- Espresso is the foundation of cafe drinks like lattes and cappuccinos.
- Gaggia’s Classic Pro espresso machine makes rich shots and is compact enough for most kitchens.
- Check out our other coffee and espresso guides.
The requisite for cafe drinks like lattes and cappuccinos, espresso is a concentrated form of coffee that’s made using pressure to force near-boiling water through tightly-packed coffee grounds. And, if you want to brew cafe-quality drinks in your kitchen while building your skills, a home espresso maker is a necessity.
To achieve a perfect pour, you’ll need a good machine that can produce and maintain roughly 8 to 10 bars of pressure, and hold up after being turned on and off hundreds (and ideally thousands) of times.
For our guide, we looked at semi-automatic machines as well as manual and fully-automated pod-based devices that are made for home use. In order to find the best for most people, we consulted a handful of experts and baristas, conducted extensive testing, and held multiple blind taste tests. We also tested budget semi-automatic machines and professional units, but we passed on these because they didn’t meet our criteria. (Read more about our methodology.)
It’s important to note that making quality espresso can be expensive and time-consuming. In addition to the machine, you’ll need a good burr grinder, which can cost at least $250 for one that is suitable for espresso. You’ll also need to factor in top-grade beans, accessories, and lots of trial and error if you’re a newbie. Expect to pay at least $400 for a capable automated machine, not including the grinder; a manual device is cheaper, but it will still add up.
When it comes to picking the gear that’s right for you, “you get what you pay for, but you should also take your own level of experience into consideration,” said Jordan Rosenacker, the executive creative director of Atlas Coffee Club. “If you’re just learning the ropes, get an affordable machine that won’t break your heart when – and yes, when – it breaks down.”
The best espresso machines you can buy in 2021
- Best overall espresso machine: Gaggia Classic Pro
- Best all-in-one espresso machine: Breville Barista Pro
- Best manual device: Flair Espresso
- Best pod espresso machine: Breville-Nespresso Pixie
The Gaggia Classic Pro is compact, powerful enough to turn out rich, full-bodied shots, and is as simple as espresso machines get without compromising quality. While it takes some practice to nail the perfect pour, it’s well worth the short learning curve.
Pros: Affordable, compact, simple design, produces full-bodied shots
Cons: No dedicated hot water spout, could have fewer plastic parts, learning curve, portafilter basket sticks in machine if you don’t remove while hot
The Gaggia Classic Pro — an updated version of the original Gaggia Classic, which has been around for almost three decades — is slightly less forgiving than our recommendation for the best machine with a built-in grinder, but it’s also markedly more capable of producing a flavorful, nuanced shot.
If you’re just starting out, this is about as basic as espresso machines get without compromising quality. There are three buttons with corresponding lights (letting you know when the machine is primed) and a steam valve. The fact that there’s no adjusting can seem a bit limiting at first, but fewer variables are a good thing for the budding barista.
It’s a single-boiler model, which means it’s going to take a while to switch between pulling shots and priming the steam wand (although this shouldn’t be a problem if you’re only making a few drinks at once). And while Gaggia claims that this machine puts out 15 bars of pressure, you really only need nine to achieve true espresso.
It also includes a small dosing spoon and a plastic tamping device, which — I have to admit — feels a little cheap considering that the Classic Pro used to come with a nicely-weighted stainless steel tamper. That being said, you don’t need to put much muscle behind tamping in the first place, and those plastic parts do get the job done.
While the Gaggia Classic Pro was a little less forgiving than the Breville Barista (both Express and Pro), I found that when I took my time, I was able to get a much more sophisticated shot. On my first few tries, I produced some bitter over-extractions — which at least prove that the machine is up to the task when it comes to pressure — but when I nailed it, which was around the 30-second mark for a one-ounce pour, I was rewarded with some of the best espresso I’ve ever made. Here, I should mention that I’ve also tested machines in the $2,000 range.
That’s not to say that this model isn’t without its shortcomings. The plastic tamping device I mentioned earlier falls a couple of millimeters short of fitting the portafilter baskets (although tampers are easy to upgrade). I also wish there was a dedicated water spout, but you can get water out of the steam wand and the brewing head, provided you purge them of milk and coffee grounds first.
