The Best Espresso Machines for the Burgeoning Home-Barista
So you are thinking about getting a home espresso machine?
Let me both congratulate and warn you; I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but there are a few things you should consider before heading to the big box store 🙅
Espresso is the most complicated form of coffee, and if you’re not looking for a new hobby, you might as well just get one of the cheaper alternatives.
In this article, I’ll explain everything you need to know to make an informed decision.
How dedicated are you?
I don’t want to turn this espresso machine review into a magazine personality test, but there’s at least a couple of questions you should ask yourself:
- How much time and effort are you willing to put in?
- Are you more interested in lattes & cappuccinos than real espresso?
If you would see it as an annoying chore to buy freshly roasted espresso beans and learn about extraction, then that should inform your decision.
Maybe you don’t need a “legit“ espresso machine after all, and you can make do with a more simple alternative?
Maybe a cheap espresso machine with a pressurized portafilter, or even a capsule-based device, would be the right choice for you?
If you’re going to drown the coffee in foamy milk, the quality of the shot is less important.
How to pick a home espresso maker?
Okay, if you actually want to learn the barista craft, then let’s look at the next options.
The typical entry-level models that can actually make quality espresso are single-boiler machines. The Gaggia Classic Pro and Rancilio Silvia are the two most famous ones.
But before going ahead, and investing in one of them, you should consider your budget.
⚠️ Whatever, your budget is, it must include a grinder as well.
A common quote among coffee geeks is “that the grinder is more important than the coffee maker itself,” and this is actually true. Especially, when it comes to espresso!
Let me explain why real quick:
- If your grinder can’t grind fine enough, you’ll not be able to brew at the correct pressure. That means that the water will go through your puck way too fast.
- If the grinder isn’t capable of making granular adjustments, you will never be able to dial in your shot correctly.
(If you have too big increments, you could be stuck between either too fast or slow a flow rate)
- The quality and texture of the ground coffee is also worth having in mind, but the most crucial points are #1 and #2
Single Boiler & Dual boiler vs Manual
Many burgeoning home baristas get shocked when they realize that the grinder is almost as expensive as the espresso maker.
These types of espresso makers have several advantages if you want to learn the barista craft, and they are typically a lot cheaper compared to similar electric espresso machines.
The best espresso machines of 2020
1: Breville The Bambino Plus – Best espresso machine for the burgeoning home barista
The Bambino Plus from Breville has quickly become a darling among budget-conscious espresso lovers.
It’s a small machine with a pretty vanilla design, but a lot of thought has gone into the functionality and features.
Compared to its more old-school Italian rivals (which haven’t changed substantially for decades)it’s a lot easier to use and more reliable straight out of the box.
It has a built-in PID thermometer, preinfusion and brews at the correct 9 bars, instead of 15, which is way too much.
The PID ensures that the temperature is correct when pulling shots or steaming.
Preinfusion, on the other hand, is a feature that is normally only available on much more expensive machines. It’s a cool feature that really helps with consistency and evenness.
The Breville Bambino Plus also has a unique auto-frothing feature, so you can get good milk for your latte, without learning about steaming techniques and microfoam.
The main downside to the device is that it only comes with a pressurized basket, so you have to invest in a “real” espresso basket, if you want to get the best out of the machine. A single-wall basket is cheap, however, so it’s not a big expense that should hold you back.
Overall, this machine is ideal if you just want to get good shots and milk-based drinks right away. At the same time, it has enough cool features that more geeky coffee drinkers, would also enjoy it.
2: Gaggia Classic Pro- top rated espresso machine
The Gaggia Classic Pro is one of the most popular entry-level espresso machines, and the long term rival to Rancilio Silvia.
It’s similar in many ways; it’s sturdy, compact, and Italian, and also comes with a real commercial sized portafilter.
The Gaggia Classic is more affordable than Miss Silvia, and if you ask me, it’s a more attractive option after its recent redesign.
The Gaggia Classic underwent a redesign last year, and is improved in a bunch of ways while retaining an attractive price. The new colorways, a better steam wand, and an improved solenoid valve are welcome additions.
This device is known for making great espresso shots, but also for requiring a bit of ‘modding’ if you want the best results.
Many users end up adjusting the OPV to get to 9 bars, and some also install a PID thermometer to get better temperature stability.
In espresso machine reviews it’s usually praised for having the best build quality among the budget options, and I have to agree. This model can easily last for a decade if you take good care of it.
If you want a more demanding but ultimately more rewarding machine, then go with the Classic.
Check out my full Gaggia Classic review here.
3: Silvia – the third best home espresso machine
Rancilio Silvia is often called Ms. Silvia among the many loyal long term users. That is because she’s a little bit like a strong-willed Italian lady. Treat her with respect, and she’ll reward you with kindness as well as thick and textured espresso shots.
However, if you’re more lackadaisical in your approach to the art of making cappuccino and espresso your results are going to be sub-par.
