An Expert Guide to the Best Beginner Espresso Machines

Published on 01/09/2024 · 19 min readBrew like a barista! Check out the top beginner espresso machines with this expert guide so you can kickstart your espresso journey the right way!
Janelle G., Coffee Expert
By Coffee Expert Janelle G.

Photo by Prostock Studio

TL;DR: When buying your first home espresso machine, consider the machine's ease of use, price, and maintenance needs. Opt for semi-automatic machines for control or super-automatic machines for convenience. Also, consider the machine's durability and build quality and if you’d like a built-in grinder.

As a Curated Coffee and Espresso Expert and a long-time espresso lover, I've advised hundreds of customers on finding the best espresso machines for them. Working as a barista for six years and co-managing a coffee shop for two years exposed me to all types of coffee and coffee drinkers, and it also taught me that there is no “one size fits all” in terms of home espresso machines. I love helping people find the right machine for them and helping to explain some of the complex and sometimes jargon-y aspects of home espresso.

What Is a Beginner Espresso Machine?

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A beginner espresso machine is simple and designed for someone with little or no experience with brewing their own espresso. Espresso, a very concentrated form of coffee, serves as the base for many popular beverages like lattes, cappuccinos, and mochas. Beginner espresso machines are often more affordable and less complex than professional-grade or prosumer machines, making them a user-friendly starting point for those new to home espresso and looking to learn.

The primary goal of a beginner-friendly home espresso machine is for the user to make espresso at a reasonable and accessible price point. There are two main types of home espresso machines popular with beginners: semi-automatic and super-automatic machines. Semi-automatic machines provide a lot of control over the brewing process and more opportunities to individualize your espresso shots. In contrast, super-automatic machines are best for someone wanting the most hands-off experience possible.

Here are a few reasons why you might want to buy a beginner espresso machine:

  1. Cost Savings and Convenience: Buying a daily iced latte or mocha from your local café can add up quickly. Making your own drinks at home at any time you’d like can be much more economical and convenient over time and actually end up saving money in the long term.
  2. Variety: A home espresso machine allows you to make a wide variety of different drinks, which is perfect for anyone who likes to experiment and wants to be able to make everything from iced americanos to cappuccinos to ristrettos to mochas to steamers.
  3. Learning New Skills: For people who truly love coffee and are looking to buy a semi-automatic machine, it's a great way to learn about the art and the science of espresso and dive into a new hobby.

What to Consider when Shopping for a Beginner Espresso Machine

Navigating the world of home espresso machines can be entirely overwhelming given how many different options there are — and how complex and confusing espresso terminology can feel at first. From understanding different types of espresso machines to comparing and contrasting features to knowing what accessories are needed, there's a lot to consider. In this next section, I’ll help to guide you through the basic factors to consider when preparing to purchase your first espresso machine.

1. What's Your Budget?

First things first — do you have a set budget in mind? Before diving into shopping, consider how much you're willing to spend. Beginner machines can range from under $300 for a simple and less durable model to over $1,000 for more advanced features, better durability, and greater brewing and steaming capacity. Models under $250 make decent espresso and can steam milk. However, they lack precision controls and durability and won’t fully achieve a café-quality espresso. These can be good options if you really aren’t sure if you’re ready to invest in an espresso machine but want a starter machine to try it out before investing in a more long lasting model.

On the more expensive end of the spectrum, higher-end beginner machines may include integrated grinders, more durable construction, and offer more control over the brewing process. These benefits may be worth the extra cost, particularly if you’re looking to invest in a machine that will last for years.

Make sure you also factor in potential costs for accessories — if you get a semi-automatic machine without a built-in grinder, do you plan to purchase a separate grinder for best results? Or are you planning to use pre-ground espresso to keep costs down, which won’t provide the best quality of espresso? These costs can add up, so it’s best to plan ahead and budget for a grinder and some other accessories, like steam pitchers, tamping mats, and knockboxes. If you aren’t sure what accessories you may need, a Curated Coffee and Espresso Expert can help you decide what’s necessary.

2. How Much Counter Space Do You Have?

Espresso machines can vary greatly in size. If you have a small kitchen or limited counterspace, a compact machine might be a wise choice. Semi-automatic machines with built-in grinders can be good space-saving options, but make sure that you also check your cabinet height and measure all dimensions to ensure your machine will fit under any cabinets. Super-automatic machines are generally relatively deep, so consider if you have enough space when thinking about where the machine would go in your kitchen. Get out your tape measurer and see what would fit!

