How to Buy an At-Home Espresso Machine, According to a Coffee Expert

We reached out to a master barista for tips on picking the right machine.

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April 30, 2020
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Close up of coffee being brewed by the machine flowing through portafilter into the cup at cafe

Photo by: Kritchanut/Getty Images

Kritchanut/Getty Images

From concentrated cold brew to fluffy, Dalgona coffee, the options for how to make a morning pick-me-up have become far more intricate than a pot of drip-coffee and your favorite mug. There's always a new machine promising velvety coffee or more caffeine and, for us, it begs the question: Which are actually worth buying? If you’re trying to recreate a café-worthy beverage in your own kitchen, though, it’s nearly impossible to effectively pull a shot of espresso without the right equipment. And while there are many ways to do so, sometimes classic is best. We decided to focus on automatic and semi-automatic espresso machines to figure out which ones deserve a spot on your countertop.

We reached out to Giorgio Milos, the U.S.-based master barista for illy, to get some insight on what makes a good at-home espresso machine. First, Milos encouraged anyone looking to add a machine to their arsenal of home-brew options to think about their lifestyle and what will fit their day-to-day needs. While he is an advocate for pod espresso machines for a quick way to get a consistent shot of espresso, he believes investing in a machine that pulls fresh espresso like an automatic or semi-automatic, is worth the reward.

The Difference Between Automatic, Semi-Automatic and Capsule Espresso Machines

If you want to pull fresh espresso, you will need either an automatic or semi-automatic espresso machine. The main difference is whether or not you’re grinding the beans and tamping down the espresso yourself. An automatic machine will do the work for you: These machines will grind espresso beans for each individual shot, tamp down the grounds and pull your shot with the touch of a button. You’ll get a fresher shot than you would with a pod or capsule machine with the same level of ease.

If you want the reward of doing the work yourself, a semi-automatic machine is what you’re looking for. With this machine, you’ll grind, weigh and tamp your own ground espresso before pulling the shot. This takes more precision, attention to detail and time, but it is a great option for someone passionate about coffee looking to hone their at-home, coffee-making skills.

Milos still doesn’t turn away from capsule machines, though. These machines pull espresso from a pre-packaged pod of espresso grounds and can be used to brew quality espresso with little effort. “I have two machines at home, a professional manual espresso system that I’ll use on the weekend when I have time to calibrate the machine before brewing a shot of espresso,” says Milos, “and also a pod machine for weekdays when I want a consistently delicious espresso within a minute.”

The Signs of a Quality Espresso Machine

If you’ve decided that an automatic or semi-automatic machine is right for you, there are a few key features that you should look for. First, Milos says you should pay attention to the pressure pump system — it should have nine bars of pressure or more. For temperature, you want the machine to be able to get to a range of 194 and 201 degrees F. And, if you’re opting for an automatic machine, it’s important you pick one with a high-quality grinder like a flat or conical burr with medium rotation speed.

While having an attached steam wand might sound nice, it isn’t essential for a quality espresso machine. Giorgio cautions that, unless the machine has two heating systems, an attached steam wand might not be the most efficient process. “It’s common for consumer espresso machines to contain a single boiler or heat exchanger used to heat water for coffee and also for steam,” says Giorgio. “In this case, the user cannot make coffee and steam simultaneously, and there is a delay between these two operations.” If you’re looking for efficiency, he suggests opting for a separate milk frother or upgrading to a machine that has two heating units, though they tend to be more expensive.

How Much Should You Expect to Pay?

If you do a simple search for an at-home machine, you might find yourself overwhelmed with the wide range in both products and price ranges. It can be hard to decipher how much money you should spend, taking into consideration machine quality and whether the model is designed for your skill level. Again, Milos encourages a potential buyer to first decide your skill level and interest. “You can find espresso machines from $100 to up to several thousand dollars and beyond. We all want to have a Ferrari, but if you don’t know how to drive it, it’s a waste of money.”

At the most basic beginner level, consumers looking for a quick shot of espresso should pick a pod or capsule system, which typically range from $150 to $500. But, if you have a passion for coffee and are ready to graduate from pods, he suggests a semi-automatic machine with a quality grinder in the range of $500 to $1,500. For someone who wants fresh espresso with the ease of pressing a button, you’ll want a fully automatic machine with a built-in grinder. He cautions that these are the most expensive, typically costing around $2,000. No matter which system you pick, it’s equally important to remember to clean your machine every day as Milos ensures it will affect the quality of your espresso.

Who Is an Espresso Machine Best For?

If you worry an automatic or semi-automatic machine is too much for you, know that these machines are more accessible and user-friendly now than ever. There is a machine designed for someone at any level of the espresso- and coffee-making level. “At the end of the day, choosing the machine is less about the investment, per se. You need to think about your lifestyle and what will work for you day in and day out,” says Milos.

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