How to Choose A Good Espresso Machine

espresso

There’s coffee, and then there’s espresso. Those who aren’t connoisseurs sometimes lump them together (we’ve been guilty of that ourselves in our Buyer’s Guide to Coffee Makers), but for those particular about their favorite caffeinated beverage, the two don’t even compare.

When you make espresso, you start with a higher quality of coffee beans and then brew them through a process that produces a greater intensity of flavor than what you’d experience with your typical cup of American joe. A high-quality shot of espresso comes with a layer of delectable foam on the top called crema and can be drunken as is, or mixed with other ingredients to make any number of popular espresso beverages.

If reading that paragraph didn’t of make you thirsty for an espresso drink, then you’ll probably be content with a more traditional coffee brewer. However, if the idea of a dark, rich, foamy shot of espresso has got you itching to head out to your favorite coffee shop, then an espresso machine is a purchase that, while costly, could very well pay for itself in the months to come.

What You Can Make With An Espresso Machine

It’s possible you’re an espresso lover without realizing it. A lot of the most popular drinks at coffee shops are made with espresso, so if you typically order any of the items on the list below, an espresso machine may be worth considering.

If you own an espresso machine, any one of these can be made in your own kitchen for less money, as long as you have the proper ingredients and a little time to spend on them:

  • Espresso Shot (or double shot):

    This is the liquid just as it comes out of the machine. Many espresso lovers prefer drinking it in its natural state, which resembles a slightly darker version of black coffee.

  • Macchiato:

    Your espresso shot, with just a little bit of steamed milk on top to add some extra foam and temper the strong flavor.

  • Cappuccino:

    Like a macchiato, but with extra milk. A cappuccino is one of the most popular ways to drink espresso and easy to make at home if you have an espresso maker.

  • Latte:

    This is similar to a cappuccino, but with more milk and only a thin layer of foam.

  • Mocha:

    Like a cappuccino, but with chocolate added in.

Those are the main standards, but if you want you can always add extra touches based on your preferences like whipped cream, flavorings like hazelnut, caramel or peppermint, and even use alternatives to milk (although something like soy milk tends not to froth as well).

With an espresso maker in your home, you can experiment to your heart’s delight and produce concoctions that beat out the flavor of the drinks at your local coffee shop because they’re based on your personal preferences.

4 Types of Espresso Machines

The main difference you’ll find in the types of espresso makers on the market are how easy they are to use.

1. Manual Espresso Maker

Manual espresso machines are for those who don’t mind putting some work into their espresso. That extra work can pay off though, because manual espresso makers allow you to control every part of the process of making a shot of espresso so that you can potentially end up with the perfect shot. The other side of that is you can easily screw the espresso up if you don’t get it just right, and it can take some time to learn.

The most distinctive thing you’ll notice about these machines is the lever – some have a spring piston lever design and others a direct lever, the latter being a bit more work. Manual espresso makers are often attractive, almost as decorative as they are functional. They’re costly, but for the real connoisseurs willing to put the work in, they can produce a great shot of espresso.

Benefits:

  • This type of espresso machine produces high-quality and great tasting espresso.
  • You have more control over the process.
  • An attractive appliance to have on your countertops.
  • These espresso makers have a reputation for lasting a long time.

To Keep in Mind:

  • These units tend to be expensive.
  • May be difficult to use (and easy to mess up).
  • Only recommended for experienced baristas and connoisseurs.

2. Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine

Semi-automatic espresso machines have electric pumps, which immediately make them much easier to use than their manual counterparts. They give you a mix of the control that people like in manual machines (although not quite as much) and the ease of use that you start to see in the different types of automatic models. They’re the most popular type of espresso machine on the market today.

You can find some models that fall into a lower price range ($200-$400), but a lot of the nicer semi-automatic models on the market get into the thousands.

Benefits:

  • This type of espresso machine is easier to use than its manual counterpart.
  • You still have a high-level of control.
  • Can make high-quality and tasty shots of espresso.
  • There are many affordable models available from reputable brands.

To Keep in Mind:

  • Some models can be very expensive.
  • This type of espresso maker is not as easy to use as the other automatic types of espresso makers.

3. Fully Automatic Espresso Maker

In addition to an electronic pump, fully automatic espresso makers also automate the amount and delivery of the water in the espresso making process. As a result, they’re even easier to use than semi-automatic models, but they take one more piece of control out of your hands – which can be an issue if you’re very particular about how you like your espresso.

