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.