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On those groggy 8 am wake-ups, the one thing that gets you out of bed is the thought of espresso. Whatever day of the week it is, espresso will make your morning that much better, helping you jumpstart your day and be less of a zombie on your commute to work.
Now that you’ve realized that espresso is the key to mornings, it’s time to find the espresso machine that makes caffeine a convenient, effortless reality. Let’s face it: When you haven’t had caffeine, you need your task to be as simple as possible to avoid burning down the house.
On your hunt for the best espresso machine, or maybe just the most affordable with the functions you need, you’ll see a lot of espresso jargon that you never thought you’d need. We’ll break down how to shop for an espresso machine, making it simple to find the one that’s perfect for you.
It’s likely that you’re reading this after a frustrating, espresso-less morning, so we’ll make this as concise as possible for you. In fact, you can skip to whichever section is most pertinent to you — we know the desperation behind needing caffeine, and we don’t want to get in the way between you and a new espresso machine.
First, How Does an Espresso Machine Work?
To understand different features, it’s good to get a better idea of how an espresso machine works. Again, if you’re in desperation coffee-less mode, you can skip straight to our top ten picks. Live your life.
The gist of an espresso machine follows this routine: A pump in the espresso machine moves water from its reservoir into a boiler, and from there it’s pumped into a group head, where the water is moved through the finely ground coffee at the perfect pressure.
A portafilter will be holding the coffee, effectively allowing water to filter through from the machine to your mug. Sometimes, a separate boiler will heat up water for the steam wand, which adds steamed milk to make the perfect latte, cappuccino, or whatever your tired heart desires.
From the basic function of an espresso machine, you’ll get more advanced functions like a built-in grinder, which grinds whole beans into finely chopped pieces, giving your espresso shot that much more of a fresh flavor.
You’ll also see that some machines offer pre-infusion, which simply means that they evenly saturate the coffee grounds (allowing them to expand) at a lower pressure before the high-pressure water hits, giving the espresso a creamier texture.
Espresso machines also offer temperature stability through more advanced methods than just a simple heating element. You’ll see terms like Proportional-Integral-Derivative (PID) or Digital Temperature Control, which keeps the brew at a consistent temperature every time you make espresso. If you’re picky about your espresso, and you’d like more of a cafe vibe with your shot, PID can help you stabilize your espresso and give it more consistent temperatures than a simple heating element.
There’s plenty to learn about the physics of different espresso machine pumps or the science behind PID, but frankly, we don’t need to know what PID is to get a good cup of espresso. Now that you know why these features are valuable, it’ll be easier to pick out a high-quality espresso machine that gives you the exact barista or non-barista vibe you’re looking for.
Types of Grinders
One description you’ll see quite a bit when shopping for an espresso maker is the type of grinder each model uses. You might see terms like “conical burr grinder,” “ceramic burr,” “blade grinder,” and other distinct descriptions. Espresso machines use two different types of grinders: blade and burr.
A blade grinder acts like a typical household blender, using a two-pronged blade at the bottom of the device to chop everything in its path. Coffee beans are dispersed without any control, some being re-chopped at the bottom of the chamber, while the ones that avoid the blades remain whole or merely halved. Because the blade doesn’t cover the entire vertical length of the unit, some beans don’t get as finely chopped as others, leaving an inconsistent cut.
Blade grinders will be more affordable, lowering the price on your espresso machine. However, the trade-off is that you’ll get inconsistent espresso shots, many of which might not be served the way you want them. The heat from the blade can cause unexpected temperature variables, which might affect the overall flavor. Plus, when some beans are chopped more finely than others, water temperature heats each chopped bean differently, making your espresso shot less consistent.
Burr grinders work in a more efficient way by funneling a few coffee beans at a time into their grinding device. This grinder moves the beans where it wants, making sure that no coffee bean escapes. The conical shape of the burr grinder controls the way the beans move throughout the chamber, ensuring that each coffee bean gets finely chopped. By eliminating inefficient, high-speed blades, burr grinders also eliminate unnecessary heat that can affect the flavor of your espresso.
The material of the grinder determines the longevity and durability of the grinder. Ceramic and stainless steel grinders will last longer than simple metal blades. When you see ceramic and stainless steel being used, you’ll expect your coffee grinder to give you perfectly ground coffee for hundreds, or even thousands, of espresso shots.
To Froth or To Steam
For some, just a straight espresso shot is enough. For others, steamed milk is a must-have, especially when they want at-home cappuccinos or other specialty drinks. If you fall in the latter group, you’ll want a frother that gives you a drink that infuses zen and harmony in your life.
