For many java drinkers, espresso is coffee's ultimate expression and finding the best espresso machine might mean the difference between a great brew and something that's just satisfactory. Concentrated, complex and intensely flavorful, it's easy to fall hard for this style of coffee, but to create and enjoy good espresso at home, be prepared to spend big bucks. Quality home espresso machines with an advanced brewing process and handy accessories like milk frothers don't come cheap and you can expect to pay at least $600 for something that whips up legit cafe-caliber shots of espresso.
Sure, of course you can also drop as little as $100, if you're willing to settle for a rather mediocre espresso machine, but I urge you not to pounce on products that cost less. They may seem like a bargain at first blush, but they're often a waste of money and counter space, too.
"Espresso brewers" in this price range ($30 to $50), typically lack motorized pumps, and are powered by steam pressure alone. What they produce is really moka pot, the sort of coffee made by simple stovetop brewers, and won't taste quite like the espresso you're used to from coffee shops and cafes. That's not inherently bad, it's just not really espresso.
To find the best espresso machine, I spent over 80 hours putting 10 available espresso machines through their paces. I also revisited three other espresso machines I reviewed previously. During the process, I made and sampled scores of espresso shots, double shots, lattes, cappuccinos and pitchers of steamed milk.
After my experience, these are the three home espresso machines I recommend. While they all get the job done and offer the essential features you need like a steam milk frother, drip tray, water reservoir, and easy-to-clean stainless steel base, the key differentiating factor between them is the price point. And how much you spend has a huge impact on what type of coffee you ultimately get.
I also limited this list to semi-automatic and automatic espresso machines. I excluded super automatic espresso makers as well, sold by Krups, Philips, Miele, and others. They're a breed apart, costing many multiple times more ($2,000 to $3,000).
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The best espresso machine value right now: Breville Barista ExpressChris Monroe/CNET
You can't beat the Breville Barista Express and its combination of performance, features and sensible price. For $600, the machine grinds beans, doses grounds directly into its portafilter, plus it steams milk well. It also consistently pulled the best tasting shots of espresso in my test group. The Barista Express is a cinch to clean as well. And to seal the deal, Breville includes premium metal tools such as a handy dose trimmer and tamper.
The best espresso machine for under $200: Cuisinart EM-100
While it lacks its own coffee grinder, the $166 Cuisinart EM-100 has plenty going for it. It's powerful enough to brew from fine coffee grounds. It also pulled flavorful espresso shots, second only to the Breville Barista Express in terms of quality, taste and strength. The machine features a frothing arm for steaming milk and a built-in cup warmer too.
The best espresso machine for under $100: Mr. Coffee ECMP50
Despite its modest $99 price, the Mr.Coffee ECMP50 surprised me by belting out satisfying espresso shots. They were nice and strong, with good crema and balanced coffee flavor. I still prefer shots brewed by the Breville Barista Express and Cuisinart EM-100, which tasted more intense. Frothing milk on this machine was difficult compared to those products due to its short steam arm. Mr. Coffee doesn't bundle a milk pitcher either, so you'll have to supply one yourself. That said, if $100 is your price limit, this brewer fits the bill.
How we test espresso machines
My evaluation process for espresso machines is similar to how I test standard drip coffee makers. First, I hand wash and dry all removable parts and accessories. For most espresso products that includes the portafilter, metal portafilter inserts, water tank and so on. Next I run one brewing cycle with just water to flush away any residual material from manufacturing.
Most espresso machines, save fancy super automatic models, lack an integrated coffee grinder. So I supply my own --- the. I chose this grinder for two reasons. First, it's calibrated more for espresso and less for drip or other brewing styles. That means it produces grounds that are quite fine. Second, its grind size is also consistently uniform. Both factors are critical for brewing espresso properly.
To pull shots, I start with the suggested method outlined in a given machine's product manual. Usually that covers the amount of coffee grounds expected per shot, along with any guidelines regarding coarseness level. Likewise, I follow tamping instructions (light, medium or hard tamp) if the manual provides them.
Whenever possible, I brew double shots of espresso for all my test runs. I make sure to record the weight of the grounds I use, plus the weight of espresso for each shot I pull. This data, along with readings from a portable refractometer, allows me to calculate two important percentages: TDS (total dissolved solids) and extraction percentage.
And just like any coffee brew, the ideal extraction percentage for espresso is a range between 18 and 22%. This yields a balanced cup, assuming you perform an even and efficient extraction of coffee compounds from your grounds (both flavor and caffeine).
If you over-extract, you run the risk of leaching out unpleasant flavors (bitterness) after the good. On the opposite end of the scale, under extracted brews tend to have undeveloped flavors. Lacking sugars and other caramelized organic chemicals, these shots will taste sour, weak and watery.
Unlike drip coffee, espresso should be concentrated. While excellent drip typically has a TDS percentage of 1.3 or 1.4%, great espresso has a much higher percentage. The Breville Barista Express, for example, produced shots with TDS percentages as high as 12.4%.
These shots I pulled were balanced though, with an extraction of 18.6%. The test beans I use are the same variety I employ for standard coffee makers -- Costco Kirkland Colombian. It's a medium dark roast, suitable for brewing espresso as well.
Lastly, I try my hand at frothing milk with each machine equipped with a steam wand. I record the overall experience, whether the process is a snap, a tricky chore or somewhere in between.
Want more options? Check out this list of espresso machines I've tested in addition to the ones above.
- Mr. Coffee Cafe Barista
- Aicook 3.5Bar Espresso Coffee Maker
- DeLonghi EC702
- Mr. Coffee Cafe 20-Ounce Steam Automatic
- Brentwood GA-125 Espresso and Cappuccino Maker
- Mr. Coffee Four-Cup Steam Espresso System
- DeLonghi EC155
- DeLonghi EC3420
- Imusa Four-Cup Electric Espresso & Cappuccino Maker
- Capresso Four-Cup Espresso & Cappuccino Machine
This story was originally published earlier.