N.B. All prices referred to in this post are in Australian Dollars
Once upon a time in this far-flung sunburnt country of ours, people drank water, beer or tea. What coffee there was existed as horrible black fine powder and was called “Blend 43” and the word “espresso” was just a fancy word that people who had come back from Italy spoke about. In the 1980s and 90s just as Wham, Duran Duran, Whitney Houston and Boyz 2 Men were making waves, a few tinny little Krups machines started entering the market. Their signature “roadhouse froth” cappuccinos made on watery espresso left us dreaming of the future. Well my friends, the future has finally arrived and this article is devoted to giving you a couple of ideas of what sort of espresso machine to buy depending on your budget.

People are forever calling, emailing and accosting us on the street about what sort of espresso machine to buy. The answer is complicated – “Have you got a spare half hour?” we often ask.

It’s the same with cars. If someone came up to Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson and asked what sort of car should they buy, Jeremy would no doubt say: “What are you going to use it for, how often are you going to use it and what is your budget?” The finer points of how much bench space you have, and whether you want stainless steel v black can come later but it is important to establish what market you are in before we talk semantics.

Before we go any further, let’s machete through the marketing rubbish and plethora of coffee machine brands on the market and break it down into five broad categories (in descending order of price):

[1] commercial espresso machines. These come in 1, 2, 3 or 4 group versions and vary in price between around $4000 for a 1-group and $20000 for a 4-group. For the commercial environment, these are the machine to get as they can deliver fantastic espresso and they are fast. Italian machines are always the best (in terms of inner workings and design). A home user would generally not contemplate a commercial machine because these machines need to be plumbed in and often require more power than your average household socket can deliver. Plumbing in requires a pressure limiting valve, water filter and maybe even a water softener if your water has lots of calcium in it.

[2] automatic machines (around $1800-$2400): top-end De Longhi, Jura and Saeco (a la Royal Cappuccino, Royal Professional, Primea). Price: around $2000-3000. Espresso dispensed at the press of a button with most models enabling the user to froth their own milk or press a button to get heated milk already frothed. OK for offices where people are lazy, but unless there is an eager “coffee monitor” who cleans the milk line out each day and the spent coffee box and empties the drip tray, these machines can quickly become cesspits. The automatic milk function will yield “roadhouse” froth and will be sub-optimal in terms of temperature (too cool). For the person with just the slightest bit of knowledge about espresso – don’t buy them. Having said that, they have their place (the medium-sized office) but for everyone else, drop this category like a hot potato and read on….

[3] semi commercial machines (around $3000): The Italian machines from Giotto and Vibiemme are the standouts in this category. Espresso excellence at home and fast. Coupled with a semi-commercial grinder (for about $650-$750) these machines will produce café-quality coffee once the user is off their L-plates. These machine have internal water tanks so do not need to be plumbed in, have unique technology that delivers amazing consistency in water temperature and pressure through the group and can be plugged into your normal 10A powerpoint on your kitchen bench.

[4] semi-automatic machines (around $900-$1500): De Longi, Krups, Saeco Talea/Incanto etc. Espresso dispensed at the press of a button but milk always manually frothed. These machines have their place (small offices and people who entertain a lot) but thee machines will not deliver an exceptionally fine quality of espresso and they take time to froth milk.

[5] fully manual domestic espresso machines (from $90-$900). Think Saeco Via Vanezia, Sunbeam Café Series and our favourite, the Rancilio Silvia. If you want great coffee at an affordable price, these machines are to be considered.

At home we recommend you look at category [2] Semi Commercial or [5] Fully Manual Domestic.

 Top Three Questions to Ask When Buying a Coffee Machine for Home

[1] What are you going to use it for?

[2] How often are you going to use it? and

[3] What is your budget?

Let’s look at each in turn.

[A] What are you going to use it for: most people, when they really think about it, want a machine that they can use on a daily basis for themselves and perhaps use to serve decent coffee when friends come over to visit. Not all machines will make decent coffee. Tip #1: buy Italian. Tip #2: you will need to spend around $800 to get a decent machine and buying a grinder is essential. Buying pre-ground coffee from a supermarket will yield weak, watery espressos as the grind is too course (most packs are made for plungers).

