If you’re wondering how to find the best home espresso machine, you’ve come to the right place. Shopping for an espresso machine can be hard because of all the confusing factors like pressure, heat, infusion, grinding, and others, so it’s helpful to have everything listed in one spot.
In this article, we’ll look at the features that the best home espresso machine will have and explain why these features are important to making a great cup of espresso. You’ll also learn about features that make an espresso machine easier to use, easier to clean and have a longer lifespan.
Before we start discussing the features of the best at home espresso machine individually, there’s one extremely visible feature that’s important: the machine’s form factor. There’s no point in finding the best espresso machine for home if you can’t stand the look of the machine in your home or can’t fit it onto your countertops.
Even if you find a machine that has all of the features that we discuss, make sure that the machine’s aesthetics and footprint fit into your idea for what the kitchen should look like. With that in mind, let’s get into the guts of espresso machine operation by looking at heating elements.
The heating element in the espresso machine is responsible for much of the machine’s magic. The heating element determines how quickly an espresso machine’s boilers heat up to their target temperature. A weak heating element means that you’ll have to wait longer before you can pull your shot.
Some heating elements can also create steam alongside hot water, which means that they can make milk based additions like foam without delay. These are typically present in the more expensive espresso machines.
There are a few modalities of heating sources and a few materials that make up the sources.
Your choices of boiler material are either stainless steel, brass, or copper. Brass is far more common in historical and old espresso machines than in any that you might buy from the market today, so for our purposes, you don’t need to worry about its properties.
There’s a bit of a controversy within the espresso aficionado community about which material is better. Some claim that stainless steel will weather descaling better and impart less flavor to the espresso in comparison to copper. Others claim that copper has a higher heat capacity and that stainless steel imparts a bad flavor. The one thing that isn’t debatable is that most traditional Italian espresso machines use copper boilers.
It’s important to note that the internal piping of an espresso machine is typically made from the same material as its boiler. The same caveats apply, but great espresso is possible with any of the materials on the market.
Single boiler machines work exactly like the mechanism that we described above in the temperature control section: if the boiler isn’t at the right temperature, it gets more power until it hits the target.
The drawback to single boiler machines is that because the temperature required for brewing is lower than the temperature required to produce steam, you won’t be able to both create a shot of espresso and the steamed milk that goes with it at the same time. In fact, single boilers often can’t produce steam at all.
Most of the inexpensive espresso machines on the market today have single boilers that are dual use. They can produce steam, but only after producing hot water for the shot. You’ll have first to pull the shot of espresso, then wait for the boiler to heat up enough to produce steam.
Heat exchangers are a twist on the single boiler concept that typically has a larger capacity. In heat exchangers, a single boiler is kept constantly producing steam, and some of the boiling water is siphoned off, cooled, and used for pulling shots at the correct temperature after a short delay. Heat exchangers are common and highly effective for machines which are kept busy pulling shots. There’s never need to wait for the machine to reheat the boiler between each successive shot, just the need to wait a couple of seconds for the boiling water to cool to the right brewing temperature. Heat exchangers typically require a bit of intuition from the user to operate, and many enlist thermometers to help gauge when the water is cool enough to pull a shot.
Thermoblocks are the opposite of heat exchangers and create tiny bursts of steam on demand while keeping the majority of the water at the right temperature for brewing. Large milk drinks may find themselves a bit short on steam with thermoblocks, though you’ll never have an issue with cool espresso.
Dual boilers are the largest and fanciest heat source option, and as the name suggests, have one boiler for hot water and one boiler for producing steam. Dual boilers have large capacities and can simultaneously produce espresso shots and steam for milk.
The PID and temperature control features of an espresso machine interface with the heating elements in the boilers to adjust their function. In effect, the temperature controller measures the current temperature of the boiler, checks it against the specified target temperature, and then increases the power flow to the heating element by a discrete amount if the temperature is lower than the target temperature.
The boiler then grows hotter as a result of the increasing power flow. After a period has passed—typically, mere milliseconds—the temperature controller checks the boiler’s temperature again and repeats the process if necessary.
Effective temperature controllers are energy efficient and produce a steady state heat within the heating element, which leads to more consistent heating and better tasting espresso. Weaker temperature controllers overshoot or undershoot the target temperature repetitively, waste energy, and provide an espresso that may be slightly burnt.
The best espresso machine for the home should have integrated temperature control which you never have to worry about. A suboptimal machine could probably have a PID unit attached separately.
