One of the keys to a good espresso is a very consistent fine grind and freshly ground coffee. If you have that then you will be getting a great espresso, whether you are using a $50 stove top espresso pot or a $5000 top-of-the-line commercial machine.
Will there be a quality difference between the espresso produced by the $50 pot vs the $5000 machine? Of course, but the difference is smaller than you would think. I can speak from personal experience here having had and used both, that you can get a really great espresso from either. Using a cheaper machine, you have to play a few tricks to get really good results, but it can be done.
If you don’t have consistently ground fresh coffee, then you could buy the best machine on the planet and you will still get lousy espresso.
Over the years I have had a variety of grinders, from cheap to expensive. I have taken cheap grinders apart and performed surgery on them to enable them to produce an espresso grind with some success, but once I bought my first good grinder there was no looking back. The issue is that cheap grinders have cheap parts. The burrs that grind the coffee aren’t very good, and the burr mounts don’t adjust with much precision, so even if you manage to adjust the machine so that it will produce a fine grind it is likely to be inconsistent.with a lot of variety in the size of the grounds. That is the death knell for espresso.
Additionally, you will also lack the ability to make minute adjustments to the grind and then have to start compensating with different tamping pressures. Can you do it? – well yes, but you will be inconsistent, and have one espresso that is really good and then the next one is sour.
The rule of thumb that a lot of people have used over the years is that you should spend half your equipment budget on the grinder, and that a minimum spend for a grinder that works well would be around $400 for something like a Rancillio Rocky grinder, which many people regard as one of the best entry level espresso grinders. Yup – $400 and it an entry level grinder.
For those with very generous budgets, the price you can spend can get very high, and you can spend $3000 for a top end Mazzer, but for most of us that is just totally OTT. It is a great machine, and the results are excellent, but $3000 for a grinder has pushed well past the limit for the law of diminishing returns and for those of us that have a few coffees during the day it is overkill in nuclear dimensions.
I did a lot of research and true to the mantra of great coffee on the cheap I decided to try the entry level Baratza espresso grinder, the Encore, which retails at around $150. After living with it for a year, I can recommend it highly. It doesn’t have any bells and whistles, it doesn’t even have a grind timer but it simply works. It produces a very nice consistent grind and has just enough adjustment on it so that you can tweak your espresso pull just right.
Is this going to get you the perfect espresso all of the time? – no – lower end equipment makes it more difficult to achieve perfection. The grind on the Encore is good, but not perfect. If you have a single boiler machine, then the likelihood is that the temperature control isn’t that great. so you will have to play around with techniques like temperature surfing. If you have top of the line equipment, you wont have to do this and you are more likely to achieve great results consistently. What I have found though is that with a little practice, you can achieve pretty spectacular results and that qualifies as sublime.