How to Choose the Best Espresso Machine for Beginners

by Whole Latte Love December 04, 2018 11 min read

Lattes, cappuccinos, espresso, coffee and more - all made fresh from bean to cup. In this post you’ll learn about the basic espresso machine types and how to choose the one that’s best for your needs.

Hey coffee lovers, Marc here from Whole Latte Love. Imagine the luxury of cafe-quality coffee beverages in your home or office. Now, whether you want the convenience of a latte at the push of a button or you're looking for a more barista-like experience, there’s a machine for you. So coming up I’ll cover the two basic machine types and things you should know when picking a machine, like terminology and basic capabilities. I’ll have some specific recommendations which are my “can’t go wrong” picks, machines that have excellent customer reviews, proven track records, and represent good values. After reading this, you’ll have what you need to pick a machine that’s right for you.

At Whole Latte Love, we’ve been doing this for twenty years. We’re a team of experts with a passion for everything coffee. We work closely with manufacturers on product design, and you’ll get the best price with our price-match and free shipping on orders over $50. Maybe more important than all that, we’ve got your back before, during, and after you make a purchase. If you want some one-on-one advice, you can talk to our staff of friendly coffee experts by phone, chat, or email. Use this link for information on how to contact us.Use this link for information on how to contact us.

Machine Types

So, the two basic types of machine are super-automatic and semi-automatic. With super-automatics, as the name suggests, the machine does most of the work for you. It’s an on-demand barista on your countertop. In most cases, no skill is needed to operate a super-automatic machine.

With semi-automatics you need some basic skills in order to get good results. You can think of the difference like this: with a super-auto, the machine is the barista, and with a semi-auto you are the barista.

Both types of machines come in a wide range of capabilities and, of course, cost. A semi-automatic machine in the hands of a skilled user can make better espresso and milk froth than what you’re going to get in the majority of cafes. On the other hand, super-automatics produce cafe-quality results and do it fast with no user skill required.

One other basic difference: super-autos have a built-in grinder for your coffee beans. With semi-autos you’ll want a separate burr grinder capable of grinding for espresso. Now, you do have the option of using pre-ground coffee in both machine types, and Easy Serve Espresso pods on some semi-autos. However, pre-ground coffee and ESE pods don’t produce the same quality as freshly ground beans. If you’re going with a semi-auto and you want the capability of making excellent espresso, be sure to include a quality burr grinder as part of your purchase plan.

Exploring Super-Automatics

Accademia Milk Carafe Feature

So let’s start with the quick, easy, and convenient no-skill required super autos. They all use a built-in grinder to grind beans fresh for every cup. Inside these machines is a part called a brew group which performs the barista functions of extracting the coffee. Top of the line super-autos are often called “One-Touch” machines for their ability to produce milk-based espresso beverages like a latte, cappuccino, flat white, and more with the press of a button, start-to-finish without user intervention.

All super-autos use a similar process for making coffee. Where they differ is how they deal with milk, level of programmability, their displays, and things like capacities, cup clearance, and finish materials.

Lower cost models use auto-frothing steam wands for texturing milk. It’s a manual process but doesn’t require much skill. Another option for milk froth is the cappuccinatore, which uses a pick-up tube to deliver frothed milk into your cup.

At the top of the line, there are attachable milk carafes and spout-integrated frothing devices fed from thermal containers or refrigerated milk supplies. It’s what you’ll find on the “One-Touch” machines. Also, look for the ability to adjust the density of the milk froth. On some machines, you have control of the froth as a dial allows you to change from a fine froth for a latte to an airier froth for a cappuccino. And there are even machines like the Gaggia Accademia which can program different froth densities for each drink.

Gaggia Brera Steam Wand Feature

How a machine works with milk is a major consideration. Do you want to auto-froth in a pitcher yourself? Would you prefer to pull a carafe from the fridge and push a button for a latte, or maybe you need the always-available capacity of a counter top refrigerated milk supply? Do you want the ability to adjust the froth quality? There’s even a couple of machines with both a milk carafe for easy one-touch drinks and a manual steam wand for weekend baristas who want to do some latte art.

On the coffee side, things to look for are the number of grind settings, the ability to adjust coffee strength and temperature, and additional coffee controls you’ll find on some machines like pre-infusion, flow control, and pulse brewing. In general, as you go up in price on super-automatics you get more control and programmability as well as more refined displays and more robust construction.

You’ll also want to consider how big a machine. What’s the cup clearance under the spouts? Can it fit tall glasses or a travel mug for coffee to go? Look at how beans and water are added to the machine. Can you access those areas if you have overhanging cabinetry? What kind of capacities does a machine have for water, beans, and used coffee? If you’re serving large groups, higher capacities mean less filling and emptying.

Exploring Semi-Automatics

Moving on to semi-automatic machines, there’s quite a range available. From entry-level appliances starting under $200, up to refined, hand-crafted machines built for decades of service.

