Who doesn’t love a good espresso?
Whether it’s in a latte, con panna, or in an americano, the bitter deliciousness of espresso is a uniquely delicious, irreplaceable ingredient in coffee shop staples.
Yet, many people aren’t sure what the difference between espresso and regular, black coffee is. They’re disappointed to find that the coffee shop drinks they try to recreate at home aren’t as good as the ones they get in their local java joint, or they don’t know where to start when it comes to shopping for their own espresso maker.
There are many different kinds of espresso machines, but there are really only two main kinds that average people own: stovetop espresso pots and automatic espresso machines. Today, I’m going over and recommending (semi) automatic espresso machines.
What’s the difference between espresso and regular coffee?
It’s actually pretty simple: they’re both coffee, but espresso beans are roasted longer than the beans used for black coffee, so they have a more bitter, stronger flavor. Espresso is also prepared differently than drip coffee – the beans are ground into a super fine, until they’re almost like powder, and then packed into a compact puck shape. Steam keeps the disc compact and water passes through it, resulting in much espresso. You get much less espresso out of the grounds than you do black coffee (with the same amount of grounds).
It’s super important that you grind your coffee beans into an extremely fine powder; if it’s too coarse, it won’t turn out right.
A typical espresso shot is 1oz. Most small-size espresso beverages only contain one shot of espresso. Mediums typically contain 2, and large sizes contain 2-3 shots (or 2-3oz of coffee).
What’s the difference between an espresso machine and a stovetop espresso maker?
Stovetop espresso makers are also often called espresso pots, Italian coffee makers, or moka pots, and they’re the devices that allow you to brew espresso with water, espresso grounds, and a stove. Mocha pots are super affordable, but the quality of espresso you get from them is drastically different than what you get with an actual automatic or semi-automatic machine.
These machines are what you need to get higher-quality espresso that’s closer to (and with higher-quality machines, almost indistinguishable from) the espresso you get from industrial-grade espresso machines used in coffee shops.
Figuring out your price range can be a bit tricky, because – as is true with most coffee-making products, (but especially true with espresso machines) you really do get what you pay for.
Automatic and semi-automatic espresso machines are significantly more expensive than stovetop espresso pots, and there are countless higher-end machines that can cost hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars. Some home baristas do go all out with crazy expensive, cafe-quality machines, but smaller, less-expensive versions should be sufficient for most espresso drinkers.
However, you don’t want to go too cheap. Sometimes you can find a machine for sale for under $50. But, – quite frankly – those machines are junk. They’re cheaply made, they don’t last very long, don’t have replaceable parts, and don’t make good espresso.
I made that mistake once – I bought one several years ago that cost about $50 and from the get-go, the ‘espresso’ I made from it was disgusting. The machine was difficult to use, it was impossible to keep at least a few grounds from getting into the coffee, and the machine stopped working and started leaking hot water after only a few tries. It was a giant piece of junk, and I was very disappointed in it.
I tell you this so that you have a realistic expectation of what to get out of your machine. I’m sure not all cheap machines are as bad as mine was, but my experience definitely deterred me from buying or recommending anything on the super cheap end, considering what a colossal waste of money they are.
If you’re on a budget and don’t want to buy any of these machines at these prices, but still want to make at-least-decent espresso at home, then you’re better off going with a stovetop espresso pot, and supplementing it with a milk frother if you want to make espresso beverages.
While none of my options are super cheap, I still tried to keep my recommendations today on the more budget-friendly side, so I’m not showcasing any of the outrageously expensive, cafe-grade machines either.
Affiliate Disclosure: I’ve attached links to the products I recommend here. It in no way affects your purchase price, but if you use the links I provide, you have a quick way to find the products I’m referring to, and I earn a small commission. As an Amazon Affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases. All prices are as of January 2021.
Sowtech 4 Cup Epresso Maker w/ Milk Frother
Product: Sowtech 4 Cup Espresso Maker w/ attached Milk Steaming Wand
Price: ~$90 retail
Best Features: Price, milk frother, reviews!
This is the #1 Bestseller in espresso machines on Amazon. It’s compact, lightweight, and easy to use. You do have to add extra water into the machine if you want to steam milk, and you have to manually shut the machine off once you’re done brewing the espresso, just as you would with a regular espresso machine.
This machine has over 11,000 reviews on Amazon, and comes out with a 4.4/5 star rating (as of January 2021). The issues reported in the lower reviews were similar to the issues I had with my own $50 machine – leaking, a milk frother that doesn’t work well, and not making very good espresso.
[I did find a few reviews stating that their glass carafe had exploded the first time they used it. I would ascertain that this would be because of drastic temperature changes (if the glass was too cold when they tried to use it), but I’m not positive of course. They were 2/11,000+ reviews, but I just wanted to add that warning out there.]
