Life for an espresso lover without a home espresso machine can be rough – on the wallet at least. Perhaps you have been brave enough to add up last month’s tally of espresso drink expenditures at your local coffee house. Maybe you read about the best home coffee roaster and you’re looking to homebrew what you just home roasted. Or, maybe you love espresso so much, you want to make the move from espresso drinker to espresso connoisseur.
No matter what the reason, I can help you in your quest to find the perfect home espresso machine. Having roasted my own beans, brewed countless pots of coffee, and pulled limitless espresso shots, I love coffee talk. I am easily over 6,000 hours deep in my “all things coffee and espresso” obsession. So, I invite you to come along as I explain my picks for the best home espresso machines on the market.
The Best Home Espresso Machines
Before I go into my top picks, I need to provide some information about the process. Home Espresso machines usually fall in one of two categories: semi-automatic home espresso machines and super-automatic home espresso machines. Semi-Automatic espresso machines put the power of the espresso in the user’s hands. The machine provides the heat and pressure. The user provides the grind, amount, tamp strength, and milk steaming.
With semi-automatics, the coffee beans must be ground with a separately purchased bean grinder. Or, the espresso user can use pre-ground coffee. Although a small learning curve faces the user at first, learning how to grind, dose, tamp and pull shots is a fairly intuitive process. With a few hours of experimentation, any espresso lover can be well on their way to a fine pull of quality espresso.
Like espresso making, the milk steaming comes with a learning curve as well. The right amount of milk must be poured into the steaming pitcher. Enough room should be left for the milk to expand during the process, but not fall short on milk in the final cup.
The art of espresso drink making can be experienced most authentically with a semi-automatic home espresso machine. The process can be a bit messier than what one may experience with a super automatic. But, the enjoyment of handcrafting a drink from scratch that’s up to one’s exact specifications can be wholly gratifying.
The Winner: Semi-Automatic Home Espresso Machine Top Pick – The Breville BES920XL
A good part of what separates a good semi-automatic espresso machine from a great one is the number of boilers. One boiler is sufficient for espresso making and milk steaming. But, the wait time for the water temperature to adjust between the two different temperature levels (milk steaming vs. espresso brewing), is significantly less on a double boiler system.
Most of the time, selecting a home espresso maker with a double boiler means paying a good deal more. But this isn’t the case with the Breville BES920XL. Yes, you’ll pay more for the dual boiler than a one boiler system by the same manufacturer. But it’s not what I would consider a price hike compared to other systems on the market.
Well, for starters, this machine is remarkably consistent in maintaining water temperature and pressure. Properly extracted espresso requires consistent pressure devoid of fluctuation. Breville achieves this a few ways. First, through consistency by maintaining precise temperature levels thanks to its double boiler. Then it uses its Proportional-Integral-Controller (PID) to monitor and maintain water temperature. Finally it uses its device enabled group head to add a third temperature check before extracting the espresso shot.
For the flavor consistency factor of the overall enjoyable cup equation, Breville offers a gradual pre-infusion feature. This feature wets the espresso grounds at a low-pressure level. It then gradually increases pressure until the minimum optimal nine bars of pressure is achieved. And, if the grinds are too fine, or the amount of espresso in the basket is too much, it compensates. The Over Pressure Valve (OPV) activates so as to prevent any bitterness in the extracted shot.
Milk steaming is a true art form with the Breville BES920XL thanks to its classic steam wand. There is no easy steaming with this machine. But that’s the beauty of it. With this wand, latte art can be learned and achieved, making the entire espresso drink production a deeply gratifying experience.
Semi-Automatic Home Espresso Machine Runner Up – The Gaggia Classic
What’s so special about the Gaggia? The name for starters. Gaggia is the first manufacturer to design and produce espresso machines for home use. Gaggia invented the first pump-driven espresso machine back in the early 20th century. Since then, Gaggia has been churning out one high-quality beast of a machine after another.