One last gripe: The portafilter baskets tend to stick to the group head if you don’t remove your portafilter right away. This is a bit annoying, but it does show what a great seal you get between the group head and basket, and it’s nothing you can’t manage: If you do end up forgetting to remove it, just turn the machine on when you’re ready for another shot, let it warm up, and it should come off easily enough.
You get a two-year limited warranty with this machine, but it doesn’t cover user error. It’s important to descale — or remove limescale deposits from — the Classic Pro regularly, which goes for all espresso machines and can be done at home with a simple vinegar solution.
If you want to put time and effort into learning how to make espresso like a professional, don’t have a lot of counter space, or on a relatively tight budget, invest in a Gaggia Classic Pro and a good burr grinder and you’ll have a long way to go before you outgrow your setup.
The best espresso machine with a built-in grinder
Equipped with Breville’s Smart Grinder Pro and everything you need to make espresso save for the beans, the Breville Barista Pro is among the easiest and fastest ways you can get a close-to-café-quality pour at home.
Pros: No need to buy a grinder, user-friendly, quick prep time
Cons: Doesn’t include the pressure gauge found on other models, built-in grinder could have more settings, probably not repairable out of two-year limited product warranty
A faster, quieter, and more digitally advanced version of its predecessor the Barista Express, the Barista Pro is equipped with the brand’s excellent Smart Grinder Pro, which would run you $200 on its own. A high-quality burr grinder is essential when it comes to making espresso, and this conical, stainless steel version comes with 30 fine grind adjustments, not to mention the dozen-plus internal grinder adjustments you can make if the fine ones don’t do the trick. (Note: This is something you’ll only have to do if you drastically change the beans you’re using.)
In addition to a burr grinder, the single-boiler Barista Pro has all the basics: 15 bars of pressure (again, you really only need nine), a 67-ounce water tank (enough for a week’s worth of espresso), a convenient water spout, a half-pound sealed bean hopper, a steaming wand, a frothing pitcher, and a satisfyingly heavy magnetic steel tamper that fits into a slot beside the grinder. For more detailed stats, you can check out my full review at the link below.
While the Barista Pro should last up to 10 years on your countertop, outside of the two-year limited product warranty, repairing it is probably out of the question, and you’ll simply have to buy a new one. Breville does have several other options, and while upgrades are on the pricey side, they’re worth it if you have the budget.
The LCD interface includes a timer and single- and double-shot volumetric control for both the grinder and the brewing head, while the ThermoJet heating system quickly brings the Barista Pro to the optimal extraction temperature and allows for smooth shot pouring. Still, if you want to save a few bucks and prefer the experience of using a pressure gauge — which is, in my opinion, a valuable learning tool — the Barista Express is a little more affordable, if slower.
In my blind taste tests, one of the tasters who tend to prefer coffee over espresso favored this machine over the top two contenders, which were the Flair Espresso manual device and the Gaggia Classic Pro. While the Breville Barista Pro was consistently rated “good,” it rarely won out against the others due to the shots’ relative lack of complexity. Still, everyone enjoyed the espresso it produced, and by putting slightly finer grounds through it compared to other machines, we were able to achieve results nearly on par with the Gaggia’s.
Some minor pitfalls: Having the hopper over the boiler is a potential problem, since coffee needs to be stored in a cool dry space, and while we appreciate the built-in grinder for convenience, there could be more grind settings to accommodate different beans. Again, a pressure gauge is a very helpful learning instrument, and we wish it was included. Still, the timer is handy, and you’ll be able to dial this machine and your grounds to produce an espresso that’s to your liking.
In the end, while you might not get a shot of espresso’s full potential from the Barista Pro, you’ll come pretty darn close, with a very small margin for error.
The best manual device
If you want to make the best espresso you possibly can at home (or on the road) without breaking the bank, a manual device like the Flair Espresso maker is an excellent option.
Pros: Budget-friendly, portable, comes with a case, five-year limited warranty
Cons: Takes longer to prep a shot, not great for making more than one or two espressos at a time
Manual espresso makers like the Flair Espresso are not only affordable, they offer more control than most budget machines that don’t allow you to adjust temperature or pressure.
