Coffee Machine Buyers Guide
Welcome to this concise guide to choosing the ‘perfect’ coffee machine to use at home.
Knowing which coffee machine to buy, especially if you’re making the leap from instant coffee and the occasional Starbucks, can be a nightmare. This guide was created specifically to provide you with the lowdown on various types of machines.
The guide has been divided into bite-sized chapters, with a sprinkle of useful hints and tips to help you match a coffee machine with your drinking preferences.
CHAPTER 1: The Evolution of Coffee-Making Technology
So how did we get to the point of one in every three UK homes having a coffee machine of some sort? How did the humble coffee berry rise to such lofty heights?
Today we have what seems like an endless supply of coffee options from your basic instant coffee to the most exotic coffees in the world. However, it wasn’t always like this. Let’s take a quick journey back to meet a tired and lonely goat herder in Ethiopia…
The discovery of coffee
Meet Kaldi: a hard-working guy living in Ethiopia in the 11th century. He made an honest living herding goats. The history books tell us that one day, as he kept an eye on his small goat herd, he noticed they became quite sprightly and energised after eating a certain plant.
So interesting did Kaldi find this, that he shared his observation with his good friend from the local monastery. Now the Abbott of the monastery, being a pioneering sort of man, concocted a drink using the berries from this plant and discovered he no longer nodded off during his evening prayers.
He began to use this drink regularly; one thing led to another, and the world’s first energy drink was born.
This wonder brew began to spread out across the Arabian Peninsula, then continued to gain popularity in the Middle East and Africa.
Fast forward 600-odd years, to when intercontinental travel became more common. European travellers returned home raving about this amazing new drink. From here it was only a matter of time before the coffee craze hit Europe and beyond.
Coffee-making through the ages
Some of the early methods of brewing coffee are still used today. For example, Turkish folk made coffee using a small pot known as a cezve (pronounced “ jezz-va”). The Turkish coffee-pot method involves boiling ground beans with water and leaving the sediment in the cup it is served in, providing a thick and strong brew.
- 1818 – the first coffee percolator was invented in France. Decades later, the idea was ‘borrowed’ (some would say stolen) and patented in the USA. Percolating remained the most widely-used method of brewing coffee for a further 90 years. The machines used for percolating remain almost unchanged from their original design.
- 1884 – the invention of the first espresso machine from Italy. However, this was far removed from the compact machines we know today; it was a mechanical behemoth. Commercially viable espresso machines didn’t come along until 1901.
- 1908 – the next innovation in coffee-making was made by a frustrated German housewife who thought there must be a better way to make a decent coffee without using a thick cloth as a filter and making a mess. She poked some holes into the bottom of a jug and, after some experimentation, used blotting paper as the first ever filter to create a basic drip machine. Thanks, Frau Bentz.
- 1948 – the first Gaggia lever espresso machines hit the market, beginning the trend towards specialty coffee.
- 1970s – it was the ’70s that really saw the demand for home coffee machines surge worldwide. This was spurred on by the production of the Mr. Coffee automatic drip machine, which was an instant success. In the late ’70s, Mr. Coffee machines were selling 40,000 units every day, and to this day it remains the world’s best-selling in-home coffee machine.
- 1990s – now we hit the 1990s, where Starbucks opened a new store every work day for the next decade, and the number of UK coffee shops increased by a whopping 847%.
Today, there are almost as many varieties of machine on the market as there are blends of coffee.
It has never been easier or faster to produce quality coffee in your own home – although many people still enjoy using old-school techniques, such as the French press, moka pot, or vacuum methods.
Personally, I love the moka pot and use one every day, even though many coffee purists would run a mile.
If that all seems like too much effort, you could invest in a fully-automated machine that takes care of the entire process for you, from grinding the beans to the last blob of milk froth on top of your latte.
The latest innovation comes in the form of pod coffee machines. Although patented and introduced in 1974, it wasn’t until 1994 that they started to have any real success.
Actor George Clooney came across a Nespresso machine in Switzerland, and was so impressed with it that he secured contracts for marketing in the USA. Later, companies like Krups, Magimix, Philips, Siemens and De’Longhi came on board and this method skyrocketed.
