An Expert Guide to Espresso Machines: How to Buy the Right Espresso Machine for You

Published on 06/09/2023 · 12 min readCraving barista-quality coffee at home? Dive into our Expert guide on buying the perfect espresso machine for your taste buds. Get brewing like a pro!
Jeff Sutton, Coffee Expert
By Coffee Expert Jeff Sutton

Photo by Luke Porter

Tl;dr When buying an espresso machine, consider factors like budget, machine type, ease of use, maintenance, and size. Ensure it has consistent temperature, high-quality pressure systems, and, if included, a reliable grinder to get the best flavor from fresh beans.

Introduction

I spend my days as a blend of helping people decide what espresso machine is best for them and roasting delicious third-wave coffee for different cafes and home connoisseurs. I’ve helped thousands of people decide what espresso maker is right for them, and I love helping people create something they can enjoy every day at home. As someone who appreciates all forms of good espressos, I understand how important a home machine's decision can be.

What Is an Espresso Machine?

The Breville Bambino

An espresso machine differs from a regular drip coffee machine by how the water flows through ground coffee to create a drink. Espresso is made by forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee beans under nine bars of pressure, creating crema.

Key parts of the machine usually include:

  • Group head (where water meets coffee)
  • One or two boilers (heats water)
  • Pump (creates pressure)
  • Steam wand (froths and textures milk)
  • Portafilter (holds coffee grounds)
  • Pressure gauge

Some machines also include built-in grinders for freshly ground beans and a drip tray to catch spills. These components combined produce rich, full-flavored espresso-based drinks like cappuccinos, lattes, and more.

What to Consider When Buying an Espresso Machine

1. How Much Control Do You Want Over the Drink-Making Process?

Decide whether you prefer a more hands-on experience or a fully automated process. Manual and semi-automatic machines provide more control at a lower price point, while super-automatic machines automate the entire shot brewing and drink-making process.

2. How Much Space Do You Have in Your Kitchen?

Espresso machines vary in size, from compact models to larger, commercial-grade machines. Consider your available kitchen area and the machine's footprint to ensure it comfortably fits into your drink-making space.

3. How Much Time Are You Willing to Spend on Maintenance?

All espresso machines require some regular cleaning and maintenance. Manual and semi-automatic machines often need more hands-on daily care, while super-automatic machines normally have built-in cleaning functions. Consider how much time and effort you're willing to invest in maintenance to keep your machine in its best working condition.

4. How Much Should an Espresso Machine Cost?

Common price points:

  • Entry-level ($100-$500): Basic models with limited features, ideal for casual espresso drinkers. Most will only have pressurized portafilter baskets that can use pre-ground coffee. Some may not come with a milk jug, but most can make single or double shots.
  • Mid-range ($500-$1,200): Semi-automatic machines with a balance of control and convenience, suitable for home baristas that don’t need to steam and extract espresso simultaneously.
  • High-end ($1,200+): Prosumer and super-automatic machines with advanced features designed for volume, coffee enthusiasts, or offices.

As with many things in life, expect higher quality, durability, and a better product as the price increases. However, this certainly isn’t always the case with the volume of machines on the market. Consider long-term goals with your espresso machine and potential upgrades when determining the right price point.

What Are the Different Kinds of Espresso Machines?

As someone who has delved into all types of espresso makers and how they work, I'm glad to help you understand the differences in machines. Let's dive into the benefits and downsides of each machine type.

1. Manual Espresso Machines

The Flair 58 offers the finest materials and a 58mm professional portafilter that can make a shot of espresso almost anywhere

These machines offer the most hands-on experience, giving you full control over every step of the extraction process. Because of the variables involved, they require a certain level of skill and technique, but they can produce exceptional espresso once mastered. The user controls the pressure with the use of a lever. Great for coffee enthusiasts who love the art of brewing or for someone's travel set-up who never leaves home without espresso.

  • Benefits
    • Unparalleled control over extraction allows for customized control over the espresso.
    • Many manual machines are beautifully crafted and make a classic statement in your kitchen.
  • Keep in Mind
    • Steeper learning curve because a manual machine is more time-consuming than other types of espresso machines.
    • Less consistency in espresso shots until you master the technique. This is certainly true for manual machines without pressure gauges.

2. Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

The Rancilio Silvia is a classic single-boiler with super steam power

The classic choice to make espresso, semi-automatic machines automate water flow while still having the barista control the grind and tamp. This gives you a balance between control and convenience. Perfect for home baristas who want to refine their skills and create drinks as their favorite cafe does.

