Buying Guide | 23 min read

Best Espresso Machines - Ultimate Buyer’s Guide

The process of making espresso is as complicated as beautiful as the beverage itself. Good espresso is the culmination of many simple steps – all coming together just right in the right amounts and the right time.

This is our ultimate guide to espresso!

We’re going to provide you with an in-depth look at every step of the espresso process – from choosing the beans to pulling the shot and everything in between. We’ll show you want to look for and how to use the equipment. We’ll also look at how you can use this information to find a machine that best meets your needs.

We’re also including a troubleshooting guide that will allow you to address any potential issues that could arise in your home brewing journey.

Are you ready to learn more?

What Do You Need To Make Espresso

Theoretically, making espresso coffee is very simple – pump water at high pressure through a pack of finely compacted ground coffee. It sounds so simple, but the truth is, there are so many things at play that can lead to great tasting coffee or terrible coffee. With the right tools, most of these components are easy to get right.

What do you need to brew espresso and attain a great espresso extraction?

Espresso Machine

It’s no big surprise that the first step in making good espresso is a decent machine. Unlike pour over coffee makers, the user is in complete control of the brew. With espresso, much of the responsibility is on the espresso machine itself. However, the machine must work to keep the temperature stable and hold a good enough pressure to sufficiently extract the coffee. If you want your kitchen to resemble a full café setup, you’ll need an espresso machine with a high-quality stem wand, with a boiler big enough to brew coffee and heat up a pitcher of milk

We’ll give you more information about boiler and help you to know what to look for in an espresso machine.

Filter

All espresso machines have a portafilter. This is the place in an espresso machine where the pressurized water and coffee meet for the first time – bringing life to an amazing espresso. The portafilter is made up of a handle and metal filter basket called a portafilter basket that contains little holes that let the espresso liquid extracted flow into the cup.

The portafilter basket can be removed, which allows you to place finely ground coffee in it. A tamper will compact the coffee.

The filter basket’s size and shape plays a huge role in how the espresso shot comes out.

When looking for a portafilter basket, you want to look at the hole size – you want precision. They should be the same exact size. If a filter basket has varying hole sizes, this could lead to channeling – where more water rushes to one area. Water will take the path of least resistance. Channeling will result in a certain part of the coffee puck being over-extracted and other parts under-extracted. This results in an espresso shot that tastes bitter, as well as weak and water or sour simultaneously.

No matter what espresso machine you purchase, the portafilter will fit that particular machine, and if you need to replace it, you must replace it with one of the same size. Most high-end and commercial machines have a stand size portafilter and basket (58mm), whereas cheaper domestic machines tend to use smaller ones. If you want a precision filter basket, you want to make sure there is one available for the machine you are going to buy.

Two great options for filter baskets include the class and specialty coffee favorite - the ‘VST’ basket and Decent Espresso’s ‘Decent’ basket

Tamper

The tamper’s job is simple but important – to evenly flatten and compact the coffee bed inside the filter basket. While the premise of it is simple, don’t underestimate it. It’s much harder to get a completely even, leveled and flat coffee bed than you would think. There are two things you must have two get the best possible tamp:

  • Perfect Fit – This means no gap on either side when the tamper is inserted into the portafilter basket. The tamper should be completely flushed with no sideways movements. If not properly fitted, it cannot create an even, level tamp – necessary for a great extraction.
  • Flat Bottom – A flat bottom tamper ensures the coffee bed is level and uniform. In the past, some companies designed tampers that have rings or other fancy patterns – only to cause channeling. A totally flat and even tamp allows the water to run through the coffee at the same rate.

Grinder

Another important part of an espresso machine is the grinder, and there are various reasons why many true espresso coffee drinkers consider this to be a valuable part of the machine.

Evenness

The word evenness comes up often when we’re talking about good coffee. And, it’s important for several reasons:

  • Coffee is the way it is because the brew water has dissolved a certain amount of solid coffee bean mater
  • We grind coffee to make it easier for water to extract the coffee. The more surface area there is, the easier time water has to extract the soluble part of ground coffee.
  • If coffee is ground in two different sizes – one fine and one course – the fine ground coffee will extract faster than the course ground coffee.
  • If both kinds are mixed tighter, the finer grounds will extract completely because the course ones even have a chance to extract. This will cause coffee to taste both over and under extracted. With the same size grind, the brew time can be properly adjusted.

