Finding the best espresso machine without spending a fortune is a form of art.
Achieving rich texture and aromatic espresso shots at the comfort of your home is any coffee lover’s dream. Our reviews and recommendations are meant to guide you on your quest to achieving tasty espresso brews. Also, we would like you to save money by not spending them on products that do not deliver!
At Coffee Dorks, we believe in data and research driven results. Our tests are not conducted in expensive laboratories based in exotic locations across the globe. Rather, they are conducted in our small office and humble homes, where we brew cup after cup of coffee.
We tested and reviewed a total of 22 espresso makers in order to come up with three categories that best suit the current market. In total, we made over 140 shots of delicious (sometimes not) coffee brew.
This semi-automatic espresso wonder by Breville brews better coffee than most more expensive espresso machines. It is very attractive, it comes with a built-in burr grinder, and it is super easy to maintain.
The BES870XL offers just enough gadgets to make you feel like a barista. If you are looking for a machine that is easy to operate, but still able to deliver artisan-style espresso shots, look no further. At Coffee Dorks we stand firm behind our top choice.
How to Select the Right Espresso Maker
Below we discuss the most important elements when it comes to picking up a superior espresso machine for your home or office. But, here is a quick list of items to consider when buying an espresso maker:
- Desired ease of operation – how far into the espresso journey are you? Also, how far would you like to go? Consider that there are one-touch lazy espresso makers that will not require you to grind coffee, adjust water hardness or keep an eye on the heat pressure. Alternatively, there are machines that require a learning curve and will help you on your journey to becoming a master espresso artisan.
- Counter space – have you got any? There are small and compact espresso makers that are easy to fit between your toaster and juicer. But, there are also wider and deeper units that will require countertop space sacrifice.
- Looks – how important are aesthetics to you, and would you forgo them in the name of tasty espresso shots? Contemporary espresso machines come in a variety of designs, colors, shapes, and styles. Some look like they have been taken out of a bad horror movie, and yet they deliver rich and aromatic brew.
- Capabilities – espresso making should be the obvious consideration here. But, if you are not the only member of the buying committee, maybe you need to consider cappuccino, macchiato, and Americano brewing capabilities as well.
- Budget – good old price tags.
Best Home Espresso Machine – Breville BES870XL
Type – Semi-Automatic
The Breville Barista Express is not for the faint of hearts, or those looking for a $200 semi-automatic espresso machine. This magnificent piece of brewing technology is not made for coffee drinkers, it is made for espresso lovers.
As far as my kitchen goes, the BES870XL is the best-looking appliance there. The circular pressure gauge and stainless steel chassis give this Breville a calm and sophisticated appearance. The burr grinder and large bean hopper are perfectly sized and situated in order to give the Barista a most desired refined look.
When all of these elements are combined with a stainless steel portafilter and handle attachment, this machine can visually send you back through time to your favorite espresso bar. But, does it brew?
You bet it does! The pressure gauge is not masterfully crafted just for aesthetics. It is there to measure whether the internal pump is operating at an optimal pressure range. An essential element to every barista’s perfect cup of espresso.
Not being able to maintain a perfect balance between water flow and water temperature is what makes for sour-tasting and bitter flavor. The majority of cheaper espresso machines lack pressure gauges, not because of the added cost to manufacture, but because they are not able to get the perfect balance in performance.
At first, the BES870XL might be a little intimidating to espresso beginners. The wide range of grind settings and ability to use single or double wall filter baskets can be a bit confusing. But, once you get a hold of the programmable features, you will never want to go back to brewing coffee.
The variety of semi-automatic and super-automatic features make the BES870XL the top overall choice for an espresso machine.
Best Espresso Machine Under $200 – Mr. Coffee Cafe Barista
By far, there is no better entry level espresso machine under $200. This in no way means that Mr. Coffee has designed a revolutionary and state of the art machine. Instead, it means that the Café Barista successfully meets our lower standards for delicious espresso.
