So you want to buy an espresso machine? Good choice! An espresso is the ultimate coffee preparation. Rich, smooth and bursting with complex flavors it’s a sophisticated and triumphant marriage of nature and technology.
But which is the best espresso machine for you? There’s a bewildering choice of machines at a dizzying range of prices.
Fear not! We will guide you through the simple steps to guarantee that you find a machine that meets both your budget and your lifestyle. And of course, one that makes a fantastic shot of coffee every time.
There are essentially four different types of espresso machines: manual, semi-automatic, automatic and super-automatic.
There is another type, often referred to as steam driven espresso machines. While these may be called espresso machines and look like espresso machines, they don’t produce genuine shots of espresso. Just a strong shot of coffee.
|Types of Espresso Machine|
We will talk about each type of machine in turn, looking at the advantages and disadvantages of each one. This is quite a long article so we have included a table of contents at the top. If you want to jump to one particular section just click one of the links in the table.
Ready? OK, let’s get on with it…
- 1 Manual Espresso Machines
- 2 Semi-automatic Espresso Machines
- 3 Automatic Espresso Machines
- 4 Super-automatic Espresso Machines
- 5 Manual vs Automatic espresso machines
- 6 Automatic vs Semi-automatic espresso machines
- 7 Automatic vs Super-automatic espresso machines
- 8 Single boiler vs Double boiler espresso machines
- 9 What about a grinder?
- 10 How much do I need to spend?
- 11 The best espresso machine for you
- 11.1 Best Semi-automatic Espresso Machine under $300 (Entry Level)
- 11.2 Best Semi-automatic Espresso Machine under $700 (Mid Level)
- 11.3 Best Semi-automatic espresso machine under $1200
- 11.4 Best super-automatic espresso machine under $700 (Entry Level)
- 11.5 Best super-automatic espresso machine under $3000
- 12 Wrapping up
Manual Espresso Machines
Manual machines are the ones with the long, lever handles. In these machines, those long handles are used to create the pressure that forces the water through the coffee.
As the name suggests, these are the most hands on of all espresso machines. This is because it’s you pulling and releasing the handle that generates the pressure that makes the espresso. There are two types of manual machines: spring piston lever and direct lever.
With a spring lever machine, the handle is first pulled down to compress a spring, essentially “cocking” the mechanism. Then, when you release the handle, the spring does the rest of the work, pushing the water through the coffee at a specific but gradually waning pressure.
Whereas with a direct lever manual machine, it’s you pushing down on the lever that produces and controls the pressure that drives the water through the coffee.
|Manual Espresso Machines|
|Spring Piston Lever machine|
(At rest the handle points upwards)
|Direct Lever machine|
(At rest the handle points downwards)
You can usually tell the difference between a spring lever machine and a direct lever machine fairly easily. On a spring lever machine the handle points upwards when the it’s not in use. Whereas with a direct lever machine that’s not being used, the handle points downwards.
Both these types of manual machine give you loads more control over the coffee making process than any other type of espresso machine. You control the length of the pre-infusion, how much water passes through the coffee and when to pull the shot based on your estimation of the water temperature. And with the direct lever machine you also control the pressure.
That’s a lot of extra variables to consider in a coffee making process that already has many, many different variables that can effect the taste of the final drink.
And in fact, often it’s too many variables for a beginner. If you’re making coffee that doesn’t taste right, how can you know if it’s the coffee itself, the grind, the pre-infusion, the water temperature or the shot timing?
It’s really frustrating when you keep churning out poor coffee and you’re not sure how to fix it. Of course you can and will learn learn if you put the time and effort in. Just be aware that manual machines are difficult to master. If you haven’t used one before you will make a lot of bad coffee before you get the hang of it.
Once you’ve got the hang of it, they can make the best espresso shots you will ever taste. And they are without doubt the most romantic and aesthetically attractive of all espresso machines. You just need to be prepared to put a lot of work in.
Semi-automatic Espresso Machines
Semi-automatic machines are by far the most popular of all the espresso machines. These machines have automated water temperature control and automated pressure control. But you decide how much water flows through the coffee by turning the pump on and off.
The advantage of these machines is that they take some of the things that can adversely effect your coffee out of your hands while still giving you enough control to play around with the process and get the best tasting coffee according to your preferences.
