Product Review

Last month I wrote an article on home coffee grinders. It covered such items as available models, their differences, and prices to name a few. Similarly, I intend this article to cover the different models of espresso/cappuccino machines available to the average American home consumer and what sets them apart.

Before I begin, I would like to thank David Bogie. David has been a "hopeless espresso hound" and net-head for years. He has that one tool that sets apart home espresso and cappuccino drinkers: experience. Experience in grinding, drinking, preparation, cleaning and care. And with that, he compiled the 'net's Home Espresso and Cappuccino Machine FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions). I will be borrowing from his experience and mine, while laying down a slightly technical track. I would hope that the info contained here within will help you make a sound and fruitful decision on your first, next, or last home espresso/cappuccino machine.

What is Espresso, Cappuccino?
Espresso has been, for years, misconceived here in the Americas. To be frank, it is nether a degree of roast or a particular blend of beans. It is best described as a process. And rather untouched for many, many decades, this process has been the staple of the Italian beverage known to us as "café espresso." At the turn of the century, the espresso machine was introduced. I will spare you the time-line and the names, but the invention I will not. The first machine used heated water, driven by its counter production of steam to drive the water through the coffee grounds. Experimentation and persistence altered the device to use mechanical advantage with the use of a lever and spring. The lever would draw the heated water into a cylinder where the operator would skillfully draw the water, forcefully, into the bed of grounds. The addition of the spring-loaded lever aided this process. In turn, the lever and spring were replaced by electro-mechanical pumps. In commercial units, such as those found in coffee houses and bars, the pump is of a rotary vane style. But in home use, an electromagnetic pump is used. This device cycles a piston back and forth, thus producing a vacuum and drawing water from a reservoir. A head of pressure is developed as the water is forced from the other end of the vacuum and in turn, dumps the water either through a boiler or a thermo-block. The final product, heated under pressure, is then forced through a bed of grounds. The coffee is a result of the forced contact of the water and grounds. Oils, flavours, and aromas are extracted from the beans and gives what we call "espresso."

Early on, it was found that capturing the steam from the boiling process could be used to froth and heat milk. The then heated milk was served as a topping into espresso to make a "white coffee" or a cappuccino.

A Dip into the Product Catalogue: What's in a machine. Where to shop. What to look for. What to spend. Pros and Cons.
First, not all espresso machines are created equal. The first machine you may already be familiar with is the steam-driven machine that retails for about 30$US. This machine uses a small boiling chamber to heat water. Steam created from the heating forces the water into the bed of coffee. The same steam is drawn off, used to heat milk.

Moving up the ladder we get into other type of machine. The pump-driven variety. As explained above, this type uses an electromagnetic pump to force the water. And you might have guessed that these units are more expensive because of that. As you will read in the Pro and Con section, this unit is far superior to its cousin, the steam-driven type.

Some pump machines come in assorted flavours if you will. You might find a machine with a built-in grinder, an automatic doser, a fully automated brewing process, or devices to ease the preparation.

Machine Specs and Glossary Terminology
Some new terminology may appear here, so please have patience and an open mind. The first new word to add to your word processor's dictionary file is "portafilter." This is the handled device that sticks out from the espresso/cappuccino machine. It holds a "filter basket" which is where you put the coffee. Next, the brew-head or "group." This is where the portafilter gets locked into place. It's function is to securely hold in the portafilter so the pressure doesn't blow it off. It contains a shower-head where the water comes out that is used for brewing. The shower-head has a removable screen held in place with a screw. The final piece of equipment is the steam wand. It is used to heat up milk for cappuccinos. Other terms of interest include "shot," "pull," and "tamp." A shot is fairly self-explanatory. To "pull" is the brewing and extraction process. And to "tamp" is to flatten and compress the ground coffee so as to provide a uniform bed for proper extraction. There is also the term "wetting." This refers to the initial stage of brewing where the grounds first come into contact with the brewing water. Machine Features and What to Look For
Steam-driven units
If you plan on taking the lowest-cost route, you have very limited options in machine choice. The steam-driven unit is packaged with a glass carafe and occasionally is sold with cups and saucers, an instructional video, and perhaps an attachment that "enhances" the milk frothing experience. Outside of these, practically every steam-driven unit is identical. Pump-driven units
Your choices for machine blossoms in the category. The first feature you want to investigate is whether the machine uses a boiler to heat the water, or a thermo-block. After that, consideration must take place as to the material selection (is the machine housed within metal or is it a plastic case?), the size of the water reservoir, the style of portafilter (I'll get to what a portafilter is), and the controls. In addition are such things as steam wands, drip trays, and plumbing.