As with semi-automatic models, the price range on this type of espresso maker is wide. You can find models for a couple hundred bucks and others for several thousand.

Benefits:

  • These units are very easy to use.
  • You can find affordable models.

To Keep in Mind:

  • More electronics means more parts may be prone to breaking.
  • Some models can be very expensive.
  • You have less control over the particular flavor of your espresso.

4. Super Automatic Espresso Machine

As the name suggests, super automatic espresso makers take ease of use to the extreme.

The idea behind this type of unit is to make the process of making a shot of espresso as easy as adding your coffee grounds and pressing a button. That’s it. Quick and simple with no mess to clean up.

This type of espresso machine is a great choice for anyone who doesn’t want to do any work and isn’t too concerned about the intricacies of the flavor, but instead just want a quick shot. If you drink a lot of espresso throughout the day, this may be the one for you.

Benefits:

  • The easiest type of espresso maker to use.
  • Have lots of special features available, such as built-in grinders and programmable settings.
  • Essentially an “All-in-One” system with many special features built-in.

To Keep in Mind:

  • They take most of the control out of your hands and do all the work for you.
  • They tend to be more expensive than other types of espresso machines, although you can still find some smaller models in the couple hundred dollar range.

8 Factors to Consider When Buying an Espresso Maker

What people want in an espresso maker varies enough that you can find a wide range of options on the market. In order to find the machine that’s the right fit for you, here are some of the main factors and features to consider while shopping around.

1. Ease of Use

As likely became clear as you read through the description of the different types of espresso makers available, a big differentiating factor in different models is how easy and convenient they are to use. If you want a machine with which much of the process is automated, you can easily find one. You can even find models that will make some of the more complicated espresso drinks like cappuccinos with the press of a button.

If convenience is your top priority, look for an espresso maker that falls into one of the more automated categories and has programmable settings. And make sure you find all the buttons and extra features intuitive before you buy.

2. Ease of Cleaning

If you end up with a model that’s easy to use but a pain to clean, then it’s not actually all that convenient after all. Make sure you have an idea of what will be involved in cleaning your espresso maker before you buy it so you know how involved the process will be. The more features and components the machine has, the more likely it will take you a long time to clean.

3. Cost

The price range for espresso machines is huge and there are so many factors that can make a difference in cost that it’s hard to generalize. In some higher end models, you’re paying more for durability and quality of materials. In others, the higher cost may have more to do with extra features they include. Sometimes you’re paying for ease of use, other times for better tasting espresso that still takes a while to make. The really costly models are usually combining several of these things

If you’re very particular about either the flavor of your espresso or how much time you’ll be spending to make it, then an espresso maker that falls somewhere on the higher end of the price range is worth it. If you’re not too concerned with ease of use and are happy with anything caffeinated (or aim to dress up your espresso with lots of milk and sugar anyway), then you may be in the category of people who’d be satisfied with a lower end model.

4. Your Drink Preferences

We’ve talked about some different factors that can influence the flavor of espresso, but we honestly haven’t even touched the surface. This is a big subject on which lots of people have opinions (just check out the many coffee-centric forums on the internet to get a taste). If you’re new to making espresso at home, frankly you might not need to worry about the particulars. Or if you prefer mochas or cappuccinos where the flavor of the espresso plays a role, but isn’t as prominent as it is when drinking an espresso shot straight, you may be satisfied with the espresso made from any of the machines you find.

If you do really care about the quality of your espresso flavor (or think you might start to as you experiment more with making it at home), then there are a lot of things to consider. For example, how many boilers a machine has can make a big difference (more is better), whether the espresso maker uses steam pressure to make the espresso (not recommended), and what temperature the machine gets to and how steady it keeps that temperature.

As in all things involving taste, what’s best is subjective – which makes figuring out which expensive espresso machine will produce the highest quality espresso for your tastes a challenge if you’re new to making espresso at home. If you’re not too sure yet where your preferences fall, you might stick with a mid-range model to start experimenting with. You can always trade up for a machine with all the bells and whistles as you get a better idea of what you like.

5. Customer Service

Most espresso makers are items you can plan on hanging on to for a while. That means you want them to last and may find yourself needing to contact the manufacturer for parts or repairs in order to get use out of them for their full lifespan.

Check what customers are saying in reviews about their experiences dealing with different brands when they need help (or even better, if customers say they’ve had the machines for years without needing help). You don’t want to find yourself stuck with something unusable within a couple of years because of something that would be a simple fix if you could just get the right guy at the company on the phone.

