Think coffee lovers' claws come out over third wave vs. dark roasts? Nope. The great divide lies on the machine frontier – between portafilter and super automatic espresso machines.
Think coffee lovers’ claws come out over third wave vs. dark roasts? Nope. The great divide lies on the machine frontier – between portafilter and super automatic espresso machines.
As sales figures show, super automatic espresso machines are flying off shelves. But sooner or later, those eager brewers realize that they want more than just stabbing at buttons. Then again, a portafilter is a daunting prospect. What with everything you’re supposed to know and do, a lot of people get cold feet.
Breville, the Australian big-hitter in the coffee machines market has spotted a gap and is out to fill it with semi-automatic portafilter machines. The result of a cooperation with European brand Gastroback, the Breville Barista Express debuted a while ago already and was the first step in this direction.
Now with the Breville Oracle Touch, the company aims not only to further drive home the brand’s claim to this niche but also raise the bar in this new appliance category.
By the way, Breville markets this new hybrid under the Sage brand in Europe, which is why you’ll see that logo in our pictures. But it’s exactly the same machine. Promise.
So what makes hybrids hot stuff? Basically, they work the same way as a portafilter machine. In short, the coffee is not extracted in a fully automated process within the internal brew group. Instead, water pressure pulls the shot through the externally attached portafilter basket.
The gee-whizzery is that semi-automatic espresso machines more or less take care of all the moving parts involved in creating the perfect espresso. Very little outside intervention is needed. Get hands on if you like. But you can always just leave the machine to do its thing – which is virtually the whole shebang.
Crossover machines like this could well be the next big thing in the world of automated coffee making. For now though, it comes at a price. As of this writing, the Breville Oracle Touch will set you back a hefty $2,500 – well above entry-level portafilter machines and bestselling super automatic espresso machines.
Even so, I think that this is a worthwhile investment. That’s because the Oracle Touch really is the best of both worlds. It’s the perfect middle ground where both super automatic devotees and portafilter geeks can happily drink from the same cup… ahem machine. Once in your kitchen, it’s not going anywhere soon.
The Many Faces of the Oracle Touch
Since entering the U.S. Market in 2003, Breville has become a leading brand and the country its biggest market. Adding to the piling up superlatives is the fact that the Breville Oracle Touch is one of the manufacturer’s most expensive items in its entire portfolio of kitchen appliances. All good reasons for the marketing machine to rev into high gear stateside.
There’s also a big push in Germany – a new market for the group – where I ran into a member of the promotional team. He was a real nice guy with impressive barista chops – even though he had Gorilla coffee in the hopper. Sigh. I decided not to hold it against him.
Breville doesn’t just send out baristas as touts but also consults with the top names in Australia on their settings. All the more reason to get reviewing more of their machines, such as the Bambino Plus mini espresso machine. Let’s see whether they listened.
Breville is pushing back against super automatic machines in order to appeal to people who are tired of compromising on brewing methods and the quality of the coffee in their cup.
Confusion alert: If instead of an automated process, you have to manually tamp – i.e. compact the coffee puck – what you’ve got is the Barista Touch. Despite similar design and some features in common, there’s a $1,500 price jump and other significant differences between the machines. So look before you leap at that “Buy now” button.
And just to keep things interesting, the original Breville Oracle (BES980) offers more opportunities for playing features snap with its successor the Oracle Touch (BES990). The most obvious differences are the touch screen on the upgrade, where the original has a LCD and buttons, and about $500 in price on Amazon.
Only you can decide whether a touch screen and a few feature upgrades are worth that.
My five cents on the matter is that the touch operation feels (to me at least) like it’s better attuned to the various brewing factors. As a result, it’s not only easier to program but can also be more finely calibrated. Which is thanks in no small part to the digital sliding scales.
The Breville Oracle Touch's Features and Functions – Pros and Cons
So what makes the Breville Oracle Touch semi-automatic espresso machine a great addition to your kitchen? Here are the reasons at a glance:
- Brews authentic portafilter-style espresso
- Key variables (grind texture, tamping, water temperature, pressure, processing time) are all handled automatically as part of a single appliance
- Suitable for espresso newbies and afficionados alike. You choose to let the automated systems do their work or take on most of it yourself.
- You have the option to prepare milk froth automatically (!) or by hand with a steam wand (!)
- Easier to clean and operate than a super automatic machine
- High-quality, stainless-steel case and components
As the love child of a super automatic and portafilter machine, the Breville Oracle Touch incorporates two vital automatic systems:
- A built-in grinder with automatic tamping. Baristas working a portafilter always have a separate grinder and compress the coffee grounds by hand.
