Straight to the Point
The best espresso machine is the Breville Bambino Plus Espresso Machine. Its compact, ergonomic design, temperature consistency, and ability to perfectly steam milk makes it an all-around winner. We do have a few more top picks, which you can read about below.
As a longtime barista, my favorite piece of advice for home coffee brewers is to think about brewing espresso like it's the world’s quickest science experiment. You pull a shot, taste it, change a variable, and then pull another shot—this can be done within seconds.
But while you can change virtually every element in the process of brewing espresso—the grind setting, the type of coffee, how long you pull a shot—you're not going to be able to change the machine you're using easily or cheaply. And since an espresso machine is an investment, we want to help you to choose your investment wisely.
To put together this review, I asked experts to weigh in on what they look for in espresso machines and asked them to talk about how they communicate coffee tips and tricks with a broad audience, but I also asked my non-coffee friends to test out some of my favorite machines and tell me if they were intuitive and whether they made it easy to produce high-quality coffee.
What you’ll see below is a guide to some of the best home espresso machines, categorized based on a variety of needs.
The Winners, at a Glance
The Best Overall Espresso Machine: The Breville Bambino Plus Espresso Machine
The Bambino Plus can automate virtually every part of the process while still giving you the feeling that you’re pulling a shot of espresso. From an ergonomic design that’s deeply satisfying and intuitive to use to unparalleled temperature consistency and its ability to steam perfectly textured milk, it’s almost more difficult to make a bad espresso drink with this machine than it is to make a good one. You can walk up to a Bambino Plus without any coffee experience and make something great.
Best for: People who want a consistently delicious cup of coffee, are short on counter space, and can appreciate the small design features that make this machine incredibly pleasing to use.
The Best Affordable Espresso Machine: The DeLonghi EC155M Manual Espresso Machine
There are hundreds—hundreds—of budget espresso machines, and the DeLonghi provided the most straightforward and consistent espresso experience. The DeLonghi has everything you need to make espresso, and nothing more, although I wish it steamed milk a little better. Its small size also makes it an easy fit on your countertop.
Best for: Folks who don’t have a lot of counter space; want a machine that simply pulls shots of espresso; don’t mind the plastic build of the exterior.
The Best Machine for Espresso Enthusiasts: The Gaggia Classic Pro Espresso Machine
The Gaggia Classic Pro makes espresso that's as close as you can get to the quality you'd find at your local specialty coffee shop and allows folks eager to learn about coffee plenty of room to explore and play. You do have to watch out for temperature fluctuations, but with a robust online following, the Gaggia Classic Pro is a machine for folks ready to get deep into coffee—and it’s under $500.
Best for: People who want to make coffee as good as their baristas; natural McGyvers; people who can taste all the different notes in a coffee.
The Best Hand-Powered Espresso Machine: The Cafflano Kompresso
For its combination of size, ease of use, and ability to brew a very pleasant espresso, the Kompresso stood out among other manual brewing machines. I was impressed by how consistently clean and balanced each shot of espresso was. At $80, it wasn’t the most budget-friendly, but it was the most versatile. And since it weighs in at less than half a pound, it's the ideal travel companion.
Best for: People who travel a lot; who are low on counter space; who want to feel like they’re brewing their own coffee but don’t want the process to be too detailed; who don’t want a lot of extra stuff when they’re brewing; who simply want espresso—no lattes or cappuccinos.
The Best Affordable Hand-Powered Pick: Fellow Prismo, Pressure-Actuated Attachment for AeroPress Coffee Maker
There aren't a lot of tools that you can simply add to an existing coffee brewer and suddenly make espresso, but the Prismo attaches to an Aeropress to build up pressure and brew what they call “espresso-style coffee.” The filter on the Prismo is precise and gave me a clean and pleasant drink to sip on.
Best for: Travelers; folks who already have an Aeropress; who only want espresso occasionally and don’t need a big set up; who have limited space and would benefit from maximizing their existing coffee set up.
The Criteria: What We Look for in a Great Espresso Machine
There’s a lot to consider when picking out the right espresso machine for your needs, and I designed the testing criteria to give equal weight to taste, value, and usability in order to provide readers with a range of choices.
With each machine, we started with the basics: What does it feel like getting the machine out of the box? How easy is it to set up? Are the instructions clear? What features does the machine have? What accessories does it come with? Does it need additional tools to make espresso, like a tamper, and espresso-based drinks, like a milk pitcher?