Now that we’ve talked about heating elements and heating control, it’s time to talk about pressurization. Everyone knows that you need high pressure to make the perfect espresso shot; the pros prefer around 145 psi. But not all methods of creating pressure are created equal.
The piston driven method is common with manual espresso machines of yesteryear, where the barista’s physical force imparts pressure. These typically don’t produce enough pressure for great espresso, and you won’t find many on the market unless you look for them.
In more modern espresso machines, steam is used to create pressure via the boiler. Because the espresso machine can easily make steam via the boiler, steam can easily be used to pass through the grounds all at once. Steam isn’t the most effective way to generate pressure, but less expensive machines still use it.
The best espresso machines use pumps to generate pressure, which we’ll talk more about shortly. Given that certain espresso fanatics contend that some pressures are better for certain beans than others, the highest end machines offer configurable pressure profiles for calibration of the exact amount of pressure. Each pressure profile corresponds to a different speed of the pump.
Pumps vary in quality, but in general, pumps are the best guarantee of high pressure and great espresso.
The pump is the powerhouse of your espresso machine and is the element responsible for creating the high pressure which allows for optimal extraction from your beans.
There are a few kinds of pumps. Historically, manual pumps—simple levers which you operated with physical force—were the way that baristas pulled shots.
Manual pumps could produce just barely enough pressure to make good espresso. Enter the electric pumps, which are what your espresso machine will have unless you go out of your way to purchase a manual machine.
Electric pumps have two flavors: rotary pumps, and vibration pumps. Rotary pumps have mechanical moving parts which spin, causing water to be pressurized. In contrast, vibratory pumps eschew mechanical force and instead cause two magnets to spin via alternating an electromagnetic current inside of a protected coil. Like in the rotary pump, the spinning creates pressure.
Both pumps are effective at producing enough pressure to make great espresso, but there’s some debate over how frequently each type has to be replaced. Some claim that the moving parts within the rotary pump necessitate more frequent replacement, whereas others point to the tendency for vibration pumps to have their electromagnetic element burn out from power surges.
The group head is the collection of valves and a nozzle that dispenses espresso out of the machine, and it’s also where a lot of the magic happens. You’ll need an excellent group head to produce excellent espresso.
The group head contains other critical parts such as the portafilter and infusion channels, which we’ll discuss shortly. The group head needs to maintain a steady temperature to avoid cooling the espresso as it passes through.
When it comes time to pull a shot, water enters the group head through an inlet and percolates into the filter chamber, where it then passes through a nozzle into the brewing channel. The brewing channel retains water when the operator pulls the brewing lever, thus preventing the water from simply refluxing back into the boiler.
If the brewing lever isn’t fully pulled close but is instead pulled midway, water falls into the bottom of the group head, where it starts pre infusion.
Preinfusion is a period when hot water and the espresso grounds are collocated in an environment of weak pressure before the pump subjects them both to high pressure. Preinfusion isn’t necessary, but it’s a nice addition to flavor, so great espresso machines will have the ability to make pre infusion easier with features on the group head.
Group heads have a few variants, with the most popular being the “E61” group head, the saturated group head, and the semi-saturated group head.
The E61 is the most common group head, and you can find it in a wide range of different machines. The E61 is fully manual, giving the user control over the volume of the shot and the length of the shot at the expense of automatic stoppage. In the E61, the group head is only exposed to the water from the boiler when the barista pulls the brew lever.
Saturated group heads are always open to the boiler, and are filled with hot water all of the time, and thus is a bit faster to reach the right temperature. Thanks to the design of the saturated group head, once the shot finishes, the pump turns off automatically. Only the high-end group heads will be saturated group heads.
Semi-saturated group heads use electronics to control the exposure of the group head to the boiler, which means that they’re expensive, but offer the most automation and reconfigurability without much mechanical hassle.
The portafilter locks into the group head and is simply a small metal cup with a handle that contains the finely ground and densely packed espresso grounds. Inside of the metal cup, there is a metal filter, hence the name portafilter. There’s a small hole at the bottom of the portafilter where the finalized espresso shot drips out.
The point of the portafilter is to evenly distribute the pressure from the group head onto the packed espresso grounds so that it extracts evenly.
Portafilters come in a few sizes, but the 58mm and the 53mm portafilters are the most common. There’s little difference in the quality of espresso with each portafilter size, but if you plan on doing any repair work, you should remember to get parts that match the filter’s size, as they aren’t cross compatible.
Some portafilters have more than one layer of filter, and some portafilters can be pressurized. The best at home espresso machines have portafilters that have perfectly symmetrical filter netting, which ensures even distribution of pressure and also no holes large enough for large particulates to enter your espresso.
