Taking the Guess-Work out of Purchasing a Home Espresso Machine

By Peter Kelsch

So you want coffee shop quality espresso drinks at home. If you're like many coffee addicts, you're spending up to $10 a day on specialty coffee drinks anyway. If you were to eliminate only your morning stop on the way to work for a double tall latte, you could save $2 per day on coffee. In a 250-day work year, that's $500 savings $500 that may be a good investment in a home espresso coffee machine.

It's not all that simple, but roughly doing the numbers proves that anyone who enjoys good espresso coffee drinks out, can certainly afford to enjoy them at home. Regardless of your reasoning, if you are interested in buying a home espresso machine there are several things you should know.

Before making a decision on how much to spend on a machine, consider the following. Those big, beautiful commercial espresso coffee machines are big and beautiful for a reason. The process of making espresso requires certain technical capacities for both quality and for consistency. The generally accepted industry guidelines for professional espresso preparation are 130 lb. PSI (pounds per square inch) of water at roughly 195 degrees Fahrenheit, with the goal of extracting 1.5 ounces of coffee from 7 grams of finely ground coffee. To produce these same conditions in your kitchen is neither easy nor cheap, but it can be done. With this said, cost is usually the limiting factor when shopping for a home espresso coffee machine. As with anything, you generally get what you pay for.

There are generally two kinds of home espresso machines: steam pressure and pump pressure. The steam pressure method is the simplest and oldest method of making espresso coffee. One can find these machines in either the stovetop version, commonly known as Moka pots, or in inexpensive electric versions. The electric versions are generally what you see for the under-$100 price range. Essentially, these machines work by boiling water and forcing the resulting steam through a chamber of packed coffee. As the steam passes through the coffee, it condenses back into hot water, extracting the coffee that is then collected in a separate chamber. The result is a fairly high quality, concentrated coffee beverage that is similar to traditional espresso coffee, yet is not of the same quality achieved with a commercial espresso machine. The benefit of going this route for home espresso is definitely cost, but because you will get some variations in both pressure and temperature the taste can vary. Steaming milk is also an issue. These inexpensive machines either don't have steaming capability, or they have such low steam pressure, that making one good cappuccino is a major undertaking.

Using the pump method is far better. This is the way commercial espresso machines work. Before we look at machine variations and pricing, it's important to understand the basics of how a pump-style machine works. A water pump forces cold water into a hot water boiler, or through a water heat exchanger, which displaces near boiling hot water. This water is then forced through the coffee, hopefully at the specified pressure and temperature. If your coffee grind and quantity is correct and the machine is set up properly, the result will be a beautiful looking and delicious traditional espresso coffee.

Sounds easy, but now lets look at cost differences, manufacturing quality, and performance. The reality is that, unless you invest in a low-end commercial machine, espresso machines designed for domestic use have only one boiler. What this means is you can only steam a limited quantity of milk at any given time. If you're only interested in making one drink at a time for yourself, it will be fine to look into the $200 to $600 range of pump-driven home machines. In this range also, you get what you pay for. Plastic construction generally means limited life. Look for machines that are made with commercial parts, with all metal construction, and have obtainable replacement parts. The plastic versions of these machines usually found at retailers can produce acceptable espresso coffee and steaming, but are considered disposable after a few years of heavy use.

If you're interested in truly making coffee shop quality drinks at home, you should invest in a low-end commercial machine. These machines begin in price at around $800 and go up to $3,000. They are available in pour-over models that do not require water hook up, but will require a designated electrical circuit when in operation. All commercial machines have active steam boilers with heat. What this means is you can steam milk at the same time you are making espresso. It also means you can make espresso coffee drinks almost continuously. Most commercial espresso machine distributors have these machines available. Look in your local yellow pages for such a company, and ask about replacement parts and service. Generally speaking, these machines will last a lifetime.

One last point to consider is mess. It is my experience that most daily consumers of espresso coffee beverages actually own a home machine, often one of good quality. What generally happens is they get tired of the morning mess. Like many home appliances, the devices are better showpieces than functional equipment, so consider this in your decision making process.

Now, be sure to do your research. Make sure you get the espresso machine that fits your budget and your needs. Most of all have fun using it!

Peter Kelsch is president of Espresso Services, Inc., a distributor of espresso equipment and related items, in St. Louis Park, MN. He can be reached at 612.924.0622; peter@espresso-services.com .

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