There's a Starbucks thread currently getting a lot of hits. Well, really more of an anti-Starbucks thread. And there's Nicko's proud-papa thread about his new Duetto:
What with the interest, it seemed like a good time to ballpark some of the espresso possibilities.
This is my espresso setup:
The grinder is a La Cimbali "Max-Hybrid," the espresso machine is a La Cimbali "Casa." The grinder is as important as the espresso machine to the process of making good coffee.
Speaking of grinders, Nicko bought a Baratza Vario. It's one of the current darlings among "home baristas," and very well priced (all things considered) to boot.
Nicko's set up is state of the art "prosumer." Mine is "commercial capable of being jammed in a home." One is not better than the other, but experience, self knowledge, listening to Nicko writing about his search, and hanging out on the boards tells me that Nicko's is better for him, while mine is better for me.
This is probably a good time to talk about getting advice before actually making the purchase. There are a couple of good espresso boards, Coffee Geek and Home-Barista. You can save yourself a lot of grief by joining and asking questions; and reading the FAQs on H-B (although some of them are getting a little dated).
(For the little it's worth, I've got a few reviews on CG and participate in the H-B forums but not vice versa.)
Then there's Mary. Mary is an incredible resource, working in the sales department of Chris Coffee Service. If you've got any of Chris's machines on your short list, you absolutely want to talk to her. Her ability to fit machine to customer is spooky. Not only did she sell me the perfect machine, she saved me around $2500 compared to the machine that was on the top of my list; which was also sold by CCS.
Nicko's new Duetto is a PID controlled, double boiler, also called a DBPID. It has separate boilers for brew water, and steam/hot-tap. In the case of his Duetto, the temperatures of each boiler are electronically controlled by PID (proportional, integrative, derivative) logic chip/circuit. Among other things, the design allows for very consistent brewing temperatures.
My machine only has one boiler. There's a tube inside called a "heat exchanger," which is inside the boiler; the brew water enters the boiler through its own line, passes through the tube and is heated there. This type of machine is called a "heat exchanger" or HX. An HX allows accurate, on the fly temperature adjustment, but getting the temps right requires practice and focus (at 6AM yet!).
When you're buying a "better" espresso machine (say $700 and up), you should be aware that they're basically a bunch of commonly sourced components bolted to a frame, which is itself covered by a casing. Price, ergonomics, reliability and "quality in the cup" differences largely depend on the quality of the components. And, as a rule, you get what you pay for. A fairly high percentage of what you're looking for is consistency. Machines from the low end of the high end can make good coffee, but tend to require a lot of user work arounds and -- even with the best technique -- are inconsistent. The better the machine, the more consistent and more straightforward.
Because of the extra parts and complication involved with a DBPID, you tend to get more quality for the buck with an HX. But, at the end of the day, it's more important to get the right type of machine than the wrong type. Even though you may get a few years out of it, what's the point if they're wrong years?
Electronically controlled DB is the more modern approach, and seemingly the shape of things to come. Breville just came out with one which looks to be pretty good, and at $1200 is competitively priced with the $1,000 minimum for entry-level HXs. Top of the line HXs, like mine, are bordering on obsolescence, and simultaneously enjoying a golden age. One design is not inherently better than the other, rather they tend to appeal to different people.
The old fashioned "bottom of the high end" machines were single boiler/dual use aka SBDU. These machines require a very complicated and inconsistent method of approaching anything close to the right brewing temp; and a long wait for very weak and very limited steam. Newer designs which include some degree of electronic temp control along with "thermal block" generated steam (SBTB), have rendered the old SBDUs obsolete. I don't care how many people you know who cut their teeth on and recommend a Rancilio Silvia ($700). Don't buy one. You can do much better for the same money (Crossland CC1, SBTBPID, $700) and much much much better for a little more (Nuova Simonelli Oscar, HX, $900ish; Quickmill Silvano, SBTBPID, $1,000; and Breville 900XL, DBPID, $1200).
There are a lot of less expensive machines out there, but in my opinion the case for sub $700 machines is marginal. You'd be better off with the combination of a French Press, pour over, and vaccum brewer -- all of which combined will not only cost you less than a cheap espresso machine ($250ish), but last longer and require a less expensive grinder. However, there are lots of people who disagree with me about this; you have to investigate and make up your own mind.
At the risk of repetition, you simply cannot make good espresso without a good grinder (de minimis for acceptable espresso, a Baratza Preciso runs around $300). The reason is that the consistency and fineness of the grind make a big difference in the cup, and that as you try different blends, your beans age, and the weather varies, you have to adjust -- to a very high degree of precision -- to find anything close to the sweet spot for your blend.
At a certain price point for machine and grinder, combined with good beans and good technique, you reach a level of quality in the cup which only the very best coffee shops can match, let alone exceed. In real world numbers, decent espresso is going to cost you $1,000 minimum for machine and grinder; good espresso starts at around $2000, and "best" espresso at $3000 give or take. Oy!
To put this in sharper, dollar perspective, Nicko's machine/grinder combination sells for just under $3000 retail; mine for around $4,000 at current, "discounted" retail, and add another $300 to mine for a dark room timer for the grinder, OEM baskets, and a couple of other necessary tweaks. Like Bette Davis said about old age, "[exceptional espresso] isn't for sissies."
Good espresso is about four things, really. In Italian they're miscela, mano, macinazione, and macchina. In English, that's the choice, blend and roast of the beans; the skill of the barista; the grinder and the espresso machine. Arguments about their relative importance are never ending; but when push comes to shove, any of them screw up the coffee, no three of them without a solid fourth will result in a good cup.
Starbucks doesn't even belong in the same conversation as even the $700+ machines. Not for their equipment, but for the way they roast (ugh!) and for their barista training.
Questions? Thoughts? Don't be shy. I really want to hear from you.
Edited by boar_d_laze - 11/20/11 at 11:30am