A quick search on Amazon for “Espresso Machine” returns over 1000 results so how on earth do you navigate your way through the mind-boggling choices on offer.
Coffee is now being treated in the same way as fine wine with Nespresso even naming their coffee capsules as “grand cru”, the name given to only the finest wines.
So let us investigate and explore as we plot the journey to find out what is the best espresso machine for your home.
In order to establish what the best coffee machine is we first have to ask and then answer some questions so that we can make an informed decision and narrow it down to a shortlist.
Since the advent of the high street coffee shops there has been a worldwide explosion in the number of people looking to get themselves a decent cup of coffee that isn’t going to cost them an arm and a leg.
You will be hard pressed to buy a coffee from Costa Coffee, Starbucks or Café Nero for less than £3. If you buy one every day on your way to work you are looking at £100 a month on coffee. That’s £1200 per year and quite a bit more if you throw in the odd muffin that they tempt you with through the glass as you move toward the front of the queue.
What if I told you that if you make the right choices then you could make a BETTER coffee using your own espresso machine AND pay a fraction of the price you pay in a coffee shop. By understanding the variables that make up the perfect espresso you can then make an informed decision about the amount of work that needs to be put in and whether or not you are more suited to an automated coffee or the compromises that come with automation.
If you make the right decision you may never buy a coffee from Starbucks or Costa ever again. Buying the right coffee machine may seem like you are spending a lot of money but you should be viewing it as an investment because once you know that you can make a coffee that is as good or better than the coffee shops you will easily pay for itself in in 6 months.
What Makes Up The Perfect Espresso?
Before we look at the best espresso machines on the market today, we will first explain what you need to do in order to make the same cup of coffee that you get in one of the high street chains. A double espresso has now become the standard for any coffee. Single espresso is not really applicable anymore so all of the below factors are based on a double.
Dose – The perfect espresso requires 18 grams of ground coffee before the water is infused with the coffee and delivered into the cup. Any less coffee will cause the delivery to be too fast and will make make it weak and watery with less flavour.
Grind Fineness – The coffee needs to be ground very fine for espresso and getting this just right is crucial to delivering the coffee correctly. Coffee grind fineness works in conjunction with the coffee dose. If you get either wrong then the coffee will be weak and watery and if its too coarse and too fine will over extract the coffee and make it sour or bitter.
Tamping – Once the coffee has been ground then pressure needs to be applied to it before brewing to make sure it is compact enough and evenly distributed. 30 pounds of pressure is ideal. For example, you can use this coffee tamper to achieve the perfect pressure every time.
Pressure – The absolute optimum pressure that should be applied to the water when it is pushed through the coffee is “9 bar”. Most espresso machines state 15 bar of pressure which makes you think that it’s great. 15 bar is fine but the best and more expensive machines will apply 9 bar of pressure.
Temperature – Espresso is best when served at 93 degrees. The best espresso machines will have good quality components to ensure that happens. The cheaper ones will be more variable.
Time – Once you have 18grams of coffee in the basket then you can tweak the grind fineness so that you deliver 60ml of coffee in 25 seconds. If it takes longer than 25 seconds then make the grind more coarse and less than 25 seconds make the grind finer.
Steam – For milk based drinks the steam wand needs to be powerful to get the texture of milk to make a nice creamy cappuccino or Latte. The cheapest machines will skimp on this part.
If you apply all of the above then you will get a BETTER coffee than the one that you pay £3 for down the high street and it will cost you about a 1/10 of the price. The reason it is better is that believe it or not, the coffee shops do not use great beans and they have probably been roasted months ago. Also, for milk based drinks, in most coffee shop when you ask for a latte they add a pint of milk to a double espresso which effectively ruins it.
Many coffee machines that cost a large amount of money do not allow you to control these variables in the way described so you need to be very careful with the type of machine you choose if you want to recreate a coffee shop coffee in your home because many coffee machines that cost a lot of money are fully automated and do not allow you to set them up as described above.
If all of that is too technical and you just want something that does a good job without any hassle, there are a number of espresso machines that fulfil that criteria. The 3 elements we cover to help you choose what fits best for your lifestyle are budget, convenience and coffee quality.
Are all espresso machines the same?
They most certainly are not. The first thing we need to do is understand the different categories of espresso machine so that you can understand which category is the best fit for your specific needs.
This is important because you don’t want to be spending £1000 on a machine when you could get something that satisfies your needs for £150 or less.
Essentially there are 3 main types of espresso machines which dominate the market and this is where you will most likely be making your choice from.
