Cigar Aficionado

Easy Espresso—Four Machines Make it Simple to DIY

If you buy your espresso drink every day at a coffee place on your way to work, you're probably spending at least $2 for a double espresso and more for any drink that ends in "cino." So, you're not cheap, but are you lazy?

New, small espresso machines that use coffee capsules have made it easy to consider making your own espresso at home. No more grinding, no more mess as we explain in the current issue of Cigar Aficionado.

The small espresso machines are part of what the coffee industry calls the "single serve system." Instead of making a whole pot of coffee, you just put in the pod or the capsule and out comes coffee for one. The most recent study by the National Coffee Association shows single-serve is the fastest growing sector of the home market.

Of course, espresso has pretty much always been single-serve, but somewhat time consuming for those not caught up in the artisanal joy. The small machines take artisanship out of the equation, but emphasize convenience. We tested several of the machines readily available in the United States and focused further testing on four. All boast 19 bars of pressure, but not all performed the same, something not uncommon among traditional espresso machines.

If there is one drawback (beyond recycling challenges) to using a capsule in one of these four systems, it is that you have to use the espresso that comes with the machine. So, variety in what each system offers becomes important. The priority, simply put, will be whether you like the espresso.


Nespresso Pixie,

The Nespresso system is popular worldwide, having sold more than 30 billion individual capsules since coming out in 1986. Nespresso offers several machines that use the same of any of 21 different flavor capsules. The machine we tested was the Pixie, the smallest Nespresso sells at 6.6 pounds and $229. It comes with its own travel case. The favorite flavors were the darker espresso roasts, Kazaar—it had the familiar espresso "bite"—and Dharkan, a little smoother. Once we set the pour (the amount of water we want to pass through the coffee) at one ounce, we found that the shots came out consistently at 169 degrees Fahrenheit. This was six degrees lower than what Nespresso says the temperature should be, but the espresso was very enjoyable with good, not great, crema; what should be a caramel-colored foam on top.

Each capsule will run you between 65 to 70 cents. So, assuming you want to make your espresso at home, figure that on a single shot you're saving a buck. On a double, you're saving around 60 cents. That's without the cost of the machine, of course.

The Pixie is a great system. You can take it on the road. Litto and Inez Lorenzo-Gomez, the owners of La Flor Dominicana, do just that when they travel in the U.S.

"We send the espresso machine by UPS to the hotel," Litto explains. "We use a small Nespresso machine. It's very simple, doesn't break and makes good coffee. The reason is that we like to wake up and have an espresso, but if you order it from room service, it's cold or very badly made. In Europe, almost all of the good hotels have a Nespresso machine in the room. When we make a reservation, we always ask if they have one and the answer is usually ‘Yes.'"

One thing to keep in mind is that you have to stay on top of buying the capsules. That needs to be done online unless your local Sur la Table has a boutique Nespresso section.

Nespresso has just come out with Vertuoline, which makes "American" coffee—eight different capsules, 95 cents each—along with espresso, but the espresso selections are just four right now at 75 cents a capsule.

illy Francis Francis Y3,

The espresso that comes out of illy's iperEspresso capsules was my favorite, coming closest to the brew I get from my traditional machine. The new Francis Francis Y3 system ($230) is the most compact of the ones offered by illy. You have a choice of 11 flavor capsules, including "single origin" (Monoarabica) from coffee regions like Guatemala, Brazil and India, among others. Setting the pour to one ounce can be programmed, like all the machines we tested, by pressing the start button and then pressing it again when you've reached the level you want.

We tried five of the flavors, about 86 cents per capsule, and all had great crema and were consistently 175 degrees in the cup. The Y3 machine is sleek, but weighs 9.7 pounds, making it a little heavy to consider taking on a trip, but if what you want is a recognizably Italian espresso, this system will provide that.

Bialetti Diva,

You might know Bialetti as the maker of the iconic stovetop demitasse coffeemaker, the Moka Express. Now, Bialetti has gone electric. The Bialetti Diva is gorgeous. If your Ferrari had room for an espresso machine, this would be it. At $249 in black or red, the Diva offers six flavors, at 62 cents per capsule, ranging from a very light to a reasonably dark, nutty roast in the Napoli, the one we liked best. The crema was consistently good, but a little bubbly. The flavor is, as Bialetti promises, "truly Italian," but not as rich as the illy espresso. The temperature was a consistent 165 degrees.

Starbucks Verismo,

Interestingly, Starbucks is all in when it comes to offering you the ability to make your coffee at home. The Verismo, presumably named after a style of opera designed to appeal more to the common folk, is the only system that also offers a capsule for making milk. The problem, all our tasters said, is that the milk does not taste very good. The capsules for the Verismo all run about a dollar each. The dark espresso one tasted just like the espresso you get at Starbucks. The temperature on the shots was consistently between 165 and 167 degrees. Compared to the other systems, the espresso was a little "watery" and the crema was very light and loose.

We tested the Verismo 600 ($199), which has a dedicated "Americano" button. Starbucks now offers 13 different flavor capsules for the Verismo, including brewed coffee. There are two other Verismo machines, both smaller than the 600.