Just know this before buying: using the Flair is slightly more time-consuming than making espresso with a machine by about two minutes. And, you’ll still need a grinder. Again, though, if time is a real constraint, you may want to look to pod machines, or perhaps the Breville Barista Pro, which offers a relatively quicker shot.
When I mentioned the Flair to Dan Kehn, former SCAA Barista World Championship judge and founder of Home-Barista.com, he agreed that it’s an excellent bet for anyone new to the espresso world who wants to learn how to pull a full-bodied shot. Why? Again, it’s about control. You pour water directly from a kettle and adjust the pressure manually until you get a steady golden flow of thick, crema-rich java. Machines in the same price bracket as the Flair often start out with excessive pressure and end a little on the light side.
What makes this device relatively foolproof is the fact that the cylinder has a maximum water capacity of 60ml, so controlling extraction time for somewhere between 30 and 45 seconds (for espresso and more concentrated ristretto, respectively) is actually much easier, and you can get the hang of maintaining the right pressure pretty quickly.
This maker weighs just under five pounds and it’s portable, which means you can use it anywhere so long as you have a way to boil water. And, unlike most of the machines we tested, the Flair comes with an impressively long five-year limited warranty.
Sure enough, Kehn was right. During a series of five rounds of blind taste tests, the Flair won four times — three unanimously. There’s something about being able to control the pressure with your own hands that allows you to deliver a steady flow. Everyone involved in the blind taste test agreed that the intensity of flavor, viscosity or texture, and strength was favorable to almost every other shot we pulled from the other machines, save for the Gaggia Classic Pro a couple of times.
The only caveat here is that when we adjusted the grinder to finer settings to find the threshold of each device, the Flair was the first to choke and we could not physically pull a shot without breaking the device — a sticker on the lever warns not to exceed 70 pounds of pressure. (Even if we had, the resulting espresso would have been unpalatably bitter judging from the drops we were able to manage.)
The Flair requires a little more effort and time to operate than your average espresso machine, but it is the easiest and most budget-friendly way to get the best possible shot you can, especially if you’re new to the espresso game. The fact that it doesn’t take up much counter space is another bonus. If you want to step up and spend a little more, Kehn recommends the Cafelat Robot, which he says is the “same animal,” but heftier and made with all metal components.
The best pod machine
If you want to keep your investment low and save time, there’s no better way to go than the Breville-Nespresso Pixie.
Pros: Easy, convenient, affordable, small footprint
Cons: Pods can get expensive, on the lower end of espresso, pod grounds are not fresh
Turn the Nespresso Pixie on, pop in a pod, press a button, and within under a minute you will have an espresso-like drink, foamy crema and all.
The Pixie has just two settings: one for espresso and one for a lungo, which is just a long, or more diluted pour of an espresso. Take it easy on this machine and don’t demand more than a few shots at a time, and it will last you.
Nespresso claims that this machine offers 19 bars of pressure, but our TDS readings fell consistently around the 5% to 7% mark, which is just shy of espresso. In other words, you can’t expect “true” espresso from this machine, but you can count on a strong, frothy drink. That is, in fact, quite a feat. And with the added convenience and price point for the machine, we were willing to make an exception.
Further to that point, the machine is primed (heated up) within 25 seconds, and all told, your shot is ready in under a minute. To save energy, the machine turns itself off automatically after nine minutes.
These machines come with a one-year limited warranty through Breville, but I have personally (and simultaneously) owned two for more than five years and haven’t had a single problem to date.
Against the other machines and the lone device in our testing, the Pixie didn’t really stand much of a chance where intensity and texture or viscosity were concerned. Even if you buy the freshest pods you can, they’re no competition for freshly roasted and ground beans from a good local roaster.
Still, the crema was certainly present. And everyone in the testing group agreed this machine does the trick in a pinch, which is how most coffee is made at home anyway.
When you use the Pixie, you’re mostly limited to what comes in pods, which is where the device falls short of espresso machines with group heads and portafilters. There are refillable capsules (see our guide to coffee and espresso pods), and you can get much better results by using fresh beans and grinding them yourself, but that eliminates the point of a pod machine. That said, if this is the route you want to go, it’s manageable, if somewhat frustrating to fill and tamp tiny little capsules with a teaspoon of grounds.
