Which Espresso Machine to Buy for Coffee Lovers Christmas 2013?

Thinking about buying an espresso machine for the coffee lover in your life? Great idea as the recipient will enjoy your gift for years to come. But deciding on which one can be a daunting task. That’s why I’d like to share some buying tips in choosing the perfect espresso machine for Christmas 2013.

To me, the best way is to match the machine with the person’s use and needs. You don’t want to purchase a manual espresso machine for someone who is only interested in enjoying a cup of espresso with minimal involvement. On the contrary, it’s not a great idea to buy a super-automatic espresso maker for someone who wants to have all the control over the entire brewing process. Let’s dive into three types of users and the best machine types.

All Joy, Little to No Work

If the person loves to start the day with a shot or two of espresso but has no desire in doing all the work in brewing and cleaning, then either a capsule or a super-automatic espresso machine might be the way to go. Shall we start with capsule espresso machine first?

Capsule Espresso Machine

This is the machine that uses an Easy Serving Espresso (E.S.E.) pod which is a packet of coffee in varying flavors and intensity.

The allure of this type of espresso machines is that the user is able to sip the drink within a couple of minutes by inserting a pod into the machine, pull a lever and there comes the espresso. Upon brewing, the used pod is discarded into a container and can be emptied once it’s full.

Pros

  1. A great time saver. We are talking a few minutes as opposed to 15 if using a semi-automatic espresso maker.
  2. The result is very predictable as each pod contains about 7 grams of pre-ground coffee for one shot and 14 grams for a double. The flavors and coffee strength have gone through rigorous testing by the manufacturer.
  3. There are a variety of flavors coupled with varying coffee intensity to suit your preference. For example, if you purchase a capsule espresso maker by Nespresso, the purchase includes a Grand Cruz Starter Kit of 16 pods in different flavors. Try the Kit first and then decide which one is your favorite to order more. Better yet, Nespresso introduces new seasonal flavors a few times a year so you might add some of them to your favorite list.
  4. It doesn’t require much skill and no learning curve to speak of.
  5. It’s cheaper than stopping by Starbucks on your way to work. A grande latte would cost $4 to $5 at Starbucks and you can make one at home for 1/5 of the price.

Cons

  1. It doesn’t give you much control at all on what coffee to use, the degree of roast, coffee intensity and volume.
  2. It has a recurring cost from $.50 to $1.00 per drink to reorder pods from the manufacturer. In the case of Nespresso machines, you’ll have to order Nespresso proprietary pods.

Top-Rated Capsule Espresso Machine

nespresso-pixie-red

nespresso-pixie-red

Among many capsule espresso maker brands, Nespresso stands from the crowd.  Nespresso is a subsidiary of Nestle Group. There are different models, styles, colors and product bundling options within Nespresso machines. The popular one is the Nespresso Pixie.

Pixie is priced on the lower end in the entire collection with eye-popping colors such as Electric Red, Electric Lime, Electric Brown and Titanium.

With 25 seconds heating time, the Pixie will do all the hard work for you to brew a tasty cup of coffee under 19-bar pressure. Whether you like your coffee “short” or “long-lungo”, you can adjust the volume control to make it happen.

It’s so compact (width: 4.33”; depth: 12.83” and height: 9.25” and weighs 6.6 pounds) that you can pack it with you anywhere you go, the vacation home, ski resort or hotel.

It comes with the Nespresso Grand Cruz, a starter kit of 16 coffee pods of different flavors.

Priced under $200 at this writing, it is discounted as much as $50 off the List Price. One caveat is that price fluctuates based on color choices.  The more popular color might cost you an extra $10.

If you are buying for someone who might also like to have lattes or cappuccinos, choose a bundled option with the Aeroccino (an electric frother). Froth or steam milk, hot or cold under 60 seconds. It’s whisperingly quiet. If you’d get this frother alone, it would cost you from $100 to $150 but with the bundle, you’ll save from $50 to $70.

Super-Automatic Espresso Machine

Super-automatic espresso makers are also referred to as “bean-to-cup” machines. What it really means is that most of the brewing tasks are automated and the user just needs to fill the water tank with fresh water and bean hopper with coffee beans. Press a few buttons and hit the Start button. The machine will do the rest, including grinding the beans, dosing the appropriate amount, tamping the coffee ground at pre-defined pressure and extracting the coffee oil, aroma and flavor at the right temperature and under the optimal pressure.