3. How Much Control Do You Want Over the Brewing Process?

If you're interested in experimenting with espresso and learning about the brewing process, a semi-automatic machine is a perfect choice. They are more hands-on, which provides more control over variables like temperature and pressure to truly customize your espresso. On the flip side, if convenience is your top priority, consider a super automatic. Super-automatic machines are a “push and play” experience, where all you have to do is simply press a button to get your drink of choice. This makes super-autos a great option for those who aren’t too particular about their drinks and don't need ultimate control over all the variables to perfect their coffee.

If you aren’t sure where you fall in your preference between control and convenience, then a semi-automatic machine with an integrated grinder and some additional automated features could be the best compromise. Some such machines have features that simplify the process, like automatic tampers, automatic milk frothing, and super-quick heat-up times. These types of machines are perfect for people wanting both customization and ease of use.

4. How Often Will You Be Making Coffee?

If you plan on making multiple lattes and cappuccinos every day — or plan to share the machine with multiple people — it may be a worth it to invest in a more durable machine with fewer plastic components and a generous warranty. If you’ll only be using the machine every once in a while, you may not need to invest extra in order for the machine to last for years.

5. How Long Do You Want Your Machine to Last?

Cheaper machines with more plastic components and less durable construction tend not to last as long as more expensive machines, for both semi-automatic and super-automatic machines. No matter what machine you get, you can optimize its lifetime by taking good care of it and cleaning and descaling it consistently. Before purchasing a machine, think about how long you want your machine to last and if you want to pay a little more for a machine that will last you a few years longer.

6. How Important Are Extra Features?

Some machines have lots of additional features, which often increase the price of the model. For semi-automatic machines, this might look like an integrated grinder, automatic tamping, programmable single- and double-shot buttons, automatic cleaning reminders, automatic milk frothing, etc. For a super-automatic version, more advanced machines offer a range of features, from touchscreen displays to Bluetooth connectivity to user profiles to automatic cleaning programs. These extra features almost always come with an added price, so think through how important these features are to you and decide if there are any features that are non-negotiable must-haves.

What Are the Different Kinds of Beginner Espresso Machines?

As you begin researching espresso machines, it's crucial to understand the different types of machines available. Each type has unique features, offering varying levels of control and convenience. This section will outline the main types and help you decide which suits your needs best. The two main types of espresso machines that are best for beginners are semi-automatic and super-automatic.

1. Semi-Automatic Machines

Semi-automatic machines are ideal for beginners who are hoping to learn about espresso and really get into making home espresso as a hobby and a passion. They let you control each shot and manually steam milk. Many models come with built-in grinders and additional features for added convenience, for anyone worried about how manual and hands on the process is. Nowadays, most machines come with great instructions and online resources, so even beginners with no previous experience should be able to make good shots after a bit of experimentation and research. Semi-automatic machines provide a good introduction to the art of espresso making without overwhelming beginners with too many variables or complexity.

  • Benefits
    • More control over the brewing process, which can improve the quality of your espresso, assuming some basic knowledge and patience with experimenting with different brews
    • Great for learning about espresso and the espresso-brewing process
    • Can be more affordable than fully or super-automatic machines (depending on the durability and quality of the machine)
    • Some models have built-in grinders and other features for added ease of use
    • Models that don’t have a built-in grinder provide more opportunity to customize your setup depending on your budget, space, and desired espresso quality
  • Keep in Mind
    • There is a learning curve — they require some learning and effort to use effectively, and it may take you a little while to start mastering drinks that you love
    • Some models might not have advanced features like precise temperature control (this largely depends on the price, with budget machines offering few of these more advanced features)
    • Typically require manual cleaning and maintenance
    • Prices can vary widely based on what features you are looking for

2. Super-Automatic Machines

Super-automatic machines are the most hands-off, foolproof, and convenient option for your home espresso setup. These machines are truly ready to go as soon as you unbox them — they grind beans, tamp the grounds, extract espresso, and froth milk with the touch of a button. All you need to do is make sure that the machine has whole beans and fresh water in its tank, press a few buttons, and enjoy your drink of choice. Some models even rinse or clean themselves automatically as needed or provide reminders of when it’s time for specific cleaning/maintenance tasks.

Super-automatic machines remove many of the complexities from the art of espresso and provide a consistent espresso shot every time. They're an excellent choice for those prioritizing ease and convenience, but they offer less opportunity for customization and skill development. These machines are great for those who value convenience above all, but they tend to be more expensive than the most basic semi-automatic machines.