Slight variations in water temperature and pressure can have huge effects on the quality of the espresso shot that a machine produces. So by automatically maintaining constant, optimal levels these machines should produce more consistent coffee much more easily.
Automatic Espresso Machines
Automatic machines go one step further than their semi-automatic brothers. Not only do they control both the water temperature and the pressure, they also control the amount of water that passes through the coffee.
So usually you have extra buttons each of which will deliver different shot sizes and different numbers of shots. One button will deliver a single short shot. Another might provide two short shots. And then another will deliver one long shot. And another button might give you two long shots.
With most of these machines you can program the amount of water that’s used in each shot. And often there is a simple on/off button just like in the semi-automatic machines that allows you to control the water flow manually.
So usually you’re not losing any control if you chose a fully automatic over a semi-automatic. You’re just gaining the ability to always pass exactly the same amount of water through your coffee.
Whether that’s something you want is up to you. You may find the perfect grind and water volume combination for you that you want to duplicate effortlessly every time you make a coffee. In which case this would be a good option.
Super-automatic Espresso Machines
Super-automatic machines automate everything. Just like the automatics, they control the pressure, the temperature and the volume of water used in each preparation.
But they also have built in grinders so they grind the beans, tamp the grounds and extract the espresso shot automatically. At the touch of one button! All you have to do is add the beans to the hopper at the top of the machine.
Some of the more expensive ones will even automatically froth and dispense hot milk for cappuccinos and lattes!
Choosing between a manual, semi-automatic, automatic and super-automatic espresso machine.
The difference between these machines is the amount of involvement you have in the coffee making process. So clearly the best type of machine for you will depend on the particular balance between control and convenience that you’re looking for.
Manual vs Automatic espresso machines
Do you want to really immerse yourself in the art and science of espresso preparation? (And believe me, you can spend years and years learning about this stuff). Are you attracted to the romance of the purest form of espresso extraction? Do you want a striking piece of modern art on your counter top?
Are you prepared to put hours of work in? To throw out countless shots of poor coffee before you master it? If you are, then a manual espresso machine could be the best choice for you.
Manual machines will give you complete control over the espresso you produce. And they can make some of the best espresso you will ever drink. But they are not the convenient option. You need to learn how to use these machines. And it will take time. And the espresso you produce will vary wildly as you’re learning. But if you do put in the time, eventually they will reward you.
Automatic vs Semi-automatic espresso machines
If you’d like to have some control over your espresso but don’t want to spend months learning how to make acceptable shots, then a semi-automatic or an automatic machine is your best bet. There’s not a huge amount of difference between the two to be honest. And most automatic machines have a manual override button.
Really it comes down to whether you want the ability to always pass exactly the same amount of water through your coffee. And whether you’re prepared to pay the extra money for that convenience.
Automatic vs Super-automatic espresso machines
If you just want to make a great espresso at the touch of a button then a super-automatic machine is the way to go. You won’t have to buy a separate grinder (more on that later!). You won’t have to fill the basket, tamp the grounds or any of the other steps that separate your desire for coffee from you actually drinking coffee.
Just put the beans in the hopper, press the appropriate button and within seconds your drinking freshly ground, precision pumped, highly dependable espresso shots and cappuccinos.
Many of these super-automatic machines include a huge array of options so you’re not always loosing all of the control you get with the semi and automatic machines.
But you’ll pay a lot more for these machines. And because the grinder is an integral part of the machine it makes upgrading much more complicated. Also, don’t forget, the more features a machine has, the more there is to go wrong!
Having said all that if you’re looking for the most convenient, least involved option and you can afford the price, then a super-automatic espresso machine is the best choice for you.
Single boiler vs Double boiler espresso machines
Within the various automatic categories there is a further division based on the boiler type. In an espresso machine the boiler is used to heat both the water for the coffee and the steam to heat or froth the milk.
There are essentially 3 different boiler types: single boiler dual use, single boiler heat exchanger and double boiler. We don’t need to spend too much time considering the technology involved here. But essentially the differences are as follows:
Single boiler dual use machines can’t make coffee and steam milk at the same time. When you’ve finished making the coffee, you flick a switch and the water is further heated to make the steam to froth the milk. These machines are the cheapest and the most common.
Whereas single boiler heat exchanger machines are able to prepare the coffee and steam milk at the same time. They do this by keeping the boiler temperature constantly at steam temperature and then rapidly heating water for the coffee as needed through a heat exchanger. These are more expensive.
