Although coffee’s been around since the 1400s, the Italian espresso didn’t start popping up until the 19th century as a quicker — or express (yes, the etymology of the word points to both the words “express” and “pressed”) — way to brew the beverage by using pressure (~0.75atm) rather than a percolator or drip system. The technology was patented in 1884 by inventor Angelo Moriondo, but the term wasn’t coined until Luigi Bezzerra and Desiderio Pavoni first commercialized the machine a couple of decades later, thus giving birth to modern Italian coffee culture. The innovations were taken further with Francesco Illy’s first-ever steamless espresso machine, which was improved upon when Achille Gaggia utilized upwards of 9atm of pressure, producing a more concentrated flavor and a crema on top that have now both come to define the drink.
Today, many homes contain an espresso machine in one form or other thanks to the boom that took place in the 1980s and ‘90s that led to brands like Nespresso commercializing a more streamlined and convenient way to make quality cups without much, or any, grinding or tamping. Nonetheless, espresso is still seen as a luxury compared to standard coffee due to its strength, richness, and complexity. No matter which kind of espresso machine you buy, you will end up saving a ton of money when looking at how much you shell out over time at a cafe or coffee shop. To get started, take a look at our guide to the best espresso machines to make cafe-style beverages in your own kitchen.
Types Of Espresso Machines
Exploring The Range
Each type of espresso maker has its pros and cons. For the avid drinker, a pricier machine will still save you money in the long run, while the casual consumer will still benefit from machines on the lower end, especially if they’re happy enough with a less-curated, yet still delicious, flavor. Here are the different types of machines and their essential differences:
Hand Presses: From travel devices that use PSI pressure to plunge or squeeze out your brew to the newer, larger devices that feature electrical add-ons, the most bare-bones coffee makers require little to no electricity at all (although you will need a way to get hot water). Between grinding, measuring, tamping, and heating, presses take some extra time to get to the end product, but drinkers benefit from a more personal experience and tailored result without having to pay as much. And then, of course, there’s the manual labor required to squeeze out the coffee. Some modern machines have pressure gauges to help you out, otherwise, you’ll have to go through a lot of trial and error to get it right.
Pod Machines: Making good espresso is not easy or quick. This is why many people opt for pod machines, which only require you to pop a singular coffee grounds-filled pod into a device that uses a reservoir of water to pour out a “perfect” cup. Invented and patented by Nestle, pod machines have their benefits. For one, if you like the flavor, there’s much more consistency in each pour. Likewise, the time it takes to make your brew can be as little as 60 seconds, which is great for those who just want some quick caffeine — after all, speed is one of the reasons why espresso was invented to begin with.
On the other hand, while pod machines provide you with convenience, that convenience may come with a price. When broken down and compared, the cost of the pods will be more expensive than getting larger quantities of coffee from other brands. For more advanced palates, it might not matter, since they may find the profile that comes from pod machine brew as lacking complexity. Also, from an objective standpoint, the pods themselves can create more waste for the environment and require extra work to properly recycle them.
Automatic: While previously disdained by many espresso purists, automatic machines have come a long way in recent years. Known for their ultimate convenience, they’re able to grind and brew coffee with the push of a button, and also steam milk if you wish. Automatic coffee makers are not dissimilar to pod machines, although they utilize fresh coffee grounds from beans and can steam milk, and are often more expensive because of it. Where semi-automatic machines require you to dump out the basket after each use, automatics have a dreg that you only have to dump out occasionally.
Semi-Automatic: Semi-automatic machines are the most common espresso machines on the market due to their ability to balance convenience, speed, and price. Most of them feature a single boiler and a thermoblock, which can be downsides for some drinkers but shouldn’t be an issue for those who are only making coffee for themselves or typically drink their espresso black. Certain machines have a built-in grinder, which is a plus.
Manual: While automatic and semi-automatic machines have a speed and convenience factor, manual machines are a more intimate experience, allowing you to curate every aspect of the flavor for those who actually want to make espresso. The machines are largely home versions from cafe-specialized brands, but for the expert barista among you who have a passion for crafting quality brews, these are the ultimate grail items, thus the steeper price tags.
If you’re a true espresso aficionado, you won’t want to give up your favorite beverage just because you’re miles away from home or the nearest cafe. Built from stainless steel and weighing less than a pound, Wacaco’s Picopresso is a great pick-up whether it’s your secondary travel brewer or your primary choice at home. Seeing the process from beans (with a hand-grinder add-on) to brew, this hand-held device doesn’t compromise flavor just to save you some time and space, and it’s made for those with espresso-making expertise. As long as you have some hot water on hand, you can make your espresso wherever you are and it can still taste amazing.
Nespresso machines don’t just save you a lot of countertop space, but they provide flavorful and consistent cups of espresso. The Original Nespresso line was very popular in its own right, but in 2014, the company made a fancier, almost magical, updated version. Available in several sizes and upwards of 40 different blends, the new proprietary Vertuo pods each bear a barcode on the underside which the machine reads to determine how much water to infuse. It then spins the pod at around 7,000rpm while mixing the grounds and pressing the water through. The espresso shots that emerge from the machine have a smooth crema on top, while the larger 8oz cups also sport a thick layer of foam, making the experience and profiles offered by the VertuoPlus unique, to say the least.
