Espresso Machine Buying Guide
If you’ve spent any time surfing around this happy little caffeine-fueled world, you may have realized that buying an espresso machine is not as easy as just plucking one off the shelf. It takes a little more consideration than buying a regular coffee maker, and you will probably spend a lot more time actively using it than you would a coffee maker of the same grade. That doesn’t make either one better or worse, but it does show that espresso drinks take a little bit more effort to make and require a little bit more practice before they’re perfect.
Once you realize you’re in for something a little more complicated than a typical coffee maker, it can get a little confusing even figuring out where to begin. If you start by looking at machines that are too high end, you might end up disappointed with the features available on machines in your price range. If you try to go too cheap, you might not be happy with the quality of the resulting drinks if you’re an espresso aficionado. There are more than a few things to consider, so let me lead you down the path to finding your own espresso paradise.
Before Anything Else…
Adults hear this a lot, probably because it’s one of the most important things to consider in any big or small decision or purchase. What’s your budget? How much wiggle room is there in your savings or paycheck for the purchase of this fancy new toy? You can get good espresso from almost any price range, but you typically get fewer features in machines with lower prices. That’s not a bad thing, though, and you can still get what you want without breaking the bank. Pick a solid number for your budget so you don’t get all crazy with yourself over super automation when your wallet can only support something in the $100-$200 range.
Making It Easy
If you want to make a quick decision without a whole lot of other information, this will bring it all down to one simple criterion. The more automation you get, the more you’re going to spend. That’s a pretty reliable indicator of just about everything we’re looking at. If you want to try something on the less expensive end, semi-automated machines are a good way to go because they’re not expensive and they still make good drinks. Automated is a little more expensive and offers a little bit more convenience. Super or fully automated will put a big hole in your wallet, but they do everything short of tying your shoes. Some of them even clean themselves.
You can learn more about the difference here, but the bottom line is: More automation = higher price.
Getting Steamy or Pumping Out What You Want
Another distinction between inexpensive and slightly more expensive machines is going to be found in how the coffee actually gets pulled out of the grounds. There are two ways that work, but only one is like a “real” espresso machine. Machines are split into steam driven and pump driven. Steam driven machines don’t actually push water through the grounds, so much as they brew the grounds with the steam from quickly heating water. It still tastes like espresso, but it isn’t exactly the same.
Pump driven machines, on the other hand, have actual pumps which move water through the boiler. After the water is heated, it’s pressurized and then pushed through the grounds with both speed and heat. The result is espresso that tastes like real espresso and not burned or charred beans. If you’re a stickler for espresso, pump driven is the only way to go. Even though there is pretty big price jump, if you’re that particular about your espresso, you won’t be happy with the results of a steam driven machine.
Beans Or Capsule System
One of the more recent advents in the espresso machine market gives you the ability to skip the beans altogether and make your espresso out of pre-ground and pre-portioned capsules. Price doesn’t affect this distinction quite so much because while one model may be less expensive than another, these machines can be much more expensive in the long run due to the price of the supplies. It really comes down to a matter of precision and personal preference.
Capsule machines do exactly what it sounds like they do. They take a small pod and brew what’s in the pod, rather than brewing the grounds that typically go in the machine. The result is espresso in the same amount as what you get with a real espresso machine, and often with similar taste.
The larger expense in this case, is actually after the fact. If you’re going to use your machine a lot, the capsules can get pricey pretty quickly. You pay a lot more per cup with the capsules than you do with beans you grind yourself. With these machines, you are paying for convenience, and for a lot of people (myself included) it can be worth it.
Also, most capsule machines are single function, so you will probably need to buy accessories like milk frothers to get a whole drink rather than simple espresso. You can get capsule machines with frothers already on board, but they cost almost as much as an entry level super automated machine which, in my opinion, pretty much defeats the purpose of the capsules.
How Many Boilers Does One Machine Need?
Again, it depends on how much you want to spend and what you want to be able to do while everything else is going. A single boiler machine can only heat one thing at a time. It’s either brewing espresso or steaming milk — not both at the same time. A double boiler machine will be slightly more expensive, or even a lot more expensive, but it will make the milk while the espresso is brewing up all hot and fresh. I’m a multi-tasker, so I’ll take a double even though it’s more expensive. In the long run, it saves me enough time and effort to make it worth the higher initial price.
To Froth Or Not To Froth
One of the more interesting items on this list is the existence of the milk frother. It’s interesting to me not because of the functionality it adds, but because it’s a decision that can’t be based on price. Some of the lower end machines have perfectly suitable frothers, while some of the higher end machines have almost nothing to offer but a little bit of hot air. You can’t just expect to get a better frother on a higher priced machine, even though it seems like a reasonable expectation.
The other distinction here, however, is whether you want a machine with a frother or without. Again, it’s a decision that can’t reliably be based on price. The $50 intro steam machine comes with a frother that works passably well, but some of the more expensive capsule machines don’t come with one at all. Price matters, but it might not matter in this instance. Plus, you can always buy a separate milk frother.
One of the choices in features that is extremely dependent on price is the existence of an on board grinder. If you want the machine to weigh, grind and move the beans for you, you’re going to pay for it. In general, that’s a feature that only comes on super or fully automated machines. You can save a lot of money by getting a good machine without an on board grinder, but then you’ll have to pay extra to buy a grinder because pre-ground espresso really doesn’t taste the same.
If this is the route you want to go, make sure to read my full grinder information page and/or have a look at my line-up of grinders
Get Your Clean On
Cleaning an espresso machine can be a super involved process, and if that’s not something you’re up for, you might want to save up until you can get a more expensive machine. A lot of the higher end units have self-cleaning abilities that make it so you don’t have to take the machine apart every few months and remove the buildup that can cause issues. If you’re okay with taking on that chore by hand, a lower priced machine should do just fine.
Another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of capsule machines have self-cleaning options because they have fewer parts and are more automated than comparably priced bean machines. That’s something which might help make your decision easier.
Do All The Thinking
If you’re trying to figure out what you want out of your espresso machine and you realize you want it to be able to make drinks without any thinking on your part, that could be the difference between lower priced or expensive, bean or capsule. Fully automated machines can be set to make drinks to your specifications so all you have to do is push a button. If that’s not important to you, a less expensive machine will do the trick pretty well. Otherwise, if it is important for you but you’re short on funds, a mid-range capsule machine will be the way to go.
Ready To Get Started?
Now that we’ve taken this walk together, you should be aware of the basic ins and outs that will let you make a good decision in choosing an espresso maker. Remember, there’s a machine that will make good espresso to fit just about every budget. You just have to decide how many optional on board features you are able and willing to pay for. The rest is entirely up to you.