I have got through many a bean to cup coffee machine in my time at T3, but I have never encountered one quite as good as the Sage Barista Express Impress (confusingly known as Breville Barista Express Impress outside of the UK – it's a long story). While bean to cup coffee makers always used to look more like Nespresso machines, with stylish yet largely featureless façades hiding all the coffee-making and milk-frothing elements, a lot of more recent ones have taken a different tack. To put it simply, they look and perform like traditional espresso machines, of the type you fine in fine coffee emporiums throughout the world, but with a grinder built in, and some clever techy bits to simplify the process
I've been using the Barista Express Impress for a few months now and we'll have a full review soon – you can also read all about it in this month's issue of T3 magazine (opens in new tab). But I love it so much, I wanted to tell you all about it in a much shorter format.
So, what is it that makes the Barista Express Impress so, well, impressive?
Well for a start, just look at it. With its battleship-like build and impressive array of buttons and knobs, the Sage Barista Express Impress will have tech-loving coffee fiends salivating before they even turn it on. Sage’s latest and greatest sturdy metal box takes the traditional espresso machine and makes it possible for anyone to make great coffee with it. Even if you don’t know your barista from your elbow.
That fruit-machine-style lever on the side is the star player here. It solves one of the main issues a lot of non-baristas have with espresso machines: the tamping stage. Tamping is an unnecessarily complicated word that basically means ‘squashing the ground coffee down before you put water through it’. Coffee people love their jargon.
There’s actually nothing especially difficult about this – just grab your tamper and get tamping, until the coffee is thoroughly tamped. However, many people find it intimidating because it is very hard to know how much to tamp. Coffee making is a game of fine margins and if you get it a little too loose or a little too compressd and you could end up with cruddy coffee. Nobody wants that.
To solve this caffeine conundrum, Sage has come up with the Impress Puck System. All you have to do is set your grind level – and press the Dose button. The grinder does its thing, and out pours ground coffee into the portafilter – for non-aficionados, that is the basket thing that you then put hot water through. Pull the ‘tamp lever’ – which is reminiscent of a fruit machine lever, or the arm of those waving cats that Japanese people like – and it tamps it.
Here’s the really clever bit though. If there is too little coffee in the portafilter, it will alert you via those blue lights next to the lever. Pressing the Dose button again will then top it up – just repeat until you have the right amount. The machine then remembers this is the exact amount to dispense every time. You should only need to reset it if you change the grind setting or move on to a new bag of beans – and if you always use the same beans, ground to the same fineness, you might not need to do it at all.
Similarly, it’ll let you know if too much coffee , at which point you can either scoop a little out and try again or have a slightly stronger coffee this time. Either way, the machine will again recalculate the amount of coffee to dispense next time, and then you need never think about it again. All of a sudden, you look like a genius barista, even if you don’t have a very ornate beard and a cloth cap.
The actual coffee-making part of the Barista Express Impress is also very good, because every element of the machine is of high quality. The grinder is a proper, substantially built and easy to adjust burr grinder, with a wide range of settings to satisfy most tastes. The group head (the bit the water comes out of) and portafilter are similarly hefty and well engineered. The result is the best espresso I've tasted from a bean to cup machine.
If you like cappuccinos, lattes, flat whites and cafés aux lait, you'll be glad to know that the steam wand is just as good. With just a little practice, it will turn out anything from hot milk to froth so dense you can stand your spoon up in it.
In fact, the only issue I have had with the Express Impress is that I am so used to the weedy steam wands found on most domestic coffee machines that I initially found myself totally over-texturing the milk and ending up with something closer to solid than liquid. To get something more creamy, you have to move the tip of the wand deeper into the milk jug, and froth for less time than you would with most other machines.
So what does this hefty slab of coffee-making genius cost? It's £720, or $900 or AU$1,100. I'm not going to pretend that's cheap, but the Barista Express Impress is WAY better than cheaper bean to cup machines, and also considerably better than most more expensive ones, including Sage's own higher-end coffee servers.
If you love coffee, keep it fed with high-quality beans – Sage/Breville's own Beanz subscription service is a great way to do this – and it'll bring you pleasure every day. That's worth £720 of anyone's money, right?