So you want to upgrade your espresso machine? (part 2)

God bless the internet. Not so long ago, when you didn't knew something, you had to spent days looking for a book or person who could give you some guidance. Things have changed and now it is easier to connect with people  and in most of the cases find general information about something. On my process of upgrading my machine I was fortunate to find blogs and communities that helped me through the process. Many companies also have valuable resources at their websites that were very helpful. Some of the websites I consulted were:
  • Coffeegeek.com: quick and detailed reviews on machines, grinders and more
  • ChrisCoffee.com: besides selling the machines, they have plenty of information including manuals and videos that help you through the process
  • Seattlecoffeegear.com: specifications and helpful videos showing the machines they have
  • Wholelattelove.com: specifications and helpful videos

Selecting the Grinder       

One of the first things my coffee connoisseur friends told me, was that the grinder is just as important as the espresso machine, if not more. With this on mind, I wanted this grinder to be the last one I had to buy during my lifetime. I was mainly interested on quality components and durability. I didn't want something with a lot of features that was going to break down in a couple of years.

After some initial research on brands that were within my budget, I narrowed it down to two models: Baratza Vario and Mini Mazzer. A very detailed Mini Mazzer review by Mark Prince from coffeegeek.com  made the decision pretty simple (to see the review click here). This machine seemed to offer the best grinding quality and durability since most of the components are stainless steel. I found very amusing that the first thing  I found when I opened the box was a warning indicating it was not intended for household use (too late!)



Selecting the Machine

Guiding Steps

With the grinder out of the way, the next step was to select the machine. I would recommend the following four steps to those of you looking to upgrade or a first espresso machine.

1) Know your budget's max and min.
How much are you willing to spend on a machine? With just this decision, you will considerably narrow down your options. The max seems obvious since it is limited by the amount of money you have, but the minimum could be tricky. In my case I was constantly challenging myself to explain why I needed to spend that much. Fortunately, I kept asking myself: if I buy a cheaper machine, am I going to be happy and satisfied with it for the next five years, or are am I going to want to upgrade it as soon as I have it?

2) Decide early on if you are a control freak or a “just push a button” type of person?  
What level of involvement with your coffee would make you happy day after day. Do you want your coffee to be ready in three minutes with only the push of one button or do you want to wait thirty minutes for the machine to warm-up and then ten more minutes grinding, tampering, measuring and pressing? 

I put together a generic list of the differnet type of machines you will find; it goes in ascending order of degree of control:

-Capsules. Nespresso and Dolce Gusto are some of the brands on this category. They sell their own capsules and with the push of one button you can  have coffee ready in less than five minutes. They are offered at very competitive prices, since most of these companies make their profits from the capsules, not on the machines Cons:  Forget about going to your local cafĂ© to buy some beans. You will be captive to buy their brand’s capsules for as long as you have the machine. Fortunately, they have plenty of options on capsules. Besides adding Amaretto or Baileys to your coffee, I don't think you will be able to get more creative than that.
Capsules
-Super automatic.  With only pushing one or two buttons you could get everything from an espresso to a cappuccino. The machine does all the work and your involvement is minimal; it is probably reduced to the type of coffee and milk you use and programming a few settings. With this type of machines you are not captive to use only one brand of coffee, and you can select whatever you want. Something important to note, is that most of them come with a grinder; if this is going to be your final choice, most likely you will be able to skip the selecting a grinder step. Cons: if for some reason you don’t like the way it prepares the coffee, you don’t have a lot of options. I would assume that because of all the complex mechanical and electronic actuators and sensors, they will  require specialized technicians to repair and that it might not be cheap.
Super Automatic Machine
- Semi-Automatic.  A lot of the coffee lovers fall in this category (including myself). You can control a lot of the aspects of making coffee: what beans do you use, how coarse do you grind them, how hard to do you tamper them, how much pressure to use, how long the extraction should take, what water temperature to use, etc. There is a big range on prices on this category. I like how involved you could get when using a machine on this category and most of the good coffee shops have machines that fall on it. Cons: until you master the process and know your machine, every shot might taste different. You will probably ruin more than a couple of shots during the learning curve. If you normally wake up late in the morning, chances are you will have to leave your house without drinking your coffee since it takes at least thirty minutes to get it at the right temperature. There are so many technical details and differences on this machines that it will become confusing to know which ones are important for you.
Semi-Automatic

