You don’t need to be a coffee snob to appreciate the need for a home espresso machine. If cappuccinos, macchiatos, lattes, mochas or espresso shots are your thing, a traditional home drip coffee maker simply won’t do the job.
But buying an espresso machine can seem like a complex, even intimidating affair, so we’re here to make it easier for you. We’ll not only strip away the mystery of all of those buttons, knobs and levers, but we’ll also provide you with reviews of our top recommended espresso machines in order to make the buying process even easier.
Types of Espresso Machines
There are 4 main types of espresso machines: Manual/Lever, Semi-Automatic, Automatic, and Super Automatic. Here’s a quick rundown to help you understand the differences:
Manual or Lever
For experienced baristas only! These machines are attractive and create quality espresso (if you’ve got the chops), but they’re difficult to use. There are two types of manual espresso machines: Spring Piston Lever and Direct Lever.
Spring Piston Lever machines: These machines have an internal spring that pushes the water through the coffee grounds at a specific pressure. They require the user to compress the spring into the starting position and to let go so that the spring can push the water through. On the plus side, these machines give you maximum control over the espresso-making process, particularly the pre-infusion stage and the amount of water you use; but on the downside, they are often expensive and hard to get exactly right.
Direct Lever machines: The biggest difference between the direct lever and the spring piston lever machines is that the direct lever requires you to apply the pressure to the water by pushing down on the lever. This complicates the process because different types of coffees require different pressures in order to produce the best possible shot. Most of the other aspects, as well as the drawbacks and benefits, of the direct lever machine are similar to those of the spring piston lever machines.
These espresso machines feature some of the control of the manual machines with the automation of the fully automatic models. This balance between control and convenience make them the most popular kind of home espresso machine on the market. Semi-automatic machines use electric pumps that deliver even water pressure with just the press of a switch, resulting in a consistently high-quality shot of espresso. They also have automatic temperature controls for the boiler, which allows the machine to maintain good brewing and steaming temperatures. User control comes in when the user decides how long to keep the pump activated, which is essential for optimizing the shot of espresso it produces. Another important factor to consider is that there are many reputable espresso machine makers producing affordable semi-automatic machines alongside the more sophisticated models that can run into the thousands.
For those who value convenience over achieving the optimal espresso shot, automatics are the way to go. These machines deliver a set amount of water every time. All you have to do is load the coffee, tamp it, lock it into the machine and press a button, and the machine will do the rest. Most automatic machines feature four switches: one shot short, two shots short, one shot normal, and two shots normal. In addition to the convenience of being able to press a button and walk away, automatic machines offer a tremendous level of consistency and are available in a wide range of prices. Also, most automatic machines offer semi-automatic controls for the times when you want to fine-tune the taste.
These machines do it all. They grind the coffee, move it to the brewing chamber, tamp it, and brew the shot. They also deposit the grounds into a convenient dump box for easy cleaning. The end result is a highly convenient and consistent machine, with only a slight drop in level of quality. As complex machines, they require a bit more maintenance than the less automated machines, and they tend to cost a pretty penny, but they generally produce excellent quality espresso, particularly if you use them for lattes, mochas and cappuccinos. Additionally, these machines feature larger reservoirs, separate heating chambers for brewing and steaming, and easy-to-read indicators that monitor the process from start to finish.
Other Features to Look For
Some espresso machines have extra features that make the espresso-making process even easier, such as:
Frothing Wand – This is found in most machines, and is an absolute must if you’re going to make drinks that contain steamed milk.
Water Filter – A filter improves the quality of the water, which in turn affects the overall quality of your drink.
Coffee Grinder – Nothing beats fresh ground coffee! Having a built-in grinder saves space and eliminates the need for buying a separate grinder.
Programmability – If you’ve determined the exact way you like your espresso, you can use this feature to dial in the settings on your machine to make it easier to duplicate that perfect drink in the future.
Things to Consider Before You Buy
Espresso machines are typically more expensive than even the best drip coffee makers. General considerations for price levels for home espresso makers:
- Up to $1,000: These machines use a single thermostat and boiler, which means that they can’t brew and steam milk at the same time.
- Between $1,000 and $2,000: These machines still tend to have only one boiler, but you’ll be able to brew and steam milk simultaneously.
- Over $2,000: These powerful espresso machines usually have two separate boilers for simultaneously brewing and steaming. The downside to these machines, aside from the price, is that they require a lot of power, which may be a challenge in North America, where 110V outlets can’t handle the juice. Solutions to this are reaching the North American market as we speak (or write).
