One piece of advice new faculty rarely receive regards something that can increase the productivity, morale and well-being of new lab by several fold. What is this magic bullet? Espresso! That’s right, numerous studies have shown that labs that drink lots of espresso publish more often in glamour journals, get more grants and establish new and productive collaborations. This is known. An espresso machine is one of the best investments a new PI can make in their fledgeling lab, and with your new big-bucks PI salary, you can definitely afford to get one.
So, you say, “I want to buy an espresso machine for my lab, I want my lab to be productive, but I don’t know what to get?” The choices of machines one can get are overwhelming and the espresso machine world can be confusing and scary for a novice. So I’m going to give you a little guide regarding the types of espresso machines that would work well in a lab environment. I’m not really going to go into specific brands and models, but rather more toward the classes of machines that work well for a lab. There are several aspects that you should consider when buying a lab espresso machine, including: quality of the coffee, ease of use, cleanliness, space and price. The three classes I will review have different pros and cons regarding each of these aspects.
Single-serve espresso machines are the easiest to use. You basically insert a pre-packaged espresso pod or capsule press a button and espresso comes out. Then you just trow out the used capsule and drink away. I think these have several drawbacks, personally I don’t really like the espresso they make, to me it always comes out kind of weak and watery in the several machines I’ve tried. Also the capsules are expensive and not entirely ubiquitous. So if you happen to run out, you cant just run down to the local coffee shop for more coffee beans. For the same reason, it also limits the types of coffee you can use, and you know it’s been roasted ground and package a long time ago. They aren’t super expensive however, take up little counter space, don’t need to be near a sink and the learning curve is zero.
Super automatic machines are a nice compromise. You basically add coffee into a hopper, press a button and the machine grinds and tamps your coffee and pulls the shot for you. You can tweak a few parameters to optimize the flavor and consistency of the cup, but once these initial tweaks are done you don’t really need to worry about them and it becomes a push-button operation. It is a bit messy to empty the leftover ground container when its full, so being near a sink helps, like in a common kitchen area. With these, you know the coffee is always freshly ground and you can use any beans you like, from crappy burnt one from Starbucks, to delicious ones from your local roaster. One problem with these machines is that they don’t tend to be very good or durable, and if one part breaks, the whole thing is broken. They are also fucking expensive.
Finally, we get to the semi-automatic machines. These are like the ones you see in most coffee shops or in people’s homes, but can vary greatly in price and quality. In these, you add ground coffee to the portafilter, tamp it down, put it in the machine and press a button to turn on the pump. These have the highest number of variables, from using the right ground, the right amount of coffee, tamping correctly and running the pump for the right amount of time. As a result they have a steeper learning curve and can result in really crappy espresso, or extremely delicious espresso. They are also messy since you have to empty the used grounds every time, so they need to be somewhere with a garbage can and sink. That being said, I prefer these. Since they don’t have to be too expensive to make decent espresso, you can use any kind of beans you like and they are relatively durable and can withstand abuse by multiple people. You could get a nice grinder to go along with it, or have them grind the beans for you at the coffeeshop. Keep in mind that most grinders you find at supermarkets will not grind the coffee finely enough for use in these machines.
For my lab, when I started, another faculty member and I teamed up to buy a decent but reasonably-priced semi-automatic and it has been going in full force for 9 years. I use it a couple of times a day and well as various lab members to different degrees. I like it because it makes decent espresso (even with $3.50/lb cans of Café Bustelo) and has turned out to be quite durable. But if you’re not so picky about your espresso and are organized enough to keep a steady supply of single-serve capsules, probably the single serve machines are the best bet for a lab.
So there you go! Invest in your lab! Give them espresso!