  • Benefits
    • Automated extraction control and ease of use are great for learning and improving barista skills.
    • A huge range of options in terms of features and price points.
  • Keep in Mind
    • Still requires some level of skill and understanding of coffee brewing and grinding.
    • Can be less convenient than super-automatic machines.

3. Prosumer Espresso Machines

The Victoria Arduino Eagle One Prima has been one of the most requested machines since being developed in the prosumer world

These are high-end, semi-automatic machines often featuring dual boilers, PID temperature control, plumbable water lines, and other advanced features. They're designed for serious home baristas and even offices or small coffee shops searching for high-quality espresso. They offer greater control, consistency, and durability than traditional semi-automatic machines. Ideal for anyone who’s passionate about coffee and wants a high-quality setup.

  • Benefits
    • Enhanced temperature stability, pressure control, and durability for cafe-quality espresso.
    • Wide range of features that can elevate your brewing experience at all levels.
  • Keep in Mind
    • Price might make them less accessible for beginners or those on a budget.
    • Being larger and bulkier may not suit all kitchens or coffee spaces.

4. Super-Automatic Espresso Machines

The Jura Z10 has the latest grinder and PEP extraction system and can make iced coffee

These machines do it all, from grinding the beans to frothing the milk. They're incredibly convenient and user-friendly but normally offer less control over the drink-making process. Super-automatic machines are perfect for those who want a quick, consistent espresso without needing to master brewing techniques.

  • Benefits
    • Ultimate convenience, as they handle every aspect of the espresso and drinks.
    • Consistent and controllable dose, ideal for busy offices or households who prefer simplicity.
  • Keep in Mind
    • Less control over brewing parameters compared to manual or semi-automatics, which may not satisfy coffee aficionados.
    • More expensive and harder to repair due to complex internal components.

Think about your favorite drinks, the level of work you want to put into the drinks, and an overall budget when choosing your first espresso machine. Then, weigh the pros and cons based on your personal preferences and let that steer your decisions.

Features to Look for in an Espresso Machine

The Breville Barista Pro has superfast Thermo-Jet technology and a built-in coffee grinder

As someone who has spent lots of time explaining differences in espresso machines to customers, I'll guide you through some key features and technologies to look for when purchasing your new machine.

  1. Boiler System: The boiler heats the water for brewing and steaming. A single boiler is common in entry-level machines or low-volume machines. Still, dual boilers or heat exchangers provide better temperature stability and simultaneous brewing and steaming, making them ideal for people who’ve worked in cafes and prefer a more advanced setup.
  2. PID Temperature Control: A PID (Proportional-Integral-Derivative) controller precisely maintains the water temperature, ensuring consistent extraction. This feature is especially important if you're looking for the best consistency in espresso. A machine without PID can fluctuate up to 10°F when switching from steam to extraction.
  3. Pre-Infusion: Pre-infusion gently moistens the coffee grounds before full pressure is applied, helping to achieve a more consistent extraction and better-tasting espresso. It's a nice feature to have, and in some machines, the pre-infusion levels are controllable.
  4. Pressure Gauge: A pressure gauge measures the pressure during extraction, allowing you to monitor and fine-tune your shot. This feature helps you understand your machine's performance and improve your overall brewing technique.
  5. Built-in Grinder: A built-in grinder can save counter space and ensures freshly ground beans for each shot. While not essential, it's a convenient feature for those seeking an all-in-one solution, but separate ideas are generally best for someone looking to upgrade eventually.
  6. Water Reservoir vs. Plumbed-In: Most home machines have a water reservoir, but some higher-end models can be plumbed directly to a water supply. Some prosumer machines will have the option to do both as well. A plumbed-in machine offers convenience and better water filtration but requires a more complex installation.
  7. Steam Wand: A good steam wand is essential for making milk-based drinks like cappuccinos and lattes. Look for a machine with a powerful, easy-to-use steam wand that produces smooth, velvety milk froth. Wands will vary in the number of holes and overall design.
  8. Ease of Maintenance: Some machines have removable parts or built-in cleaning functions, simplifying your machine’s maintenance. Consider how much time you're willing to spend on cleaning and maintaining your machine.

Keep these features in mind when choosing a machine that’s right for you.

Features to Avoid in Espresso Machines

Here are some features to be weary of when selecting an espresso machine.

