Coffee lovers know that espresso has a distinctive charm all its own. Deep, concentrated and super complex, once you fall for espresso you’re hooked for life. Brewing a decent cup of espresso on demand at home, however, is tough. Most of the machines advertised as capable espresso coffee makers actually aren’t. If you buy one of these products you’ll curse what lands in your cup. Picking the right one though will mean sippingto your heart’s content.
The best home espresso machines have an advanced brewing process andlike a double portafilter basket for double shot drinks, and a milk frother and steam wand for a cup of cappuccino or a latte. These automatic machines don’t come cheap, and you can expect to pay at least $500 for something that whips up legit cafe-caliber espresso drinks (or an espresso shot, if that’s your thing). But when in doubt, try to remember how much you’ll be saving on all the lattes, cappuccinos and double shots you get from your coffee shop thanks to your espresso and cappuccino maker.
You can also drop as little as $100, if you’re willing to settle for a mediocre espresso, but I urge you not to pounce on products that cost less, especially if you plan on drinking espresso regularly. A seemingly affordable espresso machine may look like a bargain at first blush, but they’re often a waste of money and counter space, too.
For those on a budget, “espresso brewers” (in the $30 to $50 price range) typically lack motorized pumps and are powered by steam pressure alone. What they produce is reallycoffee, the sort of drink made by simple stovetop brewers; it won’t taste quite like the espresso you’re used to from the barista at your local coffee shop or cafe. That’s not inherently bad — it’s just not really espresso.
To find the best espresso machine for espresso lovers, I spent over 80 hours putting 10 available espresso machines through their paces. I limited my testing to manual espresso machines, not the ones that make espresso from pods or capsules. I also revisited three other espresso machines I reviewed previously. During the process, I made and sampled scores of espresso shots, double shots, lattes, cappuccinos and pitchers of steamed milk and milk froth. Basically, if it was a coffee drink, I made it. I also took into account other things like water reservoir and storage, water filter, control panel, grinding capabilities, automatic milk frother length (and its ability to steam and froth milk) and more.
After my experience, these are the three I’d qualify as the best home espresso machines. While they all get the job done and offer the essential features you need — like a steam milk frother, drip tray, substantial water reservoir, and easy-to-clean stainless steel base — the key differentiating factor between them is the price point. And how much you spend on an espresso machine does have a major impact on what type of coffee you’ll ultimately get.
I also limited this list to automatic machines and semiautomatic espresso machines. I excluded super-automatic espresso makers as well, sold by Krups, Philips, Miele and others. Those models are a breed apart, costing many times more ($2,000 to $3,000). I update this list periodically, and you’ll find my testing methodology below.
Still with me? Keep going, delicious espresso will soon be yours!
You can’t beat the Breville Barista Express and its combination of performance, features and price point. For less than $700, the machine’s formidable grinder pulverizes espresso beans, smart technology doses grounds directly into its portafilter basket, plus its sturdy frother steams milk well and makes thick foam. It also consistently pulled the best tasting shots of espresso in my test group.
The control panel may be a little intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of things, a delicious shot (or double shot) of espresso, latte or other coffee-based drink of choice will be your reward. Made from stainless steel, the Barista Express is a cinch to clean as well. And to seal the deal, Breville includes premium metal tools such as a handy dose trimmer and tamper.
I will note, though, that this machine does not offer a compact design. If counter space is at a premium in your kitchen, you may want to look at the next machine on the list to make your cup of coffee.
For those who crave great espresso at home but are nervous about getting the technique down, the Breville Bambino Plus is the perfect choice. It’s dead simple to use and to keep clean. It’s also compact yet pulled delicious shots of espresso second only to Breville’s Barista Express. I especially appreciate how easy it is to froth milk with the Bambino. Just insert the steam wand into the Bambino’s stainless steel milk pitcher (included), then press one button. Less than a minute later, you’ll have expertly steamed milk foam ready for lattes and cappuccinos.
While it lacks its own coffee grinder, making an espresso, cappuccino or latte from the Cuisinart EM-100 has plenty going for it. This espresso machine has a compact design but is powerful enough to brew from fine coffee grounds. It also pulled flavorful espresso shots, second only to the Breville Barista Express in terms of quality, taste and strength. The machine features a long stainless steel frother for steaming milk and a built-in cup warmer heating element too. A solid espresso machine at about a third the price of the Breville.
How we test espresso machines
My evaluation process for espresso machines is similar to how I test standard drip coffee makers. First, I hand wash and dry all removable parts and accessories. For most espresso products, that includes the portafilter basket, metal portafilter inserts, water tank and so on. Next, I run one brewing cycle with just hot water to flush away any residual material from manufacturing.
Most espresso machines, save for fancy super automatic models, lack an integratedand I prefer to test with freshly ground coffee. So I supply my own grinder — the . I chose this grinder for two reasons. First, it’s calibrated more for espresso and less for drip or other brewing styles. That means it produces a grind that’s quite fine. Second, its grind size is also consistently uniform. Both factors are critical for a proper espresso brewing process.
To pull shots, I start with the suggested method outlined in a given machine’s product manual. Usually that covers the amount of coffee grounds expected per shot, along with any guidelines regarding coarseness level. Likewise, I follow tamping instructions (light, medium or hard tamp) if the manual provides them.
Whenever possible, I brew double shots of espresso for all my test runs. I make sure to record the weight of the grounds I use, plus the weight of espresso for each shot I pull. This data, along with readings from a portable refractometer, allows me to calculate two important percentages: total dissolved solids and extraction percentage.
And just like any coffee brew, the ideal extraction percentage for espresso is a range between 18% and 22%. This yields a balanced cup, assuming you perform an even and efficient extraction of coffee compounds from your grounds (both flavor and caffeine).
If you over-extract, you run the risk of leaching out unpleasant flavors (bitterness) after the good. On the opposite end of the scale, under extracted brews tend to have undeveloped flavors. Lacking sugars and other caramelized organic chemicals, these shots will taste sour, weak and watery.
Unlike making a cup of drip coffee, espresso should be concentrated. While excellent drip typically has a TDS percentage of 1.3 or 1.4, great espresso has a much higher percentage. The Breville Barista Express, for example, produced shots with TDS percentages as high as 12.4.
These shots I pulled were balanced though, with an extraction of 18.6%. The test beans I use are the same variety I employ for standard coffee makers — Costco Kirkland Colombian. It’s a medium dark roast, suitable for brewing espresso as well.
Lastly, I try my hand at frothing milk with each coffee machine equipped with a steam wand. I record the overall experience with the steam wand, whether the process is a snap, a tricky chore or somewhere in between.
Want more options for your cup of coffee? Check out this list of espresso machines I’ve tested in addition to the ones above.