A major cultural shift took root in the city of Oxford, England in 1650. It manifested itself in a shop called The Angel. This establishment was a coffeehouse, and Oxford was a hotbed of intellectual activity. It was a match made in heaven. The fruit of the bean was a vestige of eight centuries of Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsula (the last Moslem stronghold, Granada, fell to the Christians in 1492—a very good year for Ferdi and Bella).
You see, up to that time, Britons—who, unlike the Mohammedans, did not suffer from a religious ban on alcohol—guzzled booze like it was water. It wasn’t so much that they were lushes; rather, it was because the water wasn’t fit to drink. This did not prove conducive to creative thought and civil social intercourse. Fortunately, The Angel intervened and coffeehouse culture soon flourished in raucous London as well. And when caffeinated beverages (tea and cocoa were also popular) began to replace alcohol as the social lubricant of choice, a strange thing happened: innovation flowered exponentially.
Coffeehouses became the locus of philosophical banter, political discourse, and gossip. Some historians posit that supplanting a depressant with a stimulant and serving it up in a congenial atmosphere was a prime mover in the rise of the intellectually fertile period known as The Age of Enlightenment.
My point being that coffee is a good thing.
If your taste buds yearn for that concentrated essence of liquid bliss known as espresso (and as your editor, I urge you to note that there is no ‘x’ in espresso), you should consider investing in a midrange semiautomatic machine with a proven track record, such as the Gaggia Classic. It lists for $599, but it’s currently available for under $400 shipped (you can snag a refurb for $299 shipped). Of course at this time of year, you may find an even better deal by doing due diligence.
As the moniker implies, the Classic has been around for a good many years; it’s built like a tank and highly reliable. Spare parts are readily available, and minor repairs or upgrades are well within the purview of anyone with a modicum of mechanical skill. And this is important: there is a ton of helpful data online about the care and feeding of the Classic, and a vibrant community of users who are more than willing to help if you have a problem (the Yahoo! Gaggia Users Group is my favorite).
A stock Classic can pull a very respectable shot if properly adjusted (assuming fresh beans of an appropriate grind and proper barista technique). You can improve its performance considerably by adding a proportional integral derivative feedback device (PID). Fear not, this is just a diminutive (about the size of a computer mouse) electronic unit that insures a constant, proper temperature throughout the shot cycle. And if you’re going to make drinks requiring steamed milk (like cappuccino), you should also replace the stock steam wand with this one. You can perform both of these mods for under $200. There are also folks who upgrade Classics with all these features for resale in the $500-550 range (hint: it’s a good idea to join the Users Group, as they often pop up there…).
Actually, it’s the grinder that is of paramount importance. Or as the Yahoo! Gaggia Users Group moderator Tex Harmon quips, “The espresso machine is an accessory to the grinder, not the other way around.”
I don’t care how nice your espresso machine is, if you’re not feeding it uniformly ground beans of the correct granulation (and this requires a bit of fine-tuning), it will not be capable of producing exquisite shots. So plan on buying a quality consumer-level burr grinder or picking up a clean used commercial behemoth on the ’bay or Craigslist. In any case, you can count on laying out somewhere around $300-$500 for an espresso-worthy grinder. If you paid less than that for a new grinder, don’t expect good results. Trust me on this.
Now, if you really want to go all-out, you can step up to a prosumer-class machine, such as the Expobar Office Pulser (+/- $1,100) or the Quick Mill Andreja Premium (+/- $1,700). Any machine in this class, including the Gaggia Classic, is capable of producing espresso that surpasses the best you’ll ever get from an untrained barista using automated equipment of dubious cleanliness in a chain espresso bar.
To summarize: If you land a good deal on a new Gaggia Classic, tweak it a bit, and pair it with an espresso-worthy grinder, you can be in business for around a grand. If you go hawg-wild and pick up a nice prosumer setup, you’ll probably up the ante by another grand or so. The long and short of it is that you can score a truly kick-ass espresso setup for under $1,000. Now that may sound like a lot, but when you begin to add up what you’re paying for sub-par shots down at the local, you’ll find that you’ll recoup this investment in short order.
This covers (albeit briefly) the semiautomatic class of espresso machines. Don’t worry, there will not be a quiz.
If you really don’t have a very sophisticated palate—which is to say, you are perfectly satisfied with the frou-frou concoctions they serve up at *$—and you covet trendy labor-saving kitchen appliances, you are the ideal candidate for a superautomatic espresso machine. Wired magazine calls this class of whiz-bang gadgets “amazing pieces of engineering” because they do everything for you at the touch of a button—from bean to cup. Kinda Jetsonesque. They also produce mediocre to awful espresso (if you are concerned about such things).
The Saeco Xelsis Digital ID is the latest entry in this crowded field of hip department store bling. But it may qualify for a new category all its own: the hyper-superautomatic—in fact, the promo lit calls it a “cutting edge technological marvel.” That’s because the $4,000 Xelsis D-ID trumps its space-age brethren by mating its built-in grinder with a detachable milk reservoir and a self-cleaning cycle; further, it sports a dazzling touchscreen digital interface (ooh!) that stores pre-set profiles for up to six unique users, and initiates its operation by being prompted with the latest in biometric technology. Yes, you heard right—it has an integrated device that reads your fingerprint so the machine will dispense exactly the right beverage, pre-approved and personalized for your discriminating taste.
Of course, you’ll also need the optional decoder ring (I made that up). Word on the street has it that the next-gen model will require the user to be microchipped (I made that up, too). As the scribe who produced the amazingly shallow Wired fluff piece admitted, “There are a lot more features that I don’t have the technical ability to explain well.” That one I didn’t make up. But in all fairness, the dude’s blog (Geekdad) is tabbed under “toys and technology.” You do the math.
So just how good is the espresso produced by this Rube Goldberg contraption? I’m glad you asked. I tried to find a legitimate review of this machine by a respectable coffee forum or blog, but failed. Hmmmm… All Google coughed up was a list of tech-toy blogs and news aggregators that obligingly regurgitated the press release verbatim (or a slight paraphrase thereof).
A few early adopters posted their initial experiences on amazon.com noting difficulties in programming the thing, a problem with the beverages being too cold, and opining that the reservoirs for water, milk, and used coffee grounds are too small, thereby requiring more fiddling than they expected to have to do with a high-zoot set-and-forget device.
One online purveyor of espresso equipage posted an amateurish youtube video that painfully exposes the limitations of the machine. I assume this was not their intent. In a real face-palm moment, the demo hostess couldn’t even get the machine to recognize her fingerprint. A well-respected Saeco distributor and fan of superautomics actually counsels against buying this product, stating unequivocally: “Expensive model. Not worth its looks or the Bells & whistles used to promote it.”
Why do you s’pose the rest of the world thinks Americans have too much stuff? Just talking about this makes me feel a little embarrassed. Now if the Xelsis (don’t you just hate the cutesy neologisms that marketeers dream up for product names?) doubled as a Transmogrifier, I’d be sold. But of course with a little imagination you can whip up a Transmogrifier out of any old cardboard box (which is sort of the point).
My advice? Espresso machines don’t multitask any better than humans; beware of any product that attempts to be all things to all men (or women, as the case may be), as they often wind up being nothing at all…
Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.