Espresso Machine Buying Guide
Buying an espresso machine? Is it your first? Second?? Third??? No matter, it can still seem a daunting task going through all this plethora of categories, features, models, and marketing pitches. In this guide I will try to make it very easy to choose, because it can be!
First, Know Thyself! You have been to coffeehouses and already know what you like and what not. Be honest, is your budget tight or would you like to have the best coffee possible? Do you want it to be fast, easy and clean, or would you like to get your hands dirty, like a true Italian barista? Last but not least, measure the available counter top space and make sure it fits…
Okay, believe it or not the tough part is over. Take a look at the table below and choose the most appropriate machine type based on budget and preferences. In the price ranges below, you will get good machines; try to avoid models that are priced below these ranges … especially if you are aiming for a robust office espresso machine. Further, within each category, paying more gets you more. Easy!
[Optionally, continue reading below the table for information on each machine type.]
Espresso Machine Buying Guide Table
Espresso Machine Type
Ease of use
|Home||Good||Okay||$20-$60||Optionally add a $20 milk frother|
|Home||Excellent||Very challenging||~$800||Optionally add coffee grinder|
|Home||Excellent||Challenging||$500-$1500||Optionally add coffee grinder|
|Home/Office||Good||Easy||~$1,000||Built-in coffee grinder,
Auto milk frothing possible
|Home/Office||Good||Easy||~$300||Proprietary expensive capsules|
Stove Top Mocha Pots
These specialized pots come in various sizes based on the number of cups each makes. They take in water and ground coffee and are placed on the stove for a few minutes. That’s it really.
Just note, because they are not able to reach the 9 bar pressure required for espresso, the resulting brew is called mocha. The best mocha pot is the Brikka from Bialetti. Through some ingenious tricks, it is able to provide higher pressure and yield a good cup of coffee. When combined with Bialetti’s Tuttocrema milk frother, or a similar product, one can actually get a delicious latte cup. This is a safe first step that is much easier and cheaper than a full blown espresso machine.
Manual/Lever Espresso Machines
The lever espresso machine is pretty much located at the opposite ends of the scale when it comes to ease-of-use and cup’s quality. On the one hand, the resulting cup can be (with proper technique) unbelievable. On the other hand one needs to work hard, over time, to establish the proper barista technique.
The original lever machines, representing the first true espressos, where developed by Achille Gaggia in 1948. Today, the lever machines are used mainly by passionate coffee geeks’ to present not only great coffee but also incredible machine designs.
Semi Automatic Espresso Machines
The semi automatic espresso machines are completely main stream these days. They represent a good compromise between the good coffee they produce, the reasonable technique level that is required, and the relatively affordable price levels.
Here you brew the coffee at the press of a button, but you still need to work on getting the ground coffee into the right place, and yes, clean after you are done…
These kinds of machines fit those of us that would like to make no compromises in terms of the coffee quality, and are willing to invest some time and effort in perfecting their technique. In fact, many of the products in this category also allow you to use espresso pods, for a quicker and cleaner process; just don’t expect the same results as when using freshly ground coffee.
Super Automatic Espresso Machines
The super automatic espresso machines are a different breed. They go a large step forward when it comes to ease-of-use. Press a button and….well, that’s it actually. These machines will fresh ground your coffee, brew it, and some will even froth your milk automatically - an all-in-one package that leaves you little to do but drink... The coffee is good, just not as good as it could be if pulled manually.
This is an excellent choice if “unskilled” people are likely to use it. An office machine will also need to have a larger boiler and a robust build out.
Capsule Espresso Machines
Welcome to the world of branded coffee. The most famous espresso capsule systems in the world come from Nespresso (Nestle) and Lavazza. The capsule and the machine form a proprietary system that allows the resulted cup to be of good (but not great) quality, although it is not grinded fresh, nor pulled manually.
This is in fact the most popular espresso system in Europe, mainly due to the ease-of-use. Just plug the capsule and press a button. Once done, dump the capsule and that’s it. You can also choose your coffee by the cup which is a big plus for an environment with many users.
The unique combination of a good cup of coffee, fast, and clean, does come for a price though. Generally, a cup of coffee from these machines cost twice as much as a similar cup from any of the others…and switching for another brand is unfortunately not possible.
Pod Espresso Machines
Many of the semi-automatic espresso machines also double as pod machines. The pod system is very similar to that of the capsule. It provides a clean and quick way of making an espresso. Insert the pod in the handle (portafilter) and run the hot water through it with a push of a button. Once done, take it out. Easy!
Also you can buy pods from an endless list of suppliers which allows the price to be nearly half that of the capsules. However, keep in mind that since this is not a closed proprietary system, like the capsule one, the quality may be at times somewhat compromised.
This will fit well a household with a mixed bag of users. Some who wish the best coffee possible and do it manually, and some who wish the convenience of the pods.