And lastly the dual boiler machines can also make the coffee and heat the milk at the same time because they have two boilers each operating at the optimal temperature. These machines are more expensive again.
What about a grinder?
OK, I’ve left this until now because I know your main interest is finding the best espresso machine. But the fact of the matter is: the most important part of espresso preparation is the grinder. Indeed, the grinder is the most important part of every type of coffee preparation.
This is because as soon as coffee is ground it starts to go stale. Within 5 to 15 minutes of being ground it will start to lose flavour and begin to taste dull.
So if you’re buying pre-ground coffee your buying stale coffee. It’s as simple as that. And it doesn’t matter how expensive your coffee machine is or how skilled you are as a barista. If you put stale coffee grounds in, you will get a stale, dull tasting drink out.
So the bottom line is this: if you want to make great tasting coffee you have to grind your own beans. And this means you have to buy a separate grinder or buy a machine with an integrated grinder.
Unfortunately, (as is often the case) when it comes to espresso things are a little bit more complicated. This is because espresso preparation demands that the coffee is ground to a very precise and uniform particle size. And it’s a very fine size: it should be just slightly coarser than a powder. Like a fine table salt.
And this is impossible with low end coffee grinders. So stay clear of grinders that use blades. They’re not capable of creating the uniform particle size that is essential for good tasting espresso. What you’re after is a burr grinder.
Burr grinders use two serrated disks that are positioned a certain distance apart and rotate to crush the coffee beans to the required size. Even with burr grinders, the lower end models struggle to produce a grind that’s acceptable for espresso.
|Best Coffee Grinders for Espresso|
How to choose the best grinder for espresso is a bit beyond the scope of this article but I’ve included three of the best here to give you a head start.
How much do I need to spend?
If you want to make good tasting espresso at home then you have to be prepared to spend a fair bit of money. It’s expensive. And it’s as simple as that.
If you try to cut corners, you’ll end up with dull, lifeless coffee at best and burnt, undrinkable coffee at worst. It will be a frustrating experience that will probably put you off making espresso at home for good.
So, for about $500 you can get a grinder that produces an espresso quality grind and a semi-automatic machine that should make it fairly easy to knock out decent espressos with some practice.
If you can’t afford (or don’t want) to spend $500 then you have two options:
- Buy the grinder and drink other types of coffee while you save up for the espresso machine
- Buy a Nespresso machine
You can get the Baratza Virtuoso grinder for around $230 and pick up an Aeropress for $30 or a French Press for even less than that. With a set up like this, you’ll be able to make amazing tasting coffee. Fresh, varied, complex drinks that you will never tire of.
If you go with an Aeropress, there’s loads of room for experimentation and while they can’t produce a genuine espresso, they are capable of making a very tasty shot of strong coffee that tastes similar to an espresso and can be used to make passable cappuccinos etc.
And while you’re enjoying this great coffee, you’ll be saving up for that espresso machine. And all the time learning all sorts of stuff about infusion times and grind types that will prove really useful when you finally get the espresso machine. Everyone’s a winner!
However, if you can’t afford $500 but need that espresso machine right now, you should seriously consider a Nespresso machine. Many people in the espresso community are sniffy about Nescafe’s capsule espresso machines. But the fact is that they do make consistently OK espressos!
They’ll never produce a really good shot of espresso. But they’re very likely to make better espressos that you’ll be able to consistently make with a sub $500 dollar set up. Plus they’re incredibly convenient.
Of course the downside with Nespresso is that while the initial price is very low (you can pick up a basic machine for around $100), the capsules are comparatively expensive. And since you can only use Nespresso capsules with Nespresso machines in the end you will pay more with a Nespresso machine.
You should also consider the fact that since it’s often very difficult to recycle the spent capsules, this type of coffee system is far worse for the environment than traditional set ups.
The best espresso machine for you
OK so now you know a little about the different types of espresso machines and you know the minimum amount of money you’ll need to spend. If you’re still with me, lets look at the best espresso machines for each type: manual, semi-automatic, automatic and super-automatic.
I have chosen 3 of the best machines for each type: the best entry level machine, the best mid level machine and the finally the best machine where price is no issue!
Before we start, a quick point about what you can expect to get at the different price points and which price point you should aim enter the market.
When you pay more for a more expensive espresso machine what you’re actually paying for is consistency in your espressos and longevity in the machine.
