Choosing an espresso machine can be a daunting task.
You want to get a durable model that does everything you want.
But you don’t want to get stuck with a machine that pulls a sub-par shot and breaks down easily.
Especially when it could cost $200, $500 or even $1,000.
Before you choose and espresso machine, read this guide.
We go into detail covering the 7 factors you must consider before buying your first (or next!) espresso machine:
- Drinks you want to make
- Quality of espresso
- Ease of use
- Ease of cleaning
- Size and countertop space
- Durability, reliability, and risk tolerance
- Price and your budget
Ready to learn how to choose an espresso machine? So are we.
1. What drinks do you want to make?
An obvious first question: What do you want to make?
The way I see it, there are three categories:
- Category 1: You only drink espresso.
- Category 2: You only make espresso so you can enjoy cappuccinos and lattes.
- Category 3: You enjoy both simple espresso and cappuccinos and lattes.
If you’re in Category 1, you shouldn’t waste your time and money on a machine with a quality frothing wand (though I wouldn’t exclude every single machine that has a wand…you don’t have to use it).
If you’re in Category 2, you can get away with a machine that doesn’t make the best espresso shot because you’ll be masking it with steamed milk. In this case, make sure your frother is up to snuff.
If you’re in Category 3, you want a wide array of options. Your machine should pull consistently great espresso and your frother should be able to get the job done.
2. Quality of Espresso
In general, higher-priced machines make better espresso, so it’s important to consider the following:
- What types of beverages you want to make (see #1 above)
- What your price range is (see #7 below)
- How important espresso quality is to you (see #2 right here)
Maybe you can’t tell the difference between so-so espresso and great espresso. Or maybe you’re a Category 2 drinker above and plan on making all cappuccinos and lattes. And maybe still you want save up and get the best espresso machine on the market.
In terms of espresso extracting mechanisms, there’s a few different types of espresso machines:
- Stovetop: Super cheap but don’t make true espresso (just really concentrated coffee)
- Capsule-based: Step up in price and convenience but still not true espresso
- Steam: Use steam pressure for extraction but still not true espresso
- Semi-automatic pump: Often $500+ and involve some labor but make true espresso
- Super-automatic pump: Do-it-all machines at the top of the price range
As you move down the bulleted list above, the espressos tend to improve in quality. Both semi-automatic and super-automatic espresso machines are capable of making A+ espresso; the only real difference between the two is how much work you want to put in. Semi-automatic machines tend to require more cleaning and more maintenance, and you may need to buy a separate grinder. The benefit is these machines generally cost less than super-automatic espresso machines.
Among semi- and super-automatic espresso machines, possibly the biggest factor in pulling great espresso is temperature control. Water temperatures have to be precise and consistent. This is where the machine’s boiler system comes into play.
There are three main types of boiler systems:
Thermoblock systems are the cheapest. They have one boiler used to heat water for both the espresso and the steam. Why is this a problem? Because espresso and steam need to be at different temperatures! These systems have the hardest time creating a precise, consistent temperature.
Heat-exchange systems are more common in commercial machines but are also available in home machines. In heat-exchange machines, there’s still a single boiler which keeps water heated to steam temperatures of around 248°F. This is too hot to properly pull an espresso shot, so there’s a separate tank of cold water which is heated as it’s needed by passing the cold water through the 248°F water. As the cold water passes through the steam water, it picks up heat until it reaches the proper temperature, hence the name “heat-exchange.” These machines offer commercial quality precision and consistency at more affordable prices. These copper espresso machines use heat-exchange systems.
Dual-boiler systems have separate boilers for espresso and steam. They offer the best temperature control but frequently have the highest price tags.
As you move from thermoblock to heat-exchange to dual-boiler heating systems, the quality of espresso produced tends to increase.
3. Ease of Use
How much time do you want to spend making your espresso?
If you don’t mind a little extra work — or especially if you relish it! — you’ll love a high quality semi-automatic espresso machine, especially one without an integrated grinder.
Trust me, buy the grinder separately.
