Help me get my cheap espresso on
March 17, 2010 1:43 PM   Subscribe

Help me choose a cheap espresso machine. I know, I know...contradiction in terms. Bear with me...

I've already gotten the "Either spend big or don't spend at all" lecture from the kind (if obsessive) folks over at CoffeeGeek, so, please, MeFites, work with me...

I've made due with a crappy little steam machine for several years. However, thanks to dame fortune, I've accumulated enough Amazon gift cards to be able to purchase one of the lower-end pump machines, and I'd like some assistance in my selection. My needs are simple. I'm a one-cup-a-day guy. Sometimes straight, sometime a latte. I have a good grinder already. I won't be doing pods. I'm looking at Amazon because of the gift cards. I can't afford to lurk on Craigslist for a used, higher-quality machine. The spare cash isn't there. It's either buy one of these, or keep using my steam machine.

Let me make it very clear...I know I am not going to get "OMG, that is the very definition of espresso" pulls from anything at this price point. I'm good with that. Honest. However, I have to think I'll be able to get something a lot better than what I am getting from my crappy little steam machine.

The machines in question:
Hamilton Beach 40729
Mr.Coffee ECMP50
DeLonghi EC155

If any of you have any actual experience with any of these, please let me know your thoughts.

posted by Thorzdad to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Have you considered a moka pot? They're extremely cheap and low maintenance. Doing a latte etc would be tough because there's no steaming attachment or anything, it just makes espresso. I use mine about twice a day.
posted by RustyBrooks at 1:49 PM on March 17, 2010

Seconding the moka pot. I have one, and it makes some outstanding coffee and espresso.
posted by spinifex23 at 1:52 PM on March 17, 2010

aeropress makes a great espresso akshully
posted by lizbunny at 1:58 PM on March 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

sorry, link to amazon for aeropress
posted by lizbunny at 1:59 PM on March 17, 2010

Thirding Moka pot. Bialetti make fine stove-top pots.
posted by WPW at 2:03 PM on March 17, 2010

@#$&, sorry... a link pour vous. Get a little frother whisk to go with it for your frothed milk for lattes.
posted by lizbunny at 2:04 PM on March 17, 2010

My preference goes to the Aeropress for single cups. IMHO, it's almost as good as pro machines (definitely as good as the moka), not to mention it's both vastly cheaper and easier to clean.
posted by ConstantineXVI at 2:05 PM on March 17, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, folks. But, none of those addresses the need for a steamer when I'm in the mood for a latte (about half the time.) I am familiar with the Moka, and agree that it makes a great coffee.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:06 PM on March 17, 2010

Maybe also consider a MyPressi Twist. It's the latest in portable espresso devices and produces very good results. In the price range you are talking about, though, Moka pot may be the way to go.
posted by galaksit at 2:07 PM on March 17, 2010

Should have previewed. The Twist won't help with steam either.
posted by galaksit at 2:07 PM on March 17, 2010

I haven't had personal experience with these models, but DeLonghi is a good brand. Just make sure you clean it regularly (once or twice a month) that means actually running a cleaning agent through it.
Just by looking through your links, I'd go with that one because of the larger reservoir.
posted by purpletangerine at 2:13 PM on March 17, 2010

This is a self-steaming moka pot.

I haven't tried it, but look how fancy the cow-print paintjob is!

I think people are pushing aeropress and moka pots [which are my two most used coffee makers] because lots of people get cheap espresso machines and then end up using them about once a year. I know a bunch of people with espresso machines, and only *one* of those people uses theirs regularly. The rest are mainly decorative at this point.
posted by Acari at 2:20 PM on March 17, 2010

So, you like the Moka for espressos, but want to be able to make lattes? The obvious answer is the Mukka. I actually own one, and it's not bad.
posted by paulg at 2:26 PM on March 17, 2010

I know some people love the areopress, but I found it made horrid coffee. While it does taste stupid strong, it doesn't taste like espresso. Mokapots feel much closer to the real thing, and cost about the same, and there's no filters or plastic bits.
posted by aspo at 2:29 PM on March 17, 2010

For steamed milk, there are fairly cheap machines that do the steam wand bit. Take up less counter space too.
posted by aspo at 2:34 PM on March 17, 2010

I have the single cup Mr Coffee and I do not love it. The steaming mechanism is awkward and hard to clean, and I've honestly yet to get any appreciable foam. We eventually broke up and I went back to my drip-style Chemex, so I'd suggest one of the other models!
posted by kittyloop at 2:39 PM on March 17, 2010

I got the low-end pump-driven DeLonghi for Christmas. So far I'm satisfied with it. We drink mostly Americanos, though.
posted by kindall at 2:55 PM on March 17, 2010

Response by poster: Kindall,
Have you done any milk steaming or foaming with the DeLonghi, at all? Even once? I'd be interested to know how that went, whether you felt there was plenty of pressure to an acceptable job.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:02 PM on March 17, 2010

Do you have a burr grinder? If not, I suspect you'll struggle to get a real pull from a pump machine (it'll either lock, or gush - probably gush), and the coffee will be correspondingly nasty.

