Ultimate Guide: What is the Best Espresso Machine?
If you’ve spent any time at all looking to buy an espresso machine you have probably already noticed that it’s not as simple as just plucking one off the shelf at your local store, taking it home, and then plugging it in. Buying the best espresso machine can be far more confusing when compared to buying any other type of home coffee maker.
Making the perfect shot of espresso at home requires a bit of practice and picking out the right home espresso machine can either aid you to becoming a great home barista or it can hinder you making you quickly run back to your trusty drip coffee maker, and in-turn leaving the new espresso maker sat gathering dust.
So once you realize that you’re shopping for a coffee machine that is a little bit more complicated than your regular machine it can become a bit daunting as well as maybe a little confusing when trying to figure out where to begin and which is the right home espresso machine to buy.
If what you’ve read so far sounds likes you then don’t fret, because in this article ultimate espresso machine buying guide I’m going to take you by the hand and lead you down a road to an espresso fueled knowledge-fest showing you the ins-and-outs of the home espresso machine. So go grab a large cup of coffee, a pen a paper for note taking, and let’s crack-on.
Before We Dive in Head First
What’s your budget? How much have you set aside for your new home brewing machine? Sure, you can get a good espresso machine for almost any budget, and some decent espresso makers for under $200 but you typically get fewer features and less durability I find in machines with lower price tags. For a beginner just venturing into the world of home espresso making that necessarily isn’t a bad thing, you can still get what you want without breaking the bank, but don’t expect the machine to last a lifetime or come with extras to froth milk or even grind coffee beans.
So before you run out the door set a budget and try to stick to it. It’s easy to become all giddy when you get to the store to buy your new espresso machine and often the sales clerks will real you in with features and functions on various expensive machines that you’ll probably never use. When choosing the best espresso machine I would recommend setting a budget of up to $1000, it doesn’t mean you have to spend every last cent, but this should allow for a bit of wiggle room so that you can get the right machine.
Hands-On or Hands Off?
You’ll soon quickly realize that all of the better espresso machines have some level of automation and before you scrutinize the features and functions of each machine you can quickly whittle down your options by deciding on how much automation you want with your new espresso maker. If you haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about or if you didn’t even realize that there were different automation levels keep on reading and I’ll briefly cover the different options available along with an approximation of their cost to buy.
As the name suggests semi-automatic espresso machines do some of the work for you, but not all the work. You still have to let the espresso machine know how strong you want your shot of espresso, how much coffee grounds to use in the portafilter (that cup with the handle that hooks into the top of the espresso machine), as well as the amount of water needed to make the perfect shot.
The semi-automatic espresso machine still does take a lot of the guess work out of making an espresso as it heats the water to the correct temperature and allows you to determine when the espresso meets your preferred consistency. If you are looking for a cheap espresso machine the semi-automatics tend not to be costly, and you can pick up a consumer level machine for under $200.
The difference between semi-automatic and automatic espresso machines is very small however the price jump to this class of machine can leave a big dent in your pocket. Sure automatic espresso machines have a few more functions and features but the biggest difference between the two is the fact that automatic espresso makers will measure the correct amount of water for you and once done they will automatically shut off for you.
This makes automatic home espresso machines perfect for the novice just venturing into the world of espresso making, you don’t have to guess whether the espresso is ready to serve or if it still needs more water because the machine has taken that element of guess work away.
Personally this is my favorite type of espresso machine and I own this Breville Barista Express Espresso Machine like the one pictured above in this article, however this machine could be classed as a super-automatic espresso machine seeing as it also grinds my beans.
If you thought that you couldn’t get any better than the automatic espresso machine, think again, because the super-automatic espresso machine comes with all of the bells and whistles and even takes your dog for a walk, ok maybe not dog walking but you get my point.
If you have the money to buy the best home espresso maker on par with those installed in high-street coffee houses the super-automatic is definitely the way to go. This class of home espresso machine lets you create an espresso totally hands-free, to be honest the machine literally does everything for you.
You don’t have to measure the water or know when it’s hot, you don’t have the grind or measure your coffee beans and on some of the best super-automatic espresso machines you don’t even have to froth your own milk!
If you want to be the number one home barista in your neighborhood this machine is for you, however don’t expect much change out of $1000.
Coffee Pods or Coffee Beans?
In the past espresso machines operated without pods however with the latest trend of using prepackaged coffee pods the latest espresso machines have caught on and you can now find a host of espresso makers that take both pods as well as ground coffee.
There really isn’t much of a price difference between a machine that take pods and one that doesn’t, that being said if you drink regular cups of coffee brewed with those prepackaged coffee pods the cost of making your cup of joe will soon add up. In the long run grinding your own beans not only tastes better in my opinion but will cost a lot less per cup versus the coffee pods.
With the prepackaged coffee pods, you are paying for convenience, personally I don’t like them, but opting for an espresso maker that uses pods really comes down to a matter of precision and your personal preference.
