I started drinking coffee heavily, for my health. The occasional espresso shot from local coffee shops was no longer enough. Could I make my own? Experiments with a borrowed steam-powered espresso maker yielded mediocre results, nothing like coffee-shop quality. However, most of the better machines available on Amazon seem to have mixed reviews, with buyers complaining about all kinds of problems. Perhaps, as with many types of complex equipment, user error is an issue. I decided to test the rich coffee-colored waters for myself by buying the least expensive machine with decent reviews that I could find, the DeLonghi EC 155. It turned out to be much better than I expected, with a few caveats:
-You can make first-class espresso and espresso-based drinks with this machine, if you learn a few simple workarounds to its limitations.
-This is a popular product that’s been around for years. There’s abundant info about using and maintaining it available online, including YouTube videos, Amazon comments, forum discussions, etc. The manufacturer has a telephone help line that’s moderately helpful. There’s also plenty of information, if you’re interested, about DIY modifications and upgrades — thus the AR-15 comparison.
-The machine has only one water heater for both coffee and steam; you can easily burn your coffee unless you’re careful to follow best practices.
-There’s inadequate space between the coffee spigots and the surface on which the receptacle cup sits.
-The steam wand is too short and, like the coffee spigots, too low.
-The machine vibrates when in use, and the steam wand tends to drip when you’re not using it.
-To avoid burning your coffee, once the machine has warmed up (green light is on) and before you make coffee, run hot water through the machine, without the coffee holder attached, until the green light goes out. Then attach the coffee holder and wait until the moment the green light comes on again and make your coffee. (This procedure is suggested in the instruction manual.)
-The coffee filters require cleaning depending on how often you use the machine (more often than you might expect, if you use the machine several times daily). To clean: disassemble, clean the metal screen with a toothbrush, and make sure the spring-loaded valve in the center of the plastic disk isn’t stuck.
-Clean the milk steamer frequently after use. It’s important to keep the two small holes in the plastic steamer head from becoming clogged.
-Coffee cups tend to walk across the stainless steel drip tray due to vibration from the pump. Keeping the drip tray wet will minimize this.
-Placing the espresso maker on the edge of your kitchen counter makes it much easier to use the steam wand.
-The attached plastic coffee tamper is more than adequate and you need tamp your coffee powder only minimally. This statement flies in the face of much Internet advice. Experiment for yourself.
-If your espresso is too weak, or doesn’t stream out of the filter fast enough to fill your cup in a reasonable time, or has little or no foam, the cure is generally to discard that cup, clean the filter, and try again (making sure not to overtamp your coffee powder).
UPDATE (9/12/2016): After five months @ 3-6 coffees a day my EC155 failed with inadequate water pressure at the coffee filter. DeLonghi will replace it via relatively painless warranty process. I don’t know if the failure of one example of an inexpensive mass-produced product should count against that product but I thought I should mention it. In any case DeLonghi’s service has been good.
UPDATE 2 (12/20/2016): The replacement machine failed in the same way that the original machine did. DeLonghi will replace it again but at this point I’d say caveat emptor. Pity as it’s otherwise a good product.
14 thoughts on “The AR-15 of Espresso Makers”
My coffee making consists of adding ground coffee to a microwave-heated cup of water. Pour off the top into a new cup to leave grounds at the bottom of the original cup.
Very cheap. :)
We have an old Krups purchased from Crate and Barrel probably 10 or 15 years ago. It’s in a box somewhere. Maybe its time for a new one. I take my coffee black because I can’t tolerate milk, which was for the best because the steamer wand thing never seemed to work right. I always made an Americano with it. A few shots with a couple cups of hot water.
We make coffee with an old-fashioned cone and filter paper. By buying good ground coffee in the first place we get a good results.
“the AR-15…” with a similar amount of maintenance needed, it appears.
Nice. I have perhaps the AK 47 of Espresso machines. I bought a Breville Cafe Roma a few years ago. It was on sale at about $125 CAN and it was one of the few overnight deliveries I have ever had. Just lucky, I did not pay for express. I took it as a good omen, and it’s been chugging away for years now.
I boil water and fill my wide cup with it. Then I put the portafilter in the cup. This is to warm everything up. Getting everything nice and hot is key to working a cheap machine. I put my milk in a glass into the hot water in the cup after I take out the portafliter to do my grind, heating it up helps with the final temperature. Mine does good temperature so I do my shot into my hot cup first. Then I fire up the steamer, like yours on the same water the coffee comes from, and let it come up to speed. A cup to catch the water is useful here. When it’s hissing well I steam my milk. Makes a great cup but you do have to work a bit for it.
My son’s, well over a grand, can dispense with most of the fooling around, but does not really make a much better cup.
When I was a kid my parents used to make Swedish egg coffee. Beat an egg then mix with coffee grounds (shell included) and water then boil in a pot. Add a little bit of cold water, let it steep, then strain into the mug.
Pengun, that may be the most well informed comment you’ve made here.
Oh I could go on. The grinder is crucial. It’s said that you should spend more on your grinder than your espresso machine.
Now I used a very old Zassenhaus hand grinder for several years and did well. I finally got a nice grinder, a Baratza Encore and the difference was not at all subtle. My first impression was ‘twice the flavor’ and I think that describes it well. The Encore is the cheapest grinder with the nice conical burr, you can get.
The coffee is ground almost perfectly evenly. All the grains are the same size and when you lean on it with your tamper it compresses evenly throughout the puck. This releases a lot more flavor than a grind with everything from coarse to very fine, that cheap grinders produce.
I am glad I quit drinking coffee and now have one simple cup of Earl Grey tea each morning. This decision has saved me tens of thousands of dollars over the years.
China tea before lunch? You radical, you.
Tutti gusti son gusti, ma meit gusti son giusti.
Tutti gusti son gusti, ma mei gusti son giusti.
It’s difficult with a cheap machine, quite easy with a nice one.
What you are trying to do is:
First stir up the surface with the nozzle just under the surface.
Carefully go a bit deeper, till the sound changes from bubbling noises to a light bubbly hiss.
You are trying to inject micro bubbles under the bigger ones that form naturally if you stick a steam wand in your coffee. They give body to your steamed milk, and are the reason commercial machines can make very stiff milk foam.
Have a Barista that makes fabulous espresso but its 12 years old. Your recommendation is exactly what I’m looking for, a replacement that’s good but cheap. Thank You.
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