  • Benefits
    • Offer consistent results with minimal effort, no prior experience, and essentially no learning curve
    • Easier to use than semi-automatic machines, making them ideal for those who want quick coffee without any fuss or potential challenges
    • Some models offer settings to customize different espresso-based drinks according to your personal preferences
    • All-in-one machine — you won’t need to purchase an additional grinder or other additional accessories
  • Keep in Mind
    • Offer less control over the brewing process
    • Can be more expensive than beginner semi-automatic machines
    • Quality of espresso and espresso-based drinks might not match those of a well-operated semi-automatic machine
    • Repairs can be relatively expensive and difficult because of complex internal brewing mechanisms

While semi-automatic and super-automatic espresso machines are the most common and most frequently recommended machines, some individuals may be interested in either a pod machine or a manual-lever machine, which are additional — although less common — options.

3. Pod Machines

Pod machines use pre-packaged pods or capsules filled with coffee grounds. They're incredibly easy to use, and there's no need to worry about grinding coffee or tamping grounds. However, the cost per cup tends to be higher compared to other machines, and the environmental impact of single-use pods is a concern. Additionally, the quality of a pod machine will never reach that of a café-quality drink or of a drink made using a semi-automatic or super-automatic machine.

  • Benefits
    • Easiest machines to use with minimal clean-up
    • Pods come in a wide variety of flavors and types of coffee, including drip coffee and a more intense espresso-type coffee
    • Often compact, ideal for small kitchens or offices
    • Some machines come with a milk-frothing attachment to create lattes and cappuccinos
  • Keep in Mind
    • The cost per cup of coffee can be high, and additional pods need to be reordered frequently
    • Single-use pods generate waste
    • Quality of coffee is lower compared to espresso made with freshly ground beans
    • Milk-frothing attachments will not achieve the same quality of foam and steamed milk as a true espresso machine

4. Manual-Lever Machines

Manual-lever machines give a lot of control over the espresso brewing process, but they also have the steepest learning curve and don’t have milk-steaming functionality. The user manually controls the pressure and water flow using a lever, which can lead to a very good shot of espresso if done correctly. However, because of their complexity, they're generally not recommended for beginners.

  • Benefits
    • Offer the most control over the brewing process for a truly customized espresso
    • Can produce a great shot of espresso if operated correctly
    • Portable and doesn’t require electricity, for those who want a travel or portable espresso setup
  • Keep in Mind
    • Require a steep learning curve and significant effort to operate
    • Not ideal for making multiple cups in a row
    • No built-in milk-steaming functionality (although you could pair with a milk frother separately)
    • Require a high-quality burr grinder — pre-ground espresso or espresso ground with a coffee grinder will not work with this type of machine

Features to Look for in a Beginner Espresso Machine

Espresso machines can come with a ton of different features, but which are most beneficial for a beginner with little to no espresso or coffee experience? This section will help you discern the important features that will speed up the home espresso learning curve to get you making drinks confidently in no time.

  1. Built-In Grinder: A machine with a built-in grinder uses minimal counter space and ensures you're ready to go as soon as you get your machine. Using freshly ground beans for each cup greatly improves the quality of the espresso and provides control and customization by allowing you to adjust the grind size to dial in your espresso.
  2. Programmable Settings: Some machines allow you to program specific settings, such as the size and strength of your espresso (for super-automatic machines) or the length of a single or double shot (for semi-automatic machines). Programmability is helpful for consistently getting your preferred cup of coffee and dialing in your drinks to your exact preferences.
  3. Water Reservoir Size: A larger water reservoir means you won't need to refill it as often, which is useful if you plan on making multiple cups at a time or using the machine multiple times throughout the day. However, a larger water reservoir tends to take up more counter space.
  4. Steam Wand/Frother: If you like milk-based espresso drinks like cappuccinos, lattes, flat whites, and macchiatos, a machine with a built-in steam wand or frother is essential.
  5. Temperature Control: Higher-end beginner espresso machines may have an integrated proportional integral derivative (PID) to maintain a consistent temperature throughout the brewing process, which is important for optimal espresso extraction. Some PID machines even allow you to set the exact brew temperature, providing even more control over each shot. This is an added cost and a “nice to have” option, although it’s not strictly necessary for a beginner espresso machine.
  6. Ease of Cleaning: Look for a machine that's easy to clean, with removable parts and (ideally) a descaling function. Regular cleaning and maintenance are essential to prolong the life of your machine and ensure it continues to produce high-quality espresso for years.
  7. Brew Pressure: The brew pressure of an espresso machine can be particularly confusing for those first researching home espresso. Pressure is not as simple as “more is always better” — in fact, a machine that markers 20 bars of pressure may not be constructed as well as one that registers a seemingly more modest 15 bars of pressure. Espresso is brewed by pushing water through very finely ground coffee at a very high pressure for a short period of time. To do so, machines use a pump to build pressure and force the water through the coffee grounds. The ideal brewing pressure (pressure where the water meets the ground coffee) is nine bars of pressure. To achieve this, many machines have a pump pressure (the pressure at the pump itself) of 15 or 20 bars. What really matters is the nine bars of brew pressure. A higher-quality machine will use a 15- or 16-bar pump pressure to achieve this, while a lower-quality machine will often have a 20-bar pump pressure. When the machine is not as well made, more pressure is lost going from the pump to where the espresso is brewed.
  8. Durability: While durability can sometimes be difficult to measure merely by looking at the product description, look at customer reviews and the reputation of the brand to give you a good idea of the machine's durability. A well-constructed machine might be worth a little extra up-front investment if it lasts for more years, but ultimately, that’s a decision and trade-off that you have to make for yourself.
  9. Customer Support and Warranty: Good customer support and a solid warranty can be lifesavers if you encounter issues or questions with your machine. Always check what kind of support and warranty are offered before you buy so you have a better sense of what type of support you’ll have.

