Espresso is made by forcing hot water at very high pressure through finely ground, very dark roasted coffee. Espresso is similar to coffee but has a much stronger and robust flavor. Espresso usually is consumed in small, 2-ounce ‘shots’ in a small espresso coffee mug. The best espresso has a consistency that almost is slightly syrupy.
Many espresso lovers go to Starbucks or other local coffee shops for their daily fix. But if you do that every day, you easily can spend $100 a month on espresso. At some point, you should think about buying an espresso machine. Fortunately, there are quite a few budget espresso machines on the market today that will brew you a pretty darned good cup of espresso.
Below are some tips on choosing a good espresso machine at a reasonable price (under $300 or so).
1. Look For a Pump Driven Espresso Machine
One of the big differences between budget espresso machines and their pricier big brothers is how the water is driven through the coffee grounds. The cheap machines that you might see at Walmart almost always are steam driven. Using steam to drive the water through the coffee is a cheaper way to do things. The problem is that the pressure is considerably less than with a pump. Steam only drives the hot water at 1-3 bars of pressure, much less than the 9 bars required.
An espresso machine with a pump gets much higher extraction from the espresso coffee grinds. Also, a machine with a pump is the only one that can give you that ‘crema’ on the top of the espresso. The high pressure from the pump emulsifies the oils in the coffee into a colloid, which is what the foam is on top of the espresso.
So, make sure that your budget expresso machine uses a pump. One of our favorites is the De’Longhi EC155 15 BAR Pump Espresso Machine (below).
2. Consider a Capsule Espresso Maker If You Are On a Budget
A good option for the under $200 espresso machine fan is to go with a capsule machine. These products are designed to be used with a small capsule that contains espresso grounds. All you have to do is drop in one of the pods and turn on the machine. In about 30 seconds the machine warms up and you have your espresso soon after. Generally, these machines do not produce the best expresso on earth, but it’s a good value for the money.
A good machine in this line is the Nespresso Essenza Auto (below).
3. Get a Good Grinder
A good cup of espresso can be had from cheaper machines. A lot of it has to do with the quality of the coffee you put inside. The best way to grind your espresso coffee is with a burr grinder. One of these mills has two wheels or grinding elements, and the beans are slowly crushed with very little frictional heat created. This slower process of crushing the beans will release more of the oils from the coffee. They are then extracted more easily when the coffee is pump-infused with hot water. This will make your espresso taste much better and smoother.
You should avoid the purchase of a cheap blade grinder for your espresso coffee beans. The grind will not be as uniform, which is very important for brewing espresso. Also, the resulting frictional heat will lower the quality of your espresso.
A good, affordable burr grinder is the Mr. Coffee BVMC-BMH23 Automatic Burr Mill Grinder (below).
4. Don’t Forget About Water Quality
Obviously, your espresso is 99% water. The quality of the water that you put into your machine is going to be very important. If your water is considered hard, as is 80% of the tap water in America, you are going to want to filter that water somehow before you put it into your machine.
Many of the more expensive espresso machines have a charcoal water filter included. On the more expensive products, you are usually not going to see a water filter. It’s a good idea to use a water filter on your tap, or to purchase some other water filtering device.