Baristas Craig Simon (left) and Dave Makin sample espresso from the Saeco Xelsis ID.

Baristas Craig Simon (left) and Dave Makin sample espresso from the Saeco Xelsis ID. Photo: Eddie Jim

AUSTRALIANS SIMPLY CANNOT get enough coffee. Wander the streets of any large city and there seem to be half a dozen new cafes opening every week - and almost all are busy. Meanwhile, sales of brew-your-own machines continue to grow. It's a wonder we're getting any sleep.

So what's the best domestic coffee machine around? And how do you get the most out of it? We invited the 2012 Australian barista champion, Craig Simon, of Veneziano Coffee, and two-time champion David Makin, of Axil Coffee, to road test a range of automatic and manual home machines.

We used fresh, locally roasted, speciality coffee to put the machines through their paces.

Con Mingos, owner of The Beanery, in Brighton, Victoria, which has been specialising in espresso and cappuccino machines for more than 20 years, says: "When automatics first came out, our sales were two-thirds automatics, one-third manual. ''But now there's a kickback towards manuals as people look for more control over their coffee.''

TEST KEY
Taste
: how the coffee tastes.
Tactile: the coffee's mouth feel and body.
Ease of use: for home operation.
Milk: quality and texture of the foam produced.

Automatic machines

Typically targeted at offices more than the home, these machines are designed for those who want to produce a wide range of coffees quickly and easily, without any great expertise. Essentially, you add beans, water and milk to the appropriate containers, select your desired coffee and push "Go!"

The four machines tested offered various levels of control over variables such as strength of coffee, water temperature, grind and milk froth. They were tested twice making both espresso and latte - once with the default settings, and again with a finer grind and the largest shot allowable. All were scored out of six for taste, tactile qualities (body, mouthfeel), ease of use and quality of milk for a possible total of 24. The milk temperature of each was also measured as, in most, this is automatic.

Saeco Royal Cappuccino, RRP $1899

Taste: 4
Tactile: 4
Ease of use: 5
Milk: 4
Milk temperature: 56C
Score: 17

The elder statesman. It's a machine that has been around for ages, that Saeco keeps saying it's deleting but never does because it still sells - often to repeat customers. It's no looker, and, unlike the newer machines, it has no automatic cleaning cycle so requires some love to maintain. "You're not buying this if you're a coffee connoisseur," Mingos says. "You're buying it for convenience."

Barista comments

"Flavour clarity isn't there, but otherwise it's pretty good. A little thin … the crema is pale."

"Milk is really sweet and creamy, not foamy, which is good."

Jura J9 TFT RRP $3290

Taste: 3
Tactile: 2.5
Ease of use: 6
Milk: 2
Milk temperature: 55C
Score: 13.5

Like most of the Jura range, the J9 TFT is a big seller, Mingos says. A sleek metallic affair, it rates well for looks: you can imagine it fitting into many a contemporary kitchen. It features a pair of nifty spouts on the front that can pour together or be moved apart to fill two cups, while the thickness of the milk is adjusted by a dial. Controlled via a fairly high-resolution screen, it offers a good level of control over your outcome, including the ability to add pauses. Or, for simplicity, you can turn a dial to flick through images of different coffees until you see the one you like.

Barista comments

"Extraction was quite good. Just a bit thin."

"Lacks complexity. A bit muddled like generic coffee."

"Quite sweet, but still not well developed."

Saeco Xelsis ID, RRP $3299

Taste: 2.5
Tactile: 2
Ease of use: 4.5
Milk: 1
Milk temperature: 64C
Score: 10

 The Xelsis features a fingerprint reader that allows up to six users to program their personal preferences. It offers a wide range of user controls over temperature, strength, speed of pour and so on, all accessed through easily navigable on-screen menus. It is smaller and has a cleaner finish than the Royal Cappuccino but still isn't the prettiest machine - and is fairly noisy, too.

Barista comments

"Acidity missing. No flavour clarity."

"Over-extracted and flat. Quite sour, too."

"Milk is too hot and thin. Foamy rather than creamy."

Jura Giga 5, RRP $5950

Taste: 3
Tactile: 2.5
Ease of use: 6
Milk: 2
Milk temperature: 60-65C
Score: 13.5

 A range-topping monster, this has dual everything: pumps, flow meters, even ceramic grinders. The last of these allows users the flexibility to have two different beans in their machine: for two people with different tastes; to blend them (you can program how much comes from each into your cup); one decaf, one caffeinated, etc. Despite its size, it was the quietest of the machines tested and allows users to create 19 kinds of coffee. It also includes recipes for a range of hot and cold coffee-based drinks, including cocktails. Both taps pour coffee and milk so two different drinks can be produced simultaneously. You can program coffee temperature, too.