Take this machine for what it is, considering its compact size, convenience, and price. Using pods can be expensive but there’s no way you’re going to get espresso (or espresso-like drinks) into a demitasse any faster than this, which is almost certainly the way to go for the convenience crowd.
What we also recommended
Breville Barista Express ($699.95): It was almost a tossup between the Express and the Pro, and while we lament the loss of the pressure gauge on the Pro in favor of an LCD interface, it’s a faster, smoother machine. That being said, if you want to save a couple of hundred dollars (price varies on this machine a lot), the Barista Express is a great alternative. Note: We’re also in the process of testing the Breville Bambino, which is a great consideration if you already have a good grinder.
De’Longhi La Specialista ($799.95): A very close contender with the Breville Barista Express, the De’Longhi La Specialista is designed almost identically but comes with a built-in tamper that removes a lot of potential for user error, which we do like, but a lot of people prefer to use a tamper and/or leveler. Still, it’s about the same price and comes with a three-year warranty instead of the one-year warranty Breville offers. This is another machine to be seriously considered.
Gaggia Brera ($617.15): We found this automatic machine to be fairly good, but its shots didn’t compare to the Gaggia Classic Pro’s due to the built-in grinder that allows for minimal adjustments. Still, if you want an all-in-one automatic machine that can do it all in the way of espresso drinks, it’s markedly more affordable than much of its competition, and passable, if large and clunky.
La Pavoni Europiccola ($925): Lever machines with built-in boilers are among the best on the market for two reasons: they’re affordable (relative to commercial machines) and they’re built like tanks, so they’ll outlast just about everything. The problem is, it is a bonafide challenge to learn how to pull a good shot of espresso out of one of these things, and it takes time. If you’re willing to go through the motions, we recommend it, but you have a long journey ahead.
What else we considered
Over the past several years, we have tried about a dozen of the most popular espresso machines and another handful of Nespresso and Illy pod machines. Since there are currently more options in the way of third-party pods and refillable capsules for Nespresso machines (currently, there are no refillable Illy capsules), you should go with Nespresso. The model we recommend above is among the most affordable, and there’s little point in splurging when you decide to buy a pod machine. If you want frothed drinks, consider investing in a frother separately, which is easier to use and clean.
Aeropress ($29.99): Aeropress is a great coffee-making tool that many a coffee snob keeps on their kitchen counter, where it is their sole coffee-brewing device. What you get out of an Aeropress is something like a finely pressed French press coffee with a generous layer of foam, but not quite espresso. For many, this simple little plastic device will suffice. Plus, its portability makes it handy for outdoor use.
Breville Bambino Plus ($499.95): This machine worked almost as well as the Breville Barista Express or Pro, but it didn’t seem to bear as much power and is more designed for those stepping up from a capsule machine. Considering the price and difficulty of repairing a Breville machine that’s out of warranty, we think the Gaggia Classic Pro is a better bet. Still, we’re testing the new Bambino (not to be confused with the Bambino Plus we’re discussing here) and we’ll discuss our findings in the next update.
Cuisinart EM-200 ($205): This machine almost made espresso, but we couldn’t produce the thick elixir we got out of machines in the $450 and up range. If you’re going to top out around $200, it’s best to go with a manual device or a pod machine. That said, some might find it passable in a cappuccino or latte.
De’Longhi Stilosa ($99.95): This machine replaced the De’Longhi 155 15-Bar, which made decent, foamy coffee. However, like the Cuisinart, the Stilosa delivered something a little more watery than espresso, and more akin to French press or AeroPress coffee. Like the Cuisinart EM-200, it might be passable in cappuccinos or lattes, but a pod machine or a manual device will get you better espresso for the same price.
Rancilio Silva Pro PID ($1,690): This is a professional machine for the home, but much like a professional race car, it operates best in the hands of a pro, and might be something you’re better off working up to, not starting out with. It also didn’t seem to let lighter roasts shine, on which we consulted our expert, Dan Kehn, who agreed. Still, it’s a powerful machine that will allow you to ultimately make superlative shots, but with lots of practice and bad espresso poured down the drain.
