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Should I upgrade from a pod to a manual espresso coffee machine?

Make the switch from pod connoisseur to espresso expert with this handy guide.

manual coffee machine
Last updated: 10 December 2019

Australians love coffee, with 11.5 million of us drinking at least one cup a week.  

While some of us are happy to spend their money on barista-made coffee, others prefer the convenience and cost-effectiveness of a home espresso machine. 

Of all the types of machines available, pod (otherwise known as capsule) espresso machines make up the bulk of espresso machines we buy. But for the best flavour, and the closest thing to barista-made coffee, nothing beats making it from ground beans on your very own manual espresso machine.

So if you currently own a pod machine and you're wondering whether to switch to a manual, we look at the benefits of upgrading and provide a step-by-step guide to making the perfect cup of coffee on a manual espresso machine.

closeup of coffee pod machine

Pod machines are simple to use, but the coffee may lack some intensity of flavour.

Pod vs manual espresso machines 

Pod espresso machines automatically brew and pour an espresso by inserting a capsule of coffee and pressing a button.

Manual espresso machines are more hands-on than their pod counterparts, as you need to manually add the ground coffee, set the machine to pour and cut off the flow of coffee. 

You'll also require some knowledge of coffee-making techniques such as grinding (the texture of your coffee), dosing (the amount you put in the portafilter) and tamping (compressing the coffee grounds in the portafilter). 

You may also want a coffee grinder if you want to grind your own beans.

"Using a manual coffee machine is more labour intensive, because it requires every step to be performed by the user," says Mit Lalich, CHOICE household products tester.

"However, it offers the user complete control over the brewing process to create the best espresso possible."

Benefits of upgrading to a manual espresso machine

1. Save on the cost of pods

Pod coffee isn't so convenient when you consider the ongoing costs of buying coffee pods. 

"Pod machines are relatively cheap, but the pods are expensive, costing close to $100/kg," says Mit.

In contrast, ground coffee or coffee beans can be found in supermarkets costing as little as $12/kg.

2. Fresh coffee means better flavour

Fresh coffee requires fresh beans. Pod coffee is pre-ground and goes stale quickly, which can drastically affect the flavour and quality of your cup of coffee. "Pods will go stale due to oxidation," Mit says. 

Using freshly ground beans to make your coffee on an automatic, semi-automatic or manual machine will produce a coffee closer in flavour and quality to a barista-made coffee from your favourite cafe. 

3. Less packaging 

Most single-use pods, which are made of strong aluminium and plastic, will end up in landfill, taking between 150 and 500 years to break down. 

Some progress is being made to make coffee pods greener – company recycle programs, biodegradable packaging and reusable metal pods – but there's still a long way to go. 

In the meantime, people with manual (as well as semi-automatic or automatic) machines can be composting their coffee grounds with no associated waste. 

rows of different flavour coffee pods

Coffee pods can cost close to $100/kg and most single-use pods end up in landfill.

How to use a manual espresso machine

Manual espresso machines aren't as easy to use as pod machines, but just how much user interaction is required depends on the machine and its capabilities. 

"The simplicity and convenience of the pod system is that it only requires water and pods, so all variables of making an espresso are taken care of," says Mit.

"It doesn't require a grinder and it's generally easier to maintain than an espresso machine."

"Upgrading from a pod machine to a [manual] espresso machine is for people who want a more hands-on experience and the ability to control the brewing process," he adds. 

But with a bit of knowledge, most people will be able to master the manual in no time. 

While the specifics vary from machine to machine, the basic instructions remain the same. 

For more advice on tamping, milk frothing and more, read our coffee making tips.

Other types of coffee machines

If you're still not sure if a manual is right for you, but you want the benefits of using ground coffee beans instead of pods, you could consider these machines.

Automatic espresso machine

A relatively easy to use option that works by putting your cup under the spout and pushing a button – the machine does all the work of grinding the coffee and making the espresso. Some models may even automatically froth milk . 

"If you want coffee with little to no effort and the freedom to choose your own beans, while achieving barista-ish quality, go with an automatic," Mit says.

"But although they're convenient, these machines can be very pricey, the quality of the shot can be questionable and there is no latte art capability, as they simply dispense a layer of froth on top of the coffee."

Semi-automatic espresso machine

These machines are similar to manual espresso machines as you need to add the coffee yourself and set it to pour. But unlike a manual machine, the semi-automatic will switch itself off once a pre-set amount has been poured into your cup. 

"They come with a slight learning curve and may require some practice, but they also offer control and convenience and the brewing process can be rewarding," says Mit. 

"If you want to be involved in most of the coffee-making experience and get barista level quality, go with a semi-automatic machine."

Non-espresso manual machines

There are also non-espresso manual coffee machines, such as vacuum coffee machines (sometimes called siphon or syphon machines), electric filter coffee machines and pour-over devices (also known as the drip brew method). 

For more information on these, visit our guide to buying the best filter, drip brew or vacuum coffee maker.

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.