Pump machines use two different methods to heat the water, as mentioned above. The first method is with the use of a metal block- the thermo-block. Simply put, water is pumped out of the reservoir and into the heated block where it is quickly heated. It then travels out of the block and into the showerhead where it is distributed and forced through the grounds. Boiler units pump the water out of the reservoir and into a boiling chamber, where it too is heater then pumped to the showerhead and into the grounds. Read the Pros and Cons section for a discussion between these two heating devices.

Both types of pump machines produce heat and that heat has to go somewhere. Escaping heat travels upward and it makes it very convenient to place a "warming tray" atop the machine. Whether it looks it or not, every machine can be said to have one of these. The real debate is whether or not they work. It takes a long time to get a surface warm enough to heat up small china cups sitting on it, and to keep them warm. Home units are rarely on for this length of time.

Water makes coffee. Simple enough. Where does the water go? Well, internal plumbing is the key. Because pressure is the key to proper espresso extraction, some water tends to leak out of various places due to said pressure. Enter the by-pass valve. Very few machines have this and it is a luxury. Especially when it come to cleaning the machine. The by-pass valve, as on their commercial counterparts, works by allowing the residual pressures to escape via a different path after the pump has been turned off. What this means for you is no more hot, steamy water blowing past the showerhead when you remove the portafilter spraying hot, wet grounds on you.

And that leads me to drip trays. Every machine has one. Be sure to find something adequate for your needs. If you have a tendency to forget to clean up after yourself, or if many people will use the machine, you may think about purchasing a machine with a large, deep drip tray. Easy to remove and easy to clean is the ticket.

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.

The argument over a thermo-block versus a boiler machine has toned down a bit since the intervention of better temperature control and better manufacturing. Earlier thermo-blocks were made to get the water to as hot as possible as quickly as possible. In this, they had losses of liquid water into steam (which was partially recaptured in the drip-tray). They would also have the tendency to get the brewing water too hot, those damaging the coffee. But they did get the water hot and quickly. Boilers on the other hand are slow. Yet they are sure to bring the water and hold it at the proper temp. With today's temperature control, it no longer seems a toss up between the two. In this author's opinion, since no commercial machine uses a thermo-block, I am more inclined to look at those machines that use boilers. And the more popular manufacturers tend to agree.

Other Toys and Features: pressurized portafilters, pods and capsules
Some toys are available for today's espresso/cappuccino machines. Pressurized portafilters seem to be popular. But, in this auther's opinion, unless you know what you're doing, you could make potentially good espresso turn into drek. With these fancy portafilters, you still need to dose and tamp properly. That is all I will say on the subject.

Frothing attachments are also popular. And some work. If you buy a machine, and it has a unique device that supposedly froths better, play with it and give it a shot. It may be that you NEED this device to work the frother correctly. But it may turn out that it is unnecessary to have said device. It seems, from my experience as well as others, that wands with a normal, "jet-styled" tip seem to perform the best. They look like the ones on commercial machines.

Espresso can be purchased, today in pods and capsules. But, be warned that you can't always get a guarantee on the coffee's freshness and quality. Also, only a very few machines can take pods and capsules. See below. Dollars for dollars, it is still wise to buy your own coffee and use what you need. It may be messier (see below), but in the long run, it is more economical (and fun!).

A Manufacturer's Review: Availability, Cost, Extras
For brevity and clarity, this section will be the meat of the guidance portion for this article. Major manufacturers are outlined with their products. Combined with the above and what is to follow, you should find it an easier choice as to your machine purchase. Also, due to the numerous different models available, I have left out pictures of all the machines (where I could) and only included the company's logos. If you know of a company that is not mentioned in this article, please send email to and I will be happy to reply.

