There’s a ton of choices here, but you don’t need to spend crap loads of money. When I first started out, my personal key requirement was that the machine make espresso, and only espresso. I wanted a simple espresso machine, not some combo disaster. There’s a ton of machines that fit this bill under $500. You can read a short review and info on the starter machine I picked, the De’longhi EC-155, here.
Some people will talk about making espresso in Italy on the stove top in devices like this. Technically this is not espresso, but a Moka Pot. It is a strong coffee to be sure, and presurized brewing, but NOT espresso. Espresso is specifically the coffee made by forcing hot water (~196 F) under pressure (9 bar) through ground coffee for 26-30 sec. There’s nothing wrong at all with making coffee in a Moka. It’s good stuff when made correctly.
So, what makes a good espresso machine. Well, you know what they say about opinions? There are some things that are pretty well accepted though, so I’ll cover those.
Reliable temperature and pressure
Remember, coffee is a science. You are extracting solids and oils from the beans using hot water. As with all chemical reactions, there’s an optimal way to do this. For espresso, it’s water at 9 bar and ~196 degrees F for about 26-30 seconds.
If the water is too hot, the result will be bitter. If the water is too cold, it will be weak. If the pressure is too low, the shot will pour too fast and be weak. If the pressure is too high, the shot will pour too slowly and over extract. This is chemistry. Do it right and you will be rewarded. Rush it, or don’t pay attention, and you will have less than desirable results (or something just downright nasty tasting).
So, you need a machine that has reliably consistent water temperature and pressure to make your life easier. You’ll see lots of videos online about “temperature surfing” with various machines to find the sweet spot on machines that are less than thermally stable. It works if you have the time a patience. The De’longi EC-155 is one of those machines that really benefits from surfing.
Ease of Use
Unless you are a full time barrista, you have a different job. And, you do enjoy the ability to drive up, order, and within a few minutes, drive off with your morning fix. The only problem is the places you would normally do that make shitty coffee. That’s why your here reading this…you want better coffee. But, you still have the rest of your life to deal with too.
There’s a ton of machines that are classified under the “superauto” banner. This means they do everything a the push of a button. Is this the best espresso machine for you? Personally, I stay away from them. I suggest you do NOT get a machine with a built in grinder. Sure, dropping a bag of beans in the hopper and pressing a button every morning is super simple, but when the grinder breaks, your whole machine is useless, and then you have an expensive repair to deal with. You are also beholden to the manufacturers interpretation of what grind is correct…you can’t do much fine tuning. Do your research on a separate grinder, and you’ll be much happier in the long run.
But, you don’t want to wait forever, so the one thing I suggest really looking at is warm up time. Some larger “prosumer” machines take 30min to heat up. That’s not gonna cut it when you need to get out the door in the morning. The EC-155 heats up in only about 5 min, but it has a tiny boiler. You really can’t use this for parties. The machine I ended up graduating to, the Bezzera BZ-10 heats up in only 10min, with a 3 liter boiler. I wake up, turn on the machine, take a shower and get dressed, and the machine is ready to go. When I have parties, I can crank out drinks quickly, and not worry much out running out of water.
If you like milk based drinks, the best espresso machine for you will be something that can steam milk well. This is as much about the steam tip as the actual steam power. Some machines have what is called a “panarello”. This an attachment that attempts to draw in air to aid in the process of creating microfoam. Some work well, some don’t. I personally pulled the panarello off the EC-155, and just screwed on a small single hole tip, and learned to actually steam milk properly. It goes much faster, and the panarello was hard to clean up anyway…I never missed it. But, again, you don’t want to wait forever, so reasonable power here is a plus.
Single Boiler, Dual Boiler, or Heat Exchanger?
Single boiler means you can’t brew and steam at the same time. If you don’t want milk drinks, this is not an issue. If you do want milk drinks, this means you have to brew the shot, then wait for the machine to heat up more, then steam. The whole process is less than smooth, and the espresso is sitting there cooling down while you wait.
Dual boiler, and heat exchange machines let you brew like a pro, but this comes at a higher cost. Heat exchanger machines will be cheaper than dual boilers, but dual boilers will be more powerful. The Bezzera BZ-10 I found to be in a great sweet spot here.
So, there you have it…what I consider to be the starting points of a search for the best espresso machine. And, it’s a very personal thing. I’m sure everyone would like a La Marzocco at home. But, not many people can afford that. So, figure out what really is important in your machine, and good luck in your search.