In terms of performance, this kitchen gadget pulls shots of espresso automatically and readily combines them with freshly frothed milk. These two functions alone will enable you to create café-style coffee drinks with the push of a button.
The special milk reservoir features a built-in wand for steaming that is fridge-friendly and easy to wash. The wand is detachable, so you can effortlessly store your milk in the fridge.
Mr. Coffee is not known for their eye-stunning designs, and this machine makes no exception. Even though it is quite compact (measuring 12.4 inches tall by 10.4 inches wide and 8.9 inches deep), people will likely walk by your kitchen without noticing it.
But then again, taste is more important than looks. If you are a type of person who enjoys frothy cappuccinos, you will certainly enjoy the Café Barista. As long as you are willing and capable to grind your own coffee beans. Or alternatively, just buy them already ground.
What you do not get from this machine, is what you will not get from any other $200 espresso machine. Namely, there is a lack of consistent brewing temperature and pressure. This will cause inconsistency in flavor and density.
Best Espresso Machine Under $100 – Delonghi EC155
If you are only just getting started on your espresso journey, this is a perfectly fine machine. However, if you have been enjoying barista espressos for a while, this entry-level unit might fall short of your expectations. In other words, this is good for people who are looking to switch from instant or drip coffee to a much stronger brew.
What makes this model good for beginners, is its ability to use both pods and grinds. It also has a dual function filter that is easy to clean and helps in the preparation of smooth cappuccinos. In this sense, it offers a lot of convenience for a machine that costs less than $100.
This is not a fully or super-automatic machine, but it does have a self-priming system that is very easy to use. The indications on the front panel are clear and beginners should have no problem operating the EC155.
There is a built-in tamper that does an okay job, but I recommend getting a new one for a few bucks. It can certainly improve the quality of the brew, so long as you know how to install it without breaking the machine.
The frothing wand is not the strongest and it creates somewhat watery froth. The best workaround for this is to use a smaller frothing pitcher. But, even then this machine will not guarantee a nice and creamy froth.
Considering the cost, this is a 5-star machine.
Top Pick For Espresso Machine With Capsules – Nespresso VertuoLine
This is Nespresso’s first attempt at targeting premium brew and espresso fans.
The streamlined approach to brewing is by far the best that I have witnessed in a single-serve coffee (and espresso) maker. The crema layer that is added to the brew is also considerably better than anything else on the current market (such as the Verismo 580).
VertuoLine’s overall designs offer a retro vibe that comes in three colors: black, chrome or red. The machine has a very distinguished 1950’s diner character that we at Coffee Dorks really liked.
Because this is a coffee maker as well as an espresso maker, it comes ready to be used with three adjustable cup sizes. The defaults are set at 1.35 ounces for espresso and 7.77 ounces for coffee brewing, but are easy to modify through the settings menu.
You can only use Nespresso’s capsules, which can be somewhat expensive compared to Keurig and other brands. In addition, you cannot add your own coffee grinds or a filter in order just to heat up water for tea. But, this is the case with most single cup coffee machines on the market.
There is just one button on this machine that controls the entire process. This is simplicity at its best.
Top 10 Espresso Machines on the Market
|Mr Coffee Cafe Barista||4.7||Semi-automatic|
|Delonghi Dedica EC680||4.7||Semi-automatic|
|Rancilio Silvia M||4.7||Semi-automatic|
|Jura Impresa C65||4.7||Super-automatic|
|Saeco Intelia Delux||4.5||Super-automatic|
|Nespresso VertuoLine||4.0||With Capsules|
DeLonghi Magnifica ESAM3300
Consumer tested and approved, the ESAM3300 has been around for 16 years! It has, of course, been updated and upgraded several times, but it remains one of the top-selling espresso machines on the market, and rightly so.
What I found exceptional about this unit, is its conical low-pitch burr grinder that comes equipped with an adjustable grind fineness. Even though this makes the unit a bit louder when compared to Breville’s BES870XL, it without a doubt allows for superior coffee grinding. Just try it with less oily medium roast beans and I guarantee you will fall in love.
