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?
Becoming a home barista means jumping down a rabbit hole. Not everybody is ready for that.
I don’t want to turn this espresso machine review into a magazine personality test, butthere’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?
Maybe the right choice for you is a cheap model with a pressurized portafilter? Or even a capsule-based device?
If you’re going to drown the shot in foamy milk, the quality of the extraction is less important.
In that case a cheap Delonghi or Nespresso machine might be just the right choice for you.
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 hot water will go through your puck way too fast.
- If the grinder isn’t capable of making granular adjustments and switch between different grind sizes, 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 coffee grounds 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.
It’s actually getting more and more common to see first-time buyers investing in a quality espresso grinder and a manual espresso machine (like the Flair) to save some money.
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.
However, if you also want to make milk-based drinks, you should go for a dual or single boiler machine instead.
The main issue here is that dual boiler machines are big and expensive. Single boiler machines are more affordable, but the workflow can be annoying. Personally, I use the Breville Dual Boiler at home, and I can’t tell you how much easier it makes life. Two dedicated boilers (each at the correct temperature) plus a lot of advanced modes are just game-changers.
The best espresso machines of 2021
1: Breville The Bambino Plus – Best espresso machine for the burgeoning home barista
The Bambino Plus from Breville (Sage in Europe) is my top pick for the burgeoning, yet budget-constrained, barista. I have had some epic shots from this espresso maker.
It’s a small machine that can look a little bit innocent and vanilla at first glance. But don’t be fooled. A lot of thought has gone into the functionality and features of the Bambino Plus.
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. Don’t underestimate how nice this feature is in daily life. It means that there is no need for temperature surfing, which is mandatory on all the Italian single-boilers.
Preinfusion, is also worth highlighting. This, is a feature that is normally only available on much more expensive machines.
It has a preset for both a single shot and a double. This can be programmed for your convenience; for instance, if you prefer to use the presets for a lungo and a double that’s also possible.
The Breville Bambino Plus also has a surprisingly powerful steam wand. There’s an auto-steaming feature, but I haven’t really used it much.
The main downside to the Bambino 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. However, a single-wall basket is cheap, so it’s not a big expense that should deter you.
Sidenote: When the device is sold as Sage, it includes a single wall basket as well.
Overall, this machine is just a great value for the money. You’ll be able to make good espresso and lattes with a few hours of practice.
Read my full Breville Bambino review here.See more reviews
2: Gaggia Classic Pro – top rated home espresso machine
The Gaggia Classic Pro is one of the most popular entry-level espresso machines.
It’s sturdy, compact, and Italian, and also comes with a real commercial sized portafilter. In many ways, it’s similar to its long-term rival, the Rancilio Silvia.
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 or two – if you take good care of it.
Personally, I’d prefer the Breville Bambino Plus as my first espresso-maker, but if you’re willing to modify the Gaggia and investing in some additional espresso accesories, the old-school Italian still has a lot going for it.
Check out my full Gaggia Classic review here.See more reviews
3: Rancilio Silvia – one of the best home espresso machines
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 double 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 pressure 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.See more reviews
Check out my full Rancilio Silvia Review here
4: Flair -small espresso machine 2021
In recent years manual espresso makers have 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.See more reviews
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.See more reviews
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 shots. Obviously, there’s no way to get steamed milk with this type of device. You’d need a standalone milk steamer for that, or maybe even use a French press with warm milk as a primitive form of foamer, which some people do.
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.See more reviews
7: Breville Dual Boiler
The Breville Dual Boiler is a beast. It has all the functions that you need – and then some extra.
This is the machine I brew my own shots on most mornings.
The Dual Boiler is the current flagship from Breville. It’s meant for people who want barista-level espresso drinks. 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.
You also have programmable preinfusion time and level. This means that you can also alter the flow rate with almost no effort.
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 a milk-based cup of coffee. You have enormous amounts of steam power.
Of course, a single boiler will kinda work, but it’s just a massive headache to wait for the boiler to reach steaming temperature after you’ve pulled your shot. This is especially the case if you’re making more cappuccinos back-to-back. In that case, you’ll also have to purge water to get the temperature back down to brew temperature.
You won’t have issues like that with the Dual Boiler (or BDB – as fans like to call it).
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 for the money, this is it.
Read the full Dual Boiler review here.See more reviews
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.See more reviews
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.See more reviews
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.” (1)
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
If you’re dreaming about making milke coffee concoction with beautiful micro foam and latte art with unicorns you better make sure that you’re getting an espresso machine with a powerful steaming wand. Many of the cheaper models have a so-called ‘Panarello’ wand, which is actually pretty good for making cappuccinos. However, when it comes to latte art, you need a steaming wand capable of creating a vortex in the pitcher. That means that you should be looking for a model with a powerful manual steam wand.
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. A removable water tank is a nice touch, but this is usually not available on bigger machines.
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?
Single boiler or double boiler is another one worth considering. Most cheap home machines will have the former, while the latter will be available on the pro-sumer models. The huge benefit to a double boiler is that you can seamlessly from brewing espresso to steaming. With one boiler you have to wait for the unit to heat before you can steam milk for your macchiato. If you’re going to be making a lot of milk drinks for larger groups of people a single boiler is not idea. However, if it’s just you and your significant other, you’d probably be okay with waiting a little bit.
Full automatic espresso machines all come with a grinder built in. On the surface this seems rather practical. Afterall, if you can store two units inside one, why not do it? However, often the grinder will not be of the highest quality. Both espresso machines and burr grinders have a tendency to break down. If you combine two units in one, you increase the likelihood that you’ll have to say goodbye to both grinder and coffee maker. For that reason, I’d almost always encourage people who ask me to for a quality standalone espresso grinder that can last them for years.
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. (2)
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 (which leads to a common naming mistake; expresso)
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.
However, nowadays there’s a movement away from high amounts of pressure, and around 6-7 bars seems to be the preferred setting. (3)
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 has a boiler. If it’s big and heavy (and old) give it even longer. The new and more modern machines, from brands such as Breville, ususally don’t need much time to get to temperature.
- Use a digital scale: Espresso is about consistency. Use a scale for weighing the portafilter instead of eyeballing.
- Grind: Experiment with different settings until you find the perfect shot time 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. 25-35 seconds is usually a good brew time depending on machine and size of the dose.