Related: Best KitchenAid Coffee Grinder
What’s better than grinding your own coffee, tamping it yourself, and messing with a bunch of settings to dial in the perfect espresso shot?
4. Ease of Cleaning
A corollary to ease of use is ease of cleaning.
Once you’ve pulled your perfect shot and steamed barista-quality foam, how much cleanup do you want?
A capsule-based espresso machine, like the Nespresso Pixie, is going to be incredibly simple to clean. They’re designed for convenience.
Even a stovetop espresso machine, like the Bialetti Moka Pot, is pretty easy to clean — take it apart and rinse the components.
But those pricier semi- and super-automatic espresso machines will involve more cleaning.
Seattle Coffee Gear has a great guide detailing the daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual cleaning you should do to keep your machine in tip-top shape (and operating properly). Make sure that doesn’t seem like too much work before you buy.
5. Size and Countertop Space
I live in a small apartment in the city and countertop space is at a premium. I’ve got a microwave, my Ninja blender, a coffee grinder…and not much else.
Because of my living situation, I don’t own an espresso machine!
(I own an Aeropress, and when I want espresso or a latte I go to the coffee shop.)
If you’re like me and have zero countertop space, a Nespresso Essenza Mini is a tiny capsule-based machine.
Some super-automatic espresso machines, like the Jura Ena Micro 9, are very compact and perfect for someone who doesn’t have much room to spare.
If you’ve got oodles of available space, the Breville BES870XL will take up some of it.
6. Durability, Reliability and Risk Tolerance
A $150 Nespresso machine is a big investment for some people.
For others, a $1,500 super-automatic machine might be an expense they’ve been saving up for.
- Check the warranties.
- Consider how much machine you can realistically afford versus how much you’re willing to spend.
- Read/watch reviews from actual users (especially YouTube videos) to see how the machines hold up.
An espresso machine could be one of your bigger purchases. Are you comfortable taking a risk on a model that has everything you want even if users report it has a higher chance of a blown gasket or leaky water tank?
Are you willing to deal with the hassle and time of a repair or replacement during the warranty period?
7. Price and Your Budget
I’m of the belief that there are some things in life you shouldn’t skimp on.
Here’s my “pay up for quality” shortlist:
- Tissues (e.g. Kleenex)
- Paper towels
- Non-stick cooking spray
- Toilet paper
- Body wash and/or soap
- Cotton swabs (e.g. Q-tips)
- Phone chargers
(When I write it out, that’s sort of a weird list.)
My list is dominated by things I use every single day. I don’t mind paying a little extra for these things for two reasons:
- I use them every day (duh, I just said that)
- The high quality of the name brand stuff makes my life easier
You can add espresso machines (and coffee grinders for that matter) to the list.
Don’t sacrifice quality to save money on your espresso machine or coffee grinder.
Higher-priced machines generally mean better quality, more control and improved consistency.
You Category 3 espresso drinkers will need a machine that does more stuff at a high level. Generally that means a wider array of good features, and that means a higher price.
And in my opinion, it’s totally worth the higher price tag.
But let my clarify something: When I say “don’t sacrifice quality to save money” I don’t mean you need to pay a lot of money for the sake of having a do-it-all machine.
I know not everyone can afford a $1,000+ espresso machine. That’s OK! Identify what features are must-have features and which are nice-to-have features and then be prepared to invest in those must-have features.
Think about items 1-6 above:
- What drinks do you want to make?
- Quality of espresso
- Ease of use
- Ease of cleaning
- Size and countertop space
- Durability, reliability and risk tolerance
If you need to restrict your prospective machine’s features to keep it in your price range, consider these questions?
- Is an easy-to-use machine a must-have or a nice-to-have?
- Is a small machine a must-have or a nice-to-have?
- Are you tolerant of a little more risk or willing to go weeks without having your machine in the event it needs repairs within the warranty period?
In a perfect world you’d be able to spend $2,500 and get everything you want and then some. In your real world that may not be the case. Be prepared to evaluate your needs and wants critically.
And that’s our list of factors to consider when choosing an espresso machine. What did you think? What factors did YOU consider when you purchased your espresso machine? Comment below!