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October 1998 Issue
Home Espresso/Cappuccino Machines
by Chris Schaefer
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Steam Wands? Ergonomics is clearly the clue. Is it on the right side? Does it move easily? Where is the switch or knob to activate it? Does it reach far enough outward? Is it easy to clean? And since this is becoming oh-so popular does it have attachments that will be easily lost, broken or hard to clean?

Pump machines are migrating towards a new consumer. And they're taking the form of semi-automatic to fully automatic. And they have the price tags to prove it. Today's automatics feature built in grinders that, at the touch of a button, grind the coffee for you and then dispense it into the portafilter basket. You simply brew the coffee and froth the milk. Super-automatics dispense of those frivolous maneuvers and simply grind the coffee, dose it, and make the coffee for you. Even to the extent of allowing you to program how much espresso to make. To go one step further, some machines have a milk frothing attachment that pulls milk up from a reservoir and froths it, then dispenses it into the cup. This feature can be purchased as an add-on and also comes as standard equipment, built in, to the super-automatic machines.

And just when you thought espresso couldn't become more complicated, someone decided to make it easier. Today's consumers can purchase their coffee pre-ground and packaged in cute, disposable pods and capsules. But be aware that you potentially lose cost-savings, freshness and quality, and are limited to which machines you can buy. One type of machine is retrofitted to function with and without pods. On a final note, for those who are food romantics, there is no fun (and very little mess) with the use of pods and capsules. Do not say I didn't warn you!

Pros and Cons- Steam versus Pump; thermo-block versus boilers
Many of the arguments proposed here are opinions in themselves. But I would like to add that, as an engineer with a background in home appliances, I feel somewhat qualified to expound on my opinions. Whether or not the argument is of any weight on your decision of machine choice is purely and entirely up to you, the reader.

First, let us ask the question, "Why not just purchase a steam-driven unit?" Sure, it costs less, and is easily available. But let's look at the end product - the coffee. Because steam-units can not produce the higher pressures needed for proper extraction, they lend themselves to only brewing a very strong coffee. If all of the variables are correct, and someone is paying attention, then this strong coffee can taste very good. But it will never be espresso. And, the boiling process also lends itself to scalding or burning the coffee grounds. This is very easy to do with these machines. Finally, milk frothing capabilities: if you're looking for volume, accuracy, and control you will not find it with this type of machine. That's just the short and long of it.

"But a pump machine is a lot of money, isn't it?" As you will read later, you can find some very cost-effective deals on some manufacturer's products. But as the old adage goes, the more you spend the better you get. First, there's the cost to make the machine. Some manufacturers spare no expense to use quality metals and parts. Figure in the cost to ship it over-seas and you have a major chunk of the machine's price. But, also figure in that sometime you're paying for the name (though you may have never heard of the name before) and your paying for toy - the fact that coffee is still somewhat a fad in parts of the country is no joke.

"Does a pump machine really work all that better?" Yes. MOST pump machines provide the needed temperature control and pressure to extract espresso. But, bear in mind that no pump machine is like the local neighbourhood café. Those machines use commercial grade pumps, sensors, fittings, and direct plumbing. While one or two machines come very close to café quality espresso, they still have their short-comings.

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