Espresso drinks at your favorite coffee shop or chain, such as Starbucks, can become an expensive habit, starting at around $4 per drink for a basic tall or grande cafe latte. If you drink at one of these per workday, that’s as much as a $1,200 per year habit based on 300 drinks a year! It may be time to consider your own espresso machine so you can save money and have more control over the quality and variety of your beans.
The Rancilio Silvia (starting at around $775) is the veritable Porsche 911 or Volkswagen of manual home espresso machines — a simple classic design with excellent performance for the money that has not changed fundamentally since its introduction in 1997. It uses a standard 58mm portafilter and accessories (such as brew baskets, tampers, and levelers), employs a single boiler design, and has a vibratory pump. It was my first real espresso machine, and I know many home espresso enthusiasts who still swear by it and have been using Gen 1 machines and easily maintain them by themselves with simple tools.
Pros: Classic design that has not changed fundamentally in over 20 years, reliable, extremely modifiable, easy to use and maintain. Combined with a good grinder, it produces consistently good shots with excellent crema extraction and uses standard 58mm portafilters and baskets.
Cons: Single boiler design, if you want to steam milk, you need to switch to steamer mode, which takes a few minutes to heat the boiler to a higher temperature, and is cumbersome if you are making more than two coffees at a time. The vibratory pump has about a 5-year lifespan with continuous use but is easily replaceable and is an inexpensive part. It has a learning curve to produce consistent shots without a PID and requires a fine coffee grind. The basic model does not have an integrated PID, but you can get it pre-installed for about $300 extra. The Pro version, introduced in 2020, has dual boilers and dual PID units for $1700.
In the last several years, Breville has been making waves with its Barista line of home espresso drink machines because they integrate a conical burr grinder into the design, providing an all-in-one experience.
The Barista Express is a base-level model ($700) that incorporates “dose control,” which grinds on-demand to deliver the right amount of ground coffee directly into the specially-designed portafilter.
The Barista Pro ($800) incorporates an LCD display and integrated PID, making the $100 upgrade well-worth it for more discerning espresso enthusiasts desiring better temperature precision with their extractions and a faster heat-up time to steamer mode.
For another $200, the Barista Touch ($1000) incorporates a color touch screen with 5 pre-programmed drink types with 8 adjustable coffee settings, including programmable milk temperature and texture and an instant hot water dispenser for tea and other drinks.
Pros: Pretty much the best all-inclusive value machine for the money.
Cons: Single boiler design, Relatively high-priced if you compare it to a lower-end model when paired with a grinder. The base model does not have a PID, such as the Calphalon.
At a $400 base (often on discount for under $350), the Calphalon Temp iQ is one of the best performing and least expensive consumer espresso machines on the market. In addition to an intelligent boiler temperature regulation system, integrated PID has a built-in warming tray to serve drinks at the proper temperature and an enlarged portafilter to wet the coffee grounds to extract the best flavor adequately. The machine has a built-in milk frother for making lattes and other speciality coffee drinks.
For a $200 upgrade, you can get a version of the machine with an integrated conical burr coffee grinder with 30 adjustable settings.
Pros: One of the least expensive home espresso machines able to produce a high-quality extraction with an integrated PID in the base model.
Cons: The base model doesn’t have a coffee grinder, which is really needed to produce a proper extraction. Some users have also noted that the portafilter can be difficult to access compared to other models.
Philips Saeco has been making top-notch superautomatic espresso machines for well over a decade, and the price of these systems in recent years has dropped dramatically — the “Lattego” 3200 series with milk dispensing system streets for about $800. By loading the water and milk reservoirs, and the coffee hopper with freshly roasted beans, the machine will make you a pre-programmed perfect latte or espresso at the touch of the button; no messing with settings is required.
Pros: Completely automated, a superautomatic espresso machine with touchscreen display, 12 grinder settings, integrated ceramic grinder, and milk frother/dispenser.
Cons: As with all super automatics, mechanically sophisticated and requires factory repair if maintenance is required. Requires a larger amount of countertop space compared to other options.
At under $200, the Mr. Coffee Cafe Barista is the least expensive espresso machine on our list with semi-automatic capabilities. It features a powerful 15-bar pump and integrated milk dispenser/frother with one-touch controls that make it very easy to make your morning drink.
Pros: Produces nice espresso drinks at a budget price.
