Need to know
- Buying a manual machine will work out cheaper than buying cafe coffees
- Convenience, environmental impact and your coffee skill level are also factors to consider
- Our testers review a wide range of machines – from manual to automatic to pod – to help you find the best for you
There's no denying that we love our coffee here in Australia. In 2018, the Australian coffee market generated more than $8 billion in revenue, with the majority of us drinking at least one cup of coffee in an average week.
At CHOICE, we love supporting our local cafes, but we know buying coffees from your favourite barista can become an expensive habit too. With many people trying to cut costs and/or working from home in these COVID times, a good home espresso machine offers an increasingly attractive alternative for your daily caffeine fix.
From cost to convenience to dealing with waste, here are the key factors to consider before becoming your own barista at home.
1. The cost to your pocket
Given that a cup of coffee costs about $4 at a cafe, and as much as $5 in some areas (both regional and metro – it's not just the cosmopolitan cafes charging big bucks for their coffee), you could be spending upwards of $1500 a year if you have one cup of cafe coffee a day.
And that number just goes up if you sometimes sneak in an extra brew or two, or get a muffin as well.
So, would you be better off taking that cash and investing it in your own coffee machine? Let's have a look at the numbers.
The cost of the machine
Pod or capsule coffee machines are usually cheaper than manual espresso machines (you can pick up a basic pod unit for less than $100 or splurge up to $699). But our expert taste testers agree that if you're fussy about flavour, a manual espresso machine will almost always give you the best, barista-like results. This is because it gives you the most control over the brewing process.
If you're fussy about flavour, a manual espresso machine will almost always give you the best, barista-like results
And while they're more expensive to buy (from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars), a good machine should last you about eight years.
Just remember, though, that price isn't always an indicator of performance. Many cheaper models outperform more expensive ones in our test – check out our coffee machine reviews to see if you can pick up a bargain model that scores well.
We also give each machine a brand reliability and brand satisfaction score, based on responses from CHOICE members, so you can assess how brands have performed over time for other coffee lovers.
The cost of the coffee: ground vs pods
You also need to take into account the cost of pods and capsules if you have a pod or capsule machine, or ground coffee or beans if you have a manual or automatic. This is where your cash outlay will vary wildly.
Although you can pick up a bag of ground coffee from the supermarket for as little as $12 per kilogram, coffee aficionados will argue the best results will come from barista beans, which could cost you about $50 or more per kilogram. Depending on the size of your grind, a kilogram of beans should give you about 120 to 140 single shots of coffee or 60 to 70 double shots (based on eight grams for a single shot, 16 for a double).
You may outlay less cash initially for a pod or capsule coffee machine, but the pods themselves can be much more expensive
Even though you may outlay less cash initially for a pod or capsule coffee machine, the pods and capsules themselves can be much more expensive (not to mention the cost to the environment if you don't recycle them) – they're about $100 a kilogram on average.
If you settle on a more expensive manual machine that costs, say, $1200, it works out at just $150 a year over an eight-year lifespan. Add to that the cost of coffee for one cup a day and milk, your at-home espresso machine will still cost you less than a daily cafe coffee habit. You should make allowances for occasional maintenance and replacement of parts as well.
Doing the maths: making a coffee vs buying one
We've compared coffee costs for a year below, based on buying a manual espresso machine as they deliver the most barista-like results. Keep in mind, your personal preferences (for equipment, coffee brand, even how much milk you use) will change the costs – this is a guide only.
2. The cost to the environment
Unless you fastidiously use a BYO cup every time you go to a cafe (and some currently don't accept them due to COVID-19), you're contributing to the one billion takeaway coffee cups that Australians send to landfill every year. Each cup takes thousands of years to decompose.
Of course, making a coffee at home means you're more likely to use a mug or reusable cup. If you use it everyday, that's at least 365 takeaway cups you're saving from landfill every year. You can even use the grounds in your compost (just mix it with organic garden waste first, as it's too acidic on its own).
If you use a mug everyday, that's at least 365 takeaway cups you're saving from the trash a year
Using a pod machine can be far more problematic when it comes to waste. While convenient, spent pods can't be put in council recycling bins – their tiny size means they drop through the recycling equipment.
The alternative is taking or posting them to specially designated collection points (as Nespresso offer), but that relies completely on the drinker's time and dedication to the cause. According to this daunting ABC news report from 2019, Nespresso revealed 71% of its pods are currently not being recycled.
Thankfully, there's a growing range of compostable and refillable pods on the market that aim to reduce so much single-use waste.
Some might say that picking up a takeaway coffee is the ultimate convenience: you don't have to spend time buying beans, grinding them at home, frothing milk or cleaning a machine. It's all happily done for you by a smiling barista.
Another plus of cafe coffee is the social factor: sharing your coffee experience with a friend or colleague. Even the ritual of the morning walk to pick up your flat white can often be a highlight of your day.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has messed up a lot of our daily routines and limited the possibility of social outings to grab a cuppa. It may be harder to get to your local cafe on public transport or trickier to get a table due to restricted numbers.
And if you're working from home more now, you might find it far easier just to walk to the kitchen instead and fire up your machine between video chats or phone calls.
4. Your level of skill
Of course, the 'home vs cafe' comparison relies heavily on you learning to make a coffee that rivals a bought one. For that reason, CHOICE coffee machine expert Chantelle Dart says it's vital to buy a coffee machine that suits your skill level, as well as how much you're going to use it.
"Some people spend thousands on a coffee machine, but there's not much point if either you don't really know how to use it, or you don't use it enough to warrant the money you've spent on it," says Chantalle.
Whichever machine you buy, it's worth taking the time to learn how to use it properly – from buying the right kind of coffee grinder and good-quality coffee to tamping the coffee correctly, frothing the milk and getting the perfect pour. Thankfully, there are plenty of great coffee tutorials online to learn from.
Baristas charge $4 to $5 a cup for a reason – it's because they're (usually) specially trained and using the best beans. If you can't replicate that at home, you might find yourself heading back to the cafe and your coffee machine becoming a benchtop relic.
Some people spend thousands on a coffee machine, but there's not much point if you don't really know how to use itCHOICE coffee expert Chantelle Dart
Chantelle says: "Our tests have found that the type of coffee machine you're using really makes all the difference. Our blind taste tests show that, even when using the same type of coffee, there are surprisingly different results from machine to machine.
"Ease of use and the skills of the person using it also have an impact, particularly when it comes to manual or semiautomatic espresso machines. Results will really depend on the skill of the person using it, as you have a lot of control over the process."
When we review coffee machines, we assess things such as ease of use, how they perform on tasks such as frothing milk and achieving consistency of temperature, and the resulting coffee taste.
5. Being able to experiment and make your coffee the way you like it
Making your own coffee at home means you're not bound by the brand of coffee sold at your local cafe, and you can experiment with lots of different blends to find one you really love.
You can also avoid that awkward situation when your favourite barista is not rostered on and someone else makes an inferior coffee (that's four or five bucks down the drain!)
Can you use regular pre-ground coffee in an espresso machine?
Chantelle says, yes, but you'll get best results from coffee that's been ground specifically for use in an espresso machine, either by yourself or from a barista (rather then a pre-ground coffee from the supermarket).
"Using freshly ground beans to make your coffee on an automatic, semiautomatic or manual machine will produce a coffee closer in flavour and quality to a barista-made coffee from a cafe," she says.
Your grinder will make a difference, too: "You'll get best results from a burred coffee grinder (flat or conical), as opposed to a grinder with blades, like a blender. This allows for greater precision and consistency with your grind."
Still not sure what we're talking about? We break down all these terms in our article about how to buy the best coffee grinder.