Our goal was to find approachable and affordable espresso machines, ones that could satisfy novices as well as intermediate users (or even an old hand like me). At a baseline level, an espresso machine works by forcing hot water through finely ground beans with pressure. The water must be the right temperature, about 195 degrees Fahrenheit. If it’s much cooler, your espresso will be under-extracted and weak; much hotter, and it can be over-extracted and bitter. And the pressure must be constant so that water flows evenly through the grounds to get consistent extraction.
There are three different styles of machine (not counting capsule-based machines, like the Nespresso, which merely mimic espresso) that give you more or less control over this process:
- Manual espresso machines require you to create the pressure with your own force by pulling on a lever (and this is why it’s called “pulling a shot”). Inadequate pressure will result in uneven extraction, which is why manual models are the hardest to control of all the styles. Since they’re tricky to master and also uncommon, we decided not to test them.
- Semi-automatic machines use a pump to create the right amount of pressure. Most skilled baristas prefer semi-automatic models because the consistent pressure and boiler temperature allow them to settle into a grind, so they can make drink after drink on a busy morning without stopping to adjust. We stuck to testing semi-automatic machines in the interest of recommending models that enable you to learn without too much arduous trial and error.
- Super-automatic machines (also called fully automatic), like those made by Jura, do everything for you: measuring and grinding the beans, pulling the shot, and frothing the milk. But they don’t offer much room for experimentation. So even though they’re convenient, super-automatic models are not the best choice if you’re actually interested in learning how to make good espresso, rather than just drinking it. We chose not to test them.
In deciding which semi-automatic machines to test, we focused on models that would meet a beginner’s needs and budget (around or under $1,000). We looked for machines with a quick setup, comfortable portafilters, smooth transitions between steps, potent steam wands, and a general sense of sturdiness and reliability. Ultimately, we looked for the following criteria in our research and testing:
Single-boiler espresso machines
We considered only single-boiler models, which use the same boiler to heat the water for the espresso shot and for the steam wand. This requires some transition time to reheat on lower-end models, but the technology has advanced enough that on two of our picks, there’s almost no wait between steps. Though dual-boiler models allow you to pull the shot and steam milk simultaneously, they usually cost more than $1,000. We don’t think beginners need that option, since it entails careful multitasking necessary only in a café.
Fast and consistent water heater
We placed emphasis on water heaters that offered consistency and speed, since these elements add a fun, easy rhythm to what promises to be a daily ritual. To that end, some machines (including all the Brevilles) have PID (proportional integral derivative) controllers, which help regulate the boiler temperature, allowing for more-consistent shots back to back. (Seattle Coffee Gear has a great video explaining how PID controllers help maintain more-even temperatures than a basic thermostat.) Notably, the Breville models we recommend also have ThermoJet heaters, which make the machines surprisingly quick to heat and transition between pulling a shot and steaming milk; some drink preparations took barely over a minute from start to finish.
Powerful pump and steam wand
An espresso machine’s pump should be strong enough to properly extract espresso from a well-packed dose of finely ground coffee. And the steam wand should be powerful enough to produce a velvety milk foam that’s free of any big bubbles.
Beginner-friendly milk frothing
It can be a challenge to steam milk properly using a home espresso machine, and so having the option to either manually or automatically froth milk is ideal for beginners (provided the machine can mimic a professional barista’s standards). Automatic frothing that generates real distinctions in texture and temperature is great for those who might initially struggle to do this manually. However, the exact nuances that distinguish milk-based drinks are better achieved with an observant eye and your palm’s sensitivity to the steam pitcher’s angle and temperature, skills that are developed with manual use.
Manual and programmable brewing options
Many machines come with programmed settings for pulling a single or double shot. But you may find that your favorite coffee takes shorter or longer to extract than the factory presets allow. It’s better to use your judgment and manually stop extraction. But once you’ve dialed in your favorite espresso, reprogramming the shot volume accordingly can help streamline your daily ritual, provided you continue to carefully monitor your grind, dose, and tamp routine. It’s also important to be able to override a preset or a saved setting, since factors like bean origin, roast date, and kitchen climate can alter how your shots pull. (This may be more than you want to worry about when you’re just getting started, but you’ll pretty quickly be able to tell just from repetition whether your shots are pulling faster or slower than usual.)
Multiple filter baskets
All of the models we tested came with a dual-wall filter basket (also called a pressurized basket), which is more forgiving of inconsistencies than a traditional, single-wall basket. The dual-wall filter forces espresso out through just a single hole in the center of the basket (rather than many perforations), ensuring adequate saturation of the espresso grounds during the first seconds they are infused with hot water. This helps prevent unbalanced extraction, which can happen if the coffee is unevenly ground, dosed, or tamped, causing the water to travel fastest to the weakest point in the espresso puck.
Some models we tested also come with a traditional, single-wall filter basket, which is trickier to master but yields more-dynamic shots that more closely represent the adjustments you make with your grind setting. For beginners interested in learning, we prefer machines that work with both types of filter basket.
Based on these criteria, we’ve tested 10 models over the years, ranging from $300 to around $1,000.