In terms of performance, we assessed how each machines controlled elements of the brewing process that could affect whether the resulting coffee is over- or under-extracted. We’ve covered what those terms mean in our grinder testing article, but here’s a quick refresher:
Coffee has lots of desirable components—and lots of undesirable ones. As water moves through coffee, it picks up these components at different rates. If water moves too fast through a coffee puck, it won’t pick up enough of those desirable flavors and will taste hollow and sour. That means it’s under-extracted. If the water spends too much time hanging out with the coffee, it’ll start to pick up flavors we don’t like, mainly bitterness. That means the coffee is over-extracted.
Is all this nerdy stuff fun? Yes. Is it necessary to understand in order to buy a great espresso machine? No, but understanding these variables—or how much you care about these variables—will help you pick a machine that’s tailored to your needs. “I advise considering what your needs are first and foremost," says Steve Rhinehart, e-commerce manager at Acaia and former brand manager at Prima Coffee Equipment. "Do you want to cut out the cafe expenses from your budget? Are you already interested in coffee and want to expand your hobby? What kind of drinks do you like—straight espresso, flavored lattes, flat whites?”
One of Rhinehart’s responsibilities when he worked for Prima was to get to know new machinery coming to the market and communicate that to customers. When I worked as an editor at Barista Magazine, Rhinehart was the person I’d ask my super technical machinery questions to, and he agrees that to make a decision about what kind of espresso machine you should buy requires listing what you’re looking for. “The drinks you want to make will help dictate the features you want to focus on, and might convince you to spend a little more money,” he says. “An entry-level espresso machine like a Gaggia Classic can pull good shots and steam milk well, but it isn't ideal for back-to-back drinks if you like entertaining.”
One of the features we paid close attention to is pressure, since the amount of pressure with which water is passed through coffee grounds is an essential part of the process of making espresso; if you’re not incorporating pressure into your brewing, you’re essentially just making strong drip coffee. If you ever have a chance to check out a commercial espresso machine at a coffee shop, nine times out of ten those machines are set to exert pressure at nine bars. This is because, as 2007 World Barista Champion James Hoffmann recently explained, nine bars is the optimal pressure for espresso, a fact that can be demonstrated by simply pulling a series of shots, starting at three bars of pressure and gradually increasing the amount of pressure with each shot. Most tasters will find that the flavor of the espresso gets better with each shot up until you reach nine bars, because as the pressure goes up, the water passes through the tamped coffee grounds in the espresso puck faster and faster. But when the pressure moves above nine bars, the water starts to compact the coffee grounds in the puck, which slows down the rate at which the water flows through the puck, and the flavor of the espresso is consequently worse.
This optimal pressure setting is important to understand because many of the machines we tested boasted a variety of pressure profiles—from 3.5 bars to 15—and we were skeptical of any machine that touted its ability to achieve 15 or more bars of pressure, since more in the world of espresso does not always mean better.
We also had to consider pressure with our manual (that is, hand-powered) brewing devices. However, since the manual devices didn't have gauges to help you monitor the pressures, it was both difficult to maintain a consistent pressure profile and to pin down how these devices performed when making alterations in other variables, like grind size and dose. In short, what you gain in portability by using these devices you lose in control.
The way to think about water temperature and extraction is that hotter water will pull more from coffee faster, while colder water will pull flavors from coffee slower. A coffee brewed with very hot water can be over-extracted and thin while a coffee brewed with colder water can be under-extracted and sour. And as you’ll see, many of our machines could not keep consistent temperatures—some of the manual machines lost temperature quickly while some of the cheaper electric machines changed temperature rapidly depending on how they were used.
Ease of Use and Cleaning
We also considered ergonomics. "Pulling a shot”—a term that's a holdover from the days when espresso machines had levers you'd have to pull down to get espresso out, and now encompasses the process of tamping, leveling, and inserting the portafilter into the machine and either pressing a button or doing some manual action—should feel intuitive, easy to repeatedly do, and shouldn't strain your wrists or require you to brace the machine. Likewise, we checked to see if each machine was designed to hold cups well, if the drip tray was easy to pull out, and if the portafilter basket came out and was easy to clean.
