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How to Justify a $3,000 Coffee Maker

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Photo: CoffeeGeek

Are you a coffee snob? Do you sniff at drip? Are you willing to endure a day of caffeine headaches and jitters rather than sip a subpar brew? And most importantly, is this addiction/affliction costing you more money than you can afford? These days a lot of people are telling you to get your caffeine fix at home rather than spending $10 a day at carts and counters.

“You probably stop at your local coffee shop at least once a day and grab your latte, cappuccino or Americano,” says sales manager Darren Ruffel of Whole Latte Love (WLL), a consumer-oriented e-tailer based in Victor, NY. He estimates, for example that if you average two venti mochas daily at $4.27 each, that comes out to $59.78 a week or more than $3,100 a year on take-out coffee, not to mention the cost of gas, parking and waiting in line.

“Your coffee habit is costing you a lot of moola!” he cries. WLL has definitely seen an uptick in machine sales since the economy crashed. “More people are investing in home equipment to save money and have good quality coffee at home.”

A shot in the dark

The heart of a gourmet coffee drink is the espresso shot, flavored with milk-stuff, sugar-stuff or spice-stuff or blended with ice or foam. It was Achille Gaggia who invented the modern espresso machine in 1938, which uses pressure to extract the best flavor and aroma from ground beans.

The signature of a perfect shot is the crema, the ephemeral golden foam of oils, proteins and sugars floating on the ebony slurry of extra virgin extraction. You only get that when properly selected and roasted beans are properly ground and pressed and then properly heated and pressurized water is forced through the coffee during the proper 20-25 second window.

How hard is it to get a professional-quality cup at home? “Not hard at all. With the right equipment, beans and knowledge you can create a great cup of coffee in your home—in most instances, a better cup than at cafes because you can customize your drink to your own personal tastes,” Ruffel says.

Types of espresso technology

So assuming that five or six cups before 8am will keep you going all day (really?), what kind of investment are we talking about? These days several categories of espresso machines have been especially popular: super-automatics, semi-automatics and single-serves. (Price ranges provided by WLL).

Super-Automatic ($499-$3299): Essentially a coffee-making robot. Put whole beans in the hopper, fill the water reservoir, and a superautomatic grinds and pumps perfect cups of espresso or crema coffee at the touch of a button. Then the mechanism expels the spent puck into an internal bin and readies itself for the next shot. Some have LCD screens or manual adjustments; many have self-frothers to foam the milk.

Semi-Automatic ($59-1999): Upgrades from the traditional pump machines. You’ll need to grind your beans first (use a burr grinder) and tamp it into the portafilter, but then the machine takes care of temperature and pressure.

Single-Serve ($89-499): A new market entry. These machines usually feature space-saving designs and deliver a single, precise extraction from an inserted capsule or pod. Many manufacturers also make tea, hot chocolate and flavored coffee pods.

Does it pay?

At my house we bought a Gaggia Synchrony Compact. Our preferred way to enjoy coffee is to express about 2-4oz of coffee and then add an ounce or less of milk or creamer to cut the acidity of the coffee. In Spain and Latin America, this is often called a cortado.

We paid $650 in 2005, so our beloved little robot just turned four. Over that time, this superautomatic has required very little maintenance and only weekly cleanings. It grinds and brews perfect cups of crema at the push of a button, and then cleans up after itself. After four years at an average of 5-6 cups per day, the machine itself has cost us less than 7 cents per cup.

Besides the coffee-maker, of course, you will be spending money on coffee beans. We use Peet’s Espresso Forte blend, which we buy fresh for $12.95 per pound. Using—believe it or not—the IRS’s estimate of 60 shots per pound, we’re paying a little more than 21 cents per cup. So for about two bits per cup, we’re enjoying the best coffee I’ve ever had anywhere in the world.

Compare that to about $1.45 for simple shot of espresso at Starbucks. If we invest the time in steaming some milk or adding a flavor, our investment only goes up by a penny or so. Compare that to Ruffel’s $4.27 venti mochas.

Coffee culture

Unless you work at home, this works best if you get your whole caffeine fix first thing in the morning. (Or maybe you need to invest in one at work too?)

But what about the social aspects of the coffee house? Dropping in on your crowd, taking a break from a stressful workplace? Coffee houses have become the quintessential “third place” between work and home, but Ruffell suggest that space has gone virtual, anyway.

“With the increased world of Web 2.0, we find that people are making coffee at home and sharing the ritual of creating unique drinks on social networks like Facebook, forums and blogs,” he says. “Individuals are spending more time at home and enjoying good quality coffee with neighbors and friends.”

Steve Barth blogs about work, play, society and politics at Reflexions.