I get this question quite a lot. There are many different choices in the espresso machine market, as well as many different prices, options and terms that can all be a bit confusing. I’d like to offer my perspective to anyone who would like to know. It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the best option or the correct option because everyone’s needs depend on their own individual use cases. Espresso machines, like almost every other product, can be described by the following framework.
Most people are familiar with the diagram above. It goes by many names and even more variants depending on whether we’re talking about project management, product design or almost any other problem. In regard to espresso machines “Fast” does not really apply, but we could just consider a “fast” machine to mean a device that is fully featured. For example, it could mean we’re talking about machines that have multiple boilers, PID controllers, nice gauges and all the other bells and whistles. This is not the same as choice of materials, for example fully stainless boilers, which would come more under build quality or the category labelled “good”. The point of the matter is you can select any two options, but the third will be almost unattainable.
If you want a full featured machine with exceptional build quality – it won’t be cheap.
If you want a full featured machine that doesn’t cost too much – the material choices may suffer.
If you want a cheap machine with excellent build quality – then you start to miss out on some of the nicer features.
So, using this framework we can start to place some machines in those categories and understand the market a bit. Just as a little disclaimer, this is just where I think certain models should fit. There may be better options, better choices or other things I haven’t considered, so please take this with a pinch of salt.
Good, Cheap (Around $900):
My nomination is the Rancilio Silvia. These machines are popular and based on the discussions I’ve had with Espresso machine technicians a bit of a fan favourite. The parts are good quality, heavy and made to commercial standards. For example, we see the Silvia using the industry standard 58mm portafilter. For that price you won’t be getting things like cool touch steam wands, pressure gauges or PID controllers (you’ll need to hack the machine for those features). What you will get though is a solid little unit, made from commercial parts at a lower price point.
Fast, Cheap (Around $900):
My nomination here is the Barista Express or the Barista Pro from Breville. I was speaking with a representative from a high-end espresso manufacturer and I asked about machines designed for the domestic market. This representative said that it would be very hard for them to compete considering the price Breville were making these machines and the feature list that they included. The feature list from Breville is impressive here. There’s a PID controlled heater and an integrated coffee grinder in the unit. So how have they done it? Well it doesn’t use a boiler, rather the machine uses what looks to be an aluminium thermoblock. The portafilters are also not a standard 58mm, so it can be tricky getting tampers, distributors and different implements to fit. Also, if things are to go wrong with these machine’s replacement parts can be expensive and hard to get. The compromise here is build quality. I’m not saying that Breville make bad machines, for the price, they’re actually very good. For a domestic machine, they’re hard to go past and as a result they are popular with our retail customers.
Fast, Good (around $1,500-$4,000)
This category can be a lot of fun and sometimes garners the name the “prosumer market”. My recommendation would be something like the Mechanika V Slim, by ECM. I understand that this machine has a vibro-pump, but I think the compromise is worth the price reduction in this case given the build quality of the machine. That’s the thing with this category, things get expensive and fast. A rotary pump, for example, can add $400 to the price. A really good machine in this category ( for example the most expensive machine ECM make, the Synchronika) can reach just over $4000. In fact, they can go even higher than that. An LM home mini is an example of an excellent quality machine. There is nothing on these machines that you will not find on their commercial equivalents. They’re often seen at trade shows and used for product testing for that reason.
Out of all of this there are certain questions that can help start to identify your needs and match it to a machine.
I only want to make black espresso and the occasional milk coffee; price is an issue.
Rancilio Silvia – It’s a single boiler so it can be tricky to cycle it from steaming milk to brewing coffee. But given that you won’t be steaming a lot of milk, the Silvia has excellent build quality for the price.
We make a lot of latte’s at home and price is a bit of an issue.
Breville – For the latte drinkers at home who are concerned about price, it’s hard to beat. Most machines that need to do this either use a Heat Exchanger (think a 2-part boiler) or full dual boiler which is comparatively expensive.
We make a lot of coffee at home and price isn’t really an issue.
HEX Espresso machine - The ECM listed in the above article is a good example. But, there are a lot of machines out there that will fit the bill. Do your research and select the features you want and select a machine that suits. Rocket, ECM and VBM make good machines that if treated well last a very long time and have good resale value.