Speaking of, an espresso machine is only as good as how clean it is, so we looked at how easy cleanup would be by taking the machines apart and putting them back together. Some machines came with cleaning kits, which was also taken into consideration.
Beyond that, we examined all the extras. Did the machine have everything I needed to make an espresso? What else did I need to get the drink I wanted? Many machines came with plastic tampers and dosing spoons, but there was little consistency in how large the spoons were so I found myself measuring each dosing tool to see how much coffee it could hold—which sort of felt redundant. Many came with extras that seemed superfluous or of questionable utility.
As part of the testing, I tried to control certain variables at all times. I made all espressos at a 1:2 ratio to begin, and then refined recipes as I considered other variables (for machines that can't achieve nine bars of pressure, I adjusted to compensate for lower pressure levels). I also started every machine on the same grind setting (9E using a Baratza Sette grinder), and then dialed in the grind setting until I could pull shots in the ideal time range of 20-30 seconds. I used filtered water from a Brita filter, a 12-ounce Rattlewear, and a 15-ounce Slow Pour WPM pitcher when milk pitchers were not provided, and I used my Acaia Lunar to weigh coffee and figure out doses. I used whole milk for every milk-based drink and two different kinds of coffee from a local roaster called Four Letter Word: their Hyperballad blend and a single origin coffee from Guatemala called Hunapu.
If you can’t replicate your findings then your findings don’t mean much, so in the spirit of science I lent some of my favorite machines to my friend, Phil, who I’ve known since my first year of college. Phil loves coffee and will make manual drip brew at home, but has never worked in a coffee shop so he came in with fresh eyes.
Why You Should Trust Us
I’ve been in the coffee industry since 2010. My very first coffee job was as a barista at a high-volume shop where we weren’t allowed to change the grind setting on the grinder. Since then, I’ve been behind the bar in some capacity until 2019 and I continue to write about coffee and interview folks for a coffee-centric podcast. I’ve been a shop manager and a coffee trainer, and I’ve taught hundreds of people how to make coffee. I’ve seen folks with all levels of experience and interest come to the machine and try to learn.
My coffee experience means I know some technical stuff, and my training experience means I know how to tell people said technical stuff, but what probably makes me the most adept at testing machines is my background as a math and science teacher. Before I started in coffee, I taught 7th and 8th graders things like algebra and simple machines. The most valuable lesson I learned as a teacher is how to implement the scientific method.
Since teaching, I’ve found myself incorporating lessons from the classroom, like how different learners respond to visual versus auditory instruction, and I always utilize the teachings of the scientific method when I train people on how to make coffee. Making coffee is one big science experiment, and as you change just one variable, you learn more about that variable’s impact on your final product.
I also wrote the Serious Eats review of the best milk frothers.
Before I began, I grouped machines into four categories: manual, semi-automatic "budget" machines (under $400), semi-automatic machines above $400, and fully automatic. To compare espresso machines without categorizing them felt unfair—there’s no way the $125 DeLonghi machine will perform as well as the $1200 Rancilio machine, but that doesn’t disqualify the former from being a useful tool that’s perfect for some home users. Likewise, coffee made with Keurig pods would be radically different than coffee made with freshly ground coffee. Once we categorized the machines, we brewed and compared coffee from machines within each category side-by-side so we could make informed observations and recommendations.
Test 1: Temperature Consistency
Probably the biggest difference between commercial and home espresso machines is their ability to maintain a consistent water temperature. To test temperature consistency, we pulled shots over and over on each machine.
We talked a little about the effect of temperature on coffee above; it's an important consideration when looking at home espresso machines. “Spotty, inconsistent, or straight-up cold brewing temperature is one of the biggest quirks of home machines I've seen,” Rhinehart says. “That's why temperature surfing became such a thing with hobbyists. Some machines might hit 200-plus Fahrenheit when they're properly heated up, but on the downswing when the thermostat is off they might drop all the way to 150ºF.”
Although most home machines will have water temperature fluctuations, it might not matter much if you’re just making coffee for yourself. “Home espresso machines don't require [or] have the same amount of electrical power behind them, therefore heat stability can be quite different,” says Madeleine Longoria Garcia of Pacific Coffee Research in Hawai'i. “This shouldn't be an issue as most home machines aren't being pushed to pump out dozens of drinks in a short period of time.” If your espresso hobby is just for you, temperature stability might not rank as high on your list.
