For a long time, we had what most people would consider an unnatural love for the Jura Impressa Z5. It was so sleek, so flexible — and it did everything we asked it to. Who wouldn’t love that?
But an appreciation rooted in gadgetgeek love is always at risk of being supplanted, and the Saeco Xelsis is definitely wooing us. Watch Gail take us through the features of both of these machines and demonstrate their one-touch cappuccino functionality.
Steam-driven espresso machines are few and far between these days, especially as folks learn more about ideal brewing temperatures for different coffee preparations. Steam pressure has the bad rap of burning the coffee, and while it will create a nice level of pressure for your espresso extraction, it isn’t going to give you those phenomenally complex and sweetly balanced espresso shots a lot of people covet.
But what steam pressure does give you is value: Without an additional piece of equipment in the mix, machines that use steam pressure for their extraction tend to be on the cheaper side of the cost spectrum. Capresso’s 4-Cup Espresso & Cappuccino Machine is one such animal: For under $60, you can quickly and easily brew up a few cappuccinos on a daily basis without a lot of fuss or muss.
You’d expect that a machine driven by steam pressure would give you a lot of power when steaming or frothing your milk, and in this machine’s case, you’d be right. After we pulled our shots, we let the steam loose and it nearly blew our milk across the room — thankfully, we realized quite quickly that the steam valve’s knob could be regulated for more or less pressure. It produced an okay microfoam (it has a panarello that auto-froths and you have little control over this) very quickly in our 20 oz. milk pitcher, and after we drained all the steam pressure, we guessed we probably could have used a larger pitcher and still had success. The wand isn’t super long, however, so bear that in mind.
Quantity over quality
If you ascribe to the more is better school of life, and quantity means more to you than quality, then the fact that you can set this baby up for four shots in one go will be a huge plus.
You’re basically working with an enclosed boiling pot of water, a hose and a filter head. Not much to encase here and the machine’s size reflects that. Nice and petite for the space-conscious.
We didn’t know this was possible, but yes, too much steam can be a bad thing. Especially when it’s coming into contact with your arguably very tenderhearted ground coffee. While we pulled four shots in one extraction, the shots definitely tasted on the burnt side and more closely resembled what you get from a stovetop/moka pot than what you’d get off a pump-driven espresso machine. Crema? Forget it.
Because you’re working with only steam pressure to get the job done, you have to be careful to release all the built up pressure before you remove either the portafilter or the cap to the boiler. We had a lot of pressure built up after making our lattes, and it was a few minutes before it all released. We had ugly visions of early morning fogs frighteningly punctuated by exploding portafilters, spewing coffee grounds all over the place. Definitely take care to release all of the built up pressure before doing anything with portafilter or opening up the boiler cap.
If you really can’t justify spending more than $100 on your espresso machine, or being able to whip up two fairly average cappuccinos quickly is your prime directive, this machine may be your ticket. The espresso results from a pump machine far outweigh the savings that you get with a machine like this, so we’d opt to save our loot and jump right into a machine that is pump driven. However, if you love stovetop/moka pot espresso and you want an easy way to do that in the morning, plus have steamed/frothed milk, this could meet your needs very well.
Creating a silky microfoam can be a challenging enterprise: Even with the higher end prosumer machines we sell, it is arguably the most difficult skill to learn and sometimes takes more practice (and patience!) than folks expect from the outset.
The technique involves infusing the right amount of air and steam at the right pace to ‘stretch’ the milk, ultimately resulting in that wet paint texture that can be used in latte art, if you’ve got the skillz. You rest the tip of the steam wand on the surface of the milk and ‘ride’ it as the milk is slowly expanding with tiny air bubbles and coming up to temperature via the machine’s steam. You’ve got to keep a steady roll going, the bubbles to a minimum and eventually you’ll submerge the wand completely once you’ve achieved the amount of foam you want and need to simply bring it up to temperature.
A little budget-conscious? Who isn’t? If you’d like to get your paws on a home espresso machine for under $200, Capresso’s Cafe Espresso Machine has a nice feature/value balance that could be an excellent contender. Here’s our assessment of this lil’ number.
Convertible steam wand
The wand has an easily removable panarello sleeve that incorporates just a small amount of air into the milk, creating a fluffy froth. However, if you want a little more control over it, you can remove the sleeve to reveal a traditional single hole tip steam wand below — yes, it’s black plastic, and yes, it’s running off a thermoblock so the steam is on the wetter side, but we were able to produce a silky, wet paint-like microfoam suitable for latte art (theoretically).
If you’ve got a smaller kitchen where countertop space is at a premium, this little guy has both a tiny footprint and a lot of overhead clearance for cupboards, etc.
The water reservoir is side accessed and easily removable for filling, cleaning, etc. We liked the drip tray’s drawer-esque design and the active metal heating plate on top of the machine got pretty toasty, quickly warming cups.
