I've been told more than once that trying to make espresso at home is a fool's errand, but I've held out hope nonetheless. I crave those efficient straight-to-the-brain caffeine hits and the rich, intense flavor of espresso; even if pourover coffee that highlights delicate flavors of single-origin beans is the fashion right now, my heart's still devoted to a more intense shot.
The problem: local cafés use giant beast-brewers such as the $6,500 (or more) La Marzocco; and as much as my husband and I adore and obsess over coffee, that kind of counter-candy just isn't in the budget. There are a number of disappointing, low-pressure options on the market, and then there's the generally-praised Rancilio Silvia, a little machine that the coffee geeks like to hack with a PID temperature controller. The rub? With the PID installed, that'll run you around $879 dollars before shipping.
Could we make a decent shot of espresso at home for less? We've been holding out for the ZPM machine on Kickstarter since Meister wrote about it in January, but as far as we can tell, there's a bit of a waiting list for that machine, and it doesn't even exist yet. Getting a new invention manufactured is no small task.
So when we heard about Breville's new PID temperature-controlled Infuser Espresso Machine, which sells for around $500, we were eager to put it to the test, both by ourselves and with the help of Alex Powar, who works at Four Barrel Coffee as a trainer and brew quality controller. The machine gets its name from a pre-infusion that it does before ramping up the pressure: the idea is to gently expand the grinds before increasing pressure, aiming for even extraction. "The ability to slowly ramp up to full pressure rather than immediately applying full brewing pressure is a strong advantage that can make brewing less dependent on human error and can generally produce a better tasting product more consistently," Alex told us, so we were eager to taste the result.
Setup was easy, so we began making test shots as soon as the testing machine arrived. This machine—and pretty much any serious espresso machine—is not for those who want push-button coffee (like, ahem, my parents) or who aren't willing to fiddle a little bit. You'll have to dial in, figuring out what grind, what dose, and what brew time works for the beans you have on hand.
It's a little tricky to get the basket in and out of the portafilter, so you might be tempted to stick with one basket size (they provide two different ones which you can swap in depending on how much coffee you're using.) Also, "it's important to bring everything that's in contact with brew water as close to the temperature of the brew water as possible," Alex told us, but once we ran hot water through the portafilter as instructed, it took some work to get the last drops out before brewing. But those are minimal inconveniences; what matters is the coffee.
And the coffee's pretty good. Breville's Infuser is capable of making a rich, intense shot with pretty nice body, far better than other espresso machines we've tried in this price range, and miles better than what you might get from a stovetop moka pot. But the brewer brought out a tart, citric side of the Four Barrel beans we used, rather than the rich chocolatey core that they aim for (and get) at the shop. Since the crema was a little light in color and this citric side was so prominent, Alex suggested that the Infuser may be outputting water that's slightly under the desired brew temperature; the water may be cooling off somewhere between the boiler and the group head, where it hits your ground coffee.
The Infuser has a PID which prevents the vast variation in brew water temperature that you'd find in the unhacked Silvia (without PID, it can swing as much as 40 degrees.) But you can't actually input or control the temperature on the Infuser yourself—for this, you'd need to step up to the higher end Dual Boiler machine. (That one also has a separate heating element at the group head, which ensures heat stability at the point of extraction.) You also have the option of the PID-hacked Silvia, which Alex recommends, but that'll run you $379 over the Infuser, which is a pretty serious chunk of change.
For the price, we're pretty impressed with the Infuser, and we wonder if we might improve our shot by upgrading our grinder. We're using a Capresso burr grinder that's not specifically intended for espresso, and Alex shared the following advice: "Figure out what you're going to spend on coffee making, and then spend 100% of that on the grinder." His pick is the Baratza Preciso. So now there's one more item on my birthday wishlist.
Have you tried the new Breville Infuser or its big-brother the Dual Boiler? Are you a fan of the Silvia? Let us know your home-espresso recommendations in the comments below.
Breville provided sample machine for testing purposes.