Straight To The Point
The Breville Barista Express Impress automates difficult parts of the espresso shot pulling process (like automatic coffee measuring and assisted tamping) and is a great option for home espresso beginners or those who aren’t looking to sink hours into perfecting technique.
Home espresso is daunting. You need a grinder, espresso machine, and bevy of tools for distributing, tamping, cleaning, and milk steaming. It can quickly become an expensive hobby that requires hands-on training to perfect, and there are lots of differing opinions on how to distribute the coffee in the basket, and even how to hold a tamper. There’s no one right way to pull a shot, but even trying to find best practices can be confusing.
On the flipside, espresso machines with built-in grinders usually sacrifice precision and quality for convenience. Standalone espresso grinders, like the Baratza Sette 270, aren’t limited by the amount of space they can take up, and most offer more grind settings, a more powerful motor, and higher quality burrs. Home espresso novices are usually then forced to compromise: spend money and dedicate free time to learning the ropes, or prioritize consistency over quality.
The Breville Barista Express Impress and its built-in grinder are designed to eliminate that compromise with an auto coffee dosing feature and an assisted tamping arm, which portions out coffee for the user and lines up a tamping piston with a simple-to-use lever. These functions eliminate training as an entry-barrier, and help add consistency to a shot pulling workflow for any home espresso user.
We’ve previously named Breville’s Bambino Plus as our top espresso machine, and have been impressed with the company’s small innovations towards making home espresso more approachable to more people. After testing, we think the Barista Express Impress continues those advancements, so we named it another top pick in our espresso machine round up.
How We Tested
To properly test this machine, we went through over five pounds of two different coffees, evaluating its performance with a standard espresso blend and a lighter-roasted single origin coffee. We pulled back to back shots, noting the weight the grinder delivered, and adjusted the grind until we could pull a great tasting shot of espresso. We also tested the consistency and accuracy of the volumetric espresso shot buttons, and used the steam wand to steam milk, checking to see if it could create microfoam finely textured enough to pour latte art.
How It Works
Espresso machines are complicated, but at the core, they’re designed to heat water in a boiler, pressurize that water with a pump, and deliver it through a screen that distributes it directly over a tamped coffee bed. Typically, you would have to grind coffee in a dedicated espresso grinder, portion it out into the portafilter basket (also known as dosing), compact the espresso into a puck using a handheld tamper, and insert it into the machine to pull the shot. Other espresso machines with built-in grinders typically rely on the user manually tweaking how much coffee is delivered by adjusting a timer, but the Barista Express Impress goes a step further.
One of the key parts of pulling an espresso shot is having a consistent dose of coffee every single time, and that’s a difficult thing for a machine to deliver. Grinders usually are programmed based on time, so if you grind your coffee finer to slow down the flow of the espresso shots, it also takes longer to grind that same amount of coffee. That means a built-in timer on a grinder will deliver less coffee the next time you go to pull a shot unless you readjust the coffee dosing dial.
This is important, because the overall time of an espresso shot relies on both how coarse or fine the grind is, as well as how much coffee the water travels through. If the espresso filter basket is designed to hold 18 grams of coffee and the grinder doses 17 grams, the tamped puck will be shorter, and provide less resistance to the pressurized water, causing the shot to run faster—the opposite of the desired effect.
The way the new system works is based not just on a timer, but the bed depth of the espresso puck once tamped. The portafilter is set in the grinder cradle, a button starts the grinding process, and the real magic begins when the tamper lever is pulled down to tamp the coffee. The user is then met with a row of lights labeled “Dose Level” that show the coffee’s puck height. Right in the middle, there’s a green light and a smiley face, indicating the proper amount of coffee dose. If the dose is too high, the system automatically will dose out less coffee the next time you grind. If it’s too low, the machine prompts you to grind a little more coffee and tamp again, so it can learn how much more to add. That means that no matter how you change the grind, the machine is constantly calculating how to deliver the same amount of coffee: there’s not a single commercial espresso grinder that does this, making this system truly unique.
Built into the portafilter cradle is also a tamping piston. Manually tamping an espresso puck can be tricky to master, and requires learning a proper grip technique that delivers a level puck of coffee every time while also being ergonomic enough to prevent repetitive motion injuries. On this machine, the tamping piston is automatically aligned with the portafilter basket, and a lever on the side of the machine delivers a consistent amount of force every single time.
It’s a nice touch for novices who might not be familiar with all the steps required to pull a shot of espresso, but it’s also key for the intelligent dosing feature to be able to function. Because it delivers the same pressure in the same manner with every lever pull, the machine then relies on that feedback to adjust the amount of coffee dosed. By pairing these two systems together, the Barista Express Impress eliminated two of the most common steps that can confound a new home barista.
