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Richard Kilgore

Least Expensive Machine for Decent Espresso?

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What's a reasonable place to start for decent espresso? I do French press daily, but I saw the adv for the illy/FrancisFrancis X5 deal ($175 plus a minimum of $395 worth of illy over 12 months). Is this worth doing? Are there less expensive machines to consider?

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Aside from any issue relating to the quality of the machine, which everybody seems to think is quite a decent unit, I'd be extremely reluctant to commit to $400 worth of coffee from a single source. You may find, within weeks of getting an espresso machine, that you want to try your hand at roasting. And you may find, once you've roasted your own, that you don't want to drink another $350 worth of Illy. You also may find a local source that you prefer, such as a coffee shop that roasts every day, in small batches, and offers a blend you favor.

When it comes time for me to get a serious espresso machine, I'll most likely get a Rancilio Silvia. It seems these can be had for $445 from many online vendors. Until then, I'm quite happy using my little <$100 DeLonghi as a training machine.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I had a chance to use a F!F! X5 over the weekend with Illy pods - it's easy to use, it makes pretty good espresso. It takes a completely different technique than my Isomac machine - but it's fairly easy to produce good microfoam. It's by far the cheapest solution, the need for a grinder with a Silvia or any other machine will add a few hundred dollars to the cost.

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I had a chance to use a F!F! X5 over the weekend with Illy pods - it's easy to use, it makes pretty good espresso. It takes a completely different technique than my Isomac machine - but it's fairly easy to produce good microfoam. It's by far the cheapest solution, the need for a grinder with a Silvia or any other machine will add a few hundred dollars to the cost.

We have the F!F!X5, procured through the Illy deal when it was only $125. Paying for the Illy coffee for 12 months wasn't much of a hardship, since both my husband and I happen to like Illy. And the machine, for its size and price, is a real winner. It gets heavy use every day and, after a year and a half, hasn't complained yet. It produces great crema, even with your own grind, and as you mentioned, good microfoam without a lot of antics. I would stress that it's totally possible to make excellent coffee even without using pods. Given our new-found financial status, we're having to scrimp and, so, use pre-ground Cafe Bustelo with reasonable results (I know we could do much better – beanwise – for the price, but a little complacency has set in, and grabbing the cute little red-and-yellow can from the IGA suits our over-burdened lifestyle).

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I too have been considering the Illy deal. One of the things that appeals to me about it is that you don't need to worry about using the pods by any particular date, so you can stockpile the pods and just use them when you need to be quick about making your espresso. Or you can just use the machine occasionally, using the pods every time, and your initial investment can carry you for a long time.

The pods will stay fresh a long time, right? Am I wrong about that?


"I don't mean to brag, I don't mean to boast;

but we like hot butter on our breakfast toast!"

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Personally, I hate Illy, which I have always found sour, even in Italy.

In general, I think you will find the prevailing sentiment to be that the cheapest option for bar-quality espresso is the Rancilio Silvia/Rocky combination, which will run you about 720 bucks new (450 for the machine and another 270 for the grinder). Other options may be had for less money, but almost everyone I know falls into one of two categories eventually: a) don't use it all that much, b) want to move up to a better machine. This is not to say that Rocky owners don't get the occasional urge to move up, but I don't think any feel that the quality of their coffee/foamed milk and the nature of the things they can do with the machine is substantially limited with the Rancilio products as they would be with cheaper.


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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These guys apparently sell the Francis! Francis! X5 for $299 in orange.

http://www.aabreecoffee.com/aabreecc/frx5esma.html

This guy on ebay has one new-in-box for $300 buy-it-now, or maybe you could do better:

http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewI...&category=38252

If that's indeed the case, the savings when taking advantage of the Illy deal are $125. Is a $125 savings worth a commitment to buy $400 worth of Illy coffee? What you're talking about is, what, a 30% discount on the coffee? For that to be attractive to me, I'd have to be pretty damn sure that I'd buy the Illy anyway.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Illy has a every-other-month option, it works out to $276 worth of illy coffee - which is still far too much if you don't like Illy, but it's a reasonable deal if you do.

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I'd be curious to hear how many people actually really like Illy. I suspect many people think they're supposed to like Illy because he's supposed to be the big espresso guru, but I run into a surprizing number of people who don't like it.


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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I'd be curious to hear how many people actually really like Illy. I suspect many people think they're supposed to like Illy because he's supposed to be the big espresso guru, but I run into a surprizing number of people who don't like it.