Cons: Requires a separate grinder, and to get the most out of this machine, you’ll want to read the manual to learn how to prime the system properly and clean the frothing unit after each use.
If you are inclined to buy an espresso machine without an integrated grinder, you’ll need a good quality conical burr grinder that has many levels of granularity to help you “dial-in” the precise grind that your machine needs to produce a consistent and tight extraction. There are many on the market, but one of the best for the money is Breville’s Smart Grinder Pro, which at around $200 street, is probably one of the best for the average consumer without moving into prosumer or professional-grade models at $500 or higher.
Pros: Stainless steel conical burrs, 60 electronically-selected precise grind settings, 18oz coffee bean capacity, direct grind into 50mm, 54mm, and 58mm portafilters with intelligent dosing.
Cons: Consumer-grade grinder may not hold up to many years of use.
Alternative: Baratza Virtuoso+ ($249) The Baratza Virtuoso is also a very good choice for about $50 more and may be a better choice for heavier use
Which espresso machine is right for you?
There are several things to consider with an espresso machine. A proper espresso machine requires the coffee to be finely ground fresh, per shot, so you will want to either buy a machine with an integrated grinder or buy a separate grinder. A true espresso machine, rather than a coffee maker (such as a Keurig or a Nespresso, or a traditional drip coffee maker), uses high-pressure (9 bar and higher) boiling water to extract coffee and produce crema, the emulsified coffee bean oils that float to the top of the shot. An espresso machine will typically include a separate milk frother function using a wand to make popular drinks such as cappuccinos and lattes.
Types of machines include:
- Manual machines, which are not automated but might include computerized thermostatic temperature adjustment via a PID controller (Proportional, Integral, Derivative). This is typically the type of machine you will find at an independent cafe or restaurant (except for large chains which have their own proprietary superautomatic units such as the Mastrena). Shots need to be manually ground into the portafilter per serving, and milk steaming occurs manually. This is so that the barista has full control over the entire coffee-making experience, including latte art. You will need to practice dialing in the grind on the coffee, grinding the shot, tamping the shot, as well as milk frothing to get optimal results from this type of machine, but the results are well worth it.
- Semiautomatic machines are partially computerized and use automated functions for grinding and dosing coffee or milk dispensing and frothing. Some skill and learning curve will be required in using one of these machines.
- Superautomatic machines, which are fully computerized and automated, will grind the coffee, pull the shot, froth, and dispense the milk at the touch of a button. Besides routine cleaning and maintenance, no skill is required to make the coffee drink, but you will also have less control over the process or ability to “tweak” a drink.
Cafe grade/commercial and some high-end prosumer espresso machines generally utilize a separate boiler for the coffee extraction than the steamer function. They frequently use a Faema E61-style group head (named for the year of its introduction, 1961) along with standard 58mm portafilters and baskets. These machines also usually incorporate a PID unit used to thermostabilize brew temperature to pull consistent espresso shots.
The cheapest E61-style single group head machines for home or small cafes use heat exchangers instead of a separate boiler for each function, use vibratory pumps, start at around $1400, and have higher wattage circuit requirements than a typical home kitchen appliance. The more expensive prosumer and cafe-grade machines use dual boilers and higher-quality and quieter rotary pumps.
The cost of these machines is separate from the cost of a burr coffee grinder which starts at around $200 and is needed to produce the fine, powdery, tightly packed grinds needed for proper espresso extraction. Because of the high costs of these prosumer setups, and the large variety and price points of machines and grinders in this category, we won’t be covering these here. If you are inclined to purchase a machine of this type, I suggest starting with specialist commerce sites such as Seattle Coffee Gear or Whole Latte Love.
Less-expensive consumer machines listed in this guide have improved at making espresso drinks and have become more reliable in recent years. However, they use smaller, nonstandardized group heads and portafilters than the E61, and in most cases, you will need a separate grinder. Additionally, most of the consumer machines on the market under $700 do not have PIDs. Still, some, such as the Rancilio Siliva and the Gaggia, can be retrofitted, allowing them to produce much more consistent shots approaching professional-level extractions. These retrofit kits can cost about $300 or higher, and some versions of these machines can be purchased with them already installed.
With all espresso machines, be sure to use filtered water rather than tap, as mineral deposits will reduce the lifetime of your machine or accelerate the need for maintenance. You should also de-scale your machine periodically if your water is especially hard, even after filtration.