James StanburySee other accessory reviews written by James Stanbury
If you can't get going without your morning caffeine fix and like it 'just so', check out our reviews of coffee machines – including some off-grid options!
Love a cuppa on tour? The coffee industry has definitely grown in the UK recently.
Only a few years ago, most of us tea-loving Brits knew of just two types of coffee: instant and ‘proper’, the latter brewed by a filter machine, a percolator or in a French press. But high-street chains such as Costa and Starbucks helped change all that.
And, while filter coffee is a big taste step up from instant, Italian espressos, lattes and cappuccinos are in another league again.
Now, many of us want that perfect morning coffee wherever we are, even when touring in our motorhome. So here at Practical Motorhome we are reviewing a range of coffee machines.
Love holidaying off-grid? Have no fear! We've also put a selection of moka pots to the test.
Making it right
What not everyone appreciates is that the coffee, rather than the fancy frothed milk, makes all the difference.
Italian coffees should more accurately be termed espresso-based coffees because, regardless of what’s added to them, espresso is the foundation they’re built on. So what’s so special about an espresso?
Well, it can only be produced by forcing water at very high pressure, and at exactly the right temperature, through finely ground coffee. This approach releases all of a coffee’s many flavours and oils.
In contrast, filter machines and French presses simply soak the coffee in hot water. Some flavours and oils are released, but the best remain in the drenched ground coffee that’s subsequently thrown away.
Americanos are a case in point. Essentially an espresso diluted in hot water to a normal cup size, they can be drunk black or with milk and sugar.
In other words, they’re much like standard filter coffee in size and strength. But the two taste very different, and most prefer the Americano’s more varied, rounded, less bitter flavour.
Fortunately, modern capsule and pod coffee machines take much of the mess and skill out of preparing espresso-based coffee. And they’re surprisingly practical on tour.
That’s because some pod/capsule brands go way beyond making coffee to produce tea, hot chocolate, even cold drinks – meaning that one compact machine can make kettles, teapots and tubs of tea, coffee and hot chocolate redundant in one fell swoop.
How we tested the coffee machines
Versatility is where we kick off our test of a range of coffee machines. We see which drinks each product caters for, and whether they are restricted to just one brand of pods or capsules, or if other varieties can be used, too.
Naturally, we also appraise the quality of the coffee produced. We all have different tastes, but a decent espresso should have a noticeable crema (the smooth, creamy – but non-milky – topping) and shouldn’t be too thin.
Because most of us prefer our espresso-based coffees served with some form of milk, we also see what options each machine offers. A steam wand is still the best way of frothing and heating milk, but this requires practice and cleaning straight after use.
Pod- or capsule-based milk solutions, on the other hand, tend to be fully automatic and mess-free, if not as much fun or quite as impressive taste- and texture-wise.
Talking of mess, in some pod and capsule systems the coffee flows directly from capsule to cup, so changing them means that there’s no possibility of the previous capsule tainting the current one.
In others, this isn’t the case: it’s necessary to flush the system through between different flavours. While this is easily done, it wastes water and time, making it more of an issue in machines with small water tanks – something else we check in our reviews.
Additionally, drink production should be rapid. We time how long each of these coffee machines takes to warm up from cold, and see how long each takes to produce a standard shot of espresso.
Finally, we factor in a couple of motorhome specifics. Worktop space is tight, so we prefer machines with compact footprints.
Then there’s power. All machines here will work off an 8A supply, but the more frugal, the better. Nobody wants to switch off their lights and heating just to brew coffee.
Nescafé Dolce Gusto Drop – five stars
Practical Motorhome Editor's Choice
- Price: £119.99
- Web: www.dolce-gusto.co.uk
Dolce Gusto’s system is beautifully simple: hot and cold water buttons, plus a simple eight-bar slider to control the quantity of drink expelled each time.
So if you want a latte, for instance, the box of latte pods will contain two types – espresso and milk – and instructions detail how much of each to use. Not only is this approach simple, but over time you also learn to tweak levels exactly to your taste.
Another Dolce Gusto benefit is that its pods cater for coffee, tea, chocolate, even cold drinks.