At first, it might seem that the Magnifica has a lot of complex indicators at the front panel. But, in reality, there is not much to choose from besides water volume, different dosage size settings, and how many shots of espresso you would like to make. As a result, you have a super easy to use interface.
Just be careful, if you select the 2 shot button and the 8oz cup, you will get two of those. So, make sure you have two cups standing by!
So, the ESAM3300 is easy to operate, it makes great espresso, and it is strong as a bull. In addition to this, it comes with an easy to wash and maintain Pannarello frother that has a separate heating element. This unit is a great solution if you are not looking to spend $1,000 on an espresso machine.
Aesthetically pleasing and compact, the Brera upholds the saying that good things come in small packages.
This model is designed to fit into the low to mid-range market and compete with already established brands such as DeLonghi and Breville. It manages to do so with finesse, and of course a somewhat lower price.
Even though I would not classify this as a beginner’s machine, it does not take much effort to learn how to operate it. The LED display and push buttons on the front panel are clear and easy to operate. Learning to optimize the size, aroma, and strength of your brew should not take more than 2-3 shots.
The grinding on the Brera is airtight! The ceramic grinder lessens the heat transfer and ensures a consistency that results in a flavorsome and aromatic brew. The patented Gaggia Adapting System automatically adjusts grind rpm and time in order to guarantee the exact quantity of coffee grounds.
We found that grinding different roasts tends to produce the same high-quality results. Perhaps this is why the Americano (espresso + hot water) was so easy to perfect and tasted so good.
A short downfall of the Brera is its rather small tank that can accommodate no more than 4-5 shots of espresso before it needs to be filled up again. However, for some people, this might not even be an inconvenience.
Breville BES840XL The Infuser
Like other semi-automatic espresso machines, the BES840XL allows for a better control over coffee-making, but it also requires a little bit of skill and experience. Definitely, do not throw out the Infuser if you did not get the first two or three espresso shots right. Give the machine and yourself some time with the controls.
The front control panel is quite easy to use. It has 4 large buttons whose functions are clearly indicated even if you do not consult the documentation that comes with the machine.
Pulling a delicious shot of espresso is made easy with Breville’s Thermocoil Heating System, which is an improvement from the older thermoblock system.
In addition, there is a pressure gadget on the front panel that serves to measure if the machine is using the optimal temperature while brewing.
What makes the Infuser better than most espresso machines in the same price range, is its PID temperature control. This is a built-in electronic gadget that assists in stabilizing the temperature. Unfortunately, it is not programmable and we just need to trust that Breville has done a good job with the default settings.
This particular model comes available in three colors (or variances): Stainless Steel, Cranberry Red, and Black Sesame. I find myself somewhat more attracted to the Cranberry Red, but then again, I do not have a good eye for interior design and color matching.
DeLonghi Dedica EC680
Elegant, compact and attractive.
The EC680M comes in stainless steel, black or red and can be a great interior design addition to any kitchen. Granted, it does not make the best tasting espresso out there, but for the price, you pay you will get a satisfying and aromatic brew.
Dedica is made to handle ESE (easy serving espresso) capsules as well as ground coffee. This certainly allows for an easier brewing process, even though it sacrifices a little from the taste and flavor of the espresso. In this regards, I recommend you use the double filter technology for your brew.
Just be careful when getting the filters in and out because space is tight and your fingers might end up entrapped.
Like other traditional 15 bar pump pressure driven machines, this unit takes you one step closer to artisan café-style coffee. But, it does not take you close enough.
In order to get a full-bodied, thick crema and richer flavor you need to use extra-fine coffee grounds. Unfortunately, at Coffee Dorks we found that the EC680M tends to get clogged when using premium roasts.
One thing that can quickly improve the quality of the espresso shot is reprogramming the Dedica device to match the espresso sizes. We found that the initial settings on the machine tend to result in watery java.