Saeco ($1,099): We’ve tried a couple of machines from Saeco, and while they did what they were supposed to, the price, especially compared with the Gaggia Brera, didn’t seem warranted. For something along the lines of a programmable machine that’s borderline automatic, Decent Espresso is a favorite and recommended by Dan Kehn of Home-Barista.com.
Smeg ($489.95): This is a cute little machine and certainly has counter appeal, but it pumps out more watery shots than we’d like, and for the price, it’s just not competitive.
To test a machine’s performance, we put each through the following. In addition, we factored in pricing to determine a machine’s overall value.
Noting TDS measurements
We wanted to make sure we were getting true espresso, which is generally agreed to be somewhere between 7% and 12% total dissolved solids (TDS). To measure this, we used a device called the Atago Pocket Barista, which gave us concrete proof that some machines are better able to churn out a thicker, richer, more viscous potion without over-extracting than others.
Holding taste tests
We held several side-by-side blind taste tests and used the freshest roasts we could get our hands on from Atlas Coffee Club, Stone Street Coffee Company, and Counter Culture Coffee. These taste tests involved dialing a grinder to prepare grounds for 30-second extraction times, then having five participants taste shots from four machines that became our final contenders.
Pulling shot after shot to check for consistency
Dozens of hours were spent grinding and pulling shots from more than 10 pounds of fresh coffee beans. We paid close attention to the consistency of brewing to see if we could pull the same four shots in a row. With almost every machine, we got very close, but the “machine” that seemed to work the best was the Flair Espresso Maker, a manual lever device. Chalk it up to the fact that we were better able to control the flow of pressure ourselves.
We found that the sweet spot for a reliable entry-level home espresso machine is around $400-$500. But remember, you’ll still need a good burr grinder.
Anything less, and you’re probably investing in a machine that might be able to produce the standard nine bars of pressure, but won’t necessarily maintain it throughout the brewing process. We did test several machines in the $100-$300 range but found that they fell short in producing thick, full-bodied, and crema-rich espresso. Likewise, you can step up into the four figures, but according to Kehn, “At some point, there are diminishing returns.”
Do I need an espresso machine?
The best way to approach home espresso is to consider it an investment in a new hobby. On top of the financial commitment, it’s going to take time and patience. Be prepared to dedicate a good section of your kitchen counter to your kit, accept that you’re going to make plenty of mistakes along the way, and know that it is part science and part art. Above all else, dedication is everything.
If you’re just getting started, expect to spend a lot of time pouring bad shots down the drain, fussing with settings as you learn to dial in your machine, and cleaning up coffee grounds. It costs about $700 to $800 just to get up and running with a machine and a burr grinder. If you’re willing to go the manual route, you can get a portable device and a burr grinder for under $500, but that’s still costly.
Making espresso is one of the most time-consuming and messy ways to produce a cup (let alone demitasse) of coffee. If, in the end, you need something quick and easy on your way out the door in the morning, you may want to consider the Nespresso system. On the flip side, know that are few things as rewarding in the world of home coffee as achieving an immaculate shot of velvety espresso all on your own.
What do I need to make espresso?
Fresh coffee beans: Paramount to making espresso are coffee oils, so you need freshly roasted coffee beans. If you’re buying months-old coffee and putting it through an espresso machine, you’re not going to get a lot of the coveted foam or any of the nuanced flavors associated with espresso. Simply put, get the best, freshest coffee beans you can find. If you like traditional coffee with chocolatey-nutty flavors, go with a medium-dark roast. If you like brighter, more nuanced flavors with floral, citrus, and fruit profiles, go with a light roast.
A burr grinder: Okay, here’s where many of us make our most crucial mistake. Any old grinder simply will not do.
The coffee grinder you choose is possibly more important than the device itself. For espresso, you’ll want a burr grinder, which is made up of two serrated pieces of ceramic or steel that uniformly grind in a way that blade grinders, which indiscriminately chop like blenders, do not. Uniform grounds are always superior, but they’re paramount when it comes to espresso. Our guide to coffee grinders is in the process of being updated, but we like the Baratza Sette 30 or Baratza Sette 270 for now.