There are expensive tools like thermofilters that can measure the temperature of the water as it comes out of the boiler, but for the sake of this review, we tasted samples to determine the consistency of water temperature—with grind size and dose close to dialed in, espresso that tasted under- or over-extracted was likely the result of water temperature issues.
Test 2: Pressure
Pressure is another variable that influences extraction rates. The more pressure, the better the extraction, at least to a point. Think of it this way: Making espresso involves pushing a small amount of water through the ground coffee in a relatively short amount of time, hopefully with a full-flavored shot coming out the other end, but whether that happens or not depends in part on the pressure level achieved. With overly low pressure, instead of a rich and flavorful shot of espresso, you'd just end up with a tiny cup of watery, under-extracted drip coffee, and nobody wants that.
While sufficient pressure is essential to making good espresso, you can accommodate machines with different pressure capabilities by modifying other variables, like the ratio of water to coffee (the lower the pressure, the more water you need, to increase contact time and, thus, extraction). To be clear, we weren’t out to manipulate pressure in our tests in any way—rather, we just wanted to see what each machine claimed to achieve and how it affected the taste of the espresso. In each case, we designed brew ratios that took the pressure capabilities of each machine into account.
One thing we noticed is that many of the budget machines had pressurized baskets, which you’ll notice if you pop out the basket and you see a small, almost funnel-like hole at the bottom of the basket. “Pressurized baskets, or pressurized portafilters (depending on the design), are helpful for making a foamy coffee if the grounds you have are old, not the right size, not prepared correctly, etc…” says Rhinehart. “These are really common in consumer machines under $1,000 and I tend to think of them as being benign ‘feel-good’ devices. Pressurized baskets/portafilters can choke up if used with finely ground coffee, so you'll want to switch to a so-called single wall basket if you have your own espresso grinder and you're using fresher coffee.”
A pressurized basket works by allowing espresso to flow through the portafilter only when the pressure in the basket has reached a certain level—think of a pressurized basket as the training wheels of pulling a shot of espresso. You don’t have to be as precise about grind setting with a pressurized basket, and they’re designed to be used for very coarsely ground coffee (if someone buys their coffee pre-ground at the supermarket, for example) or for some types of pod or pre-dosed coffees. Pressurized baskets also guarantee that you’ll get a foam-like crema on each shot.
Test 3: Ease of Steaming
Most home espresso machines are single-boiler machines, meaning they use the same heating element to extract espresso as they do to steam milk. The temperature you need for steaming milk and pulling shots of espresso is different, so most home machines require some wait times between each task. I tested how easy it was to steam on each machine by preparing eight-ounce cappuccinos (many shops serve for-here cappuccinos in six ounce cups but bump to-go servings up to eight ounces, so I wanted to mimic what I imagine most people would be used to).
I also assessed how easy it was to move from pulling shots to steaming milk, particularly on single-boiler machines that utilize the same mechanism for creating hot water or steam. “In the entry level end of home machines, you’ll see a lot of Single Boiler Dual Use (SBDU) machines, which can brew or steam but not both at once,” Rhinehart says. We timed how quickly we could move between functions on each machine.
In this test, I also looked at four machines that had some sort of automatic milk steaming, including one machine that had a separate frothing device and assessed how well each frothed milk for cappuccinos.
Test 4: Pulling Shots
Pulling a shot of espresso on a well-designed espresso machine should feel good, so I considered a series of questions while pulling shots on each machine. How does the tamper fit in my hand? Does the portafilter click into place or did I have to hold down the machine to pull it into position? Can the drip tray fit a cup comfortably under the portafilter? Also, since most of the espresso machines tested came with plastic tampers, I pulled shots using them as well as a professional-grade tamper to see whether the taste of the espresso was affected by the quality of the tamper.
Test 5: Ease of Use
A machine needs to be easy to use, which I assessed a few ways. Most home machines require you to remove the water tank and drip tray. Is this easy to do? What visual cues are there that tell me when to change out the drip tray or fill the tank? Espresso machines are also prone to scale build up, so being able to easily take apart a machine, clean it, and put it back together will help preserve its longevity.
To take things one step further, I gave my favorite machines to my friend, Phil, and asked him to weigh in on how easy the machines were to use, and his experiences tracked with mine.