The Gaggia Classic is one of its oldest and most reliable models still in production. It first sprung onto the market in 1991. Not much has changed since then, mostly due to the reliability and superior performance year after year.
Like most home espresso makers, this machine has a single boiler. But, heat recovery is remarkably fast in this little machine. What is also remarkable about the Gaggia Classic is its high quality, heavy duty parts made of stainless steel, and chrome plated marine grade brass. Most machines feature a standard 15 bars of pressure, but the Gaggia Classic gives you 17 ½ bars and a high voltage boiler to keep water warming up quickly.
The machine’s interface is simply designed. The bulk of the focus is on the high-quality interior components. The steam wand is simply designed as well. And it’s a bit easier to use than what you’ll find in the Breville. Gaggia uses a pannarello steam wand which allows you to steam the milk imperfectly but still get a nice foamy cup. Essentially it will do the foaming for you, as long as your placement is correct.
As with the Breville BES920XL, espresso making is completely in your hands with the Gaggia Classic. Grind beans separately or use pre-ground ones. Choose between commercial or pressurized filter baskets depending on the type of grounds you’re using. Fill your portafilter and tamp down. Then insert into the group head, flip the switch, and watch a gorgeously extracted shot seep into your cup like honey.
The Super Automatic Home Espresso Machines
Top Pick – The Saeco Incanto
Another long loved and admired machine in the home espresso brewing industry, the Saeco Incanto Carafe Espresso Machine provides a completely automatic espresso making experience from bean to cup. And it does so at a reasonable price.
Like all super-automatic machines, the Incanto is equipped with an adjustable-grind bean hopper. The most you have to do is load the beans when the hopper goes empty. Other than that, just push a button to pull an espresso shot. The machine grinds the beans and doses out the correct amount of grinds. Then it tamps the shot and pulls it so that a perfect brew oozes into your cup each time.
The bonus here is that you can customize your espresso and program the machine to brew up your custom drink for you whenever you want. In fact, the Incanto offers six preset drink settings customizable by you.
An especially “money well spent” feature is the fully automatic milk function. To order a milk-based espresso drink, just pull your full milk carafe from the fridge. Attach it to the steaming head. Push the desired drink button, stand back, and watch full espresso milk frothiness fill your cup.
The grind is adjustable on this machine up to five fineness levels. Also adjustable is the espresso strength (via amount of espresso dosed into the basket), brew length, and drink temperature.
The size of the water tank, bean hopper, and dreg bin is generous. You can enjoy a multitude of espresso before needing to perform dump and refill duties. Like all other super-automatic machines, the Incanto features a bypass doser. So when you need a cup of decaf at 10:00 pm, you can still use your machine.
Super Automatic Home Espresso Machine Runner Up –
The is a super high capacity machine at the tippy top of the home espresso machine spectrum. Ideally, it would be used in any high espresso traffic home or a small office. What makes the perfect for this kind of its use is its super large capacity. You can enjoy a whopping 30 cups of espresso-based drinks before needing to dump pucks and refill water and beans.
Also the water tank holds an impressive 101 ounces. Most home super automatics range between 40 and 60 ounces. Dump an entire one pound bag of whole beans into the Jura’s 16.6 hopper and you’ll still have room to spare. Most other machines range between six and ten ounces.
But the Jura is not just about its size (though the size is nice). The whole operation of the machine is smooth. It quietly brews your espresso and it seamlessly mixes it with finely steamed milk using the cappuccinatore system. The high efficiency in drink production is due to Jura’s Pulse Extraction Process (PEP). The PEP doses out the espresso in a symphony of pulsed precision.
Other Great Features
There’s not much thinking needed with the operation of this machine. If you supply the water, milk, and beans, the Jura will literally do everything else for you. The Jura works from bean to cup, with the touch of a button. It will also alert you when the water filter needs to be changed thanks to its Intelligent Water System Filtration. And when it’s time to descale, the machine will be sure to let you know.
