via pipework within the boiler. This way you can brew and then immediately use the steamer and vice versa, adding a lot more flexibility. The majority of the machines you will see at this price bracket will be semi-automatic machines.

Flexibility brings an increase in price. As you start to look at machines in this range it is more likely that you’ll also start to find machines that have digital thermostat switching. This means you can control the temperatures of brewing much more closely. All of this control means it becomes more possible to control more of the variables that will affect the extraction process.

Some examples of machines in this bracket would be the Expobar Office Pulser at the bottom end of this bracket (£609) and the Quick Mill Andreja Premium at the higher end (£1,149).

Pros:

  • Much better control over the extraction process.
  • Flexibility of being able to switch between brewing and steaming
  • Would be suited for use in an office

Cons:

  • More expensive (obviously!)

Dual Boiler Models (~£1000 to £3000 and beyond!)

Dual boilers do away with the heat exchanger and replace it with two dedicated boilers. These kinds of machines are almost certainly out of reach for most home baristas. Though there are some machines available at the lower end of the range, such as the Expobar Leva Dual Boiler which at time of writing is available for (~£969) from Bella Barista.

The idea behind dual boiler machines is that having a dedicated boiler for brewing and a dedicated boiler for steaming provides an even greater level of control. In addition to dual boilers, you also start to see automatics with features such as programmable volumes when you get into this price bracket. Programmable volumes allow you to dial in the exact volume of water to be dispensed for single and double espressos etc.

Pros:

  • Can’t get more control over brewing variables than this
  • Time to open a coffee shop!

Cons:

  • More expensive (ya rly!)
  • More difficult to maintain
  • Physically larger so you’ll need more space

In this bracket at one end you have cheaper models like the Expobar Leva Dual (~£969) and the Izzo Alex Duetto (~£1600) and at the other end you have awesomeness such as the La Marzocco GS/3 (£4143.74). For me this machine is coffee machine equivalent of the Wayne’s World guitar – One day you will be mine!

Before Diving In

Before you dive in and make a purchase, be sure to spend some time researching the models you are interested in. There are plenty of coffee forums around which will be chock full of user’s opinions of the machines they’ve bought and are using on a daily basis. This kind of practical information can be really useful in making an informed decision, rather than just going on specs alone.

Happy brewing!

Becoming a Coffee Nerd

I got into the habit of buying a coffee every day when I started working in London. Every day I’d make my pilgrimage to the local coffee shop, get my coffee and often it wouldn’t last the rest of the walk to the office. I found a nice cup of coffee set-up my morning perfectly, helping me feel wide awake and getting me into the stride of the day’s work.

Someone suggested I visit Flat White, a local independent coffee shop. Once I’d been there my eyes were opened, their flat whites were smaller than the large lattes I’d been drinking, but the flavour was the thing that stood out. At that time they were brewing the local Monmouth Coffee’s Expresso blend, heavily dosed and brewed at ~93º (I once overheard one of the baristas describing the brew recipe in detail). The flavour was rounded, chocolaty and nutty, yet at the same time there was this wonderful flavour that hinted at black treacle. For anyone wondering what a flat white is, it’s similar to a latte except that it’s usually served in a smaller cup and it often contains double espresso to make it a fairly strong short coffee.

Experiencing Flat White made me realise that the coffee available in the good independent coffee shops was amazing. I started to seek out the best cafes near to where I worked, Fernandez and Wells, Sacred and the newly opened sister of Flat White, The Milk Bar. Experiencing such good coffee every day made the worst coffee stand out. I began to notice when machines weren’t being cleaned properly and I could swear it got to the point where I could tell if a coffee was going to be bad by the sound of the steam – too much noise meant the milk was likely to be scalding hot or burnt.

The Guerilla Baristas

At the time I started to get into coffee in a big way I was working with a great web team who all enjoyed coffee, so we decided to club together and buy a machine for us to use at work. This had hilarious consequences as we worked long hours inadvertently over-caffeinating ourselves as we learnt how to use the machine.

During this time we kept the machine to ourselves to prevent people using it and damaging the machine by not knowing how to operate it. This nearly went wrong when some sales droids from the floor above commandeered the machine and started to burn the coffee badly by brewing it with steam. We discovered them when the smell of burnt coffee wafted around the corner.

Ultimately our team coffee experience came to an end when we came up against some over-zealous facilities staff who had decided staff couldn’t be trusted to operate a toaster let alone an espresso machine. We managed to get off the hook for a couple of months but after our machine was confiscated we had to call it a day.

The Home Barista

It wasn’t long before I bought a machine to use at home, followed shortly by the purchase of a grinder so I could dial in the perfect grind. I then spent lots of time experimenting and learning as much as possible how to balance all of the variables in making espresso. I worked within the limits of the machine I got to a point where I was pretty happy with the results.

An important part of the process was that of which coffee to brew. I’d tried coffee from Drury, Monmouth, Square Mile Coffee Roasters and Hasbean but in the last couple of years or so I’ve been buying the majority of my coffees from Square Mile and Hasbean who are probably the finest roasters in the country at the moment (imho).

The main thing here is finding coffee that works well with your machine. My machine (a Rancilio Silvia) doesn’t have the ability to control the temperature exactly so without that control I have to find coffees that are forgiving of not being brewed at a very specific temperature. Experimentation has found that some coffees seem to really lend themselves to being brewed by a home machine with great results every time. Other coffees can be hard work and difficult to get right and you’d only find perfection with them if you could set a very specific brew temp. That said, it is possible to pimp up a machine like mine with a digital temperature control but I’ve not yet explored that route.

Since  buying my own machine I’ve also spent lots of time attempting to perfect my latte art skills. For milk drinks this is all important as the milk must not  be over-heated. Also the aim is to create a textured microfoam, where the individual bubbles are barely visible. Spooning great lumps of foam into a cup is a definite no-no, your coffee should not resemble a bubble-bath in a cup. When the milk is just right I can manage a resaonable attempt at a rosette. The rosette is achieved by pouring the milk, zig-zagging from side to side using less width as you get to the edge of the cup  and then pouring a straight-line back through the pattern.

All this prancing around isn’t just for showing off, rosettes and other latte art are only possible if the texture of milk is perfect so it’s one indicator of a good coffee.

Finding Good Coffee Shops

The most noticeable thing is that lots of the great independent coffee shops brew great coffee because they are really passionate about coffee, they understand it and they know how to get the best results from their machines and the beans they are using. By contrast, the worst coffee comes from places which don’t care, they don’t clean their machines regularly and they steam their milk within an inch of it’s life.

The best tip is find a good independent. Most chains sell average coffee at best, and shockingly bad coffee at their worst. Interestingly several chains have started offering flat whites following the success of the independent coffee shops. I’ve tested some of these wares and I have to say, the one I had wasn’t a flat white, it tasted awful and was so hot I could have boiled an egg in it. So I’d personally avoid this sorry attempt at trying to emulate the success of independents at all costs.

Simple Brewing at Home or Work

If there aren’t any good coffee shops near you then consider buying an espresso machine for your work-place if you think you won’t run into trouble running it. If an espresso machine is too extravagant then consider using a French Press or Aeropress. Espressos and espresso-based drinks are great but French Presses and Aeropresses are great ways to brew coffee. The results are different but can be equally satisfying. If you do go that route be sure to look for brew recipes to help tweak the best results from whatever coffee equipment you are using. For example Square Mile has some excellent video brew recipes for brewing with a French Press. Another benefit to starting simple is that if you start with a French Press you can always step up to an espresso machine later on.

Happy brewing!