Pumping the Iron or Getting Hot and Steamy?
One of the big differences in the best espresso maker is how the coffee actually gets pulled out of the grounds. There are two ways this is achieved with espresso machines (as far as I am aware) with machines being split into two types, pump driven and steam driven. Simply put, one method uses steam to extract the coffee and the other method uses heated, pressurized water which is pushed through the coffee grounds.
The best espresso machines are the pump variety (again in my opinion, but ask any barista and they will probably tell you the same) the produced espresso tastes like real espresso and you find that there is no burned or charred aftertaste that can sometimes occur with the steamed driven machines.
I’ll admit, the pump espresso machines are a bit pricier when compared to the cheaper steam units, but if you enjoy and savor your espressos you won’t be happy with the results of a steam driven machine, trust me, so opt for the pump machines.
Get your Grind on
One of the features of the best espresso machine for home use is a built-in grinder. You will tend to find coffee grinders built-in to the more expensive machines and they are on all of the super-automatic models I have seen. Let’s be honest, if you want your espresso maker to weigh, grind and move the beans for you you’re going to have to pay for it, right?
If you are on a tight budget, I would probably rule out buying an espresso maker for the home that comes with a grinder. However, that being said you will have to pay for a separate coffee grinder at some point because pre-ground shop bought espresso really doesn’t taste the same as freshly ground.
To Froth or Not to Froth
You would think that all of the high-end best espresso machines would have a built-in milk frother or steam wands as they are often called, however that isn’t the case. I have found that many of the cheap espresso machines have milk frothers better than the more expensive machines that offer almost nothing but a little bit of hot air.
Here you will have to use your instincts and intuition to make sure the home espresso maker you choose has a decent milk frother. The Breville Barista Express Espresso Machine I own has an excellent milk frother and makes light work of frothed milk for cappuccinos. Don’t worry if you’re machine hasn’t got a milk frother because you can buy one separately, check out my best milk frother article if you need to buy one.
Best Espresso Machine Recommendations
If you’re ready to put your hand in your pocket and part with your cash below I have recommended two home espresso makers that I have used in the past and one that I actually own now. Both of these machines are great espresso brewers and for a novice just venturing into the world of espressos or even full fetched barista, you won’t go far wrong with one of these for home espresso making.
Breville Barista Express Espresso Machine
The first espresso maker recommendation is the one I am using at home right now, the Breville Barista Express Espresso Machine (BES870XL). When I purchased the coffee brewer it was just under $600 and I didn’t think that was a bad price for a best espresso machine for the home. I was sold the Breville Barista as an automatic machine by the sales clerk but it’s more like a super automatic seeing as it has a built-in conical burr grinder, a milk frother, and a large half-pound bean hopper to hold my coffee beans, you would be hard pushed to find any other so called automatic machines with a built-in grinder.
What else can it do? Well the Breville Espresso Machine has a neat purge function that constantly monitors and adjusts the water temperature after steam to give you the optimal espresso extraction temperature, it really is hands-free.
Once you have set your grind setting from fine to coarse the built-in coffee grinder takes your beans from the bean hopper and grinds away and fill your portafilter directly without you having to touch a thing. There is also an indicator to let you know when it’s time to give your machine a clean, it really is as simple as pressing a button, removing a few parts and using the supplied cleaning kit to get your espresso machine looking and running like new again.
In my opinion this is the best espresso machine for the money I’m over the moon with mine and haven’t had any problems (touchwood) with it since I purchased it as a replacement for an older one earlier in the year. If you can’t find the Breville Barista Express Espresso Machine in your local department store you can get one from places like Amazon.
Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine
If you’ve got a bit more cash to spend the Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine is a great upgrade from the above Breville. Priced at just under $700 (at the time of writing) this isn’t a cheap espresso machine by any means for home use. However, this traditional style best-selling espresso machine has been manufactured by one of the most recognized manufactures in the world of espresso making!
I had my Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine for 15 years (yes 15 years) before I decided to replace the aging machine with the above Breville. It really is a workhorse when it comes to making great tasting, consistent espressos at home, albeit with a little bit of practice.
Even though the Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine has been made with home use in mind it has still been built with their commercial grade parts and fixtures. For example, the porta filter, the commercial grade group head for superb heat stability, and the single boiler (which is the largest I’ve seen in any home espresso maker holding 0.3 liters) which are some of the key components on any best espresso maker can all be found on their commercial lines. Which just goes to show that they haven’t skimped on quality even for their home coffee makers.
Just like the above Breville espresso maker this Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine features a milk frother that has more precise controls for producing steam than the Breville, I found. One of the downsides of the Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine is the fact that is doesn’t have a built-in coffee grinder. So you would have to buy a separate coffee grinder to use alongside the Rancilio try and buy a good burr grinder of at least Gaggia MDF or Rancilio Rocky quality and grind your beans right before brewing.