Sunday, April 27, 2014

Buying an Espresso Machine - Advice to the Novice



This is a picture of my semi-automatic espresso machine at home, a Rancilio Silvia.   We all spend money on hobbies.  And this is just one of my hobbies which has saved me a TON of money and I love good coffee so it was worth my investment.  I no longer have to go to coffee shops every day.  I have something that makes great if not even way better coffee than most the shops out there...and I'm not kidding, this machine rocks.

No I'm not rich, not even close.  And in fact this machine if you think about it along with a very good grinder which is required totals only around $1100 ($600 for the machine and + $300 for a good burr grinder + $200 for a PID added on at checkout on seattlecoffeegear.com).  You can buy semi-automatics all the way up to 5k, or full automatics.  I found that you don't need to spend that much money to get espresso that is just as good as any coffee shop you find out there.  Mine is nothing fancy, but it is solid and proven.  It's made by Rancilio, a very good Italian company...and these have an average lifespan of 12-15 years if you look up info on it.

I wanted to take some time to share my experience with buying and owning espresso machines.  I want to share some things so that you don't make the same mistake I did, which is buy a super automatic espresso machine.  Instead if you are gonna spend some serious money, save your wallet, I have the solution for you without blowing a hole in your pocket.

Most super-automatic espresso machines cost anywhere starting at the low-end from $500 all the way up to $5000 or more.  

Right now I'm on my 3rd espresso machine.  And I'll tell you why all I had to do is buy the right espresso machine and I could have saved myself around $3000 because I wouldn't have had to buy the other two which lasted only 5 years and 2 years.

Super-Automatic Espresso Machines

A Super-Automatic Espresso Machine are ones that provide the following functions:
  • Some have a full frothing solution which minimal effort
  • Some have a frothing wand, which takes more effort but you get a lot more control and typically.  Others will have complete froth automation to where you have to do almost nothing manual to get froth generated
  • They are all push button, there is really nothing manual that you have to do to prepare and brew the coffee or espresso
  • They offer the option to create a full cup of coffee or an espresso shot
  • They usually provide some temperature variation that you can set that determines how hot the coffee comes out
  • They are very programmable, things like # of shots per pull, # of cups for coffee per pull, etc.
  • They all use burr grinders, the best grinder grade which is required for espresso machines to even operate well because burr grinders grind a very consistent and even grind and so you get much better coffee out of evenly ground coffee.  You may think your $50 grinds is good, but i'ts not.  Get a burr grinder, they are anywhere from $100 - 600 and well worth it and you will notice a huge difference even in your regular coffee machine
  • They allow you to tweak the grind somewhat, making it finer or courser
  • They are very low maintenance
    • it's easy to change water
    • it's easy to clean
    • it's easy to descale
  • They last anywhere from 2-7 (7 years if you're very lucky)
  • They are more expensive than semi-automatic espresso machines
  • Usually all parts inside are plastic

Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

A Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine are ones that provide the following functions:

  • They have a frothing wand, and usually do not have a non-manual frothing solution
  • They are much less programmable.  Some are not programmable at all
    • think of it like a Professional SLR vs. an Amateur SLR Camera.  Professional is usually very manual so that it allows more control and precision whereas Amateur cameras do not provide a manual option and make it easy for the less serious, non-experienced photographer
  • They only allow the option to pull espresso shots, not full cups of coffee (however you can add water to the espresso shot in order to make essentially regular coffee)
  • They either come with what's called a PID or not.  A PID allows you to control temperature to a very precise degree which allows you to tweak your shot to make the best possible tasting shot.  Without a PID, the temparature is usually variable so not every shot can taste the same.  One shot might taste awesome, while another might taste sour if the temperature is too high or too low at the time you pull the shot
  • They require us of an external burr grinder whereas super-automatic has a burr grinder-built inside
  • They are more maintenance, but not that much more than a super-automatic
  • A lot of them are cheaper than super-automatic machine
  • All the parts are typically commercial grade.  Meaning most companies that make very expensive semi-automatic machines sell a consumer espresso machine.  These consumer machines almost always contain top notch parts inside that is comparable or the same as their big machines.  You will not see any plastic inside, so they are much more durable


Super-Automatic vs. Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

Now listen up closely, this section is critical for you to read if you are thinking of spending $600+ on a machine.

Do not go with a Super Automatic Espresso Machine ever!

If I would have known to try a semi-automatic first, I would have saved myself a lot of money and would have been pulling much better shots and savoring much better coffee for the 7 years that I had super-automatic machines.

Yes I know the super-automatics look really cool with their digital displays and slick design but trust me, it's not worth it.

Here is why I say this, lets compare.  I'll take the points above for the super-automatic that I listed and debunk and tell you why what sounds good really isn't that good with them.