CHAPTER 2: Types of Coffee Machines
Now let’s have a wander through the aisles whilst I give you an introduction to the different types of coffee machines. I’m guessing you have better things to do than to spend hours googling all the options, so I’ve done the bulk of the donkey work for you. Check out the most popular type of machines and why they may or may not be the right choice for you.
Undoubtedly, it’s the fantastic coffee produced by an espresso maker that has made you decide to invest in a coffee machine for home use.
But what is an espresso?
An espresso coffee is brewed by forcing hot water under pressure through finely-ground and compacted (tamped) coffee beans. This produces small amounts of thick, strong, concentrated coffee, complete with the signature espresso crema. This coffee can be enjoyed by itself as an invigorating espresso shot, or used as the base for a range of milk-based drinks, such as lattes and cappuccinos.
There are various types of espresso machine – manual, semi-automatic, or fully automatic. Over the years they’ve been driven by steam, piston, compressed air, or pump.
The first patented espresso machine was a steam-powered contraption built by Italian Angelo Moriondo. Like the moka pot, it used steam pressure to force water though the coffee grinds. However, many believe this method heats the water too much, altering the coffee’s characteristics, and it doesn’t produce authentic espresso.
Piston or manual espresso machines use a lever (similar to a real ale hand pump) to pressurise hot water and push it through the coffee. This type of machine, which was developed by Gaggia in 1945, is still available today through some specialist coffee machine retailers.
Air-driven machines use compressed air to brew the coffee and are a relatively new invention. Manufacturers such as AeroPress and Handpresso lead the way in these lightweight, handheld, portable devices.
Pump-driven machines are the most popular design for commercial units, and espresso machines for home use. However, there’s a world of difference between low-end and premium consumer machines. The latter tend to use a dual boiler system, which is the norm on a La Marzocco commercial machine.
Manual and semi-automatic espresso machines require time and effort to master and there will be a period of trial, error and experimentation before you can create the perfect espresso. This time and effort does pay off in the long run because when used correctly, these machines are capable of producing the best quality coffee you can possibly make, and have the quality edge over all the other machines.
- Provide superior quality espresso over fully automatic machines.
- Give you the opportunity to experiment and customise to your own tastes.
- There is a huge sense of personal achievement when you finally create the perfect espresso – coffee lovers call it the “god-shot”.
- Require some fiddling and practice to perfect the perfect espresso.
- Not suitable for larger amounts of people; only produce one or two shots at a time.
- Usually don’t have integrated grinders (not necessarily a bad thing).
- More time-consuming.
The mark of a truly good espresso is the quality of its “crema” (discovered by Gaggia in 1946). Crema is the foamy head that should be created on the top of your finished espresso shot; the perfect crema is described as being 2mm thick, with a smooth, oily-looking surface.
A fully automatic bean-to-cup machine ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’. It handles every step of the coffee-making process: choosing the correct grind for your beans, tamping pressure, water temperature, and brew time for your espresso.
But bean-to-cup machines don’t just make a decent shot of espresso; many will produce a range of drinks including milk-based favourites caffè latte and cappuccino.
It’s as if there’s a tiny barista hiding in the machine churning out coffee on demand!
You can buy automatic machines that are fully programmable or ones offering a degree of control over the settings, e.g. the fineness of the grind.
Some models have a built-in milk frother, so you get to heat and froth the milk just like a real barista, whilst others do the frothing magic inside the machine, adding milk to your brewed espresso and producing the finished article.
Bean-to-cup machines are suited to people who like the idea of owning one unit that will grind beans, create authentic espresso, and give the ability to make other types of coffee drink.
- Fast and easy to operate; no advanced skill or knowledge needed.
- Can choose from a variety of different beans.
- Easy clean-up.
- One of the more expensive options on the market.
- They are usually large and bulky and take up a considerable amount of kitchen space.
- The final product is not quite as perfect as with a manual machine.
Leftover coffee grounds have a variety of handy household uses: scrubbing those hard-to-clean dishes; composting; garden fertiliser; garden pest repellent for snails, slugs and ants; or they even make a great exfoliating body scrub.
Pod, pad and capsule machines
Pods, pads and capsules, oh my! With a wide variety of single-serve coffee options on the market, it’s easy to get confused about the different terms, so before we get into the machines themselves, let’s first clarify the difference between pods, pads and capsules.
