Espresso Machines: Espresso Changeo

Home espresso machines are sort of like personal computers. Just when you get comfortable with one, another model comes out. Then another. And another. Pretty soon you’re feeling like an espresso machine Luddite. So, should you get the new Starbucks Sirena. Or the equally new Nespresso Lattissima? Or should you hang on to your two-year-old clunker?

No sooner had I finished testing five machines—two, the Sirena and the Lattissima, were so new they weren’t even on the market yet—than I heard about the Francis Francis X7, touted as a revolutionary new machine from Illy, which, wouldn’t you know it, turned out to make the best espresso.

Illy rules the espresso machine pod world.In the seven years since I last reviewed espresso makers, the biggest innovation has been machines that use capsules of metal or plastic and paper-covered disks (called pods), both of which use measured, ground coffee. Pods and capsules have eliminated the mess of grinding your own beans and the guesswork or expertise required by the home barista. Until the X7, which uses capsules, Illy was the pod king. Nespresso ruled the capsule empire.

“Capsules and pods are used much more than ever before, though they are used more in Europe than in the United States,” says Andrea Illy, chairman of Trieste, Italy’s Illycafe. “You’ll be seeing a lot more machines using premeasured pods or capsules.”

The espresso machine market, which has grown rapidly in the past seven years, can be roughly divided into four segments. At one end are the old workhorses such as my Barista Athena ($399 when I got it seven years ago). It’s not fancy or as powerful as many new machines. And, unlike newer machines, it has to be primed—water has to be run through the coffee brewer and steam wand—each time you turn it on. But it made better espresso than every other machine except the X7.

“Our Saeco Aromas ($299 and $349) are still our biggest sellers,” says Alice Harrison, referring to two machines very much like my Barista Athena (which was made by Saeco.) “They aren’t pretty, but they’re fast and efficient. And we rarely get calls for service,” says Harrison, who has been selling espresso machines for 20 years at Fante’s cookware store in Philadelphia.

At the other end of the spectrum are machines that do everything except drink the coffee for you. Beans are ground, tamped, brewed and dispensed. These automatic machines have also enjoyed healthy sales in recent years, despite prices that start at $1000.

Pod or capsule machines are also convenient but lower priced. Unlike automatic machines, which accept any coffee beans, pod machines are limited to what’s available in pods. Capsule machines are even more limited. Much like inkjet printer cartridges, most capsules only fit one machine. And they can be expensive. Illy capsules come in only one blend and sell for about $.75 each. The Nespresso Lattissima offers a dozen different capsules (nine regular, three decaffeinated) at $.49 per capsule, equivalent to $44.50 for a pound of coffee.

Semi-automatic machines, such as the Starbucks Sirena, occupy the middle ground for espresso makers. “They offer the best of both worlds,” says Maria Kaplan, director of coffee at home for Starbucks. The Sirena is like a souped-up version of my Athena. Also made by Saeco, the Sirena has two boilers (the Athena has one) for faster turnaround when making multiple espressos. And grounds don’t need to be tamped as with the Athena.

Francis Francis X7 (manual, $600; automatic, $800)

Illy Francis Francis 7 hyper espresso machineI’m glad I got a chance to test this beauty because it handled like a well-tuned Ferrari, making superb espresso with embarrassing ease. Just put the capsule in the holder, close and press the brew button.

After four years of research, Illy developed the Hyper Espresso System (HES) for the X7. In the HES, coffee grounds are infused with hot water under pressure inside a plastic capsule. When the pressure in the capsule reaches a certain level, a small valve inside opens. The coffee spurts out into a second chamber where it bounces against a plastic wall and aerates. The result is a balanced and intensely flavored espresso with a good crema (the caramel-colored froth on top of well-made espresso) and a long mocha-rich finish. Because the brewing is done inside the disposable capsule, the X7 never needs cleaning, something even fully automatic machines can’t boast.

Starbucks Sirena ($599)

starbucks sirena espresso machineThe Sirena and the Lattissima tied for second. The Sirena’s espresso flavor was there, but the crema faded quickly and the finish was somewhat short. Svelte stainless steel with an oversized black dashboard-like control panel on top, the Sirena looks like ET. Even though I ground the coffee, the Sirena was almost as easy to use as the pod and capsule machines. (The Sirena accepts pods, though its pod espresso was dull and watery.) Milk steamed easily for cappuccino, and the seven-cup water tank was the largest of all the machines, though its location (in the back) made access cumbersome.

Nespresso Lattissima ($799)

This boxy, compact machine took up less space than the others, though at the expense of having a small and awkwardly positioned—it slides underneath the machine–water tank. Still, it was fun playing with the various capsules. the round, smooth and chocolaty Roma was the best of the 12 capsules, followed by the Finezzo and the Volluto.  Milk is steamed automatically from a tank that detaches and can be refrigerated.

Saeco Talea Giro ($1400)

Saeco Talea Giro espresso makerThe R2D2-like Saeco was the most fully automatic of all the machines. I liked its swivel base that makes it easy to fill the water tank on one side and empty spent grounds on the other. While it made good espresso, it wasn’t good enough to justify the price, regardless of convenience. Though the Saeco and the Capresso do everything for you, there are just too many lights and sensors to think about. A steady red light means this. Slowly flashing light means that. Fast flashing….Enough already.

Capresso Jura Impressa E9 ($999)

Capresso Jura Impressa E9 espresso machineComparable technically in most respects to the Saeco, the Capresso couldn’t make espresso with the intensity of flavor I expected, no matter how much I fiddled with its many settings. As with the Saeco, the Capresso tries to accommodate too many preferences. In addition to espresso, you can make “coffee” of up to eight ounces with the same procedure. But the coffee isn’t as good as what you can get from a good coffee maker.

Francis Francis X6 ($500)

illy francis francis x6 Looking like an escapee from the Jetsons television show, this stylish pod machine is a snap to operate. But it had too many downsides such as a small water tank and a long recovery time from steaming milk to making espresso. Despite its consistency, the X6 espresso wasn’t as good as that from the other machines, which confirms my previous experience with pods.

Although convenience is nice, the quality of the espresso is more important, even if that means a little effort. Ditto for steaming milk, which is why Harrison prefers traditional steam wands instead of automatic frothers that steam the milk for you but are hard to clean and break easily. Newer steam wands make frothing easier, she says. “But it’s not like a toaster. You have to practice. You’ll get better.”

Yeah, until the next machine comes out.

How to Get It

Capresso, Closter, NJ, 800-767-3554, www.capresso.com

Fante’s, Philadelphia, PA,  800-443-26837; www.fantes.com

Illyusa, New York, NY, 877-469-4559, www.illyusa.com

Nespresso, New York, NY,  800-562-1465; www. nespresso.com (for sales and retail locations)

Saeco, Annapolis, MD, 800-933-7876; www.saeco.com

Starbucks, Seattle, WA, 800-782-7282; www.starbucks.com (and through Starbucks outlets)

Zabar’s, New York, NY 212-496-1234 (inside New York), 800-697-6301(outside New York), www.zabars.com

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