This coffee machine warms quickly, delivers drinks rapidly and is a doddle to use. But its 1800-watt power requirement will push an 8A supply hard.
IperEspresso X7.1 – three stars
- Price: £139
- Web: www.espressocrazy.com
This is definitely the prettiest machine here, well, we think so! And it is probably the one that makes the tastiest crema-rich coffee.
Which is just as well, because Illy’s IperEspresso range of capsules – the only type the unit accepts – caters for coffee only.
But tea and chocolate are possible, simply by switching the steam wand to hot-water mode and using the X7.1 as a hot-water dispenser.
Although it takes over a minute to get to temperature, the machine proved swift in our espresso test, taking just 25 seconds.
One drawback is that it’s pretty bulky, with a 27cm x 26cm footprint.
Nespresso Inissia – four stars
- Price: £64.99
- Web: www.nespresso.com
At 30cm x 12cm, this is one of the smallest models on test. Using the machine is simple: just hit the espresso or lungo button, depending on how much coffee you want. You can also set a different volume to suit a favoured mug.
The coffee isn’t quite up there with the Dualits or X7.1, but it’s still impressive.
More of an issue is what to do if you want a latte or cappuccino. Nespresso doesn’t supply milk capsules, and there’s no form of steam wand for milk frothing.
Dualit 3 in 1 Coffee Machine – two stars
- Price: £179.50
- Web: www.dualit.com
Dualit? Triple-it or quadruple-it might be nearer the mark, because this is one seriously versatile unit.
It accepts Dualit’s NX coffee and fine tea capsules, rival Nespresso’s capsules, ESE pods… even ground coffee.
And, just like the X7.1, the steam wand can also deliver hot water for making anything you’d normally use a kettle for. But points were lost for no form of autostop – you have to guess when your cup has received its 30ml espresso shot.
The capsule side of this unit isn’t wonderful, either. Thanks to NX pods recently evolving, they now need to be pierced before use. But Dualit supplies a free tool to do this easily and safely, without mess.
Tassimo Vivy – three stars
- Price: £79.99
- Web: www.tassimo.co.uk
Tassimo and Dolce Gusto coffee machines both cater for far more than just coffee. But Tassimo seems to have sewn up a huge number of high-street brands, such as Costa, Carte Noir, Twinings and even Cadbury.
And, much like Dolce Gusto, the emphasis is on simplicity and everything being pod- or capsule-based. Or T-Disc based, to use Tassimo’s jargon.
In fact, T-Discs come with their own barcode, so the process is fully automated – great for ease and convenience, but this approach rules out tweaking mixtures to personal taste.
Points were lost with this unit because Tassimo’s Suny (also reviewed) costs less and does more. Also, the drink preparation time is much longer than with its Nespresso and Dolce Gusto rivals.
Dualit Espress-Auto 4 in 1 Coffee and Tea Machine – three stars
- Price: £199.96
- Web: www.dualit.com
Another Dualit with a questionable name. Like its '3 in 1' sibling, this accepts NX, fine tea and Nespresso capsules as well as ground coffee and ESE pods.
So we’re not sure what the '4 in 1' moniker relates to, but this is a more advanced machine that addresses one of the '3 in 1'’s main bugbears. With this model, you position your cup, press a button and you get a suitably sized espresso shot with no guesswork.
As with the '3 in 1', the crema-rich coffee produced is up there with the X7.1’s, and this is another speedy machine – it takes just 20 seconds to brew and serve an espresso. Once again, though, the capsules have to be pierced prior to use.
Tassimo Suny – four stars
- Price: £59.99
- Web: www.tassimo.co.uk
Tassimo’s second unit in this test offers practically the same as the Vivy, except there’s a much-lauded ‘Smart Start’ function added.
In practice, this means that the start button has been supersized so it can easily be tapped with your cup as you position it under the nozzle – not that separately pressing a button next to your cup is really that onerous.
But at 800ml, this model’s water tank is also usefully bigger than the Vivy’s. Both units are pleasingly sized for compact motorhome kitchen surfaces.
