Rise of the machines

More people are buying coffee machines for the home, creating a market dividing along lines of style and performance, convenience and connoisseurship, writes Josh Sims


Heralding the death of the mug of tea might be tantamount to treason in the UK. And yet earlier this year the London department store Selfridges reported that espresso cups were outselling mugs two to one, while John Lewis noted that its sales of espresso cups were up 59 per cent year on year. Its sales of coffee machines - machines that required the dainty cups - were also up 20 per cent.

Indeed, the coffee machine is fast becoming the designer totem of the cutting-edge kitchen: all that whizz-bangery and flashing lights, or, for traditionalists, the careful tamping of the coffee basket and the hiss of the steam wand just to produce a splash of black liquid for the coffee fan to critique or perhaps just neck on his way to work. The machines are even making history: at the end of last year a coffee machine on a breakfast show became the first example of official product placement on TV following changes to Ofcom regulations.

Yet, for all the rising interest in coffee machines, essentially they work today the same way they did 110 years ago, when the steam-operated model which had been around since 1822 was perfected by factory owner Luigi Bezzera. Manual machines have hardly changed at all; the E61 group head, a machine part that helps to infuse coffee flavour, standard on many top-end machines and almost legendary among coffee fanatics, was patented 50 years ago this year.

One of the most recent innovations was Milan bar owner Giovanni Gaggia’s invention of the lever operated espresso machine, creating the smooth crema caffè in the process. And that was in 1946.

This perhaps explains the growing emphasis on looks, especially, right now, compact or retro-industrial ones; it is a style which, as Claudette Porter, director of coffee machine distributors Bella Barista, notes, “appeals especially to men - and the coffee machine is one of the few gadgets in the kitchen most men can get enthusiastic about”.

“The aesthetics of the machines are becoming more and more important to their sales,” agrees Roger Shuttleworth, head of marketing for coffee machine maker Jura UK. “Not only are they quite emotional products - a washing machine is just a white box in comparison - but as we spend more and more on our kitchens we want the machines to fit in.”

Arguably the pleasing form of a coffee maker has long won attention, ever since Giordano Robbiati’s Atomic model of 1946 established its credentials as a design classic. And when Starbucks hires BMW Group Designworks USA to come up with its Art Deco-ish Sirena coffee-maker, one might guess that looks still count. Designers now often propose new benchmarks in kitchen prettiness, such as Kamil Kurka’s curvy, wedgeshaped machine, easily mistaken for a swish stereo speaker, or Dror Goldblum’s four-legged espresso maker. Some even make it into production: the Italian design company MM Design’s new aluminium and glass Y1 model for Illy Francis Francis re-considers the coffee machine as a piece of modernist architecture.

As for the way in which the new wave of glitzy machines actually deliver the coffee, perhaps Nespresso’s widely imitated pod system can fairly claim to have offered the only radical change in making coffee at home for several decades. “And what follows the pod? No one knows,” says Brema Drohan, UK managing director for Nespresso. “But the pod has a long way to run yet.”

Coffee machines are emotional products - a washing machine is just a white box in comparison

Certainly, what recent development there has been, or will be over coming years, looks set to focus more on the devices’ functionality rather than radical new systems: the levels of control on automated machines, the types of control, the detachability of parts, more eco-friendliness and so forth. Even perhaps machines with ceramic grinders, as Jura’s new Giga 5 model boasts, or coffee selection by fingerprint recognition, as Philips offers with its new Xelsis ID.

“I can’t see what radical development there could be,” says Vivienne Palmer, coffee appliances marketing manager for Philips, which - backing predicted growth in the domestic machine business - two years ago bought Saeco, the Italian parent company of Gaggia, which also launches new machines next year. “But then who knows what’s going on somewhere in Italy?”

Perhaps the biggest change is likely to be found more in consumer attitude to the machines themselves. As sales of espresso cups suggest, the machines are on the rise. But they remain, for the moment, a minority interest: according to market researchers GfK, some 800,000 coffee machines of any kind were sold last year, but according to Philips’ own study that represents just 12 per cent household penetration. In most homes the coffee machine amounts to a jar and kettle.

That means huge potential - and small wonder that the easy to use capsule systems, by the likes of pioneer Nespresso and Dolce Gusto, have proved such a popular introduction, last year accounting for just under half of all machines bought. The low penetration figure suggests a niche, but one at least of people who take their coffee seriously, with a genuine interest in quality. It cannot, some coffee elitists say, just be convenience driving sales of pod machines, otherwise their customers would simply drink instant. Rather it is a step along the road of bean appreciation.

“Right now the immature coffee scene in the UK means that we still tend to buy the cheaper machines because we really don’t know what to expect from them - we come from a tea and kettle culture really,” explains Ms Drohan. “But there has been a significant shift in recent years - people have either stopped buying machines altogether, or they have started to upgrade.”