That being said, Rancilio Silvia is the gold standard when it comes to home espresso makers, and it has been this way for more than two decades now.
This machine is a stainless steel trooper, it has an industrial-sized 58 mm portafilter, and a vintage Italian look. If you want to get serious about making classic Italian espresso or cappuccinos at home, this is a great option.
The main downside is that it doesn’t have a built-in PID thermometer like some of its competitors.
It’s more expensive than the similar Gaggia Classic, but for the extra cash you do get a bigger machine with more room to work on the drip tray, more steam power and a bigger boiler. In many ways they are similar machines, but Silvia should be your choice if you’re mainly planning to make milk-based drinks.
4: Flair -small espresso machine 2021
In recent years manual espresso has started to become popular. It always existed but was never really taken seriously. This has changed. I’ve had plenty of amazing shots from manual, non-electric espresso coffee makers.
The Flair Home Espresso maker is one of the most popular devices since it’s simple to operate and super lightweight. It comes with a carrying case and only weighs in at 5 lbs so you can easily take it on a weekend trip.
There is a catch though: This is strictly an espresso maker – there’s no milk frother included, so no lattes if you go down this path.
Flair has been viewed as one the best deals when it comes to espresso machines in both 2019 and 2020, and my prediction is that it will remain very popular this year, too.
Check out my positive review of the Flair here.
Bonus Tip: The new & upgraded Pro 2 version is available at Prima Coffee at the moment.
5: Delonghi Dedica – Compact entry-level performance
Okay, this is pretty much the standard beginner home espresso machine. It doesn’t really have any bells or whistles, except for its ultra-compact size.
The Delonghi Dedica utilizes 15 bar pressure, which is a good fit for the pressurized portafilter it comes with. However, you can improve the shots significantly by investing in a single wall precision basket.
If you don’t want to geek around with pulling authentic espresso shots, it will work pretty well with pre-ground coffee or ESE-pods.
The steam wand is of the ‘pannarello-type’, which is typical on beginner machines. If you want better microfoam, you can mod this pretty easily.
Overall, a decent entry-level machine. It won’t take up much space on the kitchen counter, and it has that nostalgic Italian vibe that some people really love.
This is a tried and tested model – more than thousand reviews on Amazon are a testament to that.
6: Cafflano Kompresso – for camping Espresso
I adore the Cafflano Kompresso. It’s even smaller than the Flair espresso maker, but it actually makes really tasty espresso with true crema.
The good thing about this little fellow (besides the price), is that you can bring it anywhere you go. You could bring it camping, on a hike or a picnic.
However, it’s only making espresso. Obviously, there’s no milk steaming capabilities in this one.
It’s also worth pointing out that it might take some time and some tweaking before you’re able to get decent shots. But when you get them right, they are actually pretty good.
7: Breville Dual Boiler
Italians have dominated espresso for years. This has been both good and bad for us consumers. Good because they make beautiful machines that can brew tasty coffee, but bad because they tend to be conservative tech-wise.
Breville is an Australian brand that doesn’t mind doing things a bit differently, and that has paid off. I don’t think I’ll offend anyone by saying that they have been the most innovative company when it comes to domestic espresso machines in recent years.
The Dual Boiler is the current top-of-the-line machine. It’s meant for people who want barista level espresso and lattes. You can adjust and control almost every little detail with this machine.
You have an adjustable PID thermometer, so you can nail the exact right temperature for any bean you throw at it.
As the name indicates this machine also has two boilers, which is just going to make your life a hundred times more easy, when it comes to making milk-based coffee.
Of course, a single boiler will work, but it’s just a massive headache to wait for the boiler to reach steaming, or drop back to brew temp. This is especially the case if you’re making more drinks back-to-back.
The main downside with Breville is that you don’t get quite the same heritage looks as you do with the Italian E61 machines – however, the espresso will taste better and be more consistent.
If you want one of the best home espresso machines, this is it.
8: Nespresso: Ideal for the lazy home barista
I don’t like to recommend Nespresso products. If you ask me there’s not much fun in inserting a capsule and pressing a button. Not to mention, the quality is only mediocre at best.
However, I know there’s a bunch of people for whom this espresso and cappuccino maker would be a good fit. If you don’t want to know anything about barista skills or specialty coffee but still want a drinkable latte or espresso in the morning, this is probably the easiest way to do it.
Note, that even though the machine is rather cheap compared to other espresso makers, you’ll end up overpaying for capsules. Even though Nespresso’s patent has expired, the price for capsule coffee is still slightly inflated for what you get.
On a positive note, recently more specialty coffee roasters have begun producing capsule coffee based on high quality coffee beans.
9: Value for money: Delonghi 15 bar
I like the Delonghi. It’s an approachable and classical brand. It’s many people’s first touch point with espresso.