Barista comments

"It's got a real savoury, meaty flavour I don't like and lacks sweetness."

"Not as clean as some of the other shots, but not bad as a latte."

"At that price, I'd expect a tax return in black stockings."

 

Conclusion

Perhaps there's a reason Saeco keeps making the Royal Cappuccino, with the two baristas rating it best for both espresso and latte.

 

Manual machines

Your chance to become a barista in your home: Manuals require users to measure their ground coffee into a group handle, tamp it correctly, fit it to the group head of their machine and pour through the right amount of hot water. Some give control over water temperature or automate some elements, such as buttons that will pour a single or double shot.

They are your best chance of creating agreat coffee at home, but you'll need to invest in a quality grinder and some lessons from an expert. You could spend $3000 on a machine capable of producing incredible coffee but end up with dish water if you use off-the-shelf ground coffee, a cheap grinder or don't operate it correctly.

"I think they're wonderful," Craig Simon says,  "but the result is heavily dependent on your skill."
It's worth noting that we tested mid- to upper-range machines – there are more expensive versions on the market.

Breville Dual Boiler, RRP $1499

Taste: 6
Tactile: 5.5
Ease of use: 6
Milk: 6
Score: 23.5

 This is Breville's attempt to move into the realm of the really serious home-espresso fanatic. Featuring dual boilers (not thermoblocks) — one that allows users to control the brew temperature, one delivering steam pretty much instantaneously — plus control over things such as pre-infusion pressure, it even manages to look good, too.

Barista comments

"I challenge you to go to a cafe and get a better coffee than that. It's ridiculously good."

"This gives you everything you could need to make a high-quality, commercial-grade coffee."

 

Sunbeam EM7000, RRP $899

Taste: 4.5
Tactile: 4.5
Ease of use: 5
Milk: 5.5
Score: 19.5

 Sunbeam's dual thermoblock machine offers the ability to alter elements such as water temperature. There's a handy pressure gauge to help espresso-making newbies, although the positioning of the wand on the left seems odd, given most people are right-handed.

Barista comments

"Flavour not as developed as some of the other manual machines — less complexity, less to work with."

"Still a good coffee in milk."

 

Ascaso Dream, RRP $899

Taste: 4.5
Tactile: 4.5
Ease of use: 3
Milk: 3.5
Score: 15.5

 A cute little machine that squeezes its wand and brew head together in a colourful, if less than spacious and sturdy, unit that favours form over function.

Barista comments

"Good clarity of flavours."

"Thick, good sweetness, good acidity — but you have to put a fair dose into it."


Ascaso Steel Uno, RRP $999

Taste: 5
Tactile: 4.5
Ease of use: 4.5
Milk: 5
Score: 19

While the Dream favours form over function, the Steel Uno, from the same company, is the opposite. A stark, steel workhorse, it has a larger boiler than its stablemate — 0.6 litres to the Dream's 0.35 litres — and a larger footprint that lends greater stability.

Barista comments

"The espresso was velvety, a little bit sticky and quite sweet."

"It's nutty and creamy and not a long way off what you'd get in some cafes."

 

Giotto Rocket Evoluzione, RRP $3350

Taste: 6
Tactile: 5.5
Ease of use: 5.5
Milk: 6
Score: 23

 If you want a centrepiece in your kitchen that's destined to turn guests' heads as they arrive for dinner, this is the one. A stunningly designed Italian masterpiece complete with commercial-grade parts, such as its classic E61 brew head, and lots of shiny bells and whistles with which you operate its various parts, it's a work of art that just happens to make great coffee, too.

Barista comments
"Someone with real skill could get a better coffee than even the Breville, but it sits in the realm of hard to justify because of the price."

Conclusion

Without a doubt, if you're serious about making good coffee at home, you need to invest in a decent manual machine (and aquality blender and lessons from a professional). Of those tested, the Breville's combination of price and quality was truly stunning, making it the "gold star" selection from all of the machines put through their paces. Simon believes it compares favourably with $20,000 commercial machines.

Testing was done in Victoria at the Beanery in Brighton, and First Pour in Abbotsford.