In my experience, there are two types of espresso drinkers. The first set doesn't care where their elixir comes from, how much it costs or how it's made, as long as they get it fast. A second group dreams about duplicating espresso alchemy at home, on the cheap, and are more than willing to get their hands dirty. If the latter sounds like you, then the semi-automatic $600 Breville Barista Express espresso machine is a dream come true.
The Barista Express offers just enough adjustable controls and manual settings that you feel like a real barista when using it. It's also simple to operate, performs as well as machines costing hundreds more, and grinds beans right into its portafilter. Of course a gadget like this isn't for everyone since it requires some effort and patience to operate. Those who demand their concentrated coffee fix with a minimum of fuss (and who are willing to pay for it), a fully automatic machine like the $3,000 Philips Saeco GranBaristo Avanti and $2,500 Krups EA 9010 will be more your speed.
Design and features
Measuring 16 inches tall by 13.5 inches wide and reaching a depth of 12.5 inches, the Breville Barista Express is roughly the size of a standard drip coffee maker but about twice as wide. Compared with compact espresso machines such as the De'Longhi Dedica and Mr. Coffee Cafe Barista, Breville's espresso maker is larger and physically more robust.
Aside from its girth, on looks alone Breville's machine gives the impression that it means business.The stainless-steel chassis, and the the hefty steel portafilter and handle attachment help its appearance, but the large bean hopper, companion burr grinder, and pressure gauge really seal its serious looks. You usually only see those features on premium semi and super automatic espresso makers.
It's the pressure gauge that most communicates the Breville's brewing chops. Placed front and center on the control panel, the circular dial displays whether the internal pump is pushing hot water through your coffee grounds within the optimal pressure range.
Too little force and water will flow through the grounds too quickly, missing much of its potential flavor, and resulting in under extracted and sour-tasting espresso. Too little hot water flow under high pressure will likely yield espresso liquid with a bitter flavor. Cheaper espresso machines tend to lack pressure gauges either to cut costs, or mask that they have inconsistent performance.
To the left and right of the dial are large circular buttons for "Power," "Filter Size" and "Program," along with two for choosing to brew single or double espresso shots. Here too is a knob for setting the amount of coffee grounds the grinder will produce automatically for either single or double-sized espresso filters.
To make life easier, ground coffee drops directly into the Barista Express' steel portafilter. From there it's a cinch to gently press (or tamp) the portafilter's contents down (Breville includes a metal tamper) and twist the entire apparatus (handle, filter and all) into position under the machine's single brew head.
A swivel-joint mounted steam wand along with a hot water nozzle live to the right of the brew head, both activated by a large knob on the machine's right side. On the far left of the unit sits a grind size selector that boasts 18 settings including "coarse" on one end and "fine" on the other. Other thoughtful touches include a drip tray that's easy to clean and a removable water tank with its own sturdy handle.
Pull shots like a barista
I admit that at first all the Breville Barista Express' knobs, buttons, and dials were intimidating. Thanks to the detailed manual, after pulling just a few practice shots I had the basic process down. First I filled the bean hopper and the water tank. Next I dropped a double-walled, double-shot filter into the portafilter basket (I always prefer double shots) and pushed it backward into the grinding cradle.
One short push and release hits a button at the back of the cradle telling the grinder to automatically fill the filter basket to the size you've selected, single or double. Also factored in is what grind amount setting you've selected, controlled by the grind amount dial. You can grind manually into the portafilter too by pushing it back and holding it in place. Releasing backwards pressure off of the portafilter handle stops the grinder.
Finally you tamp down your grounds, swivel the portafilter into place to lock it under the brewhead, then hit the single or double espresso button. With any luck a thick, concentrated stream of espresso liquid will flow into your glass or cup. Keep in mind that many factors can affect your espresso pull quality. These include the coarseness and amount of grounds used, how hard a tamp you exert, and whether the machine has been properly primed right before you brew.