One of the simple pleasures of being in Italy is popping into a cafe midafternoon and getting a quick jolt of caffeine from a shot of espresso. I'm stuck a thousand miles away, but the Illy Y5 espresso and coffee machine ($299) does a good job of replicating that experience, if only a small part of it.
If Frank Lloyd Wright had designed a coffee machine, it might have looked like the Y5. The all-black Y5 has a minimalist, modern design. It has a large rectangular body, with a smaller rectangle cantilevered out the front. Two chromed platforms sit beneath that; the upper one, made for an espresso cup, flips up so you can place a larger mug on the lower platform.
On the very top of the smaller rectangle is a chrome lever, which opens the top to accept the coffee pods. The mechanism is designed to flip any used pod into a chamber inside the machine, which you can empty at your convenience. It's not the smoothest of actions — it takes a bit of force to pop open — but it works.
The right half of the Y5's body contains the water reservoir. It's made of a clear plastic, so you can easily see when it needs a refill.
The rather simple app for the Y5 gives you a few ways to customize your brew. You can choose between ristretto (a smaller, but stronger espresso shot) or lungo (double the water), and you can set the water temperature. Hit on a combo you like, and you can create a custom brew. However, the Y5's Scheduling feature merely reminds you to make a cup, and there's no way to connect the machine to Alexa or any other smart assistant.
Stats show how many cups you've brewed, and a maintenance menu lets you descale the machine to remove mineral deposits. (The Y5 will tell you when this needs to be done).
The app also connects to Amazon Dash, and it can automatically order new capsules when it detects that you're running low.
No doubt, the Y5 makes a great espresso. The beverage had a bold, strong flavor, and the requisite crema floated gently on the surface of every demitasse I made. However, you have to wait a few minutes for the machine to warm up, which is a drag.
With the app set to a medium water temperature and a medium-size pour, the Y5 filled an espresso cup about halfway. The coffee itself was about 148 degrees Fahrenheit, which is considerably lower than the 190-200 degrees recommended by most coffee experts. To be sure, I was measuring the temperature of the coffee in the cup, not at the point where it hit the grounds, but I'd be surprised if there was a 50-degree loss in between.
By comparison, a single shot from the office Nespresso machine (using the "lungo forte" capsule) produced about two-thirds of the amount that the Illy put in the cup, and the temperature of the espresso was a lower 135 degrees at its hottest point. Nespresso's cup, too, had a nice crema on top, though.
I then put the Y5 at its highest temperature setting, which boosted it to about 160 degrees. Doing so improved the taste a bit.
When brewing espresso, the Y5 makes a buzzing noise, and the machine vibrated enough that my espresso cup moved around the platform like the ball on an electric football game.
The Y5 can also brew regular coffee; at the machine's medium setting, the coffee came out at around 150 degrees. After I'd been drinking nothing but espressos, this regular brew tasted weak, but there was little bitterness.
The Y5's hopper can fit about a dozen used capsules; after that, it's time to empty it out. Unlike the thin, plastic K-Cups, Illy's capsules are made of thick, substantial plastic, but are roughly the same size. They are recyclable (more on that below), but I wish they were more compact, like the small foil packets used by the Nespresso machine in my company's pantry.
Currently, you can choose from one of several varieties of coffee: Lungo, Guatemala, Decaffeinated, Ethiopia, Medium Roast, Dark Roast, Idillyum, India, Colombia, Brazil and Costa Rica. I wish Illy wrote the name of the coffee type on the outside of the capsule, rather than making it color-coded.
A container of 21 5-ounce capsules costs about $17, or 80 cents per espresso. That's an OK price; an 18-pack of Keurig's Original Donut Shop K-Cup pods costs $20, and I would argue that Illy's coffee is superior. Still, a 24 pack of Eight O'Clock Coffee for Keurig machines is just $13. Considering that a single shot of espresso at Starbucks costs $2.45, if you had just one per day, you could pay off the machine plus the price of the capsules in half a year.
I've often had qualms about using these cups for coffee, as they're very wasteful. Illy's capsules are made from recyclable No. 5 polypropylene plastic, but you can't just toss them in the recycling bin with your cans and bottles. Rather, you have to sign up for a free Illy a Casa membership, and the company will send you bags and return labels the next time you order coffee. While a timeline has not been announced, in the future the company will also let you drop off used capsules at its retail locations. (You can also purchase a recycling kit by calling 1-877-469-4559). Illy will recycle the plastic and mix the grounds into compost.
At $299, Illy's Y5 machine falls somewhere in the middle for espresso machine prices. You're also paying a premium for this device's smarts. On Amazon, some of the top-rated nonsmart espresso machines, such as the Breville ESP8XL, cost about $100 less and include milk frothers, something the Y5 lacks. The Illy Y3.2, which is more or less a nonsmart version of the Y5, costs just $99. Illy also sells a version of the Y5 that has a milk reservoir to make cappuccinos and lattes, but this model has received generally unfavorable reviews online.
Until I can convince my boss to open the Tom's Guide Italia office, I'll have to get my fix of la bella vita wherever I can. The Illy Y5 does a pretty good job of this, and for not too outrageous a price. I wish there were an easier way to recycle the device's canisters, but if you're looking for an espresso machine that's smarter than the others, the Illy Y5 is a good place to start.
Credit: Tom's Guide