Gaggia Classic Espresso Machine
The Gaggia Classic was first introduced in 1997 and has been improved many times ever since.
One thing that has not been updated is the design and overall feel of the machine. So, if you have a kitchen from the 90s, this Gaggia will fit in. Other than that, you might have to hide this gadget behind other kitchen appliances when friends are visiting you.
The most notable feature of this model is its 3-way solenoid valve. This option is usually only standard on commercial and consumer equipment. Its main functionality is to relieve the pressure that builds up during the high-temperature brewing process. Without going into many details, this is a great addition that assures a stable brew and a tastier shot of espresso.
The construction of the portafilter is designed to mimic a commercial machine. This allows for the coffee to be grounded and powerfully pressed (or tamped) tightly in place. Such process is a must in order to ensure a higher quality cup of espresso.
One of the latest upgrades allows the Classic to effortlessly use ESE (easy serving espresso) capsules. This was possible with the previous version, but the old pod adapter was extremely unreliable and hard to operate. The new one is super easy to use and definitely ads for the flexibility of this machine.
With a little tempering of the settings, this machine is capable of producing rich, smooth and dark crema shots every time.
Rancilio Silvia M
Very durable, high-performance barista-style espresso machine that may, or may not break the bank.
The Silvia is a single-boiling machine that distinguishes itself with a rather large 12-ounce chrome plated brass boiler. Most machines in this class come with 8-10 ounce boilers and certainly need more time to recover in-between brewing shots.
Aside from the brass boiler, this Rancilio comes with a standard 15 bar water pump, a removable 67-ounce water tank and commercial grade steaming wand. All necessary features for a semi-automatic espresso machine.
Where the Silvia M model exceeds, is with its three thermostats that monitor the previously mentioned large brass boiler. This was presumably designed in such a manner because the machine lacks a PID temperature control. So, in order to justify the price tag, Rancilio had to come up with a method that ensures hot water temperature control.
One aspect that we found difficulties with was extracting an ideal shot. It really took time and effort to get the grinds dialed-in, and it appears that this unit can benefit from a higher-end grinder.
Other than that, it has a nice and clean design that comes in a rust-resistant stainless steel case. In particular, the steam want really stands out and gives the entire unit a very elegant look.
Mr. Coffee Automatic Dual Shot
Dual shot brewing is perhaps the most noticeable feature about this espresso maker.
Affordable and decent looking are the only superlatives I can afford myself to give this machine when in the company of brands such as DeLonghi and Breville. But, if you are looking to mix your espresso shots for a Sunday sugary latte or cappuccino, then this model is perfectly adequate.
Like other espresso machines in this class and price range, the brewing temperature cannot be regulated. The documentation provided by Mr. Coffee promises that the thermoblock hardware will heat water quickly and evenly. However, that does not mean that the brewing temperature will remain consistent throughout the process.
When testing extra-fine coffee grounds, the machine came to a complete standstill. Meaning, this espresso maker is not capable of handling such grounds. Instead, it can only operate smoothly with less soluble light roasts.
If your budget is not big, we recommend you go with EC155 by DeLonghi. It does seem to have a similar clogging problem with finer and darker roasts. But, it certainly handles other roasts better and produces tastier brews.
Bella 13683 Espresso Maker
Entry-level espresso maker that will not make you fall in love with espresso. Alternatively, if you love espresso, I would not recommend getting this product.
This particular machine can be good for lattes or cappuccinos. The inability to measure and maintain a steady brewing temperature makes it impossible for the Bella to yield a thick and creamy shot of espresso. It always comes out watery.
On the long run, you are better off spending your money on a nice drip coffee machine.
Some reviewers have given this kitchen gadget 9/10, calling it “exceptional” and claiming that it will make the same quality espresso shots as machines in the $500 range. This is simply not true and I encourage you not to fall for these reviews.
Wacaco Minipresso GR
Type: Mini Espresso Machine
Time to take your espresso on-the-go. But, not in the traditional way, where you make it at home using your semi-automatic machine. We are talking about taking the entire machine on-the-go!