- Integrated touch screen with preprogrammed settings and menus you won’t find on a portafilter.
The integrated grinder and auto-tamper are a big bonus for budding baristas because those are the two areas where they’re usually on shakier ground when making espresso. After all, ideal grind size and optimal compression are make or break because they dictate how long it takes for water to pass through the basket – and consequently brew quality.
On the downside, a built-in grinder also rides roughshod over some of the subtleties that are only achievable with a separate, pro-grade grinder. But for the kind of users the Breville Oracle Touch caters to, this is an acceptable trade-off.
Of course, the preprogramming and “automatic brewing” are hybrid machines’ biggest attractions. Basically, the comfortingly familiar super automatic set-up has been adapted to espresso making.
Thanks to the portafilter principle, you’re assured of bona fide espresso with real crema. In fact, the results are not just comparable to professional portafilter machines but virtually indistinguishable.
Note the “virtually.” That’s because espresso from a professional portafilter machine has a few uniquely human touches. But they’re unlikely to matter much to the average joe drinker.
If you’re craving a cappuccino or flat white, the Breville Oracle Touch practically serves it up on a saucer. All you have to do is add milk to the pitcher and place it under the steam wand.
For the rest, trust the programmable automatic frother to whip your up milk good. You can safely ignore all the stuff about “rolling” the milk and “breaking the surface” with the wand.
Sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it? I’d say!
The rain on this parade was and is the price. Since competing products – or least the ones worth considering – are few and far between, you’ll be coughing up considerably more than for a super automatic machine or entry-level portafilter.
As is the case with almost all super automatic espresso machines, the drinks settings are rather scattershot and need to be re-programmed. But let’s not forget that the chance to up-level brewing skills and learn a few tricks of the trade is precisely what makes the Breville Oracle Touch so exciting.
After all, the whole point of the machine is that it’s a step away from the super automatic philosophy of “put cup under spout, press button, go do something else and return to readymade coffee.” Here, you get to sink your teeth into the brewing process a little more.
Not that it’s hectic or anything. Just insert the portafilter and position the milk jug. That’s it.
|Breville Oracle Touch|
Hybrid espresso machine
Black Stainless Steel, Black Truffle, Brushed Stainless Steel, Damson Blue
Memo function only
|Removable water reservoir|
|Water reservoir capacity|
84.5 fl oz / 2.5 l
|Number of boilers|
|Maximum cup height|
4.0 in / 10.2 cm
Stainless steel conical burr grinder
|Grind adjustment levels|
|Bean hopper capacity|
8.1 oz / 230.0 g
|Adjustable coffee temperature|
|Adjustable milk foam temperature|
|Hot water function|
|Hot milk function|
|Milk foam only option|
37.2 lb / 16.9 kg
17.8 x 15.4 x 14.7 in
Included Accessories: Instruction booklet, Mini grinds bin, Stainless steel milk jug, Steam wand spare parts, Cleaning kit, Water filter and holder.
|Current price on Amazon|
|BUY NOW ON AMAZON|
Getting the Breville Oracle Touch up and Running
If you’re unboxing your brand new Breville Oracle Touch and eager to have it make happy coffee noises, knowing your way around a super automatic espresso machine is an advantage. Much like with those machines, start with these pointers:
- Rinse and clean all removable/loose components thoroughly
- Adjust the grinder to a finer setting
- Get a feel for the menu and the settings
- Fill the removable water tank
- Change the water hardness setting, if necessary
As you would expect from a machine closer on the continuum to a portafilter, the Breville Oracle Touch comes with a bunch of accessories you won’t get with a super automatic espresso machine:
- Portafilter handle with double spout
- Pro basket for a double shot (double espresso)
- Pro basket for a single shot (single espresso)
- Blind basket for cleaning
- Knock box for collecting used coffee pucks
- Stainless steel milk pitcher
More good news: The baskets aren’t the rookie double-walled variety, but the pro barista ones. All of these products have the high-quality look and feel of components you’ll find in coffee shops.
Although this stainless steel appliance tips the scales at about 46 pounds, it’s not quite the immovable object I had imagined. And the roller bearings that can be locked and released by turning a knob on the machine are a big help – especially when it comes to cleaning and repositioning it.
You can choose between a water tank that pulls out at the back or one fillable with a jug. Most will probably go for the jug method. Just remember, water tanks can quickly become pretty dank. So be sure to clean it more often between uses.