Test 6: Extras
An espresso machine is a piece of equipment that requires other tools to use, like grinders, milk-frothing pitchers, and tampers. Some of the machines we tested were ready to use out of the box with all the required accessories and even built-in grinders, while others required additional investments.
While some of these add-ons are great, others can be more annoying than helpful. If the built-in grinder isn't good and you need to use your own grinder, then the add-on is useless. We looked at measurable things, like the quality of the tools the machine comes with, and intangible things—for example, some machines have a really robust online community of users that can help you modify your machine, if that’s what you’re into.
Test 7: Recommended Machine Upgrades and Techniques
Some machines were vastly improved with small, simple alterations and techniques. Two key upgrades made the biggest difference for many machines: VST baskets and a proper tamper. You can read more about both in our article on espresso machine hacks and upgrades, but in short, VST baskets can improve how evenly water flows through the coffee, while higher quality tampers make a much more properly compressed puck of coffee grounds. Most of the plastic tampers that came with many of the machines in this review didn’t fit the basket well enough, leading to uneven tamping and compromised extraction rates; better tampers will improve puck compression and therefore extraction. That said, some of the higher-end machines we tested came with solid, heavy-duty tampers that didn't need replacement.
Controlling the temperature of the water is another challenge with a lot of home machines. Unless you’re paying more than $800, you’re likely not getting a machine with a built-in temperature controller (called a PID). To get the water temps you need, you may need to learn to “temperature surf,” which is a way to manipulate the temperature in the boiler to achieve not necessarily an ideal brewing temperature, but a consistent one. You can read all about the ins and out of temperature surfing here. It's a technique we used in this review to try to improve the quality and consistency of espresso on some of the machines we tested.
The Best Overall Espresso Machine: The Breville Bambino Plus Espresso Machine
Breville products are designed to let you know you’re using them correctly—buttons click when you press them, knobs lock into place, and everything is clearly labeled.
I preferred the Bambino Plus over Breville's Barista Pro because I thought the Bambino struck a better balance between providing an all-in-one experience while allowing espresso buffs to play and experiment with their coffee. The grinder on the Barista Pro was pretty good, but doesn’t have as many grind settings to experiment with as I’d like (the built-in grinder has 30 grind settings, but only a handful of the finest grind settings are really going to work for espresso), and I found myself torn between two grind settings, wishing there were a setting in between.
Both machines utilize a ThermoJet heating system, which basically means water gets hot fast and no matter what you do, the temperature of your water is always where it needs to be. Instead of temperature surfing like we did with some of the machines, the Bambino pulls shots consistently at 200°F (93°C) and can instantaneously switch from pulling shots to steaming milk without any sort of delay.
Because of the ThermoJet heating system, the Bambino is incredibly simple to set up—all you have to do is plug it in and fill up the water tank. It’s small and slight, weighing in at just above 3 pounds, and would be a welcome (and sleek) addition to any kitchen countertop, although it's still small enough to be easily tucked away when not in use.
When we initially ordered machines for this experiment, the Bambino Plus was on backorder, so I borrowed a machine from a friend of mine. The machine didn’t have the original instructions, but there was a detailed illustrated descriptor akin to an airline safety brochure printed on the removable water tank that made cleaning the machine a breeze. The Barista Pro came with a detailed instruction manual and a pared-down sheet with minimal instructions—and the sheet was printed on waterproof paper.
Since the model I nabbed from my friend didn’t come with the manual, I decided to try to roll with this machine without trying to pull up any instructions—I wanted to see if I could make great coffee without understanding every function. The front of the machine is as simple as can be with just five buttons: a single-shot button, a double-shot button, a milk steaming button, and two buttons that control the temperature and amount of foam produced by the automatic milk steaming option.
I knew that the Bambino was meant to be virtually automatic, but I didn’t know what would happen if I pressed the single- or double-shot buttons. Am I supposed to press the button again once I think the shot is done or will it stop on its own? As I used the machine, I figured out that it’s volumetric, meaning that the machine stops itself once a certain amount of water is dispensed (this can change if you make big swings on your grind setting since I believe the machine determines volume based on flow—I couldn’t find a definitive answer on Breville’s website). The presets on the machine are 30g and 60g for a single- and double-shot, respectively, but you can easily reprogram those amounts based on your preferences.
