COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

Automating the barista with a $2,000 machine

The Australian appliance company Breville is known for its clever designs and unusual features that add a little humor. An example is the “A Bit More” button on their toasters that slightly extends the toast cycle.

One of its newest and most impressive products is the Breville Oracle BES980XL Espresso Machine ($2,000) that produces coffee drinks using the same process used by baristas, but automates the most difficult steps.

With the popularity of $5 cappuccinos and lattes, there’s been a succession of machines for home use from Saeco/Philips, Nespresso, Jura and, most notable, many Italian manufacturers. They range from single-cup machines to manual to semi-automatic to fully automatic, priced from a few hundred dollars to many thousands. In spite of the variety of designs, no company has attempted to do what Breville has done.

Baristas in small coffee shops make lattes or cappuccinos by grinding just the right amount of coffee beans, filling up the portafilter (a metal cup with a perforated bottom attached to a long handle), tamping the grounds to about 30 pounds pressure and then injecting 200 F degree water through the portafilter under high pressure for 25 to 30 seconds, extracting the coffee as it flows into the cup.

Steamed milk, often one of the more difficult steps, requires heating and swirling the milk with a wand placed just below the top of the milk to obtain a silky micro-foam consistency without large bubbles.

The grind size, tamping pressure, water pressure, and the temperature and the rate of the water flow all influence the quality of the drink. It is often a temperamental process that requires making adjustments to get perfect results. Until now, the best results have been from the Italian machines, in which everything can be carefully adjusted. The better ones also provide highly consistent results shot to shot.

The Breville Oracle BES980XL Espresso Machine. Courtesy photo

The Oracle is a handsome machine in a brushed-metal housing that resembles Breville’s Dual Boiler machine that was released 1½ years ago. Like that machine, the Oracle is filled with such convenient touches as a large water reservoir with a low water gauge, retractable swivel wheels, auto on and off, a built in water filter and a drip tray empty warning. Most notably, it has two independent boilers for the coffee and the steam for frothing milk, so you can do both simultaneously.

The Oracle adds a built-in burr grinder and an additional station where you attach the empty portafilter for filling and tamping the coffee. Rotating the portafilter’s handle to the right a few degrees turns on the coffee grinder, dispenses the right amount of coffee, then packs the grounds to 30 pounds pressure and smoothes the top of the ground coffee. If you’ve done this by hand on other machines, this automated process seems almost magical.

Next, remove the portafilter and twist it into place on the second station (the brew head) where the brewing takes place. Press a button to make your espresso. You will see a timer count to 30 seconds before the water stops.

Making foam for cappuccinos and lattes is just as simple. Place the included pitcher half full of milk under the steam wand on the right of the machine and touch a lever. Foaming is done automatically and stops when it’s complete. Remove the pitcher, wipe the wand clean and it will automatically expel air to clean the inside.

You end up with a near-perfect drink that’s difficult to tell from one made on an expensive commercial machine.

The controls on the machine are clear and easy to use. There are settings for the clock, turn-on time and how many hours to leave it on. You can select a single shot, double shot or an Americano that adds hot water to your coffee. The machine does not make standard coffee. And you can choose to pre-infuse your coffee, which means wetting the grounds under low pressure before raising the pressure. Some find this improves the results.

The Oracle has an adjustment and display for setting the grind; I had to reduce its initial setting from 25 to 20 to slow down the flow during brewing. There’s also an adjustment for the frothing that goes from more foam for a cappuccino to less foam for a latte.

I tried the Oracle using Intelligentsia Black Cat Espresso that was supplied by Breville with the loan of the machine. I also pulled some shots using my La Marzocco GS/3, the company’s home version of their commercial machines ($5,500 street price). This is a machine I’ve mastered over the several years I’ve owned it and find it works better than anything else for the home.

The Oracle produced drinks that were quite close to the La Marzocco and often indistinguishable. That’s quite an achievement. Because I’ve had practice, I was able to produce steamed milk that was a little smoother and had fewer bubbles on the La Marzocco, but the Oracle did as well or better than many coffee shops. When I asked others to do a blind taste, no one could tell the difference between the results. What I didn’t evaluate was how consistent the Oracle is between many shots or over time, one area where the GS/3 excels.

Breville’s attention to details was evident throughout the machine. The lid on the grinder’s hopper has a rubber seal to keep the beans fresh; that’s something I’ve never seen on commercial grinders. And everything that you need to get started is included, such as a stainless steel pitcher and insulated coffee cup and lid.

Breville also took note of the few criticisms of their Double Boiler model, now allowing the customer to descale (remove mineral deposits) the machine at home rather than return it to the factory every few years. They’ve also provided an adjustment for a pressure valve that affected some of the early machines.

While $2,000 is a lot to pay for any machine, the Oracle produces some of the best coffee drinks compared to anything in its price range, and does it with a lot less effort. This is truly a breakthrough product. (www.breville.com).


Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to phil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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