CHOICE coffee machine expert Adrian Lini tests coffee machines of all stripes year-round in our labs, so he knows a thing or two about what makes them tick and how to get the best coffee from a machine.
He's also across what not to do – they're two sides of the same coin.
Here, he shares his top no-nos and no-gos to help you avoid any missteps that can leave you with bad coffee.
Adrian Lini, CHOICE's coffee machine expert, is passionate about good coffee.
1. He'd never use a blade grinder
Getting the perfect grind is one of the most important steps to making a good coffee.
It's a bit of a Goldilocks situation – if your beans are ground too coarse, you'll end up with watery coffee; if the grind is too fine you could end up with a burnt, bitter coffee.
To get a grind that's just right, the first step is getting your hands on a decent grinder. (And no, you don't need to spend a fortune. More on that later.)
Getting the perfect grind is one of the most important steps to making a good coffee
There are two types of coffee grinders in the world: blade grinders and burr grinders.
Blade grinders are essentially what you'd use to grind spices. While they're cheap, they don't grind the coffee evenly, which will leave you with a dud coffee – and possibly even damage your espresso machine. They will do the job for French press coffee, however, so if that's your preferred coffee-making method then a blade grinder may be right for you.
Burr grinders are more expensive but are worth their weight in gold. Instead of chopping, they crush the coffee beans and only release the grinds once they're the specific size you've set. This ensures that the coffee grinds are a consistent size, which will give you a far better coffee. (You'll likely need to play around with the settings to find the perfect grind for your machine.)
Burr grinders can be either conical (cone-shaped) or flat. Both designs can produce great coffee. While some burr grinders cost many hundreds of dollars (the most expensive we've tested costs nearly $900), you don't need to spend a fortune to get the best grind. Our experts recommend a number of models that cost less than $300. Some models scored well but not quite well enough to be recommended, but they're still worth considering – and many of them are reasonably priced.
You can filter by price, brand, score and grind in our expert coffee grinder reviews to help you find the perfect model for your needs and budget.
As soon as coffee beans are ground, they start to oxidise. It's best to grind your coffee as you need it.
2. He'd never buy pre-ground coffee
There's a good reason baristas grind only enough beans for each cup. As soon as coffee beans are ground, they start to deteriorate, affecting the flavour and aroma – and no matter how good the beans were before grinding, they'll never be at their best if they've been sitting in a pack oxidising for who knows how long before you get them home.
Unless you're buying beans directly from a café or roaster and having them ground in front of you, there's no way of knowing how long ago the coffee was ground.
Your best bet is to invest in a decent grinder and buy whole beans so you can grind them as needed for each cup, which will give you a much tastier, full-bodied espresso.
As soon as coffee beans are ground, they start to deteriorate, affecting the flavour and aroma
But what if buying a grinder isn't an option for you right now?
"To ensure you get the freshest ground coffee possible, try to buy from a roaster or café and ask them to grind the beans for you," says Adrian. "They'll be able to adjust the grind so it's right for your needs.
"And rather than buying a large bag of ground coffee that will take you ages to get through, try to buy smaller bags more frequently."
While we're on the subject of beans, here's another tip from Adrian: "Buying good coffee beans is one of the most important steps in making good coffee," he says.
"If you buy terrible beans, even the fanciest machine and the best barista skills won't save you from a terrible coffee."
You don't need to spend a fortune, but try to buy the freshest beans you can. Check the pack to see if there's a roasting date on there, and try to buy the ones that have been most recently roasted. (This is especially important when buying beans from the supermarket as they may have been sitting on the shelf for a while.) Your efforts will be rewarded in the form of top-notch coffees.
3. He doesn't expect café-quality coffee from a pod machine
Nothing beats pod machines for convenience and purchase price – they're simple to use, don't make much mess, and you can pick up a cheap one for under 100 bucks.
But they just can't hold a candle to manual and semi-automatic machines in terms of taste.
"Pods and capsules contain pre-ground coffee. Although they're sealed, it'll never be as fresh as grinding your coffee at home, so you'll lose a lot of the flavour and texture," says Adrian.
"So based on that alone you're unlikely to get the best-tasting coffee from a pod machine."
Not only that, but pod machines don't allow you to tweak other steps of the coffee-making process. On a manual or semi-automatic machine, you can change the grind, tamp (how tightly the coffee is packed), and extraction time (how long the hot water takes to flow through the ground coffee) to make the perfect coffee.
So if you're not happy with the flavour of your pod machine coffee, there's not much you can do, besides buying different types of pods that will also be filled with pre-ground coffee.
We compared pod and manual machines to see which delivered the best-tasting coffee, and manual machines unequivocally came out in front.
"Pod machines certainly have their place, but if you want a true espresso-based coffee, a pod machine isn't going to deliver it," Adrian says.
4. He wouldn't expect top-notch coffee right away from a new machine
Moving to a new coffee machine can be pretty daunting: different settings to learn, new methods to conquer and buttons and levers to figure out. Will the coffee ever be as good as from your old machine? What if you spend more and end up with terrible coffee? What if you never master it?
It's no wonder people tend to stick to their existing machine so they know exactly what to expect from every cup.
If you're thinking of upping your coffee game, it's best to learn to walk before you run. After all, if you're constantly turning out burnt coffees on your new machine, you might just give up and abandon it altogether.
It takes time to learn the ins and outs of a new machine, so it makes sense that it'll take time to perfect your technique
It takes time to learn the ins and outs of a new machine, so it makes sense that it'll take time to perfect your technique. Like anything in life, it takes time, experimentation, effort and motivation. Don't be disheartened – you will get there!
"If you're stepping up from a pod machine to a more complex machine, maybe don't go straight to the most complicated one on the market," Adrian says.
"You don't want to end up disheartened because it's more tricky than you'd anticipated.
"Semi-automatic machines take care of some of the coffee-making steps, which can make things easier so you feel more confident faster."
That said, if you're keen to go full coffee nerd, you can take classes, read up online and watch some videos to give you tips on how to master these new skills. If you're buying one of the more expensive fully-automatic machines, some manufacturers even offer personalised online sessions.
Wondering if it's time to make the switch? We answer the question: Should I upgrade from a pod to a manual espresso coffee machine?
Cleaning your coffee machine each time you use it is vital to ensuring it keeps delivering good coffees for years to come.
5. He never skips cleaning his machine
If you're in a rush and keen to get your coffee down the hatch pronto, you might be tempted to leave the clean-up for later. But spending an extra few moments to tidy up will be well worth the time – and can even save you extra cleaning time in the future.
There are three main things you should do each time you use your machine:
Cleaning the steam wand while the milk is fresh is much easier than leaving it until later when it's dried on. And it's especially important to run some steam through it to get rid of any lingering milk – you don't want rotten, old milk flavour in your next coffee!
Even after you remove the portafilter, there'll still be some coffee left in the group head (the metal part that delivers hot water to the portafilter's basket). If it stays there, it'll affect the flavour of your next coffee, so run some water through once you've emptied the portafilter to get rid of it.
The combination of water and coffee grounds that accumulates in the drip tray is the perfect food for mould (and sometimes even cockroaches – yuck!). To keep things fresh, empty out the drip tray once you're finished to get rid of it. Better still, rinse it with hot water to make extra sure there's nothing left for mould to feed on.
We break down each step here: How to clean your coffee machine.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.