Espresso at Home: The Argument for and Against

Can I make my favourite espresso drinks at home? Is it cheaper? Will I get the same quality?

It’s the eternal espresso debate, and probably one the questions I most often field when chatting to coffee lovers. Would it be better for me to just get an espresso machine and make my coffee at home?

There is a mystique, a deep and magical appeal to the idea that with the right equipment you can produce all your favourite drinks at home. From stunning art topped latte, to deep and intense espresso doppio, the draw of the home barista producing all their own drinks is huge, and its big business. After many years in and around coffee in all its forms I am very aware of the huge variety of options that are available to the would be barista at home. You can access an amazing range of machines and devices to aid your quest, and you can spend a truly staggering amount of money in the process. But is it worth it?

I’ll cover the annoying part first, there really is no one answer to that question. As with so many things in life, when it comes to home espresso brewing, your mileage may vary. But I will do my best to give you some guidance based on my own humble knowledge base. To be honest there is so much to say on this subject, that the article could be a whole series. In the interests of brevity I have done my best to condense my thoughts and views down to a manageable guide, which I hope you can all enjoy.

Is Home Espresso Realistic as a Goal?

Let’s start right at the top, with the big question “Can I pull a barista quality shot at home?” The short answer is yes, with enough hard work. But be aware it’s not easy, it takes time and patience to become a capable barista, check out Support Your Local Barista to get some idea of the skills and work involved. So in the grand scheme of things the aspiration is indeed achievable, with commitment and hard work you really can become a capable barista at home. Of course if the idea appeals to you, first of all you will need the right kit.

The Equipment and the Cost

The number of home coffee machines available is staggering, but for the purposes of the home barista dream we will need to significantly narrow the field. I am going to discuss the main options out there and give you my own views on them. I am specifically restricting my list of options to those designed to produce espresso coffee at home, there are other concepts out there that claim to produce espresso or “espresso style” results, but for the purposes of this article I am discarding them from the list.

Pod Machines

“Pop in your chosen pod, press the right button and presto! Espresso coffee at home”

These machines are a huge seller, the idea that you can get a no mess, no fuss shot of espresso in mere moments has a very appealing sense of convenience, and stepping away from coffee snobbery it does work, up to a point. Let me be really honest on this one, I took a lot of convincing that these were anything other than a gimmick. In the end it was a chance meeting that gave me some much needed perspective on the subject.

I once had the pleasure of meeting and chatting to an engineer who actually worked on the design of some of the very first of these machines. Ironically at the time I was working for a tea and coffee merchant and helping him pick out high quality teas for his new hobby. I had always been deeply cynical of pod machines, considering them to be rather offensive to my coffee loving soul. When the subject came up and the guy learned I was the resident coffee expert, he explained who he was and worked past my initial reactions, eventually we had a really insightful and honest chat, in the process I even learned a little humility.

You see it turns out back when pod machines first went into the design phase the goal was actually a really great one. As this guy put it to me: “We all loved coffee, really good coffee, just like you. We went into the project wanting to produce a machine that would allow home drinkers to get really high quality espresso without all the complication and training. We knew we could never create a machine that would pull a shot as well as someone like you, given access to the the real deal. But we worked for years to get as close as possible.” I’ll be honest I was very surprised to hear this and even more so when he openly stated “I got out of the business once it started to grow too much. When lots of companies got into pods, the quality dropped and I lost the passion for it” I really got the guy at this point, on some level this whole pod thing started with coffee loving innovators with a dream, and that had been lost on me in the commercial whirlwind that followed.

In current context what this means is that there are still good quality producers of pod machines out there, but finding the best pods may be more challenging. It is possible to get well sourced, ethical coffee pods, with real passion behind them, but in the commercial market the cost is high. No one working to higher standards can match the buying power, and bottom line cost management of the big players. Also the actual cost of coffee by the pod is always higher than just buying beans, and the environmental impact of cheap disposable pods is not to be forgotten. Still if you are looking for a really simple and consistent way of getting espresso at home, and if you are prepared to do some research, then spend a little more on your pods and machine, there is a good argument that this might be your ideal home solution.

Fully Automated or Bean to Cup Machines

“Half and half. The quality without the need for technical knowledge”

These machines can seem like the holy grail at first glance. They are set up to do all the hard work, if you get some top notch beans and the settings are right, you should get a perfect cup every time. Right? that’s the theory for sure, but the practice can be a little different.

