Buying your first espresso machine? Here’s what you need to know

If you read our last article about the benefits of making your own coffee at home and are now thinking about buying your first espresso machine, you’ve come to the right place. Buying a coffee machine can be confusing and the options out there can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be. I’m here to help.

What espresso machine should I buy? What should I look for in an espresso machine? What should I avoid? How much should I spend on an espresso machine? If these are questions that have crossed your mind, continue reading.

Whilst this is not meant to be a definitive buying guide (that may come in the future), I hope this gives you a starting point to start understanding what kind of espresso machines exist and which one might best suit your needs.

Things to consider before buying your first espresso machine

Buying an espresso machine and coffee grinder for the home can be daunting as there are endless options from countless manufacturers. With the help of this guide, we want to set you on the path to consistently delicious coffee without having to navigate the minefield of jargon and coffee lingo by yourself.

Budget – we recommend buying machines starting at $500 (AUD) and above. Any cheaper and you’ll be compromising the coffee’s quality and your user experience. Cheap machines are frustrating to use, generally make terrible espresso and even worse milk. Unfortunately, espresso is pay to play – but can be worth the financial investment.

If money is no object, you can stop reading here and just go buy yourself a top-of-the-line espresso machine from Slayer Espresso, La Marzocco or Victoria Arduino. These machines will set you back anywhere between $7,000 and $14,000 AUD.

I just blew your mind didn’t I? Who knew espresso machines for home could cost so much?! For those of you who don’t have that kind of coin to drop on an espresso machine, keep reading.

Don’t forget the coffee grinder – your budget must also accommodate a coffee grinder if the machine doesn’t have one inbuilt. So don’t go spending all your hard-earnt money on the shiniest espresso machine you can find, only to realise when you get home that you forgot to buy a grinder.

Good coffee lives and dies by the quality of the coffee you use and the grinder you put it through. Make sure you set aside some money for a good electric burr grinder. Skimping here will cause more headaches down the track.

What kind of drinks you’re likely to make – if you’re a black coffee drinker and don’t really drink a lot of milk drinks, you could get away with a thermoblock machine that has good temperature control. If you’re a milk-based coffee drinker, you ought to be considering single boiler espresso machines and up. Thermoblock machines in my experience just lack the oompf you need to steam high-quality milk.

Must-have features – are you happy to brew espresso manually by starting and stopping the shot yourself or would you like the process to be automated? Maybe you want your machine to turn on automatically before you wake up (this is a must have feature for me – but it might not be for you). Think about what’s important to you. More features = more cost.

Style and looks – generally doesn’t impact a machine’s performance but might be a consideration if you want your equipment to fit in with the style of your home and existing appliances.

Espresso machine

The centerpiece of any home espresso setup is your espresso machine. With this, you can steam milk and brew espresso.

Espresso machines you can buy from department stores or a specialist coffee equipment retailer come in two general flavours; manual (semi-automatic) and automatic (volumetric).

Semi-automatic espresso machines are not automatic as the name might suggest. The automatic part of the name refers to the fact that the pump is electric, so you don’t have to physically exert force on a lever to extract the espresso. You will have to start and stop the extraction manually via a simple switch.

Volumetric espresso machines are automatic. They are designed to deliver a programmed dose of water and stop automatically once the target volume has been reach. These are more expensive than semi-automatic machines. Kind of like how automatic transmission cars are more expensive than their manual (stick-shift) counterparts.

Once you’ve decided what flavour of espresso machine you want, they can be built with any one of three types of heating systems. This gives up 6 kinds of espresso machines that are available to the domestic market.

Each type of machine technology will suit different users and come with its own unique operating characteristics.

Thermoblock espresso machines

In order of ascending price, the cheapest espresso machines are usually ones equipped with a thermoblock. Thermoblocks are inexpensive to manufacture and are energy-efficient systems, only heating the amount of water you need to brew your espresso or steam your milk. Thermoblocks are quick to heat up, consume very little power and have almost instantaneous steam delivery.

The cheapest espresso machines only have a single thermoblock inside, meaning you can only brew or only steam, but not both at the same time. Dual thermoblock espresso machines solve this problem and will allow you to brew espresso and steam milk simultaneously, but at added cost.

Thermoblocks are found on the cheapest espresso machines in the market and come with a few compromises.

Temperature regulation on thermoblocks isn’t perfect and this can cause your brewing water temperature to be inconsistent. This also means your steam can also be a little on the wet side if it isn’t flash heating the water hot enough. Wet steam often leads to bad quality milk foam texture despite having flawless technique.

Another thing to consider when buying a thermoblock espresso machine is longevity. Often made out of aluminium, a material known to corrode in espresso machines, you may end up finding pinhole leaks over time.

Finally, thermoblock espresso machines are also prone to limescale build-up, more so than other types of espresso machine water heating systems. This is due to the thermoblock’s design, essentially two blocks of metal with very small spiral channels routed inside for water to travel through.

If you’re thinking about buying a thermoblock espresso machine, you’ll need to descale them more often. If you live in a hard water area, softening water using something like a Brita or BWT water filter jug is essential.

Single boiler espresso machines

The next class of espresso machines is equipped with a Single Boiler.

Most single boiler espresso machines often have rudimentary temperature control via a simple thermostat. Some single boiler espresso machines are now being built with a super accurate electronic temperature controller (PID) but at a significant cost increase from the base model.

Single boiler espresso machines have two modes of operation; brew or steam. Much like single thermoblock machines, single boiler espresso machines require you to brew espresso or steam milk, but are unable to do both concurrently.