Now, semi-automatic machines do require some skill to operate. If you’re a beginner, there are entry-level machines that are good for learning the ropes. But, understand that semi-auto espresso is a game of controlling variables, including parameters like grind size, coffee dose, and brewing temperature. Fine control of those variables tends to be more difficult and results are less consistent when using lower cost entry-level machines.

Most entry-level espresso appliances use undersized pressurized portafilters, which are much smaller and lighter than the 58mm commercial portafilters found on more expensive machines. Pressurized portafilters are kind of a cheat that tend to produce a lower quality espresso. On the upside, they are more forgiving of grind size, so you can start your espresso journey without purchasing a grinder and use pre-ground coffee or ESE pods.

Low cost, entry-level espresso appliances use thermoblock boilers with the same boiler heating water for brewing and for steaming. That means waiting for 30 seconds to a minute or so for the machine to get up to temperature when you want to froth milk. While they will do okay steaming with their auto frothing wands, there is a huge difference in power between these entry-level appliances and more expensive machines with larger volume boilers. If you’re interested in taking your skill to the level of pouring latte art, be aware that entry-level machines or any machine with an auto-frothing wand is not really capable of frothing to the quality required for that.

Semi-Automatic: Where to Start

Gaggia Classic Lifestyle

If you are at all serious about getting into quality espresso, I’d suggest bypassing entry-level espresso appliances with their plastic construction, thermoblock boilers, and lightweight pressurized basket brewing and go straight to an entry-level single boiler machine like the Gaggia Classic.

Unlike cheaper entry level espresso appliances, the Gaggia Classic is a true machine. It comes with a commercial size and weight portafilter and both pressurized and a regular non-pressurized filter baskets. It’s a machine that can grow with you. You can start without a grinder using the pressurized baskets with pre-ground coffee or ESE pods, and then move up to grinding fresh beans when you’re ready by using the standard non-pressurized baskets. The Classic has been around for many years and is a past Consumers Digest Best Buy. Built to last, it’s hands down the best value in single boiler machines.

Boiler Types

Now, as this post is intended for beginners, I’ll spend just a short time on higher-end semi-autos. These are classified by boiler type.

A step up from single boilers are machines with heat exchange boilers. With these you can brew and froth milk at the same time because steam is always available. Inside the boiler, a heat exchange section provides cooler water for espresso brewing.

At the high-end of home espresso is the dual boiler. On these machines there are separate boilers for producing water for brewing and steam for frothing. Because of this, you can expect to be able to brew and steam at the same time like with heat exchange machines. Dual boilers are the most temperature stable, with very accurate control of brew water temperature. The temperature control is important to those working with specialty coffee.

Now, if you’d like to go deeper into semi-automatic machines, use this link to see our picks for the Top Five Best Semi-Automatic Machines of 2018.T

Super-Automatic: Where to Start

For super-automatic recommendations we can open things up a bit as they require little skill to operate.

The Gaggia Brera is my pick for best value. It’s been around for years, it's super simple to operate, and uses the same brewing technology found in Gaggia’s more expensive machines. The Brera uses an auto-frothing wand for milk steaming, it has a low profile, and has convenient front slide-out access to the water reservoir and used coffee drawer. Like all Gaggia machines with a steam pipe, you can get an optional latte art wand. It does the auto-frothing but slide off a sleeve and it becomes a manual wand. With a little practice, you can froth to the delicate micro-foam required for latte art.

Jura Giga 5 Lifestyle

A step up from the Brera is the Gaggia Anima line: The Anima, Anima Deluxe, and Anima Prestige. The base Anima uses an auto frothing wand, the Deluxe has a cappuccinatore, and the Prestige uses an attachable self-cleaning milk carafe for start-to-finish lattes and cappuccinos with a single button press. Animas tend to be a better value when compared to machines from other manufacturers with similar capabilities. They are very slim, so they're easy on counter space and all have the clearance to handle taller cups and glasses. If serving large groups, the Anima XL is a like the Anima Prestige, but with larger water and bean capacities.

At the mid-range of super-autos, check out the Gaggia Accademia. It has clearance for tall cups, and a flow control dial decreases flow for straight espresso and increases the flow rate for larger cups of coffee so it doesn’t over-extract. It’s also one of the few machines with programmable milk froth density, and it’s got the manual steam wand for weekend baristas in addition to a self cleaning carafe.

Jura makes very stylish machines. Starting with their E8, you get into their line of One-Touch machines, with dial-adjustable froth density, pulse extraction espresso brewing, and beautiful color displays. After the E8, the sky is the limit when working up to Jura’s Giga line. This line includes the Giga 5 with dual grinders and bean hoppers and the ability to make two milk based drinks at the same time. Jura’s Giga machines are high capacity and rated to make over one hundred cups per day. Jura’s Giga Line is the choice for discerning home users who want the best and for busy office environments.

Use the link up here to get more details on our top five picks in super-automatic machines by category for 2018.

And, if you want some one-on-one advice, or have questions about these machines or anything coffee, you can always give us a call and talk to a coffee expert. You can also use the comments below and I’ll get you the answers. I’m Marc, and thanks for reading. I hope you’ll come back soon for more of the best on everything coffee brought to you by Whole Latte Love.

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