If you do have a burr grinder - great. The main issue with cheap machines tends to be consistency. You can get the occasional good pull even from a bottom end pump machine, and as you tame it you'll get them a bit more frequently. Probably always a bit of a one armed bandit though. I'd be inclined to look for something with absolute basic features (no crema enhancing portafilter or any such crap).

If you don't have a halfway reasonable burr grinder, I hate to say it but I think you'd be happier in the long run with a pod machine.
posted by bifter at 3:04 PM on March 17, 2010

Response by poster: I'd like to thank everyone for the well-intended responses so-far, but request that we try to keep things on-topic and focus on the machines in-question. Thanks.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:04 PM on March 17, 2010

Best answer: I bet any of the machines you listed, Thorzdad, is based on some variant of the ULKA 15 bar vibratory pump (or, alternatively, a simple reed pump). Inevitably, these are the parts that go bad in these entry level machines, usually due to scale/corrosion buildup. These pumps are cheap, because they are small, and lightly made, delivering a respectable 15 bars of pressure by working at 120 strokes a minute or higher. Usually, what goes is an O-ring seal, or in the case of reed pumps, the reed itself, unless corrosion or water scale is so bad, that it stops the pump mechanically, or plugs an orifice.

Problem is, when a pump goes, the value of this grade of machine is so low, it's hardly ever worth the expense to disassemble and repair commercially, so, nobody stocks the darn parts. The pumps aren't actually that hard to fix, but it's a time consuming process, and if you don't have the right size little O-rings, or reed, the pump is still going to leak, and never develop full pressure. It helps the longevity of such machines enormously if you use nothing but distilled water in them, although that cost adds up over time.

On some of these type machines, steam for the wand is developed simply from the water heating monoblock, ahead of the pump. The pump will stop as soon as you open the wand valve for steam, and the monoblock heat capacity may limit how much froth you can get in a large pitcher of milk, so best to froth a few ounces of milk, only, at any one time.

Otherwise, for what they are, they're good machines, and make a decent cup of coffee, although they're a bit fussier about grind and tamp than bigger machines, with yet higher pressure, more robust pumps. I doubt you'd see much technical difference, or any difference in the coffee they make, between any of the machines you've listed. You do see overstocks of similar Krups machines marketed as "Factory Refurbished" units, but I'd bet dollars to a hole in a doughnut that they're just distributor overstock, moving at cost prices.

Get a machine, enjoy it while it lasts, get your fixer freak on, if you want, when it breaks. But don't get frustrated when the inevitable happens. They are what they are.
posted by paulsc at 3:15 PM on March 17, 2010

Best answer: I have the DeLonghi EC155, and I wuv it. In fact, upon reading your question, I glanced over into the kitchen and gave it an affectionate look.

I pull 4-5 double shots over the course of a day, 7 days a week (I work from home). I bought it last October, and it's still going strong. Even if it breaks tomorrow, I will feel I've gotten my $90 worth.

One quirk of this model is that there is very little clearance for fitting a shot glass in. You'll need to either buy unusually short shot glasses, or just use any old bowl or measuring cup that fits.

I initially bought a pair of these, and they were great don't get me wrong. But after I broke one and then the other, I just went to a measuring cup with a broken handle.
posted by ErikaB at 4:26 PM on March 17, 2010

Best answer: Just saw your follow-up question about the steaming of milk. I always steam milk when I pull a double, and it's always seemed adequate.

I have a little metal steaming jug, and a meat thermometer. It takes about... hang on, I'll just go whip myself up a latte and get you some hard data!

Initial heating, until it's ready to pull a shot: 112 seconds
Time to pull a shot: 20 seconds
Time to recover from pulling a shot, and ready to steam milk: 32 seconds
Time to steam 1/3C milk from fridge temp to 160 degrees F: 42 seconds

In other words, you'll have your latte about 3.5 minutes after you first turn it on. I usually turn it on and then wander away, knowing that my ears have become exquisitely tuned to the faint "tick" it makes when it's ready to go.

For comparison, many years ago I bought a $20 steam-driven espresso machine from Target. It seemed to take YEARS for it to steam even the smallest amount of milk. Also, after using it for about three months, it literally exploded. Catastrophic failure of some sealing ring, I expect. Painted my entire kitchen with espresso and grounds. Sigh.
posted by ErikaB at 4:37 PM on March 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

I am now sipping the latte I made to get those numbers for you. Tastiest experimental data subject ever!

