Guide to buying a coffee machine

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Guide to buying a coffee machine
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A buying guide to choosing the best coffee machines
Instant coffee is a complete separate — and far poorer — drink than coffee freshly brewed from coffee beans. Fortunately, getting proper coffee in your home is easy, thanks to the array of machines available. The bad news is that with so many to choose from, it can be a little overwhelming to make the right choice.

Strictly speaking, you’ve got a choice of three types of machine: filter coffee, capsule and espresso. David Ludlow, editor of Expert Reviews, goes through each type in turn to help you work out which one you want.
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A filter coffee machine
Filter coffee machines
Filter machines, also known as drip machines, trickle hot water through ground coffee and into a jug below. The big advantage of this kind is the volume of coffee that you can make and a big jug of piping hot coffee makes dinner parties a breeze.

When choosing the type of machine you want, look out for one with washable filters, which are easier and quicker to use than paper filters. Don’t forget that you also need to use coarsely ground coffee, as espresso-ground coffee will slip between the gaps in the filter.

Size is also important, both for the machine and the water volume. Large filter coffee machines are difficult to store, but if you regularly have lots of people over, you’ll appreciate a machine with a large water capacity. Filter coffee machines also have a hot plate that keeps the coffee warm, so make sure that you buy one with a stay-warm time that’s long enough for your needs.

Finally, the best filter machines have a valve that lets you pull out the jug and pour a cup of coffee before the entire jug is filled — useful if you can’t wait for your first cup.
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An espresso machine
Espresso machines
Espresso machines work by forcing hot water through tightly packed and finely ground coffee. This gives the final shot of espresso a reddish-brown foam called the crema — and its distinct taste. Proper espresso should only be around 65-degrees centigrade, making it instantly drinkable.

Espresso is traditionally associated with coffee shops, but it’s also the main ingredient in a lot of coffee-based drinks. Both lattés and cappuccinos are a shot of espresso topped with steamed milk, while an Americano is a shot of espresso topped with hot water to make a longer drink.

There are three main types of espresso machine: manual, beans-to-cup and capsule.
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A manual espresso coffee machine
Manual espresso machines
A manual espresso machine is one you operate yourself, much like a barista in a coffee shop. You load the group head (the filter) with ground coffee (a fine grind is a must), tamp (pack) it down, and then manually pour the water. It takes a little while to learn the skills, but we think that manual machines give the best coffee.

Ignore any talk of pump pressure, as the figures quoted (15 bar or 19 bar) are always more than required. Espresso machines just require a constant pressure, which the headroom of a 15 bar or 19 bar water pump gives them. Instead, look for a large water reservoir (one litre or higher) that means you have to fill up the machine less frequently. A cup warmer lets you pre-heat cups to keep espressos warmer for longer. Clearance under the group handle is also important, as this dictates how large a cup you can use.

Many espresso machines come with different filter holders, for one or two-cup servings, or easy serving espresso (ESE) pods that come pre-packed to give the perfect espresso. Some cheaper models also come with clever devices designed to improve the crema, but we think they affect taste. Spend more and you’ll get a machine that’s a little harder to master, but produces better coffee.

If you want milk-based drinks, a steamer wand is a must for frothing a jug of milk. Look out for a machine with dual boilers — these have one boiler at the right temperature for espresso and one with a higher temperature to produce steam for milk. Single-boiler machines are cheaper and more common, but you have to wait for the machine to heat up to make steam after pouring an espresso.
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A selection of coffee accessories
Beans-to-cup machines
A beans-to-cup machine has a hopper for coffee beans that it automatically grinds and tamps. They’re incredibly easy to use and a convenient way of making espresso, though we think you get better-tasting coffee from a manual machine. Again, look out for similar specs to a manual espresso machine: a cup warmer is useful for keeping coffee warm, while the clearance tells you the size of mug you can fit.

Most beans-to-cup machines also let you manually steam milk, but the better ones froth automatically and make milk-based drinks with no intervention. Again, we think that you get better results doing it by hand, but it’s hard to argue against the convenience if you’re willing to pay the extra.
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Nespresso capsule coffee machine
Capsule machines
Capsule machines are designed to be an easy way to make espresso. You insert a pre-packed coffee capsule into the machine and press a button to make your coffee. Such convenience comes at a cost, though, with the price-per-cup increasing dramatically. However, if you’re not a heavy coffee drinker, this probably won’t make much difference.

Each type of capsule coffee system is different and incompatible. We recommend going for the system with the widest choice of machines and coffee flavours, which is currently Nespresso. This capsule system is also the easiest to use, in our opinion.

When looking for a machine, work out what you need it to do. If you only want basic espresso or Americanos, go for a standard capsule machine that just dispenses coffee. If you want to experiment with milk-based drinks, you’ll need a machine that can steam and froth milk. As ever, manual steamers will give you the best results once you’ve learned the art, although automatic ones are easier to use and more convenient.
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