A milk frother can be bought separately from an espresso machine if your current one doesn’t come with one. However, many of our choices offer an attached milk frother that gives your espresso machine all-in-one convenience. Whatever type of milk you choose, almond, soy, oat, etc., a milk frother will work to give you unique drinks.
If your espresso machine has a steam wand, you can use this to froth milk as well, but the milk will be of a slightly different consistency. Steamed milk will be less dense than frothed milk, due to the lack of air that is injected into the milk during the steaming process. A traditional frother will work to inject air into the milk, creating a soft, delightful foam. Steamed milk will heat the milk evenly, and will maybe have some froth involved.
To sum this up in coffee terms, you’ll get beautiful lattes from a steam wand, and extraordinary cappuccinos from a frother. Depending on your drink preference, this can make or break your decision between a built-in frother or steam wand.
Espresso Machine Dimensions
Water reservoir capacity will determine how many espresso shots or drinks you can make before you have to refill the reservoir. Typically, one shot of espresso takes about 30-45 mL of water, so you can use this to calculate how many shots you’ll pour before needing to replace the water. You’ll see that even the XL and compact models in our top picks both have water reservoirs that hold about 1.8 L of water, or 1800 mL of water. This makes it simple to keep making espresso without interruption.
Some espresso machines have self-cleaning technology that decalcifies their inner tubing, ultimately de-clogging the machine to prevent breakdown. You will have to maintain your espresso machine, whether it’s eliminating the coffee grinds and wiping down the portafilter, clearing out the wands of any liquids, or backflushing the machine. Most machines require descaling, or decalcifying the tubing, at least once every two months, even more frequently if you're a heavy espresso drinker. You can find specific cleaners aimed at descaling espresso machines. This necessary maintenance will help your espresso machine last longer.
Since espresso machines offer different features, each one requires different levels of maintenance. While compact, simple machines might have less fancy features, they will likely require less maintenance and cleaning. Heavy-duty machines will typically come with cleaning instructions and possibly even cleaning tablets that are specific to the machine’s needs.
Keep this in mind if you’re in the market for a new machine. You might want an easy espresso in the morning, but if you don’t keep up with the cleaning of your machine, you might find yourself with a clogged, neglected appliance that ends up in the garage.
Complexity of the Machine Depends on the User
As you check out user reviews of each espresso machine, you’ll see that many espresso professionals are concerned with tamp pressure (flattening of the coffee powder to allow water to move uniformly over the coffee), precise dosage, bean quality, and all sorts of other niche espresso questions. Your shopping experience will depend on your experience with espresso drinks and what you’re wanting to get out of your machine. Some espresso machines offer the option of switching from automatic to manual pours, allowing you to take control and create art out of your latte.
For the more hands-off, let-the-machine-do-its-thing drinker, you’ll want to find an espresso machine with automatic, one-touch pours with certain drinks pre-programmed. These at-home baristas will cost you anywhere from $400 to $800, depending on the size and complexity of the machine. You can find espresso machines on the market for cheaper, but they will likely be limited in capabilities and could require pods to supplement flavors.
Espresso machines that allow the user to take more control of their flavors will also sit in a similar $600-$800 price range. These machines still usually have built-in features that give you the ultimate latte but include extra dials and gauges that let you control your drink. As you’ll see in the reviews, the machines that are more hands-on will turn you into an espresso artist, continuously coming up with new frothy creations.
Our Top Picks
When choosing our top picks, we considered the quality of the materials in each espresso machine, features available, drink consistency, and the options that each one provides. The Nespresso Lattissima by De’Longhi is the most affordable espresso machine on our list, but that doesn’t mean it compromised its functionality. At its price point, it offers high-quality espresso at the push of a button. However, because of its compact size, it utilizes capsule technology in place of a built-in grinder, eliminating user-control overdosage, pre-measuring, and more.
On the high end of the budget, our picks like the Breville Barista Touch extend to $800, but their functionality is unmatched. You’ll see that these machines incorporate high-end features that even a coffee shop would be jealous of.
While this espresso knowledge is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to espresso brewing, it's enough to get you started as you start shopping for a new machine. Even with the simple understanding of how an espresso machine works, you have the tools to find the perfect espresso maker for your household.
Bland, gas-station coffee is a thing of the past. With your new espresso machine, you’ll jump out of bed in the morning just to try out a new frothy drink. Compare our top espresso machine picks and start getting amped up about the caffeine revolution that’s about to take place in your kitchen.
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