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I’m going to try and help you choose the best espresso machine with some in-depth espresso machine reviews.
Firstly you need to decide how serious you are about espresso making. Espresso machines can cost from $100 up to over a thousand dollars. (most people go for an espresso machine under $200) If you have a few more dollars to spend then check out our new super automatic espresso machine guide.
Before I recommend an espresso machine, I want to discuss exactly what you should think about before taking the plunge.
Do You Have Room In Your Kitchen For An Espresso Machine?
It’s an easy thing to overlook but make sure you measure the space that you have available to place an espresso machine. Some of these machines are pretty big but you can get some nice compact ones like the Delonghi EC702 which doesn’t take up too much room on the counter.
I went for the DeLonghi EC702 mainly because it fits under my kitchen cabinets and the water tank is on the side so I don’t have to access it from the top at all (read my review here). For a few hundred dollars more you can go for the great looking and reassuringly well built Breville Barista Express.
Some machines also have extra gadgets like foamers which you need to take into account.
How Much Time Can You Spare?
Are you time poor and just want to press a button? Or are you excited about getting hands on about your espresso making? Machines range from manual to semi-automatic to fully automatic. Maybe you don’t really need an espresso machine and would be better with a simple stove top. (I have one for those lazy mornings when I can’t be bothered doing the whole machine thing. )
How Serious Are You About Espresso?
- Not very serious - Go for a simple capsule machine. The Nespresso CitiZ Automatic Espresso Maker is one of the most popular in this class and you can pick it up online for under $400. It’s easy to use and easy to clean but you do have to buy their coffee pods.
- Quite serious – Go for a semi-automatic pump machine. Check out the Breville Barista Express. We think it’s a great machine and comes with a bean grinder built in.
- Serious about espresso! - Go for a lever machine. This means you use a lever machine to push the espresso out – old school style. One of the best is the La Pavoni EPC-8 Europiccola, a beautiful piece of equipment.
- Feeling flush? – You could invest in a magnificent fully automatic espresso machine like the DeLonghi Magnifica or a Jura Capresso Impressa. These will often cost upwards of $1000.
Now that you’ve had a good think about what kind of espresso person you are, let’s look at the most popular espresso machines available.
Espresso Machine Fundamentals
The fundamentals of each type of machine and their relative price ranges:
Each type of machine works to perform the same basic function. They all force piping hot water through coffee grounds with intense pressure. They differ in how this task is achieved and how much involvement is required by you, the owner. Every device generally falls into a subcategory of manual, automatic, or steam-driven machines, or classic stovetop makers.
Manual Espresso Machines
These machines are for the extreme do-it-yourselfer who wants to be a large part of the process (e.g. La Pavoni Europiccola). The only electrical component on a manual machine is the heating element. All of the pressure required for brewing is generated by hand using a piston. Pull the lever up to grant the water access to the coffee grounds.
Push it back down at your desired pace to force the water through the coffee at high pressure. Many people prefer the user-controlled quality offered by a manual machine, but it does require some potentially frustrating practice and getting to know your particular machine to get it just right. Manual machines, handhelds, and hybrids may cost you anywhere from just a couple hundred dollars to approaching a grand.
Machines that feature their own grinders, pumps, sensors, and valves are collectively known as automatic machines. There are varying degrees of automation depending on how many different variables you want taken off of your own hands.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
This is the most popular type of machine among consumers. Semi-automatic machines like the Breville Barista Express and the Nespresso CitiZ D120 have an automated pump, automated boiler temperature controls, and an on/off switch that activates and deactivates the pump. They are “semi-automatic” because the user controls when the pump is turned on and off, therefore controlling the strength of each shot. The automatic temperature controls create a good steady brewing temperature.
The automatic pump regulates the applied pressure and maintains consistency across each cup in a way that is nearly impossible to achieve on a manual machine. Most machines of this type will take both ground coffee or coffee pods for your convenience. A good semi-automatic espresso machine will run you anywhere from $400 to several thousand dollars.
Automatic Espresso Machines
Automatic machines do the same as semi-automatics with the addition of automated brewing time and volume. They deliver a predetermined amount of water with each use. Essentially, you need only load the portafilter with coffee, lock the machine, press a button, and your involvement is done. The machine will stop brewing on its own. Some more experienced espresso lovers dislike the inability to control the amount of water used and when a shot is pulled off.
Automatic machines can be a great place to start for the beginner, however, because they leave little to no room for error as you learn more about how the machine works and about your own taste. Another thing that makes automatic machines a good starting point is that most automatic machines also have a set of built-in semi-automatic controls.
This way, there are back up controls should any of the automated mechanisms begin to malfunction, but also you can take some control over the brewing as you gain confidence and a more refined personal preference. Some also allow you to program the desired volume of water you want delivered upon pressing each particular button.
This does give you a little more control over the quality of each shot produced, but the added cost for this consistency may or may not be worth it to you (from about $500 to $1,500).
Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
At this point, you can probably guess what makes a super-automatic espresso machine “super-automatic.” Super-automatic machines do virtually everything for you. You need only fill the bean hopper and, if it is not connected to its own water line, the water reservoir. The machine grinds and tamps the coffee, heats up, dispenses the water, applies the pressure, extracts the shot, and turns off all on its own.
Many have self-frothers as well and keep the mess contained within the machine, unlike many others. Automatics are the ultimate in convenience and efficiency, but they offer nearly zero user-driven quality control. You can expect to shell out at least $2,000 to $4,000 on one of these.
Steam-Driven Espresso Machines
The first espresso makers were steam-driven units. They force the water through the coffee grounds using pressure built by steam. They have no moving parts and are available at significantly lower costs than their more technologically advanced descendants are. You can pick up a single-serve steam espresso maker for as little as $30 to $100.
Our recomendation? Avoid the steam!
Stovetop Espresso Makers
Stovetop espresso makers (check these out at Amazon) are often referred to as “machinettas” or “moka pots.” Although there is some controversy as to whether the coffee produced by a stovetop maker qualifies as true espresso, they remain the most popular type of at-home espresso brewer. Stovetop makers consist of three chambers.
The bottom chamber holds the water. The middle chamber is a filter that rests inside the bottom chamber and holds the coffee. The top chamber screws onto the bottom chamber and holds the coffee once it is brewed. When heated on the stove, the steam created in the bottom chamber forces the water through the filters and coffee.The brewed coffee is then funneled into the top chamber to be served.
Stovetop espresso makers brew using pressure at an extraction ratio that is fairly similar to what is produced by more conventional espresso machines, and sometimes create the frothy emulsion (crema) as well. They differ from conventional espresso machines in that they brew at higher temperatures and under less pressure.
Like steam units, this type is also very affordable for the cost-conscious consumer. Small units are available for as low as $20 with larger and higher quality units ringing in at about $150 to $300.