The Bambino baskets are designed to hold 19 grams of coffee for a double shot, which felt slightly too full, so I used 18g instead and programmed the double shot button to put out 36 grams of water for a 1:2 ratio of coffee to water (this won’t be perfect since I programmed how much water the machine should put out, and the coffee will retain some of the water as it passes through the tamped down coffee puck). Like many of the machines, the Bambino Plus came only with pressurized baskets, which I was kind of bummed about since the Barista Pro came with both pressurized and non-pressurized baskets—with the Bambino, the decision was made for me. Luckily, I had both machines at the same time, so I eventually swapped the baskets from the Barista Pro just to see how this machine could perform with regular baskets.
The Bambino consistently pulled delicious shots—there was no harshness or bitterness at the end and you didn’t have to temperature surf to find an ideal brewing temperature. There was a softness to the espresso that I didn’t experience with any of the other machines, and that might have to do with the pre-infusion function, where the machine only applies a few bars of pressure for the first few seconds to ensure that the coffee is soaked evenly, which helps give the espresso balance. The shots were slightly less nuanced than I would have liked—they were balanced and tasty but were missing some of the high notes I expect in a well-extracted shot on a commercial machine—but the fact that they were consistently delicious and easily replicable outweighed what I was missing in nuance.
What makes the Bambino Plus, well, “Plus,” is the automatic milk steaming function. You can use the steam wand manually as-is (as a barista who has burned themselves hundreds of times on steam wands, I appreciate the wide rubber loop on the Breville steam wand, designed to give users a safe spot to grab the wand without injury), or you can set your milk pitcher on the Bambino’s automatic milk sensor. You can then select the amount of foam you want, the temperature you want your milk, and the machine will take it from there.
I preferred steaming the milk manually, but I was thoroughly impressed with the texture of milk steamed by the Bambino. I didn’t notice a huge difference in the amount of foam on each setting, but each time I used the automatic function, the milk was silky and smooth. The machine also has an auto purge function, so when you put the wand back into place, it automatically purges any milk within the wand.
The Best Machine for Espresso Enthusiasts: The Gaggia Classic Pro Espresso Machine
If I had to pick an espresso machine to keep for myself, I’d pick the Gaggia Classic Pro.
Admittedly, it's not an easy machine to use—it’s not one you could simply walk up to and get perfect espresso drinks right away. But, once dialed in, the quality of espresso I got from the Gaggia was as good, if not better, than espresso I’ve had from some commercial machines.
Everything on the Gaggia seems professional. From its brushed steel body to the knob on the side to control the steam wand, the Gaggia made me feel like I was stepping behind the bar again. The body of the machine is heavy (it’s 20 pounds, only outweighed by the Rancilio Silvia), which helped anchor it on the counter—almost every other machine I used was much lighter, meaning that I had to hold it down and steady it in place as I put the portafilter into the grouphead. The portafilter itself was sturdy and held a 58mm basket, which is the same size as most commercial baskets.
The Gaggia came with a set of both single- and double-shot pressurized and non-pressurized baskets. After a few shots with the non-pressurized basket, I switched it out for a 17 gram VST basket to really focus on espresso quality.
We talked about temperature surfing earlier—and this is a machine that needs it. The Gaggia has a single boiler and tends to run hot; the very first shot of espresso I pulled was really bitter and strange. To get the water to the temperature I wanted, I waited until the machine was fully heated (which is indicated by the second light on the three-button interface turning off), purged water until the light came back on, and then waited 30 seconds. Is this incredibly finicky? Yes. Did it produce the best espresso we had on any of these machines? Yes. Most of the machines were able to achieve some level of balance and acidity, but this is the only espresso in which I managed get sweetness out of the coffee. There was also a level of nuance I couldn’t find in other espressos. Instead of a general “citrus acidity,” with the Gaggia, I was able to get really specific notes, like orange with a sweetness like milk chocolate from the blended coffee, and cherry and candy sweetness from the Guatemalan one.
I was disappointed by the milk steaming on the Gaggia. The milk steaming was slower than I anticipated, and produced milk that was slightly less silky than what the Bambino produced. It also took at least double the time to get the milk hot enough. However, I preferred having a knob to control the speed of my milk steaming (the knob on the Gaggia controls the amount of steam the wand releases) versus the button on the Bambino.