- Pods (sometimes called Easy Serving Espresso or ESE) are coffee grinds that have been tightly packed into small discs of filter paper. ESE is an “open system”, meaning that any company can manufacture to the ESE standard. The pods can be used in specifically designed machines, as well as compatible manual or auto espresso machines. If you end up with a machine that isn’t compatible, you may be able to purchase a pod adaptor for a reasonable price.
ESE pods contain 7g of coffee per serve, measure 44mm in diameter, and can be disposed of in compost so they’re environmentally friendly.
Wondering if you should use pods or just grind your own beans? Pods provide consistency of taste and are simple to use. You can also skip the clean-up. The trade-off is that your espresso won’t be QUITE as perfect as if you grind your own beans.
The most well-known company to produce ESE pods is the Italian company illy, but you can purchase ESE machines from brands like Philips, Gaggia, Dualit…
- Pads are less popular and not as widely available. They resemble a tea bag and contain loosely-packed coffee grinds. Only certain machines are compatible with coffee pads, for example the SENSEO range. They are quick and easy to use but often produce weak coffee.
- Capsules are small plastic or aluminium containers that hold vacuum-packed coffee grinds. Generally, they are only compatible with machines of the same brand, but there are exceptions. Aluminium coffee capsules are recyclable but plastic capsules are not. Capsules usually have around 4.5 to 5.5g per serving and come in a huge variety of styles and blends, depending on the brand.
Capsule machines are the greatest innovation in coffee making since commercial espresso machines came onto the market. They are eclipsing most other methods for home coffee brewing, with many companies, e.g. Nespresso, jumping on board to produce lines of one-serve coffee machines. In fact, experts are predicting that within the next three years, coffee pods will be outselling teabags.
Each brand of machine is compatible only with the associated capsules produced by that company – clearly a rather sneaky way to secure brand loyalty. Nespresso pioneered this style of machine, and licenses other companies to produce Nespresso-compatible machines. In fact, most major brands of coffee machine manufacture Nespresso systems.
Tassimo is another well-known brand in this category.
Capsule machines come in an array of stylish models, some more resembling UFOs than coffee machines. They take up very little worktop space, and can create a good-quality coffee drink at the push of a button.
In fact, the barista at my favourite speciality coffee shop loves her pod coffee machine.
- Very easy and quick to use.
- Easy cleaning and maintenance.
- Less waste of coffee grounds, as the correct amount is pre-packaged.
- Single-serve machines are good for smaller households who don’t drink a lot of coffee every day.
- They are great for the office as they provide a variety of blends and flavours to suit different tastes.
- A higher cost per serving in comparison to purchasing and grinding your own beans.
- You are limited to the available blends and brands to match your machine.
- Only make one coffee at a time.
- Many pods are not made from environmentally-friendly materials. However, Nespresso have a recycling scheme, so you can order free collection bags or drop off used pods at a Nespresso Boutique.
Tons of companies now produce coffee capsules that are compatible with more expensive branded machines such as Nespresso. You can actually buy Nespresso-compatible capsules from Aldi supermarkets; they’re inexpensive and produce good coffee.
Filter coffee machines (AKA drip coffee-makers)
Just like flared trousers and beanbags, drip coffee machines were a firm household favourite in the ’70s. Still extremely popular today, especially in the USA, drip machines produce straightforward black coffee. They are affordable and easy to use.
Producing anywhere from 1-12 cups of coffee in one go, they are ideal for the small office or a larger household. Operation is foolproof: simply place a filter in, followed by ground coffee beans; fill the reservoir with water, turn on, and you’re away. Heated water drips slowly through the container holding the ground coffee. As the water flows through the filter, it carries the flavours and aromas of the grind with it.
Many of the models available today have auto modes and are programmable to start and stop at a given time, so you can set it up before you go to bed, and wake up to a steaming cup of coffee in the morning.
When purchasing, consider what kind of filter you’d rather use. Some machines come with permanent filters that need to be removed and rinsed after each use, or you can purchase cheap paper filters, which can be disposed of in the compost. Some people find the paper filters alter the taste of the coffee slightly.
The next consideration is whether to buy a model with a glass jug or a thermal carafe. Glass jugs generally sit on top of a hot plate, but coffee that is constantly heated gets ‘cooked’ and becomes bitter. The best option is to buy one with a thermal jug, which relies on insulation to keep the contents warm, maintaining the taste and aroma of the coffee.
