Q. There are so many choices of espresso equipment. What general advice to you offer?
A. Although there's a lot of choices, you can make your decision more easily with the help of online communities like Home-Barista.com, CoffeeGeek.com, etc. People who share your interest in espresso can offer their recommendations, typically based upon hands-on experience. For general information, I recommend this video:
For other recommendations, search on "budget espresso machine" or "budget grinder" to find discussions at various pricepoints. If you haven't done so already, read CoffeeGeek's How to buy an espresso machine. And of course there's the The Bench and review research, which cover a fairly wide range of equipment and prices. Between these resources, you should find all your questions answered and many you've yet to consider.
Q. Over the past 2-3 years, what changes have you noticed in home espresso machines, in terms of new technologies, different features, or new designs?
A. The biggest change is the increased divide between ultra-convenience (Nespresso, illy iperEspresso) and high-end "semi-automatic" espresso equipment. The ultra-convenient types have moved away from super-automatics that try to automate the manual methods towards capsule-based preparation. The capsule machines are initially cheaper/more reliable, but the cost of feeding them capsules adds up quickly.
Q. Do you have a sense of how retail prices may have changed over the past 2-3 years?
A. The ultra-convenience offerings based on capsules are initially significantly less expensive than the super-autos they hope to displace ($300 ish versus $1500+). The entry level semi-automatic espresso machines have stayed at about the same price adjusted for inflation (e.g., Gaggia Coffee). The next level up of single boiler espresso machines has moved up over the years (e.g., Rancilio Silvia), putting them within striking distance of a markedly better tier in terms of capability/ease of use. The mid-tier (e.g., Bezzera BZ07, Expobar Control) is more than most people will ever desire in their lifetime and retail for ~$1000. The high-end tier begins around $1400 (e.g., Quickmill Anita) and the middle ground of this tier is around $2500 (e.g., La Spaziale Vivaldi II, Expobar Brewtus).
The high-end gear featured on HB has become easier to use over the years, in no small part due to better sources of how-to information, feedback from the online community, and savvy vendors helping manufacturers tailor their offerings (many of which are Italian and aren't accustom to accepting advice). While the cost of this equipment may sound like a lot (and it is!), the good news is that the spread from entry level to advanced is limited to a couple thousand dollars. You cannot say the same for many other products (e.g., video equipment, golf clubs, cooking equipment, woodworking tools).
Q. What are some of your favorite home espresso machine brands or products at various price points?
A. I divide the gamut of espresso machines into three tiers; their midpoint prices are approximately $400, $1400, and $2000. The Gaggia line of products get consistently good feedback from the online community for the first tier. The second and third tier are much more hotly contested since the degree of capability/capacity/longevity/ease of use comes into play. Our reviews try to weed out the various strengths of the models within a given tier without playing favorites.
That said, my personal favorite is the Elektra Semiautomatica, but it's definitely "out there". A more mainstream suggest is one of the many E61 / heat exchanger models (Quickmill Anita, Expobar Control, Vibiemme Domobar Super, to name only three). The third tier is dominated by double boiler entries. Double boiler espresso machines differ from the other offerings by having two boilers, one dedicated to brewing, another to steaming. This allows for non-stop espresso/cappuccino production without much attention to brew temperature, which is managed by an electronic controller (often referred to as a "PID"). See Espresso Machines 101 for more details on the various boiler designs.
At this point I should remind readers that many first-time buyers make the mistake of focusing on the espresso machine, not the grinder. While it seems like a grinder just reduces coffee beans to powder, its contribution to the cup is greater than the espresso machine. For example, I could readily pull better shots on a $1400 grinder + $400 espresso machine than a $100 grinder and a $14000 espresso machine. In other words, the order of importance of contributors to exceptional espresso are:
- Espresso Machine
Q. Yikes! Is there no choice for espresso machine less than $200 worth considering?
A. One of the most frequently asked questions is "What should I get with a $500 budget?" for both espresso machine and grinder. Sadly, while entry level espresso equipment may be less expensive, what the buyer saves in dollars they pay instead in time/frustration. Jim Schulman said it best:
another_jim wrote:Newbies invariably attribute their inability to pull two identical shots in a row to the lack of sufficient equipment settings they can change between shots. The fact is that the entry level equipment used by newbies is much more unforgiving than the commercial equipment people buy after they decide they'll pursue home espresso. This creates a double whammy, the people with technique good enough to use entry level equipment have moved beyond it; and the people buying it will have their weaknesses mercilessly exposed. The upshot is that entry level equipment gets a lot of unfair criticism; and that newbies get a very long hazing learning to cope with it.