Only 7 inches tall, the MiniPresso GR is the size of a standard thermos, with the ability to make one shot of espresso anywhere at any time. Pretty neat!
The gadget itself weighs 12.8 ounces, packs 116 PSI and 8 grams of your favorite grounds. For something so small, it definitely delivers a reasonable shot of espresso with rich enough flavor.
I would rather bring this to any hotel, then be forced to drink hotel room coffee!
The ECP3630 is very capable of producing an authentic shot of espresso in the comfort of your home.
This unit is reasonably priced, made of sturdy stainless steel material, and quite easy to operate. Because of these, and other qualities, it will make a fine addition to any kitchen. Given the owner of the kitchen enjoys elegantly designed gadgets capable of producing magical espresso beverages.
With this DeLonghi model, it does not matter if you prefer to use pods or ground coffee because it comes with a dual function filter holder. This eases and speeds up the preparation of both espresso and cappuccino drinks.
In addition, there is a patented cappuccino system frother that creates rich and creamy froth with the push of a button. In all honesty, I am not sure why they insist on this patent, as this technology is quite common amongst espresso machine brands.
The machine is pump driven, like most of its competitors, and generates 15 bar pressure in order to extract espresso from the grounded coffee beans. This by itself is pretty standard, but the ECP3630 does it better than similarly priced units because there is a good balance between water flow and water temperature.
Recently, because of newer models, the price has been dropped and it is now possible to find this beauty for under $200.
Jura Impressa C65
Jura has a long line of durable automatic espresso machines, and the C65 makes no exception.
Grinding plays a big role in how espresso tastes. Cheaper grinders tend to burn the burn the coffee beans in the process, and this results in altering the flavor and aroma.
Jura has a patented extraction process called PEP (Pulse Extraction Process) that is capable of retaining full flavor even from the lowest quality coffee.
C65 has a cutting edge angled grinding cone that is designed to pull the beans from the hopper and force them straight into the chamber. This way all beans reach the cutting surfaces and produce a much richer and aromatic brew.
Impressa also gives you the liberty to choose the strength of your brew with super easy to navigate controls. By using the smart rotary switch you can regulate the pressure and temperature in order to experiment and adjust the flavor to your own taste.
Water hardness is another component to the perfect espresso shot. The C65 allows you to play around with that setting as well and choose from 1°dH to 30 °dH (general hardness measurement unit).
The only technical shortcoming of the C65 is that the steam wand is not fully automatic. It seems to be a few settings short of creating a thicker layer of foam.
Another thing you might not like is that your fingerprints will be all over the machine due to its sleek design. Other than that, there is no doubt that this is a top of the line home espresso machine for anyone willing to break the bank.
Saeco Intelia Delux HD8795/47
Surprisingly, this is the only Saeco model that made our top list. Once a giant in this industry, Saeco has slowly lost a lot of territory on the home espresso machine manufacturing field.
I especially like the clean and sleek design of the Intelia. The LED screen and buttons are well positioned on the top portion of the front panel, rather than being all over the place. This gives the machine a natural sense of compactness and makes operating it really easy.
Saeco has a pre-brewing technology that pre-wets the coffee beans in order to extract the maximum flavor. Together with Intelia’s built-in ceramic grinder, this does make a positive difference in the quality of the espresso shot. Mainly because the ceramic technology reduces the heat during the brewing process; therefore, minimizing the chance for some coffee beans to get burnt.
If you are in a hurry and always eager to get caffeine flowing through your veins, you will not be disappointed with this unit. The first shot of espresso is not instantaneous, but it takes less time than most competing brands.
Where this espresso maker falls short, is the consistent maintenance that it requires due to a couple of poor design decisions. The drip tray that sits under the entire unit is consistently full of water. Whenever the machine is turned on or off, hot water is disgorged through the coffee spout in order to flush and prevent corrosion (I think). This water accumulates in the tray, and you need to discharge it after 2-3 on/off cycles.
