Are manual coffee machines easy to use?
It's surprisingly easy to use a manual coffee machine, and many home baristas are self-taught. You can find all that you need to get started by flicking through pages under the Learn tab ...and if you are a Melbourne coffee machine customer you get Free Training with me, one on one.
I have run hundreds of these training sessions and have no problem taking anyone from "pod novice" to home barista. I have even trained up my 10 year old son, and he really enjoys making an espresso for his Dad and a latte for his Mum on the weekends!
Italian coffee machines v appliances
On paper a high end $1000 appliance machine may look like a great option. This is because the upfront cost is low.
However, as soon as you run some calculations out to 20 years, an Italian coffee machine is a clear winner for your wallet as well as for the environment. This is because replacement of appliances every 3-5 years is typical because of the “design-to-fail” and “planned obsolescence” strategies that some appliance manufacturers employ. I hear about this time and time again from new customers.
Italian coffee machines are designed to last. A well cared for machine should last 20+ years and 30+ years isn’t unusual. During the machine’s lifetime servicing will be required and occasionally components will need to be replaced but the machine will never be discarded. Servicing costs are low as manual Italian coffee machines are easy to fix. Parts are common and easy to find as most machines use generic components, sourced from a supply chain in Milan.
Why can't automatic machines make great espresso?
Why is a manual coffee machine a better choice than an automatic coffee machine? Why can’t I just push a button to get a perfect cup of coffee on a bean-to-cup automatic coffee machine? Why can’t I push a button to get a perfect espresso in 30 perfectly timed seconds on a semi-automatic coffee machine?
Let’s start off with bean-to-cup automatic coffee machines. These are the machines that automatically grind the beans, feed them into the machine and then run the water through the grounds. Whether you spend $2k on a home bean-to-cup machine or $10k on an office bean-to-cup automatic coffee machine you will never get anything close to a great espresso.
The first reason is that bean-to-cup automatic coffee machines can’t create and compress a puck of coffee like a human can. Without a solid puck these machines can’t build the pressure needed to squeeze coffee oils from the grounds. The second reason is that automatic coffee machines can’t “watch” an espresso during extraction and stop the extraction as the stream reaches the blonding point. These machines can only guess the best place to stop extraction by controlling either time or volume.
So what about a semi-automatic coffee machine? These are the coffee machines that allow manual coffee grinding and tamping but extract using a timer. Again, these are a poor choice for home as the best way to control an espresso extraction is by colour, not by time or by volume. You can learn all about extracting by colour on my Understanding Espresso page.
How much should I spend on a home coffee machine?
How much do I need to spend? Let me change the question to "How much would I need to spend to get an Italian coffee machine I could honestly enjoy every single day?" The answer is around $2k.
Ready for a surprise? Spending more than $2k won't get a better coffee into my cup. So, why spend more?
The reason for spending more is about quality of the coffee machine. A higher quality machine will last longer, cost you less to maintain and have higher re-sale value. Quality gear is also something you will be proud to own and something that you will really enjoy. There's something magical about making amazing coffee in your own home with a traditional Italian coffee machine. The home barista experience is just that - an experience. It’s not just about the “drink.” Quality is the key reason to choose a high end machine.
So if I change the question from “how much do I need to spend?” to “how much would I like to spend?” my answer is just over $3k for a heat exchanger espresso machine, grinder and some great accessories.
What is the payback period for a home barista setup?
Italian coffee machines come with a high upfront cost but the payback period is blisteringly FAST!!! Over the years I have had many customers visit after crunching the numbers to see how quickly they will be able to pay off their coffee machine with cafe savings. They typically find that the payback period is less than a year and this has really helped many to justify the investment to themselves, and often to their partners as well.
This gave me the idea to prepare a spreadsheet myself. The results are just amazing. For a family replacing just 4 coffees per day at Melbourne cafe prices, a $3,000 investment (coffee machine, grinder and accessories) has a payback period of 7 months, and when you extend the calculations to 10 years you get a saving near $50,000 - and 14,500 cups as well.
Do I need a rotary pump?
Italian coffee machines come with a choice of either vibration or rotary pumps. Traditionally rotary pumps had the advantage of being quieter but some of the new coffee machines have closed the noise gap with some clever engineering to eliminate the "vibe rattle."