Pros

  1. Ultra convenient. The super-automatic espresso machine takes all the chores out for you from brewing, cleaning to descaling.
  2. Saves time. Similar to the capsule type, it only takes a few short minutes from filling the water to enjoying your own creation.
  3. Minimizes the uncertainty from your brew. No need to tinker with each variable from the grind size, how much pressure to apply in tamping and extracting to how long you should pull a shot. The drink comes out as perfectly as the machine is designed every single time.
  4. Makes milk-based drinks a snap. If you are a latte drinker like I am, either brew a shot or two of espresso first and then froth some milk to make a delicious drink. Many models are equipped with a built-in frother which makes this step so effortless. There is nothing more satisfying than being able to enjoy an airy and frothy drink.
  5. The machine does the cleaning for you. Many super-automatic have built-in cleaning and descaling cycles that it prompts you in due time.
  6. Many well-known brands to choose from. There is an abundant supply of super-automatic espresso makers on the market. Your wish is their command.

Cons

  1. It costs more. Buying a super-automatic espresso maker is a small investment. You may spend anywhere from a few hundreds to thousands of dollars. The more automated it is, the more expensive it might be. This is not an absolute statement from brand to brand.
  2. High maintenance. Oftentimes the machine will prompts you to rinse the unit after each task, especially for the built-in frother. It can get old for many people that every time you do something, you’d have to clean the unit. On top of this, the cleaning supplies are not that cheap to buy and be prepared to have some stock on hand.
  3. More prone to having problems. Like owning a high-end car, the more electronics it has, the more likely something is going to be breaking down. Unlike an entry-level machine, most of us are not skilled enough to fix the problem that we’ll have to ship the unit to the factory. It takes time and costs money.

Top-Rated Super-Automatic Espresso Machine

jura-ena-micro9-one-touch-espresso-machine

jura-ena-micro9-one-touch-espresso-machine

There is no shortage of top-selling super-automatic brands and models, one of which is Jura, a Swiss company on high-end household appliances. It’s hard to surpass Jura with its super-automatic espresso machines in styling, technology and impressive collection. Some of the units are One Touch which means with the touch of a button, a delectable cup of espresso or cappuccino will be made. It’s like having an Italian barista right on your kitchen counter.

Some of the common features across Jura products are a commercial-grade burr grinder to ensure a perfect match between the coffee grind and the brewing method. To make espresso, the size ought to be finer than that for Drip Coffee, but not as fine as that for Turkish coffee. With multiple grind settings, you will be able to adjust the size until you are happy with the “outcome”, the drink.

Jura espresso makers also enable you to customize your beverages in water volume, coffee strength, brewing temperature and milk amount in the frother. Program it as your signature drink or adjust on the fly. The choice is all yours.

All Jura’s units are designed with self-cleaning cycles so you don’t have to worry about the fine detail. The machine will let you know when it’s due for descaling. Push a few buttons, it will do the dirty work for you.

The design characteristic of Jura espresso makers is minimalistic and modern. Perched on any kitchen counter, I guarantee it will be a great conversation starter at your holiday party.

The price ranges from under $1,000 to thousands based on the model. If you have the means, why not surprise your family or friend with this Swiss beauty?

Obviously, Jura is not the only name on the market. Other brands are Saeco, Krups, Gaggia and Delonghi, just to name a few.

Enjoy the Journey as Much as the Drink

This type of users is like a mad scientist wearing a lab coat and constantly doing experiements. Their typical vocabulary is A/B test, multi-variant test, etc.  For these people, getting a semi-automatic machine is the best bet.

A semi-automatic espresso machine features an automated pump to deliver water and extraction pressure in contrast to using one’s muscle. The beauty of this type is to allow the user to fine-tune other steps of the brewing process. For example, one could test the degree and freshness of coffee roast first while holding others constant. Then proceed with the size of the ground until the perfect granular size is dialed in the grinder. The journey continues until all variables are in harmony with each other and the machine to deliver a flawless shot.

Pros

  1. The most popular type: It’s a perfect marriage between automation and user-control to get maximum satisfaction out of the experimenting as well as the coffee drinks.
  2. It allows the user to use all kinds of coffee beans and flavors to suit one’s needs.
  3. You can personalize every aspect of an espresso such as the length of the shot, the strength of coffee to the drink profile (balance between acidity and bitterness with a semi to full-bodied taste).

Cons

  1. It takes more time and effort to brew an espresso.
  2. It has a longer learning curve and requires patience and persistence but the end will justify the means.