If you’re ready to get into the nitty gritty of espresso, the Gaggia is your best bet for the price and its capabilities. I also loved making coffee on the Rancilio Silvia Pro, but in light of the fact that it costs over a thousand dollars, the Gaggia is the best for any aspiring home barista.
The Best Hand-Powered Espresso Machine: The Cafflano Kompresso
I’m not going to lie: I thought I’d hate this machine. One of dozens of Kickstarter-funded espresso projects, the Kompresso claims to achieve nine bars of pressure consistently using hydraulic compression (hot water) versus manual pneumatic compression (think an air pump) to brew and achieve consistent temperature. You can go deep on the science of this on their website, but essentially it boils down to hydraulic compression providing direct pressure versus manual pneumatic compression having a delay because of the transfer of force.
All seven pieces of the machine click snugly into place—you could easily throw it in a backpack and none of the parts will get lost. You also don’t need much else beyond hot water and ground coffee. The Kompresso, which weighs less than half a pound, can be used without a scale because it has a dosing spoon (which doubles as a tamper) and a water vessel with mL ticks, reminiscent of a graduated cylinder. If you know how much coffee fits into the scoop, you can easily build an espresso recipe using ratios and simple multiplication.
The espresso bed was pretty level, ensuring an even extraction, even though the dosing spoon/tamper that they provide has their logo emblazoned on it, leaving a stamp on the dry coffee bed, which for a machine that’s clearly been carefully designed felt like an oversight—or a sneaky way to get additional branding onto the brewing device.
Temperature was my biggest issue with this brewer—and every manual brewer I used. I pre-heated every part of the Kompresso before I started brewing and still felt like the coffee tasted a little under-extracted because of temperature loss. That said, the Kompresso is highly adaptable; I brewed coffee at a few different ratios (the most coffee I could get in the basket was 13 grams, so I brewed at a 1:2 ratio of coffee to water and then a 1:3 ratio) and was able to get a beautiful crema and desirable flavors from each ratio.
The Best Affordable Hand-Powered Pick: Fellow Prismo, Pressure-Actuated Attachment for AeroPress Coffee Maker
I initially didn’t think to test this product until I was searching through my box of coffee equipment (you accrue a lot of things as the years go by) and found the Prismo at the bottom of my drawer. I decided to give it a test run just to see what it could do and was totally surprised.
The Prismo is an attachment to the Aeropress, a coffee brewer that some would argue is technically an espresso machine (it utilizes pressure by creating a vacuum in the brewing chamber). The attachment is simply a metal screen with 150-micron etched holes and a pressure-actuated valve that’ll only release espresso once you’ve achieved a certain amount of pressure on the coffee.
Like the Kompresso, the Prismo is widely adaptable, and you can employ the scientific method of brewing coffee with this tool easily—change your dose, change the amount of water used, change the rate at which you press down on plunger. Out of all of the manual brewers, I found the espresso from the Prismo to be the cleanest, which makes sense because it has the most delicate filter. At $25 there isn't a single better espresso option that provides as much value.
The Best Affordable Espresso Machine: The DeLonghi EC155M Manual Espresso Machine
This machine has over 10,000 reviews on Amazon and comes in at around $125—not even double the price of the Kompresso. When I pulled it out of the box, I initially thought it was a refurbished machine—part of the water tank handle was broken and there were visible espresso grounds on the outside of the machine and in the water tank. I’m not sure if that’s a distributor issue or supplier issue, but none of the wear and tear I saw on the machine affected its performance.
I’m not sure I would call this machine attractive, but I’m not sure I’d call any of the machines tested particularly stylish (my partner and I debated the aesthetics of the Nespresso Vertuo, which has curved features that remind you of art deco buildings; I called it interesting and he did not agree). What I liked was that it was smaller than any of the other semi-automatic machines; it takes up very little space on our counter.
The DeLonghi doesn’t offer a ton of extras. There are just four settings: on and warming up, off, espresso, and milk steaming. The machine shakes and rattles as it pulls espresso, but if you want a decently pulled shot without any bells and whistles, this is the machine for you.
While the espresso I got from the DeLonghi was pleasant, it wasn’t incredibly nuanced. I barely noticed a difference between the blend and the single origin coffees, and, because it has pressurized baskets, I barely noticed a difference when I changed the grind setting.
