There are two main types of coffee machines. Filter coffee machines are the simplest, dripping hot water through ground coffee to create a large volume of drink. The resultant coffee tends to be smoother and, as you can keep a pot on the got, are great for large numbers of people or just for having coffee ready to go.
Espresso machines deliver coffee as a shot, distinctive thanks to the foamy head on top called the crema. Manual espresso machines use ground coffee (or beans you grind yourself) and require some skill to get working. They typically produce the best results, though. A bean-to-cup coffee machine does the hard work for you, griding and automatically pouring the coffee. Quality can be great, but you don’t quite get the results of a manual machine; the trade-off being that the job is much easier.
Pod or capsule machines are the easiest to use: drop in a pod and hit a button and you’re done. The downside is that the cost per cup is higher and you don’t get the same extensive range of coffees as with a machine that uses beans or ground coffee.
Using filtered water can make your coffee taste better if you’re not a particular fan of the taste of your tap water. It’s worth trying if you’ve got a filter jug to see what difference it makes. More importantly, a water filter should be installed and used where possible in a coffee machine’s water reservoir, particularly if you live in a hard water area.
Using a water filter removes the impurities from your water, which can lead to better-tasting coffee. It also helps reduce limescale build-up, which will reduce problems with your coffee machine getting clogged up and requiring descaling. You’ll still need to regularly descale your machine (check it’s manual for the full details on how to do this), as a machine that has a lot of limescale in it will struggle to pour water at the right rate, and your coffee will be ruined.
Coffee stays fresher for longer if it’s not ground. If you’re regularly using a manual espresso or filter machine, a grinder is a good addition. In particular, for a manual machine, using a coffee grinder lets you adjust the grind to suit your machine and coffee, further fine-tuning the results. The downside is that while you can use a cheaper grinder for a filter machine, you’ll need to spend a bit more to get a suitable grinder for a manual espresso machine: that’s particularly true if you have a more expensive coffee machine.
If you have an espresso machine a way of making steamed milk opens up the potential to make a wide range of drinks from cappuccinos to lattes. A steamer wand is a traditional way of making frothy milk. You hold a jug under the wand, while steam adds air to the milk, swirling it around. A steamer wand gives you more control over the process, but the downside is that it can take quite a bit of skill to get the right results.
An automatic milk frother is a good alternative, producing steamed milk. These are typically available on bean-to-cup and pod machines. The simplest option is a system that steams milk and pours it, which is great for convenience, although the final results aren’t as good as pouring milk from a jug. Some machines can froth milk in a jug, or they use an external device, such as the Nespresso Aeroccino. You don’t quite get the results of doing the job yourself, but you can free pour your final drink to get the balance of espresso and milk that you want.
If you buy a manual espresso machine, you can get single- or dual-boiler options. A dual-boiler coffee machine can produce espresso and steam milk at the same time. This cuts down on preparation time and lets you make milk drinks in the optimal time. They are a lot more expensive than single-boiler machines, where you first steam your milk, then reduce the temperature of the system to make a shot of espresso.
Nespresso capsules are the best by far. Nespresso is now available in two types. Original pods are designed to replicate the type of coffee that you get in a coffee shop. There’s a wide range of capsules available from Nespresso, although you can also choose from a growing range of third-party ‘compatible’ capsules. There’s a good reason to stick with Nespresso, though: it will recycle all of its capsules for free, either by organising a collection or by dropping old capsules into a Nespresso store.
There’s also the newer Nespresso Vertuo system, which uses large capsules. This system delivers larger mug-fulls of coffee and has a similar range of official capsules to the original system. Currently, there are no third-party options for Vertuo. All capsules are recyclable with Nespresso.
Nescafe Dolce Gusto machines are comparatively cheap, with a wide range of pods available in supermarkets. This system is a step up from instant coffee, but the reliance on powdered milk is a little disappointing.
Tassimo machines and pods are similar to Dolce Gusto, with a similar range of pod options available online or in good supermarkets. These use UHT milk capsules for some drinks.
All coffee machines require regular maintenance to keep them in the best working condition. The most important job you’ll do is descaling them, removing limescale from the innards to make sure that water flows smoothly through the machine. If you don’t descale your machine when prompted, you may find that the seize up, and water won’t pass through at the speed required to make decent coffee. Most coffee machines will warn you when it’s time to descale, based on the water hardness level that you set: the harder the water, the more often the job has to be done.
Espresso machines should also be cleaned with a cleaning tablet when prompted, which removes the oily residue from the beans. It helps keep your machine in the best working condition and ensures that you get the best taste.
If you have a steamer wand, this will need to be cleaned after every use. You can usually remove the tip to wash it in hot water to remove all milk residue. Make sure that you clean our drip trays (again, use some soapy water). For bean-to-cup machines, if they have a removable brew head, this should be removed and rinsed regularly, too.