Getting into Espresso Machines
This is the stuff every aspiring coffee hound wants to get into - the espresso machine. That big block of complex machinery that sends out jets of steams, vibrates the house, rattles the teeth, and breathes black fire. The espresso machine is definitely the "sex" part of the coffee industry. Now you've decided it is time to jump on board. Hopefully this segment of the Newbies Guide will help you make a decision.
All of the machines listed have pumps - the strength of the pump is not important - espresso only needs 9 bar. I have not listed any lever or spring piston machines because of their complexity and demand on barista skills. This is, after all, a newbie guide.
Budget Espreso Machines
All of the machines listed are below $250. I consider that a budget range, though you might rightly consider it quite expensive. I remember many years ago that I too thought anything over $100 for coffee was a ridiculous price. But still, in the espresso game, you generally get what you pay for.
Krups Gusto ($70-$120)
Not my personal recommendation, but Barry Jarrett from Riley's Coffee (a very trustworthy, stellar guy) recommends it as a minimum viable machine - and it does have a boiler, unlike most Krups machines. If your total budget is $200 or so, get a Saeco M2002 grinder and this machine. Otherwise pick one of the others.
Krups Novo Compact - $50-$120.
Gone, but not forgotten. Hard to find, but you might luck into one on eBay or various overstock or liquidation websites or sales in your city. Krups doesn't make this anymore, but it was arguably their best (and probably only really good) budget espresso machine. It featured a real boiler and brass grouphead and PF. Better choice than the Gusto.
Saeco Via Veneto ($180 or less)
This machine is mentioned primarily because it is the lowest cost "Italian" pump espresso machine out there, and can be found for much less if you find it as the rebranded Cafe Express by Melita or Regal. I did a detailed review on this machine.
Rancilio Betsy ($200 or more)
Hey, a Rancilio machine for $200? I don't know a lot about it, but I'm game. The only current reseller of this machine (1st-Line) states for the price, nothing beats it. It has a large boiler, far larger than most other machines under $350, good materials inside, and is a solid performer. Possibly the best bet in this category.
Saeco Classico ($250)
Stainless steel, Saeco's "instrafroth" option, and more. Good machine, but replace Saeco's pressurized portafilter with a regular one, available from Saeco USA for around $30. Search groups.google.com for info on this.
Gaggia Coffee (as little as $250)
This machine is essentially a Gaggia Classic (see midrange, below) without some of the premium stuff like the 3 way solenoid valve pressure release and better connections. This machine is a great chose for medium volume use in the home.
In this price range you will get a bigger boiler (more temperature stable), and usually a 3 way valve (which allows the portafilter to be removed immediately after pulling the shot and additional cleaning by backflushing). You also tend to find some niceties not found in lower priced machines, including better overall parts, superior electronics, and almost always a heavier, more solid device.
Rancilio Silvia ($400-$450)
In my opinion, this is the best machine you can buy under $700. The biggest boiler in its class. Solid construction throughout. Heavy, solid frame. Brass lines everywhere. Ample steaming power and more. Huge following and lots of information is available about this machine online.
Gaggia Classic ($400), also Gaggia Baby ($350)
Pretty much the same machine and performance, though the Baby is a bit more plasticy. Owners of the Classic put it on par with the Silvia, though the Classic has a smaller aluminium boiler and a pressed dispersion head. Both feature a 3 way solenoid valve for pressure relief at the portafilter, after brewing a shot.
Solis SL90 ($420)
This is an "automatic" espresso machine meaning that it doses out precise volumes of water with one touch on the selection pad. Adequate espresso and superior steaming and hot water functions. Get the non-pressurized baskets for this model and your espresso will improve with practice. Does not feature a 3 way release valve.
Nuova Simonelli Ellimatic (about $600)
Not made anymore, but some still exist in overstock channels. Hard to find, but the lowest priced "heat exchanger" machine on the market. HE machines do not pre-boil your espresso water - they bring it from the reservoir through a pipe in the boiler to flash heat it, giving you fresh water and also allowing you instant steaming, anytime you want it.
Nuova Simonelli Oscar ($700 or more)
When this was priced around $1200, it was a ripoff. At the current $700 range, it's a steal. A full blown heat exchanger machine with a huge insulated boiler and an overall excellent performer. Does not have a hot water dispenser, it's biggest negative. Also has a plastic shell (most other machines this expensive has metal shells).
Upper Tier Machines
I've decided to not list upper tier machines. After all, this is a newbie guide. But I can give you some short background on things to look for, and what to avoid.
Most machines costing $1000 or more will feature something called a heat exchanger. That is the name given to a specific boiler design that has a pipe or other conduit through it. The boiler itself does not provide the brew water to you - it is used to provide steam power to your steam wand. The pipe or conduit through the boiler starts at your water supply (either a reservoir, or direct line connection) and ends at the grouphead where your portafilter sits. During the water's travels, it gets flash heated by the boiler liquid as it passes through the conduit or pipe in the boiler. But the brewing water never comes into direct contact with that boiler water. Make sense?
By the time you get up to $1500 or more, many machines use a different pump technology when compared to the sub $1500 machines (or even when compared to the $300 machines). They use a rotary pump design (or a Procon™ pump), where the cheaper machines use a vibratory (or diaphragm) pump. Rotary is considered the best pump design currently available for espresso machines, but it does have its drawbacks in home use. First, rotary pumps should always have a direct water line connection - no reservoir water because if they run dry, you could ruin the pump. They are also expensive, often adding $500 or more to the machines' cost. Third, they are big, and in many cases are external to the espresso machine. Forth, they use a fair amount of electricity (or add to the overall electrical usage of the espresso machine setup.
Machines that are in the sub $1500 category that are recommended include the Pasquini Livia 90 semi auto or automatic machines, the ECM Giotto semi automatic, and the Wega Mini Nova vibratory pump model. In the over $1500 category, machines to look at include the Wega Mini Nova Procon, the Rancilio S26 or S27 series (get the plumbed in models) or the various "Junior" models by companies like Astoria, Wega, Cimbali, and others.
You may notice I have not listed lever or piston machines. These can be superb machines in the home, but I do not consider these machines when thinking about newbies and espresso. These are manual espresso machines, requiring a high degree of barista skills for the production of consistent, first rate espresso. Consider a lever or spring piston machine after you have some experience under your belt. Models include the Micro Cimbali and Elektra Micro Casa Leva (both spring piston machines), and the La Pavoni Europiccola, Professional, and Romantica machines (lever piston machines, no spring).