Breville Barista Express review: This powerful, comparatively affordable espresso machine pulls truly flavorful shots

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.

Performance and taste

Initially I found it tricky to pull a decent shot with the Breville Barista Express. Once I properly honed my technique, I was treated to the best espresso I've tasted from a home machine. For example I first set the grinder to a level 5 coarseness but my resulting shots tasted decent, though flat and lifeless, essentially a shadow of what's possible using my Costco Colombian test beans.

Refractometer readings of shots pulled at these settings confirmed what I tasted, with the average percentage TDS (total dissolved solids) returning as 7.7 percent. Given my final espresso volume of 1.6 fluid ounces pulled through the 0.5 ounce of coffee grounds within the portafilter, that translates to a low extraction percentage of 13.1 percent. Just like drip coffee, ideally espresso should clock in with a high enough TDS to hit an extraction percentage of between 18 and 22 percent.

Pulling shots was easy once I put in some practice.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Next I bumped the grinder down to level 3 coarseness and had another go. The Barista Express rewarded my patience with a shot that was truly spectacular. The taste was rich, and packed with complex flavors such as chocolate and smoke, balanced by sweet caramel. The crema was thick, stout, and a lovely golden brown. I also measured a higher TDS percentage of 12.4 percent from this shot, giving it an excellent extraction percentage of 18.6 percent. From this point on I had no trouble pulling shot after shot of similarly delicious espresso.

Indeed, coffee I drank from the Breville Barista Express tasted better and lingered longer on the palate than what I made with either the Philips Saeco GranBaristo Avanti (4.2 TDS Avg) or Krups EA 9010 (3.9 TDS Avg), both excellent but exorbitantly priced appliances.

Crema was thick and rich.

Chris Monroe/CNET

Of course, as with any semi-automatic espresso machine, if I altered any of the brewing variables, all bets were off. For instance when I got greedy and added a larger amount of grounds, tamped the filter down too hard (or both), I typically lost control of my carefully balanced brewing pressure. In this case, not enough water could enter the filter or escape it. Regardless, the results were undrinkable.

There is a way to salvage an extremely strong, or "short" pulls of espresso by using the hot water nozzle. I found the machine combined hot water with espresso very well, creating astonishingly tasty Americanos even from the most botched of my shots.

Steaming milk was fun as well.

Chris Monroe/CNET

I had no trouble steaming milk with the Barista Expresses either. Once the steam boiler reached temperature (approximately 20 seconds), it had plenty of power to complete the task. Other products such as the Mr. Coffee Pump Espresso and De'Longhi Dedica timed-out after a few minutes while the Barista Express steam wand could practically run indefinitely.

Add frothed milk for sweetness.

Chris Monroe/CNET


All espresso machines require constant cleaning to stay in good working order, and in this regard the Breville Barista Express is no different. With far fewer moving parts or messy milk reservoirs to maintain compared with super-automatic gadgets, this espresso maker is relatively easy to keep tidy.

Use hot water and steam to clean.

Chris Monroe/CNET

As long as you remember to empty the puck of spent grounds from the portafilter immediately after pulling a shot, give it a quick rinse, then flush hot water through the brew head, the machine is good to go. The drip tray is a cinch to remove and empty too.

Conclusion

Brewing espresso with the Breville Barista Express takes time, effort and practice. That's especially true if you're spoiled by the pushbutton functionality of super-automatic espresso makers like the $3,000 Philips Saeco GranBaristo Avanti and $2,500 Krups EA 9010. And while you don't do any work up front before enjoying drinks from those products, you'll certainly be busy servicing them constantly either by emptying drip trays or conducting daily, weekly and monthly cleaning.

Those patient enough to stick with the $600 Breville Barista Express though, tweaking its settings and various options etc., will be richly rewarded and ultimately spend a lot less money. Not only is it capable of making better coffee than cheaper espresso machines such the De'Longhi Dedica and Mr. Coffee Cafe Barista, the Express produces superior flavor than even luxury models like the afore-mentioned Philips Saeco and Krups at a fraction of the price. Sure, you could buy a fancy Italian machine like the $400 Gagglia Classic but unlike the Breville it lacks a grinder. All this helps the Breville Barista Express earn our editor's choice for a home espresso machine.