Yesterday’s The Age (Melbourne, Australia) published an article on the growing business of home espresso education: Short, strong grounding in espresso – Epicure – Entertainment – theage.com.au. The author noted how cafés, roasters, and other retail locations are creating “coffee classrooms” for instructing consumers on how to “create the perfect coffee at home”. The reason for this? Citing the article: “Many of the classes around town grew from pressure by consumers who were disappointed with their home espresso making.” The Age has published essentially the same story before — so this was more of an update.
On the one hand, that consumers are seeking out better quality espresso is good news. It means they are becoming more aware of its potential beyond the bitter, over-extracted dreck that’s an American staple. And for many home espresso enthusiasts, scouring the Internet for forums and blogs isn’t their favorite method of self-education, so more formal training courses make sense.
However, there are multiple reasons why home espresso consumers are disappointed. For one, most home machines are ineffective slabs of future landfill that produce lame espresso. For another, there is a home espresso industrial complex actively convincing consumers that they all need their own home setup — when it’s actually inappropriate for many people. And they are luring consumers with false promises of convenience, quality, and cost savings as part of their pitch.
Although it is true that just about anyone can make great espresso at home, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. It depends on the person. For most consumers, we believe good home espresso is possible but impractical — as it requires a special combination of financial investment, time commitment, and a willingness to learn for the home espresso hobbyist to make it all worthwhile.
So what are your best options?
Option 1: Stick with the “costly” coffee shop habit
This option gets dismissed most often by personal finance columnists and home espresso machine hawkers, but it’s still one of the best options out there. Even those of us with decent home set ups still want the occasional retail espresso (CoffeeRatings.com is ample evidence of this) — for convenience when on the road or for the variety of trying something different.
- It’s convenient. Someone professionally makes your coffee for you.
- It’s mobile. No need to carry your own set up with you wherever you go.
- It’s usually of a decent quality. The pros typically make a living off of better machines, more regular system maintenance, and supplies in heavier rotation than most home setups.
- The recurring costs add up over time, and they are all quite visible once you look for them.
- The typical American retail espresso still has a long way to go on quality standards.
Option 2: Buy a home espresso set up
New homes are regularly sold today with these ubiquitous appliances built into their kitchens — even if the appliances themselves are built more for convenience than quality. And the convenience vs. quality question is the major theme with this option — as consumers must pick one, and only one, of the two for it to work.
This is also really the only option if you are seeking the God shot. But for every home espresso zealot committed to the religious cause, there are dozens who are merely window shoppers enamored with the concept. (You know the type: copper pots in the kitchen that are never used, etc.)
- Potentially cheaper over the long run. But then if you want cheaper, so is changing your own motor oil.
- Potential quality. It’s a great choice for “prosumers”. If quality is what you’re after, with a bit of time and money you can easily beat over 95% of the retail cafés out there. But if you’re buying a superautomatic machine for the convenience, Starbucks starts to look pretty good.
- People readily devalue the costs of their own labor.
- Major up-front costs. If you do not commit to a lot of regular, repeat usage, you’re throwing money away relative to buying your coffee out every morning. Even if you discount your own labor, many machines require hundreds of drinks just to break even.
- Most home espresso machines produce inferior espresso. The most readily available machines on the market are frequently made by general appliance manufacturers (“garbage disposals, toasters, ice cream makers, and espresso machines” — that sort of thing) looking to cash in on the Starbucks craze.
- Potentially exploding costs and loss of counterspace. Even among those that do manage to get a lot of use out of the up-front investment, many are soon tempted to upgrade and spend even more money.
For these reasons, this is the option we absolutely recommend least out of the three.
Option 3: Buy a Stovetop Moka Pot
This is the option we recommend most often for people interested in a home espresso set up. Oh, sure, it’s not really espresso (as if the SCAA-awarded “Red Espresso” [sic] is any more so). But neither is some of the stuff poured at a lot of retail cafés — and even less so for what a lot of home machines produce.
This is the Italian family’s home coffee staple. Though in Italy, good retail espresso is around every corner. And if you’re buying a Moka pot larger than the 4-cup variety, you must either like stale brewed coffee or you’re throwing a Bar Mitzvah.
- Typically costs less than $20
- No need for stale, pre-ground coffee and ridiculous environmental waste as with coffee pods.
- It isn’t espresso.
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