I got the previous version of this machine many years ago, when I was less of a coffee snob than I am today. Still, I think back on the machine with fondness. It definitely punches above its weight, (which should be easy considering how light it is).
The espresso has a decent crema, and the machine heats up in a hurry. The steamer isn’t the best one around, but nobody expects it to be. It will be more than fine for a cappuccino with some big airy foam, but not suitable for latte art.
Since this machine comes with a pressurized basket, you can get shots with crema very easily. The downside is that the shots will not be “authentic”. But many people don’t know the difference or don’t care.
You can also use ESE pods with this machine, which is actually a really good and convenient way to make espresso, if you don’t have any barista skills.
If you’re looking for something that’s super, super cheap, but still a decent home espresso maker with a portafilter and 15 bars of pressure, this is one of your best bets.
Functions to look for:
A technology that increases temperature stability. It stands for Proportional, Integral, Derivative. This is how La Marzocco explains the system.
“Before PID controllers, espresso boiler temperature was controlled by thermostats or pressurestats—small, simple mechanical devices that turn the boiler on when it dips below a certain temperature, and back off once it reaches the desired temperature. These systems worked, but they weren’t very accurate. The boiler had to cool down below a set temperature before turning on, and continued heating up slightly past the shutoff point at the top end, making temperature stability quite volatile and difficult to precisely control.” (Source)
Espresso should be brewed around 6-9 bars of pressure. When you have an indicator, it’s a lot easier to make sure that your shot is extracted at the right pressure. You will have an extra signal to tell you if your grinding size or tamping is not correct.
Commercial Grade Portafilter
The portafilter is where your ground coffee goes. The standard size for commercial machines is 58 mm. For home espresso machines it’s not that crucial precisely what the size is. On cheaper devices, you’ll often see smaller, pressurized portafilters. These help to create pressure (and thus, crema) in the portafilter. However, pressurized portafilters should be avoided if you’re serious about learning the barista craft.
Steaming wand or Milk Frother
Again, some machines such as the Nespresso come with a standalone milk frother. These can create nice foamy milk, but forget about latte art.
Water reservoir or plumbed in
You should pick a machine with a water tank that’s easy to access and refill. However, if the espresso machine is not just for personal use; let’s say it will be used at the office, it might be a good idea to pick a model that can be plumbed in. That way you don’t have to deal with constantly refilling the water reservoir or be cleaning the drip tray.
Single or double boiler?
Built in burr grinder
go deeper: espresso history
Water is the basis of life… but espresso is the basis of many of the most popular coffee drinks. There would be no such thing as a latte or a flat white if it weren’t for the espresso machine.
Espresso originated in Italy more than hundred years ago. In 1901 Luigi Bezzera filed a patent for a raw device that can be seen as the precursor to today’s sophisticated machines.
Along with the rapid modernization, the coffee shop became a favorite place to socialize. The Italian immigrants in the USA helped to spread the concentrated beverage to a new world.
There is some disagreement about the word espresso itself. Some historians claim that it refers to the act of ‘pressing’ out of the beverage. Others claim that the name refers to the ‘express’ nature of the preparation itself.
The evolution of the espresso machine
Espresso machines have undergone a lot of changes over the years. The first machines, in general, relied on a manual lever to deliver the necessary 9 bars of pressure. Next step in the evolution was the semi-automatic machine. For most of us, this is the kind of device that comes to mind when we think of espresso machines.
As with all consumer goods, there’s still some innovation going on, but to some extent, many of these machines haven’t changed that much the last 25 years. Sure, stuff like PID temperature control is becoming more widespread, but the basics are still the same.
The latest additions to the scene have been super-automatics and capsule machines. Many hardcore coffee snobs may scoff at these kinds of devices, but there’s no doubt that the consumers love the convenience of just pressing a single button.
No matter how you brew your espresso, however, the fundamentals of coffee still apply. You need freshly roasted quality beans to get stellar results.
Espresso step-by-step guide
- Turn it on: Give it at least 10 minutes to heat up. If it’s big and heavy give (and old) give it even longer.
- Use a digital scale: Espresso is about consistency. Use a scale for weighing the beans instead of eyeballing.
- Grind: Experiment with different settings until you find the perfect one for your particular machine and bean.
- Dosing: Add the grounds to your portafilter. Either grind directly into the portafilter or into a separate grounds container. If you have an espresso accessory such as blind shaker as it can help break up any clumbs in the grounds, which will lead to a more even extraction.
- Tamp like a champ: Tamping is often made out to be a science but it doens’t have to be that complicated. Just make sure you do it the same way every time. You don’t have to use that much force. Just make sure that the puck is compressed a bit, so there’s no potential for channeling. Spin the tamper a few times to polish the top of the puck.
- Pull the shot: Brush off any grounds on the outside of the portafilter with your hand. Attach to the group head, and start brewing. Pay attention to flow rate and time. 25-40 seconds is usually a good brew time depending on machine and size of the dose.