I probably don’t need to tell you that espresso machines aren’t super cheap. While you could buy a stovetop unit (aka “moka pot”) for as little as $20, I’m not going to be covering that on this page. Those things are inexpensive and uncomplicated, and don’t make very good espresso anyway. Instead, I’ll be focusing on those machines that require a cord and a bit more of an investment.
But before you give up on the painful ordeal that is consumerism, consider how much you currently spend getting your fix in cafes. Wouldn’t you rather support your habit with a reasonable initial investment and be able to slurp down espresso in the comfort of your own home? Of course you would. Read on.
How much will it cost?
Good question. If you’re in the market for a new machine, you can expect to shell out based on the following amounts (in USD.) As for used machines, the prices can vary quite a bit, but if you know how much a new machine would cost you’ll know when you’ve spotted a deal.
$50 to $90: Electric steam machine
$200 and up: Pump machine
$550 and up: Manual lever pump machine
$600 and up: Super automatic pump machine
While it’s generally true that you get what you pay for, this isn’t always true. For example, I could sell you a wad of used chewing gum for $800, but it’d still be rather nasty. That’s why you should also be asking…
Which one should I buy?
I’m glad you asked! Unfortunately, I don’t have any clear answers on this one, because manufacturers are bringing out new machines all the time. But I do have some general advice.
See what’s available: Shop around just to see what’s being sold, either in department and electronics stores or online. Better yet, do both. Take down model numbers and names of anything that catches your eye. Even if it’s a bit out of your price range, you might be able to find a better deal elsewhere.
Locate reviews: Google is a good way to find reviews — search for the product name, manufacturer, and the word “review.” It might help to use quotation marks. For example, you might try searching for “Company X Model 4″ review. Next try “Company X” “Model 4″ review (note the difference in quotation marks?)
Online review sites can also be helpful. Amazon and CoffeeGeek both have useful user reviews to take a look at.
Find a good price at an honest store: Whether you buy online or off, there’s no simple way to find the best place to buy. Ask around, be sure to check return policies and if you’re buying online or from a catalog figure out how much shipping will cost before you place your order.
Features and considerations
The major features will depend on what type of machine you get. But there are a few important points I feel I have to make. Also, I like making lists. Here you go:
Metals used: All espresso machines heat water in a metal unit of some sort, and the metal(s) used here can effect the taste of the espresso. Brass and steel are a better choice than aluminum, which can leave a hint of a metallic taste in your espresso. But aluminum is also cheap and lightweight, so it’s used in all the low-end models.
Heating system: Espresso demands a constant temperature. Very low end machines use a thermoblock to heat the water. (A thermoblock is what’s used in those “instant hot water” taps.) Thermoblocks just don’t compare to a real boiler in terms of temperature stability. Some manufacturers have started selling $250+ machines without real boilers, which seems like kind of a ripoff to me.
Durability: They don’t make 'em like they used to. Watch out for machines with plastic portafilters. These are a definite no-no.
Pump pressure: Sometimes salespeople will make the pressure of a pump (which is measured in bars) seem like it’s the most important feature. This isn’t necessarily the case, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. The minimum pressure to make espresso is usually considered to be 14 bars. A more powerful pump means a finer grind can be used, increasing the surface area of the coffee and unlocking more of the beans’ flavor.
Steam wand: Stovetop and manual lever machines typically don’t include a steam wand, but most others do. Some of the big n’ expensive pump machines have two boilers — one for the espresso in which the water doesn’t really boil and one for creating steam. This isn’t necessary at all, but it means you can make lattes, cappuccinos, etc. faster because you don’t have to wait for the boiler to change temperature.
By the way, don’t worry about those crazy frothing attachments some companies are including these days — if you buy one that includes some sort of rubber or plastic thing on the end of the steam wand, take it off before you use it. These usually make steaming more difficult.
Removable water reservoir: The cool thing about these is you can take all the water out of the machine so bacteria won’t build up. For health reasons, it’s best not to leave water in the machine for extended periods of time.
Where to buy
CoffeeForLess.com is worth checking out. In spite of their name, they sell fancier espresso machines as well as the entry level ones.
Italian coffee giant Illy offers a variety of espresso machines on their website, including the really cool looking FrancisFrancis machines. If you order online they’ll throw in free shipping if you order enough (currently $75 or more.)