I like Illy coffee, I prefer my home roasted coffee but Illy is better than what an awful lot of places serve.

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Well, yea. But brewed bellybutton lint is better than what an awful lot of places serve. :smile:


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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IMHO if you happen to like Illy coffee and are comfortable with the quality vs convenience compromise that pods and lower end machine represent.... the Illy deal is a good one. Do the pods stay fresh for a long time? It's assuredly better than opening a pressurized can of Illy whole bean and taking a week or two to use it up, but will still never be a match for good freshwhole bean coffee either roasted at home or procured from a good micro-roaster.

The "great crema" you see from a pod in the FF machine is likely the result of the crema filter. It has an appeal but is no match for real crema. If my primary use was going to be pods, I think $299 for the FF is a good deal - it's stylish (to many) and takes up a minimum of counter space. If I anticipated getting a good grinder and wanting make top-shelf espresso at home, moving on from pods sooner than later.... I'd look at a higher end machine.

The cheapst machine I'm aware of that wil use pods or regular ground espresso and do a significantly better job than the $100 pump machines is the Gaggia Carezza at about $230. I think that for styling and the larger drip tray alone.... the FF is worth the extra $$. Please... please.... do yourself a favor and buy from a reputable existing online vendor. I've heard mixed reports about people's experiences buying espresso gear from Ebay. Follow up service after the sale is so important for these products.... chances are you'll get just as low a price or darn close to it from a "regular" vendor.

There are many online vendors - the ones I'm familiar with based both on personal experience and reputation are

Chris Coffee

First Line

Aabree (also dba EspressoPeople.com)

All three are long established, reputable, offer good selections and have knowledgeable service after the sale. My personal favorite is Chris Coffee but be advised that he does not sell any lower end gear.

I'm in the neutral camp on Illy - don't really dislike it as some people do but I've had Italian bar brands brought back from Italy like Lavazza that I like better and the local microroast beans and stuff I do at home totally blow it away. I see it as a good fall-back bean if I'm in an unknown locale - if a small cafe in an obscure location is using Illy it would appear that they're at least trying to bring a certain level of quality to their espresso and it may be worth a try.

Despite the fact that Torrefazione Italia was purchased by Seattle's Best a few years ago, who was subsequently gobbled up by the Green Monster (Starbucks - not Genny Cream Ale!).... they still offer some excellent pre-roasted blends. I think their Perugia blend is far superior to Illy and about the same price

Torrefazione Italia Perugia blend espresso pods

The Silvia / Rocky combo is well established as a great set of gear for the price point but having already walked down the pricey and frustrating upgrade path myself.... Fat Guy can you hear me?.... I say just save your scratch and go straight to a machine with an E61 style grouphead and get a Rocky grinder or better. Silvia is good but is also well known as a machine that needs lots of tweaks and user intervention in order to consistently get the best results. All of the E61 machines... Salvatore, Wega, ECM, Isomac and many more .... even the cheaper Expobar (an ugly duckling but a great performer).... offer the user a level of consitsency and ease of use that simply can't be matched on cheaper machines.

I'll spare you the specifics of why the E61 style grouphead makes such a difference (not to mention the HX or heat exchanger feature that these machines all share) but believe me it does. I am not a tweaker by nature - once I have gear the does the job well I just like to push the button or pull the lever. My Isoamc meets that need. I adjust the grind of my beans to meet the needs of the bean type, age and humidty levels but apart from that I never ever mess with the beats. I just add water, and do routine cleaning and maintenance.

If you're going to spend $720 and may well get upgrade fever (trust me you will)... just bite the bullet and spend $1,000 to $1,300. Another huge and often overlooked issue is entertaining. If you have dinner guests or friends over on occasion and want to whip up a bunch of milk based drinks for them.... Silvia and machines in its class will make it a long and tedious process. The HX feature of the machines previously mentioned will allow a half dozen lattes or cappas to be built in five or six minutes - you just can't do that with a cheaper machine.

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Where does my stovetop Moka fit in? It was about $18 and produces a rich, thick liquid. Just curious if the leap from under 20 to over 300 plus bucks is worth it.

I do notice with these stovetop models- the larger the capacity, the better the flavor. My single demi-tasse tastes thin. Also, there seems to be a "breaking in" period before the coffee is divine.