I didn’t love steaming milk on this machine (especially compared to the Sowtech, a steam-powered machine that pulled terrible espresso but made beautiful milk) because it was slow and came out bubbly and stiff, but it did sufficiently heat up milk—it just took a really, really long time. You have to switch the machine from espresso mode to milk steaming mode and then wait for the light to come on to indicate that the unit is ready to steam milk. They explain this in the manual and I sort of knew what I was looking for based on my own familiarity with how machines like these work, but if I didn’t know anything about this machine I’d be confused about how to steam milk by simply looking at the instructions.
One thing the instructions did provide was a troubleshooting page, which I appreciated. It gave simple solutions to common problems like “the espresso is cold,” or “there’s no milk froth,” and it gave instructions for how to clean the machine, including how to descale it.
DeLonghi is an Italian espresso machine company and they make all types of machines, both for home and commercial use. That means parts for the machine are easy to track down. This model is one of their smallest and simplest with very few parts and very few things to fuss with. I was able to break this machine down in minutes and get it from my counter back into the box easily.
- Breville Barista Pro: I loved working with the Breville Barista Pro, but it boasts a number of features I found unnecessary for everyday use and preferred using my own grinder versus the built-in grinder on the machine. This is a great option for someone who wants an all-in-one espresso experience.
- Bialetti Moka Pot: The Bialetti is a classic, but machines that use steam pressure tend to produce harsh-tasting espresso because of the temperature of the water. Also, the filter is not very precise and I found a lot of grounds in my coffee.
- NEO Flair: It was close between the Kompresso and the Flair NEO, and I appreciate that the Flair comes with so many add ons, like a pressure gauge to measure how hard you’re pressing. But it’s clunky and fussy and at double the price of the Kompresso, it didn’t provide as much value.
- Nespresso Vertuo Coffee and Espresso Machine: Breville’s influence on this machine was clear with its click-in functions, clearly designed to be both ergonomic and pleasing to use, but I didn’t enjoy coffee from any of the Nespresso pods I tried; the pods themselves are a particular style that can only be purchased at certain locations (versus Keurig pods, which are widely available); and its detached milk frother made the milk much, much more foamy than you’d see in any specialty coffee shop.
- SOWTECH Espresso Machine 3.5 Bar: While my grandmother has been making Cuban coffee on her SOWTECH machine for decades, the espresso was watery, thin, and harsh—although it did steam milk beautifully because it uses steam pressure.
- Mr. Coffee Espresso and Cappuccino Maker: I was excited to try a machine that claimed both to steam milk and make espresso—and I think that’s a tall order for a machine under $400. The Mr. Coffee Espresso and Cappuccino Maker was difficult to temperature surf with because of its buttons so it consistently produced harsh and watery espresso and the milk from its automatic frother looked bubbly, not like smooth microfoam
- Rancilio Silvia Pro: The Rancilio Silvia Pro was a dream to work with, but it was too heavy and bulky for everyday use and is really only appropriate for someone who’s ready to go all-in on espresso. If I were to open a drive-thru espresso window at my house, this would be the machine I'd go to.
- Keurig K-Café Latte Maker and Cappuccino Maker: The Keurig K-Café can kind of do it all—it makes both espresso and drip coffee along with steaming both cold and hot frothed milk. But the espresso from this machine drank more like a strong cup of coffee, and the milk foaming attachment produced milk that was thinner than I expected.
How do you clean an espresso machine?
The nuances of cleaning an espresso machine will vary depending on your specific machine, so always check the manufacturer’s instructions first. In general, though, you’ll want to keep up with day-to-day cleaning tasks, like purging and wiping down the steam wand after use, flushing the grouphead to avoid buildup of coffee grounds, and cleaning the portafilter and basket.
How do you descale an espresso machine?
Again, check the manufacturer directives for details on descaling your particular machine, but this is a good habit to get into on a monthly basis—especially if you use your machine daily or if you live somewhere with hard water.
Is an espresso machine worth it?
Whether an espresso machine is worth the purchase or not is always going to be a personal decision. Consider your budget, counter space, and likelihood of frequent use. If you’re happy with filter coffee and only reach for an espresso beverage as an occasional treat, you’re probably fine to skip the at-home espresso machine. But if you’re dropping $6 on lattes each day from your favorite coffee shop? Well, an espresso machine might be a great investment.