Choosing The Best Espresso Machine for Your Home or Office

We offer comprensive reviews for all types of espresso machines. Read below for more information on the difference between the various types of espresso machines, as well as how to choose the best espresso machine for your home or office.

For first-time buyers and seasoned coffee connoisseurs alike, it can be a little overwhelming trying to choose an espresso machine for your home or office. There are so many brands and models to consider that it can boggle the mind, especially once you start considering the wide range in pricing. No matter what your specific needs are or how much you have to spend, there is most definitely something perfectly accommodating for everyone out there!

Our job is to make this process a little easier for you, so we’ll be outlining some of the basic considerations and features you should use when looking to fill that empty space on your kitchen counter.

Narrowing Down Your Options

There will be there (3) types of espresso machines outlined below, so the first step to choosing which is right for you is to narrow down your options to a single type of machine. This will depend on four key factors, which are as follows:

  1. Ease of use. How much effort do you want to put into each espresso shot that you brew? Some machines require more steps for each brew, additional equipment such as a coffee grinder, and must be cleaned or maintained more than others.
  2. Level of sophistication. Do you prefer a simple machine that will get the job done, or do you want something advanced with a lot of hi-tech features and automatic functions?
  3. Available space. Some machines on this list will take up a lot of counter space (this is especially true of the “super-automatic” machines) while others have a very small footprint.
  4. Last, and possibly most importantly, your budget. Not all espresso machines cost an arm and a leg, and you certainly don’t have to spend a fortune to enjoy an authentic cup of espresso. More often than not, what matters the most is the quality of your coffee beans and the coffee grinder used on them (you need to reach an appropriate level of fineness so that your shot pulls at a good speed.) However, that doesn’t mean you can brew quality espresso with a run-of-the-mill department store “espresso” machine that is steamed powered and has no brewing pump. We’ll discuss this more at the end.

With all of these factors in mind, there are three (3) main types of espresso machines that we will be going over:

  • Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
  • Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
  • Manual Espresso Machines

Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

General Overview of a Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine

Some of the steps of the brewing process have been automated with a semi-automatic espresso machine, but not all of them. They are still simple to use, but require some manual work. This leaves room for a personal touch throughout the process while shedding the burden of tedious steps.

Evidence of this is the featuring of an electric brewing pump. This automates the temperature and pressure of the water, but it must be turned on and off manually by the user.

Key Considerations with a Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine

  • Pressurized and Non-Pressurized portafilters
    • What is a portafilter? It’s the ice cream scoop looking object that attaches to the machine and holds the pressed coffee grind in its basket.
    • Non-Pressurized – A non-pressurized portafilter allows the coffee to flow directly out of the portafilter and into the cup. The only thing slowing down the flow of water is the actual grind, so you need an extremely fine grind to achieve good results with these portafilters. This means you will need to invest in a quality coffee grinder and tamper, otherwise you will have very short pulls. A short pull results in a lot less volume and a more acidic tasting espresso. With the right equipment and attention to quality, the results from a non-pressurized portafilter will surprise you with an incredibly smooth texture.
    • Pressurized – These portafilters have a tiny hole that that coffee must travel through, which causes pressure to build within the portafilter. This means you can get away with coarser grinds and makes the machine a bit more flexible. These are a good option if you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a coffee grinder and want something a little more flexible/beginner friendly.
  • Many of them can be quite messy and require you to clean the drip tray frequently. This is often very worth the trouble since the machines have so much flexibility, produce such a high quality espresso, and require so little work compared to manual machines.
  • They offer the most brewing flexibility. You can use any type of coffee that you want, and it’s perfectly acceptable to vary the fineness, volume, and tamp pressure of the coffee so that you can tailor your results. Many of these machines also accept pre-ground espresso as well as paper espresso pods.
  • Often relatively easy to use, but do require more manual work than super-automatic machines.
  • Most newer models are very small and therefore do not take up a lot of space in your kitchen.
  • These machines will cost you anywhere from just under $100 for an entry level machine all the way up to around $800.
    • It is important to keep in mind that even with cheaper machines you maintain the ability to produce a great cup of espresso. The higher price machines typically have extra bells and whistles, are more stylish, and more sturdy in their design.

Brewing Steps with a Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine

  1. Make sure that the water reservoir is either full or at an acceptable level, power on the machine, and wait for it to warm up. This typically only takes a few minutes.
  2. Remove the portafilter by its handle and scoop your ground coffee beans into the filter basket. Tamp (press, more info on tamping here) down the coffee.
  3. Re-insert the portafilter and place your cup under it, then press the switch button on your machine.
  4. Once you have the desired amount of espresso, turn the switch back off.
  5. Either turn off your machine or repeat the above steps for another shot of delicious espresso!

Super-Automatic Espresso Machines

General Overview of a Super-Automatic Espresso Machine

Super-automatic espresso machines are all about convenience and ease-of-use. They tend to be very sophisticated machines in their functionality, but you will find that you have to do a lot less “fine-tuning” for them to produce top tier results. You can think of them as your own personal barista in a box!

Most of these machines include a hopper that you load beans into, and it will then grind the beans for you before each brew. Most machines also allow you to put in coffee that has already been ground if you prefer to grind it yourself. In the grand scheme of things, all you have to do to get the machine going is fill it with beans and press a button! There are no real odds and ends to figure out and tamper with, just a couple simple steps and your work is pretty much done. After you press the button the machine will automatically begin grinding the beans, tamp the grind into the filter basket, and brew a preset amount of espresso before dumping the spent coffee grounds (coffee puck) into the internal waste container. Many of these machines also allow you to froth or steam milk for cappuccinos and lattes through a steam wand or a built in automatic milk frothing system, depending on the model.