Ease of Cleaning – For best results, you should clean your espresso machine every day to eliminate residue that can interfere with the brewing process and taste. Some machines have features that make them easy to clean, like a button that performs a clean cycle on the milk tank to remove residue. Look for easily removable parts because that will make cleaning them much, much easier.
Tank Size – For home use, you generally don’t need a large water reservoir because you’ll want to replace the water frequently anyway (to keep the water from becoming ‘flat’), so look for a size that is just big enough to suit your needs.
Grinder – One of the keys to good coffee is freshly and properly ground beans. For this reason, we highly recommend that you look for a high-quality grinder. Take the time to learn how to use it, too–it’s worth the effort!
Bar Pressure Ratings – Ignore the claims of high-pressure ratings, such as 16 or 17 bars, as the machines usually have valves in place that restrict the pressure anyway. Anything over 9 is irrelevant.
Top Espresso Machine Reviews
Our detailed reviews of these top espresso brewers are coming soon. For now, here are our top picks and a summary of why we (and so many others!) love them.
Breville BES840XL the Infuser Espresso Machine
We’ve picked this espresso maker as the best espresso machine under $500! The Breville BES840XL serves up a well-balanced espresso by first applying steady, low pressure to the grinds in order to fill up any cracks or gaps in the coffee puck. It then applies full pressure evenly to all parts of the puck so that the full flavor is extracted. It offers both automatic functions and programmable ones, but its key features are its pre-infusion technology, thermocoil heating system, and PID temperature control technology. The machine is quiet, easy to use, and consistently able to deliver high-quality shots of espresso. Read more details here.
This espresso machine proves the old cliche that big things come in small packages. The Nespresso Pixie Espresso Maker is an ultra-compact, capsule machine that brews delicious, high-quality coffee in seconds. It’s also beautifully designed, programmable and easy to clean! For a more information, take a
look at more reviews of this machine!
De’Longhi EC155 15 BAR Pump Espresso & Cappuccino Maker
If you’re looking for convenience, flexibility and low price, check out the De’Longhi EC155. It features a self-priming operation that makes it easy to use, a removable 35-ounce water tank so that it’s easy to clean, and a patented dual function filter holder so that both ground coffee andpods can be used. For those who prefer cappuccino, the machine’s swivel jet frother makes it easy to create rich, creamy drinks. You can read full reviews here.
Gaggia Classic Espresso Machine Review
Designed in Italy, this elegant, compact machine features advanced technology that provides you with all the benefits of a commercial espresso maker in the comfort and convenience of your home. It’s durably built, easy to use, and gives you the flexibility of using either pods or ground coffee. You can read more about this machine here!
Breville BES870XL Barista Express Espresso Machine
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced barista, you’ll find that this machine makes pulling a high-quality espresso shot easy. For beginners, it uses two pressurized filters that regulate water pressure and optimize extraction. For the pros, it offers two non-pressurized filters to allow for more room to experiment. It also features an integrated burr grinder so that you get the maximum freshness from your freshly ground beans. And, it’s fast–you can go from adding the beans to enjoying the finished drink in under a minute! Get the full scoop!
The Jura Ena 9 One Touch Espresso Machine is a sleek, modern espresso maker that is perfect for small households. With some fresh beans, milk, and the touch of a button, you’ll be able to make delicious cups of your favorite drinks, from cappuccinos to latte macchiatos. Key features include a dual spout that is adjustable to any height between 3 and 5 inches, a unique fine foam technology that delivers feather-light foam consistency, and an automatic self-cleaning function that monitors the types of drinks you’ve been having so that it cleans accordingly. Get more details here.
Other Espresso Maker Reviews
Bialetti Stovetop Espresso Maker
This simple, elegant, Italian-designed and made stovetop “espresso” maker produces six 2-ounce cups of delicious, quality espresso-like coffee in under 5 minutes. Constructed of polished aluminum in a classic octagon shape, diffuses the heat perfectly in order to craft the perfect drink. Click here for more reviews and info.
Aeropress Coffee and Espresso Maker
It might not look like much, and isn’t a “true” espresso maker, but this highly portable and versatile coffee maker produces a shockingly rich cup of coffee to rival the coffee produced by expensive, complex coffee machines. It’s also quick–making one to three cups in about one minute. Use this coffee maker at home, while camping, traveling on a business trip… anywhere! Check it out here.