Coffee machines with vibration pumps have a slight advantage when it comes to espresso extraction due to a gentler pressure ramp up. This means that espresso extraction starts with a gentle wetting of the coffee puck, followed by slow pressure ramping up to full extraction pressure. Rotary pumps ramp up to full pressure quickly which means that the coffee puck is hit harder and faster, increasing the risk of channeling and uneven extraction. However, if you want to plumb in your machine your will need to choose an espresso machine with a rotary pump.
Do I need a dual boiler?
If you have read my Buying Guide you will already know that I’m a big fan of Aus Spec heat exchanger coffee machines. These machines give you the true home barista experience by allowing you to brew coffee and steam milk at the same time, and with an E61 group you get high thermal stability as well as gentle brew pressure build up to give a consistent extraction.
Most Italian heat exchanger coffee machines have large boilers which means that you can get a large volume of steam for milk texturing. Most can make back to back coffees all day long just like any commercial coffee machine. Even a professional barista will be hard pressed to outpace any of my heat exchanger machines.
Keep in mind that many cafes use heat exchanger machines. Commercial machines are bigger than domestic machines but the technology is the same and they share the old school simplicity and reliability of a single boiler and a single heating element.
I’m often asked for a dual boiler machine and I always ask “why do you want one?” It’s often because of the perception that they make better coffee. However, an Aus Spec heat exchanger coffee machine can brew just as effectively as a dual boiler machine. Dual boiler coffee machines do have advantages such as slightly better thermal stability and sometimes higher steam pressure, but to most these advantages won’t make much noticeable difference to the results in the cup.
As a final point, dual boiler coffee machines are typically $1000 more than their heat exchanger counterparts. Only you will know if the small performance differences are worth $1000 to you.
To learn more about heat exchanger and dual boiler coffee machines please visit my Buying Guide
What is an Aus Spec coffee machine?
Italian Spec coffee machines are factory set to deliver brew water near 96 deg C to suit dark roast Coffee Robusta beans and deliver bitter sweet espresso. Aus Spec coffee machines are set near 93 deg C to suit brighter, lighter and fruiter Coffee Arabica beans that we enjoy in Australia.
With single boiler or dual boiler machines this isn’t a problem as temperature can be reduced using a digital controller (PID).
When it comes to heat exchanger espresso machines it’s a different story as Italian Spec machines run hot, meaning that the water in their E61 groups superheats to well over 100 deg C when the machines sit idle. This means that a cooling flush is needed before pulling a shot. A cooling flush isn’t just an extra step. The need for a cooling flush means that the thermal stability of these machines is terrible. Of course, thermal stability is critical to consistently brilliant espresso.
When you choose an Italian heat exchanger coffee machine make sure that you find one that has been factory modified to deliver brew water near 93 deg C. The modification isn't as simple as just reducing the boiler pressure. The theromosyphon also needs to be modified as well to keep the brew temperature stable. These machines are referred to as Aus Spec.
Before committing to a heat exchanger Italian espresso machine ask your retailer if the machine is Aus Spec. If the retailer doesn't know what this means then let the warning bells ring. The second question to ask is "what brew temperature is the machine set to?" Again, the retailer should know.
Are PIDs effective on heat exchanger coffee machines?
A PID (electronic temperature controller) isn't necessary for stable brew temperature on a heat exchanger espresso machine. Any heat exchanger espresso machine with a well engineered thermosyphon (water reticulation system) can be stable with either PID or with pressure stat control.
When PIDs first arrived on the scene for heat exchanger Italian coffee machines many manufacturers crudely replaced the pressure stats. In engineering terms these machines were a failure as without a thermosyphon modification water in the heat exchanger tube would super-heat. This meant that before pulling a shot you need to flush the super-heated water through the group head. Obviously, the PID on these machines was ineffective for setting of brew temperature control on these Italian espresso machines machines.
This is all different with PID heat exchanger coffee machines that have been engineered for a PID from the ground up. With these Italian espresso machines you can get fantastic thermal stability as well as effective brew temperature control from PID adjustments.