[B] How often are you going to use it: do you want to make a couple of coffees a day and occasionally a group of 4-6 if you entertain? Or do you want the ability to pump out 10-20 coffees occasionally when larger groups come over and do this quickly without slaving over a machine for an hour? Believe it or not, speed of coffee-making is not only related to barista skill, but also boiler pressure. Sub $1000 machines simply do not have large enough boilers to make coffees quickly and make lots in a single sitting. You will either have to sacrifice some speed and a little bit of espresso quality by looking at the sub-$1000 range of machines or go to the other extreme and pay $3000 for a machine. There is nothing in between worth mentioning.

[C] what is your budget? You may yearn for espresso excellence and want to make coffees after dinner parties in 5 minutes flat, but the final decider, as it is with all things in life, is budget. If you have $3,000-$4000 to spend, hone your search to two machines:

 [1] Vibiemme Domobar Super Lever and KS grind-on demand coffee grinder (for a movie on this brilliant machine visit http://www.espressocompany.com.au/how-to.htm). With a huge 2.7 litre boiler with boiler pressure regulated by commercial pressure stat with system pressure gauge, a massive 4 litre water tank, E61 patented group and ½ inch group pipes, this is the Ferrari of the home espresso world.  

RRP is $3199 for the full stainless model (less for black sides) and KS Grinder is $649.

Dimensions WxDxH. 27cm x 53cm x 41cm


[2] Giotto Premium Plus and KS grind-on demand coffee grinder.

This semi-commercial espresso machine has been one of the most popular semi-commercials on the market since its introduction 10 years ago and it has now been given a makeover in the form of the Giotto Premium Plus (by Rocket Espresso). With a 1.8 litre boiler and 2.9 litre water tank, this machine will cope admirably with most situations at home.

The traditional design elements of the original Giotto have been retained but improvements to the steam and water handles, gauge, drip tray, feet, cup surround and a semi-commercial pressurestat have been made.

These improvements now put it in the league of the Vibiemme Domobar Super Lever.

RRP is $2999 and and KS Grinder is $649.

Dimensions WxDxH. 33cm x 42.5cm x 37cm

If you have about $1000 to spend, we would recommend the Rancilio Silvia and Rocky grinder.

 The Rancilio name is one of the oldest names in commercial Italian espresso machines. The Silvia has rightfully earned its reputation among professional baristas the world over as the best home espresso machine in its price range. It has a commercial grade group head and 58mm group handle, a stainless steel body, three thermostats for safety and performance and a large brass boiler. It runs on normal 10A power, has an 11000 Watt heating element to produce espressos and steam with speed and has a large 2.5l water tank. It may not be the most stylish espresso machine out there (there are some pretty funky designs out there from companies who are better off designing cars and kitchen appliances) but at the end of the day, you need a robust machine that will deliver the goods, and the Rancilio will do just that.       RRP $795 and Rocky Grinder $440.     

Dimensions WxDxH. 29cm x 23.5cm x 34cm

   Why buy a coffee grinder?

You will need a coffee grinder so that you can manipulate the particle size of the coffee to perfect your extraction (as it will change due to humidity) and so that you can grind fresh, locally-roasted coffee beans. For a full explanation of grinders, why you should buy them and how you adjust them, please listen to our podcasts on the subject.


For the coffee-lover who wants to café-quality coffee at home, we recommend the Rancilio Silvia espresso machine as a good, solid starting machine.

After two years of intense practice on the Rancilio (or if your spouse can be convinced straight away that spending over $3000-$4000 on a semi-commercial espresso machine/grinder package will turn out better coffee than what their favourite barista at their favourite café can produce), undoubtedly you will seriously consider the Vibiemme Domobar Super Lever or the Giotto Premium Plus. They are the only two semi-commercials we would recommend. They are simply in a league of their own.

© 2009 Barista Brothers * www.baristabrothers.com



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