This is why a grinder is necessary; to grind coffee so that all the particles are about the same size.

Espresso Grind

An espresso machine must have coffee that’s been ground very fine (about the texture of beach sand) for two reasons:

  • Increases the pressure at which water is forced through the coffee bed. If not ground finely enough, the water flows too quickly through, and the coffee will taste bitter.
  • Increases the extraction rate – the finer the coffee is, the more coffee extracted. Too fine of grinding can lead to very strong, bitter or meaty-tasting espresso or a blocked portafilter (more on this in the troubleshooting guide below).

An espresso shot of 40 grams should run through a machine in about 30 seconds, depending on your own taste and the coffee being used. You can also change your coffee grind – finer or courser – to get the results you want. If you go fine, the espresso will run slowly. If you have a run-through rate of 40 seconds, you’ll need to have a courser grind. If the show is running less than 30 seconds, you’ll need a finer grind size.

Scales

Scales are used for pretty much everything in the specialty coffee industry – from the amount of coffee used, the water amount being used and the final weight of the beverage. It all gets measured! It’s the only way in which you will get the result you want every single time.

For espresso though, you’ll be weighing the amount of ground coffee that goes into the portafilter and the amount of coffee liquid that comes out (known as the yield). If you’re brewing ratio is 1:2, you’ll weigh out 18 grams of coffee in the portafilter, and again weigh the espresso as it pours the shot. This should weigh 36 grams.

For this to be accurate, we need a scale that can do the following things:

  • Fast response time
  • Measures a minimum of 0.5 grams
  • Accurate

Shot Glass

A shot glass is necessary for collecting espresso liquid that flows out of the portafilter. Any kind of glass or vessel that fits under the portafilter will work – perhaps even your coffee cup. The thing to remember is to choose a vessel that can withstand the heat.

Espresso Roasted Beans

Coffee beans are typically roasted for one of two things: filter coffee or espresso coffee.

In the majority of cases, a coffee roaster will make espresso beans darker than filter beans. When we say darker, we are referring to beans color. How much darker is dependent on the roaster – and the way one roaster does their coffee filter may differ from another person’s way of doing beans for espresso.

The reason we roast darker for espresso comes down to the way darker roasted beans extract compared to lighter roasts. Darker beans mean the coffee has been roasted for a longer period of time. When beans are roasting, they become brittle, which allows the water to get into them and dissolve some of the coffee beans structure.

A darker roasted coffee extracts much faster and is stronger than filter roasted coffee. This is good because the espresso will typically brew at a lower temperature than filter coffee. This means it needs beans that will easily break down since it doesn’t have hot water as filter coffee does, and the brew time will be less. Espresso coffee is typically mixed with milk, which means we need a stronger coffee to cut through the milk flavors.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use a coffee that’s been roasted for filter coffee in an espresso machine. And, if you do everything just right, it will still taste great. It may be just a bit lighter, fruity or floral than you’d get with espresso roasted beans.

To get the best extraction and crema, you want to use freshly roasted ground coffee (usually five to 15 days after being roasted).

4 Types Of Espresso Machines You Can Use

Single Boiler

A single boiler espresso machine is what it sounds like – a machine with one boiler (a single source of hot water). Any hot water the machine needs – be it for pulling an espresso shot or stream milk – all comes from here.

This can present several problems, but the biggest issue is the difference in temperature necessary between water for steaming and water for brewing. Steam water must be hotter, so depending on the machine, the brew water may be too hot (can lead to over-extraction). Or, it could be that the steam water isn’t hot enough, which will mean the machine can’t generate a good microfoam.

A single boiler machine means you can’t heat milk and pull a shot simultaneously. You’ll need to do one first then wait for the single boiler to reheat before you can do the other.

