In this post, I’m going to be discussing & reviewing a number of different Espresso machines. There isn’t just one kind of Espresso machine, of course, so these reviews are under the categories of: Domestic semi-automatic Espresso machines, Nespresso machines & other pod and disk machines, bean to cup Espresso machines & Prosumer Espresso Machines.
I’ll explain each category too, so you can decide which is for you if you’re not sure at this stage.
To the uninitiated, it would appear that there are cheap Espresso machines and expensive machines and that they’re all essentially the same thing with differing price tags. The fact is though that there are lower cost machines made for the mainstream domestic market (domestic Espresso machines) and there are prosumer machines made for the prosumer market. These are two different types of machines.
Among the domestic machines, there are semi-automatic espresso machines – which work by loading the portafilter with ground coffee beans. There are bean to cup machines which you just load in the whole coffee beans and press the button (some which do the milk texturing for you too). There are also Nespresso machines of course, which aren’t Espresso machines strictly speaking but they’re a good option if you rate convenience highly – and there are other disk / pod coffee machines.
Domestic Espresso machines tend to range from around £50 – £200 for semi-automatic traditional Espresso machines, around the same range for Nespresso machines and other disk and pod machines, and for bean to cup machines up to around £500 on average although there are some bean to cup machines around the thousand pound mark or even higher that are essentially expensive domestic machines rather than true prosumer coffee machines.
It isn’t practical to expect inexpensive domestic machines to be capable of the same results, and to have the same longevity as the much more expensive prosumer machines. It’s not just a case of paying for a brand, cheaper domestic Espresso machines are made completely differently than prosumer and commercial machines, using different kinds of parts (pumps, boilers, heating elements etc), and aren’t capable of the same quality and consistency.
These are higher quality, more capable Espresso machines which are domestic versions of commercial Espresso machines, basically.
Including grinder, you’ll struggle to get set up for less than £600-£700, and ideally, the budget should be at least £1,000 or more. You can save some money by buying used, and these machines are usually very serviceable, so buying used isn’t particularly risky. If you have the budget, you could get a very good setup for the £2,000 – £3,000 mark, but if you’re just starting out you should be able to do it from around £600.
A prosumer machine may be for you, if quality is your number one priority, and if you see yourself as a home Barista.
Being a home Barista is a hobby, and there’s a big difference between someone who just wants to be able to drink Espresso at home, and someone who wants to become a home Barista. I consider myself a budding home Barista, I’m always looking at improving my equipment and my skill, I spend a lot of time making coffee and trying to improve, I’m even going on a Barista training course a bit later this year to improve my abilities. Not everyone treats coffee like a hobby though, and it’s a case of ‘horses for courses’.
The quality of Espresso that a machine can produce, the consistency of shots, and other benefits such as capability to pull shots and steam milk at the same time, and the quality of the steam produced, is all on a sliding scale as you go from the lower end to the higher end of the prosumer machines. For example, prosumer machines at the lower end tend to have vibration pumps and single standard boilers, and no PID (temperature controls), whereas higher up the scale you’ll find machines with heat exchanger boilers (meaning better temperature stability and the ability to pull shots and steam milk simultaneously), or dual boilers, PID, rotary pumps and so on, all features which cost more but improve the performance of the machine.
If you’re going to be making espresso with either a domestic Espresso machine or a prosumer machine, you’ll need a grinder – and the quality of the grinder is very important, forget cheap blade grinders, blades don’t grind they slice, and coffee beans need to be ground, with burrs – so you need a burr grinder.
If you’re expecting to be able to use pre-ground coffee beans or ESE pods instead of using your own grinder, I’d highly recommend that you re-think things, as you’re unlikely to get good results.
Different beans require a different grind on different Espresso machines, with each different bag of coffee beans we need to do what’s called “dialling in” which means to adjust the grind until it’s perfect for our particular machine. If the grind is too course the shot will be under-extracted and will be watery and sour, if the grind is too fine it will be over extracted and will taste bitter.
The chance that each bag of pre-ground Espresso beans you buy will be at the right grind for your machine is slim to none. I’ve tried in the past to make Espresso using pre-ground beans, and I’ve never achieved anything worth drinking.
If you’re thinking of buying a cheap domestic Espresso machine for around £100, this means you’re probably going to end up spending at least double the cash on the grinder. If you don’t have the budget for this, then in my personal opinion the best option is to opt for a Nespresso machine. Nespresso isn’t quite the same as Espresso, but it’s going to give you better and more consistent results than a domestic Espresso machine with pre-ground coffee. I say Nespresso rather than other pod machines by the way due to the wide range of compatible pods available for Nespresso, including speciality coffee from small batch UK roasters.
Bean to cup machines bring a greater level of convenience to Espresso making. You put whole beans in the hopper, and depending on the machine, it will either produce the shot and you do the rest, or it will finish the entire brew for you including the milk.
As with all other types of Espresso machines, I think bean to cup machines are great in the right setting/scenario. I can clearly see the benefit of using bean to cup in commercial catering environments, for instance in canteens, for events catering, in offices, hotels and so on.
I noticed when I was at a Premier Inn not long ago that they had a couple of self-serve bean to cup machines, and some Wetherspoons have recently installed bean to cup machines. A certain well known chain of coffee shops (which rhymes with Bra trucks) even use bean to cup for the espresso (staff steam and pour the milk, but the Espresso element is bean to cup). I’ve also seen some retail environments that aren’t really geared up
For home espresso making, the right bean to cup machine may be perfect for you, depending on what you’re looking for. All I would say is that there are various different machines, so make sure you’re getting a machine which does what you want it to. For example, some bean to cup machines purely create the espresso, you then have to steam the milk using the steam wand. Some machines are more like the commercial bean to cup machines which allow you to select your drink and the machine does it all for you including the milk.
If that’s what you want, then a machine like this is great. For me, a full bean to cup machine wouldn’t quite be right as I want to control every element of the espresso making, steam texturing and pouring, and I want to continually get better at this, so just selecting a drink and pressing the button wouldn’t be right for me. So for me, BTC is too convenient, for some people though, BTC machines like this are not convenient enough, and they may be more suited to Nespresso machines or other pod/disk machines.
Nespresso machines fall within the category of domestic machines, and while they’re not strictly Espresso machines – in my opinion they’re one of the best options when it comes to domestic espresso machines for coffee drinkers who value convenience above all.
If you want to be able to just walk up to a machine in the morning which is switched off, press the button and walk away with your coffee about a minute later with no clean-up to do, then this is the kind of convenience you can expect from a Nespresso machine.
As I discuss in Espresso Vs Nespresso, Nespresso isn’t quite Espresso from the perspective of someone who drinks a lot of very good Espresso, but it’s not a million miles off either, and it’s incredibly convenient – plus you can drink speciality coffee from UK small batch coffee roasters now via Nespresso compatible pods too, so you’re not tied in to Nestle’.
Nespresso is exclusively for Espresso type coffee. If you want Cappuccino, Latte etc., then you would steam your milk with an Aeroccino, or you can just heat your milk up and use a cafetiere to froth it up, or a hand frother.
If you want a machine that you can get pods/disks for, which handles the milk for you, then there are other machines such as Dolce Gusto and Tassimo which you may be interested in. I don’t like drinking milk drinks that have come from a pod, I like to use fresh milk, but each to their own ;-).
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