The more expensive machines are able to maintain more consistent and predictable water temperatures and pressures. Espresso preparation is hugely sensitive to variations in water temperature and pressure. And the slightest unpredictable variation can ruin your shot.
Whether they’re using single boilers, heat exchange or double boilers you get less variation in expensive machines so pulling that perfect shot is much easier to replicate every time.
The build quality is also significantly higher in the more expensive machines. There’s generally more metal and the components are more durable. These machines are built to last years and years. And when they do break down they are designed to be serviced rather than abandoned.
So I would advise spending as much money as you can afford. You will be pulling better espressos more regularly and with less frustrating, inexplicable failures. You’ll also keep your machine longer. And if you do upgrade you’ll get a return on your initial investment by selling the old machine on for a smaller loss.
But don’t worry! If you need to go in the entry level, all the machines I recommend here hold their value well. It’s very common to start with a cheaper machine, use it for a while and then trade up to a slightly better model as your interest grows.
Best Semi-automatic Espresso Machine under $300 (Entry Level)
The best entry level semi automatic espresso machine is undoubtedly the single boiler dual use Gaggia Classic. This machine has a fantastically high build quality and incredible components for the price.
The portafilter is the same quality you’d find on a commercial machine. Just like a commercial portafilter the big size (58 mm) and heavy chrome covered brass construction means the water is distributed more evenly and the temperature is more stable.
Unlike all other machines at this price range, there are two heating elements that are embedded in the exterior side of the boiler. This eliminates the risk of element corrosion seen in other machines and since the entire boiler releases heat, it gets hotter faster and maintains more stable temperatures.
The 3 way solenoid valve is also usually only found in commercial and high level consumer machines. This valve relieves excess pressure for a more consistent shot.
The controls are simple chunky and well lit so you always know what’s going on. The top of the machine acts as warmer for up to 5 espresso cups. And it features a new Pannarello steam wand that is much improved and makes frothing milk a breeze. You can also use it with pods.
The Gaggia features a very handsome stainless steel case and a clean utilitarian design. What’s not to love?
The bottom line is this: you cannot beat this machine for quality at this price!
Best Semi-automatic Espresso Machine under $700 (Mid Level)
The Rancilio Silvia is also a single boiler dual use semi-automatic machine. And at first glance it may not seem that different from the Gaggia Classic.
However a closer looks shows that while both are fantastic quality machines, the Silvia does represent a significant step up.
Just like the Gaggia it features a big, brass commercial grade portafilter that gives superior water distribution and temperature stability. And the 3 way solenoid valve is again commercial quality.
However, while the Gaggia uses a 3 oz aluminium boiler, the Rancilio has a 12 oz brass boiler. This is the biggest boiler of any comparable machine which means better steam power and faster turnaround between shots. A brass boiler also offers much more durability than an aluminium boiler.
The steam wand that comes with the Rancilio is also of commercial quality. It’s much better than the wand that comes with the Classic, enabling you to achieve a smooth micro foam you can’t really achieve with the Gaggia machine.
The buttons are simple and utilitarian: the same buttons you get on their commercial models. And there’s room for 6 espresso cups on the warmer on the top of the machine.
Lastly, the build quality is of the very highest standard. It’s built around an extremely heavy iron frame and the case is made from top quality stainless steel. This machine is a beast and will last for years and years.
It’s worth noting that this Rancilio is one of the highest ranked espresso machines on coffeegeek.com which in itself is a glowing endorsement as these people really know what they’re talking about!
Best Semi-automatic espresso machine under $1200
The Breville BES900XL is a massive step up from both the Gaggia and the Rancilio machines. Sure it’s expensive but no other semi-automatic espresso machine will give you such quality and consistency in this price range.
A dual boiler means you can make coffee and steam milk at the same time. This means your coffee wont loose any flavor while you’re getting the milk ready and makes entertaining guests so much easier. You can’t do this with the Gaggia and Rancillio machines!
The two boiler system (with PID in the steel espresso boiler) also gives you more stable water temperatures for more consistent shots. And with the Breville you even get another heating element in the group head to really guarantee that consistency.
Of course it heats up really quickly. And you can even program it to come on in the morning before you get up so it’s ready to go as soon as you enter the kitchen!