Just like most other well equipped super automatics, all the programmed drinks in the Jura menu can be customized. Customize it in terms of coffee strength, espresso brew length, drink temperature, and milk volume. Unlike, most other super-automatics, the Jura will let you put two scoops into the bypass doser instead of just one. So if you want to enjoy an especially strong Decaf Americano, you can.
The Honorable Mention – The PressoPump
Who doesn’t like a good brew and go option, especially when you are an espresso addict? Taking a portable machine with you – whether you’re visiting a house full of tea drinkers, stuck in a lousy coffee hotel, or out and about hiking and camping – is an inexpensive way to get something pretty close to an authentic espresso shot.
Packaged completely in one neat and tidy unit, all you need to do is have a supply of ground beans and hot water on hand. Fill the appropriate compartments with grounds and water. Then manually pump the espresso by pressing the magic button. Viola, you have espresso.
Other Things To Consider When Home Espresso Brewing
Whether you choose a semi-automatic or a super automatic, you should always choose quality over price. Price should not be the deciding factor between any two machines. Instead, the quality of the individual parts and the reputation of the company should be large components of the decision making process.
Look for home espresso machines that feature more stainless steel and less plastic. And, if you can, look for machines with even higher quality materials like brass. Boilers are often made of stainless steel at the home brewing level, but the best boilers are made from brass.
In the semi-automatic category look for machines that use commercial portafilters, or offer both pressurized and commercial portafilters. Machines that only use pressurized portafilters are trying to compensate for poor brewing pressure.
Lastly, take a look at the pump on the machine. It should be a vibration pump that offers a maximum pressure of at least 15 bars. Anything less can run the risk of under-extraction.
Once you’ve considered the inside of the machine, take a look at the outside. How heavy is it? Although a hefty machine can be an inconvenience, it’s weight often means it’s full of heavier, higher quality parts that will last longer, as opposed to light weight plastic components that will be certain to fail you sometime in the not so distant future.
Does the machine look cheap? If it looks cheap, it most likely is. With most espresso machines, you pay for what you get. Paying more, within a reasonable range, usually means an upgrade in quality, capacity, and capability. Paying much less means just the opposite.
So much of what makes espresso truly exceptional begins with the actual bean: the origin, the blend, the roast, the quality, and the age.
The vast majority of coffee comes in two major categories: Arabica and Robusta. While Robusta is used for lower grade instant and bulk ground coffee, most Arabica will be found in whole bean packages. But not all Arabica is created equal.
Arabica is sourced from farms, estates, and co-ops all over the world. The growing climate of the region in which the bean originates contributes greatly to the flavor profile of the bean. The higher the climate, and richer, preferably volcanic, the soil, the more intense the favor of the bean. Beans from high altitude areas of Guatemala will have a distinctly different flavor profile beans grown in huge plantations in the lowland areas of Brazil.
Processing method has much to do with bean quality as the growing region does. If beans are not hand picked and weeded through after picking, lower quality, defective, and unripe beans will make their way through the process and affect the quality of the final batch – the roasted batch that you will taste when you grind your beans for a cup of espresso.
The next step, roasting, has possibly the most impact on the flavor of the beans depending on the level of the roast. Most mass roasteries and supermarket brand producers over roast their beans to hide defective and unripe beans collected in the harvest. By over roasting, all natural flavor of the bean is completely hidden and replaced by the smoky, often sour flavor of the roast. If you see oil on your beans, it’s over roasted.
This is an important point as it relates to any super-automatic home roaster. Oily beans can damage your home espresso machine over time, because the oils can collect and gunk up the grinder, causing clogs and backups, and some headaches for you.
So, when you are looking for beans to use with your home espresso machine, look for beans that are medium brown in color and have only a slight sheen to them, like a satin finish on wall paint. You do not have to choose beans that say “Espresso Blend” on the bag. You can use any beans you like from anywhere in the world, and at any quality roast level for your espresso machine you prefer.
Taking a little time to learn about the general flavor profiles you can expect from different coffee regions in the world will assist you in picking the best coffee for your espresso tastes. You may be surprised just how much variability is to be had in the flavor of espresso once you’ve had a correctly extracted shot from a finely roasted high quality bag of beans.