Probably one of the largest manufacturers of home espresso and cappuccino machines, Saeco (aka Estro) produces the widest range of machines. From simple pump units for first-timers, to upper-ended, all-metal workhorses, to the infamous Superautomatic machines that give you your drink at the touch of a button. As a side note, Saeco machines are sold in Starbucks coffee houses, under the name Estro. Saeco is located in Milan, Italy and sells units strictly for both American and European markets. Saeco is the first, and probably the best source for the automatic line of machines. Be forewarned that their non-automatic and semi-automatic machines come with a "technology enhanced" portafilter. (see Other Toys, below) Machines can be had directly from Saeco via their website at http://www.saeco-usa.com or at coffee store retailers throughout the United States. In addition, on-line sources and auctions may, at times, carry these machines. Be forewarned, again, that machines of that nature may be refurbished and you should always ask before purchasing. Saeco is a good, sound buy for any of their machines.

Certainly one of the better names in espresso equipment. Rancilio's are unique in that their machines are actually made from pieces of their commercial units. The portafilter, brewhead, and steam wand, and three-way solenoid valve are taken right from their machines found in cafés and restaurants. Their portafilter is made from machined, marine-forged brass. The largest difference between their home and commercial products is the use of the electro-magnetic pump instead of a rotary vane pump. An interesting note, each machine has it's own name. The Railto line has two models: the Audrey (named after Audrey Hepburn) and the Nancy (named after former First Lady, Nancy Reagan). Their latest model, which fixes every quirk found on the Rialto, is called Silvia. If you know who this machine is named after, please send email to ! Rancilios are priced at 365$ and can be found at that price almost everywhere. It is common for these machines to be sold at higher-end coffee stores but even more common to purchase it over the web. Note: the Rialto line may not be around for much longer as the Silvia, a stainless steel encased machine, is replacing it. You may be able to find very good deals on the Audrey now. Look for these machines at http://www.wholelattelove.com and http://www.dailygrind.com today.

A unique animal all in itself! The La Pavoni is a dream, a pain in the butt, and a conversational piece, all in one. It is not a pump machine and not a steam machine. It is a lever-spring machine. And it is not for new-comers! La Pavoni is unforgiving and, when treated like a king, can produce some very, very good espresso. Aesthetically, Pavoni's machines are beautiful. Chrome, brass, knobs, gauges, domed top, big lever. They almost taste as good to the eye as their product does IF you pull it correctly. And they have a nice price tag to compliment their looks. You'll be hard-up to find any of Pavoni's "chrome peacocks" for less than 500$. Be warned, parts, such as thermostat fuses and switches, have a tendency to blow on these machines. They require that they be owned by special people - true espresso enthusiasts. But, Pavoni's are readily available at upper-ended coffee stores, upper-ended housewares stores, magazines, and via the web.

DeLonghi
This is another Italian company who has been around the block once or twice. Their name is popular but their machine quality is questionable. For their price, the user needs to decide for themselves if the machine performs the way they would expect. DeLonghi has a strong presence on the shelves of more popular retailers, such as Dayton-Hudson's and also can be found at on-line auctions. For the money, one will find a better machine if they keep looking. But if you receive it as a gift, don't return it. Briel
Another well-known and sound name in the espresso machine business. Like Saeco, Briel has many different models to choose from and a wide variety of prices to boot. Briel is a fair to good buy and will make their owner a happy owner. Like other machines, you can find them in good stores and on the web. Briel also has a machine which accepts their espresso pods. Read above for comments on pod coffee. Gaggia
Gaggia, yet another, fine Italian manufacturer, makes very good machines. And their price tags prove it. Their most popular machines, the Espresso and Coffee, have metal housings, by-pass valves, and enough water storage to house Keiko, the killer whale (just kidding). They are definitely a sound investment. Look for them in popular housewares magazines and, more easily, on the web. Check out http://www.essetti.com for deals and details. If you find yourself in a quandry between a Rancilio and a Gaggia, sleep on it, wake-up, and toss a coin. Both manufacturer's make a fine product. Gaggia is also the creator of the ESE pod system. What's nice is that, for a few extra dollars, you can purchase an add-on component that allows you to use pods (from Illy Café) or your own coffee. You decide; but it is a nice feature to have IF you prefer pods. Gaggias appear frequently on on-line auctions. Again, check to see if it's refurbished. Usually, you will get a great deal. Solis
A Swiss-made machine manufacturer. And it is proven by its performance (and price). To add to your headache between Gaggia and Rancilio, add a Solis. Though it hasn't undergone any cosmetic changes lately, Solis machines are strong, quiet, and they last. They weigh in not too differently from the other two honchos when it comes to price and performance. It has been noted that they are great machines when doing copious amounts of milk steaming.

