| A Rancilio Silvia
home espresso machine.
Photo: Jay Ritmista, Flickr
Hooked on espresso? Yeah, me too. But not because we need it, right? It's because we love it. It isn't just a caffeine fix -- it's an act of passion. It's a foodie's delight.
Brewing espresso at home is a luxury enjoyed by few but might be more accessible than you think: Decent equipment starts at a basic splurge level before moving into "coffee has taken control of my life" exorbitance -- I swear!
Here's a guide to finding a machine that fits your needs (and your bank account).
First, let me say that any coffee machine that purports to make both drip coffee and espresso side-by-side probably isn't worth the time or money. If you're aiming to spend less than $200, chances are the appliances in your range don't have the ability to prepare really great-quality coffee. In this case, I might actually recommend you stick to haunting your favorite coffee shop. If you're looking for a quick and cheapish solution to your need for speed, though, try a stove-top Moka pot for under $50. They're simple, small and make a tasty concentrated coffee drink that's at least as good as you'll get from a low-end espresso machine.
Not that I'm an advocate of dropping a ton of dough, don't get me wrong. But consider it this way: If you drink a $2.75 espresso at a café just twice a week, you spend almost $300 annually on coffee -- and you have to get out of your pajamas to do it.
During my tenure as a home-coffee counselor, I've seen my share of Gaggia machines like the Espresso Dose, which starts at about $350 -- not so bad, considering that maybe you can also put a tip jar on the kitchen counter, too.
I've watched (and tasted) my home-barista students making pretty tasty coffee on these little guys. Despite being a little bit temperature unstable, this machine can still manage to coax a nice, aromatic crema out of a well-prepared shot (milk steaming's not perfect, but passable for sure). These are especially great machines for the weekends-only espresso drinker. (Note that the Dose model takes both fresh-ground coffee and coffee pods -- but let's not even think about pods, OK?)
A step above the Dose, Rancilio's Silvia is a popular prosumer (translation: professional-grade consumer espresso machine), and also one of the best in the mid-price range ($499–$599). Much has been written about utilizing Silvias for both pulling quality shots and steaming the rich, microfoam milk prized by true coffee lovers -- not always an easy task with a basic home espresso machine, but Silvia's is up for it.
If you want to get really geeky about it, you can add a temperature-controlling PID unit to these machines fairly easily, which seriously ups the ante on your home setup, for sure.
If you're ready to get really serious (e.g. serving coffee to visiting royalty who has popped by for an after-dinner cappuccino), the best bang for your buck is to invest in a machine with a dedicated boiler system. What that means is that the equipment has two separate tanks in its belly: one to heat water to the perfect coffee-brewing temperature, and another that heats a layer of water enough to create the perfect milk-texturizing steam pressure.
Models with this type of capability start at about $1,500 with the Brewtus, a classic-looking, boxy little number that's a favorite of self-described coffee geeks. If money's really no object (sigh...), I say go nuts and get the beautiful, near-perfect La Marzocco GS/3, a comparable specimen at $7,500. And then invite me over for coffee, naturally.
I would love to hear about your home-café setup: Do you have an espresso machine? If so, how often do you fire the little guy up? Let me know in the comments.