Bean to cup coffee machines are a great idea in principle and their sales have quietly boomed in recent years as people realise they quite like 'real' coffee. Shamefully, the UK is still by far the world's biggest market for instant coffee, and a bean to cup coffee maker is the most 'instant' way to make real coffee. So you can see the logic in their success, despite the fact the best bean to cup coffee machines cost thousands.
Talk to many a coffee expert and they will tell you flat out that all bean to cups are rubbish and to be shunned. But they are wrong. Actually, only most of them are rubbish. We have carefully hand-curated the machines that buck the trend of making insipid or bitter brews, and now present them in this artisan, locally sourced best-of feature.
- Handy hints How to make better coffee
- Coffee purist option Best espresso coffee machines
- Easy-yet-surprisingly-tasty-option The best pod coffee machines
What is the best bean to cup coffee machine?
This is an easy one. But you're not going to like the price. Take a deep breath before attempting to say its name out loud: the best bean to cup by miles is the Sage by Heston Blumenthal The Oracle Touch. Unfortunately, even on the blackest of black Fridays, you won't get much change from 2 grand, for that one.
So you might consider the Sage by Heston Blumenthal Barista Touch, which makes equally good coffee, slims back the feature set only a little, and costs a mere £1000.
Those seeking something simpler and cheaper should look no further than the Gaggia Velasca, while those who are really into milky drinks with densely textured milk will love the Jura S8, as it is the King of Creamy.
How to buy the best bean to cup coffee machine
Most bean-to-cup machines place the entire coffee making process, from bean grinding to milk texturing, behind a towering façade of plastic, metal and chrome. You just push a button, and out comes a cappuccino, a bit like with an office Flavia machine.
In the past, bean-to-cups often also delivered drinks that tasted like they'd come out of an office Flavia. This was due to various failings in tamping (compressing the ground coffee before water is forced through it), maintaining the correct water temperature during the extraction process and some really quite appalling crimes against milk.
Today's best bean to cup machines are way better, with the best of the lot being Sage's. These use a totally different approach, with a proper portafilter like on a cafe's espresso machine, so they are less simple. But it's still hardly rocket science, and the ends justify the means.
One thing that bean to cup machines are especially good at these days is texturing milk, so they should be especially attractive to those who like lattes, cappuccinos, flat whites and big mugs full of hot, stiff milk. Mmm-mm. In my view, if all you ever drink is milk-less espressos and Americanos, you'd be nuts to buy most bean to cups, but hey – it's your money.
All of these machines will happily have a go at texturing skimmed milk, soya milk, almond milk or any other milk you might want to try. The results may vary, but we're talking about natural products here, so what can one do?
Speaking of natural products, the same top tips apply here as the best 'proper' espresso machines. Use filtered water from a filter jug – especially if you live in a hard water area, this will improve the flavour of your drinks and reduce the frequency with which you have to descale. A lot of these machines include a built-in water filter, but I don't think they're terribly effective on their own.
Use good quality, fresh beans, and store them in something with a screw-top lid, somewhere dry and cool – but not in the fridge. A lot of bean to cup machines have bean hoppers big enough to take an entire bag, but in general you're better off adding a smaller number of beans as you go along, then returning the rest to storage.
Milk should be cold but, despite what everyone says, I can't really detect any catastrophic difference in results between whole, semi and skimmed milk, in terms of the texture. So don't feel you have to change your usual favoured fattiness of milk, just to get tastier cappuccinos.
Finally, if you like to tinker with settings, a finer grind will generally give a stronger flavour, but you will need to increase the amount of water going through it too unless you like very small shots of coffee. If you're getting something bitter and twisted, try a coarser grind, or maybe get the cleaning and/or descaling tablets out and run a cleaning programme, where appropriate.
A friend of mine once left a coffee machine so long between descalings, it actually exploded. Yes, exploded. So I'll just end this little guide with that little mental image a-hanging. (He survived).
Coffee jargon buster
Espresso The basic coffee drink of Europe. Water is forced through compacted, ground coffee at, traditionally, although nobody knows why, 15 bars of pressure.
Double espresso Either literally two single shots of espresso, or a larger dose of coffee, with more water pushed through it, that ends up being about the same size as two shots.