For those on very tight budgets, I recommend getting a good grinder, a French press, and excellent coffee instead of cobbling together an espresso equipment ensemble in name only. Exceptional coffee is not difficult to brew with a very modest investment, especially if you choose a manual grinder. Simply stated, exceptional espresso demands more hands-on attention and more expensive equipment than the nearly foolproof combination of good grinder + French press + excellent coffee.
Q. Why are the "second tier" and above espresso machines so much easier to use than entry level equipment?
A. Consistency. The brew temperature is more predictable. Some entry level espresso machines have brew temperature range of nearly 30°F (commonly referred to as the "deadband"). This means the brew temperature may be 182°F for one espresso and 202°F the next. The second tier's temperature tolerance is 10x smaller and the third tier's almost another 10x smaller. Brew pressure is regulated for some entry level espresso machines, but not all. Advertisements claiming "15 bar" brew pressure are meaningless; this refers to the maximum pressure the pump can generate with no flow of water, which isn't a useful comparison for those wishing to brew espresso (for a more technical explanation, see I still don't get it: Why adjust the OPV?). Another important distinction between entry and second/third tier espresso machines is how evenly and gently the water is initially diffused across the surface of the coffee puck. Grouphead designs that combine effective, even distribution, good brew pressure control, and predictable brew temperatures are considered more forgiving of errors in barista technique.
Q. What about manual "lever" espresso machines?
A. While it's true the majority of espresso machines sold today have electrical pumps to create the necessary brew pressure of 9 bar, manual espresso machines that use a piston and lever to produce brew pressure remain popular (e.g., La Pavoni Europiccola, Elektra Microcasa a Leva, Olympia Cremina). Because manual espresso machines add an additional variable to control, they have a reputation for being more difficult to use, but I think that's an oversimplification. You won't know the so-called "forgiveness factor" of an espresso machine simply by looking at its specification sheet; it requires hands-on evaluation. For example, the Ponte Vecchio Lusso is a lever-type espresso machine and I rated it easier to use than several popular E61 / HX espresso machines. In contrast, another level-type espresso machine, the La Pavoni Europiccola, is more challenging to master than the pump-driven espresso machines reviewed on this site. If you enjoy a more "hands on" approach to making espresso, a manual espresso machine is worth considering; this site has a dedicated forum for lever aficionados, too.
Q. Where to you recommend buying espresso equipment?
A. Keep in mind that when buying new from a reputable vendor, a lot of what you pay for is service after the sale. The espresso equipment we discuss on this site has a small, specialized market. While everyone enjoys a bargain, if something goes wrong with the equipment later, you may regret saving a fraction of the purchase price when parts/service/advice are needed. Beware of fraudulent online espresso equipment vendors gives examples of how a "great deal" can lead to headaches. As the website owner, I am admittedly biased, but I believe the HB sponsors are among the best vendors on the Internet; you can find them listed under Commerce on the Resources page.
Q. What are your recommendations for buying used espresso equipment?
A: With the warning that I'm not a savvy eBay shopper, I'll offer my opinion, cobbled together from my previous replies on the subject.
The availability of used second and third tier espresso equipment is good; the basic first tier equipment described earlier isn't made to last, so the working condition and resale value are dicey. Mazzer grinders typically go for 50% to 70% of the current retail price. Resale value of a used espresso machine is less reliable since their value is tightly coupled to popularity. If you pick a popular model, it can sell for the same 50% to 70% of current retail price if kept in top condition, should you decide to upgrade someday.
If a used model still in production with average popularity were in pristine condition but recent models have seen improvements in feature/reliability in the interim, the best price it can fetch is around 50% of today's model's full retail price. The price falls precipitously if the question of needed repairs enters into the equation, i.e., a few hundred at best.
Other points to consider when deciding on your budget:
- Unlike many hobbies (e.g., golf, audio/video), you reach the "high end" very quickly. Above $1400 at full retail, the differences among espresso machines is vanishingly small.
- The same holds true for grinders. They peak around $700 (flat burr) to $1400 (conical) at full retail. You could spend over $2000 for a Mazzer Robur, but unless you're running a cafe, there's no rational reason to consider it.
- There are few purchases that will give you and your family/friends pleasure every day. That's why for me, when it comes to espresso gear, I shop on capability/convenience/quality first and price last.
Q. What is the most common mistake beginners make when trying espresso at home?
Some mistakenly think of coffee doesn't stale if it's in a sealed bag, but that only slows the inevitable progression towards staleness. If the coffee is not freshly ground and roasted within the last 7-10 days, the resultant espresso will invariably be thin, bitter, with a flat, dull flavor. The solution is freshly roasted coffee (not "freshly scooped" or "freshly opened"... known roast date within 7-10 days). Other important contributors:
- Consistent grinder designed for espresso
- Espresso machine capable of delivering predictable brew temperature,
- Motivated barista willing to experiment, study, and listen to the advice of others.