- Can make large quantities of coffee at once.
- Coffee stays warm so is ready to go when you need it.
- Fast and easy to operate.
- Some of the filters can alter the taste of your coffee.
- They have a relatively big footprint and aren’t generally portable.
Use filtered water and a medium to fine grind size at the ratio of 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground coffee for every 200 ml of water.
Although these were the most commonly-used machine in the 19th century, they have largely been replaced by filter or drip machines and are becoming redundant. Percolators work by continuously re-cycling the boiling brew through the coffee grounds until the correct strength is reached. You can buy stovetop or electrical versions.
- Coffee produced by percolators is often hotter and has a pleasant robust taste.
- The non-electric versions are good for camping or outdoors.
- Perfect if you enjoy strong, black coffee to wake you up in the morning.
- The brew temperature is often too high and as a result the coffee can be over-extracted, i.e. too much coffee flavour resulting in a dry and bitter taste.
- Not as quick or consistent at producing good coffee as a drip/filter machine.
CHAPTER 3: Typical Features of Coffee Machines
Even within the different categories of coffee machine, included features can vary widely between brands or even within brands themselves. After you read this next chapter, you’ll be able to walk into your local Currys electrical store (or BestBuy in the USA) and stun the sales assistant with your superior knowledge.
Let’s look at some of the typical features of coffee machines that you should understand, and some of the terms used to describe various features.
- Programmable timersA fantastic feature that enables you to set up the machine in advance to have it automatically brew coffee at whatever time suits you. On those cold dark mornings, when my alarm goes off, this feature is a lifesaver. The aroma of my coffee brewing when I wake up is literally the only reason I am able to get out of bed.
- Maintenance monitors/cleaning indicatorsSome of the more advanced machines, such as fully automatic bean-to-cup machines, feature built-in maintenance reminders or alarms. They let you know when the machine requires decalcification, filter changes, or other standard procedures to keep it running smoothly.
- Water filtersWater quality is often overlooked in the coffee-making process, but considering that it makes up the bulk of your brew, it is extremely important. Even the best coffee can’t hide the flavour of unpleasant-tasting water. If your tap water is too hard or too soft it can impact the performance and longevity of your machine. Some machines come with built-in water filters to eliminate this issue for you.
- Removable water tanksI prefer the convenience of a water tank that can be removed and filled straight from the tap. Non-removable reservoirs can be tricky to refill, depending on where they are located in the machine. Removable tanks reduce the risk of unwanted spills on your precious coffee machine.
- Auto shutdownIf you are worried about the safety of leaving your machine running or forgetting to turn it off, the majority of good machines on the market come with an automatic shutdown function, which also helps to reduce power consumption.
- Steam wandThis is a device for frothing milk that may or may not be integrated into your machine, depending on what kind you go for. Steam wands are more commonly a component of espresso or bean-to-cup machines. Pressurised steam is released through the nozzle on the end of the wand and can be used to create sweet, well-textured micro foam, which not only makes great-tasting beverages, but will have your friends and family in awe of your coffee-making skills.
- Memory functionMany top-end machines come with a programmable memory so once you’ve discovered your favourite drink, you can get your machine to “remember” the appropriate settings and consistently reproduce it.
- Bar pressureUnlike me, coffee machines work best under pressure. The pressure at which quality coffee is produced is extremely important for producing authentic espresso shots. Fifteen-bar pressure is optimal for creating the perfect shot, but anything between 9 and 19 will suffice.
- Permanent filtersSome machines come with permanent filters, which save money in the long run, but generally require more cleaning.
- Thermoblock heating systemFound in many espresso or bean-to-cup machines, the Thermoblock system heats water to the ideal temperature required for a rich and tasty espresso (about 90 degrees C). Machines that have Thermoblock systems are faster and more efficient, and are guaranteed not to produce bitter, overheated coffee.
- Group handle or portafilterFound on semi-automatic machines and those used in Costa Coffee and the like, this is the device that holds the filter basket containing the tamped puck of ground coffee. This is removable for easy insertion, tamping of coffee and cleaning. This is the ‘thingy’ with a basket and handle that you see the barista filling with coffee and attaching to the espresso machine.
