Espresso Coffee Machine Buying Guide

Maybe it’s because you’re tired of drinking nothing but instant coffee. Maybe you’ve reached the point where you can’t afford to visit the local café every morning for a flat white. Or maybe it’s just that you want to be able to make a great cup of coffee in the comfort of your own home. Whatever your reason is, the solution is buying a coffee machine.

Unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as walking into your local appliance shop and asking for a coffee machine. Domestic coffee machines come in all shapes and sizes these days, and whatever your expectations or expertise, there’ll be a machine perfectly tailored to your needs. But how do you know which coffee machine is best for you? Well, you read our coffee machine buying guide, of course!

Types of coffee machines

Before anything else, let’s go over the different kinds of coffee machines that you’ll find in the store, be it physical or online. There are three main kinds of coffee machines, all of which are suited to different levels of skill, involvement… and effort. They’ll all give you a decent cup of coffee, but some will end up being more rewarding than others, if you’re willing to put in the time.

Capsule coffee machines

For those who want good coffee quickly and with minimal mess.

When it comes to capsule coffee, you’re probably most familiar with the Nespresso-made variety, but you can buy machines and capsules that use them from many other companies. These machines were developed in order to provide you with an authentic coffee taste, without the money or effort required to purchase and operate a manual coffee machine.

Simply purchase coffee capsules that will fit your machine, put them into the designated space, and it will pump out a measured shot of coffee into your cup. Empty capsules can (usually) be recycled, and the machines have no complex parts to clean, all of which makes them an attractive low-maintenance option for at-home espresso.

However, the downside to this unrivalled convenience is the fact that you’ve got absolutely no control over the flavour of your coffee, besides determining how diluted the shot of coffee is (most machines let you select from small, medium, and large cup sizes). While different capsules will have different strengths and flavour profiles, you’re still left choosing from pre-set options rather than creating your own tailored cup of coffee. For the most casual of coffee drinkers this may be satisfactory, but some of us may want something a little more involved and varied. So where do you go?

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Automatic coffee machines

For those who want more control over the coffee they’re brewing, but still want an uncomplicated process.

These are the machines that let you edge into the world of real coffee making while still being able to mostly rely on a machine to get the job done. These machines, much like a fully-fledged espresso machine, take beans rather than pods. This means you can choose whatever beans you like, which represents a much larger range to choose from than the range offered by pods. Depending on the machine you buy, you may even have to grind those beans yourself before they go in the machine, adding even more choice and variety to the process.

However, that’s more or less where your newfound control ends. After you’ve put the beans in, pre-ground or not, you press the button corresponding to the size of the beverage you’re after, and then the machine will dispense said beverage for you.

While this process doesn’t afford that much more control to the user than a pod machine does, the fact that it’s the same process used by proper espresso machines is incredibly appealing to many, and for good reason. No matter how good your pods and your pod machine are, they’ll probably never be on par with proper, pressure-extracted espresso made from freshly ground coffee beans. But that being said, a similar thing can be said about automatic coffee machines; that no matter how good your machine is, the coffee it makes will probably never be on par with coffee made with care and expertise using a ‘proper’ manual espresso machine. So let’s talk about those!

Manual espresso machines

For those who want total control of the brewing process, regardless of difficulty.

This is the machine for you if you fancy yourself as a bit of an at-home barista, or simply want to be able to make the best coffee possible in the comfort of your home. Not only is this method of making coffee the most involved and detailed, but it’s also the most rewarding once you figure it out. Using one of these machines means having to do the following:

  • choosing your own beans based on what flavours you want in your cup of coffee
  • grinding those beans to the specific fineness that you’re after
  • loading the grounds into the portafilter and then tamping them evenly
  • controlling the pressure and the temperature of the water inside the machine as it runs through the ground coffee

Keep in mind that you won’t be a perfect barista right off the bat. Only practice makes perfect, and it may take you a few goes to figure out how to get it just right. But once you master all of these steps and variables, not only will you be able to make a cup of coffee just the way you like it, you’ll also be able to make coffee based on how other people want it. This machine offers you total control and the flexibility to make the same cup of coffee a hundred different ways based on the preferences of you and your friends/family.

However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows in manual espresso land. Along with the previously mentioned teething period where you’ll have to practice using the machine before you can actually brew a delicious cup of coffee, manual espresso machines require a great deal more cleaning and maintenance then their pod and automatic counterparts. This is due to the multitude of moving and detachable parts within the machine; manual coffee makers are a great deal more complex than other coffee machines in terms of their inner workings! But if you’re willing to deal with the handful of downsides mentioned above then you’ll be on your way to making some of the best coffee you’ll ever find outside of a café.

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The rest: grinders, steamers and other extra bits and pieces

This may sound hard to believe, but a coffee-making machine isn’t the only thing you’ll need to get started with the fine art of coffee making. There’s a small list of other bits and pieces you’ll need to brew your morning brew, some of which are only necessary for certain types of coffee machines and some which aren’t even necessary at all, but more of an optional extra.

  • Coffee beans/pods: You can’t make coffee without coffee! The beans themselves are the most important ingredient in any cup of coffee, so it’s crucial that you try a wide assortment of beans to find a blend or single origin that you really love. Try heading to your local café and asking a baristas about different beans and blends. Or even better, see if there are any roasters nearby! Visiting a roaster is the easiest and most guaranteed way to figure out what you’re after in terms of how you want your coffee to taste.
  • Portafilter: This little thing will come with any automatic or manual espresso machine you purchase, and is an integral part of the brewing process. Your ground beans are placed in the portafilter’s basket, lightly compressed or ‘tamped’, and the portafilter is then locked into the machine so your coffee can be brewed.
  • Tamper: Another tool that will probably come packaged with any automatic or manual espresso machine, this is what you use to compress or ‘tamp’ your coffee grounds before they’re locked into the machine for extraction. This process involves turning your heaped pile of grounds into a neatly compressed coffee puck which water can then run through evenly and freely. Many tampers will serve a double-function, having the flat tamper at one end and a suitably sized spoon at the other end for coffee grounds.
  • Grinders: If you plan on buying pre-ground beans then you don’t have any need for a grinder. But if you want to make coffee properly, you’ll also want to buy whole beans and then grind them yourself. There’s a fair number of different ways to grind your beans, and some are better than others in terms of the cup of coffee they’ll leave you with.
  • Milk frother/steamer: This is what separates the amateur amateurs from the professional amateurs. Why bother going to the effort of brewing yourself a beautiful cup of espresso if you’re just going to plonk some cold, thin milk in the cup with it? Buy yourself a milk steamer and use it to heat and thicken your milk so that it mixes with your espresso to create a perfect café-style coffee. While steamed or frothed milk is generally only associated with espresso machines, both automatic and manual, there’s no easier way to improve a cup of pod-made coffee then by topping it up with some steamed, textured milk.
  • Machine cleaning equipment: Don’t be that person who spends hundreds of dollars on a fancy coffee machine only to not maintain it and never clean it. Make sure you’ve got the right tools to clean and maintain your machine’s various detachable parts, and the machine itself. This will generally entail buying a few specialised scrubbing brushes along with some descaling equipment.

Well there you go! All the information that the aspiring home barista could possibly ask for, and all in the one place, too. Hopefully this helps you buy the coffee machine best suited to your tastes and skill level, and subsequently helps you make yourself a wonderful cup of coffee. Good luck!

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