Traits of a Super-Automatic Machine and Their Downside

Some have a full frothing solution which minimal effort

      Counter
      • This might fine if you don't care about not being able to create think vs. think froth and are not that picky with the result of the froth and that you have no control over it during the process.  But I look at this as totally limiting.  You will find that you will want to change the froth to suit your tastes, believe me
Some have a frothing wand


      Counter
      • Yes, but usually the pump that is in these machines are weak.  They don't produce a ton of steam.  You may think they do but wait till you get a super-automatic.  So this affects the quality of froth.  Now you may not care about that, but I know I do, as I want to do latte art and have fun
      • The wand usually has some kind of plastic somewhere.  Either the wand itself is plastic or the parts that it connects to are plastic.  This is bad because obviously plastic doesn't wear well but also you have more parts to take out in order to clean it and plastic does not clean well.  Over time you get stuff caked on it which is very hard to remove like milk build-up and such
They are all push button and that's it, piece of cake
      Counter
    • Sounds great right?  I don't have to lift a finger except to push buttons, horray!  Well think again.  Buttons introduce more electronics into the machine that can potentially fail.  A friend of mine can be the first one to tell you it happened to him after only months of owning a $700 super-automatic espresso machine (Gaggia to be specific) and that's bogus.  Go online and you'll see this is not an uncommon issue either
    • What you see is what you get.  If the options are not there or the options do not do what you want well, you're stuck with them
Of the buttons that are on these machines they usually allow you to specify a full cup of coffee or an espresso shot to pull
     Counter

    • That's cool right?  Yes, some people like shots for either sipping straight up or making lattes and mochas.  Some people just want a plain cup of coffee.  There's really nothing I can say bad about that, so I can't really debunk that one and surface any cons for that except for again my friend had problems with buttons on a Gaggia Breva whereas he'd press the button to create a cup of coffee and no matter what it'd pull an espresso shot every time instead.  Now that's a real problem!

They usually provide some temperature variation that you can set
      Counter
    • Sure, but you only usually get about 3 levels of temperature and a lot of these machines are not producing very hot coffee even on its highest level
They are very programmable
      Counter
    • Again, this might seem nice, but you are banking on the machine not malfunctioning in terms of the motherboard behind it.  People have had problems with their board where buttons go wacky, and it's not that uncommon.  Do you really wanna deal with that possibility?  That means you send your machine in, get it repaired and it's not cheap, and you get it back only hoping it doesn't happen again
They all use burr grinders
      Counter
    • It's a requirement for any kind of high-end espresso so pretty much all have them, nothing to report here except that you have more control over the type of burr grinder, the type of material the grinder is using, and you have a whole range of grinders to choose from if you go with a semi-automatic machine.  I'd much rather be able to select different grinders than be suck with one, the one that comes with the machine.  The ones that come built into semi-automatic are very hard to clean as well and you can only clean so much of it
They are very low maintenance
     Counter
    • Sure, but again that's because you have less control, the machine gives you what you get and that's it
They last anywhere from 2-7 years  (7 years if you're very lucky)


     Counter
    • Yep, my last one was a Gaggia Breva and only lasted 2 years as no water was coming out one day by the pump
    • My Gaggia Titanium lasted me 5.  The pump simply got worn out.  Now being a rookie, I should have sent it in to get the pump fixed.  That is not cheap.  But the parts in these machines fail often, remember that.  So chances are I'll be fixing this thing a lot over its lifetime
They are more expensive than semi-automatic espresso machines
      Counter
    • yes, because they are more complicated machines to produce.  They are harder to engineer and require many more parts and digital interfaces in most cases so the cost to design and manufacture them is much more
Usually all parts inside are plastic
      Counter
    • Those parts break down sooner than later.  Why do you want to be seeing plastic parts after you pay $600+.  That's an insult to customers if you ask me.  If I pay that much I expect non plastic parts driving my very expensive machine
    • There are a higher number of plastic parts.  When you pop open a super-automatic vs. a Semi, the super-automatic will be a cluster f full of parts and it's amost impossible to repair yourself or get at some parts easily because it's so tight in there as the parts are many and have to be jumbled together in a very small space.  It's a mess of low quality parts essentially in sum


Wand and Froth Are Important



When I owned my last two super-automatic machines, I thought the froth was great.  That is until I wanted to create latte art.  I kept trying and trying but I just couldn't get the milk right.  I'd get very course bubbles in my froth no matter what I did to try to minimize that.  

I found out later after purchasing my semi-automatic that eventually I had such flexibility that I would be able to do latter art later as I practiced more. 

The reason that the semi-automatic machines create better froth, micro froth needed in order to create art is because of two reasons:
  • Semi-Automatics have more powerful water pumps for the frother
  • And they allow you to change out frothing tips or come with a tip that is much better than what a lot of super-automatic machines come with
Powerful Steam
The tip and the power of the steam both are critical in being able to create the right micro foam.  You will have a hard time doing that if not impossible with an super-automatic machine.


