Making coffee at home: Are domestic espresso machines worth it?

 IS it worth making your own coffee at home? Would it help you save money? What are the trade offs? Lifestyle editor Elisa Scarton weighs up the options, with your budget in mind. 

Photo: GoToVan via flickr

Photo: GoToVan via flickr

Melbourne is the capital of great coffee lovers. It’s one of our favourite pastimes. But with the average cup of joe retailing for at least $3, usually $4 more when there’s soy milk involved, it can be an expensive habit to upkeep. Assuming you have one cup a day, that works out to $21 a week, and about $90 a month – pretty hefty for a student budget. 

While most people would shrug their shoulders and accept that that’s just what you pay for a good cup of coffee, we decided to look around for more affordable alternatives. This week, we start by exploring some of the types of domestic coffee machines available on the market, and take into consideration factors such as the effort required, cost, and of course, taste.

Machine basics

Life was simpler when everyone drank instant coffee dissolved in hot water, but that’d be heresy for today’s coffee snob. Domestic entry level coffee machines are readily available nowadays for less than $300, though it must be said that not all machines are created equal.

One of the things you’ll want to think about is whether to buy a super automatic or semi automatic espresso machine, or a pod (capsule) machine.

A super automatic, as its name suggests, will do all the work for you by grinding the beans, extracting the espresso and frothing the milk at the touch of a button. Popular brands on the market include Saeco, Miele and De Longhi.

Semi automatics are like the ones you see in cafes and the coffee making process would be no different to what your barista would normally do – that is, grinding down your beans using a separate coffee grinder, filling the portafilter with ground coffee before extracting the espresso, and finally frothing the milk using the steam wand.

The only caveat – you’ll need to know at least the basics of coffee making to get a good result. Also, if you’re short on space in a one-bedroom or studio apartment, a semi automatic may talk up some previous real estate. Well-known brands include Breville and Sunbeam, and cost around $200 or more.

Perhaps one of the reasons why pod machines are becoming more popular is because it’s usually smaller in size compared to the previous options, and for those who are short on time, it’s quick, fuss-free, easy to use and produces consistent results everytime.

Pod machines are also ridiculously cheap. You can pick one up from Aldi for $60. The German supermarket chain mightn’t have George Clooney doing their ads, but Aldi’s machine is just as good as Nespresso’s version ($200) or the recently released Coles and Safeway machines ($70).

Naturally the pods or capsules are more expensive then the straight ground coffee beans at around $5 for a box of 16 (it costs around $10 for a 250g bag of beans), but they do offer a great variety of strengths and flavours, which include hot chocolate and chai latte.

Some snobs though, would insist the problem with pods or capsules is that ground coffee turns stale minutes after it is ground.

Making a good brew

The best coffee is made with a machine that’s sufficiently warmed up, so make sure you leave it on for at least a couple of minutes before you make your coffee. While you’re at, warm your cup. There is no proof this improves the taste, but it will save you from drinking cold coffee. Ten seconds in the microwave will do it, and if you have a ceramic coffee cup, use that as it holds the heat better.

How your coffee tastes has obviously a lot to do with the kind of beans you buy. Coffee aficionados are like wine aficionados – they can go on for days about the fruity notes of different beans and the impact of a roast. If you’re planning to buy your beans from one of the many specialty coffee roasters in Melbourne, including Seven Seeds, St Ali, Di Bella Coffee, ask about the varieties of coffee beans on offer – single-origin or espresso blends; light, medium or dark roasts – and how they differ in taste. But as a general rule, coffee made using fresh beans will always you give you a much better result.

Another piece of equipment we haven’t talk about yet is the coffee grinder. Again, coffee snobs would be aghast if their coffee wasn’t being made using freshly ground coffee beans. Pre-ground coffee will usually lack some of that “crema” – the golden cream-like layer you usually find on the surface of a shot of freshly extracted espresso coffee, without which, some claim, will cause the flavour of your coffee to be flat and dull.

Others, however, are quite happy buying the pre-ground stuff. If you’re unwilling to invest more money into a grinder, perhaps the best trade off is to skip the vacuum-packed blocks of pre-ground coffee from the supermarkets altogether, and buy only a small bag of freshly ground coffee at time from specialty coffee roasters – and remember to let them know what you’re using it for so they can give you the right sized grind.

If you’re pulling a shot from a semi-automatic, be sure not to over-extract your espresso – that is, allowing too much water to run through the ground beans in the portafilter. Espressos that are over-extracted taste weak and bitter.

Milk is all about texture, and to achieve the same silky smooth froth the baristas pour to create latte art in your cup, you’ll need a steam wand to do that. But if you’re just after a bit of fancy fun, you can get a stand-alone frother for next to nothing. Aldi sells theirs for $20. A slightly fancier one from Nespresso, for example, costs $70. Also, the perfect froth comes from full cream milk. Soy milk or almond milk don’t froth very well. Skim milk and lactose free milk will work with varying degrees of success.

And finally, always clean your machine well after use. Otherwise, it’d be akin to making a fresh cup of coffee out of an old mug.

There are 4 comments

  1. Chris

    I started to develop a taste for filter coffees a few years back, and 2 of my best investments were a sunbeam grinder and a hario v60 ceramic pourover. Instead of paying between 5-12 bucks for a cup of syphon or pourover, I just pick up a 12-20 dollar bag of freshly roasted single origin beans at any of the specialty outlets (usually Market Lane), and that lasts me 3-4 weeks. It’s a real kick!

  2. Marcus

    Great to see a great coffee article. I just started using the Aeropress which is a cheaper alternative. Google it.

    It does actually make a wicked cuppa for a fraction of the price. Really great to experiment with brew time and coarseness of the grind. You’d need to pair it with your own grinder though.

    The hario handgrinder is quite a work out, if you don’t mind that for a low cost grinder. Invest in a decent grinder, NO BLADE grinders for coffee, always get a BURR grinder for consistent grinds.

    This can go on.

  3. Simon

    Home espresso machines all the way! Well, I am biased i’ve had a nifty sunbeam one for quite a while. Once you get the hang of it it’s the same as cafe quality coffee.

Post Your Thoughts