While some people are content with an ordinary cup of coffee to kick-start their morning, for those who are passionate about their beans, nothing beats the taste of real espresso brewed in a proper espresso machine. If you're someone who can't stand the thought of a flavourless, weak filter coffee from a cheap machine (or worse yet, instant coffee), an espresso machine for your home may be a worthwhile investment.
If you're not familiar with espresso machines, purchasing one of your own can seem a bit overwhelming at first. The range of styles and features can be confusing-and the price tags a bit daunting. However, with a little knowledge you'll gradually be able to narrow down the options until you find the machine that's right for you. To help you get started, we've put together a brief guide to buying an espresso machine-read on for tips on the type of machine and features you need, and what you'll get for your money.
Types of espresso machines:
As even a quick internet search will reveal, there is a wide selection of espresso makers available on the market today, ranging from tiny countertop models, to big, flashy commercial espresso machines more often seen in cafÃ©s and bars. However, all espresso machines generally fall into one of four categories:
Manual - The traditional espresso machine; some devoted baristas still prefer to use only these models, but they do require quite a bit of skill (and some strength) to master. Manual espresso makers use a hand-operated lever or piston mechanism to produce the pressure necessary to force the water through the coffee beans and brew espresso - the barista must use his or her own discretion (and experience) in matters of timing, temperature and pressure.
Semi-automatic - These are usually the most popular home espresso machines, as they combine useful automatic features with a degree of manual control over the brew. Usually this means that the pump pressure and temperature is automatically set and controlled, while the user switches on the pump and determines the length of the shot manually.
Automatic - Automatic machines can be good for those new to making espresso or who lack confidence in their own technique. In these models, temperature, pressure and water volume are all pre-set and activated at the touch of a button. Many automatic machines do have the option of reverting to semi-automatic features, however, and you can often programme the settings for automatic mode if you do wish to exercise more control.
Super-automatic - These machines handle literally all aspects of the brewing process - from grinding the beans internally, to heating the water, setting the controls, pulling the shot and emptying the used grounds. These machines are ideal for those who are short on time and really just want the espresso to happen with the push of a button.
So which espresso machine is best for me?
To work out which best suits your need, you need to look at your espresso-drinking habits first - chiefly, how much espresso do you and your household drink on a daily basis; will you ever want to use the machine while entertaining a large group of people; do you like drinking cappuccinos and other frothy, espresso-based beverages; and how much skill and knowledge do you currently have when it comes to making espresso? Space in your kitchen and your available budget are two other important considerations.
Necessary features in an espresso machine
If you regularly want to prepare large amounts of espresso, whether to keep up with your own consumption or that of your guests and family, you may find many smaller, simpler models have too small a water tank to keep up with your needs. You may also find the time required to constantly heat the water to the required temperature is an inconvenience. In these cases, you may wish to opt for a larger, more professional machine. Even if your budget is on the low side, you can still find machines with decent-sized water tanks at a suitable price with a bit of research.
Similarly, if you plan to use the machine for making cappuccinos and lattÃ©s as well as straightforward espresso, you'll ideally want a machine with an attachment for frothing milk - either a steam wand or a canister. Most other fancy bells and whistles on an espresso machine aren't strictly necessary, and may just add to the cost.
Choosing a make and model
It's worth having a serious look at your level of experience and skill in pulling an espresso shot - or at least your willingness to put in the effort to learn. As mentioned above, there's a knack to using a manual espresso machine that takes time and practice to master. Unless you're really interested in this process or a particularly dedicated connoisseur, you may be better off going with a semi-automatic or automatic machine that will supply a decent cup of espresso with minimal guesswork and effort. That way you can enjoy a cafÃ©-quality espresso at home - a prime motivator for many in buying a home espresso machine - while saving time and money.
This brings us to one of the most pressing issues surrounding your purchase of an espresso machine - chiefly, how much is it really necessary to spend to get the desired quality? A good espresso machine doesn't have to cost a fortune (although some commercial models cost as much as Â£7,000), but you do want to make sure you're getting a well-built, quality model that will work effectively and last for many years.
It's a good idea to research brands in advance and find a specialist coffee machine maker that will not only provide the advice and expertise you need to choose the right machine, but will also care enough about their product and customers to provide a warranty and ongoing support throughout the machine's life. This may require a bit more expenditure, but when you consider the amount of care and precision that goes into the product (many are constructed by hand with precision parts), it works out quite well on a cost-per-use basis.
Consider size and specifications
A final point is to keep in mind the physical specifications of any espresso machine you consider purchasing. A professional-size espresso machine with plenty of space on top to warm cups may look good in your neighbourhood cafÃ©, but may simply take up too much counter space to be practical in a home setting. Similarly, check whether the model's water source is supplied via a water tank or your home's water mains. While some people find it inconvenient to constantly replenish a water tank (especially if you brew a lot of coffee), it may be equally inconvenient to have to hook it up to the water mains, depending on your personal situation and kitchen set-up.
These are just a few points to start you off on your quest for the perfect home espresso machine - with a bit of planning, research and understanding of your needs, you'll soon be enjoying delicious, fresh espresso beverages in the comfort of your home.