The economy may be bumping along the bottom but in one respect it’s full of beans: the British coffee market now has an annual turnover of £6 billion. That is largely due to coffee shops, but the knock-on effect of drinking decent coffee when we’re out is that more of us are making proper coffee when we’re in. Espresso—produced by forcing nearly boiling water under high pressure through finely ground beans for about 30 seconds—is the taste we’ve acquired, but how easy is it to make with a domestic machine? And does the machine make much difference to the coffee?
The answer to the first question is "very". Espresso machines range from simple enough that anyone could knock out a reasonable shot within a few tries, to so sophisticated that you only have to press one button to achieve a cappuccino. The answer to the second question is more subjective. Purists argue that manual machines produce by far the best espresso. To see what they mean, I visited Londinium Espresso, a niche coffee-roaster which has recently launched a plumbed-in, spring-lever machine, the Londinium I (£1,300). A shot from this was viscous, velvety and too intense for me, but then the Londinium is aimed at connoisseurs. You won’t find it at John Lewis.
What you do find there are more than 130 espresso machines, ranging from £70 to £3,750 (€82-4,380). Broadly, there are three types: "traditional", with a metal filter for ground coffee and a steam wand for frothing milk; "bean-to-cup", doing everything from grinding the beans to pouring ready-foamed milk; and Nespresso-like machines that only use branded pods of coffee. A DeLonghi salesman found me staring at a display of bean-to-cup machines, wondering why their prices varied from £369 to £1,395. He helped me play spot-the-difference, pointing out automatic milk options, memory functions, digital displays and touch screens. He helped even more when he admitted "they all produce the same coffee". Armed with this information, I felt free to judge the machines on things I understood: looks, price and what they ask you to do.
At home I tried two bean-to-cup machines, the Philips Saeco Intelia (£450) and the DeLonghi PrimaDonna S DeLuxe (£1,095), pitching them against two traditional models, the Gran Gaggia Prestige (£179) and DeLonghi Icona (from £129.99). The bean-to-cup machines were impressive, heating up fast, remembering your order and taking charge of descaling. And they produced espresso with a richer, smaller-bubbled crema than the others. On both the traditional machines, the filter was stiff to lock in and out; not an option for weak wrists, but I quite enjoyed loading, tamping and knocking out the spent coffee afterwards. The hands-on experience makes the coffee habit even more of a displacement activity.
The drawback of traditional espresso machines, for people who drink their coffee with milk, is that they are exactly that: machines designed to make espresso, rather than longer drinks. There is no space under the spouts for larger cups. Often the steam valve is directly above the steam wand, so you risk scalding your hand. If you steam your milk first, you have to wait for the machine to cool down before you can make your espresso. If you make the coffee first, it gets cold waiting for the milk. And then, in my case, there is the disappointment of DIY milk. Baristas advise keeping the steam wand close to the surface of the milk, generating a whirlpool and "surfing that hole", but, like surfing itself, it’s harder than it looks.
If you don’t drink espresso neat, the milk matters as much as the coffee, and since milk is the more variable element, it seems worth paying extra for a machine with an automatic milk function. The best value I found was the DeLonghi EC860M (£269.95), which marries a filter with a milk carafe.
I also tried a Nespresso machine, the Krups Maestria (£349). Coffee snobs look down on them but capsule systems are undeniably convenient, particularly for people who don’t drink much coffee. On the downside, you miss out on smelling the beans, the unit cost is higher (40-50p) and there’s a lot of packaging. On the upside, the coffee is consistent and machines start at £89.95. George Clooney certainly seems convinced—but more to the point, so is Heston Blumenthal. At the Fat Duck in Bray, if you want coffee, you get Nespresso.