We’re serious coffee drinkers or running a very small shop/sports club/office (not a cafe) and are looking for something that will be able to sustain light duty coffee making.
ECM Synkronika or ECM’s high-end HEX machine, or anything like a Linea Home or GB5, would more than meet your needs.
Think really hard if you’re tempted to get a second hand 2 group. Know exactly what you’re buying if it’s cheap as it could need work. Estimate the energy cost of running a 3-4kW machine on your bench. I’ve found that the better option is often the more expensive single group just because the operating cost is lower. Heating a commercial machine up for 1 coffee is expensive.
The motivation for building espresso machines in the first place is important to understand. It was a response to coffee being popular but taking a long time to make. The first patent ever filed for these machines is for a large steam boiler to quickly make coffee. The café in turn, using the machine, could afford to do more business in a shorter amount of time. This extra business offset the equipment cost associated with running a large steam boiler. Every subsequent improvement was an iteration designed to make this process better. The names on these early patents should sound familiar. Bezzera, Pavoni, Feama, Gaggia, Arduino are still in business today making espresso machines. They were a collection of auto mechanics, boiler technicians and engineers who made machines that make coffee. Many people are surprised to learn what espresso machines cost. This may be because the sheer rate at which these machines can literally pump out espresso means the cost to a business can be paid off relatively quickly. However, bringing these machines into the home changes this equation significantly. The machine stops being an asset and starts being a cost. To ask for commercially equivalent parts means commercially equivalent pricing unless you make significant changes to the overall design. If your goal is just to make amazing coffee at home, lets do a little thought experiment.
I’m going to list some equipment that is some of the best in its respective category. It’s all equipment I can personally recommend. There are cheaper alternatives, but I feel like leaving the prices in is going to better illustrate my point. Say for arguments sake you bought the following list of items.
Acaia Lunar Scale - $310
Comandante C40 Mk3 Hand Grinder - $320
Brewista Smart Kettle - $190
Hario V60 + Server - $40
Specialty Coffee - $15
This is some of the best equipment you can by, but because of the exceptional build quality and features the price for this equipment is quite high. A comparable entry level setup would be something more like
Hario V60 + Server - $40
Porlex Tall Grinder - $80
Brewista Smart Scale - $95
Specialty Coffee - $15
Total - $230
Total - $135
This setup allows you to easily grind coffee to exceptional standards, weigh your brew, adjust the temperature of your water and serve amazing coffee. This setup costs less than the cheapest machines we considered above. Now there is no way to froth milk in the list, but some well roasted specialty coffee can be sweet, and will not need milk. A lot of the bitterness that people try to drown out in milk just isn’t present. I’ve known many people, myself included who have swapped completely away from milky coffees once they learn how to make good specialty coffee. It’s not as convenient as just hitting a button but you’ll have to evaluate whether the speed and convenience of espresso is worth the additional cost.
Bottom line: If you love espresso machines, or just machines in general, then I’d say go for it. They tick every little box for me, and I see espresso machines like some people see classic cars. They’re fun to drive, fun to work on and provide a lot of enjoyment. There is a point where buying an espresso machine becomes more about the machine than the coffee, the same way buying a classic car is more about enjoyment than transport. If you want to simply get to the land of delicious coffee, then the filter route is like a bike. With relatively minimal effort it will cheaply and efficiently get you to where you want to go. If you want/need to go there a bit faster, then a cheap well-built machine like the Silvia is good. If you want more features and are happy to sacrifice a bit of the build quality to keep the price down, the Breville is an excellent option. If you just love the machines, or have a commercial requirement then the bigger more expensive machines are worth a look in. I will say though, using a hand grinder and an AeroPress is how I got started. Even after all this time and effort, if I’ve got 5 minutes to make a coffee, I still find it enjoyable to make a coffee that way. If I needed to replace my setup, it would still be my first choice for making coffee.
At the end of the day you like what you like. There are no wrong answers with this stuff, just options and things to consider. My hope is someone finds this perspective useful. If by any chance you did, please let us know. Also, if I got anything egregiously wrong or there’s something you think is worth adding, constructive criticism is appreciated. Happy Coffeeing.