Espresso Shot Quality Is Important

Thicker Crema

Super-Automatic machines simply won't compare to a semi-automatic in terms of the quality of the shot.  Quality of the shot is what makes your latte or mocha or just straight up drinking takes awesome.  If your shot is too weak, too acidic, or doesn't have any crema  on top, it's useless.  It might test pretty good, but I can tell you once you get a semi-automatic, it'll blow it out of the water.

After buying my semi-automatic, the first sip just blew me away.  It was better than any coffee shop in town and I'm not exaggerating.  I live in the suburbs of Chicago so there are plenty of coffee shops to go around and I've also gone to Intelligensia, Star Lounge, and more.  I can tell you there is no coffee shop around my immediate area that compares to the coffee I can produce with my semi-automatic.  A $3000-5000 super-automatic can't even compete either.  I've tasted shots from those very expensive machines (Jura, etc.) as well at places like Williams & Sonoma, Sur La Table, etc. and again, it just does not compare.

What I noticed with my semi-automatic as compared to my last 2 super-automatic machines is I have total control.   I can get the shot as stong as I want, way beyond the levels the super-automatic provided me.  I can produce a much thicker crema as well, which is necessary for drinking a good shot of espresso...as well as helps with being a thick base for latte art which is necessary, as well as I can make sure I do not get sour shots.  I can play with it and get it to a point and fine tune it at a very micro level.  You simply can't do that with a super-automatic.  Again what you see is what you get with those.

Manual is Preferred over Automated

While semi-automatics don't have the cool interfaces on them (some due but very limited), it doesn't matter, you don't need them.  You don't want them.  You want to control it yourself anyway so you can fine tune your shots and froth anyway.

Yes, semi-automatic is a bit more manual but not by much.  About the only thing that is more manual is the fact that you have to grind the coffee yourself with an external burr grinder, and that you have to pack and place the shot before you pull.  Big deal, it might add 2 more minutes, which is trivial.

They clean up just as easy if not easier than super-automatics because there are less parts to deal with inside.  All you really need to do is just descale it.  super-automatics make you slide out the internal components as well and rinse them.  You don't do that with semi-automatics because they are designed in way that they don't have such complicated parts and all they need is a descaling.  

You do have to clean your porta filter, but again, big deal.

Lifetime

I had a very poor experience the length that super-automatics last.  Because they are made with all plastic parts inside, it's pretty obvious they will have a far shorter life-span than a machine with commercial grade components inside.

Just for comparison, a Gaggia Titanium ($1200 retail price) lasts around 5-8 years.  My $600 super-automatic Rancilio Silvia which has been around for 20 years, has been said to last on average 12-15 years if maintained properly.  Clearly it's smart to go with a semi-automatic.

Conclusion

Overall the amount of flexibility you get in terms of being able to tune your machine, control the quality of shots, and get that micro foam just how you want it is why you should be buying a semi-automatic.

Also, they last a long, long time as the parts are commercial grade inside.  Much longer than a super-automatic.

They cost much less and you'll taste far better coffee, closer to what good shops pull...and you find yourself almost never going to those places.  With my super-automatic I still found myself going to coffee shops because again, the super-automatic while good still didn't produce the level of quality that coffee shops produced.  My semi-automatic did.


What Model do I have?

I bought the Racilio Silvia v3 which is a very popular and proven Italian machine.  And I bought the Baratza Vario Burr Grinder.  This machine and grinder combination produces outstanding coffee, and rivals any other semi-automatic at higher prices levels by far.  I am still blown away to this day how good every shot comes out.  I can't think of anything better than the shots coming out of this machine.

I bought mine at seattlecoffeegear.com.  I like these guys better than a place like wholeLatteLove because they are just more insightful and willing to do more for you.

Make sure you add the option for PID!...it's critical:










4 comments:

  1. Glad I found this. Thank you for sharing! The (main) reason I'm searching for a machine without plastic components is because drinking fluids from heated plastic is detrimental to one's health over time. I love tasty lattés every day...Might be something to add in your list of cons.

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  2. A novice about espresso machine like me need your amazing advice. Saw some espresso machine in this link http://www.espressocorner.net/category/best-espresso-machines a while a go when Im searching the net for an espresso to purchase.

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  3. Outstanding Experience after read the whole article of your Coffee Guide Blog. I believe it's one of the best resource on the web regarding espresso.This post must be help people who are decide to pick new espresso machine for their home.

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  4. I don't doubt Dave's critique of super automatics however I would like the point of view from somebody who isn't a self described "hobbyist" and from somebody who has a busy lifestyle with either small children and/or entertaining larger groups ie 8-12 people at a time.

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