Espresso for amateurs
November 24, 2020 7:23 AM   Subscribe

My current caffeine go-to is an Aeropress, but I miss lattes from the before times. I'd like to put an espresso maker on my Christmas wishlist, but there are too many options. I need to narrow it down or my spouse will throw up his hands and just buy something too expensive that's going to break. Price range: $200-400 or so? I realize that won't get me the real deal, but you have to start somewhere. I need something fairly foolproof for beginners, nothing with pods or proprietary refills. Thanks!
posted by libraryhead to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of grinder do you have, or is that price meant to include a grinder?

Home espresso is a fantastic hobby but on balance (in terms of time and money investment) a terrible way to get your morning latte.
posted by supercres at 7:26 AM on November 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

This may not be an acceptable alternative, but I use an electric moka pot ($60, less if you use a stovetop one) to make a double shot of espresso every morning and top it with milk that I've whipped up in an electric milk frother ($40) and it is just as good as a store-bought latte in my opinion, with a lot less work. I used to live with someone who had a fancy espresso machine and it was a lot of fuss, and the results were not much different.
posted by k8lin at 7:35 AM on November 24, 2020 [11 favorites]

Yeah, it's pretty difficult to get an espresso/grinder combination worth using for less than, say, $1,000. The Rancilio Silvia is widely considered the entry level for a real espresso machine, and that alone will run you $700 or so. Honestly, I don't think that's too expensive at all as it's built like a tank. I used one for 20 years before upgrading to a double boiler pressure-profiling machine (the considerably more expensive Lelit Bianca).

Here are two roundups by coffee expert James Hoffman:

- The Best Espresso Machine Under £100

- The Best Espresso Machine under £500

In my experience, if something like the Silvia isn't in your budget, you're better off going with k8lin's suggestion above.
posted by slkinsey at 7:39 AM on November 24, 2020 [4 favorites]

A DeLonghi 15 bar Pump Espresso machine is $100 and was the recommended "I want to hobby out a little, but not buy a Rancilio Silvia" machine when I looked several years ago. There's a little pressure helper device in the basket to make it easy to use, so of course the purist approach is to remove it and depend more on the grind and tamp :)

It made good coffee but I personally found the whole ordeal of making espresso obnoxious, so eventually retired it.

Definitely spend the rest of your budget on a grinder, if you don't have a good one already.
posted by so fucking future at 7:45 AM on November 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

A little more in depth:

Since you mention lattes, I assume hot textured milk is the main thing missing from your current Aeropress. If that's the case, I agree with the above and highly recommend just adding on a really good electric milk frother/warmer-- I have this one and even with the espresso machine getting daily use, it's still great for cold foam, and it makes the best hot chocolate.

I would start with that. If (and this is a huge if) you want the coffee element to be more espresso-like (dollars to donuts you won't really be able to tell the difference in a latte) you could switch to moka pot.

IF (exponentially larger if) you really want to go down the espresso rabbithole, the Flair is by far the best way to get into that hobby-- here's James Hoffmann on their recent entry-level model. You also need a good grinder (>$200 for electric, >$60 manual).

But then you're still not getting steamed milk; you could go steampunk with a stovestop steamer, or you could go for what seems like the bare minimum in home espresso machines with the Breville Bambino. You should definitely watch the Hoffmann videos linked above too if you're thinking of going this route.

If you've never had/enjoyed a shot of espresso from a good local cafe, don't get into home espresso-- just go for solutions that mimic it at home. Anything else just contributes to more plastic in a landfill.
posted by supercres at 7:45 AM on November 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

All you need to make real espresso is a stovetop steamer ($20) and a stovetop Moka Express (or one of its many clones). Like these two. Plus of course your dark-roast coffee, ground fine. Get the smallest Moka -- in my experience, the output from the bigger ones is nasty. Heat the water in the lower section to boiling first, then assemble the unit with coffee loaded and return to the burner at lowest heat. You want the espresso to ooze out, a thick liquid - if it's blowing out with steam, you've cooked it too long. (I plunge the lower half into cold water to stop the flow.) At the same time, heat up your steamer, so your milk & espresso are ready at the same time. Practice a bit with the steamer; watch how they do it at the coffee shop, starting with the nozzle just under the surface of the milk.
posted by Rash at 7:52 AM on November 24, 2020

Grinder recommendations welcome as well. We had a burr grinder but it broke.
posted by libraryhead at 7:53 AM on November 24, 2020

My budget was about the same as yours. I got good advice to spend more on a good burr grinder, less on the machine. I've been happy with an Iberital MC2 grinder + a Gaggia Classic espresso machine. There are lots of spare parts and upgrades available for the Gaggia if you get into it, and they hold their value well if you decide to sell or upgrade.
posted by paulash at 8:00 AM on November 24, 2020

With that in mind I'll double down on the recommendation for adding on a good induction frother and good grinder. It'll get you vaguely latte-like milk and set you up for future success.