No matter the beans you use, you want to wind up with grounds that are somewhere between white flour and table salt. If it’s so fine that it’s almost comparable to dust, the machine is likely going to choke and pour next to nothing. If your grounds are too coarse, you’ll get something more like watery coffee, which will have no crema.
An espresso machine: Here’s the thing: If you’re not willing to put in the time to learn how to pull a shot like the professionals, you don’t want a machine like the ones professionals use. Consider something more pared-down, like our top recommendation, the Gaggia Classic Pro (don’t let the “Pro” intimidate you here, though), or something completely automatic.
What are the different types of espresso?
Normale, or standard espresso: A standard espresso is the most traditional form of the drink, and it’s usually defined by size at about one to 1.5 ounces (30ml-45ml).
Ristretto: A ristretto is about three-quarters of an ounce (20ml-25ml) and an even more concentrated version of espresso where flavor profile is concerned. The caffeine amount is the same, or less because you’re pulling a shot from the same amount of grounds.
Lungo: A lungo is a slightly diluted espresso, somewhere between three and four ounces (90ml-120ml), which is between a normale and an Americano.
Americano, or long black: An Americano is a shot of espresso diluted with hot water to fill out a cup.
Why are espresso machines so expensive?
An espresso machine contains a powerful motor that pumps near-boiling water through a chamber and out the group head (the part of the machine that receives the portafilter). Everything needs to be expertly sealed so that it can contain piping-hot water under immense pressure, or the machine won’t work at all.
Good espresso machines are assembled by hand and are designed to be repaired. Just like your car’s engine, the motor of an espresso machine needs a little care, and unfortunately, the very thing most of us do with at-home espresso machines is among the worst things one can do with a motor: repeatedly turn it on and off. This wears down on the motor and will require some level of repair after a few hundred shots.
They’re also built using expensive components usually made of steel. Espresso machines need to be able to generate and maintain about nine bars of pressure at roughly 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and higher-end machines will allow you to control the temperature. On top of that, every component has to be able to withstand vastly changing temperatures, pressures, and levels of humidity since there’s also steam involved.
Can you make regular coffee with an espresso machine?
This depends on your idea of coffee. The closest thing you can get to drip coffee is going to be an Americano, or a long black, which is an enjoyable way of stretching out that precious little ounce that is a shot. Simply pull a shot of espresso and then add whatever amount of hot water to fill out your cup.
If you’re really looking to drink drip coffee most of the time, you may want to save your money and buy a regular coffee machine. Consider a stovetop moka pot to have on hand for an espresso-like drink.
Espresso: A concentrated form of coffee made by forcing near-boiling water through finely-ground coffee using roughly seven to nine bars of pressure. A 1-ounce shot of espresso has 60 to 65mg of caffeine and a standard 8-ounce cup of coffee has anywhere from 95mg to 120mg.
Burr grinder: A set of two abrasive surfaces capable of uniformly crushing coffee beans to a much finer form than a blade grinder.
Group head, brew group, or brew head: The fixture on the front of an espresso machine that brings water from the machine and into the portafilter
Portafilter: The holder for the basket and coffee grounds that attaches to the group head.
Portafilter basket: The basket that fits into the portafilter and into which beans are ground and tamped.
Portafilter basket (non-pressurized): Lined with a grid of tiny pinholes, these baskets allow the tamped grounds to generate their own pressure resistance to the group head, resulting in rich, foamy espresso.
Portafilter basket (pressurized): Specially designed for pre-ground coffee and ESE pods that don’t pack as tightly as fresh grounds, these have fewer holes and help build pressure resistance.
Shot: A pour of espresso.
Tamper: The device used to tamp down grounds into the portafilter basket.
Total Dissolved Solids (TDS): This is the percentage of solids dissolved into a solution. In the case of espresso, 7%-12% TDS is generally considered the threshold.
Who we consulted
To determine non-negotiable espresso machine features and narrow down my list of recommendations, I asked these coffee professionals to lend their expert advice:
- Dan Kehn, a former SCAA Barista World Championship judge and founder of Home-Barista.com
- Peter Guiliano, co-owner of Counter Culture Coffee and director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA)
- Sum Ngai and Kaleena Teoh of Coffee Project NY
- Jordan Rosenacker of Atlas Coffee Club
Read more in-depth coffee gear guides