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January 25, 2020
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Espresso coffee is uniquely powerful and flavorful. It’s the ultimate test for home brewers.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

For many java drinkers, espresso is coffee’s ultimate expression, and finding the best espresso machine in your price range might mean the difference between a great brew and something that’s just so-so. Concentrated, complex and intensely flavorful, it’s easy to fall hard for espresso. But to create and enjoy good drinks at home, you’ve got to be prepared to spend big bucks. The best home espresso machines have an advanced brewing process and handy bells and whistles like a double portafilter basket for double shot drinks and a milk frother and steam wand for a cappuccino or latte. These automatic machines don’t come cheap, and you can expect to pay at least $600 for something that whips up legit cafe-caliber espresso drinks. But when in doubt, try to remember how much you’ll be saving on all the lattes, cappuccinos and double shots you get from your coffee shop thanks to your espresso and cappuccino maker.

Of course, you can also drop as little as $100, if you’re willing to settle for a mediocre espresso, but I urge you not to pounce on products that cost less, especially if you plan on drinking espresso regularly. They may seem like a bargain at first blush, but they’re often a waste of money and counter space, too. 

Read more from ChowhoundThe history of espresso Our favorite reusable coffee mugs

For those on a budget, “espresso brewers” (in the $30 to $50 price range) typically lack motorized pumps and are powered by steam pressure alone. What they produce is really moka pot, the sort of coffee made by simple stovetop brewers; it won’t taste quite like the espresso you’re used to from the barista at your local coffee shop or cafe. That’s not inherently bad — it’s just not really espresso.

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To find the best espresso machine, I spent over 80 hours putting 10 available espresso machines through their paces and only real, manual espresso machines, too — no pre-packaged pods or capsules here. I also revisited three other espresso machines I reviewed previously. During the process, I made and sampled scores of espresso shots, double shots, lattes, cappuccinos and pitchers of steamed milk. I also took into account other things like water reservoir and storage, water filter, control panel, grinding capabilities, automatic milk frother length (and its ability to steam and froth milk) and more.

After my experience, these are the three I’d qualify as the best home espresso machines. While they all get the job done and offer the essential features you need — like a steam milk frother, drip tray, substantial water reservoir, and easy-to-clean stainless steel base — the key differentiating factor between them is the price point. And how much you spend on an espresso machine does have a major impact on what type of coffee you’ll ultimately get.

I also limited this list to automatic machines and semi-automatic espresso machines. I excluded super-automatic espresso makers as well, sold by Krups, Philips, Miele, and others. They’re a breed apart, costing many multiple times more ($2,000 to $3,000).

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Chris Monroe/CNET

You can’t beat the Breville Barista Express and its combination of performance, features and price point. For less than $600, the machine’s formidable grinder pulverizes espresso beans, smart technology doses grounds directly into its portafilter basket, plus its sturdy frother steams milk well and makes thick foam. It also consistently pulled the best tasting shots of espresso in my test group. 

The control panel may be a little intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of things, a delicious shot (or double shot) of espresso, latte, or coffee-based drink of choice will be your reward.Made from stainless steel, the Barista Express is a cinch to clean as well. And to seal the deal, Breville includes premium metal tools such as a handy dose trimmer and tamper.

We will note, though, that this machine does not offer a compact design. If counter space is at a premium in your kitchen, you may want to look at the next machine on the list.

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While it lacks its own coffee grinder, the $170 Cuisinart EM-100 has plenty going for it. This espresso machine has a compact design but is powerful enough to brew from fine coffee grounds. It also pulled flavorful espresso shots, second only to the Breville Barista Express in terms of quality, taste and strength. The machine features a long stainless steel frother for steaming milk and a built-in cup warmer heating element too. A solid espresso machine at about a third the price of the Breville.

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This is by far the best espresso machine under the $100 price point that I tried. Despite its modest $90 price, the Mr. Coffee ECMP50 surprised me by belting out satisfying espresso shots. They were nice and strong, with good crema and balanced coffee flavour. I will say, though, that I still prefer shots brewed by the Breville Barista Express and Cuisinart EM-100, which offer a more intense taste. Frothing and steaming milk to the proper temperature on this machine was difficult compared to those products due to its short frother arm. Mr. Coffee doesn’t bundle a milk pitcher either, so you’ll have to supply one yourself. That said, if $100 is your price limit, this budget espresso machine — which still has necessities like a removable drip tray and 40-oz water reservoir — should fit the bill.

How we test espresso machines

My evaluation process for espresso machines is similar to how I test standard drip coffee makers. First, I hand wash and dry all removable parts and accessories. For most espresso products that includes the portafilter basket, metal portafilter inserts, water tank and so on. Next I run one brewing cycle with just hot water to flush away any residual material from manufacturing.

Most espresso machines, save for fancy super automatic models, lack an integrated coffee grinder and I prefer to test with freshly ground coffee. So I supply my own grinder — the Breville Smart Grinder Pro. I chose this grinder for two reasons. First, it’s calibrated more for espresso and less for drip or other brewing styles. That means it produces a grind that is quite fine. Second, its grind size is also consistently uniform. Both factors are critical for a proper espresso brewing process.

To pull shots, I start with the suggested method outlined in a given machine’s product manual. Usually that covers the amount of coffee grounds expected per shot, along with any guidelines regarding coarseness level. Likewise, I follow tamping instructions (light, medium or hard tamp) if the manual provides them.

Read more on Chowhound: The coffee products you didn’t know you needed

Whenever possible, I brew double shots of espresso for all my test runs. I make sure to record the weight of the grounds I use, plus the weight of espresso for each shot I pull. This data, along with readings from a portable refractometer, allows me to calculate two important percentages: TDS (total dissolved solids) and extraction percentage.

And just like any coffee brew, the ideal extraction percentage for espresso is a range between 18 and 22%. This yields a balanced cup, assuming you perform an even and efficient extraction of coffee compounds from your grounds (both flavor and caffeine).

Not many home espresso machines can brew quality shots. This one was pulled from the Breville Barista Express.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

If you over-extract, you run the risk of leaching out unpleasant flavors (bitterness) after the good. On the opposite end of the scale, under extracted brews tend to have undeveloped flavors. Lacking sugars and other caramelized organic chemicals, these shots will taste sour, weak and watery.      

Unlike drip coffee, espresso should be concentrated. While excellent drip typically has a TDS percentage of 1.3 or 1.4%, great espresso has a much higher percentage. The Breville Barista Express, for example, produced shots with TDS percentages as high as 12.4%.

These shots I pulled were balanced though, with an extraction of 18.6%. The test beans I use are the same variety I employ for standard coffee makers — Costco Kirkland Colombian. It’s a medium dark roast, suitable for brewing espresso as well.    

Lastly, I try my hand at frothing milk with each coffee machine equipped with a steam wand. I record the overall experience with the steam wand, whether the process is a snap, a tricky chore or somewhere in between.

Want more options? Check out this list of espresso machines I’ve tested in addition to the ones above.

Originally published last year.

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