There are two main types of coffee machines. Drip coffee machines are the simplest, running hot water through ground coffee to create a large volume of drink. The resulting coffee tends to be smoother, and since you can keep a pot on the go, it’s great for large numbers or just having ready-to-drink coffee.
Espresso machines deliver an instant, distinctive coffee thanks to the frothy head on top called a crema. Manual espresso machines use ground coffee (or beans that you grind yourself) and require some skill to operate. However, they generally produce the best results. A coffee bean machine does the work for you, automatically roasting and pouring the coffee. The quality may be great, but you don’t quite get the results of a manual machine; the trade-off being that the job is much easier.
Pod or capsule machines are the easiest to use: drop in a pod and press a button and you’re done. The downside is that the cost per cup is higher and you don’t get the same wide range of coffees as with a machine that uses beans or ground coffee.
Using filtered water can improve the taste of your coffee if you’re not particularly fond of the taste of tap water. Worth a try if you have a filter jug to see what difference it makes. Most importantly, a water filter should be installed and used whenever possible in the water tank of a coffee machine, especially if you live in a hard water area.
Using a water filter removes impurities from your water, which can result in the best tasting coffee. It also helps reduce limescale buildup, which will reduce problems with your coffee machine clogging and requiring descaling. You’ll still need to descale your machine regularly (check its manual for details on how to do this) because a machine with a lot of limescale will struggle to pour water at the right rate, and your coffee will be ruined. .
Coffee stays fresh longer if it is not ground. If you regularly use a manual espresso or a filter machine, a grinder is a good addition. In particular, for a manual machine, using a coffee grinder allows you to adjust the grind to suit your machine and your coffee, further refining the results. The downside is that while you can use a cheaper grinder for a filter machine, you’ll have to spend a bit more to get a grinder suitable for a manual espresso machine: this is especially true if you have a coffee machine. more expensive.
If you have an espresso machine, a way to steam milk opens up the possibility of making a wide range of beverages, from cappuccinos to lattes. A steam wand is a traditional way of frothing milk. You hold a jug under the wand, while the steam adds air to the milk, causing it to swirl. A steam wand gives you more control over the process, but the downside is that it can take a bit of skill to get the right results.
An automatic milk frother is a good alternative, producing steamed milk. These are usually available on bean and pod machines. The simplest option is a system that steams milk and pours it, which is very convenient, although the end results aren’t as good as pouring milk into a jug. Some machines can froth milk in a pitcher or use an external device, such as Nespresso Aeroccino. You don’t quite get the results of doing the work yourself, but you can freely pour in your last drink to get the balance of espresso and milk you want.
If you buy a manual espresso machine, you can get single or dual boiler options. A double-boiler coffee machine can simultaneously produce espresso and steam milk. This reduces preparation time and allows you to prepare milk drinks at the optimal time. They are much more expensive than single-boiler machines, where you first steam your milk and then reduce the temperature of the system to make an espresso.
Nespresso capsules are by far the best. Nespresso is now available in two types. The original pods are designed to replicate the type of coffee you get in a cafe. There is a wide range of capsules available from Nespresso, although you can also choose from a growing range of third-party ‘compatible’ capsules. There is, however, a good reason to stick with Nespresso: it will recycle all its capsules for free, either by organizing a collection or by dropping off old capsules in a Nespresso store.
There’s also the new Nespresso Vertuo system, which uses large capsules. This system provides larger cups of coffee and offers a range of official capsules similar to the original system. Currently, there are no third-party options for Vertuo. All capsules are recyclable with Nespresso.
Nescafé Dolce Gusto machines are relatively cheap, with a wide range of pods available in supermarkets. This system is a step up from instant coffee, but the reliance on powdered milk is a bit disappointing.
Tassimo machines and pods are similar to Dolce Gusto, with a similar range of pod options available online or in good supermarkets. These use UHT milk capsules for some beverages.
All coffee machines require regular maintenance to keep them in top operating condition. The most important job you will do will be to descale them, removing limescale from the innards to ensure the water flows smoothly through the machine. If you don’t descale your machine when prompted, you may find that it seizes and the water doesn’t pass at the speed required to make a decent coffee. Most coffee machines warn you when it’s time to descale, depending on the water hardness level you set: the harder the water, the more often the job needs to be done.
Espresso machines should also be cleaned with a cleaning tablet when prompted, which removes oily residue from the beans. It helps keep your machine in top operating condition and ensures you get the best taste.
If you have a steam wand, it will need to be cleaned after each use. You can usually remove the nozzle to wash it in hot water to remove any milk residue. Be sure to clean our drip trays (again, use soapy water). For bean makers, if they have a removable brew head, this should also be removed and rinsed regularly.