The problem with answering that question is that I do not want to insult the customer by telling them, "You haven’t had a great shot of espresso until you have used one of the more expensive machines." So I usually just say it’s a status thing.
To clarify, lets say you buy a machine in the $200 to $600 price range, which is the low end for espresso machines. Yes - you are still going to get a good shot of espresso, I cannot take that away from the machines in that range. Manufacturers such as FrancisFrancis! go to great lengths to build low cost machines that will make good espresso. However; someone, whose palette is refined, (spends way too much time drinking espresso such as myself and should think of another hobby), will be able to pick up the subtle brewing differences of different machines.
Let’s examine a couple of the different types of upper level machines. Which will then help to explain why people go crazy and spend the money they do on these machines, instead of the common justification, “well it makes a great cup and I am saving money over going to a name brand place and paying $7.00 for a cup of coffee”.
Espresso machines that have a boiler with a heat exchanger feeding the water to the brew-group are HX machines. Particularly these machines excel in one particular area, frothing. You will get great steaming and frothing ability with this type of espresso machine. Who doesn’t love froth that looks like you could build a snow fort out of it?
Now with every upside there always is going to be a downside. If everything was perfect in this world we wouldn’t have to make choices. Would the world be that exciting? I don’t think so. With an HX machine you run into an issue of temperature variance. Which means the brew temperature is going to vary. The best way to alleviate that is with a cooling flush. There still will be some variation in temperature but you will make a great shot of espresso. Further an HX with a quality E61 group head can help keep the brewing temperature stabilized. You are going to have one mean shot of espresso to add to a gorgeous cup of cappuccino, latte or a macchiato. With the HX espresso machines you have amazing frothing capabilities but lose a bit of control on the shot.
I am going to borrow a phrase coined by one of my co-workers. "It’s the Cadillac of the espresso machines." I get a chuckle out of that statement so I had to use it. I think more like BMW, Mercedes or Range Rover, Lamborghini, Ferrari. I mean really if I was going high-end it wouldn’t be a Cadillac. So let’s take the dual boiler and throw in a E61 group head and PID (proportional–integral–derivative controller) OK-really? Can’t we call this thing what it is? It controls the boiler temperature accurately.
Why is this important? Espresso coffees brew best at a precise temperature and, based on bean properties, they achieve full flavor at temperatures like 198°, 199°, 200°, or 201°. When you’re trying to achieve the pinnacle of brewing espresso, that Unicorn of shots, having precise control over your brew boiler does have an effect on the quality of the shot. With two boilers, you have one for hot water and steaming and the other for brewing with temperature control (if equipped with PID). That Unicorn that you have been chasing becomes a reality. With a DB espresso machine you have amazing control over the shot and you lose a bit on the side of frothing. It still does a great job of frothing and it can brew and froth at the same time. It just will lack the power of the HX has for steaming.
Don’t feel discouraged if you bought the $200.00 machine. You are still going to love it and get many great shots of espresso. Justify it however you want, “you are trying to save money over the coffee shops”, or “it is more convenient in the morning”. But really, why do people spend that crazy amount of money? Coffee is a passion to us. Think of something you accomplished in your life and the feeling that it gave you, now take a machine that gives you the capabilities to perform like a Barista. Close your eyes. Place yourself in front of that machine. Make the perfect frothed milk and combine it with that perfect shot. Take a sip of the drink and marvel at just how amazing it really is. It reminds you of the smells and taste of your favorite coffee shop. You begin to smile and get that tingling feeling. Now you understand why people spend the money they do. It’s for the love of coffee.