It’s definitely not barista-grade, but it is a pretty solid value for the money. You get decent-quality espresso that’s better than what you can get with a moka pot, but you’re still not going to get espresso that’s even very close to the same level as coffee shop espresso.
Hamilton Beach Espresso Maker
Product: Hamilton Beach Espresso & Cappuccino Maker
Best Features: Price, swiveling steaming wand, cup warmer
This machine is a slight upgrade from the Sowtech model. With the upgrade comes a bump in price and a slight upgrade in the espresso you can make from it. It’s still small, compact, and lightweight, and it does have a few upgraded features like a swiveling steam wand for milk frothing.
This machine has good ratings and reviewers claim it makes good espresso, though they do point out that it works quickly, so the espresso is a bit on the weaker side. The biggest complaint I could find is that since it’s made out of aluminum and not stainless steel, at least one customer has had little aluminum bits come off after cleaning, so just make sure to keep an eye out for that if you do go with this machine.
Overall, this is a great low-budget espresso machine option.
Nespresso VirtuoPlus by De’longhi
Product: Nespresso Essenza VirtuoPlus by Delong’hi
Price: ~$150 retail
Best Features: Quality of espresso, size, ease of use
De’longhi is known for making high-quality coffee-making tools and machines, and Nespresso is another great brand. This machine is a great mid-price option that actually makes really tasty espresso. It has two-cup sizes and uses more pressure, which makes better espresso.
It has excellent ratings on Amazon – with almost 4,000 reviews, it has an overall rating of 4.7/5 stars. They were relatively rare, but the major issues reported in the lowest rating were manufacturing flaws, and a few people whose machines had stopped working properly after a few months.
The major downside to this machine is that it does not come with a milk frother and does not have a milk frothing wand. If you want milk froth, you have to buy your frother separately.
Capresso Ultima Pro
Product: Capresso Ultima Pro
Best Features: Steam wand, hot water function, quality of espresso!
This is a great machine that’s a bit more expensive, but still pretty reasonably-priced, especially considering what you’re getting for the money.
It uses a lot of pressure and has a 34oz removable water tank, a hot water function, a steam wand, a removable drip dray, and the ability to program cup sizes. I wasn’t able to find it on Amazon or other popular sales websites (to check the reviews), but it is one the most talked-about, most-often-recommended machines in the barista facebook group I’m a part of.
Because it’s from 1st in Coffee, it has a one-year warranty, a 30-day satisfaction guarantee, a lowest-price guarantee, and free shipping, so I highly recommend getting it through them.
Product: De’longhi Dedica
Price: ~$330 retail
Best Features: Durability, size, quality of espresso
These last two recommendations are high-end home espresso machines for serious coffee aficionados, and they will get you coffee-shop-level, amazing espresso.
This first one is from De’longhi again, and it’s made of stainless steel. It’s small and conveniently compact, and it has a 44oz removable water tank, a steam wand, and a simple, easy-to-use design.
Since it’s through 1st in Coffee again, you get that year long warranty and the 30 day satisfaction guarantee. It does have excellent ratings on Amazon, with most of the complaints being about manufacturing flaws and the warranty apparently not being honored when you buy through Amazon – so, that said, I highly recommend buying through 1st in Coffee.
Breville Barista Express
Product: Breville Barista Express
Price: ~$700 retail
Best Features: Built-in coffee grinder, milk frother, quality of espresso
If you’re a coffee aficionado who has the money, the space, and you really want to go all-out, then this is the machine for you. It’s my last recommendation for today, and it’s expensive, but beloved by baristas and former baristas who make incredibly high-quality espresso at home.
The features that really set this machine apart are that it comes with an adjustable, built-in conical burr coffee grinder and a high-quality milk frother that allows you to ‘micro-froth’ milk (giving you more control over the texture of your milk). You can purchase a 3-year or 4-year protection plan as well, which is a bit expensive, but might be worth it, considering that you want a machine you paid this much for to last a very long time.
Despite how fantastic this machine is and how incredible the espresso you can make from it turns out, the price makes it a bit unrealistic for your average consumer. However, if you’re a barista, a former barista, or just really, really want to be able to make a latte that’s identical to your regular coffee shop’s latte, then you might want to consider this machine. It should have everything you need; you shouldn’t need to go with anything more expensive.
Just as a quick note: if you choose a machine with an attached milk steaming want, I do also recommend getting a milk-steaming pitcher.
Do you have an automatic espresso machine already? Do have any experiences with machines like this, or as a barista? Please, share your experiences and opinions in the comments below!