Top-Rated Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine

breville-bes860xl-barista-express-espresso-machine

breville-bes860xl-barista-express-espresso-machine

There is not enough space for me to talk about all the semi-automatic espresso machines. Remember this is the most popular and sought-after type by espresso lovers. I’d like to briefly touch on one brand, that is Breville. Breville is an Australian manufacturer/marketer of household appliances from juicers, breadmakers, blenders to espresso machines.

The strengths of Breville products in general as well as in espresso machines are usability, high performing features without the high price tag and excellent after-sale service.

If you had a chance to take a look at the 100 top-rated espresso machines on Amazon, you’d be pleased to find multiple Breville semi-automatic models such as Breville BES860XL, Breville BES840XL and Breville BES900XL. I am happy to share I had done in-depth reviews on all three models.

If I had to choose one out of the three, I’d get the Breville BES860XL Barista model for a few reasons:

  1. It has a built-in burr grinder with 15 different settings. This allows you to have one appliance to fulfill two jobs in grinding and brewing. It saves you money and takes less counter space.
  2. The integrated steam wand allows you to make milk-based drinks easily and fast.
  3. It’s equipped with a 15-bar pump that forces hot water through coffee ground with more than adequate pressure so the maximum flavor and coffee goodness can be extracted. The added pressure gauge lets you monitor and adjust extraction pressure to brew a shot of espresso that’s like honey with a thick of golden brown crema. Crema is one of the important indicators in espresso making.
  4. The user-friendly features are expressed in the volumetric control to make one cup, two cups and however short/or long of a coffee to your heart’s desire.
  5. It’s affordable. A machine with similar features would cost a lot more than the BES860XL.

By the way, Breville also released an upgraded version of BES870XL. Some of the improvements are change in the shape of the burr coffee grinder to allow easier flow of beans, more control over brewing temperature with adding a PID (proportional integral derivative), aka an electronic brew temperature controller and a hot water dispenser. I wrote a post to compare and contrast BES870XL vs BES860XL if you are interested to learn more.

The Purist Type – Wants to Be in Total Control

la-pavoni-epc8-manual-espresso-machine

la-pavoni-epc8-manual-espresso-machine

These people who put their heart and soul in everything they attempt. They don’t trust anyone to do the work, let alone an automated machine. They want to be in the know of every minute detail in creating a shot.

A perfect machine for them is the manual type where nothing is automated. This type of machine was invented in 1945 by Achille Gaggia, the founder of Gaggia, an Italian brand of espresso machines. The machine is operated by the muscle-strength to pressurize the hot water for soaking the coffee ground and then producing the espresso.

Pros

  1. It’s authentic and primitive at the same time. There is nothing more tactile than using one’s arm to extract a drink.
  2. The user has the ultimate control over the pump pressure, extraction time and everything in between. If the drink comes out perfectly, you can take all the credit. The opposite is true as well.
  3. It’s less prone to having problems and parts breaking down as “Less Is More” in this type of machines. There is no pump, motor or electricity.
  4. It lasts forever and a day. Buy from a reputable brand, this machine will be likely passed on from one generation to another.
  5. A perfect appliance to pack for your road, rafting, ski or camping trip as you don’t have to worry about hooking it up to an electric outlet.

Cons

  1. It takes time and testing to get what you like.
  2. Can be finicky to get to an optimal extraction pressure of 9-bar. Since it relies on one’s strength, getting to the 9-bar pressure can be a real challenge. Insufficient pressure could affect the outcome of the drink.

Top-Rated Manual Espresso Machine

We can’t talk about Manual Espresso Machine without mentioning the name La Pavoni. La Pavoni is best known for its lever-style espresso makers that make pulling exceptional shots possible with the right arm strength and ingredients.

Here are the things that make La Pavoni shine in this space:

  • Brass Boiler: Brass is used on the inside of the boiler and chrome on the outside. A match made in heaven for efficient heat distribution and consistent temperature, two keys factors to making perfect espresso.
  • Built to Last: Most of the parts are made of metals of sort that will very unlikely to break down and cause problems. Owning a La Pavoni is like having a heirloom piece to pass on to the next generation.
  • Beautiful Piece of Art: Tucked this in a corner, it will attract eye balls and become a great ice breaker.
  • Comes with 8 and 16 Cup Sizes: Decide which one to buy according to the person’s drink habit. For a few cups kind of person, get the 8-cup one.

Hope this has helped you figure out which is the best espresso machine to buy. Time is running out for all of us. Keep your eyes on some great sales on Black Friday (November 29) or Cyber Monday (December 2).

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