Key Considerations with a Super-Automatic Espresso Machine

  • In general the super automatic espresso machines are incredibly easy to use and require no skill or practice to get going. You just load them up with coffee beans (many of them also have an input for pre-ground coffee) and press the brew button.
  • All the machines that we have reviewed on our website will produce a quality espresso so long as you use quality coffee beans. However, it’s important to note that they will rarely if ever produce an espresso with as much cream and thickness as one made with a semi-automatic machine. With this in mind, the automatic machines are by no stretch of the imagination “bad,” and you will still receive a final brew that’s better than most cafes.
  • These machines are typically the largest of all the style of espresso machines and will take up the most space on your counter.
  • Super-automatic espresso machines start at around $400 and the price only goes up from there. Higher priced machines typically just have extra and often ultimately unnecessary features for the average espresso lover, but the quality of the espresso will differ little if any.
  • Compared to a semi-automatic machine, the super-automatic machines are much more complicated internally. They almost all have at least one computer board that runs the operations. This means that these machines are typically harder to repair and must be sent off to their manufacturer should anything go wrong, but you are sometimes allowed flexibility in regards to modifications.

Brewing Steps with a Super-Automatic Espresso Machine

  1. Make sure there is water in the reservoir and coffee beans inside the hopper/grinder. Turn on the power, and wait for the machine to warm up (this usually takes 40 seconds to a few minutes depending on the model.)
  2. Place your cup under the brew head.
  3. Press the “brew” button and watch as the machine does all the work for you!

You can see just how easy these machines are to use, especially compared to the semi-automatic machines we just went over. They take a lot less time to produce the final result, and require a lot less skill to operate.

Manual Espresso Machines

General Overview of a Manual Espresso Machine

Manual espresso machines, also called lever espresso machines, are the most hands on option you can choose. These old-world style machines offer unmatched craftsmanship and capability, but require a high amount of skill to operate. They will often frustrate users as they take a considerable amount of time to master and are typically reserved for the true, experienced espresso enthusiasts.

With that said, they yield the greatest shots of espresso that you’ll ever have the pleasure of sipping. For the average enthusiast or those that don’t mind offering the vast amount of patience it takes to master these machines, they are second to none.

Key Considerations with a Manual Espresso Machine

  • These are the oldest style of espresso machine and were the first to produce what we now call an espresso. They have withstood the test of time, and if you should decide to take the plunge, yours are more than likely to do just the same and last for a considerable period in your very own kitchen.
  • Given how old these are, they often sport a very aesthetically pleasing old-world style design as opposed to the more modern models the other machines tend to have!
  • They require a lot of research, experiment, and practice practice practice to get good results, but once they do they offer a level of authenticity that truthfully proves to be unmatched by the other machine types.
  • The manual espresso machines are usually the smallest of all espresso machines and will prove useful for conserving space on your counters by fitting in the little nooks in your kitchen.
  • Pricing of these machines starts at around $800 and goes up from there. While they are expensive, we must not forget that they can last for many, many years if taken care of correctly.
  • Spring Piston Lever and Direct Lever machines
    • Spring piston lever machines operate with a spring inside of them that is calibrated to push the water through the grind at a specific pressure. The manual work comes in that you must bring the lever down and cock the spring into its starting place before letting go to allow the spring do the rest. A quick an easy way to tell that a machine uses a spring piston lever is by looking at the position of the handle. Usually, the handle will be pointing upwards. It may seem like these machines do all of the work for you, but it is still very much so a manual process. As the barista. you will still need to:
      • Determine how long you would like the preinfusion to last
        • preinfusion is the process by which the coffee grounds are saturated with low pressure water before getting a full blast. This ensures that the water does not find channels to flow through in the grind, and provides a better quality of extraction
      • Know when the temperature is best to pull the shot, and do a lot of temperature surfing
      • Control how much water is used each shot.
    • All of these things require a lot of patience and hands on experience to nail down just right, and the details of how to do them are outside of the scope of our guide.
    • Direct lever machines are similar to the spring piston lever machines and much of what was said about the spring levers applies here as well. The main difference is that you are the one controlling the pump on the direct lever, and are completely in control of the pressure applied to the water by pushing down on the lever. This is about as hands on and manual as you can get when brewing an espresso. To master these machines takes a lot of time, effort, skill, and getting it just “right.” Even still, the espresso brewed from these machines will all vary from shot to shot.

Brewing Steps with a Manual Espresso Machine

  1. Make sure to fill the reservoir with water, flip on the power, and wait for the machine to heat up. Since these machines heat all of the water inside the boiler at once to build pressure, it can take awhile for them to warm up (usually around 10-15 minutes).
  2. Remove the portafilter.
  3. Scoop your ground espresso into the filter basket and tamp it down.
  4. Return the portafilter and place your cup under the machine.
  5. Press down with the brew handle slowly to force through the hot water.

You can repeat the above process until there is no more hot water in the boiler, at which point you will have to power off the machine and wait for it to cool down before refilling it and starting again. The process is seemingly pretty simple but like we outlined above, it takes a lot of skill and patience to get good results.

Like with the other machines, the bean quality, grind fineness, and tamp pressure will all affect your results.

Suggested Models & Related Articles

If you enjoyed reading our overview of the different types of espresso machine, you might be interested in checking out some of the best models for each type of machine. Here are some reviews for some of our favorites:

  • Rancilio Silvia Review – A very popular, quality, and affordable semi-automatic machine.
  • Gaggia Brera Review – An excellent super-automatic machine that won’t break the bank. Its features are similar to many other machines that much more expensive.
  • La Pavoni Professional Review – The La Pavoni Professional is a great option for a manual espresso machine and is a very reasonable price.