What We Learned
User Experience Was Top Notch
As a consumer product company, Breville has really put a focus on user experience. Their machines come with every tool one might need for making coffee and taking care of the machine. It might be shocking, but most home espresso machines don’t come with a milk steaming pitcher, grouphead cleaning brush, or distribution tool, and they definitely don’t come with a secret drawer to hold all these tools that stashes itself behind the drip tray.
The drip tray itself is also smartly designed, with multiple layers. There’s a flat tray under the grinder side of the machine that catches any stray coffee grounds before they mix with the water that collects at the bottom of the drip tray, and when the water starts to fill up, a floating warning sign pops up to tell you to empty it.
The buttons on the machine light up to relay the next step to follow in the shot pulling process, and if you need extra guidance for a cleaning cycle, they’re printed directly on the front of the water reservoir. Breville is dedicated to walking its users through the espresso process, and even longtime barista pros were impressed by the details not usually found in espresso machines.
Assisted Tamping Worked Great
Tamping an espresso puck is necessary for the water to evenly move through the coffee, and it can be tricky to learn at home without hands-on teaching. The assisted tamping piston on this machine delivered a level tamped puck with every lever pull, which is something not every barista can do. It wasn’t quite as neat as a pro barista however, with a few loose coffee grounds hovering around the edge of the basket that should be tucked into the puck after tamping.
Intelligent Dosing Was Shockingly Consistent
The number one feature on this machine is its intelligent dosing system, and it was jaw-dropping how accurate it was. We measured 9 shots in a row, and found that most of them were within a .2-gram variance, with outliers landing .5 grams away from our ideal 18 gram dose. The accuracy of its dosing system rivaled that of any commercial espresso grinder, making this function truly unique.
Pressure Ramping Was Forgiving (But Could Be Frustrating)
The pre-infusion pressure ramping on this machine might be more forgiving for novices, but made it hard to dial in the grind with precision. When a coffee puck is saturated at a lower pressure, it allows for the water to create a more even pathway through the espresso puck. While this cuts down on the water channeling through one side of the coffee more than the other, it also speeds up the espresso flow once the full pressure of the machine kicks in. With the slow ramp up of the pressure pump on this machine, espresso shots started nice and easy but would accelerate with erratic flow that was unpredictable and ran slightly faster or slower from shot to shot.
The Filter Basket Had (Small) Design Issues
It might be a small gripe, but we wish the Breville espresso baskets weren’t tapered towards the middle. An espresso basket with straight sides allows water to more evenly extract coffee straight down, while tapered baskets channel water towards the center of the coffee puck, slightly extracting more from the center of the coffee than the edges. There are companies that make after-market straight sided baskets for Breville machines, but because the assisted tamping lever calibrates the intelligent dosing based on bed depth, there’s no guarantee that these systems will work with other baskets.
The Grinder Didn’t Have a Ton of Settings (But That Was Okay!)
Our main issue with the Breville Barista Pro was its lack of precision grind settings, and the Barista Express Impress has even fewer. With only 25 grind settings, it was tricky to dial in the espresso perfectly, though we were able to pull great tasting shots of both coffees we used for testing after some fidgeting. While we’d appreciate a little more wiggle room between settings to dial in the perfect shot, most people will still be able to pull a nice tasting shot of espresso without too much trouble.
Water Volume Programming Was Only So-So
Because the volumetric flow meters in this machine aren’t as precise as their commercial counterparts, espresso shot volume varied drastically from the preset buttons. Even when we reprogrammed the shot volumes, we found that they were too reliant on a consistent flow rate to deliver an accurate volume every time, and manually stopping espresso shots when they reached a desired weight or volume was much more consistent than relying on the machine to do it.
It might seem like a picky point, but the variance of a half an ounce of water in an espresso recipe is the difference between balanced sweetness and a bitter, ashy slurry. Even though the machine measures out your coffee consistently, it’s best to take the espresso volume into your own hands.
Back-to-Back Shots Needed Recovery Time, Though Home Users Won't Likely Notice This
In our testing, we eventually triggered the thermal switch that’s designed to shut down the grinder if the machine gets too hot. Grinding for espresso causes a lot of friction, which builds heat, and the grinder needs time between shots to be able to cool off so that the wires leading the circuit board literally don’t melt. It’s an easy problem to fix: just let the machine idle for about 10 to 15 minutes so it can cool down. It’s unlikely someone will hit this automatic shutoff limit in daily regular use, however—our testing was aiming to push the limits of what the machine could do, and after around 20 shots in a row, we found it.