- Manual: Do you want to be in TOTAL control of your coffee? If so, this is the one for you! The semi-automatic machine has pumps and valves that allow coffee extraction at the right pressure. With a manual one, you use your arm strength to provide the necessary pressure to extract coffee. Cons:You need to have a lot of practice in order to be able to extract good coffee consistently. I think it should be really hard to really learn how to apply the same pressure over and  over again. In my opinion, there are already too many important variables that you need to control, I would rather let the machine do a little bit more of the work.
Manual
3) Determine what attributes you want in your machine.
Find a couple of specialized websites that sell espresso machines and apply the criteria from above, this will reduce your options and will let you focus on selecting one that goes with you. Most likely you will need to make trade-offs between the following three characteristics: looks, features and durability.

In my case, I decided early on my budget and that I wanted a semi-automatic one. However, on the next phase I went back and forward on my decision several times since I didn't have clear what was more important for me.

Features.   I found the Breville BES900XL Dual Boiler to be very interesting. Not only it was on the low range of my budget, but it looks nice and it has a lot of small details that made it very appealing. It was probably the cheapest dual boiler machine I could find (this is a good thing), has a placeholder for the tamper, programmable extraction temperature, backlit LCD, drop down swivel foot, etc. In my experience if something seems to be to good to be true, normally it is. I believe that Breville is able to have all these great features by sacrificing quality of the components.  With this I don't mean they are cheap components that are going to break after a couple of weeks of use. What I mean is that probably they had to use less stainless steel, quality pumps and valves and others in order to make-up for the difference.

Looks. The moment I saw the La Nuova Era Cuadra I loved it. I like the rounded lines and the colors it has available. It is a very nice looking machine with an E-61 group head. This group head could be consider some type of standard and you can find machines from different manufacturers using the same group head. For this reason, replacement parts or service should be easier to get and probably cheaper. The other option is a proprietary group head, in which case you will need to buy all your replacement parts from the manufacturer.

A couple of things I didn't like from this machine. That the side panels and the water tray are made of plastic. This is actually what helps them have this rounded and colorful sides that look so cool, but I got a little worried about durability. 

La Nuova Era Cuadra

I really liked this machine. Unfortunately, when I was getting ready to buy it I found out that the distributor in the US (1st-line Equipment) was out of stock and it didn't had a date to have it available. The following is a video I found online of someone operating the machine to pull a shot



Durability. My other first choice was Quick Mill Anita. This is a gorgeous stainless steel machine that was on the high range of my budget. It also had a E-61 group head, but it lacked all the features of Breville and the nice, sexy curves of La Nuova Era. 

Quick Mill Anita
However, as you can see from the picture, most of the outside of the machine is stainless steel (including sides and tray), which gives it a great old fashion look, at the same time that ensures durability. I also liked the 4 holes steam wand. Overall I believe that the quality of the components is higher on this machine and for me this was one of the key factors on selecting one.

4)Select vendor
Once you narrow it down into one or two machines, select your favorite vendor and check for availability. A recommendation here. Most of the companies I indicated in this article, spend a considerable amount of time uploading resources (articles, descriptions, videos, etc.) that will help you and guide you on your research. When you are ready to pull the trigger, try to buy from one of the companies that helped you through the process. It sounds tempting to go and look for the best price in order to save $10 or $20 dollars, but I think it is important to reward those companies that were helpful educating us, so that they keep adding more resources and doing a good work.

And the winner is...

After all the research done I decided to buy the Quickmill Anita. I could had waited for La Nuova Era Cuadra to become available, but I realized that for me, the slight difference in looks didn't justify using plastic parts instead of stainless steel. I wanted something that could give me the best performance on this category and I think that Anita was the right choice. Like with many other things in life, there is always room for improvement; these are some of the things that would had delighted me if this machine had had them:
  • A better tamper, the one that comes with the machine is a cheap plastic one (although from what I read most of the machines come with a similar one)
  • A circular cleaning brush for the group head. I had to do some research and buy one from Chriscoffee.com
  • Smaller footprint and height. It can barely fit on my kitchen countertop, with little room for  cups on top
  • A naked portafilter as a bonus (ok, this might be too much to ask)
Here is a picture of my final setup: Mini and Anita side by side.

This is a picture of the machine during its first extraction using naked portafilter (not included with the machine) to create a triple shot. 

I hope all these was helpful for you

Click here to read the first part of this blog