It's no indication of right or wrong, but I have never met an Italian with anything other than a stovetop model. I've had Melkor's Liquid Love and it's superior to anything I can produce but I have to wonder if it's his home roasting and freshness more than the machine.


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"How do you say 'Yum-o' in Swedish? Or is it Swiss? What do they speak in Switzerland?"- Rachel Ray

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Where does my stovetop Moka fit in? It was about $18 and produces a rich, thick liquid. Just curious if the leap from under 20 to over 300 plus bucks is worth it.

Moka pot coffee and espresso are two entirely different products. Also, you cant steam milk with a moka.

It's no indication of right or wrong, but I have never met an Italian with anything other than a stovetop model.

That's a good point, and true. But it is also worth making the point that practically every street corner in Italy has a little bar where you can get a shot of excellent espresso for a dollar or less.

I've had Melkor's Liquid Love and it's superior to anything I can produce but I have to wonder if it's his home roasting and freshness more than the machine.

Home roasting, IMO, is the single most important thing one can do to improve the quality of espresso. Even though I lust after Melkor's and phaelon56's fancier machines, I also know that I would totally kick their asses if we compared home-roasted coffee in my machine to store-bought coffee in their machines. In my own experience, home roasting has pretty much eliminated the need to do the kind of "tweaking" to my Rancilio that phaelon56 mentioned above.


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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Moka pot coffee and espresso are two entirely different products. Also, you cant steam milk with a moka.

I know you must hate this, but aren't they both hot water pushed through coffee. I'm not being a smart-ass, I really don't know.

I also know that I would totally kick their asses if we compared home-roasted coffee in my machine to store-bought coffee in their machines.

I just want to clarify- melkor's was home roasted and as is said in Italy- "I can reach heaven with merely a finger!"

The other quote I used to love is "Life is too bitter not to take sugar with the coffee!"


Visit beautiful Rancho Gordo!

Twitter @RanchoGordo

"How do you say 'Yum-o' in Swedish? Or is it Swiss? What do they speak in Switzerland?"- Rachel Ray

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Moka pot coffee and espresso are two entirely different products. Also, you cant steam milk with a moka.

I know you must hate this, but aren't they both hot water pushed through coffee. I'm not being a smart-ass, I really don't know.

Well... it's just not the same thing. The water isn't pushed through the same way, and that makes it come out different. The temperature of the water is lower and the pressure higher in an espresso machine, and these two elements are probably responsible for the difference. I take your point, of course, but in a certain fundamental way all coffee is the same. The hot water is forced through drip coffee too, after all... by gravity. :smile:

I also know that I would totally kick their asses if we compared home-roasted coffee in my machine to store-bought coffee in their machines.

I just want to clarify- melkor's was home roasted...

Oh, I know. That's why I went off on home roasting. I've been using Espersso Monkey Blend from Sweet Maria's, but I just bought a doserless Rocky grinder, and I think I'm going to switch over to their Liquid Amber when I calibrate this thing up.


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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Thanks for all the opinions and experience.

I am in no rush on this, but I know I am not going to go for a $1,000 plus machine. So this FF X5 or the Silvia is more likely. For now I like my french press coffee and am getting a Rocky next month to make it even better. Thanks, Steven, for pointing out the $300 FF X5s. That makes more sense to me, because the minimum illy purchase spread over a year is actually $395. I would rather be able to try different pods or grind a variety of beans, whether or not I end up roasting them myself. And I may end up roasting for the french press before I get an espresso machine.

Thanks again, everyone. More ideas are certainly welcome.

Richard

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Here is a very comprehensive article on the history of the espresso machine.

The unique quality and taste that espresso has is due to the high water pressure and fine granularity of the ground coffee. This high pressure extracts much more soluble compounds and oils from the coffee.

Brewed coffee is mainly a solution. Espresso is a solution, an emulsion, a foam, and a suspension.


Edited by Beto (log)

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Where does my stovetop Moka fit in? It was about $18 and produces a rich, thick liquid. Just curious if the leap from under 20 to over 300 plus bucks is worth it.

I do notice with these stovetop models- the larger the capacity, the better the flavor. My single demi-tasse tastes thin. Also, there seems to be a "breaking in" period before the coffee is divine.

It's no indication of right or wrong, but I have never met an Italian with anything other than a stovetop model. I've had Melkor's Liquid Love and it's superior to anything I can produce but I have to wonder if it's his home roasting and freshness more than the machine.