Hit the power button for the first time and you’ll automatically be taken to the setup menu, which guides you through the basics. Thanks to a clearly structured touch menu and the largely idiotproof icons, it’s hard to go stray. Other than that, the sprinkling of clear instructions and simple sliding scales are just as straightforward.
Which just about brings us to the big moment. Time to load the beans, complete the first (automatic) rinse and you’re ready to brew!
Espresso from the Breville Oracle Touch
To fully appreciate what makes brewing espresso with the Breville Oracle Touch so “revolutionary,” you know need to understand how to pull a shot (with milk froth) by hand. So here’s an outline of the steps involved:
- Grind coffee beans in a separate grinder. Setting the correct grind texture and determining the right dosage must be done in advance by carefully making incremental adjustments and testing them on the portafilter machine.
- Manually tamp the grounds to compact them in the portafilter. Again, this is the result of having practiced achieving the ideal amount of pressure and wrist action with a kitchen scale.
- Insert the portafilter into the machine. Another move drilled into you through repetition and the object lesson that is cleaning the machine when the portafilter gets “blasted off” by the pressure.
- Start the brewing process. Of course, you’ve already trial-and-errored your way to the perfect temperature, processing time and water quantity for the portafilter machine.
- Froth milk with the steam wand. But only after hours – and gallons of milk – have gone into honing the process of whipping up flawless microfoam.
- Apply your knowledge of the various coffee and milk ratios in specialty beverages. After all, a flat white is not a cappuccino.
Think it sounds like lot of messing around with coffee? They’re hard-won skills. No kidding. But you can save yourself the trouble entirely and skip to the awesome coffee with the Breville Oracle Touch. Thanks to a bunch of helpful automatic shortcuts:
- Moving from left to right, you have the machine’s grinding, brewing and frothing “stations.” Use the touch screen to select and operate the stations. What needs to be done at each station is displayed in the relevant beverage’s menu. Work through them step by step or concurrently. The choice is yours.
- Simply dock the portafilter below the grinder. The beans are automatically ground and compacted.
- Next, insert the portafilter at the brewing station. It locks into place nice and easy.
- If you like, you can set the milk to froth (hands free of course) while the coffee is brewing because the two boilers operate independently.
- Each step is clearly indicated on the display.
Honestly, you’d really have to go out of your way to produce dreck.
After a couple of shots, I dialed in a finer grind size using the knob on the side of the machine. I also had my doubts about the factory setting on the dosage, which produces slightly overfilled baskets. Reduce the quantity of coffee in small increments until the grinds form a completely flat surface just below the basket’s rim.
Extend the auger lock nut on the auto-tamp system to do this. The machine will detect that the basket is full sooner and shut off the grinder’s dispenser. Sometimes a change in beans will require that you readjust the machine. With a little practice, you’ll get it done in no time.
And just like that, you’re ready to insert the portafilter into the brew group. Select whether you want to pull a single, double or manual shot.
At 25 seconds for the single and 30 seconds for a double, the default settings are right on the money. But that’s no reason to settle for “sad” espresso that over- or underfills the cup and lacks a decent crema. Simply adjust the duration in increments of one second.
What about temperature you say? Rather leave well enough alone if you’re still new to the portafilter game. You really need to know your stuff before getting into the subtleties of tweaking degrees for different roasts.
Utimately, you get a very nice espresso that certainly looks the part with its good crema. Plus, it can totally hold its own when compared to the genuine article. Without a pro’s palate, you’ll be hard pressed to spot the difference. Best of all, even a total beginner can get it right.
The Breville Oracle Touch's Milk Froth
One of the biggest wows on the Breville Oracle Touch is the automatic steam wand. Why? At the touch of a button, you can adjust the consistency of the microfoam by varying the temperature between 104 and 167 degrees Fahrenheit.
At 113 degrees Fahrenheit, your milk is barely denatured. Turn up the heat to between 131 and 140 degrees and you’re in the latte art goldilocks zone. Over 104 degrees Fahrenheit, you’re boiling the milk to death. But sometimes you need really scaldingly hot liquid.
Ranging from 1 to 9, the foam consistency levels are an indication of how stiff your foam will be. Maxed out at level 9, you get bubbble bath. Yes, you’ll have heard some idiot trumpet this as the ultimate in cappuccino froth. Don’t fall for it. Level 3 is where the latte artists play.
To say that I was skeptical about the whole idea at first is an understatement. I mean, no barista worth their salt would dream of sticking the lance into the milk pitcher and tootling off to do something else. But I’m eating crow – it really works!