Best bang for buck is a hand grinder-- of course James Hoffmann has the showdown. Also a cheap hand grinder comparison. Espresso-fine takes a very long time to hand grind.

Otherwise it kind of depends on what coffee method you're using. Primarily espresso (probably into moka or Aeropress, probably pour-over) would point to Baratza Sette-- 30 is cheap but may be hard to dial in, Sette 270 is probably the cheapest good espresso grinder. (I have a lovely Niche Zero.)

Grinders that can handle a range from drip to espresso generally struggle with one end or the other (or both). One of the Baratzas is probably the best bet. Maybe Virtuoso, but that's not stepless, and if you think you'll get into espresso in the future (e.g., Flair or Bambino or up), it may get frustrating. That said, the Vario is probably overkill.
posted by supercres at 8:02 AM on November 24, 2020

A few years ago I bought myself an espresso machine for my birthday. It is not a prestige device and it's still working great. This is the machine I have: DeLonghi EC 155 I like it because it works, doesn't take up much counter space, and I truly don't believe I'd get a higher level of enjoyment out of something that cost 2x as much. (10x as much? Sure, maybe. But not 2x.)

Also, I am very lazy and unwilling to learn and acquire new skills to perform before I'm caffeinated, so I just buy ESE pods to use in the machine. Works great, takes less than 5 minutes including water heating time and cleanup, no mess.

Works great for me, I have espressos/lattes/cappuccinos most days, and I have been very happy with it.
posted by phunniemee at 8:51 AM on November 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

I have a breville barista express which I like. Takes some learning but you can get to making a pretty decent drink quickly. It’s $700 but I got mine on sale for $600 I want to say, might possible to get a better deal on Black Friday although still above your price range.
posted by sillysally at 9:37 AM on November 24, 2020

So this is going to be right on the high end of your budget, but I've been incredibly happy with my Gaggia Brera. I got it refurbished for 350 about three or four years ago, though it's only gotten pricier since (I think there's some currently on the internet flea market for 405.) With my two iced Americanos a day habit this paid for itself in just over a month.

I love it 'cuz...
  • Super automatic. (Pour in whole beans and pour out espresso.)
  • Still tweakable. (You can adjust the grind or pour times, if you want.)
  • Super low maintenance. (It lets you know what it needs, you just have to remember to grease it once a year.)
  • Water & bean reservoir pull out from the front, so it can live under a cabinet.
It used to live on my office desk, and having people come in to make themselves a double was the highlight of my day. It was so easy to use that I didn't even have to explain (as long as folks weren't planning on steaming milk.) I actually bought a Breville Infuser, thinking I'd appreciate the hands-on experience and channeling my former barista days, but honestly ended up selling it as the Gaggia made a dang good cup with so much less work and cleanup.

We recently went on a vacation, isolating with another couple in a beach house instead of our cramped apartments, and I brought it along. The sound of the steamer running while they chatted filled me with that same lazy office Friday joy. They're now planning to buy two, one for themselves and one for their in-laws.
posted by OMGTehAwsome at 10:01 AM on November 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Another video rundown of a set of superautomatics-- 500 with a steam wand, 800 with automatic steaming/frothing.
posted by supercres at 10:05 AM on November 24, 2020

I think the choice between moka pot and "real" espresso will come down to your personal preference and budget. If you're worried about your spouse spending too much on something that will break, there is another option - spending too much on something that is high quality and won't break. If there is flexibility in your budget, or if your spouse is happy to ignore the budget, the suggestions in this thread for something like the Silvia or Gaggia Classic or one of the pricier Breville models aren't bad ones.

As far as a grinder goes, supercres is probably right that the Sette 270 is the best budget model, but that is only if you consider electric grinders. A lot of people see equivalent or better results with some of the pricier hand grinders, and James Hoffman's comparison of those (rather than the "cheap grinder showdown") is here. Of course, a hand grinder involves work, but the companies making espresso-capable grinders are focused on ergonomics and speed for that reason.

