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Buy the Perfect Coffee Machine Without Breaking the Bank

photo:  PoYang_博仰

When it comes to essential kitchen equipment, there’s the kind that’s necessary to whip up even complex dishes without breaking a sweat. And then there’s necessary; the device plenty of Mint.com users say is vital for their basic functionality — a coffee or espresso machine, of course.

“I define a great cup of coffee as one that tastes like it smells,” says Chad Turnbull, the president of Storyville Coffee Company. “The rich, warm aroma should be followed by a full-flavored coffee that is never bitter.” If your goal is to avoid the cost of a daily trip to the nearest coffee shop without sacrificing quality, the right raw materials — fresh, properly ground coffee and filtered water — are the main components of a perfect cup. But you also need the right machine to get you there.

Turnbull and other coffee connoisseurs say the ideal machine depends on your budget and how active a role you want to take in the coffee-preparation process. With a little know-how on what to look for, caffeinated bliss could be just a $5 investment away:

Go slow

Be wary of machines that promise extreme speed, says Richard Palmano of Palmano’s Trattoria & Wine Bar in Winter Park, Fla.  A cup made in under a minute can’t compare, flavor-wise, to one that’s been brewed over a more reasonable five minutes.

Participate

Manual coffeemakers require more effort on your part, but the advantage is more control. They’re downright cheap, too. A French press, available for as little as $20, was experts’ pick for both ease of use and coffee quality. “It allows the coffee to fully steep in the water which releases a full, rich expression of the coffee’s true flavor,” Turnbull says. James Spano, the owner of Savannah, Ga.-based Cup to Cup Coffee Roasters, also likes the $15 Clever Coffee Dripper and $5 Melitta Pour Over. “Some people don’t like the sediment you often get in a French press,” he explains. “The Clever Coffee Dripper solves the problem by using a paper filter in the brewing process.”

Weigh espresso investments

The experts are in agreement: going the homemade espresso route requires substantial outlay in money and time to get it right. “If you’re willing to pursue it, you should expect to pay $3,000 to $4,000 for a proper machine, grinder and accessories — and then be prepared to practice, practice, practice,” Turnbull says.

But it can be done for less, if you’re careful about the machine. Spano likes the $400 Gaggia Classic. To separate out the just-right from the too-cheap, avoid machines with plastic components and those that don’t get at least 10 to 12 bars of pressure for a proper espresso “pull,” says home connoisseur Rachel Hunt, who swears by her $550 Ascaso Dream.

Control your temper(ature)

Like cooking anything else, coffee made with water that’s to hot or not hot enough is less impressive, says Robert Crow, the relationship director at Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee Co. (It’ll be burnt or bitter.) Check the package to see how hot the machine heats the water. Crow likes Technivorm drip brewers ($300 on Amazon), which heat to an ideal 200 degrees. You could also achieve similar results by pairing a temperature-adjustable electric kettle with a manual coffeemaker.

Weigh accessory costs

If you want a single-use pod coffeemaker, factor in the costs of the pods themselves, which are specific to the machine and can be as cheap as $0.50 or as much as $2 apiece, says coffee connoisseur Joshua Duvauchelle. On other machine kinds, consider, too, if they require special filters or regular, intense cleaning to remove buildup. Either could add to your operational costs.

Skip department stores

You might have a coupon for Macy’s, Bed, Bath & Beyond or Kohl’s, but the selection there is a fraction of what you’ll see at specialty coffee shops, Palmano says. Browse Cookware.com and Whole Latte Love for selection. For reviews, visit Home-Barista.com and CoffeeGeek.com, Spano says.

Get schooled

No matter which machine you buy, read the instruction manual and check out online guides by other coffee fans for operation tips. If you’re making the four-figure investment in an espresso machine, expect more of a learning curve, Hunt says. “I had to call the company that distributes Ascaso in the US for a few hints on how to work with the machine,” she confesses. Worth it? “Yes! Nothing beats being at home and having a great latte without having to go anywhere for it. Now my husband likes coffee, too.”

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.