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Why do espresso machines cost so much?(r/Coffee)
First of all, you don’t need to spend $2000 to make great espresso coffee. A $350 Gaggia Classic with a $150-$200 PID will reliably make great shots for you. The $600-700 Crossland with a built in PID will do much the same. The Silvia remains a great entry machine but probably one that is about $200 overpriced for what you get considering what else is on the market.
And although the basic concept – hot water under pressure through tamped coffee is the same, the execution will very hugely. Although, sure, you are paying for externals – the Rocket Giotto is way prettier than the Gaggia Classic or Crossland…), the internals of all espresso machines are in no way the same.
At the lowest level of machine capable of making decent espresso , basically the Silvia or Classic (I’m ignoring the Krups, Cuisinart, DeLonghi, etc machines that sell for $100-300 and are, essentially, a waste of time, effort and money), you have a single boiler dual use machine (SBDU). This sort of machine has a single boiler which provides both hot water for your coffee and steam for steaming. This is fine, provided you don’t want to do both at the same time, as you need a hotter temperature in the boiler to make steam, so you need to chose to do one or the other and wait whilst the temperature is right. It’s not a big deal if you only drink espresso (which is why I still use my classic), but a pain if you aspire to latte art. Also these smaller machines tend to have small boilers which limits the amount of steam and the number of shots you can make in quick succession.
The Crossland has a PID – a electronic controller which is used to precise monitor and control the water temperature being delivered to the coffee. The Classic and Silvia have much more primative thermostat based temperature control and realistically need a PID adding at a cost of about $150-200 if you want any sort of acceptable performance. Without one, you need huge patience (google “Silvia temperature surfing”) to make a good shot. Temp surfing gets old very quickly.
The Crossland has a thermoblock to aid steaming. This is a heated lump of metal with pipes through it, which quickly heats up water. These are very bad as sources of water for brewing coffee (you get them in crappy Krups, etc cheap “espresso” makers) but very good for giving you quick steam without messing with your boiler temperature. This makes it a better bet than either the Gaggia or Silvia if you want to make lots of flat whites and cappuccinos for your friends.
So even at the bottom of the market there is a lot of difference in terms of internal components and capability.
When you get to around $1200-$1500 you get into the realm of HX (Heat Exchanger) machines. A good entry level example would be the Quickmill Anita. These tend to come with fancy shiny steel/chrome cases. These have a boiler (usually quite large) which heats water to make steam and hot water for the dual wands on the front of the machine. The water for the espresso is drawn from the reservoir or pipe through a “heat exchanger” tube that runs through the boiler, heating it quickly from cold to exactly the right temperature when it hits the group head. This is quite a complex bit of engineering to get right and you pay for it. As you do for the often bigger and more thermally stable E61 group head attached to these machines. Some of these machines will also have a PID to further control their temperature, and some offer the option of direct plumbing into a water supply and a rotary as opposed to vibe pump (which provides a more steady pressure profile). HX machines are a great second step into coffee (if you don’t get diverted like me into the esoteria of lever machines), but their more robust construction and more complicated engineering comes at a price (all that steel, brass and chrome…). Because the water for steaming comes from an often big boiler and does not get used for making your espresso shot, you can make a shot and steam at the same time, if you want to indulge your kitchen barista fantasies. They are excellent machines for making a round of drinks at the end of a dinner party, something the Silvia and Classic couldn’t manage.
At the top end of the pro-sumer range (before you get into the ridiculous stuff like the La Marzocco GS3 or the KVW Speedster ), you get dual boiler machines (although the price difference between DB and HX machines is less pronounced than it was). The Expobar Brewtus IV is a good example. Although externally, they often look quite similar to their HX sister models, and have similar names (a lot of higher end machines come in HX and dual boiler variants), they take a different approach to making espresso and steaming, with a boiler for steaming and a boiler for brewing. Often with a PID on each boiler for even greater heat control. The challenge of fitting two boilers and two control circuits into a machine add even further to the complication and price of what you are buying. And again, they come with a range of choices around plumbing, pumps, etc.
And on top of that, you get a whole load of choices around the depth of chrome on your taps, the flashiness of your dials, the types of switches and levers used, etc. which adds to the price differences between machines.
Of course this is all just broad guidance, and some machines bust through price points offering a lot of features for remarkable little money (in comparative terms). The Breville BES900XL is one of these – it’s not pretty, but its stuffed full of features – dual boilers and PIDs, controllable pre-infusion, etc – and at $1200 is a phenomenal bang for buck. Although, as a relatively new machine, like the Crossland, I’d like to wait a few years before taking a view on whether its worth investing in (yeah it’s got great tech, but will it last for 5-10 years before breaking or only until its warranty is up…).
However, generally, you get what you pay for in terms of ease of use, robustness of construction, quality of components, and production capacity. At the higher end of this price range, you get machines which could happily produce coffee all day for a small office or restaurant with low demand for coffee – they bridge the home/semi commercial divide and are priced accordingly. They may or may not provide features and capability that you want or need. It is likely you will find it easier to make predictably great coffee on a more expensive machine with better temperature control and a better pump, but if you haven’t nailed your grind and tamp badly, it’s just as easy to make a horrible drink from your very expensive shiny indulgence. And with or without solid technique starting to spend big money on big machines for marginal improvements in output is a hell of a rabbit hole to dive down…
And did I mention lever machines? Another world entirely… (says the man currently hoping his SO doesn’t log on to see his current ebay bid on a forty year old Olympia Cremina)
TL;DR – there is a lot of difference between espresso machines in different price ranges, both internal and external; you get what you pay for, but if you don’t need it, there’s not much point in paying; fancy steel and chrome looks great in your kitchen anyway, if you have the space and money, and that’s what drives a lot of people. Like buying expensive watches, but more fun to play with.
Edited: for typos and poor grammar, and to pick up/clarify a good few issues raised in so many helpful comments.
Edit #2: wow – hi /r/bestof and /r/depthhub , welcome to /r/coffee , feel free to visit more!
Edit #3: thanks for the Reddit gold, guys. Really appreciated!