That does not mean a single boiler espresso machine isn’t capable. In fact, most single boilers in the lower-end espresso machines are a good option for beginners (people who don’t want to spend a lot in the beginning).

Dual Boiler

A dual (double) boiler espresso machine has two boilers, which means tour sources of hot water – one to brew and one to steam milk. Dual boilers are found in commercial espresso machines and provide the highest amount of control and consistency.

Users of dual boiler espresso machines can change the temperature of the brew boils, which gives you some semblance of control.

Heat Exchanger

A heat exchanger works by running a small pipe of a specific length through a single boiler. As the room temperature supply water runs through the pipe, the water heats up to a specific brew temperature and is pumped through the portafilter. There are some positive and negative aspects of the heat exchange espresso machines.

Since the water is heated as it comes through the pipe, instead of the boiler itself, there is more of a water temperature variation from the beginning to end of the brew cycle. The water running through at the beginning will be very hot, and as it goes toward the end of the shot, is cooled down significantly. This will cause an unpredictable and uneven extraction.

The benefit of heat exchanger machines is that the brew water will be temperature-optimized for brewing, and because the steam and brew water comes from different places, both can be done at the same time. Some people actually prefer heat exchangers over dual boilers. Why? In dual boilers, the brew water sits in the boiler for some time, whereas the heat exchanger always has fresh brew water.

Pump Type (Rotary vs. Vibe)

Any electric espresso machine that doesn’t have a lever will need a pump in order to have water flow through the machine. Your espresso machine will either have a rotary pump or vibration pump. A rotary pump is made of two parts – a motor (which is rather large) and the pump itself (which is pretty small). A vibration pump is small and is all-in-one. Most commercial espresso machines have a rotary pump because of how reliable they are. Vibration pumps are designed for smaller home espresso machines. Here’s what you should know about the two types:

Rotary Pump

  • Bigger and heavier
  • Quieter
  • More consistent and lasts longer
  • More expensive
  • Can be plumbed in or a tank used for the water supply

Vibration Pump

  • Smaller and lighter
  • Cheaper
  • Cannot be plumbed into the main water supply so a water tank must be used

4 Types Of Espresso Machine Models You Can Choose From

Now, you need to choose which machine model you want. There are four categories to choose from:

  • Capsule
  • Manual lever
  • Semi-automatic
  • Automatic

Each one can produce quality espresso, but the experience in use varies significantly.

Capsule/Pod

The rise in capsule coffee makers led to the development and popularity of single serve pod espresso machines. They’re basically a capsule/pod coffee maker with a steam wand to steam milk. These are single boiler machines and very easy to use. They also don’t take up a lot of space. The biggest downside to these machines is that they don’t produce high-quality coffee when using standard Nespresso or Keurig K-Cup pods.

Manual Lever

These probably not beginner-user friendly because they are fully manual and require a lot of learning to actually work properly. But, in saying that, they do give you more bang for your buck. Why? The pressure to brew the coffee isn’t created by a motor in the machine but by the lever that users pull down on.

Levee machines come in various sizes – from home kitchen to commercial. If you have space for your toaster and kettle, you probably have space for a beautiful manual level machine. They are not ideal machines for the office because of the difficulty in getting a great shot.

Semi-Automatic Programmable

Semi-automatic coffee machines tend to do most of the heavy lifting. Machine users will press a paddle or turn a paddle that causes the mechanical pump to start working – forcing the water through the portafilter. Yes, there is a learning curve with these machines as well, but not as much as the lever machine. They are the perfect middle ground for control and usability, but the downside is the price (especially for a really good one).

Semi-automatic machines come in various sizes. Commercial espresso machines are often semi-automatic, and the prices of the machines can vary significantly. A single group machine can run you anywhere from $100 to $10,000 – sometimes more!

If you want a machine for the home or in the office for the coffee geeks, this is the type of machine to go with.

Automatic

An automatic espresso machine does all the hard work – you just add the coffee and water, and the machine does the rest. Of course, this is also depending on whether or not the machine is plumbed into the water supply. Capsule coffee machines fall into this category.

