As every java-joint frequent flyer knows, addiction comes with a price. It starts with the occasional coffee, creating a taste for the dark bean. That leads to the harder stuff-once you've graduated to an Americano each morning, there's $14 less for RRSP contributions at the end of the week. It's then a slippery slope to double lattes with a shot of hazelnut, after which a seemingly harmless $4-a-day indulgence starts to look like a $130- a-month addiction. At that point, the challenge becomes reducing the cost of your habit.
Quitting cold turkey isn't an option, at least not in Vancouver, where you can't swing a café mocha without hitting a barista. A less-painful way is to invest in an espresso machine.
Considering that prices range from $250 for a solid entry-level model to the thousands for a Rolls- Royce-quality unit, justifying a significant cash outlay isn't always easy.
But do a little math-a $3 cappuccino x 365 days = $1,095-and it's obvious how quickly a unit can pay for itself. Mark Prince, Vancouver-based founder of the on-line java bible CoffeeGeek.
com, has some suggestions for those who don't know where to begin shopping.
Prince, who's Canada's only certified World Barista Championship judge, testdrives dozens and dozens of machines every year. His first suggestion is that you don't go the cheap route with a $50 bargain unit from the local hardware store. Instead, he recommends thinking about professional-quality machines from one of four main classes: manuals, semi-automatics, automatics, and super-automatics. No matter which route you end up going, expectations for your coffee should remain the same. "When you have an espresso the way it's supposed to be, it's an epiphany moment," Prince gushes. "You're drinking something that's naturally sweet, not bitter, and that has this velvet, caramel texture on your tongue. You're drinking something with such an amazing aftertaste, you don't want to drink or eat anything for a half-hour afterwards. In 90 percent of the cafés in Vancouver, or even Seattle and Portland, you don't get that experience. Drop the good money on good equipment for home, and you will." Manuals-where a lever is pulled by hand to force water through the coffee-are a good place to start for people so technology-challenged they get confused programming the VCR. Solid options are both the La Pavoni Professional (starting from $ 879 at Espressotec [106A- 5400 Airport Road South, Richmond; www.espressotec.com/) and the Elektra Micro Casa a Leva. The latter, available for $1,995 at Burnaby's ECM Espresso Coffee Machines Co. (3709 1st Avenue), is Prince's personal favourite.
"It's a beautiful-looking machine," he raves of the Elektra, which, with its gleaming-chrome tanks and signature eagle figurine on top, looks inspired partly by the space shuttle, partly by Rome's Altare della Patria. "It's a work of art-the kind of thing you could put on your bar and have people oooh and ahhh every time that they come over."
Semi-automatics let the machines do more of the work, with the water pump controlled by a switch. "The semi-part comes from the fact that you turn the pump on and off," Prince says. "You still have to grind your coffee, load it into the portafilter, tamp it, lock it into the machine, press the brew button, and turn it off when you think you have enough espresso brewed." Trusted warhorses in the semi-automatic category include the Rancilio Silvia, $675 at Espressotec. "The Rancilio Silvia kind of started the whole revolution of people spending 500 or 600 dollars on a home-espresso machine," Prince suggests.
"It was the first mass-market machine with commercial components. That was in 1997-1998. Today I would say it's probably the most popular home machine, and it's popular because it works well." Automatics are similar to the semi-automatic, except they come with a built-in flow meter and have programmable buttons. That means you don't have to stand there and watch the machine; one push and you've got yourself a long, short, double, or double-long espresso shot for your latte. "You see these in most bars," Prince offers. "Baristas can load the coffee into the porta-filter, press a button, and then walk away."
CoffeeGeek has been impressed with the Krups XP4020 in this category, available at the Bay's downtown location (674 Granville Street) for $249.99. Major selling points include a brass porta-filter, making for fewer fluctuations in water temperature between the pump and the espresso cup.
"It brews a pretty decent shot," Prince says. "The steam function is a bit lacking, but for the price it's a good buy." High-end among the semi-automatics is the Vibiemme Domobar Super (US$1,192 at www.corainc.com/). "This is for all intents and purposes like having a commercial machine in your house," Prince notes. "It will steam a pitcher of milk in 12 seconds-the Krups takes a minute and a half." Superautomatics do everything but drink your cappuccino for you. After going through a built-in grinder, coffee is measured out automatically and, once the water's been forced through it, ejected into a waste bin within the machine.
"One press of a button, and you get espresso in 30 or 40 seconds," Prince says, "and you only have to clean it out every five or 10 uses. Higher-end ones also have automatic foaming ability. You have a little tube that goes from the machine into a jug of milk. By pressing one button, it will froth a predetermined volume of steamed milk into a cup. You slide that over to the espresso part of the machine, press the brew button, and it will build a cappuccino for you in two steps."
On the medium-lower end of the superautomatic scale, CoffeeGeek sees solid value in the Krups Orchestro Dialog (available for $1,799.99 through special order at Basic Stock Cookware [2294 West 4th Avenue]). For those who've just been named Donald Trump's next apprentice, the mack-daddy purchase is the new Jura-Capresso S9 Avantgarde. Although the company doesn't have a Canadian distributor at the moment, Prince says hard-core java-junkies can order it on-line from the States (US$2,399 at www. kitchenkapers.com).
"I tested the previous generation of this machine, and it was the best superautomatic I have ever tested," he says. "The milk system is really sweet-on top of automating the process of frothing and steaming the milk, it even lets you dial in how much or little foam you want."
Admittedly, the price tag on the Jura-Capresso is intimidating, especially when converted to Canadian dollars. Here's one way of thinking that will make the purchase a little less daunting: after 711 lattes, it will practically have paid for itself.