Espresso and Capuccino Machine Buyers Guide

Espresso, Cappuccino and Latte Machines

So you’ve decided you want to get an espresso machine, either for yourself or as a gift. As a lifetime coffee fiend, I recently had to replace both my grinder and my espresso machine, so I decided to summarize the results of my research for your benefit. While there are options available which I did not investigate, and am therefore not going discuss, my primary goal was very simple: To find exceptional products to purchase, at reasonable prices. Are they they best for the least? I’m not sure, but I don’t think that necessarily matters and what makes something the best is often quite subjective, but what makes something exceptional tends to be far more universal. It works right. It’s Aesthetic to use. It’s built well. It looks good. It lasts a long time.

So this buyers guide is really more focused than most. I tell you what I found out, show you a few products that are exceptional, and don’t bother with reviewing the crappy stuff. Want a machine but don’t know what to get? I’ll make it simple: Buy one of the ones listed here, and I’ll distill out the key differentiators that can help you make a decision.

For an espresso machine, realistically, the cheapest you’re going to get a decent, workable machine is around $100. And at that price, there will be compromises and durability issues. But if you just want to make proper espresso (or cappuccino) at home, and you expect to use it infrequently, then there are definitely viable alternatives for $100.

One option that is not available is the option of simply buying the machine that nobody complains about. Turns out, such a thing simply does not exist. The $100 machines break, leak, blow gaskets, and don’t make espresso of a high enough standard for some. The $200 machines break eventually, and don’t make espresso of a high enough standard for some. The $400 Breville machines require religious descaling or else they will fail. And the $650 Rancilio, the Gold Standard, has boiler failures. And not a single one of the companies selling the machines has a consistent record of exemplary customer service. So as fas as I can tell, every choice is fraught with peril. And personal experience concurs. I’ve bought 3 or 4 espresso makers, and currently both my espresso machine and my grinder are both out of order!

4-Cup Machines

There is one class of product that nobody should buy. Ever. For any reason.

It’s any of the 4-Cup machines where you pour the water in and then screw the cap on the boiler so it can make steam pressure. They all come with 4-cup glass mini pots. And they all suck. Universally.

They do not make anything that any coffee lover would recognize as anything remotely resembling espresso. Just don’t bother with them. Not the Mr Coffee one. Not the Krups one. Not the DeLonghi one. None of them. Get it? Got it. GOOD.

Pod Machines

If you expect to use your espresso machine less than weekly, and you just want espresso and not so much the steamed milk, you might consider a pod machine like a Nespresso or a Gaggia for Illy. They don’t personally meet my needs, but we do have one at my office, and with the Nespresso you can get lighter to darker pods, and also a variery with flavors like hazlenut and coconut. I’ve also used the milk heater and frother, and while it’s not a classic steamed milk, it is passable. I’d call it “not terrible”, and for occassional use, pretty good. You can get a single serve Nespresso and milk frother together for around $150. While I’d be embarassed to let someone see me using it… I can make decent espressos and cappuccinos and lattes with it and nobody complains that they suck when I give them one. The pods are expensive, but if you don’t use it but so often the shelf stability of the pods is worth the added cost. If you use it a lot, take the time to get a grinder and regular machine and learn to use them. But if this solution floats your boat, by all means go for it.

The Starter / Minimum Espresso Machine

As an introductory or less frequently used machine, about the best I found was the DeLonghi EC155. It’s not perfect. Some claim it doesn’t make good enough espresso. Some claim it isn’t made sturdy enough, or it doesn’t last. And they are probably right. But it’s probably good enough for a starter, with the understanding that in a year or two you might be either wanting to move up to a better machine, or you might be replacing it because it just quit working. Either way, it gets you in the game, and I can recommend it, so long as you accept the caveats.

This biggest caveat is that you can’t expect them to last forever. Maybe they will, but probably they won’t. However, at the $100 price point, if it drops dead in a year or two, it’s not the end of the world. I’m not saying it will. I had a $60 machine that lasted a long time. 4 years. But I’ve also tossed a far more expensive machine that died less than a month after the 1 year expired. And it’s not one machine vs another. They’re all just prone to failure.

But with all that said… choose between these three (the second Poemia is just more stainless steel) and the odds are you’ll come out ok.

The Better Than Minimum Espresso Machine

Each of these will do better job of heating up quickly, holding temperature, brewing quality espresso, and holding up to daily use, than the entry level machines will.

The big question however is this: Pressurized Portafilter?

The units at this level all have pressurized portafilters. This is a galvanizing feature that the purists hate, but that most people don’t even really notice or think about. On the one hand, a classic solid brass portafilter (basically the ground coffee holder and filter basket assembly) can produce the best results. When used by the most experienced barista. When properly tempered to operating temperature. But a pressurized portafilter attempts to overcome variations in coffee grinding, tamping, and temperature preparation by building pressure to a minimum level before allowing the brewed espresso to escape.

This has two effects. First, the filter baskets tend to clog and require cleaning, which can be a royal pain in the rear as they are tiny pinholes and are hard to clear. Second, the used espresso puck that should be dry and just tap out can be a wet soupy mess.

Here’s what I have found over the years. If the portafilter is a wet soupy mess, then your coffee is probably not ground correctly; it’s probably too coarse. And if the filter basket is clogging, then you probably either have your grind too fine, or you’re leaving the machine sit uncleaned for extended periods between uses. Figure out your grind and empty and rinse after each use, and your problem will probably be solved.

So for me, not working at the espresso machine 8 hours a day to perfect my technique, I find the pressurized portafilter to be perfectly “acceptable”. Just make sure you are ok with a pressurized portafilter before you buy one of these mid level machines.

Gaggia has three that are more or less interchangeable to me. They all do ok. They all have mostly raving reviews. They all have some bad reviews for failures. Make sure you but one that is “sold and fulfilled by Amazon” so you get good customer service at least long enough to get a working machine. Any of these are good machines.

Of these however, I’d get the Saeco Aroma. It’s a boxier, less modern design. But it’s built durable. This Saeco design has been around for years and is proven reliable. And the Saeco let’s you adjust the brew strength (even mid pull).

Go Big or Go Home

No room for dilettantes or half in half out wishy washiness here. So you really want the best results? You’re willing to invest the time and effort into learning how to achieve them? You don’t mind the chance of an expensive machine breaking and requiring expensive repairs or replacement? Great! One of these machines will be just right for you:

Generally, the Breville is considered the Cadillac of home espresso machines. You want the best, you don’t want to think too much about it, just get the Coupe de Ville with all the options. Easy Peasy.

The two breville machines are more or less equivalent, with the Bariata Express having a built in dosing grinder. If you have no particular use for a grinder apart from your espresso machine, then the built in one makes sense. But if you need a grinder for regular coffee, or press pot coffee, then go with the Infuser and pick up a good conical burr grinder separately.

The Racilia Silvia, however, compares to the Breville like a quirky british or italian car does to the staunch Cadillac. It takes a little more finesse and experience to drive, but if you spend the time learning it’s quirks and honing your skills, it will reward you with the ride of your life. The Rancilia has a solid brass portafilter and is the closest to the commercial expresso machines in operation. But this also means it demands the most from you as the operator too ;-)

Different strokes suit different folks, so consider which most suits your personality and you’ll know which is the right machine for you.

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