Sometime when you've got a little spare time, grab your Moka pot and some beans and stop by, we'll use your beans in both setups and my beans in both setups - maybe the ideal solution for you is home roasted beans in a Moka pot, since that a dirt cheap upgrade and it should make a huge difference.

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Good idea, Dave. And, if the beans are really fresh (i.e., not completely outgassed), the moka should be able to produce a reasonable facsimile of crema.


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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The pods will stay fresh a long time, right? Am I wrong about that?

We have a Silvia and have struggled with it for a long time until I have figured out the routine. We use an old hand-me-down Braun grinder mostly because I had been having so hard a time getting a good thick crema that I did not want to invest anymore on my morning coffee. Anyway, we use Danessi Gold mostly , bought in a 1kilo bag in the beans. At one point the crema was not very good but, then where we buy the coffee-Di Palo in Little Italy, NY-received a new shipment of the coffee & the crema has been incredible. So, to make a short statement long - IMHO the freshness of the coffee is VERY important. Now that I am getting good crema, I don't see spending a lot on getting a new grinder :raz:


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Sometime when you've got a little spare time, grab your Moka pot and some beans and stop by, we'll use your beans in both setups and my beans in both setups - maybe the ideal solution for you is home roasted beans in a Moka pot, since that a dirt cheap upgrade and it should make a huge difference.

I can be there in about 15 minutes. Can I bring my laundry?

Seriously- I'm game!


Visit beautiful Rancho Gordo!

Twitter @RanchoGordo

"How do you say 'Yum-o' in Swedish? Or is it Swiss? What do they speak in Switzerland?"- Rachel Ray

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Excellent points being made all around. I'm in complete agreement that home roasting or finding a source of truly fresh quality whole beans (which can be replenished every 5 - 7 days) is the single most significant upgrade one can make, regardless of what style of coffee is being prepared.

If you're making espresso at home for small numbers of people and milk based drinks aren't a priority, the Silvia is a great machine and IMHO a better investment than the FF. The Silvia has a full size grouphead and commercial sized 58 mm coated brass portafilter. The FF has, I believe, a more lightweight grouphead assembly and a 53 mm cast aluminum portafilter. Heavier assembly and lots of brass means better thermal stability and heat retention - this is good. A larger portafilter means you can use more coffee. I suspect that the double basket of a FF will hold no more than 14 grams for a double shot. The SCAA suggests 7 grams as the appropriate amount for a single shot and 14 grams for a double but most of the high end home machines have portafilter baskets that will hold 17 or 18 grams. Go into a realy serious espresso bar and check out the basket they're using - it's most likely the la Marzocco "triple" basket. This is a deeper basket that has no sloping shoulder on the inside. It holds 21 grams of grounds. Make a 1.5 oz "double ristretto" with 21 grams of coffee and you'll find out why the serious shops here in North America do this.

C'mon folks.... we know how importan the concentration process is when one makes a glace de viande or any number of other culinary reductions. Espresso is the reduced essence of the coffee bean's most vital flavor components. Higher weight of beans with same brew time, corect temp and tamp etc. = more intense and more richly flavored espresso. I get really, really good shots with my standard Isomac double basket using approx 17 to 18 grams of beans. I get even better shots with the LM "triple"basket. By the way.... you need an appropriate portafilter handle assembly to hold such a basket. It will fit a 58 mm Silvia but such an assembly will not fot the 53 mm machiens like FF.

Here's a really good E61 style machine for $675 inclusive. I have mixed feelings about the after-the-sale service record of the dealer in question based on reports from personal friends who had problems but they are the exclusive dealer and the machien has a good warranty (and it's received mucho praise from Silvia owners)

Expobar Office Pulser

Reasons to make the jump:

Style? Nah.... Silvia looks as good or better.

Reliability? Uh uh - Silvia is built like a tank and known to be reliable

Steaming? Yes - E61 units can steam while the shots are being pulled - no waiting

Ease of use? yes - really easy to get fantastic shots without "temp surfing" or "time surfing" (techniques for getting more consistent brewing temps from Silvia)

Consistency? Yes - unless you're comfortable playing the surfing game with Silvia or willing to hack the machine and install a PID (electronic thermocontroller). most peopel will get greater consistency of results with an E61 machine.

There you have it. Not a necessity but darn near every day I realize what a good investment I made by buying the machine I own at present.

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