If you’re serious about producing quality espresso at home, you can’t expect to spend less than $500 (for a brand new machine). Why? If it’s below $500, it will be cheaply built, won’t produce above average espresso, steam terribly, and you can count the years it will last on one hand. Don’t forget you will also need a quality grinder, but this article won’t cover that. Under $500 can still get you a quality used machine for a bargain though.
To Make a ‘Great’ Espresso You Need a Machine With…
A stable espresso brewing temperature between 92-96°, decent steaming capacity, and quality semi-commercial or commercial grade designed parts & heat retaining materials such as steel, copper & brass. Most will last forever because they are serviceable by professionals (or yourself if you learn how), but it also depends on how you treat your machine.
This article will give you an idea of some of the best value machines over $500 by type & price bracket.
The $500+machines at a department store are brands such as Breville, Sage, Krups, Saeco, Sunbeam & Delonghi etc. Some of these go all the way up to the $2000+ – which will shock you when you finish reading this article. In a nutshell, you want to stay clear of these because they do not last due to an ineffective & cheap Thermo block boiler inside that becomes blocked in little time. They are not cheap to repair (if possible) & you would be refurbishing them in less than 5 years’ time. It is not only the lifespan though. Only the PID temperature controller models can actually hold or reach a stable brew temperature & the steaming ability on these machines is poor, unless it has a dedicated Thermo block for brewing & steaming.
For the $500-$2500 that these might cost, you can buy a machine that will be worlds apart in quality, last a lifetime & actually do what real espresso machines are designed to do.
Any serious home barista needs to be able to steam milk and brew espressos simultaneously.
Credit: Angie Chung
Prosumer Machines; The Only True Espresso Making Machines for a Home Barista
Machines that provide optimal brewing & steaming come with either a single round boiler with a heating element inside (like a kettle) or two boilers. The reason for having two boilers on some models is because steaming temperature is significantly higher than brewing temperature. With a dedicated boiler for each function, you have simultaneous brewing & milk steaming at perfect set temperatures for phenomenal stability. The thing is, double boilers are pricey, but there are other options.
Standard single boilers cannot do both functions at once, but the time delay to reach steam temperature is small (25-50sec depending on the machine). The alternative to having two boilers for simultaneous brewing & steaming is to buy a single boiler heat exchanging machine. These boilers remain at steaming temperature at all times (now that is hot). The large boiler flash heats fresh water to espresso temperature through the heat exchanger (a pipe) that passes through the boiler.
Not All Prosumer Machines Are Created Equal. Which Machine Type Suits You?
Low End Prosumer- $500-$1200:
Small single boilers between 250ml-500ml generally do not have an auto-boiler refill sensor. You can’t leave them on unattended for hours or the heating element will blow. The upside is they heat up fast so turning them on & off for each use isn’t a problem. They can make ‘micro foam’ & steam relatively quickly as they have decent steam power. Their thermostat ranges can be a bit wide so a PID is recommended to get precise brewing temps (but if you can’t afford it, not to worry).
Because of the smaller boilers, these machines are suited to 2-4 espressos/lattes at a time if you want them perfect. They can do more, but you won’t get excellent foam or the best espressos possible (unless you want to keep guests waiting).
This is a great place to start for a home barista on a budget.
High-end Prosumer Heat Exchangers- $1300-$3600
Heat exchangers are normally considered ‘semi-commercial’ machines because they have commercial grade rotary pumps as an option which means they can be plumbed into water mains. They have auto-boiler refill, pressure gauges & boiler and reservoir level sensors in case they need to shut off to protect the machine. They generally feature Thermo siphon E-61 group heads or an electronically heated group & big boilers from 1.5-3.5 litres in size (now that’s heat stability for you!). The thermostats on these machines are quite accurate (it takes some ingenuity to create a balance for steaming & brewing simultaneously on a single boiler!).
You can pull endless amounts of consecutive shots on these machines if it is plumbed in (experimenting I pulled 30 for a 4-litre tank model & it still had water for more). You can steam large 1-litre jugs perfectly & fast with a recovery time of 40-60 sec.
If all that does not impress you then you are a perfectionist home barista &, for a high price, there is something for you…
High-end Double Boiler’s $1900- $4500 (Excludes La Marzocco GS3)
Double boilers are the undisputed champions of home espresso stability and consistency. You will find all the same features as a HX plus PID on these machines, except the brew boiler can range from 330-800ml (smaller because it is strictly for brewing) while the steaming boiler can be from 900ml-2L for lightning fast steaming of jug after jug (La Marzocco GS3 being the only exception to having HUGE boilers).
The downside is that these machines have a lot more electronics which hate heat and moisture. Things can always go wrong. HX’s on the other hand are like looking at a classic car, minimal electronics means less can go wrong. They deliver the same result as a double boiler with a few seconds of group flushing to bring down the brew temp if the machine has been idle for long.
This article may or may not have taught you something new, but make sure you take the time to consider which machines suit your needs & budget.
Our next article will directly focus on the best value for money machine recommendations for each price range and type. So for the meantime, hang onto that money!
Article written A. Guerra.
Perfect Daily Grind.