And there’s no need to second-guess the settings. When the machine switches off, the froth is ready. No ifs or buts. Just clip the wand back into place. The crucial blast of cleansing steam is initiated automatically. All you have to do is wipe the outside of the wand with a cloth.
If you’re really itching to stretch your barista wings, you can do the whole frothing process by hand. But why would you when touching a button produces such great results?
Of course, each of the specialties on the drinks menu includes “optimal” settings for your all aspects of the milk froth. Toe the line or do it your way, there’s no right or wrong.
By the way, the Breville Oracle Touch’s one surprising omission from its preprogrammed specialities is latte macchiato. Personally, I’m totally fine with that, but who’d a thunk it?
My guess? A good latte macchiato requires careful “assembly.” Once the milk is good and frothed, it’s skillfully decanted into a glass to create the right layers. Only after the espresso is specially brewed in an espresso pot is it then poured over the snowy milk mountain in the glass.
All the other specialities can be made directly in the cup – milk frothing aside, of course. Which is exactly what a hybrid machine like the Breville Oracle Touch is designed to do.
But I have another sneaky suspicion. As an Australian brand, Breville champions the local invention – the flat white – as a point of national pride. Plus, it’s way more “dardy” (ask an Aussie) than the totally overdone latte.
Then there’s a purely practical consideration. And here I’m not spitballing. The reality is that the ubiquitous IKEA latte glasses won’t fit beneath the highly compact Breville Oracle Touch’s portafilter. No preprogrammed latte macchiato, no can of worms.
Which is not to say you can’t make one. Thanks to the six customizable profiles, you can go ahead and dial in the settings for latte macchiato yourself. Even if I roll my eyes at you and frantically point at the flat white.
Cleaning the Breville Oracle Touch
In my super automatic espresso machine reviews, you’ll have noticed that I’m on a bit of a crusade about regular cleaning. Especially when it comes to the brew group, where damp coffee grounds collect and start quietly growing mold. Before you know it, your machine is useless.
But you can forget about all that nastiness – or at least that specific nastiness – with a portafilter or hybrid machine like the Breville Oracle Touch.
No, it’s not an excuse to never clean again. But at least you’ve eliminated coffee grounds – or mold heaven – from the equation. That’s because they never enter the brewing components, only coming into contact with the portafilter and spout. Hooray!
What this means is that you can focus your cleaning energies mainly on the spout, the brew head and baskets. Putting a blank into the portafilter handle ensures that during the cleaning cycle, water won’t pour out of the machine and is instead swirled around the brew group. It’s kind of like the machine is gargling.
Running the brewing process without a portafilter makes for a perfectly good, quick clean. That way the brew group is flushed and residues rinsed off the shower screen.
To deep clean your spouts use the brushes that come with the machine. Remember you also always need to wash the portafilter each time you knock out a puck. Ditto for the steam wand – wipe after each use. And that’s it. Done and dusted.
The grinder dismantles almost as completely as a pro mill, allowing you get it really spic and span.
With the Breville Oracle Touch, your excuses for not cleaning don’t fly.
The Breville Oracle Touch Mop-up: Hooray for the Hybrid!
The Breville Oracle Touch gets a big thumbs up (and ear-to-ear grin) from me. Because with very little effort you can produce stellar quality coffee. It’s a masterful balancing act, walking the fine line between rookie frustrations and more advanced users’ expectations.
Which doesn’t come cheap. But look at what you’re getting:
- No need to buy a separate espresso-grade coffee grinder – unsurprisingly priced at around $300.
- Far fewer hygiene headaches than with a super automatic machine.
- Be as hands on or hands off as you like in creating the finished product.
- Learn/grow/consolidate all the barista skills you’ve always wanted, minus the trial & error. And get consistently great results.
- This incredibly high-quality appliance is likely to far outlive any entry-level super automatic machine.
- Don’t just settle for super automatic espresso. The difference really is chalk and cheese.
- Enjoy the espresso beans you pay good money for to small roasters in their full glory.
Will hybrid machines relegate the super automatic espresso machine hype to history? Nope. No chance. That’s because you can’t just sit back with the Breville Oracle Touch. You need to get stuck in. And that’s definitely not everyone’s cup of coffee.
Anyone who has been dreaming of a “real” espresso machine for a long time, but doesn’t have the time to commit to the long-haul process of acquiring barista muscle memory and savvy, will totally fall for this machine. And if the barista bug bites, you’ll have a willing teacher right in your kitchen.
Any questions? Please comment away, I love hearing from you.