- Drip trayLocated under the portafilter or serving area to catch any spillage. Needs to be emptied and cleaned regularly.
- Single or dual boilersYou should look at the number of boilers your potential machine has. Single boiler systems are most common for home machines. A single boiler means that the coffee machine can only do one thing at a time, i.e. create steam or brew espresso. This can impact the quality of your espresso, as the single boiler must increase the heat to make steam, then the machine needs to be vented to cool it before making coffee.
Dual boilers, like the one found on this Sage by Heston Blumenthal machine, are much more expensive. They can simplify and speed up the process by creating steam and espresso at the same time, and eliminate the risk of overheating the water.
If you wish to create an authentic barista-style coffee at home, then a dual boiler machine is the way to go.
CHAPTER 4: Considerations Before Buying
Before breaking open the piggy bank, it’s important to do the research to make sure you buy the right coffee machine for your needs. Determining what style of machine should grace your kitchen worktop is as simple as asking yourself some key questions.
What is my price range?
First and foremost, this will have an impact on the kind of machine you purchase. You won’t be able to buy a fully automatic bean-to-cup machine on a small budget. And if you want something to make good black coffee, there’s no need to spend hundreds of pounds on a machine with bells and whistles.
Within each category of machine, there are high, medium and low-end ones, so that leads us to the next question.
How much of a coffee aficionado am I?
Are you fond of a simple black coffee to get you through your day, and are not looking for anything fancy? Do you like to try many different blends of coffee and experience new tastes and variations? Are you a coffee geek who just has to have the most obscure coffee you can find? Are you devoted to creating the perfect espresso? Do you want to create delicious lattes, cappuccinos and macchiatos? Your personal preference will dictate which machine you should look at.
A connoisseur of coffee really cares about the quality difference between a manual espresso machine and an automatic machine, whereas the average coffee fan will be content with just a good-tasting, hot cup of coffee. Make sure you know exactly what you want before you lock yourself into a machine that is only capable of doing one thing.
How many cups a day do I want to make?
Are you a casual coffee drinker who enjoys one or two cups a day, or a full-blown coffee addict who drinks it by the gallon? If you need large amounts of coffee that is always ready to go, you’ll want to look at buying a filter/drip machine.
If you’re a one or two cup a day person who is just after a quick and tasty cup at home, then a pod coffee machine will suit you perfectly.
If you’re a beginner looking for the best quality coffee available at home, without a steep learning curve, then an automatic or semi-automatic bean-to-cup machine may suit you.
When buying a coffee machine, you will need to consider the size of the water reservoir or jug, especially if you need to make three or more cups each time you brew.
How much time do I have to make my coffee?
As much as you might love the idea of an impressively metallic, gleaming espresso machine taking pride of place in your kitchen, if you don’t have the time to put into a) experimenting and learning how to best use it, and b) going through the process of grinding, measuring and possibly frothing milk, then there’s really no point in getting something like this. You’re better off getting a capsule/pod or bean-to-cup appliance that removes the more time-consuming aspects of the process.
On the other hand, if coffee-making is more of a hobby than a means to a quick drink, then by all means, go out and equip yourself with the machine and necessary tools to become a self-styled barista.
If you’re after a machine that gets your coffee to you as quickly as possible, look for one with a higher wattage.
How much space do I have in my kitchen?
Let’s be honest, a tiny one-bedroom studio apartment just might not be conducive to housing a large bean-to-cup machine. Although there are variations on size within each category, in general the higher quality of the finished coffee drink, the bigger the machine. Capsule machines have a small footprint, as do some percolators and filter machines. Some of the bean-to-cup and espresso machines don’t have to be enormous, but for dual boiler systems with integrated grinders and frothers, you’re looking at a considerable amount of worktop space.
How much do I care about being environmentally friendly?
This is a factor not everybody will want to take into consideration, but many people do try to minimise their impact on the environment. Coffee capsules are the biggest environmental concern for coffee machines. A high proportion of capsule packaging is not recyclable in the home collection bin. Nespresso capsules are made of aluminium and can be recycled by sending freepost to their Ecolaboration facility or dropping them into a Nespresso boutique store. Keurig are aiming to make all their K-Cups recyclable by 2020.
