How do I decide which home espresso machine to buy?

The number of home espresso machines on the market today is truly mind blowing. There are many brands to choose from and the within the brands there are often a variety of models to choose from. Finally the price range goes from as little as few thousand rands to over R100 000!

It is important to understand the fundamentals of making espresso before you consider buying an espresso machine. Making espresso is a combination of art and very precise science. It takes good equipment, effort and dedication to make an excellent espresso.

Espresso is made by pushing water at an exact temperature, under a very high consistent pressure, through a bed of finely ground coffee of a precise dose in a fixed period of time. The resulting espresso must be exactly the correct quantity every time. Your Espresso machine must be able to deliver water at a consistent, correct temperature and pressure for you to be able to make a good espresso.

One of the most important elements of making a good espresso is using coffee that is ground to the correct fineness. What makes this tricky is that every type of coffee beans( Variety, blend and roast profile) has a different ideal grind size. This means that in order for you to be able to make a good espresso you need a good quality grinder.

Let me say this - You are wasting your money if you buy an espresso machine without buying a good quality grinder at the same time. You will never be able to get the best out of your espresso machine or your coffee by using pre ground coffee or a low quality grinder.

The temperature of your brewing water is also very important. It should be delivered at the ideal temperature of a consistent 98 degrees Celsius. The more expensive the machine the more consistent the temperature will probably be. You also need to use good tasting, good quality filtered water.

The pump that delivers the water to the group head should be able to deliver pressure of about 15bar. The ideal brewing pressure, however is in the range of 9-10 bar. Entry level to mid range machines will typically have vibrating (Noisy) pumps while the more expensive machines will have rotary pumps(similar to commercial machines)

The quality of the porta-filter is also very important. A good porta-filter will typically be made from chromed brass or stainless steel. It will in most cases be 58mm in dia and weigh around 600g. The material and weight of the porta-filter is important for good thermal stability.  The porta-filter basket will be stainless steel and will be able to take a min of 14g of coffee.

The group head of the machine must be made of brass (Thermal Stability).

The boiler configuration is a very important consideration. The best option is a double boiler with PID. This is also by far the most expensive. A thermal block machine is the least desirable but the most affordable.

Some machines may offer you the option of a built in water tank or a plumbed in version. Plumbed in is great if your machine will always be close to a water connection. A water tank is convenient if you will be moving the machine around or if there is no water connection nearby.

So how do you choose?

1. The first step is to decide on your total budget. Stretch your budget as far as you possibly can without getting yourself into trouble. This is really a case of the more you spend the better the equipment. It is also best to save up for a better machine rather than buying a low quality machine. You definitely DO NOT want to buy an espresso machine that works without a pump! As mentioned earlier make sure you include a good quality grinder in your budget. Getting a good grinder is more important than the espresso machine. With a good grinder an average espresso machine make reasonable espresso shots. The most expensive espresso machine combined with a bad grinder will never be able to make decent espressos. The quality of your espressos will depend largely on the quality of your grinder.

2. Make sure you understand the different boiler configurations with the pro's and con's and decide which one you can afford and make sure you can live with the downsides of the one you choose(if there are any). If the compromise of for example a singel boiler feels unbearable don't buy it! Wait and save until you can afford the one that will work. You will probably always have to make some compromise to fit with a budget but make sure you can live with the compromise.

Look at the size of the machine and consider the space available where you will be placing the machine. How is the water tank on the machine refilled? If the refill is on top consider that a kitchen cupboard above the machine may mean that you need to move machine every time you must refill it. Some machines are quite heavy. Also take your grinder into consideration. How tall is it? Will it fit under your cupboard? Is their space to put in new beans or must you pull it out every time to refill.



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