These machines are designed to weigh and grind beans with precision, perfectly heat the water and pull the shot with the ideal pressure, just one click and off you go. It’s a very reasonable idea, with the right programming it should be just that easy, and it can be. There are plenty of coffee shops out there whose machines actually do something very similar, the technology taking up some of the strain and allowing a less focused barista to produce consistent shots while doing other jobs at the same time.

But a machine that can do all this consistently and precisely, requires high levels of engineering and regular maintenance, neither of which are cheap. The home equivalent will inevitably either lack some of the engineering quality, or carry a high price point, sadly sometimes even both. Equally as a home user you need to commit to regular cleaning, purchasing good coffee beans, and careful maintenance if you want quality results. I have regularly come across people who are frustrated at the lack of quality and odd taste of the coffee from such a machine and when asked about maintenance have “Just never gotten round” to cleaning the machine, or sourced cheaper beans to save money. All that taken into account, this style of machine can strike a good balance between more commercial ideas like pod coffee, and going the whole distance with a “real machine”.

Semi Automatic Machines and Grinders

“The real deal. Barista skills at home”

So this is where we arrive at the glorious vision in most people’s minds when they consider home espresso brewing. The beautiful, shiny, often chrome covered baby version of the machine in your favourite coffee shop, nestled safely on your kitchen counter, ready to make you happy in the morning. These machines vary a fair amount, some have bells and whistles, some need more adjustment than others, some have a built in steam wand to froth milk, and all the rest. The core idea however is the same, the machine will keep a consistent temperature of water and deliver it through the portafilter with the right pressure, just like a barista machine in a shop. All you have to do, is grind the coffee right, time the extraction and tada, you have quality espresso. It works, it really does. But there are some warnings.

Firstly to some extent you get what you pay for, cheap versions of this setup are not great, usually compromising on boiler design, and therefore becoming inconsistent. You will need to lay out a decent amount of money to get the results you want, and you will need to buy a grinder. Really you will, one of the most critical things in making coffee at home is that your best first step is to buy a quality grinder, the difference it makes cannot be overstated.

Secondly you need to know what you are doing, these really are home versions of the machine from a coffee shop. That means you will have to dial in your grind, make sure to manage your dose in the portafilter and watch your extraction times, just like a pro. Still and all, if you take the time to learn what you are doing and are prepared to maintain your machine, you really can be a home barista with this setup, many “coffee pros” yours truly included, have something like this at home. But in the interests of honesty I will say I don’t make a whole lot of use of my precious Gaggia. Unless I actually have coffee lovers visiting, the time involved in dialing in and the cost of running the machine (they can really eat the electricity folks) just aren’t worth it for regular use.

My Advice

So after all that information what is my advice for you?

There are a lot of things I could say, I could try and break down a list of questions that will help you identify what would suit you best, I could score various pieces of kit and talk about prices. But I think the very best advice I can give is much simpler. Take a little time to think about your routine, when do you drink your coffee? How quickly do you want it?

For many of us the dream of home barista styling is better off as just that, a dream. I have no doubt that anyone can learn the skills, and the kit is available to allow for amazing results at home. But honestly most of us use our local coffee place, specifically because we love that a beautiful cup appears like magic. If we are honest with ourselves the reality of having to prep ahead, spend time dialing in a grind for the coffee we want (the best baristas can do this in under 10 minutes, but most mere mortals, and even an “expert” like me take a good bit longer) is a lot to ask. Add to that the wastage of test cups, and the constant maintenance and cleaning times, and really it may be that you are best leaving it to your local coffee place.

This in no way means I am saying no one should strive to be a home barista, far from it. If you actually are in a position when you have enough coffee drinkers around at a time, and you can put in the time and work, the feeling of serving up excellent espresso style coffee at home is awesome. It really is. But like most great rushes in life, it takes dedication and passion. If you read through all of this and you do want to go for it, enjoy, the journey is great. Maybe we can meet up one day and swap tips for shot slinging?

About Bear Essentials CoffeeIf you have enjoyed this or any of my writing please check out my Homepage to find out more about me and my work. Follow the blog and if you feel you can, drop a donation to support this project. Thanks, – Bear

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