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Cheap Espresso Machines: Caveat Emptor

why you shouldn't buy a cheap espresso machine

 

Author’s Note: When Daniel, blogger extraordinaire and Editor in Chief of CoffeeKrave, assigned me this topic: “Why You Shouldn’t Buy a Cheap Espresso Machine”—I thought he was giving me a free day. I wrote: “Because it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to make good espresso with a cheap espresso machine. And they break.”

Just in case a 20 word post is not what Daniel had in mind, here is my extended remix:

Before making the argument that you shouldn’t buy a cheap espresso machine, we should start by defining cheap.

There is a natural break of sorts around the $200 USD price point. Under $200 is a cheap espresso machine. Over $400 is a reasonable starting point for a quality home espresso machine. Between $200 and $400 is ambiguous territory—you can (with diligence and research) find good deals, but there are more cheap options than not in this range.

 

Espresso Standards

As helpful coffee snobs, we are not at all concerned with how much you spend. Your ROI (return on investment) is our primary concern. The end goal is to make good espresso.

With that in mind, a quality machine should be capable of achieving the standards set for espresso.

An excerpt from the standards for traditional espresso, from the Institute Nazionale Espresso Italiano:

  • Water temperature: 88°C ± 2°C
  • Water Pressure: 9 bar ± 1
  • Extraction Time: 25 seconds ± 5 seconds

 

why you shouldn't buy a cheap espresso machine

 

Under Pressure

Pressure is the thing that separates cheap machines from quality machines.

The general consensus in the industry is that the best espresso is pulled at 9 bars. A research study comparing extractions at 7, 9 and 11 bars of pressure concluded that 9 bars is the sweet spot, with “consistency of foam and a high percentage of key odorants related to freshness and fruity, malty, and buttery flavors.”

{For a detailed discussion on pressure profiling, see this post by James Hoffman, 2007 World Barista Champion.}

Steam driven espresso machines use steam to generate the pressure needed to push the water through the grounds. Steam driven machines are cheap, and are only capable of reaching 1.5 to 3 bars of extraction pressure.

A steam driven espresso machine can’t achieve the ideal 9 bars of extraction pressure. Additionally, cranking up the water to the temperature required to produce steam takes it up and over the ideal water temperature. The end result is going to be much closer to strong (and very hot) coffee than espresso.

You can get a good feel for the extraction pressure by timing the shot. With the proper grind and preparation, an ideal shot takes 20-30 seconds. To put this in the context of a cheap espresso machine, we recently watched an in-store demo of a $45 machine, and the end result was a nine-second pour.

How do you get 9 bars of pressure? With an electric pump.

{There are high-end lever driven machines, but we will save these for a future post.}

Pump powered espresso machines use an electric pump to generate the requisite pressure. By achieving the ideal extraction pressure without cranking up the heat, a pump driven machine is also capable of extracting under the ideal water temperature.

A 15 bar pump will get you to 9 bars of brewing pressure. (This video by Seattle Coffee Gear does an excellent job of explaining the difference between pump pressure and extraction pressure.)

Note: You will see manufacturers who try to sell their machines by touting the pump pressure specifications. More is not better, and over 15 bars is generally overkill.

 

Material Considerations

There are other things to consider besides pressure. Durability is another key element.

Quality machines will be made predominantly with metal and not plastic. In particular, we urge you to avoid plastic groupos (aka the portafilter, or the device that holds the espresso grounds). The handle can be plastic, but the body of the groupo should be metal.

Another key material consideration is the boiler. High-end boilers will be made of brass or copper. Stainless steel is the mid-range option, while cheap machines will typically have an aluminum boiler (which can impart a less than ideal metallic taste).

 

Beware of the Pull of the Label

Some big brand names refuse to make cheap espresso machines.

There are certain manufacturers who make expensive machines that are very high quality, who also use their reputation to leverage sales of cheap machines under the same label. Buying by label alone can result in serious disappointment when the cheap machines don’t live up to the label expectations.

{We won’t name any names here, but if you do some comparison shopping several names will become quickly apparent.}

 

Pulling It All Together

One final word of caution: Spending a lot of money doesn’t guarantee perfect results. You need the proper equipment—but you also need the proper technique. The grind, dose, tamp and pour will all affect the end results.

Comments Challenge: Re-read the introductory author’s note, and then share the Cliff Notes rendition of your advice to someone who wants to buy a cheap espresso machine, in 20 words or less!

 

Main Photo: kennymatic

Content Photo: paloetic

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2 Comments

  1. But if you have a cheap grinder, it doesn’t matter how much you spent on your espresso machine.

  2. robyn

    July 20, 2012 at 11:48 pm

    Greg: We concur, and also congratulate you on your 18 word summary! It’s an excellent point, and one that ties in with our note about proper technique. For more on grinders, see Daniel’s review here.

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