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THE $99.00 ESPRESSO MACHINE
 
There it was in the latest KMart catalogue; a $99.00 (US$77.00) pump espresso machine badged by Black & Decker. At that price it was just too good to resist, so I nipped out and picked one up. I realised that as with similar Sunbeam and Breville espresso machines, this one would be made in China, and would be mostly plastic and aluminium, but even if I simply disassembled it and removed the pump I would have recovered more than half my money.
 
So, with the machine in the box, tools and a camera I set out to determine exactly how good (or bad) a $99.00 machine could be.
 

The machine comes packed in "egg carton" recycled paper material. Included in the box are 2 x 120ml china cups & saucers and a teensy (150ml?) jug.

The portafilter is the first disappointment; VERY lightweight with a DEEP aluminium filter holder and only a single shallow filter basket. According to the manual, this is for both single and double shots. The showerscreen is stainless steel, held in place with a brass water distribution nut. A bit short on holes, it won't be that good at spreading the water. The group collar is some sort of ABS plastic, which might get brittle with age.

The filter basket (on the left) is very similar to the Saeco single filter, middle, and only holds 7g of coffee at most. The Saeco double is on the right. Diameter is just under 53mm. The filter basket actually has internal markings for 1 & 2 cups of coffee, which represent about 3 & 6g of coffee respectively(!). Machine's been heating up for about 30 minutes, it's time to try a shot. Flush about 30ml of water, lock & load, press button. The portafilter design "blows bubbles" of crema, but after 25 seconds I've got a rather pale 30ml shot. Coffee used was Espresso Meridionale ground on my standard setting.

The old thermostat in the styrofoam cup trick gives a maximum temperature over 5 shots of 84C, which is definitely too cool. But the water debit is about 95 ml in 10 seconds, which is fine. A check of the steaming capacity shows that this is surprisingly good too, although the steam is a little "wet".

Time to turn off the machine, let it cool down and do a bit of disassembly. Removing the water distribution nut, the showerscreen and the (surprisingly long) spring and nipple valve lets about 150ml or so of water out. Hang on a minute... This CAN'T be a thermoblock machine! Taking off the top reveals a proper aluminium boiler, estimated capacity about 200ml.

Internally this is a well built and finished machine, with boiler furniture similar to much more expensive machines. Interesting feature is the boiler pressure release valve, first time I've seen one like this on a domestic machine, and the teflon pipe which carries the steam from the boiler to the valve, and then to the steam wand. Both the pump and the boiler pressure release valves feed back into the tank.

Time to reassemble, but first I checked out the group gasket. It appears to be made from high temperature silicone rather than the usual rubber. Now everything's back together, I try "temperature surfing", turning the "steam" switch on for 10 seconds before starting to brew. This gives a water temperature of 90C!

So It's load up the portafilter, tamp and pull a "surfed" shot. Now THAT'S more like it! It's not spectacular, certainly not a "god shot", but it is an acceptable espresso.

Mind you, I doubt that I could jam any more coffee in the filter basket, but I'm looking at those Saeco baskets with a bit of speculation. The internal diameter of the portafilter seems just 0.5mm too small for the Saeco baskets, and it is only aluminium. I'm contemplating a bit of work with sandpaper.

Removing the plastic "froth aider" from the steam wand reveals a more or less normal single hole steam tip. Much easier to clean, better microfoam as well. The teensy jug's a bit disappointing though, very thin and flimsy, feels more like tin than stainless steel.

 

So what's the conclusion? Well, I reckon that the machine has a  brilliant pump and boiler set up, badly let down by poor thermostat settings and a ridiculous portafilter and basket. You CAN'T make an espresso with 3g of coffee. Oh, and the "drip tray" holds about one drip, if that. At $99.00 it would be an OK "one espresso at a time" machine if you couldn't afford anything better.  You CAN get a decent espresso if you know what you're doing, which is more than can be said for most thermoblock machines, but the potential is there for even better. I really wish they'd left out the cups & jug and put in a better portafilter and a double basket.

I have access to a fair range of thermostats, and I'm going to see what I can do with the interior of the portafilter and the Saeco baskets. Who knows, a bit of inexpensive tweaking may turn a $99.00 machine into the something much better!

I have a new article up at http://www.coffeeco.com.au/articles/glossary.html , an Illustrated glossary of espresso terminology, which should make it much easier to communicate with my customers, as we’ll both have a picture of what I’m talking about.

The Imat machines are once again in stock, and should start shipping by Friday 5th of March. I’ve also committed to the import of a “high-end” heat exchanger machine, and we’re in the process of working out final transport details now. More on this next month.

Alan