Coffee help!
September 16, 2008 8:59 PM   Subscribe

Good/great espresso on the cheap... possible?


My dad just got into coffee and bought a lever action expresso machine (Pavoni) and a nice grinder. I'm not normally a coffee person, but he made me an iced latte that was awesome. (Espresso, whole milk and some hazelnut syrup).

It was seriously the best coffee drink I've ever had (although I'll admit I'm not a coffee connoisseur), and after drinking that espresso, I'm hooked. I've been craving it the past few weeks, but I don't really want to shell out $1000+ for the equipment. I've gone around trying local coffee shops, and everything tastes pretty blah.

Are there any not-as-expensive ways to make good espresso? I'm only going to make 1 drink at a time, don't require any steaming of milk, and wouldn't mind a tedious manual process. I'd say the upper range I'd like to spend is $400ish for all the tools, but cheaper is always better.
posted by wongcorgi to Food & Drink (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The Toddy Coffee Maker makes really good coffee for iced drinks. You can also warm up the coffee for espresso like drinks. I prefer it to espresso made from a commercial machine for cold coffee drinks.
posted by calumet43 at 9:23 PM on September 16, 2008

You can pull (push?) an espresso shot with an AeroPress, which costs $25.

I have much better results with my espresso machine, but the AeroPress is highly portable, so I use it a lot. Some people swear by them.
posted by rajbot at 9:31 PM on September 16, 2008

Oh yeah, Moka pots cost around $50. I stopped using the moka pot once I got the Aeropress, but you can make a good espresso shot with one.

I guess I have a lot of coffee-making technology. I prefer the actual espresso machine.
posted by rajbot at 9:34 PM on September 16, 2008

It's possible, but difficult. The default forum for espresso nerds is Home Barista.

From a materials POV, it's a three-part problem: machine, grinder, and beans. Technique is also very important, but also freely available to learn on the internet.

The cheapest machine that can make real espresso is probably the Gaggia Espresso. If you're lucky, you can get on one eBay for $100. This is a good machine, has everything you need, and sucks at steaming milk, something you don't need. Also, another great learning tool is a bottomless portafilter. This allows you to see how the espresso is behaving as it's being brewed, which can cut your learning curve down quite a bit.

The grinder is really the most critical tool. You need minute control of the size of the grinds. The range for which the grinds will successfully transform into espresso is really small, so you need an infinitely adjustable burr grinder. (This is not to say that the grind need to be ultra fine, but rather tiny changes need to be made to the size of the grind in order to find the "zone".) Gaggia MDF is one that works. Should be able to get one for $250. The Rancilio Rocky is better, but also more. But look around Home Barista and you'll find plenty of threads about cheap grinders that work.

Beans must be very fresh, two to ten days old. After this time period, they just don't work. Most must resort to ordering online, but if you can locate a good local roaster who will give you a precise roasted-on date, this is the best solution. The Roasterie's Super Tuscan is highly rated, and it's a little know secret that they offer free shipping on orders over $40.

So you could probably get the machine, the grinder, and five pounds of beans for around $400. The next task is learning how to make the espresso, which if you like tedious manual processes, this should be right up your alley. Trust me, I know.
posted by luckypozzo at 9:39 PM on September 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

That it's a tedious manual process, that is.
posted by luckypozzo at 9:42 PM on September 16, 2008

Seconding the Toddy and cold-brewing in general, it makes the smoothest richest iced coffee I've ever had.
posted by nicwolff at 9:57 PM on September 16, 2008

I've heard good stuff about the Aeropress. As for me, I actually acquired my Pavoni Pro on Craigslist, for $300 and my coffee shop sized Mazzer burr grinder for $100. (both used, of course) If you are patient and cool you can get a great machine on craigslist...and if you aren't specifically looking for a lever machine, you can do even better on the price for a great machine, used. I just had a dollar figure in mind that I was willing to pay. I checked all of the major cities craigslists for a few weeks...I had to pay shipping for the pavoni from New York City (I was in Seattle). I corresponded back and forth w/ the seller a few times until I felt certain he was for real. He was. I've had my machine for 2 1/2 it...I can do all of the maintenance on it myself--that's the beauty of a Pavoni--I've had it to a repair shop once for a minor issue I couldn't address. The grinder is superb also. A good burr grinder is essential...I was fortunate enough to find one within driving distance of my home. It was old...but good! Since I've had both machines, I have had countless responses like yours to your dad's espresso...whether simple espresso, or whatever specialty drink I make, they say it's "the best I've ever had".