Lungo Essentially an espresso, but made with a larger ratio of water to coffee, with a longer extraction. The result is probably closer to a cafetiere or pour-over coffee than most drinks that come out of an espresso machine. Not to be confused with…
Americano A shot of espresso diluted with water. Basically a post-war approximation of filter coffee (as drunk by Americans), from an espresso machine. The Europeans called it an Americano as a kind of insult really, implying that it was piss weak and only for Yanks. Lots of people like it these days, though.
Latte A shot or two of espresso with the remainder of the cup filled with warm, lightly textured milk.
Cappuccino Same as the above but the milk is more densely textured. In the UK, this is now traditionally drunk in cups approximately the size of the FA bleedin' Cup, much to the disgust of visiting Italians.
Flat white Nobody knows exactly what this is, not even the person who invented it. It's basically a stronger latte that sometimes is more like a stronger cappuccino. Often in Britain, it's a cappuccino in a vessel smaller than the FA Cup, and so stronger as the coffee is less diluted by milk. So, in other words, it's what everyone else in Europe considers a cappuccino.
Caffé Macchiato An espresso with just a splash, a soupçon, of steamed milk froth. Literally translates as 'stained coffee', which doesn't sound so tasty.
Ristretto We're getting a bit technical here, so the jargon buster must be nearly over. This is a more intensely flavoured shot of coffee, achieved by grinding the beans finer, so water takes longer to flow through it. I think that's right, anyway. I'll ask a proper barista at some point.
The best bean to cup coffee machines to buy
1. Sage by Heston Blumenthal The Oracle Touch
The best bean to cup coffee machine by a mile
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
This fantastical device looks like it would be at home in a small café, but if you did use one there, you'd not need a highly-trained barista. The Oracle Touch is a development of the the old Oracle, which just had boring old levers and buttons instead of a colour touchscreen.
With it, you can easily make espressos, cappuccinos, lattes and more, but it's not quite as simple as the machines further down the list. That's because The Oracle Touch uses a portafilter, like on a proper espresso machine, with different sized baskets for single and double shots.
So first you grind the beans into the portafilter, then you fit it into the central spout (the 'group head', if we're being technical) to make the coffee. Meanwhile, you heat and texture the milk with the extraordinary steam wand. This looks like something you've spent months mastering, but thanks to temperature sensors in its tip, and some very freaky steam dispersing tech, all you have to do is plonk it in your little milk jug, hit go, and wait about 30 seconds.
That's the genius of The Oracle Touch. It seems like a barista-operated machine, it produces coffee like one, yet all the clever stuff – dosing, tamping, extraction, milk texturing, is done for you. Yes, unlike the other machines here, you then have to give the milk a bit of a swirl and then add it to the coffee, but that's hardly an unbearable hardship is it now?
The Oracle Touch also lets you get a bit creative, if you wish. The excellent grinder can be adjusted – using a finer grind with older or less potent beans, for instance – and there is almost limitless control over the extraction time, while you can easily set individual settings for your favourite drinks.
Maintenance is also pretty easy, apart from descaling, which is a minor nightmare. That's another good reason to use filtered water, so the element doesn't fur up as fast.
I'd go so far as to say this is one of the best gadgets to hit the market in the entire history of T3. The King of the Coffee Machines.
- Also consider: The old Sage by Heston Blumenthal The Oracle, is still available and is also an excellent, and much cheaper machine. However, do not be fooled into thinking the Touch just adds a touchscreen; it is actually improved in all respects, particularly the milk frother.
2. Sage by Heston Blumenthal Barista Touch
Scaled down version of the above is the best bean to cup under £1000
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
Coming in at just under a grand, this is the smaller brother of Sage's Oracle Touch. As such it is arguably a more universally appealing product, but it does have a number of corners cut compared to the big boy.
First up there's only one boiler. The good thing about this is that it heats up even quicker than the Oracle (3 seconds), which is itself no slouch. The down side is you can't make coffee and steam milk at the same time. Which, to be honest, is not a heart-breaking deficiency.
As with the Oracle, beans are ground directly into the portafilter, but here you have to manually tamp the coffee down. You then slot the portafilter in place, select your drink via the touchscreen, and off you go.
The milk frother is possibly even better on this machine than on the Oracle, so you're not losing anything there, and there's a similar level of control over grind consistency, extraction length, shot size and more.
For a certain type of user, the Barista is an even better option than the Oracle, although I tend to think of it more as an espresso maker that has a grinder built in than a true 'bean to cup' machine.
