The Best Espresso Machines

Caffè Espresso translates to “pressed-out coffee.” It’s what happens when you force hot water through finely ground coffee beans. This brewing method is challenging to master, as slight variations in pressure and temperature can produce an extremely unpalatable shot. As such, the best espresso machine is forgiving to first-time owners, it extracts rich flavor from its beans, and it offers a complex balance of sweet, sour, and bitter.

The 3 Best Espresso Machines

The Best
Espresso Machine for Beginners
Breville Barista Express BES870XL
Breville
A forgiving espresso maker that produces great-tasting shots with minimal effort.
Pros
All-in-one machine
Cushion for beginning technique
Easy to customize
Cons
Hiccups in milk steaming
Unable to grind dark roasts

Why we chose it

All-in-one machine

The Breville Barista Express comes with everything you need to pull great espresso. A built-in grinder lets you adjust grind coarseness, and changing the amount of ground coffee that you want in your shot is easy: Simply turn a dial or press the portafilter firmly against the dispensing cradle. A button at the back allows you to dose as much or as little coffee as you wish.

Cushion for beginning technique

The Breville is technically a semi-automatic espresso maker, since it requires you to dose and tamp your own shots, but we found it more forgiving than true automatics. The Breville’s dual-wall filter baskets (in addition to two standard single-wall baskets) add extra pressure, providing a little forgiveness for beginners’ mistakes in either grinding the beans or tamping the shot.

Easy to customize

For first-time espresso machine owners, the Breville offers the perfect balance between hand-holding and customization. You’re in charge of basic steps like measuring out and pulling your shot, but the Breville makes it easy to adjust things like the coarseness of your grind and the amount of espresso. The user manual walks you through every step of the brewing process, and altering the default settings is easy, thanks to a display panel that clearly labels all buttons and lights. Our shots were beautifully layered and gave us truly gorgeous colors as the espresso flowed out of the portafilter.

Points to consider

Hiccups in milk steaming

Steaming milk is straightforward, utilizing a simple on/off switch, and we got some stunning microfoam. However, the process isn’t flawless. You’ll need to prime the steam wand prior to using it on your milk, or else water will drip into your pitcher as the steam begins to sputter out. This sputtering caused us to have a few larger bubbles, frowned upon by hardcore espresso lovers.

Unable to grind dark roasts

While we love the all-inclusive features of the Breville, there’s one thing it can’t do on its own, at least not without a hefty repair bill. If you love dark roasts, any machine that features an internal grinder is off-limits. The oily shine characteristic of dark roasts builds up in any grinder — but while you can disassemble and clean standalone grinders, this is rarely an option for internal ones. The residual oil left in an internal grinder will, at best, give future shots a rancid flavor. At worst, the oil will clog the grinder. If you want to brew dark roasts on the Breville, plan on buying a separate grinder.

The Best
Luxury Espresso Machine
Rocket Espresso Appartamento Espresso Machine
Rocket
This stunning Italian model allows for more customizations, but it has a more pronounced learning curve.
Pros
Phenomenal espressos and lattes
Pro-grade customization
High-quality parts
Cons
Learning curve
Hot to the touch

Why we chose it

Phenomenal espressos and lattes

If you’re ready to drop serious money on a high-quality espresso machine that produces smooth, complex shots, our pick is the Rocket Espresso Appartamento Espresso Machine. The machine lets you cycle quickly between steaming milk and pulling espresso: It uses a heat exchanger, rather than the more typical thermoblock, which means that the Rocket’s boiler heats all the way up to milk-steaming temperatures when you first turn it on. When you’re ready to pull shots, the heat-exchanger sends a burst of cool water through a copper tube in the boiler, bringing the temperature briefly back to espresso-friendly levels before heating back up.

In addition to being convenient for lattes, this features makes it easy to quickly pull a bunch of shots without worrying about the water getting cold, convenient if you're hosting a large group of people.

Pro-grade customization

The Rocket’s espresso lever is an upgrade from the simple on/off button used by most of our models. By only moving the lever part way up, you can play around with pre-infusing your coffee grounds before pulling the shot. Pre-infusion can be fun to tinker with as you try to home in on what makes your perfect espresso. This gives the Rocket an additional level of customization not available on the other models we tested.

