How a $4,500 Espresso Maker Changed My Life

The story of one man's obsession with a very expensive caffeine machine.
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The story of one man's obsession with a very expensive caffeine machine.
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A month’s rent for the New York City apartment in which my wife, two children and I live costs much less than the 71-pound, stainless steel colossus in my kitchen. The most expensive suit I ever wore costs a lot less, too. In fact, when I think about it, I’ve never spent $4,495 on anything, excluding the wildly expensive Montessori school where my kids go. (That makes this look like a pittance.) But I was born an espresso snob—or at least born with the wish to aspire to be one—and though this machine, a new model from the Italian espresso maker La Marzocco called the Linea Mini, may cost an arm and a leg, it’s the only thing that makes me feel whole.

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Let me explain. I am a fan of little drinks with complicated shapes in them made out of milk. Yes, that’s a weird thing to be passionate about, but Americans spend $40 billion on coffee a year and within that, since the 1980s, espresso has become a larger and larger part part of our national obsession. Now, in this age of proud geekery about all manner of things, there are elaborate tea ceremony-like rituals for everything from making a regular cup of drip coffee to pour overs to silly Rube Goldberg machines for cold extraction coffee. But there is no more enchanting combination of movements than watching a barista pull a shot of espresso and then draw a little heart in it with milk.

Let’s be honest: who among us hasn’t secretly hankered to quit our day job—what a grind!—for the hustle and flow of a coffee shop? Okay, maybe it's just me. I actually worked as a barista once, as a young man. It was at a place on the Lower East Side called Ninth Street Espresso, an early entrant into the Serious Coffee Shop invasion of New York City. I lasted only one day. At the end of my shift, the owner, Ken Nye, told me I was too loud. I’ve carried that wound with me for the last decade into every espresso shop I enter.

Is four-and-a-half grand really that much to cauterize a secret pain? Well, it’s cheaper than therapy. Now every morning, I stumble over to this beautiful machine, press a button, bask in its glow and comforting hum while I wait for the indicator lights to glow solid red and blue. Like some sort of Zen zombie, I grind my beans, tamp my portafilter, pour my milk and wait. Weird to say it, but the best part of La Linea isn’t even the coffee. It’s the anticipation of it.

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There are a whole bunch of technical reasons why the machine makes such high-quality espresso. Much of them have to do with the Linea Mini’s ability to fine-tune, then control for variables. Espresso extraction lies somewhere between art and science. Artistry, as in the subtle openness to flavors, is a necessary but not sufficient component.  The other half is being able to consistently recreate those conditions. La Marzocco, founded in 1927, has long been a pioneer of innovative espresso machines, and some of what makes the Linea Mini so powerful is that it presents the ability to adjust and then lock in everything from temperature to pressure.

A pre-programmed pre-infusion cycle, for instance, standardizes the pressure with which a shot is extracted. While a little temperature wheel allows for cup by cup adjustment. Two pressure gauges make it easy for you to see at what bars the boilers offer extraction. But what I love most— other than the machine's muscular, engine-like purr when you click it on—is the power.

It boasts a double boiler so you can generate powerful steam immediately after a shot is poured. (Time is the enemy of all things, including espresso, which it renders bitter as the minutes pass.) The more powerful the steam, the thinner the film, the easier it is to make those little hearts. That’s all there is to it. There is, also, a certain undeniable cachet about its logo: a stainless steel lion. Hardly anyone I know in New York City owns a car. But this is like waking up to a Ferrari parked in your garage and when you look at it that way, 15x14x21 inches isn’t that big at all.

But here’s the real reason: I spend an inordinate amount of money on coffee.  Mint.com regularly sends shout-y emails about how over budget I am. My morning jaunt to the coffee shop—timed to be exactly 11 minutes—might be the most destructive 11 minutes of my entire relationship with my wife.

For me, it’s about needing quality coffee. For her, it’s about neglecting the children and being so selfish that I can’t forego a luxury each morning. Those morning affronts and ensuing argument really came to dictate the tenor of our day.

Realistically, I would have to buy about 1,385 macchiatos to even begin to amortize my new machine. (This isn’t counting the purchase of beans, upkeep, a scale, or a grinder.) So it’s not like I’m saving money or actually being more responsible. But, and here’s the crux, having my Linea Mini means the fight only has to happen once. It’s a big fight, of course, but much better than a daily death by a thousand cutting words. Plus, being able to make a drink with a little heart in it is a pretty good arrow to have in your quiver when troubles arise.