We also noticed some temperature instability in the water when we were pulling shots back-to-back. The ideal espresso pulling temperature is 200ºF, and when pulling back-to-back shots, we could hear water boiling at the grouphead, indicating that it had climbed to 212ºF. It’s likely part of the Thermocoil design, which heats small amounts of water at a time, and the temperature did regular itself with the proportional integral derivative (PID) temperature controller if we let the machine idle for about a minute before pulling another shot.
It’s also rare for an espresso machine in this price bracket to have dedicated precision temperature control, so even if the machine needed a little time to recover, it’s still a very impressive feature.
Steaming Milk Was A Snap
As a single-boiler machine, the Breville Barista Express Impress has to switch to milk steaming mode in order to steam milk, running temperatures up to 266ºF to achieve consistent steam pressure. While most single boiler machines require about a 6-minute heating cycle, the Breville Barista series use a clever system that superheats the water for the steam wand instantly without needing to heat all the water in the boiler.
While the pressure is lower than some home espresso machines, we were still able to produce silky microfoam, and we really appreciated not having to wait for a whole heating cycle after pulling our shot to be able to steam milk.
This machine can pull really tasty shots of espresso, and its innovative dosing and tamping system can make espresso accessible for home baristas of all experience levels. It’s a nice all-in-one package that takes just minutes to set up, and you can make yourself a latte without having to order any accessories or set up a separate grinder. It’s a great snapshot of how newer technology can make good espresso at home accessible.
While the built-in dosing and tamping system is fantastic, the grinder itself lacks the precision and power of standalone options. We also found that, for a more experienced barista, the pressure ramping system was mildly frustrating and made it difficult to pull precision shots time after time, though the average home espresso machine user probably won’t notice.
Who It’s Best For
The Breville Barista Express Impress is a really great option for someone who’s curious about home espresso and doesn’t want to have to build a set up piece by piece. It's an excellent machine that automates some of the persnickety steps of pulling a shot and is ideal for someone who wants to streamline making espresso but doesn't want something fully automated.
- Let it preheat for at least 20 minutes: While the boiler will heat the water in just a few minutes, the portafilter itself needs time to heat up as well. A cold portafilter will absorb temperature from the brewing water, causing the shot to extract at lower temperature delivering a more sour, tepid espresso.
- Weigh your coffee: While the machine delivers the dose for you, it’s good to double check how much coffee it’s actually delivering with a scale. The amount of coffee you put into the machine is important for knowing how much espresso you want to come out of it. In our testing, the intelligent dosing system delivered 18 grams on average, but that could change based on the density of the coffee you choose.
- Measure your espresso: The best tasting espresso shots have a mass around two times greater than the weight of the coffee used, i.e. an 18 gram dose of coffee tastes best when the espresso shot weighs around 36 grams. Since the preset volumes weren’t as accurate as we’d like, we suggest using either a scale to weigh the espresso as it drops, or at least measure the volume. A 36 gram espresso shot is around 1.5 ounces in liquid volume, or around two ounces including the crema.
- Time your shots: A great tasting shot of espresso requires the right grind size to be dialed in, and the best way to measure grind size is with a timer. With this machine, the best tasting shots landed in the 27- to 30-second range, in line with the manual’s suggestions, and running a timer every time you make an espresso is a great way to ensure the grind size is always dialed in.
- Purge the grinder: When adjusting the grind, it’s good to purge a small amount of coffee to clear any old grounds from the dosing chute and make way for the new grind setting. The instruction manual has a guide for how to run the grinder manually without a full dose specifically for this function.
- Let it steam: Even though it only takes a few seconds to get the steam wand up to full pressure, it’s best to let the machine do this into the air before immersing the wand in milk. After the wand his full pressure, turn it off, insert the milk pitcher, and flip it back on again. This way, you can avoid adding excess moisture from the lower temperature steam to your milk, which helps ensure better texture in your foam.
What are the new features of the Breville Barista Express Impress espresso machine?
This machine features an assisted tamping lever that will tamp the coffee for you, as well as an intelligent dosing system that automatically adjusts the amount of coffee the grinder dispenses to achieve the correct amount every time.
Which is better, Breville Barista Pro or Breville Barista Express Impress?
The Breville Barista Express Impress features some really exciting new features, like an intelligent dosing system that’s a big upgrade from the Barista Pro. It doesn’t have a display screen or built-in timer, like the Barista Pro, so there are some trade offs. In our testing, we recommend the Barista Express Impress over the Barista Pro, as the intelligent dosing system is more consistent than the adjustable dose on the Barista Pro.
Can you grind coffee for a French press or drip brewer with the Breville Barista Express Impress?
The grinders that are built into the Breville Barista Express are not calibrated for grinds that are coarser than espresso, and the machine is only set up to grind coffee directly into a portafilter. It is not able to grind coffee for drip or French press.