Manual, non-electric, produces delicious espresso with crema, portable, affordable, but not ideal for milk-based drinks
1: Flair Classic Espresso Maker, Best Value (Manual)
The Flair Classic makes excellent espresso. This device uses a hand-pulled lever instead of a mechanic pump to create the pressure.
This allows you to slightly tweak the pressure profile, resulting in better espresso if you know what you’re doing.
For that reason, I think it’s fair to say that you get the best espresso shot under $200 with the Flair Classic.
There are also other good things to say about the Flair: It’s very sturdy, since it doesn’t rely on any electrical components, and it’s also portable!
The downside is that you don’t get any milk steaming with this espresso maker. So you will have to buy a separate device for that (or froth it in a French press, which some people do).
Another downside is that the workflow can be a bit complicated at first and that you need a decent grinder to be able to get the best out of the device. If you only have a blade-grinder (or similar), then the cheaper Flair Neo is the better option.
However, with the right grinder and skill level, the Flair Espresso Maker punches above its weight. There’s even a big community of Flair fans who share recipes and tips online.
You can’t talk about budget espresso machines without mentioning Italian brand Delonghi.
This old company has plenty of robust models available at dirt-cheap prices. For that reason the question many burgeoning espresso lovers inevitably end up starting out with Delonghi. That’s not a bad thing since most of their models offer an excellent price-to-quality ratio.
Another cool thing is that you can learn a bit of the barista craft by starting out with a model like this and then graduating to something more substantial.
The ECE 155 has thousands (literally!) of very enthusiastic reviews on Amazon, and it lets you brew any kind of espresso-based drink imaginable.
While I may not get a caffeine-fueled rush from suggesting a Nespresso machine, I must admit it’s an option that shouldn’t be dismissed, especially when your wallet is feeling a bit light.
Let’s talk about the convenience factor of Nespresso capsules. Sure, some coffee purists might turn their noses up at the thought of pre-packaged coffee pods, but hear me out. Since Nestlé’s patent expired in 2011, some fantastic coffee roasters have jumped on board, crafting capsules that can rival the quality of a freshly brewed cup.
Now, if you’re not one for the whole “home barista baptism of fire” situation, a capsule machine is an acceptable choice.
Not only do you avoid the hassle of investing in a top-notch grinder, playing around with the settings, sourcing fresh beans, and perfecting your brew technique, but you can also achieve consistent results with just a push of a button.
This particular model we’re looking at today is not only wallet-friendly, but it also boasts a stylish appearance that will elevate your kitchen’s aesthetic. And let’s not forget about the glowing reviews from a vast majority of its happy owners.
The Picopresso is a tiny, handheld espresso maker made by the innovative coffee brand, Wacaco.
The Picopresso is the newest gadget from the brand. It’s way superior compared to the Nanopresso, which I have previously reviewed. The basket is a legit, non-pressurized version that can hold up to 18 grams of ground coffee. It means that you can make a very decent double shot.
This device is just so tiny; it’s crazy. However, the espresso it produces is better than most devices in this price range. In fact, it’s my current favorite among all the travel espresso makers, I have tried.
Yes, it’s a bit more expensive than the Cafflano Kompresso, but I think it’s worth it.
However, if you’re not primarily looking for a travel espresso maker, you’re probably better suited with the Flair Classic; the stand of that model lends itself a bit more to being a permanent fixture on the kitchen counter.
I adore the Cafflano Kompresso. It’s even smaller than an Aeropress but makes delicious espresso with legit crema.
The good thing about this little fellow (besides the price) is that you can bring it anywhere you go. Heck, you could even bring it on a mountain hike or a plane and get delicious espresso.
However, the other side of the coin is that it’s not the best option if you want to brew milk-based drinks like a latte at home. As is the case with the Flair, you need a separate steamer for that.
Also, it’s a very hands-on kind of equipment. It does take some time and effort to brew the coffee, so people who aren’t hardcore coffee geeks might find the process a bit too involved. But if you learn how to use it, it’s hard to find better a better espresso maker under $100.
As you probably know, $200 won’t give you access to the Ferraris and Lambos of the espresso world. Instead, you’ll be looking at entry-level machines.
When we’re talking espresso, you’d broadly speaking be looking at these three categories.
Manual espresso machines (electric or non-electric)
However, in recent years, we’re seeing some devices that defy these categories.
New products such as non-electric manual espresso makers are becoming attractive options for those looking for the best bang for the buck. Traditional manual espresso machines (such as the legendary La Pavoni) have an electric boiler and tend to be more pricy. With newer versions such as the Flair, ROK or Cafflano Kompresso, costs can be kept down due to their non-electric design.
It’s more or less impossible to get a serious electric espresso machine at this price range. For that reason, I think you’ll find the best bang for the buck when it comes to non-electric machines if you really want to approach espresso as a potential hobby.
🤔 Pressurized portafilter? What is it?
In this price range, most electric machines also come with a so-called pressurized portafilter/basket. This thingy is also sometimes referred to as a double-walled basket.
This means that the pressure built up in the portafilter/basket is due to a clever little spring mechanism.
Typically, the fineness of the grind size determines this, but not when you’re using a pressurized basket.
For that reason, you can get away with using pre-ground coffee. And you won’t need a dedicated espresso grinder.
However, among some espresso snobs, this is seen as “fake” espresso. If you want to increase your home barista skills, it might be worth getting a model that comes with both a pressurized and non-pressurized basket.
The capsule option
There are also capsule machines based on Nespresso’s design. Even though they are technically not “authentic” espresso makers, they will usually provide a better user experience than a janky semi-automatic with a pressurized portafilter.
A Nespresso capsule system has some distinct advantages:
It’s super easy
You don’t need a grinder
They stay fresh for a long time due to being portion packed
That being said, the capsule system is also more expensive in the long run. The small pods at first seem like a good deal since the machines are cheap and you don’t need a grinder. But when you calculate the numbers, they are far more expensive per cup.
If your espresso budget is less than $200, you might have to consider a capsule machine.
Also, capsules are bad for the environment, and in my opinion, they take away most of the fun in the brewing process.
But for some people, they make sense.
If you don’t want a new hobby but rather just some coffee, then I think you should consider whether they might be worth it for you. Espresso is something one has to do wholeheartedly.
Espresso or latte?
It’s critical to identify your primary objective before making an informed decision regarding an espresso machine. If your goal is to produce cappuccinos or lattes with frothy microfoam, you need to check whether the machine is equipped with a suitable steaming wand.
Alternatively, if your aim is to develop your expertise in the art of espresso-making, a non-electric, manual machine may be the optimal choice. This type of device allows you to meticulously control variables such as grind size, dose, and basket preparation, thereby affording you the opportunity to study and refine the intricate process of creating a quality espresso shot. In summary, let your objectives guide your decision-making process when selecting an espresso machine.
Hello, and welcome! I'm the editor & founder of this site. I have been a coffee geek since I started home roasting more than a decade ago. Since then, coffee has taken me on countless adventures: From ancient coffee ceremonies in Ethiopia to the volcanos of Sumatra. My background is in journalism, and today I'm also a licensed Q Grader under the Coffee Quality Institute.
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