Also, we found that oily beans tend to clog the unit after a few weeks.
Our Formula For Choosing the Best Espresso Maker
Our ultimate goal with these reviews is to determine the most effective, efficient and suitable machine for the average consumer who wants to enjoy a nice shot of espresso in the comfort of their home.
There are several elements that we considered while reviewing home espresso machines. Some were naturally given more weight than others, so let’s dive into them first.
We calculated whether or not a price tag is reasonable based on:
- Machine functionality
- Available warranty
- Quality of espresso shot
- Required maintenance
- Availability of replacement parts
Home espresso makers can come with one of three types of boilers:
Single Boiler Dual Use (SBDU) refers to machines that use a single boiler technology that is responsible for brewing the water for the espresso as well as the frothing milk. The major limitation of SBDU is that it cannot multi-task and brew espresso while frothing milk. Gaggia Classic and Rancilio Silvia are but two examples of such SBDU machines.
Heat Exchange (HX) machines use a big single boiler that is capable of steaming milk and brewing espresso at the same time. Technological mechanisms allow the brewing water to travel separately through a coiled tube that serves as a heat exchanged. There, the water is brought to perfect brewing temperature. This usually drives the price point of the unit to over $1,000.
Dual Boiler (DB) machines feature two independent boilers and cost in excess of $2,000. One is used to maintain brewing temperature and the other steaming temperature. Some models, like the Ascaso Steel, can have one boiler and one thermoblock. We did not feature DB based models because they are not really considered for home use and belong in their own professional category.
There are three materials that boilers and thermal systems are made from aluminum, stainless steel, and brass.
Aluminum is the cheapest, less reliable and most prone to corrosion over time.
Stainless Steel boilers are mostly resistant to corrosion and offer a much better heat retention when compared to aluminum.
Brass is basically an alloy combination of copper and zinc. It is completely unaffected by corrosion, has excellent heat retention ratings and is resistant to bacteria build up.
Tamp Pressure & Brewing
The three kings of quality espresso. These are three essential elements to achieving a shot of artisan espresso at home.
Tamp pressure represents the total amount of force used to compress ground coffee into the portafilter. Semi and super-automatic machines come equipped with tamper tools that usually aim to tamp ground coffee with no more than 30 pounds of pressure.
Missing the mark with tampering pressure can lead to a longer brewing time (if too much pressure) or a shorter brewing time and a watery espresso (if not enough pressure).
Brewing temperature is controlled by a thermostat and measured at the point of contact between the water and the ground coffee. The perfect temperature should be around 190-196 degrees Fahrenheit (87.7 – 91.1 degrees Celsius). This will result in a cup of espresso with an average temperature of 160 or so degrees Fahrenheit (71.1 degrees Celsius).
Brewing pressure is the amount of pressure that occurs during the extraction of the coffee. Even though most machines advertise 15 or more atmospheres of pressure, in reality, the ideal number is 8 or 9. More pressure, in this case, will result in a bitter tasting brew.
Our top choice of Breville, the BES870XL, has a pressure gauge on the front panel that shows the amount of pressure that is being utilized.
At Coffee Dorks we are big on user-friendliness and general ease of use. Oftentimes engineers and designers forget about us – the mortal users of espresso machines. Also, known as the finished product consumers.
To give an example, indicator lights are one component that needs to be visible at all times. So, they are best to be placed on the front panel of the unit, rather than being hidden at the back or either side. And even when they are properly located and easy to spot, they are not always easy to read. This is often because manufacturers have not yet made the complete switch to LED lights.
Other usability factors that we used as a measuring stick were things such as:
- The portafilter handle’s ability to easily fit and keep the filter basket from falling out.
- Determining if there is enough space between the drip feed and the spouts for different types of cups.
- Establishing if the cup warming tray is an actual feature, or if it is there just to look pretty.
- Make sure that the functionality of different buttons and switches is easy to understand without having to go over the provided documentation.
Good and solid materials improve the longevity of any espresso machine and add to its overall reliability.