6. Durability

Many of the higher-end espresso machine models come with a warranty, which can give you some idea of what to expect from their durability. Based on brand reputation and reviews, you can gain a clearer picture of just how long you can count on a particular model to last.

The type of material the machine is made of can also make a difference, espresso makers largely made of metals will tend to last longer, as well as maintain heat in a more efficient manner. And the more highly automated models with a lot of electric parts will likely need repairs more often than manual espresso machines.

7. Size

Some espresso machines can get pretty darn big. If you have limited kitchen space (and most people do), you could have a hard time finding anywhere to fit it without sacrificing the accessibility of another kitchen appliance. Many of the larger models do make two espresso shots at once or have extra useful features, which can be benefits that make the big size worth it.

8. Extra Features to Consider

Those are some of the main things you’ll need to keep in mind when you are buying an espresso machine. However, some models come equipped with some extra features that may persuade you while you’re shopping around. Here are a few extra features that you should consider.

  • Built-In Coffee Grinder:

    Having coffee that’s fresh ground can make a big difference in flavor and having a grinder that’s part of your machine can add convenience and save counter space. This feature is great for those that have limited countertop space or just don’t want to buy a seperate coffee grinder.

  • Water Filter:

    The quality of your water will influence the overall flavor of your espresso. An espresso maker with a water filter built in can help ensure any extra flavor your water might have won’t affect the drinks you make.

  • Cup Warmer:

    If you want your cup to help keep your espresso warm, rather than seeping the warmth out if it, a cup warmer is a nice feature.

  • Programmable Settings:

    Once you know how you like your espresso best, you can program the machine and make it easier on yourself in the future. Some machines will let you program settings for multiple individuals, so everyone in the family can make their perfect shot more easily.

  • Frothing Wand:

    Most espresso machines have this feature, but if you’re into the types of espresso drinks that involve steamed milk, it’s an absolute necessity and you don’t want to end up with a unit without it.

5 Popular Espresso Maker Brands

One of the last things to keep in mind when trying to find the right espresso maker is the quality of the brand. Especially if you choose to go with one of the more expensive models, you want to be confident you’re in good hands.

1. Breville

Breville’s espresso makers get mixed reviews, although more positive than negative ones on the whole. Even for reviews of the same model, different customers will have very different opinions – one will say their machine makes a perfect shot of espresso, while another argues that the temperature never gets high enough for decent flavor. Complaints about machines getting clogged and being a pain to clean did seem to come up in reviews of several models, but many customers are happy on the whole with their Breville espresso makers.

2. DeLonghi

DeLonghi is a familiar and trusted brand name for many kitchen appliances and makes a wide range of espresso makers. From the simple affordable models at the lower end of the price range to the espresso machines that get into the thousands, we found DeLonghi reviews largely positive throughout. Obviously what you’ll get with a $100 espresso machine is different than what you can expect from a $3000 one, so making sure you find the DeLonghi model that’s the right fit for you is important. But most customers appear to be happy with their choice.

3. Gaggia

Gaggia is another popular brand that offers a variety of espresso makers at a wide range of price points. One point that came up again and again in the reviews of Gaggia espresso machines we found were claims of durability – many reviewers mentioned their machines lasting 12 years, 14 years, even 30 years before the time came to get a replacement. Customers also praise the ease of use and quality of flavor. The one complaint that came up a couple of times was the cost of shipping if you have to buy a replacement part while the machine’s under warranty, but for a machine likely to last over a decade that may seem a small price to pay for many.

4. Jura-Capresso

Once again with Jura-Capresso we have a popular brand that sells espresso makers that span the range of features and prices on the market. You can find models for less than $100 and others in the thousands. For the full range, we once again found predominantly positive reviews. Many of their models get praised for ease of use and value for the cost. If you see a Jura-Capresso machine that has the features you’re looking for, there’s a good chance you’ll be happy with it.

5. Keurig

Keurig is primarily known for their single-serving coffee brewers, but they do make a model focused on making espresso pods. It’s affordable, as easy to use as all their other single-serving coffee makers, and the reviews are positive. The one big thing to keep in mind if you consider the Keurig is that you can only make espresso from Rivo single-serve packets. Many reviewers emphasize that they’re happy with the quality of the Rivo coffee they’ve tried, so if you’re satisfied with the idea of a good shot of espresso and not longing to experiment with different types, that limitation’s unlikely to be an issue.

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