If you want to help the planet (and your power bill) you might want to avoid coffee machines that are designed to remain powered up for long periods to keep the coffee warm. Instead go for a machine that goes from power up to coffee production rapidly. If using a filter machine, opt for a thermal carafe over a warming plate.
You can also reduce environmental impact with drip machines by purchasing reusable unbleached cotton or stainless steel filters to replace the disposable paper variety.
CHAPTER 5: Major Brands
Sage by Heston Blumenthal is an impressively high-quality range of espresso and bean-to-cup coffee machines. Designed by a top British chef, they are aimed at the discerning coffee connoisseur with a generous budget. No quick shortcuts to a good coffee here, and you won’t find a machine that can be tucked away in a cupboard when not in use either – only strikingly designed, professional standard appliances. I know of at least one speciality coffee shop that uses a Sage dual boiler machine as a back-up machine.
Founder Achille Gaggia designed the first steamless coffee machine in 1938, when he also discovered the beloved espresso ‘crema.’ The machines and accessories in this range are mid to high range premium quality espresso or bean-to-cup machines.
From Melitta Bentz’s invention of the paper coffee filter device over a century ago, this brand has matured into a leading name in the industry. Melitta delivers premium coffee machines, from fully automated bean-to-cup machines to high quality filter machines. This name is associated with reliability and quality.
German company Braun specialises in drip/filter machines with simple operation and functional design. The machines simply make good cups of black coffee with no bells and whistles and are priced affordably.
A UK-run company that provides affordable and decent-quality household appliances. Their coffee machine range is extremely popular and includes espresso machines, filter machines and percolators, which are all priced competitively.
With the help of actor George Clooney, Nespresso is the name most closely associated with capsule machines. Nespresso licenses several other major companies such as Krups and De’Longhi to produce a range of single-serve espresso machines using the capsule system.
All Nespresso-branded machines are compatible only with the Nespresso capsules, which are available in 22 different blends. The machines are compact with a funky design, and are easy to operate and maintain. You can find a Nepresso coffee machine review here.
Philips produces this range of affordable coffee machines that are compatible with the SENSEO pods. They are straightforward black coffee machines, with no integrated milk frothing ability, and are one of the more affordable pod coffee systems on the market.
Tassimo produces a specialised range of single-cup machines that work with their compatible T-DISC pods to prepare one-cup servings of espresso, regular coffee, tea, hot chocolate or other coffee-based drinks. The bar code on the top of the T-DISC is read by the machine, which then adjusts water temperature and amount, brew time, and strength.
CHAPTER 6: Barista Tools
If you are fond of the science-based aspects of the coffee-making process, then you’ll no doubt be drawn to manual options more than the pod coffee machines that take care of all those fussy aspects. Even if you have a fully automated espresso machine, you may still want to take into consideration some of the delicate processes that can fine-tune your coffee into the ultimate drinking experience. Your dedication to this science is limited only by your time and attention to detail.
Below are the most common tools you may want to add to your repertoire for making that ideal brew.
Frothing milk is simply the process of introducing air particles into the milk. This improves the taste and texture of the milk, and therefore adds to the overall quality of your drink.
When steam is used to create the froth, it produces foam with a heavier and thicker texture. If you prefer a lighter froth, you will need to purchase a milk frother that doesn’t use steam, e.g. a whisk.
If your chosen machine doesn’t contain an integrated frother (or you’re not happy with the performance of the integrated frother) you can purchase a standalone milk frother.
For best results, use fresh cold milk at a temperature of around four degrees Celsius.
If you are planning to create milk-based drinks such as lattes or cappuccinos, then you will need a good frothing jug. Most experts agree that the best quality jug or pitcher should be a stainless steel version. Stainless steel is more heat resistant, doesn’t add any unwanted flavours to the milk and is easy to clean. Having said that, I’ve seen plenty of speciality coffee shops using glass or ceramic jugs.
If you want to be extra fancy and create latte art, you’ll need to purchase a jug with a beak or spout that will make it easy for you to pour a consistent stream for your artwork.
When purchasing the jug, you also need to consider the type of frother you want to buy, as jugs can be bell-shaped or straight, and you need to find the right size and length of frother that will be compatible with the size and depth of your jug. Milk jugs come in a variety of sizes, with the most popular being 330 ml and 660 ml.