The Craigslist option is the best in my just have to "haunt" the lists in several cities, checking often and getting off the first email for the machine you are interested in. I think there's much less chance of getting such a good deal on Ebay, although I hear that recommended and I tried it for quite awhile, myself. The people that sell there are mostly pros, and so many people are in line for each machine that timing alone can't do it for you...but it can on Craigslist. I'd do that over trying a cheap'll not be satisfied, since you've had the real thing and know what you want! Feel free to email me if I can help w/ any other information. Although I guess I've pretty much spilled my guts here! You can tell, I guess, that I support your idea of going for it...and your $400 will surely get you what you want with a little effort and research on your part. It did me!
posted by mumstheword at 10:00 PM on September 16, 2008

Moka pots are not real espresso, their coffee tastes kind of like turkish coffee. Gaggia is probably the cheapest good espresso machine. They're available for $250+ on amazon, but you might want to look up particular model on espresso forums, just in case. What luckypozzo and mumstheword said is good advice, however if you don't want to make espresso every day and don't mind some boring manual grinding work, you can get a zassenhaus coffee mill for about $60-70. They're neat but you need to grind a lot of beans for a small cup of espresso. Usually people only use these for regular coffee. Otherwise a good burr grinder will cost you (if bought new). By the way, freshly roasted (not more than 5 days old) and freshly ground (not more than ~ half an hour old) beans are crucial for good espresso, and it's easy to roast your own, all you need is a certain type of a pop corn roaster, has a guide on how to choose one, they generally sell for about $15-20.
posted by rainy at 10:18 PM on September 16, 2008

My gaggia machine cost me ~$150 (Amazon seems to occasionally put them on sale) and while it's not perfect, it makes some rather decent espresso. My burr grinder was something like $120 from starbucks and once again, it's not perffect, but I am happy with what it does for me. Keep in mind that unless you have some automated deal, maintaining your machines so that they make good stuff will require a certain level of anal retentiveness on your part.

I've had friends get some pretty sweet deals from craig's list on their machines (one got her pavoni that way), but all I ever came across were shitty steam driven machines people were trying to sell for way too much money.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:56 PM on September 16, 2008

Plenty of people swear by the AeroPress but I'm glad I got mine for free because I think it makes insipid, undrinkable coffee. It does make coffee with a very distinct taste, and I ended up regifting mine to a friend who loves it, but I don't think it tastes even remotely like espresso. It just doesn't taste like drip coffee.
posted by aspo at 11:01 PM on September 16, 2008

Look for the Estro Vapore aka Saeco Vapore aka Starbucks Barista machine, used. Now and then they come up on craigslist for $30. Buy a non-pressurized portafilter for it. It's a decent machine especially once you replace that corny portafilter they come with. Buy the best grinder you possibly can.. these unfortunately never come cheap, but a good grinder will last a reeeeeally long time, and they have good resale value. You can do it within your $400 budget. Just put most of it into the grinder.
posted by jclovebrew at 12:46 AM on September 17, 2008

Do you plan to drink mostly lattes? Milk-based drinks - especially long ones - can be quite forgiving of the quality of the coffee they're made with. You can quite easily get away with mediocre espresso (but not outright bad - over or underextracted - espresso).

With this in mind, you could seriously do worse than get a bottom of the range nespresso machine (think they start from around £80 - £100 in the UK). The guts of the machines are pretty much the same from cheapest to most expensive, simply adding more bells and whistles (mostly milk frothing accoutrements and flashing lights) as the price goes up. If you don't want to steam milk though, you could definitely make do with the cheapest. The coffee you get from them is consistent - on the border between mediocre and acceptable. Certainly fine for a long latte made with flavoured syrup.
posted by bifter at 4:35 AM on September 17, 2008

Milk-based drinks - especially long ones - can be quite forgiving of the quality of the coffee they're made with.

this is painful but very true. anyway, let's not deny the poster his/her nice coffee: my advice to the poster is, listen to the guy who got his machine used on craigslist, if you patient and careful you can buy excellent, used pro hardware for a fraction of the cost, same for the grinder. 400 dollars is a more than decent budget for that, if you're not in a hurry.
posted by matteo at 8:44 AM on September 17, 2008

Seconding craigslist as a great resource for used machines and burr grinders! Here's a current listing from Toronto for example - $75 for a Starbucks Barista. Deals are out there!
posted by grippycat at 8:46 AM on September 17, 2008

Have you tried Turkish coffee? That's a hell of a lot easier to make.
posted by goethean at 10:01 AM on September 17, 2008

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