  1. Overly Complex Controls: Some machines may have overly complicated controls or interfaces, making it difficult to use and adjust settings. Look for a machine with a user-friendly design and straightforward instructions.
  2. Ineffective Steam Wand: An inferior steam wand can produce inconsistent milk froth, affecting the quality of milk-based drinks. Ensure the steam wand is powerful and easily controlled for properly textured froth.
  3. Non-Durable Materials: Lower-end machines may use cheaper materials like plastic, which can compromise durability and heat retention. Try to go for machines made with higher-quality materials like stainless steel, brass, or copper for better longevity.
  4. Inadequate Water Filtration: Some machines may not have adequate water filtration systems or may be incompatible with your water supply. Poor water quality can negatively impact the taste of your espresso, so consider a machine with a built-in water filter or ensure it's compatible with your home's external filtration system.
  5. Difficult-to-Replace Parts: Machines with rare or proprietary parts can be challenging or expensive to repair. Look for machines with solid warranties and readily available replacement parts to minimize potential downtime.

While it's essential to be mindful of these concerns, focus on finding a machine that aligns with your needs, preferences, and budget.

How to Choose the Best Espresso Machine for You

I’ve helped thousands of customers with their espresso machines, and although everyone is different, many people find themselves having similar needs to others. So I’ve put together some examples of customers I’ve helped out in the past that can work as a guide for what machine may work best for you.

Jacob

Needs: Jacob has never had an espresso machine at home and now spends more money at cafes than ever. He wants to learn how to make the drinks he pays for at home. Unfortunately, Jacob already has a decent burr grinder that isn’t designed for espresso. Features to look for: A machine that can work with pressurized filter baskets due to a non-espresso level grinder. Consistent heating for extraction and steaming. Products to consider:

Breville Bambino Plus Espresso Machine (left), The Breville Bambino (middle), and the Expressione Automatic Pump Espresso Machine (right)

  • Breville Bambino Plus: This machine has an automatic milk frother that simplifies getting the perfect milk texture. Along with pre-infusion and a stable PID temp system, make it an amazing starter machine.
  • Breville Bambino: It has all the same quality internals, such as thermo-jet heating, as the Bambino Plus but has the ability for hot water that the Plus does not for Americanos.
  • Espressione Automatic Pump Espresso Machine: This more traditionally designed thermoblock machine has a classic stainless look and makes a great drink.

Kimberly

Needs: Kimberly leads a busy life and loves her daily coffee drinks. She lives with her husband and teenage daughter, who all enjoy different morning drinks. Sometimes they like lattes, and sometimes just plain cups of coffee. Quality, ease of use, and the variety of the drinks are the main priorities for Kimberly.

Features to look for: Something that can make multiple ideas at the push of a button. Saved user profiles would save time. A larger water tank, along with a consistent source of milk, would also streamline the drink-making process for Kimberly.

Products to consider:

The Jura Z10 (left), the Jura E8 (middle), and the Philips 4300 With LatteGo (right)

  • Jura Z10: The Z10 from Jura is the pinnacle of quality for home machines. It is Jura's first machine capable of cold extraction for iced coffee.
  • Jura E8: The E8 is a classic home machine built to make many different drinks for the entire family and connect to a refrigerated milk storage unit.
  • Philips 4300 With LatteGo: The Philips 4300 has plenty of drink ideas for the entire family. It also has an easier price point for some than the Jura ideas.

Jamal

Needs: Jamal has been into making drinks for a few years now. He started with a decent single boiler machine. He has since upgraded his grinder and is ready for a new machine. Jamal knows he wants to be able to steam while extracting shots and maybe plumb the machine into the water line eventually.

Features to look for: Jamal will want a machine with a rotary pump to run the machine on a water line at some point. He could get away with a heat exchanger boiler but may want a dual boiler because of parties he plans to host.

Products to consider:

The Rocket R58 Cinquentotto (left), the Ascaso Baby T (middle), and the Lelit Bianca V.3 (right)

  • Rocket R58 Cinquentotto: The R58 can be run from a Bluetooth connection and off a tank or a water line. The touchpad control screen can be removed for a classic look.
  • Ascaso Baby T: An amazing dual thermoblock machine that can compete with anything on the market. It is a shrunk-down version of their commercial machines, the Barista T series, that are industry classics.
  • Lelit Bianca V.3: This machine is tops for a machine that allows pressure profiling and has an amazing aesthetic. It comes with an attached water tank but can run on a waterline at any point.

Finding the Best Home Espresso Machine for You

With all of the options in the home espresso world, it is easy to get overwhelmed, keep spending money at cafes, and never start making drinks at home. However, there is an option for everyone that will allow drinks to come straight from the kitchen instead of the cafe. If you need help finding a new machine, please chat with me or one of my Coffee Experts at Curated.com and have the espresso world open up to you.

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