Q: I would like to buy a cappuccino machine for home use. Budget is $300 to $500 US. primary use is for 2 people with occasional 4. I saw the Starrbuck Athena last week. Does it compare to say a Gaggia? It is on sale for $300 for Xmas. Any other recommendations? Is there an faq? Wher do I find it?
A: Only a piece of my response got posted, oddly. I went on to say that people may dispute what the best machine is at each price point, though no one would, I think, debate the high quality of the machines I mentioned (Rancilio Sylvia, Solis SL-70, Rancilio Rocky, Gaggia MDF). What's important here is that the grinder is important: the difference between a good burr grinder and a flat-blade grinder is more important than the difference between a good cappuccino maker (like the Solis) and a great one (like the Sylvia). A cappuccino produced by a Solis using burr-ground coffee will be a great deal better than a cappuccino produced by a Sylvia using blade-ground coffee. I had very similar budget constraints and use profile (two of us with occassional visits from other couples) and settled on a Gaggia Baby and a Solis 166 burr grinder, on both I got at a significant discount (well that's what I tell myself). What I bought was determined by what I found that I could afford. The uncomfortable fact is that I would have been better off if I had ordered the grinder alone and continued with my Krups 988 until it finally gave up -- and shopped around some more. What I am saying is that it is the grinder that makes the difference once you have a decent pump type machine...Its just that a grinder lacks that sexy charge that the espresso machine possesses. In lurking on the NG I have noticed that the machines that look like the ones in the cafes and bistros are the ones preferred. The ones that feature sheetmetal boxes, boilers, pressure guages, commercial portafilters, have top-most warming racks for cups are valued over the plastic thermoblock ones. There are good reasons for this that were hammered out in commercial settings which do more espresso on a moderate morning than I do in a month. The grinders that resemble the ones in the bistro are preferred; that are configured as a column with big hoppers on top and a doser and rack for the portafilter at the bottom are preferred even as it is agreed that the coffee should not be stored in the big, transparent hopper and that the doser on these consumer versions are not reliable, and add to the general messiness of the whole process of making your own esspresso. The Krups I had was one with a warming tray on top but since I learned it to be a heavy burden on a home machine to leave it on all day long, the cups on top were never warm and in my little apartment the stack had a propensity to be knocked off the tray. Evaluate your desire to be a Barrista and your kitchen to be a bistro but do not undervalue the grinder or you will spend a lot af time drinking mediocre shots from a machine capable of more and disposing of expended *specialty* coffee. Believ it, that was me! I am happy with the Gaggia and the Solis and a popper to roast my green beans. But then again I have a 1987 car and four pairs of shoes and always pay off my credit charge before I pay interest.