Gaggia Classic Pro
From the brand launched by one of the most important figures in the development of espresso, Gaggia’s Classic Pro is one of the best semi-automatics you can buy. Expanding and improving on the brand’s flagship Classic, which debuted in 1991 and was considered a go-to entry-level machine, the Classic Pro was introduced in 2019 to make changes to the control panel and added a new steam wand for steaming milk. Of course, the machine brought back the rapid heating boiler, three-way solenoid valve, and 58mm commercial chrome-plated brass portafilter to help you get cafe-quality espresso in your own kitchen.
Flair is the industry-defining brand for hand press lever espresso makers, largely because of its top-of-the-line unit: Flair 58. The “58” in the name refers to the 58mm portafilter size, which is now a standard across the board and thus allows this lever machine to have more versatility when utilizing third-party baskets and tampers. For those who want an old-school, unequivocally manual experience when making their brew, the Flair 58 is the way to go, since you literally do every step yourself, including pressing the water through the grounds. To help you tailor your plunge and lessen the trial-and-error just a bit, there’s a gauge attached to show you how much pressure you’re applying.
Café Affetto Automatic Espresso Machine
You no longer have to sacrifice much taste with automatic machines, and Café Affetto’s Automatic Espresso Machine is a case in point. By pushing a single button, this contraption will make either espresso, Americano, ristretto, hot water, or a pre-curated “My Cup” selection based on the accompanying app in just 90 seconds. You can control the machine and customize your pour remotely on your smartphone. The built-in Burr grinder lets you select from five coarseness options and the milk frother gives you the option to make cappuccino and lattes as well. Aside from the convenience, the flavor profile of the beverage is superb, thanks to a gradual increase in coffee extraction up to 20 bar.
Rancilio Silvia M
Judging by its size alone, you’d never guess the Rancilio Silvia M is well under $1,000. Debuting in 1997, the Silvias were initially used as gifts for distributors at trade shows but were so popular that the Italian company started selling them for home use. Fairly bare bones with a single boiler, this user-friendly semi-automatic machine will give you the feel of a commercial unit, but at a fraction of the cost. The large counter footprint and stainless steel heft keep it in place when removing the basket and water tank.
DeLonghi La Specialista Maestro
As we start heading into the pricier options, we’ll explore barista-level machines, such as DeLonghi’s La Specialista Maestro, which is very much made for the home market, albeit for coffee lovers who want a range of options on their automatic machines. Where automatics don’t often give the user much room to explore, the La Specialista Maestro does indeed, with eight settings on the built-in grinder that uses sensors to fixate the dosage, as well as a Smart Tamping System, a pressure gauge, and a steam wand option for milk (an auto frother is also available). A numbered dial goes up to 30 so you can select the dosage of the coffee being brewed and another dial lets you choose from six different beverage types.
Breville the Oracle Touch
Breville is the unofficial king of home espresso machines in terms of consistency and range, and at a fair price point. Still, the Oracle Touch is also one of the more unique machines on the market as a whole. Finding a middle ground between automatic and semi-automatic — if that’s even possible — the Oracle Touch lets you select options on a touchscreen while it then grinds, doses, and tamps the coffee. However, the user removes the prepped portafilter and sends it to the boiler where you select from a new set of choices on the touchscreen when it comes to the brewing itself. The end result is perhaps the most perfect mash-up you can find.
Dalla Corte Studio
Compact by design, Dalla Corte’s Studio espresso machine brought the capabilities of its professional machines to the home market for the first time in 2019. Aside from its aesthetic appeal (available in a multitude of colors), the device boasts a multi-boiler system with 1.5L of capacity for the boiler itself and up to 0.5L for the coffee. Its rotary pump gives it a quieter performance as well as a longer lifespan. Not only is the Studio optimal for small home countertops, but for cafe owners who have limited space as well.
La Marzocco GS3
Inventing the first dual boiler espresso machine in 1970 with the original GS (eventually used by Howard Schultz in Starbucks’ nascent days), La Marzocco has become a favorite among professional baristas and hardcore home enthusiasts alike for its temperature stability and boiler capacity. The GS3 builds on the company’s legacy with 3.5L of boiler capacity, Quick Key temperature adjustment to minimize its impact on the flavor, and Performance Touch milk wand which updates and combines the previous options. La Marzocco machines also benefit from superb customization options on its website.
Kees van der Westen Mirage
If add-ons are your thing (and money is no object), then look no further than Kees van der Westen’s Mirage, which gives you options such as a touch screen, a foot-activated steam valve, and cosmetic customizations as well. Regardless of the mid-century-inspired kitsch aesthetic, this unit is the end-all, be-all — if you can afford it. It’s built upon the physics behind the legendary E61 thermosyphon heat-exchanger system, which, after over 50 years since its creation, is still considered top-of-the-line by improving upon the multi-boiler. Starting at 13L of capacity, the Mirage is the ultimate grail espresso machine.
The 10 Best Coffee Makers for Camping
You shouldn’t have to sacrifice a good cup of coffee when roughing it in the great outdoors. If you don’t want to be tired while you’re trekking, then take a look at our guide to the best camping coffee makers.