High-quality parts

Hand-tooled and bench-tested in Italy, this espresso maker looks, works, and performs like it belongs in a small coffee shop, despite fitting tidily on your kitchen counter. This machine is built to last 10 to 15 years; less expensive machines at best might survive the five-year mark, and some can’t be expected to reach three. We also loved the sheer quality of every part included with our Rocket. The heft metal tamp fits perfectly in the machine’s own portafilter baskets and improved the shot-making experience of other machines when we used it with theirs.

Points to consider

Learning curve

The Rocket is a superlative machine, but it’s not as forgiving of user errors as our other picks; expect to pull some terrible-tasting espresso until you've finished calibrating it. The trade-off is that it offers more customization, letting you craft shots with a nuanced range of flavors — but only once you figure out what you’re doing.

Hot to the touch

The Rocket performs beautifully, but because it’s entirely metal, the whole machine gets uncomfortably warm when it’s been running for 20 minutes.

The Best
Cheap Espresso Machine
Mr. Coffee ECMP1000
Mr. Coffee
The espresso isn’t quite as good as our other picks, but Mr. Coffee still outperformed machines twice as expensive.
Pros
Affordable
Fast and hands-off
Solid taste-test scores
Cons
Lacks true espresso quality

Why we chose it

Affordable

While admittedly a less-than-glamorous brand, Mr. Coffee ECMP1000 comes with an attractively low asking price and produces delicious espresso — better-tasting than shots we pulled from models twice and even ten times as expensive. Plus, fewer customization options means you get decent espresso as quickly as possible.

Fast and hands-off

Mr. Coffee doesn’t ask for the 15- to 30-minute boiler warmup like some big-name brands, instead taking just five to 10 minutes. This is ideal both for your morning coffee routine and your quick after-dinner latte or late-night hot chocolate. The machine also boasts a simple milk-steaming method that requires less work than our other picks: Prep your espresso, pour your milk into the milk reservoir, and you can press a button and walk away. Your latte or cappuccino will be ready in less than a minute. The foam quality is on the lower end, but you can customize how much of it you want.

Solid taste-test scores

When we talked to the folks at Seattle Coffee Gear, they told us to expect coffee closer to a thick Americano than a true espresso from this brand. This prediction was correct, but we were surprised at how much our taste-testers enjoyed it compared to other prestigious, super-automatic brands.

Points to consider

Lacks true espresso quality

While it’s hands down the best cheap espresso machine on the market, Mr. Coffee isn’t on the same level with the Rocket or the Breville. Its shots lack the richness and complexity of true espresso, tasting more like a full-bodied Americano. Its layer of crema disappears quickly, and its shots don’t offer the gorgeous, gradient colors that you’d get from a machine like the Rocket. That said, it ranked fourth for taste among the machines we tested, so it’s still a solid option if you don’t need the finest coffee quality the market has to offer.

Guide to Espresso Machines

How to get the most out of your espresso machine

Line up the necessary extra equipment

Espresso machines rarely come with all of the equipment you need to actually make espresso. Here’s what else you should have on hand before you start pulling shots:

For super-automatics and semi-automatics:

  • Water filter pitcher: Great quality espresso requires great water. Filtering out unwanted minerals will remove undesirable flavor notes in your espresso and reduce the frequency with which you need to descale your machine.
  • Milk frothing pitcher: For anyone who wants to make drinks other than straight espresso. You can try to steam milk directly into your cup, but a frothing pitcher’s shape and handle are easier to maneuver.

For semi-automatics:

  • A good grinder: An even grind is essential for drinkable espresso. In fact, if you’re trying to save money, most experts recommend cheaping out on your espresso machine rather than your grinder. Since we wanted to make sure our machines had the best chance of making great espresso, we started with a $600 grinder recommended to us by Seattle Coffee Gear.
  • Burr grinder: Changing the distance between the interlocking teeth of a burr grinder lets you adjust the coarseness of your coffee — while ensuring that each bean is chopped up to the same size as the others. This extremely even texture helps you extract shots evenly and consistently.
  • Tamping mat: This thick rubber mat lets you tamp coffee evenly into your machine’s portafilter basket. The mat has enough give to lean into your portafilter without damaging the spouts underneath, and it protects your counters from dings.
  • Scale: Most machines come with a coffee scoop, but how much coffee goes into a shot should be determined by weight, not volume. Weight also differs by roast and grind. For a scale accurate enough to give you consistent shots, look for a model that measures up to a tenth of a gram.

