Buyer's Guide: Coffee machines
ONCE a nation of tea drinkers, Britain is fast becoming a nation of coffee addicts. The British coffee shop market has more than doubled in size since 2006, and more of us want to recreate that experience at home.
It's not necessary to retrain as a barista to get a good cup of coffee - modern machines can make tasty brews at the touch of a button.
But with as many types of machine as there are ways to take our coffee, it's easy to get confused as to what exactly we should be looking for. So we've put together this guide to walk the caffeine deprived through the most important factors to consider when buying a coffee machine.
- Filter coffee can have a more delicate flavour than coffee from an espresso machine
- Bean-to-cup machines produce the freshest tasting espressos
Getting a machine to suit our tastes is vitally important. If you're not sure what your tastes are, start experimenting now as it'll be too late once you've made a purchase.
Remember to keep an open mind, and don't base your judgements on bad experiences from the past.
For example, many people automatically write off filter coffee, having had horrible experiences with it in greasy spoons and conference centres.
That's because good filter coffee requires fresh grounds and to be consumed relatively quickly - the reason so much filter coffee tastes awful is because it's been left in the pot to stew for ages.
Filter machines work particularly well with lightly roasted blends, as they are better able to draw out their more subtle and complex flavours. They are also good with single origin Arabica beans.
Darker blends, by contrast, are more suited to espresso machines that extract their fuller, more robust flavour.
The daddy of the espresso machines family is a bean-to-cup machine. As the name suggests, these can take freshly roasted beans and grind them for us to use in an equally fresh brew.
They take some practise, but once mastered the results will taste as good as something bought in a good coffee shop, with the added satisfaction of having done it ourselves.
For those who aren't quite such purists but still want a seriously good cup of coffee, a capsule machine may be a good compromise between the two.
2. Ease of use
- Filter machines and capsule machines are almost foolproof
- The more complex a machine is, the more difficult it is to clean
Coffee machines can be as easy - or as complicated - as we want them to be. While some get going at the touch of a button, others require us to operate levers, read gauges and generally be a bit more involved.
A filter machine is the simplest of the lot, as it relies on gravity to do most of the work. All we need to do is add the coffee and cold water.
Most use disposable filters that are discarded along with the grounds at the end of a brew. Machines with permanent filters require regular cleaning, but even so the plastic is likely to become discoloured after repeated use.
Filter machines need far less maintenance than espresso machines, whose milk frothing arms need wiping down and flushing through with hot water after each use.
The easiest to use espresso machines are undoubtedly the capsule-type affairs. These nifty machines use disposable plastic capsules filled with ground coffee, doing away with the need to store ground coffee and measure out exact amounts.
The capsules are placed in the machine, where they are pierced and hot water pushed through them. The resulting coffee is directed into the waiting cup below.
- Filter machines make large amounts of coffee in one go
- Espresso machines make one or two shots at a time
- Capsule machines can speed up the turnaround between shots
Next thing to think about is how much coffee we need or want at a time. Is a quick shot of espresso before heading out to work enough? Or is that mug supplied with multiple refills over the course of a morning?
Anyone happy with a concentrated hit should be happy with an espresso machine, which generally make a maximum of two shots of coffee at a time.
They're often also designed for relatively light use - say, once or twice a day, for short periods - and some machines may overheat if left on for hours at a time.
On a related note, consider the turnaround time - how quickly can the next batch be made? Capsule machines tend to be quickest at both making the coffee and "recovering" between cups; bean-to-cup are the slowest.
If a steady stream of espresso is important, look for a machine with a large water tank - at least one litre in capacity. This will at least cut down on the need to refill it after every few cups.
Choosing a machine with a higher wattage can also help speed the process up, as it means the maker has more oomph for heating the water and creating steam for milk frothing.
But anyone who needs to make a lot of coffee in a very short time - say for a large family or shared household, seriously consider investing instead in a filter machine instead, as these can brew almost two litres in one go.
4. Refilling costs
- Pre-ground coffee is cheapest
- Capsules cost around three times more per cup
- Grinding your own beans often isn't any cheaper
The cost of homemade coffee is always going to be a fraction of the price we pay in a coffee shop, no matter how fancy the beans we buy.
The cheapest option is to buy ready ground coffee. A cup of espresso made with grounds costs around 8p. For someone drinking four cups a day, that's just £2.24 a week, or about £116 a year.
Those who want to grind their own beans will often find that it can be more expensive than buying ground coffee.
It's tempting to blame the coffee purists, as it's been suggested that the producers know coffee connoisseurs will pay over the odds for their beans. But others say the extra cost is because whole beans take up more room and therefore cost more to ship.
However, the most expensive coffee tends to be that which comes in capsules. At around 25p each, they're more than three times as expensive as ground coffee.
The four cups a day drinker would find themselves paying £7 a week for their habit - or £365 a year.
It's possible to buy them more cheaply in bulk, as they stay fresh for up to nine months - but we're still going to pay significantly more than we would if using ground coffee.
5. Machine size
- Machines vary widely in size - measure the space carefully
- Capsule machines have the smallest footprint
- Remember to allow room to access various parts of the machine
Not everyone has a huge amount of space for their coffee machine, so while taste and style of coffee are important, it's also worth considering how big a machine we can accommodate.
Bean-to-cup machines tend to be the biggest around: a typical machine has a footprint of about 25cm by 45cm, and can be about 32cm tall. Some aren't as deep as 45cm but they'll be wider instead.
Filter machines are smaller, but still on the larger side, as they need to accommodate a coffee pot. A typical filter machine might be 34cm tall, 33cm wide and 22cm deep.
Espresso machines can be much neater, with a typical height of around 28cm, a width of 23cm and a depth of 20cm - although remember to allow room for steam arms and fitting the filter arm.
If space is extremely tight, consider a capsule machine. These are relatively petite - measuring around 29cm tall, 16cm wide and 25cm deep.
6. Machine costs
- Filter machines are cheapest
- Capsule machines cost less upfront but more to run
- Espresso machines offer flexibility for a reasonable price
- Bean-to-cup machines are most expensive
Finally, consider your budget. Coffee machines can vary from £10 for the cheapest filter machine, through to several thousand pounds for a top end bean-to-cup machine.
Filter machines don't cost much because they do little more than heat water then direct it up to the waiting filter and into the waiting coffee pot below; it's possible to get a very good quality machine for around £50.
By contrast, bean-to-cup machines grind raw coffee beans, tamp the grounds into a coffee holder, force hot water through it at the correct temperate and pressure, and even add a little perfectly frothed milk at the end - all at the touch of a button.
Impressive, but expect to pay somewhere between £400 and £800 for a decent one.
To put this into perspective, we'd be spoiled for choice when looking for an espresso machine costing up to £200 - and there are various perfectly serviceable machines available for half that price.
Capsule machines are even cheaper - expect to find plenty retailing for up to £100. Some of the fancier ones with extra features can cost £200 or so - and also remember to factor in the extra cost of the capsules, as mentioned above.
Ranging from tens to hundreds of pounds, coffee machines vary widely in both expense and the quality and style of coffee they produce. Choosing a machine therefore depends not just on budget, but on how we like our coffee to taste.
For the purist, a bean-to-cup machine may seem essential - though the associated price tag isn't for the fainthearted.
By contrast, filter machines are far cheaper to buy and easier to maintain - and they can still make superb coffee.
Those of us who appreciate a good latte or cappuccino will find the flexibility offered by a mid range espresso machine should cover their coffee needs.
Hopefully the guide above will make finding the right machine that much easier.
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