I can't speak for this machine in comparison to the others you list, but I don't think you'd be sorry you bought the DeLonghi.
posted by ErikaB at 4:39 PM on March 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you done any milk steaming or foaming with the DeLonghi, at all? Even once?

I have made a latte or two. It seemed to work OK, but I am far from an expert. I use ESE pods in it (got a tin of Illy pods to start with, but also ordered a PodMerchant sampler). I also bought a tamper but haven't actually tried loading it up with my own grounds yet.

The 'zon reviews of the unit indicate it does need to be cleaned periodically to maintain its performance, which is what I'd expect based on what paulsc said.

I use the Bodum double-wall espresso glasses that are listed as "frequently bought" with the DeLonghi machine. They fit fine. The Terry's Tamper listed there is the one I got, as well.
posted by kindall at 4:39 PM on March 17, 2010

I adore my Breville Cafe Roma. Cost $150 brand new and has worked perfectly for me for FOUR years. I clean it monthly with vinegar and it steams and brews perfectly every day. LOVE IT. (Also great customer service from Breville...when I lost a coffee tamper they replaced it for a pittance in a few days)
posted by arnicae at 4:40 PM on March 17, 2010

Buy a moka pot and any one of those machines. Use the moka pot to brew your coffee and the "espresso machine" to steam milk.
posted by foodgeek at 4:44 PM on March 17, 2010

Best answer: I have the Hamilton Beach model you linked to, and I'm quite happy with it. I don't drink a lot of straight-up espresso, but the thing makes a pretty good latte.
posted by Shohn at 5:49 PM on March 17, 2010

Best answer: I repair espresso machines for a living. Of those 3, the Delonghi is the one I'd pick, for brand and reputation alone. Good luck getting any of them repaired though, at that price point you're basically buying a disposable appliance. If you can extend the one-year warranty for a couple bucks, go for it; if you're lucky they'll just give you a new one when it breaks.

arnicae: Vinegar is bad for espresso machines; it will eat away at the internal seals and also make it stink. Use a citric acid-based descaler (like Dezcal), it's no more expensive than vinegar ($10 for a year's supply) and is designed for the job. If your water is not abnormally hard then once every three months is sufficient.

ErikaB: You should be steaming first, then brewing; steaming empties your boiler, brewing refills it. Doing it the other way around leaves your machine with a mostly-empty and prone to overheating boiler. Also your shots will go stale sitting there waiting for the milk, whereas a pitcher of properly foamed milk can hang out for several minutes with no ill effects.
posted by bizwank at 6:36 PM on March 17, 2010 [9 favorites]

bizwank "You should be steaming first, then brewing"

What? Whoa! OMG that makes so much more sense. From now on, I shall! Thanks!
posted by ErikaB at 6:56 PM on March 17, 2010

Best answer: I own the Mr. Coffee that you linked in the question. While you certainly won't impress any of your barista friends with it, I find that it's been the absolute best purchase I've made for the kitchen. I've had it for about 18 months, two pulls a day on average and it's still going strong. The steamer has worked just fine for anything I could ever want to do with it. My only regret in buying the machine is that I have spoiled myself and can't enjoy drip coffee anymore. I sit in my cubicle at work missing the Mr. Coffee more than my cat.
posted by goHermGO at 7:01 PM on March 17, 2010

The Atomic stove top cappuccino maker. I have owned two of these machines, and impressed more than one coffee snob,with beautiful caps and lattes.
posted by hortense at 7:09 PM on March 17, 2010

Best answer: I have an older version of the DeLonghi machine you link to, and it's worked very well. I bought it in 2003 and it's still going strong, and I make a latte pretty much every weekday morning. The only negatives are that when I did break the steamer nozzle (actually my fault because I wasn't cleaning it well enough when I first got it, lesson learned) getting the replacement part was very, very slow and difficult. And I find it not as good at making two lattes at a time, even though it's supposed to be able to do so. It won't truly impress any coffee afficiandos in your life. However, it's certainly been very reliable, and few kitchen appliances these days last for 7 years, so I recommend it.
posted by Kurichina at 8:19 AM on March 18, 2010

Might I suggest instead of the bialetti ones a Giannina? No idea if this is actually sold in US, but it's waay better that a bialetti.
posted by darkripper at 7:10 AM on March 20, 2010

The Gianniana certainly looks nicer (it's available in the US here), and it's latching system and swappable baskets are a nice touch, but it seems to brew using the same method as every other stove-top espresso maker and therefore will likely produce the same end product as a Bialetti.
posted by bizwank at 1:09 PM on March 20, 2010

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