In general, at Coffee Dorks we prefer when things are made out of metal, rather than plastic. This statement goes for both inner and outer parts. A slight exception can be drip trays and grippy rubber feet for additional stability on the counter.
The heavier the espresso machine, the better.
Elements That Do Not Matter When Selecting a Home Espresso Machine
There are a lot of things written on vendor and review websites, forums and packaging boxes that have no real value to the quality of espresso. These are mostly marketing baits designed to increase the price without delivering a better product.
The “More Bars Pump” Myth
The industry standard for a delicious shot of espresso is 9 bars.
Most home espresso machines advertise 15 bars of pressure and claim that this will deliver a much higher quality of espresso. This is nothing but a persuasive marketing tactic that is largely based on “bigger is better” theorem that our society lives on.
Avoid crema enhancers, they can completely ruin a perfectly fine brew of espresso.
Also known as “cream aiding devices”, these dual-walled filters will always add a tan layer of bland-tasting fizzy bubbles on top of your drink. Often times the end result may look like it should, but it never tastes like it should. Being serious about learning how to prepare proper espresso and using crema enhancers do not go together.
At Coffee Dorks we are not very fond of froth aiders mostly because they take away our ability to control the sweetness in heated and frothed milk. See, you need to be able to control the heat levels during the foamed part of frothing in order to maximize the sugar transitions.
Types of Espresso Machines For Home
When it comes to comparing and evaluating espresso makers, there are three broader categories: semi-automatic, fully-automatic, and super-automatic. The first two types are pretty much impossible to distinguish from each other. They give the user more control because they do not automate the entire process. In contrast, super-automated machines are suitable for people who do not care much about the nitty gritty of espresso preparation.
If you are a coffee connoisseur you will certainly be interested to know the difference between the three types in a bit more depth.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
These machines are the most popular choice amongst average consumers. They include an automated pump, automated temperature controls for the boiler, and a manual switch to activate/deactivate the pump that performs the coffee extraction. This last feature is the reason these units are considered semi-automatic.
There are variations of the semi-automatic machines that allow you to program the exact doses after which the extraction process should stop. Whether you choose to flip a switch or use a programmable setting, you are in control of when the extraction should end.
Regulating water flow can be crucial to a smooth shot of espresso if you know what you are doing. Be careful because you can perfect the shot just as much as ruin it. But, then again, this is how we learn.
Portafilters and Grinders
Semi-automatics always come with a portafilter. There is no other way to insert the grounded coffee into the machine. The two most common types are non-pressurized and pressurized.
Non-pressurized portafilters are generally considered harder to use because they require you to have a very precise grind and tamp. If you are experienced, or willing to learn, this tool can help you get a really good shot of espresso. Having a superior grinder at your disposal is an absolute necessity should you choose to play around with a non-pressurized portafilter.
Pressurized portafilters are a better fit for people who choose to use pre-ground coffee. Because these tools are pressurized, they do not allow any water drip out before the necessary pressure has been achieved. In order to do so, these portafilters usually use a filter basket or a valve.
The majority (90% or so) of semi-automatic espresso machines do not include a built-in grinder. Breville Barista Express is one of the very few exceptions, and this is one of the reasons why it is at the top of our list.
Frothing & Steaming
Semi-automatic machines are as flexible when it comes to boilers. It all depends on how deep your pockets are. Smaller, less heavy and inexpensive machines are equipped with single boilers that will not allow you to brew and froth at the same time. Higher priced semi-autos offer heat exchanged and dual boilers. So, the ball is in your court. And by the court I mean, checkbook.
Traditional steam wands are standard for most semi-automatics and do require you to learn a thing or two about frothing. Panarellos are also available on some semi-autos, but I do not find them to make a big difference.
Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
Convenient and quick, these units are suitable for people who are not interested in spending too much time perfecting a shot of espresso. With the press of a button these machines will grind, dose, tamp, brew and produce your caffeine drink within a minute. I guess it would be nice if they can bring it to you as well, while you are enjoying a good read and a chocolate croissant.
