The Best Espresso Machines for the Serious Home-Barista
So you are thinking about getting an espresso machine for your home?
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.
Getting an espresso machine is similar to some of life’s most significant decision (Buying your first home, picking the right career). You want to put some thought into it while also listening to your heart — if not you’ll be in for frustration down the line.
If you do it the right way, however, you’ll certainly experience the kind of bliss that comes with the combination of caffeine and craftsmanship.
With that in mind, here’s my top espresso machine recommendation for most people. Read on for the full scoop.
How to pick a home espresso maker?
The first thing you want to consider before thinking about functionality should be your budget.
Whatever, your budget is, make sure to include a grinder as well.
It’s often heard in the world of coffee that the grinder is more important than the coffee maker itself, and like most people, you probably scoff at this seemingly exaggerated proposition.
However, when it comes to espresso, you should not underestimate the importance of the grinder.
Let me explain why real quick:
- If your grinder can’t grind fine enough, you’ll not be able to brew at the necessary 9 bars of pressure.
- Also, 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 things to keep in mind are point 1 and 2
Three different kinds of espresso maker
Take a good look at yourself in the mirror. What do you see?
Buying a home espresso machine should also involve a bit of introspection. If you have a bunch of unused cooking utensils in the back of the cupboard, the chances are that you’re not going to have the patience it requires to make an artisanal espresso at home.
Don’t get discouraged, there’s nothing wrong with that. Maybe you’re too busy to spend time on coffee in your everyday life. Just own the fact and get the kind of espresso maker that fits your temperament and lifestyle.
- Geeky people should go for something that offers customizability and hands-on fun. Something like an old-school manual lever espresso machine or semi-automatic would fit the bill.
- The busy person should go for a full-automatic or a capsule machine. Maybe a semi-automatic if you appreciate coffee.
- The lazy, kitchen-averse person: should go for a capsule or pod-capable machine (or find a cheap, local coffee shop) rather than a full-fledged home espresso machine
Advice from an expert
James Freeman, Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
“If two grand seems like a lot of money, think of all the status symbols that sit lonely and unused day after day: the Steinway pianos, the Viking ranges, the KitchenAid mixers, the Vitamix blenders. An espresso machine and grinder that are put to use frequently are objects that transform time and money into pleasure and deliciousness—and that, if you have the money, are nothing to be ashamed of.
Of course you don’t have to spend $2,000 on an espresso machine to get something serviceable. There are a couple of reasonably priced models by Rancilio and Gaggia that are heavy and simple, with larger boilers and commercial portafilters. One of those, paired with a good grinder, will work just fine.
MILK OR NO MILK?
I don’t want to turn this espresso coffee machine review into a magazine personality test, but there’s at least one thing you should question yourself about: What is the proportion of espresso to milk-based drinks going to be?
If you’re more focused towards the milky, foamy stuff, then that should inform your decision. You’ll need a machine with good steaming capabilities, and you can be more forgiving about the whole ‘pulling shots’ kinda thing.
If you ask me, you can get away with using a capsule or pod-based espresso shots. The quality of the extraction is going to matter less.
espresso machine reviews
Breville The Infuser – Best Value for the home barista
This is Breville’s entry-level espresso machine. Even though it’s more budget-friendly than its big brother, the Oracle, it’s still capable of pulling nice shots and creating delicious bubbly steamed milk. This home espresso maker was praised highly by Stumptown Coffee’s education team.
Compared to its more old-school Italian rivals, the Classic and the Silvia, it’s a lot easier to use and more reliable since it has a built-in PID thermometer and a pressure gauge. This ensures that both the temperature and pressure is correct when pulling shots.
The machine also comes with a decent tamper and a good pitcher for frothing. When you add it all up, you got a good candidate for the best value when it comes to home espresso makers.
This machine also has a slightly more expensive sibling called the Barista Express that has a built-in grinder. While it generally gets good reviews, I’d much prefer to have two separate units instead of a combo version.
Silvia – the 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 solidly built, 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 likely the ideal machine to get.
The main downside is that it doesn’t have a built-in PID thermometer like some of its competitors.
Gaggia Classic – top rated espresso machine
The Gaggia Classic is 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.
It’s known for making great espresso shots, as well as for only being mediocre when it comes to steaming.
It can usually be found at a better price point than its famous rival, and if you ask me, it looks slightly more stylish.
If you want to brew espresso shots mainly and don’t care much for latte art, I will pick this over the Rancilio Silvia.
Flair – best small espresso machine
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 machines 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 are no milk frothing options included.
Breville Oracle Touch
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 espresso machines in recent years.
The Oracle Touch is the current top of the line machine. It’s meant for people who want barista level espresso and lattes without the hassle.
Compared to virtually all other super-automatic espresso makers on the market, this machine is a lot closer to the barista craft since it uses a standard portafilter. Still, it doesn’t require much knowledge or skill from the user.
The main downside is that you don’t get quite the same heritage looks as you do with the Italian brands – however, the espresso ought to taste the same.
If money is no concern, and time is, this could be a winner!
Best 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 is 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.
Functions to look for:
PID: Is 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)
Pressure gauge: Espresso should be brewed around 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 temperature.
Portafilter (standard or pressurized): 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 pressurized portafilters. These help to create pressure (and thus, crema) in the portafilter. Should be avoided if you’re serious about coffee.
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, 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.