The question is, to what? Some suggest it can only be towards what those who use them consider to be the only way to make coffee - beyond the limited coffee choice of pod systems, through the half-way house of automatic bean-to-cup machines (which allow the use of any coffee) and finally onto a fully-manual machine, making coffee by eye and hand rather than by pushing buttons; in short, by developing the skills of the barista. Indeed, according to GfK, bean-to-cup machines may represent the smallest sector of the market, but it is also the fastest growing - showing 81 per cent year-on-year growth - suggesting that the step up is already underway.

“Every espresso coffee machine does the same job in much the same way, mechanically speaking - you can’t change the way you extract coffee. But some machines do it much better than others, because they allow greater levels of control,” argues Ms Porter. “The barrier to make that step up is one of growing coffee appreciation - it’s hard to understand why it’s smart to spend thousands on a machine that can seem complicated to use when you can spent a couple of hundred on one that does it all for you.”

“But,” as Ms Palmer adds, “more people are getting into coffee as they are into wine - they want to know all about the different beans, for example, and want to know how best to make a coffee with skill. They see it done in the coffee shops and want to be able to replicate that at home.”

No surprise then that Ms Porter predicts a widening divide between machines of connoisseurship - that give control, that have powerful engines and guarantee the temperature and pressure stability required to make consistently good coffee - and those of convenience - that offer speed and cleanliness; Bezzera’s invention, after all, grew out of his annoyance at the time his workers spent making coffee the stove-top way. “That’s not to say pod machines are bad,” opines Ms Porter. “Packet soup isn’t necessarily bad. But they make the packet soup equivalent of coffee.”

It is fighting talk from an expert who recommends that anyone who takes coffee seriously really needs to make an investment - by which she means spend at least £1,000 on a home machine. Or upwards of £3,000 if your pulse is raising from too much caffeine. “The people who do have gone through the pain barrier of lesser machines and discovered they don’t really supply the quality of coffee they’ve now come to expect from drinking coffee out,” she argues.

“Good coffee is in part a simple question of mechanics: you need a good engine. Small engines extract the minimum flavour from the coffee. It’s like asking a Fiat 500 to take part in a Formula One race. It’s a lot of money, I know. But it’s worth it.”

NESPRESSO LATTISSIMA (£229) EN520.w

The clue is in the name. The notion that the coffee machine industry might be struggling to find innovations to warrant consumers making an upgrade is perhaps suggested by the fact that latest devices claim ever more specialist functionality. And, among pod system machines, the Nespresso Lattissima is no exception, boasting what the brand claims to be advanced steamer technology and a new frothing system - to create the kind of high density milk foam that baristas aim for with, for example, a cappuccino (hence the name’s nod to latte or milk in Italiano). The fully-automated machine, which also provides a consistent ideal temperature for the milk - around 60C its makers suggest - has a milk container for one third of a litre, enough, they add, for two latte macchiato. Coffee connoisseurs, of course, may balk at the idea of a machine that places so much emphasis on the white stuff over the all-important black stuff - but the fact remains that the UK especially remains a milk-loving nation, and some way off having a culture appreciative of a single shot of espresso taken standing up at a bar on the way to work.

DE’LONGHI SUPER COMPACT ECAM (£780) ECAM23.450

A machine that does everything from grinding the coffee beans through to producing the end drink almost by definition is going to be a hefty piece of kitchen kit. Aware that not everyone wants the room to look like a branch of Starbucks, De’Longhi has worked on reducing the mechanisms to produce its most compact bean-to-cup machine to date. The manufacturer claims that its small size - just 238 x 43 x 34mm and 9kg - means no impact on performance however, with the all-important pump pressure, at 15 bar, unusually powerful for a compact machine. The designers have also built in a 1.8 litre water tank, De’Longhi’s patented milk carafe (which can be detached to be kept cold in the fridge, saving a bit more counter-top space) and, since getting fingers into the machine crevices might now prove tricky, a rinsing and decalcification self-cleaning mechanism. Other features aim to keep the machine as up together as possible: it has, for example, an adjustable coffee dispenser to allow it to be useable with tall latte glasses as well as the dinky espresso cups, the use of which the arrangement on other machines sometimes necessitates.

ROCKET GIOTTO PREMIUM PLUS (£1,100)

Fully manual machines may require a degree of learned expertise to make a consistent coffee, but buffs insist that - for all the attendant hassles and mess - the full control over the process that they offer remains the only proper way to make espresso. But with prices up to £4,000, the appeal may wane.

Not so with the Rocket Giotto, recommended by Bella Barista as the best value manual on the market right now - not least because it has parts and mechanisms typically found on more expensive or even commercial machines: among them, heavy-duty construction (parts are brass-lined, better keeping in heat and giving 40 per cent improved steaming power than machines in the same category) Faema’s professional E61 group-head, two wands for hot water and steam, and a heat exchange mechanism that both helps keep temperatures stable and means an espresso can be poured simultaneous to milk being frothed - ideal for those in a hurry or planning to open a coffee shop in their front room.

The brand itself may be little known outside of coffee forums, but on researching machines comes up repeatedly as, says Bella Barista, “a bit of an insider’s choice”. “What’s more,” they add, “it’s just such a good-looking machine - retro but modern.”