There’s an Over Pressure Valve (OPV) that relieves excess pressure to prevent bitterness. And it also offers low pressure pre-infusion, which will gradually increase the pressure to expand the grinds for an even extraction.
Everything is programmable from the brew temperatures, to the pre-infusion pressure and duration. In fact, really this is a fully automatic machine.
It’s also packed full of other thoughtful features. There is a dedicated instant hot water outlet for Americanos and cup warming. An espresso shot clock shows the duration of the extraction to help you tweak your techniques. There is a little pop up sign that tells you when the drip tray needs emptying. It features a commercial quality 360 degree swivel steam wand with a 3 hole tip for silkier milk. And there’s much, much more.
But most importantly, the coffee that people are brewing with this machine is getting rave reviews with many saying it’s consistently the best coffee they’ve ever made.
What more needs to be said?
Best super-automatic espresso machine under $700 (Entry Level)
The DeLonghi ESAM3300 espresso machine offers a whole host of features at an incredible price. And most importantly: it makes great espresso!
A proper super-automatic, the DeLonghi grinds, tamps, and brews your espresso at the touch of a button.
It’s got an integrated conical burr grinder that does a great job with espresso grinds and is adjustable as you require. Just pour the beans in the top, (set the grind level if you need to), and it’s good to go!
It features a stainless steel dual boiler which heats up super fast, maintains fantastic temperature stability and allows you to froth the milk while it makes the espresso.
The coffee spigot is height adjustable enabling you to get all range of cups and mugs under there. And it features a great steam wand that uses a patented “cappuccino system” which rotates 180 degrees for use in any milk container.
DeLonghi really seem to have gone out of their way to make things easy for you. Not only is this the most compact super-automatic espresso machine available today, saving you precious counter space. But you’re also saved from any tricky maneuvers when you need refill the water tank or fill the bean hopper: it’s all done from the front of the machine.
Everything is removal, making it super easy to clean. (You can even de-scale it yourself at home) And the controls to adjust the strength and size of your shots are really intuitive and tactile.
Most importantly, the coffee is great and the DeLonghi allows you to make espressos, lattes and cappuccinos as you wish with as much control or as much convenience as you like!
This is an incredible espresso machine and a fantastic choice if you looking for a good value feature rich super-automatic espresso machine.
Best super-automatic espresso machine under $3000
The Saeco Xelsis EVO super-automatic espresso machine is more like something you’d see in Star Trek than in a regular kitchen.
Obviously it grinds, tamps and pulls your coffee at the touch of a button. But it also features programmable drink profiles for up to six people. So everyone can have exactly the drink they want on demand.
There’s an adjustable ceramic burr grinder that delivers super fine grinds confidently and quietly every time. And the hopper where the coffee beans are stored prior to grinding is air tight and UV resistant to keep those beans extra fresh.
A dual boiler guarantees this machine is always at the right temperatures and always ready to brew, steam or dispense hot water.
The steam wand is the most powerful in it’s class, giving you perfect micro-foam time after time. And there is also a clever milk management system that uses a detachable milk container. This means the milk can be removed and stored in the fridge as and when needed. And once attached to the machine it will steam or froth the milk and dispense it straight into your cup!
Everything is easily accessible from the front of the machine. Parts are easy to remove for cleaning and it even de-scales itself!
More than an espresso machine the Saeco Xelsis EVO is a complete home hot drinks solution! It’s perfect for busy household with high consumption of espressos, cappuccinos, lattes and all sorts of other hot drinks!
I hope this article has been useful. I think the most important thing to remember is that making espresso at home is an expensive business! You can’t cut corners. If you want to make the sort of espresso that you fell in love with espresso in the first place, you need to spend some money.
- a grinder that can produce a consistently fine grind suitable for espresso machines
- an espresso machine which is able to maintain consistent temperature and pressure
The key word here is consistency! There are so many variables is espresso preparation as it is. If your equipment starts throwing even more variables into the mix, (which you may either be unaware of or are unable to control), then making espresso quickly becomes a frustrating and unrewarding experience.
If on the other hand, you’re confident that your grinder is producing a consistently fine grind and your espresso machine is working at stable temperatures and pressures, you can play around with the variables that are under your control to develop your technique and produce an espresso shot that you truly love.
And one that’s far better than you get in the vast majority of coffee shops.
Good luck! I’m sure you’ll find the best espresso machine for you. If you have any questions or feedback please let me know!