Remember that you need to leave enough room for the milk to expand, so you’ll only want to fill up the jug 1/3 or halfway.
Because beans lose 60% of their flavour within the first 15 minutes of grinding, it is advisable to grind them yourself in order to keep that aroma and flavour intact. Many automatic machines come with integrated grinders, but you can also purchase standalone coffee grinders.
Grinding the beans with the correct equipment, to the correct size, is one of the most important aspects to creating the style of coffee you prefer.
The size of the individual grinds of coffee affects the speed at which the water passes through the grinds, and thus impacts the final strength and quality of the brew.
Burr grinders are preferred over blade grinders. Blade grinders tend to produce unevenly-ground particles and can ‘burn’ the coffee.
You can purchase manually-operated hand grinders, or quick and easy electric models. Models vary greatly, with some electric grinders offering over 40 different grind settings – only recommended for the extremely finicky coffee enthusiast.
At minimum, you want to be able to grind anything from super-fine for an espresso to very coarse if using a French press.
If your coffee is too bitter for your taste, then your grind is too fine; if it’s too flat, then your grind is too coarse. You will probably want to experiment a bit to find your perfect grind size.
Of paramount importance in coffee-making is the water to bean ratio. A scale will be required if you are using anything other than pre-packaged capsules, ESE pods or another fully automated system.
Coffee brewing experts measure out the amounts of both coffee and water used per serving. Try 20g of ground beans to 300ml water as a starting point and refine the amounts until they match your tastes and preferences.
Digital scales are the easiest and most accurate to use, and you’ll want to purchase a set that reads between 0.1 g to 1 g increments. Once you find your ideal ratio, the scales can be used to consistently produce a great cup.
Although light and dark roasted coffee beans may measure out the same, they actually don’t weigh the same. Therefore, weighing your coffee is the most accurate way to get the correct ratio.
Tamping is the process of gently compacting the coffee grounds together within their portafilter basket before brewing to create a ‘puck’. Too much tamping can result in a watery crema and burnt coffee, while not enough tamping can produce a crema that is too light and foamy, and watery coffee. Automatic machines do the tamping for you, whilst many semi-auto machines have an in-tamper, but it’s not the best way to tamp. If buying a separate one, ensure it fits your portafilter tightly to ensure even tamping.
Tamp once, but apply two pressures. First use a light pressure to create the desired shape, then secondly use slightly more force to help remove any tiny spaces between the grinds.
When frothing milk, the correct temperature of the milk is vital. The ideal temperature for milk frothing is around 65 to 70 degrees C. Any hotter and the proteins in the milk will start to break down, releasing sugars and changing the taste of your beverage completely.
You can also judge the temperature by holding the jug. Once it starts to become too hot to handle then it’s probably the right temperature. Obviously, this is NOT a scientific method.
Water temperature is an essential part of this science. The optimal temperature water needs to be, to extract flavour from the grinds without burning them, is just under boiling: between 90 and 96 degrees Celsius.
Thermometers are available in digital or analogue, and many come with handy clips so you can’t accidentally drop them into the bottom of your jug.
It is important to properly calibrate your thermometer before use. You can use a cup of ice and a cup of boiling water to set the correct boiling and freezing temperatures.
Ultimately, which coffee machine to buy comes down to your budget, personal taste, and style of coffee consumption. If you are torn between different kinds of machine, ask around; see if any of your friends have machines and would be willing to let you have a play.
As you have seen, price is not the only important aspect of choosing a coffee maker…
For those who are looking to get the most bang for their coffee buck, you may want to consider buying refurbished coffee makers or refurbished espresso machines. They are often heavily discounted anywhere between 25% – 70% while delivering very solid performance. We would recommend going with a machine that was factory refurbished which will almost always come with a warranty.
You need to be realistic about how much time you have to put into making a cup of coffee and how important the quality of the coffee is to you. Think about whether you’ll be making it just for yourself, or would like to serve it to family/friends/colleagues, or maybe take your coffee gadget on holiday, or have a brew waiting for you to grab as you dash out of the door in the morning.
Obviously, there’s no rule that states you can’t own more than one type of coffee machine. In fact, many coffee lovers do just that.
Thanks to an observant goat herder and centuries of innovative thinking, there is the ‘perfect’ coffee machine out there to suit anybody!