Capresso and the Coffee Team are relatively new to this business. Performance-wise, they fall in between a Saeco or Briel and a Rancilio (or others in that class). Capresso isn't shy about price and that's why this author feels that a more wise purchase can be had with one of the other companies mentioned in this article. Capresso has a respectable website, so I encourage you to visit it sometime. Http://www.capresso.com is the address.

Krups
And lastly, a word on Krups. Originally, and to some extent today, these machines are a sound investment as they last some time. Performance, though, is the question. They are readily available at about any store that sells quality housewares, and they are affordable. But, with a few dollars more, you can purchase far superior machines. Again, like a DeLonghi, don't scoff if you receive this as a gift. With patience, they can produce decent "home" espresso. But like others in its class, it pales in comparison to the likes of Rancilio or Gaggia. Krup's sells their models from anywhere between 150$ to 250$. They, like the Saeco, come with a portafilter that is designed to improve espresso production and minimize mess. This is a source for much controversy and, in my opinion, doesn't work in that it makes you believe you're making a correct shot when in fact you may not be. Consider yourself warned. The Other Price to Pay: Cleaning
A last word and thought. Why do you buy coffee from a shop and drink it in a small cup with a lid as you are walking to your car? Because you didn't make it. Which means you didn't make the mess associated with it.

Face it, making espresso CAN be a dirty experience. But over time you will learn tips and tricks to keep the countertop clean. Here are some of mine.

  1. Always wear a towel on the shoulder; use it to wipe up spills.
  2. Keep a dish rag handy to clean the steaming wand and the filter/brewhead.
  3. Keep your portafilter clean and dry and store it in the machine at all times (whether the machine is on or not). This will keep coffee oils from leaving odours and stains. A dry filter basket will help ensure that the coffee comes out neatly when done with the pull.
  4. Keep the drip-tray clean.
  5. Keep the trashcan near or keep the machine by the sink. This will help dispose of spend coffee.
  6. Store your milk pitcher used for frothing in the refrigerator.

    Before frothing, "bleed" the wand of excess moisture so as not to splash milk around. Then, turn off the wand, place it in the milk, and turn it back on.

  7. Keep the machine clean! Don't allow it to sit for a day or so before cleaning.
  8. And, finally, dump out the water in the reservoir if you don't plan on using the machine for more than a few days (Heaven forbid!).

With that said, I hope you are ready to begin shopping for your new home espresso/cappuccino machine. Please feel free to email me here at Seasoned Cooking with any questions or comments. The biggest key is to shop, shop, and shop (research). Then, if it's available to you, actually get some play-time with the machine you think you'll buy. I know that this is unavailable in many areas. Finally, when you do make your purchase, do not forget to fill out the warranty and registration cards. This can save you a lot of hassle in the future.

I would like to thank the following people for their help: David Bogie, Barry Jarrett, Serge, and Gary Salzman. Thank you, gentlemen. The author dedicates this article, and the preceeding article, to good friend Tim Nemec who, for over four years, was responsible for one of the Web's best coffee resources: Over The Coffee and Speaking Of Coffee. His hard work to keep his service free of SPAM and free to its users is a model to every internet coffee resource. Tim, we will be sorry to see OTC close down this month and hope to see you on-line more. OTC and Speaking were places where anyone could go to talk, research, and lurk in the company of some the most dedicated Internet coffee lovers.

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