An espresso is a short strong coffee made by forcing near-boiling water through finely ground coffee with a lot of pressure. Espresso can be drunk as a “shot” or made into drinks like Americanos, cappuccinos, and lattes. Most people only drink espressos and espresso drinks made by professional baristas in cafés because, frankly, they’re a lot of work to make at home.
But, if you’re serious about coffee as a hobby and want to try your hand at “pulling” shots of espresso, it can be done. Here’s what you need to start.
What Is Espresso, Anyway?
The key to an espresso is that it is a strong coffee made under high pressure. Generally, an espresso machine reaches pressures of around 9 bars, or nine times the atmospheric pressure at sea level. This is a big part of what gives espresso its unique taste, features like crema (the foam on top of a fresh espresso), and body. A merely strong coffee made with something like a Moka pot or Aeropress doesn’t have the same mouthfeel.
Also, while Nespresso machines brew somewhat strong coffee under pressure (up to 15 bars according to Nestlé), they don’t meet either the Specialty Coffee Association or Istituto Espresso Italiano definitions of espresso. They make decent reliable coffee, but if you compare one side-by-side with shot of espresso pulled by a professional barista, the difference is clear. They also use preground coffee, which won’t give you the best results.
This means to make a true espresso you really need an espresso machine—and to grind the beans fresh.
What to Look for in an Espresso Machine
There are a lot of espresso machines out there and, to be frank, there are a lot of bad ones. Manufacturers can cut a lot of corners and create something they can call an espresso machine, but it will never enable you to pull a decent shot. Here’s what sets the good ones apart:
- Price: One of the biggest factors in choosing an espresso machine is, sadly, price. The commercial machines you see in coffee shops cost thousands of dollars. Even decent home models cost hundreds of dollars, and many hover around the thousand dollar mark. Before shopping for an espresso machine, consider how much you have to spend. You also have to consider the cost of a grinder if your chosen espresso machine doesn’t include one.
- A Steam Wand: If you just want to make espressos and Americanos, you don’t need a steam wand. However, if you want to make drinks that include steamed and frothed milk like cappuccinos and lattes, make sure you get a model that includes one. The best steam wands will let you froth milk like a barista for perfect latte art.
- Semi-Automatic or Super-Automatic: There are some fully automatic or super-automatic espresso machines out there but, to be honest, they’re hard to recommend. They tend to be very expensive and, while they take the work out of brewing espresso, they also take the customization out of it. They’ll reliably pull acceptable drinks, but they won’t let you make great ones. With that said, ease-of-use is still important. If you’re just starting out, a semi-automatic machine is ideal. They will heat the water and hold the pressure at a consistent level, but you still control the “dose” and grind of the coffee.
- What About Manual? The most affordable espresso machines are entirely manual—you literally pull a lever to create the pressure (that’s why it’s called pulling a shot of espresso). The downside is that they are harder to master and won’t produce as consistent results as a semi-automatic machine. They’re fun for a Saturday morning, but hard to count on every day of the week.
- Enough Power: An espresso machine has to force water through finely ground coffee. Good ones have a powerful pump that does this easily. Cheap espresso machines tend to have weak pumps that will choke on coffee ground fine enough for espresso.
- Consistency: You want the fifth shot you pull one morning to be similar to the first. If the espresso machine is inconsistent with its water temperature, pressure, or flow rate, your drinks will be very hit or miss.
Now, let’s look at some great espresso machines.
A Manual Espresso Machine to Get You Started: Flair Classic
Espresso started out with manual lever machines and, if you’re just dabbling with making espresso at home, it’s a good place for you to start, too.
The Flair Classic is a few hundred dollars cheaper than any equivalent electric machine and, with a bit of practice and elbow grease, you can pull some pretty great shots. It easily hits 6 to 9 bars of pressure, which is enough for a real espresso. Not bad for less than two hundred bucks.
Like all manual machines, the Flair is probably a bit too much effort for weekday mornings, but it’s a perfect weekend project. It also looks great sitting on a countertop.
Unfortunately, the Flair Classic doesn’t come with a steam wand for frothing milk, so you’ll need to buy a dedicated milk frother or just make do with straight-up espressos.
Also, if you’ve got the budget to stretch, the Flair Signature includes a pressure gauge that makes it easier to be consistent when pulling shots.
An Affordable Semi-Automatic Machine: Breville Bambino Plus
The Breville Bambino Plus hits a great balance between price and quality. It’s still pricey—but that’s the cost of a functional electric espresso machine. Most cheaper machines just can’t reliably pull drinkable espresso. The Bambino Plus draws consistent pressure between shots, and the pump is strong enough to work with finely ground coffee so you can get café quality coffee every time.
One of the Bambino Plus’s best features is its fast heat-up time. It can be ready to brew in just three seconds. It also quickly switches the temperature so you can use the steam wand almost immediately after pulling an espresso. Many cheap machines take a lot longer, which makes doing more than one drink a drag.
Breville BES500BSS Bambino Plus Espresso Machine, Brushed Stainless Steel
At $500, the Breville Bambino Plus isn't cheap—but it's the cheapest, great home espresso machine.
A Burr Grinder: Baratza Encore
To make espressos, you need a grinder that can reliably produce a consistent fine grind. If the grind is too coarse, you’ll get a weak underextracted shot. If it’s inconsistent, you won’t be able to reliably pull great shots. The best grinders use conical burrs to crush the coffee beans consistently, rather than blades to smash it apart.
For getting started with espresso, the Baratza Encore conical burr grinder is perfect. While it’s not a dedicated espresso grinder, it can grind fine enough—and it can still grind something coarser if you like to use a French press or make pour over. It’s easy to dial in one of the 40 built-in grind sizes—and swap between them.
Baratza Encore Conical Burr Coffee Grinder (Black)
The Baratza Encore is a great grinder whether you want to make espresso, pour over, or drip coffee.
An Easier to Use, More Expensive Machine: Breville Barista Pro
At almost twice the price, the Breville Barista Pro won’t make better espressos than the Bambino Plus—but it does make it easier for you to get them right every time. It’s actually very similar to the Bambino Plus under the hood, also heating up in just three seconds with a powerful pump. The intuitive LCD screen can walk you through making the different espresso drinks, making the whole brewing part of things easier, especially for beginners.
The Barista Pro’s built-in burr grinder means that everything you need to make espresso is in one handy machine—and saves you the need to buy a separate one.
If price is no object, the Barista Pro is a good upgrade over the Bambino Plus. Yes, the coffee will taste much the same, but it’s more likely that everyone in your household will happily use it, rather than just the resident coffee nerd. If the sticker price is a bit much, the Bambino Plus is a no compromise pick.
Breville BES878BSS Barista Pro Espresso Machine, Brushed Stainless Steel
The Breville Barista Pro is super easy to use so anyone in the house can make great espresso.