Beautiful espresso! There really isn’t anything quite like it. That alluring look of the bronze-hued crema, that enticing aroma, that insane taste that makes you want to do the Macarena; simply heavenly!
But most coffee joints will charge you up to $4 for a cup of your favorite drink. Yup, that’s $4 for that Cappuccino you swear you’d die without. $4 for that Machiatto you keep having erotic dreams about; hands down the sweetest way to blow through your 401k. But is there a way you can have your cake and, ermmm, drink it too?
Of course there is! Get your very own espresso machine.
Now, these babies cost considerably more than your regular drip coffee maker. So you must do your homework lest you drop hundreds of dollars on a total flop.
But it’s very easy to get bewildered in this modern market where technology moves faster than you can blink. No worries though. With this guide on how to pick the best espresso maker, you’re sure to find the espresso maker of your dreams.
Espresso Machine Buying Guide Checklist
First, there are some factors you ought to carefully consider when picking the best espresso machine for your needs.
Comsumption: Just how much joe can you chug? Coffee makers come in a variety of capacities and configurations. So you need to determine how many cups you knock back in a day and just how fast you do that.
Taste: Sit down, go through the receipts from your local coffee shop, and once you’re done hyperventilating at the sight of all those zeros, figure out what kind of espresso you normally go for. While most modern machines are equipped to whip up a number of varieties, some are better armed than others. If you’re a die-hard Latte fan for instance, a coffee maker with a milk frother might come in handy.
Space: Some of these machines can be massive! And having to brew from the garage because your kitchen is way too small is just bait for the DEA. So first ascertain how much counter space you have to spare, then look at the product description and ensure that it will actually fit.
Skill Set: We all weren’t born with the barista gene. While it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out most of the machines, it does take an artist to get that taste just right. But you won’t have to pay for art school because technology gets to handle that for you. Thanks to automated machines, you can push a couple of buttons and stand there and look pretty as it does most of the work. If you have the skills however, you can opt to go completely badass and get a manual version.
Types of Espresso Machines
These gatekeepers of deliciousness have been around for over 130 years now. They’ve become much easier, and safer, to use. But the underlying principle remains the same: push hot water through finely ground coffee at high pressure and produce a drink that makes everyone go bonkers.
Espresso machines are grouped in 3 main categories according to the mode of creating pressure: steam-driven, piston-driven and pump-driven.
Steam-Driven Espresso Makers
These were the first espresso makers to hit the scene and are the cheapest of the whole lot. They work by heating water in a sealed chamber and using the steam produced to force water through some coffee. But you do get what you pay for. They often produce bitter brew due to the incredibly high water temperature and produce less-than-ideal crema as the pressure simply isn’t enough.
Moral of the story is: if what you’re after is espresso that rivals what is in the various outlets, then simply steer away from steam-driven machines. But if your budget limits you to it, then it’s definitely better than nothing. And you can always pop into your friend’s house that owns the pump-driven kind and pretend you’re brainstorming on coffee blends.
Note: We do not recommend steam-driven espresso machines. But, if you are new to the world of espresso making or maybe on a tight budget and want to experiment with a cheaper entry-level machine, a steam-driven model will provide you with a starting point into the world of espresso!
Manual Espresso Machines
These are the machines you at times see in coffee shops and have ‘aficionado’ written all over them. Pressure is created by pulling down on a lever, which engages pistons to push the heated water through the coffee grounds. Having the right touch is crucial to operating a manual machine because inconsistent pressure will ultimately lead to inconsistent results.
It’s for you if:
- You’re a trained barista and can pronounce ‘Macchiato’ correctly.
Years of innovation have culminated in the revered pump-driven espresso maker. If you’d like to brew the perfect Americano or Cappuccino, then this is exactly what you need. Pressure here is created by an electric pump, with the machine ensuring it’s just right. Don’t get too overwhelmed with all the different pressure ratings out there. Espresso just needs about 9 bar to form a nice, rich crema. So as long as your potential coffee maker is rated above this, you can rest easy.
Pump-driven machines take care of all the technical nerdy stuff such as ideal pressure and temperature, but they offer a bit of room to let you infuse your signature into the brew. This level of wiggle room is what differentiates the various variants that include semi-auto, fully-auto and super automatic.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
Don’t let the name fool you. These bad boys are the darlings of the espresso world, reputed for their versatility and functionality. See, the problem with completely automating a process is losing that characteristic human touch. But semi-automatic machines combine the best of both worlds. All the foundational processes are regulated for you while you’re left with some headspace to get a bit creative.
Semi-autos remind the machine that you’re still the boss. They allow you to:
- Turn the pump on and off.
- Determine the resulting taste by adjusting the steam and water flow rate.
- Sit back and relax as the ideal pressure and temperature is set for you.
- Grind and tamp your own coffee to produce your signature brew.
It’s For You If:
- You don’t mind putting in a bit of work into brewing.
- You want to fine-tune the whole process and create a unique cup of joe.
- You’re going to invest in a high quality burr grinder.
