What to look out for when buying an espresso machine
How to buy an espresso machine
Buying an espresso machine is probably the most nerve wracking and expensive part of setting up a café. When fitting out a new venue there is so much to think about – interior features, furniture, and cooking equipment all jostle for your time and money. Strangely, people often manage to get all of this stuff right and then realise that the bit of kit that is making the biggest profit margin is the same one that they no longer have any cash for.
In a previous article we looked at buying grinders and in that I emphasised just how important it was not to scrimp on them. The same is true of espresso machines. I would always recommend to buy the machine first and then work everything else out around that, even if it means people sitting on packing crates. That is not to say you need the most expensive thing on the market to make good coffee, but certainly spending a bit more can have a big impact on your ability to make hassle-free, delicious coffees.
Brand new versus second-hand espresso machines
I wouldn’t even think of buying a second hand car without knowing a good mechanic, and the same is true of an espresso machine. There can be some seriously expensive problems lurking within an otherwise decent looking second hand machine, so unless you have access to reliable and trustworthy espresso engineers. Always get someone qualified to check your potential purchase is behaving itself. Remember also that although an engineer might tell you whether a machine was working ok, only a competent barista can tell you if it can make nice drinks.
If you can’t stump up for new then it pays to bear a few things in mind.
- Avoid anything with too many bells and whistles. The more buttons there are, the more of the machine’s functionality is dependent on the circuit board and when these go it can be VERY expensive to replace.
- Avoid unusual models that might be discontinued or hard to get spares for – La Spaziale, Cimbali, and Fracino are just a few of the main brands out there that should be able to offer quick and available parts.
- Speculate as to the kind of use that the machine may have had in it’s lifetime and factor in whether it has been attached to a water filter in that time. I wouldn’t touch a machine that I thought had been run without one, as limescale damage can be hard to gauge and expensive to repair.
Don’t get the cheapest machine you can find
It might seem obvious, but you really do get what you pay for. The La Spaziale s2 is a great example of an entry level machine that ticks all the boxes. It has a nice big boiler for a high drinks capacity and powerful steam wands for silky milk drinks.
Smaller machines will really struggle in busy venues and if you aim to be busy one day (and who doesn’t?!) then it pays to factor in how your machine might cope under pressure. We have put these out in some very high volume sites and they are real work-horses.
What features to look out for
Adjustable brew temperature
Being able to manually set the brew temperature is a huge bonus for the knowledgeable barista. When trying to extract the full range of flavours from an espresso blend, playing with brew temperature is vital. Sometimes a few degrees up or down can unlock hidden sweetness or dial down bitterness. The La Spaziale S5 has this feature.
A PID Controller works by correcting the error between a measured variable and a desired setpoint, by calculating and then outputting a corrective action that can adjust the process accordingly – and rapidly – to keep the error minimal. Uh?! basically, when applied to the job of maintaining desired brew temperature, it simply means that it can do so very accurately.
This is the system by which the boiler heats the water used to brew the coffee. If was drawn directly from the boiler it would be far too hot, and would therefore produce bitter and over-extracted espresso. Instead, cold water is heated to the desired temperature and then fed to the groupheads at the touch of a button. A heat exchange mechanism that uses steam is the best way to do this as it limits the risk of limescale build up within the exchanger.
This is where an injection of cold water is added to the brew water to bring it down to a desired temperature. It means you can run the boiler hotter for more steam capacity, but without the normal risk of over-extracting the espresso. It also gives you the opportunity to set the groupheads at different temperatures, which is useful if you have a second guest espresso blend on. This is a nice feature for this specific application but I guess it is more suited to specialist coffee shops or those with the luxury of a generous budget.
All steam wands behave differently and some are better than others. If you can’t try your machine out before you buy it then it will always be a bit of a gamble, but as a rule of thumb bent wands are more effective than simple straight ones. Having a lever for turning steam on and off is better than a rotating knob as it grants you a bit more control. We have all over-steamed milk by accidently turning the knob the wrong way, or by failing to factor in the time it takes to turn it round several times.
How many groups?
This is simple. A one group can only brew one double espresso at a time so will struggle in a busy environment. A two group is normally only around 40% more expensive and well worth the investment, particularly compared with the cost of upgrading later. Three groups will not give you an appreciable extra output unless you have two baristas working on them at one time so factor that in if you think you might need to serve large volumes.
It’s an espresso machine not an engagement ring. We all like our things to look nice but a good looking machine is not necessarily a good one. Expect to pay around £3000 for a good quality basic machine like the s2 and double that for La Spaziale’s top of the range s40. For that higher price you get all of the features we have discussed and more. As it happens, the s40 also looks the part, but make sure if you are paying the extra that you are getting more than a sparkly casing and some flashy lights for your money.
So there you go, this guide is by no means exhaustive, but should help you avoid some of the issues that I see in cafes on a daily basis. Second hand kit is a minefield and best avoided by those new to the industry, but even new machines are prone to failures when shopping at the lower end of the market. A good espresso machine lies at very heart of a successful café. A bad one will cause endless frustration and possible expense in the long run. Save money on the chairs, do the decorating yourself, buy a second hand stereo, use mismatched crockery if you have to, but for the love of God don’t cut corners on your coffee!
Looking for a new espresso machine?
If you’re still a little in the dark then why not give us a call, we provide a large range of espresso machines as well as the expertise, servicing and ingredients to go with them. You can also demo different machines at our Coffee School or arrange a visit from our mobile showroom to get a real feel for what will work for you.