Tips for buying an espresso machine

Jan 15, 2009 at 4:30 a.m. ET

How many mornings (and afternoons) do you hit the local coffee bar to drop $4 on a single or double shot espresso, cappuccino or some other barrista-whipped coffee? And what about those calories? Even -œlight- blended coffee treats come in at 200 calories while the fully loaded drinks have upwards of 500 calories. Sipped or guzzled every day, these coffee stops add up - financially and diet-wise. Since giving up your daily perk isn't a pleasant option, why not save money, calories and time spent in line at the coffee bar by buying your own espresso machine? Here's how to become your own home barrista.

Espresso Maker

The cost of the daily coffee

Though an occasional coffee here and there isn't going to drain your wallet, a daily perk – or two – certainly can. Adele Schober, communications manager of Breville, a worldwide leader in kitchen appliances, says, "The cost of buying a latte every day from a coffee bar such as Starbuck's would cost an estimated $4 per day. If bought daily, that would add up to a whopping $1,460 per year." Home espresso machines start under $100 – a one-time investment.

In addition, unless you order your coffee black, your daily coffee bar stop can cost you up to 500 calories or more – that's an hour jaunt on the treadmill for the average lady. Ordering "light" coffees and forgoing the whipped cream is certainly a good way to lighten the calorie load, but a home espresso maker can be even more effective – and easy!

Advantages of having an espresso machine at home

Though a home espresso machine is an investment, it really does save you money, not to mention giving you creative freedom to create coffees that suit you.

Elizabeth B., who has been a daily coffee drinker since high school, says she's always had a regular coffee maker at home, drinking a regular cup of coffee to start her day, and then frequenting a local coffee bar in the afternoon for a cappuccino or other caffeinated drink. She says, "I was easily spending $200 per month at the coffee bar. It donned on me if I just replaced my regular coffee maker with an espresso machine, I'd drop $200 but I'd have barrista-style coffees at home – any time of the day." (Elizabeth bought the Café Modena Espresso Machine, as suggested in 12 Christmas gifts for the gourmet.)

Emily G., a daily drinker of blended coffees, decided she was spending too many hours of her week "walking off" her coffee habit. "The nearest coffee bar doesn't offer healthier alternatives – you either drink black with milk or you get a premade blend of coffee, cream and sugar – and calories. I bought an espresso maker so I can make my coffees with sugar-free syrups and low-fat milk – for me, a daily savings of an extra long workout."

Schober adds, "The art of espresso is quite enjoyable and creative. Once you learn the basics of your machine, you can experiment by making latte art or try stronger espresso drinks such as an Americano, which consists of hot water and espresso."

Tips for buying an espresso machine

1. Know your espresso machines

"There are four basic styles of espresso machines: automatic, semi-automatic, super-automatic and manual," explains Schober. "The aspiring home barristas should think about the amount of time they want to spend making their espresso and how much control they want to have over the quality." If you are new to espresso making, an automatic or semi-automatic espresso machine is your best bet.

2. Opt for automatic and semi-automatic machines

Schober recommends automatic and semi-automatic espresso machines because they use a pump to create pressure and require less guidance. Super-automatics, which are quite popular in Europe, integrate the grinding and espresso-extract into one easy process.

"However, many true espresso lovers say it's difficult to control the quality of your espresso with anything but a manual machine, which requires your arm power," she adds. When you get more skilled at being a barrista, you may consider a manual espresso machine. "Using a manual home espresso machine is a much more intricate process, which requires the exact amount of pressure on the handle or else the espresso will suffer," says Schober.

3. Consider price

Because of the wide price range of espresso machines, decide how much you want to spend before you shop. It's easy to get seduced by the fancy, more expensive models, but remember you are buying an espresso machine to save money – not to open your own coffee bar.

Higher end machines do come with extra features, such as instant hot water and a pressure gauge that assures you are getting the most favorable espresso extraction possible. But, less expensive models can produce just as high of a quality shot of espresso (which is the point of buying a home machine, remember?). Schober says, "The decision to buy a high-end espresso machine is largely up to the buyer and determined by whether the extra features are needed and, aesthetically speaking, if it better suits the kitchen decor."

4. Buy quality – not cheap

Regardless of the caliber of espresso machine you want, don't buy the cheapest just because it's the most wallet-friendly. Poor quality can mean you'll be back in the store to buy a new machine in a month. "If beginning baristas are looking for a machine with a longer lifespan, look for models made with commercial-grade materials such as stainless steel or die-cast metal," advises Schober.

And look for machines with the highest bars of pressure – the key to extracting crema from the bean. Crema is that coveted reddish brown, predominantly oil foam that floats on top of espresso and gives it a rich flavor. According to Schober, most home espresso machines feature between 9 and 18 bars of pressure (all Breville espresso machines feature 15 bars of pressure).

5. Read the directions

Before you purchase an espresso machine, read the owner's manual first. Though home espresso machines are, for the most part, user-friendly, there might be some models that are more appealing to you and your beginning barrista style. Once you get your espresso machine home, read the manual again and make yourself your first homemade espresso. With practice, you won't miss the $4 coffee bar drinks nor the long lines.

In fact, you can further hone your skills by visiting for tips on creating the perfect cappuccino and latte art and other demonstration videos from expert barristas.

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