- Getting that perfect espresso is a matter of life and death.
Fully-Automatic Espresso Machines
There isn’t much difference between fully-autos and semi-autos. The distinctive feature of these coffee makers is the machine-regulated water flow. You don’t have the freedom of tweaking it as is the case with the semis.
You might view this is a positive thing if you’re not too keen on adjusting numerous settings. But you end up losing an option to tweak that cup of coffee.
VIDEO: The Differences Between a Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine and a Super-Automatic Espresso Machine
If you value convenience more than anything in the world, then this is the machine for you. All you have to do is program it initially and then wait for the deliciousness to come pouring in. It might be quite the investment, but what you get in return is a little robot that does everything but grab the morning paper. These miracle workers will grind the beans, regulate temperature, time and pressure, neatly dispose the used grounds in a little bin and pour out that shot of paradise just for you.
- Contains a built-in bean grinder.
- Does the tamping for you.
- Can connect to a water line, automatically filling the reservoir.
- May come with a milk frother and dispenser.
It’s For You If:
- You’re willing to drop quite a bit of coin.
- You don’t mind losing a bit of creative control.
- You’re looking for an incredibly easy-to-use machine.
Capsule (Pod) Coffee Makers
Now, if you want to save yourself all of the hassle, capsule machines were made with you in mind. They are essentially Super Automatics with an ultra-convenient twist.
Most of the espresso machines you’ll come across will expect you to either fill them with pre-ground coffee or with beans. But that’s not the case with these newest kids on the block. To whip up your morning caffeine buzz, all you need to do is insert a capsule containing tightly-pressed coffee, press a button, and voila! Amazing espresso without having to deal with the regular unused grounds. The coffee capsules can be bought online or at your local store, and they include an exciting array of blends to unleash your taste buds on.
Here are some pros of the Pod (Capsule) Coffee Machines:
- Absolutely straightforward to operate.
- Reduces cleaning times remarkably.
- Large choice of blends to choose from.
Here are some cons of the Pod (Capsule) Coffee Machines:
- Expensive to acquire and run.
- You’re stuck with whatever blends that are on offer.
- Don’t come equipped with extras such as milk frothers or dispensers.
It’s For You If:
- Cleaning absolutely drives you nuts.
- Simplicity is the name of your game.
- The high initial cost doesn’t faze you.
Air-Driven Espresso Machines
Technology is a beautiful thing; always trying to make our lives even easier. God bless it. The latest iteration to the espresso machine is the air-driven mechanism that creates the pressure needed to drive the hot water by using air. These machines haven’t quite hit their stride yet in regards to the mass market, but they promise to be smaller and ultra-portable. So look out for them!
When shopping around for an espresso machine, you’ll definitely come across different configurations of boilers being thrown around. The boiler is what is used to heat the water and create steam required to froth the milk.
The most expensive espresso machines come equipped with dual boilers, with one dedicated to heating the water and the other laser-focused at producing steam.
This makes for a truly quick brewing process as brewing and steaming takes place simultaneously
The nest tier consists of Single Boiler; Heat Exchangers. These feature one boiler, but you can still brew and steam at the same time as water is maintained at very high temperatures.
And lastly, you have Single Boiler; Dual-Use Setups. They use a thermostat to shift heat and can't multi-task like their bigger cousins.
Accessories You Need To Consider
Not too fast. So you’ve finally picked your dream espresso maker and are grinning from ear to ear. Congratulations. But depending on your choice, there are a couple of accessories that you need to have in mind so as to enjoy the full potential of your pick.
If you’ve opted for the for a capsule or Super Automatic coffee maker, then this won’t be much of an issue. Anything else and you need to pay utmost attention to this. The life of your espresso is at stake!
Getting a good grind on your beans is core to producing that absolutely heavenly crema. So, pretty please, don’t cheap-out on a grinder!
Blade grinders may be cheap, but they rarely produce consistent results that are crucial to a good espresso. Even worse, they can burn the coffee beforehand and mess up everything at the get-go.
For insanely great tasting brew, go for a burr grinder that produces a uniform grind every single time. They won’t come cheap, but the investment is more than worth it.
Ever see baristas knocking the machine a bit as they load the grounded beans? That’s not some ancient voodoo ritual. It’s called tamping. It allows the grounds to sit in the filter basket just right so that the high-pressured water hits them perfectly.
Go a bit too crazy with the tamping and you’ll have a bitter-tasting crema; too light and the brew will be weak.
That’s why a good tamper is essential.
The espresso machine may come with one, but if you’re really concerned about brewing a perfect cup, you ought to grab your hands on a better-crafted tool.
There's your comprehensive guide on how to pick the best espresso machine. No more blowing your kids' college fund on Americanos.
You can now brew your favorite drinks right from the comfort of your home, saving yourself the awkwardness of standing in line and have a complete stranger breathe down your neck.
Whatever you settle on; be it Semi-Automatic or Super Automatic; dual-boiler or single, remember to make a toast to all those pioneers who made these machines possible.