Most people will set and forget, but espresso aficionados will love the ability to play with brew temperature. If you want a more chocolatey, bitter-sweet espresso you can set the temperature up into the high 90s. If you want something brighter and more acidic you can set the temperature down in the low 90s. Awesome!
How useful is pre-wetting and pre-infusion?
Here are my thoughts on pre-wetting and pre-infusion of the coffee puck.
Pre-wetting (gravity fed water dribble)
Consensus seems to be that pre-wetting is of negligible benefit and my own experience leads me to the same conclusion. This means that you should skip pre-wetting.
Pre-infusion (mains pressure fed water stream)
For Italian coffee machines with standard groups the benefit of mains pressure pre-infusion is significant because it prepares the coffee puck for the high initial pressure hit that a standard group delivers.
For Italian coffee machines with E61 groups the benefit of pre-infusion is negligible because E61 groups are designed for passive pre-infusion followed by gentle pressure build up. Passive pre-infusion is effectively engineered in to every E61 group.
So what does all this mean?
Firstly, forget all about pre-wetting. Secondly, mains pressure pre-infusion is useful for coffee machines with standard groups but the benefit is negligible for machines with E61 groups. The E61 is legendary for good reason. So my advice is to get an Italian coffee machine with an E61 group and forget all about pre-wetting and pre-infusion. Just pull the lever and let the E61 work its magic.
Is high steam pressure important at home?
Wow - what a great time to be a home barista if you enjoy steaming milk. Until recently the typical typical steam pressure for domestic Italian coffee machines was around 1.1 Bar and to get commercial steam pressure at near 2 Bar you needed to spend over $5k. This all changed with the introduction of the latest Lelit Bianca, Profitec Pro 700 and ECM Synchronika
2 Bar of steam pressure is very powerful, so for home steaming I highly recommend the Lelit Bianca and the Profitec Pro 700 with their valves which allow you to reduce steam pressure for smaller milk jugs, and adjust steam pressure on-the-run.
So is high steam pressure important? Not at all. You can make great milky coffees at home with any quality espresso machine and all machines that I sell are capable of great steaming. Is high steam pressure nice to have? Yes. There’s something very cool about squirting the steam wand and seeing steam blast out.
How effective are pressure profiling and flow profiling?
Pressure profiling and flow profiling coffee machines are able to control either water pressure or water flow to enable a controlled “push” onto the coffee puck. There are automatic (electronic) and manual (paddle or lever) options for this capability.
Some manufacturers and retailers claim that profiling changes the results in the cup, but true coffee aficionados, including myself, are unable to notice any difference. One thing is for certain. Unless you have an amazing palate you won’t notice any difference in the cup either. The only tangible benefit of profiling is the ability to control a gentle push onto the coffee puck during the initial stage of extraction.
However, pressure profiling capability is unnecessary for Italian coffee machines with E61 groups as the E61 groups have gentle pressure build up engineered in to their design. The E61 group is legendary for good reason. My advice is to skip pressure profiling and flow profiling and choose an Italian coffee machine with an E61 group.
With an effective workflow you will be able to get perfect extractions on any manual coffee machine without pressure profiling or flow profiling. This is what I do day in, day out, and you will be able to do this as well with Home Barista Training
How long does it take to heat up a coffee machine?
I'm often asked about heat up time. Premium Italian coffee machines have an E61 group (the Star Trek looking thingy out front). The boilers in these machines heat right up in about 5 minutes, but allow another 15 minutes for the E61 group to heat up to thermal equilibrium before pulling your shot. If you are in a rush you get a great espresso after 10 minutes by running water through the group to heat it more quickly. This is known as a warming flush.
Never give up an E61 group on an Italian coffee machine to save a few minutes during heat up. The E61 is legendary for good reasons including thermal stability and gentle pressure ramp up during brewing.
The best solution is to grab a simple power point timer and set it up to switch your coffee machine as you wake. You can even use a Wi-Fi timer if you want to make your coffee machine “smart.”
Are Italian coffee machines easy to maintain?
Unlike highly complex appliance coffee machines, manual Italian coffee machines are beautifully simple to use and very easy to maintain. There are just a few simple things that you need to do to keep your machine clean and healthy.
To find out how to maintain a manual Italian coffee machine see my Maintenance Guide