The only way this portafilter could be any more insubstantial is if it was made from paper. Really, does it have to be this lightweight for the price? We’re not sure, but we don’t think the aluminum, rough-hewn design does the machine any favors. One nice thing, however, is the fact that you can easily convert it between pressurized and non-pressurized via a little metal insert.
While this is good in that it heats up quickly and you don’t have to necessarily temperature surf between steaming and brewing, this kind of functionality really does tend to favor the steam side of things and not the brew side. We got great steaming results (even though it took a little longer than we’d like it to), but our shots were either too hot/burnt or too cool/sour. We’ll need to play around with it more to dial it in just right, and we were able to produce a couple of shots that were serviceable — especially if they were going to be mixed with milk.
You manage steam and brew by selecting which function you’d like on the toggle switch, then when the indicator light is green, you flip a dial one way or the other to initiate the shot or open the steam valve. For shot brewing and steaming with the panarello wand, this dial was fine, but we found we needed one more hand to switch off the steam when we were using the traditional wand and trying to keep the milk rolling until we were finished.
Overall, this machine is well balanced for what you pay and what you get. It’s not going to win any fetching design awards or power up next to the Silvia and perform neck-and-neck, but it does give you some great flexibility and is easy to use. We love it that you can easily convert the portafilter to non-pressurized and there really are very few machines in this price range (if any?) that give you traditional steam wand functionality in addition to a panarello — usually, it’s either/or and generally it’s only the latter. So that is a huge plus for this machine and one of the biggest reasons to consider it.
The newest superautomatic available in the US by Swiss manufacturer Jura Capresso, the Impressa C5 is economical, straight forward and has more programming options available than models available from the Ena series — although it’s right around the same price. It also has side access for the water and coffee beans, plus a heated metal cup warmer up top.
Check out Gail’s demonstration and review.
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This month, we talk about the different functional types of espresso machines, include a recipe for Indochine Lemon, point you to our manufacturer manual resource on Brown Bean and introduce you to a few new products we have in the store. What you won’t see, however, is The Grind Special, which is for subscriber-eyes-only. Sign up to get that little bit o’ goodness every month.
Navigating the available options in the world of home espresso machines can sometimes be a little overwhelming. Functionally speaking, there are a few different basic variations:
- Manual/Lever: With these machines, you are the pump. You grind, tamp and control the pressure during the extraction. You also manage the whole steaming process.
- Semi-Automatic: Semi-automatics have 15 – 17 BAR pumps involved, which will settle down to about 9 BARs of pressure if your grind/tamp is accurate. You will grind & tamp, then initiate the shot on and off. Steaming is also up to you.
- Automatic: Still grinding, tamping and steaming on your own, but you can program these machines to dose out a specific amount of water, so it will automatically end the shot.
- Pressurized Portafilters: Automatic and semi-automatic machines can have a variation that includes a pressurized porftafilter. This makes the machine a little bit easier to use because you don’t have to be super particular about your grind and tamp.
- Pod-Friendly: Another variation of semi-automatic and automatic machines are those that allow you to use what is basically a ground coffee version of a tea bag. These single serving pods make for easy, mess-free brewing.
- Superautomatic: These machines manage the whole grind and tamp process for you, but on most of them you will still be required to steam your milk. Some of them (usually called ‘One Touch’) provide automated frothing and shot extraction into your cup at the touch of the button; others have an automated frothing system that will froth the milk separately and you can pour it into the cup after it’s automatically extracted.
- Capsule: Probably the most simple machine in terms of materials and labor, these guys use a proprietary capsule filled with pre-ground coffee and extract it at the touch of a button — no grinding and tamping. Some of them have automatic frothing options.
We asked Gail to talk to us about these different machines, why someone would want to buy a specific type and why perhaps they wouldn’t want to buy it. Hopefully, this video will function as a good primer for learning the basic functional differences and help you as you research which machine best suits your needs.
DIY lovers are all into the idea of using lemon juice or vinegar to descale their machines, but while the latter will leave a nasty residue and we don’t recommend it for that reason, the former just isn’t concentrated enough to do as an effective job in as an efficient manner as a concentrated citric acid solution like Dezcal. This is what we find out from Gail, plus she makes freaky faces and it’s worth watching just for that.
Several models of superautomatic espresso machines feature a bi-pass doser which allows you to use pre-ground espresso to brew coffee without changing the beans in your hopper. Saeco and DeLonghi models allow a maximum of 1 tablespoon or scoop of pre-ground coffee per brew and Jura models allow up to 2 tablespoons or scoops. We occasionally run into situations where customers bring in a superauto for repair because they have used either pre-ground coffee that is too fine or they have used too much of it in the brewing, resulting in the development of a cement-like coffee clog on the brew group and the eventual break down of that group — either by breaking the gears or the group completely seizing up.
In this video, Gail talks to us about how much one should use in the bi-pass doser, as well as shows us an example of the fineness in ground that should be used, demonstrated on the Jura Ena 4.