POD Or Capsule Coffee machines
For the ultimate in convenience, completely hassle free coffee can be achieved with a POD or capsule machine. If you want a half decent coffee but you have absolutely no time to even think about coffee let alone prepare it, but you know you hate instant coffee and you deserve something better then this is the way to go. You dont even need to come into contact with the coffee itself, just pop in a pod, press a button and the coffee is delivered.
The choices here are easy. There are 3 players that dominate the market. Nespresso, Tassimo and Dolce Gusto. Tassimo and Dolce Gusto are geared towards the budget end of the market and Nespresso more towards the middle to the top end of the market. There are only around a dozen POD machines worth considering as a lot of them do the same thing and do not represent value for money.
Here is a detailed article on all of the best Nespresso machines and if you want to jump straight to the products then here are all of our Nespresso machines recommendations. If you prefer to opt for a cheaper pod machine then you our Dolce Gusto reviews and Tassimo reviews will help you choose the one that works best for you.
In our opinion its worth paying a bit more for a Nespresso machine because their coffee is better and you can actually combine that coffee quality with price if you opt for Nespresso’s entry level coffee machine, the Essenza which comes in close to the price of a Tassimo or Dolce Gusto.
The benefits of a POD coffee machine are that you get a completely hassle free coffee that is better than instant. No trouble, no mess and a cup of coffee in 1 minute.
The downside is that its not going to be anywhere near as good as a coffee shop coffee because you cannot control the elements that make up the perfect espresso or cappuccino or latte as described above. If you are willing to compromise for the sake of convenience then you can take a look at all of our POD coffee machine reviews.
Fully Automatic Or Bean To Cup Coffee Machines
This where it starts to get interesting. At this level you can get machines that will grind fresh beans for you, at different levels of fineness for your individual taste and will deliver the coffee at the right temperature in the right dose straight into cup and if you dont even want to heat up the milk then you can get machines that will do that for you as well.
This area is a complete minefield and you need to make sure that you do not pay twice the money for a machine that will do exactly the same job as another one that costs half the price. Delonghi dominate the market in full automatic espresso machines that are more commonly known as bean to cup coffee machines.
Fresh coffee beans are added and you can choose from a myriad of settings followed by one press of a button and the machine will grind your beans, tamp them and pump the water through the water into the cup. hence “bean to cup”. These types of coffee machines used to cost upwards of £1000 (and you can still pay north of that price if you want) but technology and high volume production has brought prices right down in recent years and you can now pick up a half decent one in the low hundreds.
We only recommend bean to cup machines that combine the features that get you as close as possible to the perfect espresso AND do so at a great price. That means the hundreds that are available have been narrowed down to the best dozen you can get. The standout bean to cup machine that combines all of the features you need at a great price is the Delonghi Autentica ETAM 29.510.B.
The ETAM 29.510 will get you closer to a coffee shop experience as will our other bean to cup recommendations but you still cannot control all of the variables exactly as they need to be to make the perfect espresso.
Manual Pump Coffee Machines
This where it gets really interesting. Make the right choice here and Costa Coffee or Starbucks will be a thing of the past. Choose wisely and all of the the different variables to extract the perfect cup of coffee will be at your fingertips.Whilst Delonghi are the market leaders for coffee machines overall (and rightly so), in our opinion Sage are the runaway winners when it comes to domestic espresso machines that give you the flexibility to TRULY recreate a coffee shop coffee.
If you are looking to spend the minimum but you want to be able to control grind fineness, tamping, pressure, temperature, time and steam then the Barista Express is without a doubt the best value for money espresso machine on the market that will REALLY allow you to create a coffee shop coffee at home. We give it 10 out of 10 and it is rated just marginally ahead of the Duo Boiler pro but the dual boiler pro doesn’t come with a grinder which you will have to add separately and that pushes the price up to well over £1000 whereas the Barista Express has it all integrated and you pay half the price which makes the Barista Express exceptional value for money.
Sage definitely win if you want to create a coffee rather than make one. Here is where you can find all of our recommended Sage Espresso machines.
The coffee itself!
No matter how good the espresso machine, the quality of the drink that gets produced will only be as good as the coffee that goes in it. The importance of using fresh coffee beans is detailed here in the difference with instant coffee vs ground coffee vs coffee beans
Dont spend hundreds of pounds on a great coffee machine and use cheap supermarket coffee. Always use fresh coffee beans and try and buy beans that have been roasted within the last month.
What is the best brand for espresso machines?
Delonghi are the global market leaders in espresso machines. With their bean to cup machines they have found a way to get the balance of convenience whilst still using fresh coffee beans but if you want to take control yourself and surpass what you pay £3 for at your local coffee shop but at a fraction of that price then Sage are the best brand.