The key benefits to the machines are how cheap they often are as well as how easy they are to use. The downside? They don’t typically generate high-quality coffee, making them ideal for people who just need a caffeine fix.

How To Choose An Espresso Machine

Now that you know what the key points are of an espresso machine and what to look for, it’s time to put the information to you and choose your espresso machine.

Performance

When you want a commercial grade coffee machine for your home, you want one that offers the gold standard. Now, what is considered gold standard? You want ones that can do the following:

  • Temperature control – can you control the machine’s temperature or is it self-control?
  • Reliability and power of the steam wand – a weak steam wand will produce poor quality microform.
  • Boiler capacity and type
  • Type of pump used
  • Build quality

Footprint

You can choose from automatic, lever or semi-automatic. There are all kinds of sizes to choose from. The machine you choose is based on the space you have. Determine where in the space your machine will be going and narrow down the coffee machine choices.

Ease of Setup

A fully automatic machine is very easy – just plug and go. Setup for a semi-automatic espresso machine can be a bit more complicated. Depending on the machine, you may need to have a special wall outlet installed (gives more power) and you may need or want to plumb the machine into the main water supply. If the machine is all plugged up and water is running through it, you may need to program your shots.

A lever machine is somewhere in the middle – you plug it in, add water and wait for it to heat up. Then, you brew your espresso.

Skill Level

Some machines have a steeper learning curve than others. If you’re after coffee for the caffeine or need one for the coffee-addicted zombies in the office, then an automatic machine may be all you need. If you see coffee as a craft – something you’ll perfect over time – then consider a semi-automatic or lever machine.

Convenience

As good as coffee coming out of a lever machine may be – or even as fun as they are to use – they are not convenient machines to use. A capsule machine was invented to be convenient. Some machines come with a built-in grinder, which grinds on demand and gets one point for being convenient. However, it loses points for performance has the grind quality is often poor.

Durability

No matter what machine type you choose, you want one that’s been well-built, as this will give you good espresso for a long time.

Maintenance

All espresso machine will need some type of maintenance – descaling, backwashing the machine or washing the portafilters, etc. There are some espresso machines that offer an auto-clean feature. Still, for your machine to operate as it should, you need to do regular maintenance on it.

If you live in an area where the water isn’t great, you may need to filter your water or buy bottled water (avoid using plastic bottles because of their impact on the environment). This is the case for any kind of coffee, filter or espresso but is very true for espresso. Harder water can lead to corrosion inside the pipes of the machine. You can learn more about how water affects the espresso machine here.

Budget

People typically just use budget to choose the right machine for them. Our espresso machine reviews are broken down into three price points:

  • Low – under $300
  • Mid – under $1,000
  • Premium - under $3,000

What Are The Best Espresso Machines On The Market?

When most of us think of an espresso machine, we think of its capability – not only to brew espresso but also its ability to steam milk. For that reason, we will only include machines in our review list that has both espresso and milk steam capabilities.

Ideal For Beginners

Those wanting to dip their toes in the espresso world, begin the hobby and have some fun making espresso at home without breaking the bank.

De'Longhi ECP3420

De'Longhi ECP3420

The De’Longhi ECP3420 is simple little entry level machine.

Pros:

  • Footprint - Could fit in most kitchens with enough space for a toaster of a kettle
  • Ease of setup - Plug in, add water, let it heat up and you’re good to go
  • Budget - Low

Cons:

  • Performance – If performance is a must, look elsewhere, as this is not the machine for you
  • Maintenance – All parts need regular cleaning being a semi-automatic machine

Breville BES870BSXL Barista Express Coffee Machine

Breville BES870BSXL Barista Express Coffee Machine

A nice, mid-range home espresso option for people who want it all — grinder, tamper, espresso and steam wand. Everything needed to start your espresso adventures with the Breville espresso machine.