In general, super-automatics allow you to program and adjust features such as brew temperature, brew volume, extraction time and water hardness. The rule usually is, the more expensive the machine, the more programmable it is. The higher-end units have auto warm-up technologies that make sure the machine is ready to go at a certain time of the day (when you wake up, for example).
In addition, there are programmable settings for one-touch espresso drinks. This is quite convenient because once you adjust your machine for the perfect shot, you can have it every morning with the push of one button.
Most super-autos feature a built-in grinder. The good thing is that it can be quite convenient and speed up the espresso making process. In addition, newer machines allow you to control the finesse with which the beans are grinded. This is cool because it offers some room to play around with the overall taste and strength of the brew.
I am yet to see a machine with a grinder that has a wide range of adjustable options. To be perfectly honest, I prefer a semi-automatic with a separate grinder. This way the number of changes to the grind is infinite.
Also, even the more expensive super-automatic machines tend to clog over time when you use very oily beans or dark roast.
Frothing & Steaming
Super-auto espresso machines come with one of three types of boilers: thermocoil heating system, thermoblock heating system or a dual boiler. The former one is usually found on the more inexpensive units and it does not offer to brew and steam at the same time. The latter two systems allow simultaneous brewing, even though thermoblock seems to considerably slow things down on both fronts.
When it comes to frothing, you have a choice of a standard wand or a panarello. If you do not like to partake in this process, you can always get a machine that automates the frothing process in a separate carafe.
Fully Automatic Espresso Machines
This type of espresso maker is very similar to the semi-autos. In terms of functionality, the only difference is that fully automatic machines offer one-touch brewing process.
To the extent that quality is concerned, semi-autos and fully autos are the same. Quality and pricing may differ from one brand and manufacturer to another. So, inherently, fully automatics can be just as good. It is just kind of a petty not to be able to control the volume of water that is being pushed through the coffee grinds.
Cleaning Your Home Espresso Machine
Clean equipment plays a major role in achieving a tasty shot of espresso.
It hurts me when I think how many people disregard cleaning and maintaining their machines. Then a month after purchasing, begin to complain on forums and review websites about the decreasing quality of their brew. It is not the wood, it is the carpenter!
If you are pulling two or more shots of espresso every day, I suggest you develop a cleaning routine. Much like fixing your bed every morning, cleaning your espresso machine should become a habit. This way you will spend less energy thinking about it.
Here is a list of cleaning items you can use for the various parts of your machine:
Cafiza or Purocaff – great for cleaning anything with metal and brass, including the portafilter and grouphead.
Oxyclean is good for cleaning all steel parts like the dispersion screen and the filter baskets.
Grindz by Urnex is a fantastic grinder cleaner that comes in the form of tablets. You can also use a vacuum as part of cleaning the grinder.
How often should you clean?
Daily – use warm water to gently rinse the grouphead and portafilter. If you are using a separate grinder, make sure you clean it daily. Do not forget to wipe the doser as well. Especially if you enjoy super oily coffee beans.
Weekly – if the espresso machines has a 3-way solenoid valve, make sure you flash it once every week or two. The documentation that comes with the unit should indicate if there is such a valve. The backflush is done with a “blind filter” that costs around $5 and is reusable. This is basically a filter basket with no holes.
Monthly – learn how to take apart the grouphead’s dispersion screen so you can soak all of its steel in a bath of boiling water and Oxyclean solution. Next, you can soak your portafilter in a mix of boiling water and Purocaff solution. I also recommend scrubbing all parts of the unit that is in any way involved in the espresso brewing process.
Annually – once or twice a year (depends on usage) you have to descale the machine. All manufacturers offer instructions how to do this, and it is a must if you want to prolong the life of your espresso maker. Also, you might want to keep an eye on your grinder’s burrs and replace them if necessary.
Anthony is a professional barista in the city of Chicago. He has written for many online publications on various topics related to coffee.