- Also consider: The touchscreen-free Sage by Heston Blumenthal Barista Express is a steal at around £600, although it is another step up in terms of complexity and perhaps gives less consistently great results due to the older technology inside.
3. Gaggia Velasca
Best entry-level bean to cup coffee machine
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
Gaggia’s been producing espresso machines since 1938 and clearly knows a thing or two on the topic. The Velasca is at the opposite end of the luxe scale to the Sage machines, but it makes DAMN fine coffee, to coin a phrase.
The espresso and lungo that the Velasca make are as good as anything you'll find in most restaurants and coffee shops, giving a reassuringly old-fashioned, intense flavour, especially with darker roasted beans.
The buttons are big and simple, although they are so incredibly marshmallow like and flaccid, you do wonder if the machine will have noticed you've pressed them. Thankfully it usually does.
Coffee making does not take long to master as there are only two options: espresso (or double espresso if you squidge the button twice) and lungo. You can make an Americano by adding water to an espresso, and vary the intensity of flavour by adjusting the grind, using the non-business end of the scoop for pre-ground coffee as a makeshift allen key.
You can also dig into the menus to alter the amount of coffee ground, length of extraction and so on.
The only slight shortcoming of the Velasca is that the milk is frothed with a steam wand. Not a smart steam wand like on Sage's machines, but one like what you'll find on a coffee shop machine or most domestic espresso machines. It's a very effective one, in fact, but you will have to learn how to use it if you want velvety smooth, textured milk, as opposed to hot froth.
Learning this skill is quite satisfying but if you'd rather not be arsed, Gaggia also makes the Velasca Prestige, which is much the same machine, but with the type of auto-milk-texturing jug found on most bean to cups. It is more expensive as a result, of course.
However, if you are largely after less milky beverages, or use a separate milk frother, or are already a skilled milk steamer yourself, this is a cracking machine. Add easy cleaning, a low price and Gaggia’s renowned after-sales service and there's nothing to dislike here, except perhaps the rather plasticky appearance. Oh, and I could never get the pre-ground coffee setting to work, but given that it's a bean-to-cup, I wasn't too bothered.
4. Jura S8
Best bean to cup coffee machine for milky drinks
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
You can do a bit of mucking about with grind settings and extraction times here, but really the Jura S8 is designed to remove any need for expertise from coffee making.
Just choose what you want from the touchscreen – ristretto, espresso, 'coffee' (an Americano, I think), latte macchiato (no idea what this is), espresso macchiato, flat white, caffè latte and 'Milk Foam' on its own are your options – and it does the rest. Although you will have to manually move a lever on the milk dispenser, depending on the beverage chosen. Maybe you could get your butler to do that.
The basic coffee this Swiss made hunk produces is all very well but the star of the show here is the milk texturing unit. it produces the most silky and wonderful milk for your cappuccinos and 'latte macchiatos', making this the best machine for lovers of milkier drinks.
Unfortunately, the milk dispenser is so high precision, it has to be cleaned out after every session, and this is no simple matter of pumping a bit of water through it. You have to put it in a special plastic pot, with just the right amount of cleaning solution and water, and then wait while it is throughly internally flushed. I mean, I love a well-frothed cappuccino, but not that much.
If you are the only coffee drinker in your house, I feel like this might start to drive you nuts after a while but the good news is it only needs to be cleaned after each coffee-making session rather than literally every use. So if you have a house full of latte lovers, everyone can tuck in before the cleaning process is required.
Oh, and you can control the S8 via an app, although until such time as it can deliver it to you on the sofa, this seems less than essential.
5. Delonghi Primadonna Elite Experience
Best bean to cup coffee machine for gadget lovers
Reasons to buy
Reasons to avoid
I feel this machine makes slightly less good coffee than the others here, though it's not bad by any means. What it offers instead is extreme simplicity, even compared to the Jura S8, and a list of drinks that's as long as your arm, even if you're an octopus.
The 4.3-inch touchscreen gives you access to the usual range of coffee drinks, which are solid rather than awesome in my experience. While the milk frothing system is slightly less good than Jura's awesome one, it is also much easier to maintain. A curious additional module that you add ice to lets you make frappuccinos and more.
As you can gather from all this, the Elite Experience is not aimed at beard-stroking coffee enthusiasts so much as those who wish to recreate Costa or Starbucks in their kitchen. At this, it does a very good job indeed.
There's also a phone app that's a bit slicker and more enjoyable to use than Jura's although it still won't bring the drinks to you on a tray.