Pros:

  • Ease of setup - Plug in, add water, let it heat up and you’re good to go
  • Performance - Capable of making good espresso shots and microfoam milk
  • Budget – Mid-range; good price for what you get
  • Convenience - Built-in grinder
  • Durability - Well-built machine

Cons:

  • Footprint – May not fit in all kitchens
  • Maintenance – Must be cleaned regularly

Best Low Priced (under $300) Espresso Machine

Barsetto Espresso Machine

Barsetto Espresso Machine

The Barsetto Espresp Machine may be the best sub-$300 machine available.

Pros:

  • Ease of setup - Plug in, and you’re off
  • Footprint - Reasonably small
  • Budget - Low. The best at this price point
  • Durability - Stainless steel body

Cons:

  • Convenience - Semi-automatic
  • Performance - Performance will tend to suffer at this price point
  • Maintenance - Needs cleaning often, as with all semi-automatic espresso machines

Best Mid-Priced (under $1000) Espresso Machine

Gaggia 14101 Classic Semi-Automatic Espresso Maker

Gaggia 14101 Classic Semi-Automatic Espresso Maker

Gaggia is the only machines in this price point that uses a standard commercial 58mm sized portafilter.

Pros:

  • Performance - Capable of making good espresso shots and microfoam milk
  • Budget – Mid-range; the best option at this price point.
  • Durability - Well-built machine
  • Footprint - Reasonably small footprint
  • Performance - The closest to commercial grade for the price

Cons:

  • Maintenance - Cleaning is a must for best results
  • Ease of setup - Machine does need to be flushed before using
  • Convenience - Semi-automatic machine means you do most of the work

Best Premium (under $2000) Espresso Machine

Nuova Simonelli Oscar II

Nuova Simonelli Oscar II

The Oscar II is a very capable heat exchanger espresso machine with standard 58mm baskets.

Pros:

  • Ease of setup – Fairly easy setup
  • Budget – Premium; good quality for what you pay
  • Performance - Super capable machine
  • Durability – Well-made

Cons:

  • Convenience - Semi-automatic
  • Footprint - Doesn’t have the smallest footprint
  • Maintenance – Needs cleaning often

Great For The Office

A machine that anybody can use with no training necessary to get a fast cup of coffee.

Breville Nespresso Creatista Single Serve Espresso Machine

Breville Nespresso Creatista Single Serve Espresso Machine

The Nespresso Creatista is a fully automatic capsule espresso maker with a steam wand.

Pros:

  • Footprint - Takes up little space
  • Ease of setup - Just plug it in and add some water
  • Convenience – Just add a capsule.
  • Durability - Well-built machine
  • Maintenance – Doesn’t need a lot of maintenance

Cons:

  • Budget – Mid-range; more expensive than most capsule coffee makers
  • Performance - Capsule machines generally produce poor quality coffee if using the standard pods

Breville Oracle Touch Fully Automatic Espresso Machine

Breville Oracle Touch Fully Automatic Espresso Machine

A cool—almost fully automatic— touchscreen espresso machine by Breville. This machine performs all the actual coffee making functions on its own, but you have to load the coffee and the milk into the machine and milk pitcher. This is by far the best of the automatic espresso machines we’ve seen.

Pros:

  • Convenience - Almost fully automatic
  • Ease of setup - Touchscreen can walk you through the setup
  • Performance - Dual boiler; 58mm baskets
  • Durability – Well-made

Cons:

  • Footprint - Large footprint
  • Budget - Premium
  • Maintenance - Needs maintaining like a semi-automatic, but the machine can walk you through this via the touchscreen

Gaggia Brera Super Automatic Espresso Machine

Gaggia Brera Super Automatic Espresso Machine

A small footprint, fully automatic espresso machine made by Gaggia.

Pros:

  • Ease of setup – Just plug it in
  • Footprint - Small footprint compared to other fully automatic machines
  • Durability - Decent build quality
  • Convenience - Fully automatic

Cons:

  • Performance – No high-quality espresso or milk
  • Maintenance – Needs cleaning but the machine gives you alert for when it’s time
  • Budget – Midrange; could get a better semi-automatic machine for the same price

Gaggia Anima Prestige Automatic Coffee Machine

Gaggia Anima Prestige Automatic Coffee Machine

The Gaggia Anima is a fully automatic coffee machine that does everything for you.