If you’re purchasing a super automatic machine, then no need to worry. Most of the super automatics feature built in ceramic burr grinders. But if you’re purchasing a semi-automatic machine, then you’ll need to buy a grinder as well.
The best grinder to buy is a burr grinder, not a blade grinder. Yes, blade grinders are incredibly inexpensive, and it is possible to pull espresso with coffee ground in a blade grinder. But you won’t have the consistency you need, which may result in an under extracted or over extracted shot in your cup. Yuck.
Conical burr grinders allow beans to be ground in the most even, consistent manner, and with a great amount of adjustability in grind fineness. Most blade grinders can’t even compare in fineness that a good burr grinder can achieve.
Another option is to purchase pre-ground “espresso”. While this is an option, I’d say it’s a worst case scenario. Bags of ground espresso have been sitting on the shelf, or in a box, in a warehouse for who knows how long. And with “espresso” roast you have no control over the roast level or the quality of the bean. This means it’s probably low quality Arabica that’s been over roasted to hide bean defects. The resulting espresso may very well taste flat and stale and reflect badly on the machine instead of placing blame where blame is due – on the bean.
Recap of the Top Picks
Semi-Automatic Top Pick – The Breville BES920XL Dual Boiler Espresso Machine For the user in love with the art of espresso making.
Semi-Automatic Runner Up – The Gaggia Classic Semi-Automatic Espresso Maker A superb low-price option for the espresso user just getting into the game.
Super Automatic Top Pick – The Saeco Incanto Carafe Automatic Espresso Machine A dependable, no fuss, customizable, bean to cup machine.
Super Automatic Runner Up – An espresso brewing monster of a machine, super high capacity and super capable.
The Honorable Mention – The PressoPump Portable Espresso Machine For the addict who cannot function without a decent espresso on the go.
Choosing Between A Semi-Automatic and A Super Automatic Home Espresso Machine
Prices vary widely from machine to machine in both semi-automatic and super-automatic categories. You can easily spend more money on a high powered semi-automatic than a basic, but capable, super automatic espresso machine. Don’t let price sway you too strongly when trying to decide between the two.
Choosing whether to go semi-automatic or super automatic is more about preference. You’ll need to ask yourself a few questions, and let your answers guide you.
Q: Do you enjoy steaming milk?
Yes – Choose a semi-automatic or a super automatic with a steam wand.
No – Go straight for a super automatic with a milk carafe or cappuccinatore.
Manual steaming milk can be an easy or more difficult process depending on whether you are purchasing a machine with a traditional steam wand or a pannarello. Pannarello wands use a specific technology that will almost steam the milk for you, provided you place it at the correct depth in the milk pitcher.
Using a traditional steam wand takes a little more skill depending on how foamy you like your steamed milk. To achieve true micro foam, the wand must be placed just below the surface of the milk so that the milk spins in a circular motion, slowly foaming the milk. Just putting the wand deep into the milk will heat it, but not produce foam. If you’re looking to become a latte artist, choose the traditional wand.
Q: Do you mind a little mess?
Yes you do mind – Then do not buy a semi-automatic machine.
If you don’t mind – Then you could consider both a semi-automatic or a super-automatic.
Because the coffee grinding, dosing, tamping, and extraction is completely manual, a small mess can be made as coffee grounds get here and there on the counter. Same goes for the milk. Manual steaming means a little milk and steam flows here and there. And a lot of wiping down and rinsing of equipment will be had.
Q: Is speed the priority?
Yes – It’s super automatic all the way for you then. Do not buy a semi-automatic.
No – Then you may consider models from both categories.
The higher quality super automatic espresso machines are usually the faster ones because they either have two boilers or they contain technology that allows for quick water heat recovery.
Because they are bean to cup with one button, no time will be wasted with manual espresso pulling or milk steaming. Plus, as long as your dreg bin isn’t full, there is very minimal clean up, if any, with a super automatic home espresso machine.