Imagine it – there was once a time when you couldn’t make espresso in your own kitchen! Fortunately, those days are long behind us. With what you spend on a twice-a-week espresso from your local café in a year, you can purchase a fantastic in-home espresso machine of your very own.
You’ve decided to bite the bullet and invest in a machine of your own, but you want to be sure of your decision. Espresso machines offer you a lot of room to play and experiment – this isn’t just a tricked-out percolator – and at this price point, it’s worth taking time to educate yourself. Read our reviews and buyer’s guide for insights into your best options.
|Rancilio Silvia HSD-SILVIA|
|Breville BES870XL Barista|
(Best for the Money)
The Rancilio Silvia HSD-Silvia is a popular household espresso machine, with good reason. First and foremost, it makes good espresso. Whether you are a rookie or a professional barista, you’ll be able to consistently pull terrific espresso. Even though it provides a variety of variables to play with, satisfying all the experimenters looking to tinker, it remains easy enough for the novice to operate effectively. It comes with the features you’d want – an articulating wand for frothing milk, a brass portafilter that retains heat, an accommodating drip pan. But one of its most-lauded attributes is its durability. When they die, after a long life, people run out and buy them again. The chief complaint is that it comes with a flimsy plastic tamper, an easily remedied flaw. (Note that it doesn’t come with a built-in grinder, but the vast majority of espresso devotees will want to research and purchase the perfect separate burr grinder anyway.)
The Breville BES870XL Barista is a great buy in the pricey world of home espresso machines. It comes with an onboard grinder, PID digital temperature control, a pressure gauge, and a variety of useful accessories. For those who think of good espresso as a science, this machine gives you great bang for your buck. Where it fails to match our Top Pick, though, is in longevity. You won’t have this Breville for a decade, and you won’t be impressed with the customer service when it does break. But if you’re on the fence about stepping into the world of household espresso machines, or you’re unwilling to consider a four-digit price point, this is a serviceable machine for novices.
The DeLonghi ESAM3300 is a super-automatic espresso machine so it will have a perfect cup ready and waiting for you three minutes after you merely press a button. Users love that they can skip nearly all the messy and time-consuming steps and still get café quality coffee in their own kitchen. But this DeLonghi comes with some potentially serious drawbacks. Although prior DeLonghi models have been crowd-pleasers, many of this version seem to be lemons. With complaints ranging from merely defective on-board grinders to all-out mechanical failure, this machine is a risky purchase. To add to the frustration, customer service is very poorly regarded, with many users bemoaning DeLonghi’s complete lack of any responsiveness.
Is making good espresso an art or a science? This is not a question anyone would contemplate when buying a dishwasher, or a refrigerator, or most other household appliances. Either they do their jobs, or they don’t. You’ve decided you want good espresso, in your house, whenever the spirit moves you. You may know what that tastes like, but do you know what goes into creating it?
To make an informed purchasing decision, you need to understand some of the lingo used when talking about espresso machines:
Portafilter – A metal basket at the end of a handle. You put ground coffee into the basket. The handle protrudes from the front of most espresso machines. Ideally, your portafilter is made of brass, to help with heat retention.
Burr grinder – Coffee grinders can be “burr” grinders or “blade” grinders. The blade version has, as you’d expect, multiple blades that spin about and grind your beans down into coffee grounds. The burr grinder uses two revolving rough surfaces to squish your beans into grounds. Every espresso machine user insists on using a burr grinder because it creates much finer grounds, which in turn result in much better espresso.
Super-automatic – All the steps – grinding the beans, dosing and tamping the grounds, dumping of grounds afterward – are done for you at the touch of a button. A super-automatic machine is faster, easier, more convenient, and less messy (and usually more expensive), but it offers the barista fewer options to tinker with the output.
Tamp – When you put grounds into the portafilter, you’ll want to press them down into it. Many machines come with special tamping tools since you’ll not want to use your fingers. The difference in your tamping – light vs heavy – will produce different taste results.
Dosing – In the world of espresso machines, dosing is another word for measuring. How much coffee are you putting in the portafilter, by volume or weight?
PID – PID is a scientific acronym and mechanism that can help control the temperature swings of your espresso machine. You can purchase a separate PID gizmo to attach to some espresso machines to very specifically control the temperature. They are pricey, and you need some know-how to hook them up, but they can give you the precise temperature for every espresso you make, significantly improving flavor consistency.
