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Espresso Machines: Are my requirements irreconcilable?

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Imby Jun 3, 2009 05:20 PM

I would love to buy an espresso machine. Not sure where to land on the semi-auto--auto--super spectrum. Here are my requirements; are they really irreconcilable?

- I don't have a ton of space, and we want to be able to make coffee as well (same machine or both machines need to be small-ish)

- I don't want a plastic-on-the-inside Piece-of-You-Know-What

- Some kind of scheduled auto-on would be nice...at least for coffee

- The idea of some level of control of espresso-making would be nice

- Milk steaming / frothing definitely something we'll be doing

- Not interested in pods

I feel like the auto-on and coffee-and-espresso requirements point to a super-automatic, but are they so restrictive and pre-programmed (e.g. how much water, how much time) that if you don't like their programmed way, you're screwed?

If I get one of the less expensive super-automatics (i.e. <$1000), am I getting myself a low-quality, short-lived product?

Thanks in advance, coffee-hounds!

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  1. Politeness RE: Imby Jun 3, 2009 05:42 PM

    Imby, as useful as Chowhound is for general cookware questions, espresso is another world, and for the questions you ask, you need to spend some time reading the reviews at Coffeegeek: http://coffeegeek.com/reviews/consumer

    1. c
      chuckl RE: Imby Jun 3, 2009 06:03 PM

      Politeness is right, there are plenty of dedicated sites for more specific information. Along with coffeegeek, you can try home barista.
      You are really asking 2 different questions, though, and the machine that will serve your needs will depend on how you answer them. Is your priority convenience or espresso that is close to what you would get in a real coffee shop (meaning not Starbucks). If you're willing to compromise real espresso quality for a pale simulation (in my opinion), a super automatic can do the trick and will be much more versatile and tolerant of newbie mistakes. If you want to pursue espresso nirvana, with much crema and very high quality espresso, you'll have to sacrifice some of the convenience of the super autos and invest a significant amount of time learning how to make a very good shot. In the latter option, you'll also have to factor in a high quality burr grinder (Rancilio Rocky at a minumum). I have a Rancilio Silvia and Rocky setup and I'm quite pleased with it once I figured out technique and the proper grind. Silvia is a little picky. Also, you'll need to buy fresh beans, ideally roasted no more than a few days before you grind them. But for more details, go to a dedicated espresso site.

      1. thew RE: Imby Jun 3, 2009 06:09 PM

        i hve a jura capresso super automatic. big and expensive. but you can program the espresso

        1. scubadoo97 RE: Imby Jun 3, 2009 07:09 PM

          definitely head to coffeegeek and home-baristan.com. I think you will find most favor semi automatics so there is more control over the extraction. Here is one of the most important facts. The grinder is more important than the machine in making good espresso. With a 1k budget you will want to get a good espresso grinder and an entry level espresso machine like a Gaggia or Ranchilio Silvia. The Gaggias don't have plastic insides. Plastic outsides yes. The Silvia is the most popular entry level home espresso machine. Don't plan on making regular coffee and espresso from the same machine. Your budget will allow enough to get results just put it in the right place.

          1. swag RE: Imby Jun 3, 2009 10:20 PM

            I think they're irreconcilable, and for good reason. Coffee and espresso have different brewing requirements. To do it right, you need to specialize somewhat. There's a reason why mobile homes aren't ubiquitous over separate cars and homes, after all.

            But there's a third dimension you're clearly missing here, and that's the grinder. If you're going to drop a few hundred dollars on an espresso machine, unfortunately few (outside of the aforementioned sites from other users) will point out that the grinder can be just as important as the espresso machine. To ignore that is to buy a $10,000 home stereo system and to play it through $20 speakers.

            So whatever you do, don't make the mistake of not getting a grinder that's good enough to get the most out of your investment in your machine(s).

            1. o
              onocoffee RE: Imby Jun 4, 2009 07:36 AM

              lmby-

              You don't have a ton of space and I'm presuming that you don't currently possess the technical skills to pull manual shots of espresso. Nothing wrong with that and while many of the suggestions for semi-auto machines are great, they also require more space and a learning curve.

              While I'm not normally a proponent of superautomatic espresso machines (ones that grind the coffee and make espresso at the push of a button), a good friend has been using the Solis Digital Maestro 5000 (or something like that) for over five years. Every morning they get up and make espresso or Americanos and have pushed thousands of cups through the little machine. It's small, self-contained and costs under $1K.

              The thing is, if you want to steam milk, you have to reset the boiler and wait for it to heat up to steaming temp before you can steam milk. This may take a minute or so and could be an infuriating situation every morning. Conversely, if you then want to pull another espresso, you have to wait for the boiler to cool down.

              For more money, there are superauto machines that can pull shots and steam milk at the same time. Unfortunately, since I'm more familiar with professional machines, my knowledge of consumer machines is limited. Companies like Whole Latte Love can be a great resource when reviewing machines for purchase. I don't recommend CoffeeGeek or HomeBarista because they can get too bogged down with coffee geeky minutiae.

              Most of the supers will allow you grind control and auto-on features.

              Allow me to touch on the technical skills comment. While I agree that a semi-auto machine can produce superior shots, they also require solid technique, which will take some time, dedication and a bit of coffee to bring your skills to level. However, if you're willing to make that commitment, the results can be extremely rewarding. The other issue is that a proper espresso machine also requires a proper grinder, of which can rocket your investment into the thousands.

              But remember, as the others have said, if you decide to go with the manual route, invest in a quality grinder. In many ways, the grinder is more important than the actual machine.

              2 Replies
              1. re: onocoffee
                thew RE: onocoffee Jun 4, 2009 08:07 AM

                i heat half and half in the microwave and get espresso from the superautomatic

                1. re: onocoffee
                  scubadoo97 RE: onocoffee Jun 4, 2009 09:32 AM

                  Glad I got my Mazzer Mini when I did. But a grinder of this level can be had for around $400-500 cheaper if found used. The Silvia semi auto espresso machine will now runs around $500 new and lower end Gaggias will run less. So both will fit the budget. The commitment to learning good technique is well worth the effort. It gives you a better appreciation for good espresso. One can learn to pull a good shot but only obsession will lead you to strive for the god shot. The shot professionals and amateurs alike will always strive for. Can I make it better.

                2. f
                  fricodam RE: Imby Jun 5, 2009 04:00 PM

                  Check out the Lelit Espresso machines.
                  Made in Italy, not in China, affordable -$450 -850, all stainless steel, froths milk, semi-automatic, classic design and you will have all the controls you want. We have one -PL0 42 LET. Great machine, great espresso. Good luck

                  1. b
                    bernise6 RE: Imby Jun 9, 2009 08:43 PM

                    Your best bet is a La Spaziale Vivaldi with a timer module added. It will meet all of your requirements. Keep in mind, as noted by the other posters, you really need to have a good grinder to go with it. IMO, you don't want a cheapo machine.

                    You can use this machine to make an Americano which will be far far superior to any kind of coffee you can get from a drip maker.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: bernise6
                      Soop RE: bernise6 Jun 10, 2009 01:55 AM

                      Heh, that's a good point; why don't you just use espresso shots to make americano?

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