Because single boiler espresso machines have to heat up a larger volume of water compared to thermoblocks, the heating time from a cold start can be significant. This also extends to switching between brewing and steaming. There is often a large lag time between brewing your shot of espresso and waiting for the machine to get hot enough to steam milk. The same is true for going from steam mode to brew mode. To cool the water back down to espresso brewing temperature, you’ll have to wait a pretty long time. So if you’re wanting to brew multiple milk drinks in a row, this is not the machine for you.

Single boiler espresso machines are typically suited to black coffee drinkers or households that don’t need to steam lots of milk.

Heat exhanger (HX) espresso machines

Next in line are Heat Exchanger (HX) machines which allow you to brew and steam milk simultaneously for the first time. HX espresso machines have reliable temperature control through the use of pressurestats (they operate the same way as a thermostat, but with pressure).

The greatest advantage of HX espresso machines is the instant on-demand steam and usually plenty of it. Quick recovery times between shots and steaming and is great for people who want to brew and steam lots of milk drinks in a row.

Temperature control via the pressurestat is reliable but can be inconsistent. Depending on the machine’s engineering, there may be small fluctuations in brew water temperature depending on what part of the heating cycle you’re in. This can affect the flavour of your espresso – but is less pronounced in HX machines with E-61 groupheads. The large thermal mass of the E-61 means more thermal stability. Thermal stability is good for coffee.

More often, manufacturers of HX espresso machines are building them with the more reliable PID temperature controller at additional cost.

Dual boiler espresso machines

King of the hill is the Dual Boiler espresso machine and almost exclusively comes with PID temperature control. One boiler for steaming and one boiler for brewing. This means there is no compromise in water temperature for brewing and is a fantastic outcome for espresso.

Some cheaper dual boilers have a mix of mechanical pressurestat control for the steam boiler where temperature regulation isn’t so critical, and electronic PID control for the more important brew boiler to save on cost.

Be prepared for sticker shock, a good dual boiler espresso machine for home will cost in excess of $2,000 AUD. Whilst pricey, they can be well worth the investment if you’re serious about your coffee.

Some of the best espresso machines for home can set you back in excess of $5,500 AUD. It is not unheard of for some people to spend up to $10,000 AUD on a machine for home. One can dream!

Super-auto espresso machines

In a class of their own are super-automatic espresso machines. Super-autos do everything for you, from grinding and extraction to milk steaming. All you have to do is pour in the beans and add some milk. Let the machine do the rest. Great for people who don’t want to fuss over the coffee-making process!

Whilst convenient, they often make lackluster coffees at an big upfront cost – usually at or around the same price of a really good HX or dual boiler machine.

Good coffee can be had from all categories of espresso machines given enough skill to operate them. More expensive espresso machines tend to make the coffee-making experience a lot easier with nicer features and higher quality parts. Be wary of purchasing cheap machines – as the old adage goes, you get what you pay for.

Coffee grinder

A coffee grinder is one of the most important parts of any espresso (or coffee) setup. Pre-ground coffee sucks, pure and simple! You’re going to need a coffee grinder to get the best-tasting espresso from your machine. Freshly ground coffee always wins. Avoid pre-ground coffee at all costs!

If you are thinking about an all-in-one like the Breville Barista Express, you’re good to go as the grinder is built-in. However, I generally avoid all-in-one machines as the heat radiating from the brew boiler has the potential to decrease the quality of the coffee beans sitting in the grinder hopper by heating them up before grinding and brewing. Heat is bad for coffee beans unless you’re brewing.

A good quality grinder will allow you to extract the coffee’s full potential. To do this, you’ll need a burr grinder. Burr grinders come in two forms, conical and flat burr. Most smaller grinders made for the domestic market often come equipped with a conical burr set.

As your first foray into the espresso world, flat or conical shouldn’t matter. Just make sure you don’t buy a “coffee grinder” with blades designed to chop spices – these will give you very inconsistent grinds with no ability to adjust coarseness or fineness.

The next consideration is manual or electric, but for several multiple drinks, a manual hand grinder can be very laborious. Electric is the way to go for espresso – trust me on this one, your arms will thank me later!

One thirds rule

Taking into consideration your total budget, I recommend you spend at least 30-35% of it on a grinder. The more you can spend here the better. You’d rather spend a little less on the espresso machine and sacrifice “some nice to have but I can live without” features so you can allocate a little more budget to a better grinder.

Given the high base cost of a basic espresso machine, you’re looking at a minimum outlay so far of around $800-1000 (AUD).

To drive home how critical a good coffee grinder is to quality coffee, when I invested in a setup for home, I spent twice as much on my grinder than I did on my machine – flipping my one-thirds rule on its head. Just don’t ask me how much the grinder cost, you’ll probably choke on the coffee you’re drinking right now.

Miscellany

Tamper – most machines come with a plastic tamper. If you want to level up your coffee making, an after-market machined stainless steel base tamper is the way to go.

Milk jugs – make sure you have a 300-350mL jug for one milk drink or a 600mL for two. Anything larger is unnecessary!

Scales – digital scales will help you nail consistency in dosing and brewing – something most home baristas struggle with

Coffee beans – ensure it’s freshly roasted, less than a month old. Treat coffee like fruit and veg, fresh is best. Buy from places that label the date the coffee was roasted.

For a more traditional espresso flavour profile full of chocolate and nuts, pick beans that are roasted a little darker. This style of coffee produces a full-bodied and stronger shot that tastes better with milky lattes and cappuccinos.

If you’re a purist and into straight-up espresso, and want to experience the fruity and floral end of the flavour rainbow, go for something a little lighter in roast depth. Your local coffee shop or coffee roastery will be able to help guide you through the buying experience.

Different coffees will taste different depending on their provenance (or origin), roast degree, and variety – very much like wine! Shiraz is worlds apart from Pinot Noir in style.

I hope this has given you a starting point to research your first espresso machine and grinder. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below!

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