Pros:

  • Ease of setup – Easy setup
  • Convenience - Have coffee with the push of a button
  • Durability - Solid machine

Cons:

  • Footprint – Unlikely to fit in every kitchen
  • Performance - Most fully automatic machines don’t produce great results
  • Maintenance - Regular cleaning necessary
  • Budget – Premium; still could do better with other machines for the price

For Home Baristas and Hardcore Coffee Geeks

These are machines for those who want to experiment, obsess and get geeky over their coffee. These people keep a coffee journal and write down everything they do that relates to coffee – when anything less than third wave café quality is unacceptable.

La Pavoni EPC-8

La Pavoni EPC-8

The EPC-8 is a beautiful little lever espresso machine by La Pavoni.

Pros:

  • Ease of setup - Plug it in and wait for it to heat up
  • Footprint - Small footprint
  • Budget – Premium; on the lower end of the premium price range, but still get a lot.
  • Durability – Heavy-duty stainless steel body
  • Performance - Produces beautiful shots and milk

Cons:

  • Convenience - Certainly more work than an automatic or even semi-automatic
  • Maintenance – Maintenance necessary

Breville BES920XL Dual Boiler Espresso Machine

Breville BES920XL Dual Boiler Espresso Machine

The Breville is an extremely capable, dual boiler espresso machine.

Pros:

  • Performance - Can brew very legitimate espresso
  • Ease of setup - Easy setup
  • Durability – Good build quality
  • Budget – Premium; great quality with dual boiler for the price

Cons:

  • Convenience - Steep learning curve to making great espresso
  • Footprint - Won’t fit in every kitchen
  • Maintenance - Needs to be cleaned like any other semi-auto machine

Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine

Rancilio Silvia Espresso Machine

The Silvia is a single boiler espresso machine with standard commercial sized 58mm portafilters.

Pros:

  • Ease of setup – Easy installation and setup
  • Footprint - Small footprint
  • Performance - 58mm baskets; great espresso is possible
  • Durability – Well-made machine
  • Budget - Lower end of the premium price range

Cons:

  • Convenience - Semi-automatic
  • Maintenance – Must be cleaned like any other semi-automatic

5 Common Issues You Might Experience With An Espresso Machine

Why no crema? My coffee is thin and weak.

  • If your coffee is weak and thin with no crema, be sure you’re using the right amount of coffee for the water amount you’re using. We recommend a 1:2 ratio as a starting point — for example, 20 grams of coffee for 40 grams of espresso. Be sure you’re using freshly roasted and ground coffee beans and that the 40 grams espresso shot is extracting in about 30 seconds.

Why does my espresso taste bitter and sour?

  • Sour coffee is an indication of under-extraction. If your coffee tastes sour, your coffee shots are running too fast. You want shots running at 30 seconds so make your coffee grind finer until you achieve that. Bitter coffee may be the result of using robust coffee beans, coffee that’s been roasted too hard or over-extracting. For the first two issues, all you can do is throw the coffee in the trash. For the third issue, grind a little courser until the shot runs for about 30 seconds.

I have water leaking from my espresso machine.

  • Espresso machines have many seals and gaskets, which need to be maintained in good condition and fitted properly. Connect all draining water houses properly and look to ensure the water reservoir or the drip isn’t overflowing.

Why is my steam wand not working?

  • It may have become blocked. Remove the tip to clean it. For removable steam wands, take it out and clean it using a pipe cleaner. Purge the steam wand after each use.

Why is no espresso coming out?

  • If the coffee grounds are too fine, it may have resulted in choking because water is unable to get through and the portafilter has become blocked. A courser grind will fix the issue. Clean the showerheads and make sure the water runs through without the portafilter in.

There you have it – our ultimate espresso guide. If you love home espresso, what has your journey been like? What espresso machine is your favorite? What is your home coffee setup like? We’d like to know. Leave us a comment sharing the espresso love. You can also check out our drip coffee maker and pour over coffee guides to learn more about them and our recommendations.

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