Don’t settle for the default settings

The performance of an espresso machine depends partly on air temperature and humidity. Default settings try to find a solid middle ground, but it’s normal to have to do some adjusting.

Customize your shots

Most people will hit the sweet spot of great espresso by letting water run through their coffee grounds for between 20 and 30 seconds. Once you get good shots in this range, you might try cutting it short, which can produce a sweeter shot (sometimes called ristretto). Or you might try a long shot, which results in a more bitter flavor.

Store your coffee carefully to keep it fresh

Picking up a bag of coffee beans from the roaster is a great way to make sure you have fresh beans. Because coffee gets damaged as it’s exposed to air, espresso connoisseurs recommend using beans within two weeks of their roast date. But you won’t want to use them the same day that they’ve been roasted — they need a few days to de-gas from the roasting process.

Here are a few easy steps to maximize your coffee’s life:

  • Keep the beans sealed tight. Most roasters offer a resealable bag for this reason.
  • Don’t grind the beans ahead of time. Grinding exposes all of the oils of the coffee bean. Left in the open, this oil will evaporate more quickly than with a whole bean, taking away some of the flavor from your coffee.
  • Don’t store the beans in the fridge or the freezer. Moisture damages coffee beans, too. Changing temperatures on them increases the likelihood of condensation. The air in your freezer is also extremely dry and will dry out your coffee beans faster than if you leave them in the cupboard.

Espresso Machine FAQ

What's the difference between semi-automatic and super-automatic espresso machines?

Semi-automatic machines are not quite as customizable as a manual machine, but they let you play with a lot: You can change the coarseness of the coffee you use, the amount of coffee you add, and how long you pull your shot. Expect a decent learning curve to figure things out, and know that you’ll also need some additional equipment, like a quality coffee grinder.

Super-automatic machines turn brewing espresso into pushing a button — and perhaps turning a dial or pressing a second button if you’re feeling adventurous. These machines have built-in grinders and are programmed to pull shots all on their own, without requiring you to grind, dose, or tamp.

What about PID controllers and double-boilers?

You might have heard that purchasing a double-boiler espresso machine or a proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controller will give you more accuracy and control over temperature. They’re definitely features to dig into for advanced espresso crafters, but expect to pay an additional $400 for a PID and $800+ for a second boiler. Since we wanted to focus on beginner machines, we stuck to single-boiler models without PID controllers for this review.

How do I make an espresso shot?

There are the four steps you traditionally have to follow:

  • Grind: Run recently roasted coffee beans through a high-quality grinder. The coarseness of the grind that you need varies depending on your espresso maker. Trial-and-error is normal.
  • Dose: Use a scale to weigh your ground coffee, then place the coffee into your machine’s portafilter (the basket that holds the grounds in place as hot water runs over them).
  • Tamp: To ensure the espresso is evenly packed, your machine comes with a tamp, which you’ll press into the basket against the grounds. This step is important: When you pull a shot, the water will go to the place of least resistance, avoiding densely packed areas. This denser espresso won’t be properly saturated, making it under-extracted and sour, while the looser espresso will be over-extracted and bitter.
  • Pull: Place the portafilter into the espresso machine and allow pressurized water to run through the grounds and into your waiting shot glass.

The Best Espresso Machines: Summed Up

Breville Barista Express BES870XL
Rocket Espresso Appartamento Espresso Machine
Mr. Coffee ECMP1000
The best
Espresso machine for beginners
Luxury espresso machine
Cheap espresso machine
Price
$555.99
$1,550
$199.99
Machine type
Semi-automatic
Semi-automatic
Super-automatic
Milk
Manual steam
Manual steam
Automatic frothing
Accessories
Tamper
Pressurized and non-pressurized filters
Tamper
Single, double filters
Blind basket
N/A

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