Coffee Cup
"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2016 - All rights reserved

Coffee Cup
148
The $1000 Espresso Question
Wednesday, January 18, 2016

    One of the most often posted subjects on the various coffee forums, from those considering becoming a home barista, revolves around the cost of equipment when first starting out. The general response from the experienced is often something like, “Be prepared to spend about $1000 to get set up with everything you need.” On the surface this is a bitter pill to swallow for those just starting to do their research. I know from experience because that is exactly how I started out in October of 2000. “$110 should be plenty for a machine that makes coffee.”
    The problem stems from walks through the aisles of the various “..Mart” stores and searches on the Internet, with the results sorted by price, from lowest to highest. I just now did exactly that on Google Shopping and I did not find a machine priced at over $199 until I got to the sixth page! There were actually quite a few which were well under $100. And if we ignore the spinning “whirly blade” grinders, there were burr grinders starting in the $30 range.
    The uneducated and uninformed, first-time shopper will see that they can get an espresso maker and grinder for very little; maybe as little as $100 for both, and if they ignore any advice they may have received, as little as $50 or $60.
    I have brought up this subject after answering a question on a forum that began, “Why do people insist that you need to spend at least $1000 on a espresso machine and grinder?” This is certainly a complicated issue. Let's face it; an espresso machine certainly is not a necessity. It is a luxury item. The least expensive, decent, entry-level espresso machine and grinder is about three to four times more expensive than a simple coffee setup which has the capability of making a great cup of coffee, time after time, and with less effort, more dependably, and potentially with less mess. So the first question I often ask someone who wants to make espresso at home is, “Does it HAVE to be espresso, or is making the best cup of coffee possible within your budget more important?” Unless it is a friend asking me personally, if the budget is much less than about $700 and it HAS to be espresso, I usually just move on and let someone else deal with it. Why?
    Espresso at home, within the scope of this chapter, is a multifaceted problem. The unrealistic expectations as well as subjective assessment of what a "good" or even drinkable espresso should or could be has to be addressed. Check any auction site, flea market, thrift store, or yard sale and you are likely to find some very inexpensive espresso machines. Some may even be advertised as, “Like new, barely used, and in the original box.” More often than not, these will have a large screw-on cap on top of the machine somewhere. These are steam powered and if they were not originally gifts, they were purchased by someone with little to no knowledge as to what it takes to make espresso. Hopefully these were had for less then $100.
    Those machines ended up being sold for a reason. The frustration of the bad coffee they created compounded by the amount of effort and clean up, and the potential for steam burns likely put the previous owner off making espresso at home permanently. Countless bags of coffee, cup after cup of marginally drinkable beverages would put me off as well.
    While it is not necessary to spend $1000 on a setup to make espresso at home it is not a bad start. Figure about $300 or so for a decent grinder and about $400-600 for an entry level espresso machine. I am just throwing out some numbers here, and I am mainly using prices for new equipment. Deals pop up here and there- we read about them all the time. Such as, “I just found a machine called an E-61 Faema from the late 60's and it is like new. The guy only wants $150 for it. Should I get it?” My first thought is to ask, “What color was the truck, and how dark was the alley?” Beyond that, can we agree that spending more than $500 for a complete outfit is far wiser than spending less at this point in time? I believe so.
    Let's take a step back and consider the expectations of a new barista at home and the subjective nature of taste. I can attest that those of us who have started with a basic, "entry level” setup and later stepped up to better equipment know what a very large improvement can be had using better equipment. Some argue that there is a learning curve forced upon the the user when the narrow parameters of basic equipment are to be dealt with. On the other hand, better equipment allows the user a shorter learning period, more control over the process, and a wider range of parameters in preparation which yield acceptable results. If you have ever picked up a titanium framing hammer you immediately know what a fine hammer feels like. After handling a fine tool, spending a few days pounding in nails with a $6 claw hammer will reinforce that you have made a poor decision by purchasing an inferior tool. Back to the hardware store you go. Don't forget the band aids for the blisters.
    A lot of folks think little of spending $1500 to $3000 on a refrigerator which makes absolutely nothing to eat - just makes stuff cold. Yet folks can be totally confounded when they hear that a $300 espresso grinder is an entry-level device. “It is crazy to spend that on a machine that just smashes up coffee beans!” If that is crazy, I am certifiable. But there are places where an investment pays off and others where it does not.
    There are frugal ways to spend money on function, and yet, for the same type of item it can become a matter of style. For example, you can spend many thousands on a Rolex. Just take a look at the insides of this $18,000 Rolex Daytona. They are fine, precision instruments to be sure, but there are watches that keep excellent time for far less than that. A lot less. A $35 Timex can do the job. And to some extent the same is true of any consumer item.
    There comes a point of diminishing return that can be demarcated by function, personal finances, priorities, or perception. Can a $25 espresso machine make a drinkable beverage on its own (that is, without further investment)? You would have to set some pretty low personal standards in taste to say yes to that (possibly even have four legs and habitually quench your thirst at the large porcelain water bowl in the smallest room in the house). But no one needs to spend $10,000 on an espresso machine either.
    We all draw lines which are denoted by life's priorities, family budgets, term of investment, and spousal approval factor. All these have to be considered when deciding just how important a good cup of coffee is to you. Many factors combine to create a complicated issue and at times can make choices difficult to be sure. So, how much to spend? You can make good coffee with two flat rocks, a big pot and a clean sock. Beyond that, it is a matter of choice.
Coffee Cup
  -   -   - Silvia
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