Would You Pay $2,500 for the Perfect Cup of Joe?

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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If you're anything like me, you've found yourself at Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table, standing in front of a wall of those crazy super-automatic coffee machines and ... wondering. Wondering if a machine could really make a decent cappuccino without significant human intervention. Wondering if you might be able to replace that morning Starbucks stop with a countertop coffee robot. Wondering if the machines are really easy to use or more trouble than they are worth. Wondering if such a machine could be worth a four-figure sum. Wondering if your spouse would kill you if you came home with one of those awesome-looking machines.

Well, I can't answer all those questions for you. But I can answer a few, because over the last few weeks, I've been testing automatic cappuccino makers. Six machines are sitting on our dining room table at this moment, and I have consumed espresso, cappuccino and coffee from each of them. The good news is that some of these machines really are pretty nifty and can easily replace a daily Starbucks habit. The bad news is that I probably won't be able to sleep, or blink, until sometime in 2015.

If you are the sort of person who likes to handcraft your coffee from beans you harvested by hand in Rwanda and then slow-roasted over an open fire, then these machines will frustrate you; the whole point of automatic machines is that you can't fiddle with them much, and they are pitched toward general taste, not the niche desires of aficionados. But if you're just someone who likes a good, solid coffee, cappuccino, latte or espresso on a regular basis, then you would probably enjoy having one of these machines. Only you can answer, however, whether they are worth the money.

Below are the machines I liked best in four price categories: Entry Level, Middle Management, Senior Executive and C-Suite.

Entry Level

Mr. Coffee Cafe Latte, $50 at Amazon.com

I'm going to be honest with you: I didn't have high hopes for this machine. I asked Mr. Coffee to send me a review machine mostly because it was one of the few low-priced entrants in the "automatic cappuccino" category. But Mr. Coffee surprised me.

I'm going to start with the downsides to get them out of the way. The Cafe Latte is not truly automatic, nor does it make a true "latte"; it's basically a small drip coffeemaker with some modifications. You put milk in the coffee pot and coffee in the brew basket, and the heating element in the bottom of the pot heats the milk, while a frothing wand in the lid whips it into a froth. Meanwhile, the coffee brews, and drops into the pot while the wand stirs, and voila -- latte! You can make up to two lattes at once -- or you can put in enough milk for one latte, and enough coffee for two, and get a pretty decent cappuccino. There's no reason you couldn't use this to make regular coffee as well.

I didn't expect such a kludgy machine to make such a solid drink. The cappuccino and lattes it produced might not satisfy a true coffee snob, but I thought they were excellent -- and far superior to the Starbucks "extra-burned" variety. And it's fairly flexible, because you can vary the amount of coffee and milk you put in to customize just the drink you want.

If you're looking for a home or office coffeemaker to replace your daily Starbucks run, and you're on a budget, this machine is well worth looking at. It would also make a great gift for a college student with mini-fridge access.

Middle Management

De'Longhi Lattissima Plus, $360 at Amazon.com

This is a capsule machine; it uses Nespresso capsules. No, wait, don't touch that scroll bar. Some of the world's finest restaurants use Nespresso capsules, which have won blind taste tests.

Do they match what the world's finest barista could produce? Probably not. Are you the world's finest barista? Also probably not. Nespresso capsules produce a very good cup of espresso, particularly compared with what you probably have time to produce on a typical weekday morning.

The Lattissima also produces a very nice cappuccino. Not a mind-blowing, life-altering cappuccino, but a very nice one. And the capsules make it very convenient. Just slide on the included milk tank, press a button, and a minute later, you have a hot drink.

The downside of the Lattissima is that you can't really customize the size of the drink; it makes what it makes, so if you like a giant cappuccino in the morning, you'll have to hit the button several times. The upside is that it's really easy to swap capsules -- dark roast, cappuccino, flavored coffee, whatever you like. For that reason, I see this machine as a killer app for someone who gives a lot of dinner parties. Nothing else is going to accommodate so many disparate coffee needs with one machine.

Senior Executive

Jura ENA 9 Automatic Coffee Center, $1,350 at Amazon.com; De'Longhi Magnifica S Automatic Cappuccino Machine, $1,500 at Sur La Table

Now we're getting into the big leagues: These machines grind the beans, brew espresso and make you a cappuccino, all at the touch of a button. Both allow customization of your drink. The Jura requires you to attach a separate milk container using a tube; the De'Longhi comes with a sort of milk tank that slots onto the machine. Both grind the coffee (or let you use pre-ground) and deposit the grounds neatly into a little container that's much easier to empty than a normal coffee filter.

Which machine you want depends on you.

The ENA is a sleek, minimalist machine. There are buttons for espressos, coffees, lattes or cappuccinos, and a dial that you can rotate to customize the strength. It's well engineered and simple to use, and it has a smaller footprint than the other super-automatic machines. The espresso was excellent, but the first cappuccino out of the machine can be cold (subsequent cappuccinos were fine). It makes lattes, which the De'Longhi doesn't. And while the milk can run cold, the espresso temperature was the best of the machines we tried.

The De'Longhi's interface is much less intuitive; I quickly got used to it, but expect to have to show guests how to work it the first time. The dial lets you set the coffee strength, but to get a cappuccino, you press the "cappuccino" button, and while it's easy to customize the strength of the coffee, I was unable to get it to change the amount of milk it dispensed. Luckily, the amount of milk it dispensed was exactly right for me: It made a nice, modestly sized cappuccino that fit perfectly into one of my Fiesta coffee cups.

My husband is a coffee snob, and this De'Longhi made his favorite cup of espresso of any we tried. And once you get the hang of the interface, the machine does make it very easy to customize the strength of the coffee you're drinking. Which machine is right for you comes down to your coffee preferences, and how much you're willing to fiddle with the machine.


Jura Impressa J9 One Touch Automatic Coffee Center, $2,500 at Amazon.com

Everyone should try this machine, if not for the coffee, then for the amazing ingenuity of its Swiss engineers. The Swiss are a very thorough people, and it shows in ... well, everything: Their instructions even contain directions for testing to see whether you have hard water (if you do, there is a special filter).

Why would you spend an extra $1,000 on this machine? Mostly because it's easy to use and highly programmable. You can program it to deliver your drink exactly the way you like it: extra hot, coffee stronger or weaker, more milk or less. Then, when you stick your morning cup under it and hit "cappuccino," it delivers exactly what you want without supervision. And if you want something a bit different that day, it lets you dial up a little less milk, or a little more coffee.

But how about the coffee? I hear you cry. Good, and extremely consistent -- there were no weak spots. The machine made everything from espresso to coffee well. And it's pretty fast; once it's heated up, you can crank out a drink in about 30 seconds.

But is it worth $2,500? Well, the McArdle/Suderman household certainly doesn't have it in its coffee budget, and so alas, the Jura Impressa J9 One Touch Automatic Coffee Center is going to have to be boxed up and sent back tomorrow. But if you have the disposable income, a regular cappuccino habit or a fetish for entertaining, and you have the space on your counter ... well, it would certainly make an impressive sight under the tree.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net