Puck – Not a character from a Shakespeare play, but just the used-up grounds left in the portafilter after you’ve made your espresso. (You’ll want to throw away the puck.)
Pods – If you like the idea of homemade espresso but don’t always have the time or inclination to grind and dose and tamp, you can use espresso pods instead. They’re like Keurig pods for espresso machines.
Knock box – You might decide to put a designated container next to your machine into which you put your pucks. That container is called a knock box.
Drip pan – Your machine will dribble or miss the cup sometimes, and these drips will wind up in the drip pan underneath the target cup. Depending on how messy you are, you’ll need to dump this frequently or only occasionally.
Steam wand – You know your espresso machine will probably make cappuccinos, too, right? Many machines come with an attached steam wand you can insert into a container of milk to froth it.
Grouphead – This is the section of your machine into which you slide the portafilter. The grouphead contains the “showerhead” through which hot water passes on its way to your coffee grounds.
Temperature – You’ll hear a lot about temperature when learning about espresso machines since it is one of the primary factors that determine taste. Colder water makes for blander espresso and hotter water makes for a more bitter version. Precise and consistent brewing temperature is also desirable, as wild fluctuations in water temperature will produce a less than tasty espresso.
Now you’ve got a handle on all the vocab you’re going to see when reading about espresso machines. What else do you need to know to make your home espresso as good as a restaurant’s?
There are several factors that combine to make a good cup of espresso, but it is universally agreed that the #1 most important is the beans. High quality, freshly ground, and properly ground beans are paramount. You should be prepared to grind beans for each and every cup you make; no grinding an entire pound and letting it sit on the countertop all week. In addition to grinding immediately prior to use, you also must use a burr grinder. Blade grinders can’t make a fine enough grind and will give you a weak and watery espresso.
Once you’ve got your beans ready, the next things to think about are dosing and tamping. Obviously, the amount of coffee you use is going to impact flavor, and certainly, if you tamp aggressively, you’ll use even more coffee. Tamping compresses the grounds (uniformly, if done properly) so that water flows through all of it at the same rate. No water will rocket through, barely having touched a ground, if you’ve thoroughly compressed it all into the portafilter basket. There are even a variety of tools, some quite expensive, to aid you in achieving an optimal tamp.
Different roasts and bean blends will also have a tremendous impact on the final product. You might be happy with beans available at the supermarket, but there’s a whole world of fancy beans out there to explore, too.
As you embark on making the perfect espresso, you’ll want to juggle all these variables: type of bean, roast of bean, freshness of grind, fineness of grind, water temperature, dosing, and tamping. This gives you a lot of room to play and experiment, but if you’re more interested in the drinking than the making, you’ll want to look at the super automatics, since they control most of those factors for you.
One last thing to keep in mind – you’re going to want a lot of counter space for your espresso operation. The machines themselves aren’t small, plus all the related gear – coffee beans, water pitcher, milk pitcher, clean up rags (because making espresso at home can get messy), spoons, knock box – is going to take up a lot of space. As you shop around, you’ll notice that most machines have been designed with an eye towards aesthetics, not just function, so at least they won’t be an eyesore sitting out on your countertop.
All our reviews point to the Rancilio Silvia HSD-Silvia as your best option in the under $1,000 household espresso maker market. Easy to use for the novice, fun to fiddle with for the aspiring barista, and a long lifespan combine to make this an obvious Top Pick.
But if you’re watching your pennies or unwilling to fork over serious money for what might seem like just a fancy coffee maker, you can hedge your bets with the Breville BES870XL Barista. It’s a great starter machine and will tide you over with good espresso until you’re ready for something more hardcore.
An espresso machine is a big purchase, but it’s one you’ll likely use every day. And after a year or so, you’ll be saving money, compared with stopping at your local coffee shop a few times a week. Factor in the fun and the novelty, and you’ve made a serious impact on your kitchen as well as your lifestyle. We hope these reviews helped you get one step closer to pulling the trigger on this purchase.
Learn more about espresso machines:
Best Iced Coffee Makers 2019 – Reviews & Top Picks
Best Nespresso Machines 2019 – Top Picks & Reviews
Best Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines 2019 – Top Picks & Reviews
Best Coffee Makers with Grinders (Grind & Brew) – Reviews & Top Picks 2019
Best Kona Coffee Brands of 2019 – Reviews & Buyer’s Guide