And, again, we like the ease of the Tassimo system, plus the versatility of all the different drinks that T-Discs cater for. But not being able to personalise the brew is a definite disadvantage.
Want to go off-grid? We've also tested moka pots!
What about coffee machines that will work even without an electric hook-up? The simplest form of espresso maker, all moka pots require is a stove. Water goes in the unit’s lower chamber and heat causes high-pressure water vapour to form in the top.
This forces the hot water up a tube, then through the ground coffee before it goes up another tube, almost up to lid level and trickles down to fill the upper chamber.
For us, moka pots are the perfect way to make quality coffee on your motorhome holidays when mains hook-up isn’t available, even if moka espresso tastes different from other espressos.
In part two of our test, we use the same coffee in each unit to see if the different designs produce differing flavours. We also factor in usability.
Finally, because of the pressures reached, the silicone washer between the halves has to be viewed almost as a consumable item. Therefore we check which models offer easily available spares.
Bialetti Moka Express – five stars
Practical Motorhome Editor's Choice
- Price: £34.95
- Web: www.hotplateproducts.com
It seems that the original is the best. And what’s really surprising is how differently the genuine item behaves compared to its almost identical doppelgängers.
Most of the mokas here brew silently and you have to inspect the top chamber occasionally to see when the espresso has been expelled. In contrast, it’s said that when a Bialetti starts slurping, it’s time to remove the heat.
The coffee produced isn’t quite as smooth as that from Alessi’s Pulcina, but none of the other mokas produced a degree of crema like this one did.
Available in one- to 18-cup sizes, Bialettis are also backed up by a very good spares service from their UK importer.
Alessi Pulcina – four stars
- Price: £49
- Web: www.espressocrazy.com
Alfonso Bialetti invented the moka pot in the 1930s, but another firm developed his idea, and the hugely popular Bialetti brand.
Years later, Alfonso’s grandson launched Alessi, and ever since the firm has prided itself on doing something a bit different. This latest model looks stunning and is available in one- and six-cup variants as well as the three-cup version here.
It’s claimed that the spherical boiler squeezes the water through the coffee at exactly the right time – before it gets too hot. We’d agree.
Espresso from this is definitely milder, and slightly nuttier, than with other models reviewed here.
Outwell Alava – two stars
- Price: £9.99
- Web: www.outwell.com
Given Outwell’s comprehensive range of motorhome and camping accessories, it’s hardly surprising to see that it has an espresso maker in six- and two-cup variants.
What’s more unusual is that Outwell’s offering is the cheapest in this test, and that it’s the six-cup version.
Compared to the rest, though, it feels ultra-lightweight and just not as well finished. Does any of this affect its usability?
The espresso brewed wasn’t quite as smooth as the Alessi Pulcina’s or as rounded in flavour as the Moka Express. But that’s being picky.
More of an issue is the super-lightweight lid, which allows coffee to leak out if the unit is tipped too much while pouring.
Lagostina Vesuvia – four stars
- Price: £25.99
- Web: www.lakeland.co.uk
Lagostina is another age-old Italian firm, and its take on the moka pot is refreshingly different.
Currently only available in the UK in the six-cup version shown, it feels as if the unit has been designed for ease of use.
Both the main handle and the lid’s lever fit into the hand very ergonomically. And the well-designed and weighted lid will only open if you want it to – not during pouring.
Taste-wise, this is a step behind Alessi’s Pulcina and Bialetti’s Moka Express.
In reality, however, it was only by directly comparing all of the espressos produced here that we could really notice any slight differences.
M&S stove top 6 cup cafetiere coffee maker – three stars
- Price: £15
- Web: www.marksandspencer.com
This isn’t any old six-cup moka pot. But what’s surprising is that a brand usually associated with premium products is found very much at the value end of this group.
In fact, this and the Alava are both similar. This is slightly heavier and it boasts a better-shaped handle. More importantly, the lid is a bit heavier, too, so unlike the Alava it doesn’t fly open if the unit is tipped more than moderately during pouring.
But what about taste? Well, even side by side, it’s impossible to discern a difference in the espressos produced by this, the Alava, or Lagostina’s Vesuvius.