Fortunately, in most Australian capital cities, the water quality is fine. But you probably need an activated charcoal water filter (these last a couple of months of typcial use) or acid/alkalinity tablets (some machines can use Smart disposable filters and tablets) or some form of water pre-treatment like an inline filter to get good coffee – don’t blame the machine.

For the techie types, there is new research from the Coffee Science Education Centre and the University of New South Wales on how to engineer Sydney water to get the most out of a cup of coffee here.

Coffee beans are next

A cheap bean makes a poor cup of coffee. It is rare to find the best bean at a supermarket where the price per kg is the focus. Decent coffee beans start at $40 per kg, and you may easily spend much more to get just what you like. If your family drinks a mix of black and milk coffees, then you need to find an acceptable compromise because a good black coffee bean seldom makes a good milk coffee.

Start with your favourite baristas and ask what beans they use for what coffee types. If you like it buy some and experiment but as most coffee machines have only one grinder go for one that all the users – black or white – will love. Or look for a dual grinder or two-scoop bypass machine if you need a stronger bean or decaf (why bother).

You will often see the term ‘single origin’ – that means the beans come from the same country, not necessarily that they are a single type of bean from a single coffee plantation. These will be more expensive – typically $60 or more per kg.

Then there are blends – usually marketed by strength and include Arabica and Robusta beans from places like Mexico, Brazil and Uganda and who knows where now that real coffee is so popular.

Cups per kg: Remember that 1kg of beans can make between 65 and 200 cups of coffee depending on the strength (from 5-16g per cup). In dollar terms, $50 per kg means from 25-80 cents a cup (plus milk). Dedicated coffee drinkers will look to 12-16g per cup.

Why are beans best?

Coffee pods

Sorry Pods are pathetic – yes, really. Inside that aluminium and plastic pod is 5-7g of something. That is coffee, caffeine (or not), carbs, fat, sodium, flavourings, and unspecified extenders. Generic pods cost from 33-70 cents each, so that is from $66 to a massive $140 per kg. No wonder Nespresso can afford George Clooney’s fees.

Pods have one advantage – you can buy a variety to suit different coffee drinkers including faux coffee drinkers that want a flavoured hazelnut, Creme Brulee, etc.

Automatic coffee machines – is the coffee as good as a bought one?

Barista grade machines cost upwards of $10K

Out-of-the-box the majority of coffee machines heat water to between 85-90°. If its any hotter you burn the coffee and any colder you don’t extract the aroma.

The vast majority of lower cost coffee machines are semi-manual or involve some labour. It may be that you need to use a separate coffee grinder (or even buy pre-ground coffee) or a milk frother or a steamer. These all use one boiler, and frankly, it is hard to get a decent milk coffee from any of them.

Manual coffee machine
There are so many brands – look at least for a grinder and steam wand

Then some machines have grind size (fine to coarse), coffee strength (pressure levels applied to the grinds), water levels (for cup size), and delivery temperatures (usually only one level). One thing is for sure – no lower-cost machine with a milk delivery system will give you an option to change the milk temperature.

That is why in the lower-cost arena we recommend a semi-manual machine with a steam wand – at least this way you can technically get the milk to the right temperature.

Milk is the biggest problem for all except two boiler machines.

Milk coffee drinkers will complain of two issues.

First, that the coffee is too watery – typically because the boiler delivers 90° maximum – not hot enough for steam – more a watery mix.