Features to Avoid in Beginner Espresso Machines

While specific features to avoid can depend on individual preferences and needs, here are some general considerations that I’ve found to be helpful for beginners:

  1. Overly Complex Controls: While control over your espresso can be a good thing, too much complexity can be overwhelming for beginners. A machine with intuitive controls and a simple interface is usually a better choice for a novice.
  2. Plastic Components: Machines with a lot of plastic components are generally less durable and may affect the taste of the coffee if plastic components come in direct contact with hot water. Machines made predominantly of stainless steel or other metals tend to be more robust and long lasting.
  3. Machines Without Clear Indicators: Indicators for water levels, brew and steam readiness, or cleaning requirements are important for ease of use and maintenance. A machine without clear indicators can be confusing and eventually lead to misuse for novice baristas.
  4. Unreliable Brands: Avoid brands with a reputation for poor product quality or bad customer service. An espresso machine is a big purchase, so it’s worth investing in a well-known, reputable brand to ensure you have access to customer support and potential warranty coverage.

How to Choose the Best Beginner Espresso Machine for You

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Choosing between the vast number of home espresso machines on the market can feel overwhelming to some people. Read on below to find three examples of different types of coffee drinkers looking for their first home espresso machine. If any of these examples resonate with you, check out the recommended products for each!

Sydney

Needs: Sydney is a busy grad student who doesn’t have much time to make her daily latte but wants to avoid going to the overpriced campus coffee shop a few times a day. She is a pretty straightforward coffee drinker and essentially only drinks lattes and espresso. She doesn't need too much control or too many fancy features, but she does want her machine to be as quick as possible while still making good coffee. Sydney has a max budget of $900.

Features to look for: Super-automatic machine with milk-steaming functionality, quick heat up, easy operation

Machines to consider:

Carlos

Needs: Carlos loves coffee and wants to start getting into coffee as a new hobby. He wants a machine that he can experiment with and control lots of little features. He doesn’t mind purchasing a machine with an integrated grinder or getting a separate one. He doesn’t want too much automation — he really wants a hands-on experience. Though he wants to keep costs as low as possible, he is willing to spend up to $700 in total.

Features to look for: Semi-automatic machine without additional automated features and with an affordable price point

Machines to consider:

Bea

Needs: Bea is a hesitant first-home espresso user. She is really interested in coffee but also very intimidated by it! She likes the idea of having control over the process but really wants a machine that will teach her as she goes. She also wants a machine that isn't too hard to get started with — she wants all the features and extra help she can get. She has pretty limited counter space and would prefer a machine with an integrated grinder. She has a budget of up to $1,000.

Features to look for: Semi-automatic machine with lots of features like automatic milk frother, integrated grinders, integrated tampers, and programmable shot timers

Machines to consider:

Chat with an Expert

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There are many options for a beginner-friendly espresso machine to make café-quality espresso drinks at home. If you are still unsure of the right espresso machine for you, reach out to a Coffee and Espresso Expert at Curated to get personalized recommendations and guidance.

Curated experts can help

Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

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