Pressurized portafilters are the highest end option, and you’ll find them on the best at home espresso machines. Double portafilters are a worthwhile stand-in if your budget isn’t big enough to justify a pressurized portafilter; two layers of filtration guarantees that every piece of the grounds’ surface area gets a lot of pressure.
Espresso machines can either be manual, semi-auto, or auto. With a manual machine—not to be confused with a manual pump—the barista controls the dispensation of the shot via changing the position of the brew lever. There are many excellent expresso machines with manual operation.
Semi-auto espresso machines replace the brew lever with an electronic switch which controls a series of gaskets aligned with the group head. Semi-auto espresso machines are typically more expensive than manual machines, but they still require the barista to push a button to start and stop the shot.
Many semi-auto espresso machines come with a manual shot timer, which displays the amount of time since the start of the shot for the barista to use as a reference for when to stop the shot. Some manual espresso machines also have this feature in the form of a stopwatch, though it’s rarer now than in the past.
Automatic espresso machines regulate the amount of water in each shot automatically and can complete the entire process by the barista pushing a button. Automatic machines will stop themselves after the correct amount of water has passed for each shot, but are typically the most expensive.
Aside from volume based and time-based control of the shot, some high-end espresso machines use weight based shot control, which measures the weight of the empty cup and stops dispensation of the shot when its weight has changed enough to signify that a single shot pulled successfully.
As we discussed in our earlier section on boilers, the best home espresso machines can supply steam to a steam wand, which makes frothing milk quick and easy. For the machines which don’t have a steam wand, an external frother can sometimes fill the same role.
Steam wands are simply pipes that can expel steam from the end on demand. Steam wands can have different tips to fit onto the end of the wand which imparts a different pattern to the steam as it exits the wand. Some tips allow for easier use than others; the oldest steam wands required turning a valve to open the wand’s access to the steam pipe whereas newer models can have a button which accomplishes the same thing.
Frothers don’t use steam, and instead, use motion and heat to create froth from the milk. Frothers are typically external appliances, but if an espresso machine doesn’t have a steam wand, it may have an attached frother which you can use to make frothed milk without steam.
The best frothers make froth that’s nearly indistinguishable from froth created with the steam wand, but worse frothers can struggle to reach the temperature needed to create enough froth.
Some espresso machines have their water holding tank (or hold water in the boiler) whereas others have to connect to the water line. In general, espresso machines that need to connect to the water line are more expensive and more difficult to maintain but require less work before starting with your first shot of the day.
If you don’t mind filling the water reservoir regularly, a disconnected machine might be the right choice for you.
Pressure gauges tell the operator the pressure in the boiler and also the pressure of the pump while the pump is in operation. A good espresso machine has a large, reliable gauge which is easy to check at a glance.
The pressure gauge is also a quick way to check on your espresso machine’s condition. If the pump isn’t making enough pressure, it may be faulty. Likewise, if the boiler isn’t coming up to pressure, the heating element is likely broken.
“The” hot water pipe typically refers to an external pipe on the front of the espresso machine which baristas can use to dispense unpressurized hot water directly from the boiler to make an Americano, hot chocolate, or some other drink.
The best espresso machines have a hot water pipe that’s easy to operate, and that doesn’t carry any pressure other than that created by gravity’s pull on the water. Anything else is wasted energy, and also dangerous.
If you like to have your espresso cup preheated to ensure that your espresso stays at the perfect temperature, some machines have heating plates that your cup can rest on while you wait to pull your shot. In general, more expensive machines will have heat plates that heat your cup quicker.
The highest end espresso machines have a purge function, which flushes every compartment and gasket to prepare the machine for powering off.
Descaling your espresso machine is essential to avoid buildup of minerals in the boilers and pipes. In general, high-end espresso machines have descaling functions which are easy to implement with the help of a descaling chemical, whereas lower cost machines require a lot more work and following a descaling protocol.
The same goes for cleaning. Espresso machines have a lot of parts and a lot of areas to clean, and more expensive machines will typically provide the user with some assistance which makes up for the manual effort that would be needed otherwise.
That wraps up our overview of espresso machine features. As you can see, picking the best espresso machine for home can be quite a complicated process if you don’t have the experience of a barista already.
We hope that this guide will help you to pick the best home espresso machine for you, and we hope that you’ve learned a thing or two about exactly what baristas are doing behind the counter while you wait.
Thanks for trusting our expertise and spending your time learning about our take on espresso machines. If you have any questions or comments, drop us a line in the comments section below.