Finally, for someone who doesn't sound super excited about getting into espresso as a hobby, there is a lot of fun to be had for the money in other coffee aspects. You could get a nice gooseneck kettle, a V60 or Chemex or Kalita Wave, and a grinder for the price, which opens up a lot of fun experimentation.

Finally finally, this just came to me - what about a Fellow Prismo for your aeropress? It won't make true espresso either, and probably will be even further from it than a moka pot, but I suspect it would get you close enough for a decent milk drink, and fits into your existing gear nicely. Then spend as much as possible on a grinder and have fun.
posted by papayaninja at 11:08 AM on November 24, 2020

About $70 - gets the job done.
posted by Grok Lobster at 11:32 AM on November 24, 2020

Anecdata: Christmas last year was the Year of the Espresso Machine for us. We have somewhat limited counter space, and we already owned a burr grinder that worked well, so we went with the Bambino Plus from Breville.
posted by emelenjr at 11:34 AM on November 24, 2020

I second the Delonghi that comes with a built in milk frother. I also used to live with someone who owned one, and it worked really well. In my opinion though, the coffee that comes out from a humble stovetop moka pot tastes better than any other machine.
posted by winterportage at 12:07 PM on November 24, 2020

Another grinder to consider is this Eureka stepless non-dosing model. Simple, small and built like a tank. For making consistent shots at home it is great. It was the single best upgrade I have ever made, and that includes buying a better espresso machine.
posted by Poldo at 12:28 PM on November 24, 2020

An alternative to the standard Moka pots is the Brikka, which is meant to approximate real espresso more closely than a moka pot (stronger, with some kind of foam) and it does in my experience. It's frowned upon but with good beans it really does come close to a decent espresso. Mine doesn't work well with my induction stove though.
Also see James Hoffmann's guide to getting something closer to espresso from a standard moka pot. (summary: beans more finely ground, use slightly less ground coffee than fills the cup, medium heat, take it off the heat about halfway through and stop the brewing with cold water).
Finally, in my experience, a larger stainless steel moka pot works better than a smaller one. But in any case, you want to get one that is made for how much you are going to drink.
posted by melamakarona at 1:12 PM on November 24, 2020

2nding the Breville Barista Express if you can find it on sale near your price range. I used to own a more expensive Italian-made machine but I like that the Breville has an auto-portioning grinder, brew presets and will run it's own cleaning cycle. Makes the morning coffee pretty low stress. Still seems to be working well after a year of 3 espressos a day.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:04 PM on November 24, 2020

I also got the Gaggia Classic early on in the pandemic and I really, really like it. It is not fully automatic but it was around $300 which is what I was willing to spend and had reasonably good reviews. The milk steamer is not my favorite but I am an oddball in that I almost always drink my coffee iced. If you pair that with a better milk steamer it would be a pretty great solution, I think!
posted by fairlynearlyready at 9:39 PM on November 24, 2020

On the low brow end - we haven't broken an older model of this despite daily use (at least 2-3 lattes, hot in the winter) and infrequent cleaning. We bought our current machine 4 (?) years ago as a replacement to the identical machine, which got tired due to normal wear and tear. The first one lasted more than 5 years.

Even cheaper burr grinders will last a long time if you take them apart and clean the oils off the blade and interior surfaces.
posted by Red Desk at 11:33 PM on November 24, 2020

I've had this Delonghi Superautomatic for about 5 years, and it's still going strong. A little out of your budget, but I am SO GLAD that I don't have a "real" (manual) espresso machine when I stumble into the kitchen sleepy and stumble out with a delicious cappuccino 4 minutes later, most of which was just standing around staring into space.

They make some that are more high tech, but I can't imagine why they would be better.
posted by nosila at 12:43 PM on November 25, 2020

I've had this delonghi dedica for about a year and it makes great espresso and cappuccinos. Plus it's not huge. It turned out to be the right combination of features without to much extra stuff that's going to break. The coffee holder/handle feels nice and comes with a couple sizes of coffee ground holder things. I've gotta regular spin blade coffee grinder. Make sure to ask for one of those metal milk frother cups for a stocking stuffer. I don't know why but the milk comes out better in it.
posted by Spumante at 1:03 PM on November 26, 2020

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