A drip coffee machine is a necessity; an espresso maker is an extravagance. But making your own lattes, red eyes, and ristrettos is a fantastic way to start your day and, if you’ve been buying those beverages from a coffee shop, a great way to save some cash. The good news is that if you’re in the market for an espresso machine, there’s never been a better time to buy one: a blitz of technological improvements mean you don’t have to be a trained barista to pull a morning shot. But even though you don’t need to drop $14,000 on a La Marozcco Linea EE, an espresso machine is still a big purchase. It’s also hard to shop for, with the specific preferences of demanding connoisseurs resulting in some highly technical differences between machines that make it hard to tell what’s worth the money and what isn’t.
“You really do get what you pay for with home espresso machines,” says Alexandra LittleJohn, the Director of Wholesale Operations for Ozo Coffee, and past board member of the Barista Guild of America. “If it looks cheap, and is cheap, chances are it will break soon and you won’t get good coffee.” She recommends looking for a few different features in a home espresso machine. First, it needs to have a good boiler system that will deliver water at a temperature of at least 195 degrees with at least nine bars of pressure. You also want a basket that can hold a larger amount of coffee, so you can put in enough grounds to suit your taste. You’ll want a double boiler if you always froth milk, but it’s not required. What is, however, is a system that can guarantee no loss of pressure if you are frothing while pulling a shot. And she recommends avoiding pod-based machines. “You will pay at least 250 percent more than you would just grinding your own beans, plus the coffee’s not that good and they are an environmental mess.” Her picks for the best home espresso machines differ wildly in price and feature set, but they give you the ability to make quality shots in the comfort of your own kitchen.
“This is a fantastic machine, I liked it so much I bought one for my home” says LittleJohn. Made by a legendary Italian company, La Marzocco, this is the smaller version of their most popular café model—the Linea Classic. It exudes an eye-catching, old-country vibe and has dual boilers to ensure a consistent flow of perfectly pressurized steam heated to whatever temperature you desire. At only 15-inches tall, it will tuck into the most cramped of quarters, but its water reservoir, conveniently located in the front of the machine, makes refilling simple. There’s a powerful frothing wand, a large paddle switch that controls the shots, and a recessed “barista light” that shines down on your espresso and will make you feel like a pro. It is by far the most expensive machine on this list, but with proper maintenance it will last a lifetime.
These machines offer features not seen on others in this price range. Most importantly (and obviously), there’s a digital screen on top that allows you to tweak the pressure, temperature, and flow live while your coffee is being made. This allows you to create — and store — different flavor profiles for different tastes if say, for instance, you like a stronger shot than your wife, who prefers something a little smoother. The machine’s slow-infusion system gives beans the chance to really release their flavors. At only seventeen inches tall, it won’t take up much counter space, and it’s simple design is easy to use. “For the price, this is an incredible machine that’s also super geeky,” says LittleJohn. Decent makes its machines by hand in limited runs, so you may need to wait to order one, but we promise it’ll be well worth it.
LittleJohn says this semi-automatic machine is ideal for the espresso lover who wants to pull good shots without the neurotic knowhow required of some other machines. It has a built-in burr grinder that conveniently holds a half pound of beans in a sealed hopper on top. With the push of a button, it delivers freshly ground coffee into the portafilter. The tank holds half a gallon of water and heats it with a Thermocoil system that delivers consistent steam every time. One important caveat: the hopper makes it a bit taller than other machines, so make sure you have ample vertical space where you plan on placing it in your kitchen.
If you’re thinking about getting an espresso machine, but don’t want to drop the big bucks, LittleJohn says this is the machine for you. It takes only 40 seconds to heat up, pushes 15 bars of pressure for decent flavor extraction, and lets you adjust the flow length to customize your espresso. The black and chrome machine, has just three illuminated buttons, so it’s also dead simple to use. Its slim profile (13 inches tall by just 6 inches wide) means it will fit just about anywhere and it’s easy to remove the water tank for refills. The basket can hold enough grounds for two drinks at once. It’s also compatible with E.S.E Pods (the non-plastic variety, the only kind of pod you should consider using). If cappuccinos are more your style, the manual frothing wand makes it easy to whip up some foam quickly. “This is a decent machine will make good coffee, but probably won’t last more than three years depending on how much you use it,” says LittleJohn. At less than $300, however, it’s worth picking up if you’re not sure how much use you’ll get out of an espresso machine.
One of the most important items every budding barista should have in their home is a good grinder. “There is a big debate in the industry about what is more important, the machine or the grinder,” says LittleJohn. “Both are equally crucial.” She’s a fan of this burr grinder, which offers 40 different settings that will turn out precisely ground beans from the top-mounted, eight-ounce hopper on top at the touch of a button.