For a few months in the late 2000s, I lived in Palermo where I was transfixed by a barista’s skills on a near-daily basis. This was a white shirt, black vest lifer, an artisan who could run his machine blindfolded. Every gesture and all of their effects were thought out and internalized long ago. Customers waited their turns patiently because he was the best.
Breville Oracle Touch
A powerful home espresso machine that merits comparison with professional models. It cleverly straddles the line between hands on and handholding in pursuit of a great shot.
At $2,500, they don’t grow on trees. In 2017, there’s an egregious lack of easy-to-update firmware.
At home, we’d all love to be Mr. Palermo, but typically, our rinky-dink countertop machines lack the power and we lack the skill to make the perfect cup; it’s not just for convenience that we give the person behind the counter at our favorite café four bucks for a latte.
If home machines which require nothing from you but pushing a button to select a drink are your thing, brands like Jura (perhaps recognizable for those goofy ads with Roger Federer) and Saeco do a respectable job of getting you going in the morning. You’ll pay handsomely for it, though, from hundreds to thousands of dollars.
While this fully-automated coffee is consistent, it’s not everybody’s bag. Many of us want to be more hands on, but lack the skill to do all the little things you need to do every time to consistently make an excellent cup.
Breville’s Oracle Touch is astounding in its all-in-one-ness, offering several espresso-based drinks and custom creations on its home screen. (Yep. It’s a coffee maker with a touch screen.) It stores beans, grinds them, dispenses the grounds into a portafilter—the handle with a cup that holds the puck of grounds—tamps and pre-infuses them, then pulls a shot. With dedicated steam and espresso boilers, it can foam milk to your choice among a range of consistencies while the shot is pouring.
The Oracle cleverly straddles a line, offering an impressive amount of customization and hands-on time, while automating enough that you’d have to try hard to make a bad drink. I’ve paid nearly as much for cars, but for those who are able to plunk down $2,500 on an espresso maker, Breville has created an outstanding machine.
Gimme the Shot
Part of the setup process and, really, the heart of any espresso machine’s capabilities, is dialing in the desired quality of the shot, something a good barista will do often. Breville’s goal is a shot with a “warm honey” texture that begins pouring out of the full-size portafilter eight to 12 seconds after the start button is pressed.
To do this, variables like water hardness are initially checked and accounted for, you fill a hopper on top with whole beans, then attach the portafilter to the grind outlet, nudge it to the right, and the beans run through a conical burr grinder and into the portafilter where a “tamping fan” applies a specific pressure to the top, leveling and smoothing it off. Move the portafilter over to the heated group head—the collar where the hot, pressurized water comes from—and hit brew.
The Oracle pours a lovely shot, and if it doesn’t, it helps you adjust variables like grind size or shot duration to make it better. (Breville makes sure you know that you’ll do best with freshly-roasted well-stored Arabica beans, but they would do well to more prominently announce that you should recalibrate often and make the function to do so a bit easier to access in the main menu.)
Right out of the gate, using fresh-roasted, store-brand beans from my nearby grocery store and using the Oracle’s factory presets, it poured a great shot. The results were excellent for a home espresso maker, and solid for a coffee shop.
When I tried making a latte, the Oracle dialed up latte foam from the steam wand. Anyone who’s ever tried frothing milk on an espresso machine will be impressed with this next part: half-fill the stainless milk jug, put the steam wand inside, set the jug on the drip tray and—get this—walk away. It makes latte foam and turns itself off once it hits 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Choose a cappuccino and that foam will be lighter, frothier. Make a flat white and—g’day!—you get a dense foam.
The Oracle is truffled with smart design elements, from Breville’s classic wall plug with a finger hole, which makes pulling it out of an outlet a snap and should be licensed to every plug maker in the world, to the dial-operated swivel foot that allows you to glide the whole 38-pound setup around on the countertop. There’s a Tupperware-esque lid on the bean hopper, and built in lights that both shine down on the work area and illuminate the tank level indicator from within.
Inside the machine, the group head has its own pro-style heater to keep water temperatures correct right up to the last moment. There’s even a hot water pour spout nestled behind the group head for shot stretching drinks like Americanos. The cut-off temperature for foaming milk can adjust and, god bless it, once the drink is finished, it even does a quick, pressurized blast-out to clean the interior of the steam wand when it’s done frothing. My favorite? Neglect the drip tray too long and a yellow “Empty Me!” sign floats up from the dregs of coffees past.
There’s more secret sauce, and this is the kind of stuff you might not realize is happening, but it will help keep your coffee top notch. Each time you put a jug of milk under the wand, for example, the Oracle monitors the temperature and adjusts the steam pressure. Milk that’s just come out of the fridge will be frothed slightly differently than the same milk that warmed up five degrees sitting on the counter while you poured your Wheaties.
It’s all very subtle and smart, but taken together, it’s a lot of assistance. Put an experienced Oracle owner in front of a fully-manual espresso machine and they’ll likely balk. How fine should you grind the coffee? How hard do you press down to tamp the grinds? What’s the difference in technique between espresso and latte foam? How do you make foam at all? It all reminds me of bumper bowling, which would be depressing if the Oracle didn’t do such a great job. One of the best compliments I can give it is that whenever I thought to compare it to other machines, I always did it against professional models; it never really occurred to me to compare against home models. Then again, $2,500 should purchase entry into the pro club.
All that money also allows for an amazing amount of tweakability. You can customize a laundry list of features like grind size, dose amount (slightly), shot temperature, shot duration, and milk target temperature. If you want to do something closer to a fully manual milk frothing, you can take a stab at it. Alas, the machine can’t help you with your latte art; mine tends to look like an impaled squid.
Using default settings, that store-brand coffee made initially ashy-flavored Americanos, but with a little tinkering, I was able to make the drink more smooth and enjoyable. Delve into higher-end beans and you’ll really understand why coffee aficionados like to talk your ear off about them.
It’s hard to find faults with the Oracle, but it certainly has some. Perhaps most notable is the lack of an easy way to update the firmware. A company spokesman told me it was available, but it turned out you’d have to send the machine in for service for an update; the Oracle doesn’t need an app, but in 2017, when it’s cheap and easy to get almost any gadget attached to the internet, a $2,500 machine that could benefit from a firmware update strikes me as both programmed obsolescence and a pretty egregious cash grab. Macchiatos or just tea with customized hot water temperature, are not on the list of drinks, and while you could create custom drink button of the former, think of the easy customer satisfaction if, every once in a while, the amazing, adaptable machine could learn a few new tricks, or just subtly adjust its user interface.
I’d also love to see a bit more in the way of manual controls like a physical hot water button (instead of on the screen option) and a traditional steam knob. A better guide—whether on-screen or in the manual—for all the causes and effects of tweaking the different variables would be very welcome.
All that said, if you’re looking for an espresso machine that provides you with a lot of hand holding while offering an impressive amount of customization and a near-professional feel, the Oracle Touch is quite a machine.
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