Espresso coffee is almost always associated with cafes and coffee shops. But it doesn’t need to be. Using a budget espresso machine, anyone willing to put in the effort can make cafe-quality coffee at home.
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What Is a Budget Espresso Machine
The espresso machines that you see in cafes and coffee shops are expensive. They are big, power-hungry machines that often cost tens of thousands of dollars. Some of the best espresso machines in the world come in at over $30,000! Luckily, for home espresso lovers, budget espresso machines exist.
A budget espresso machine usually has a similar feature set as a large commercial one, just in a smaller and more budget-friendly package. For example, where a commercial espresso machine uses metal, the budget machine might have plastic. If a commercial machine uses a large boiler for steam and hot water, the budget machine might use a much smaller heating unit like a thermal block.
Swapping out one big, expensive thing for a smaller, lower-cost component is how manufacturers build these budget espresso machines. So what’s the catch? If you can buy an espresso machine for less, why pay more?
There are a couple of things that large commercial espresso machines do well that budget machines struggle with. Building steam, pressure, and reaching a high enough brew water temperature.
A commercial espresso machine uses a boiler to build up steam. When the steam wand of the machine is engaged, steam shoots out with quite a lot of pressure. Commercial espresso machines have large boilers so that they can brew espresso and steam milk simultaneously. Because budget espresso machines don’t use boilers, they usually can’t do both simultaneously.
Thanks to this boiler, the commercial machine can also heat the brewing water to really high temperatures— perfect for pulling espresso shots. Some budget espresso machines have trouble reaching the temperatures that are required for good espresso extraction. This is certainly one thing to look for when buying a budget espresso machine— high enough brew water temperature).
Lastly, but probably most importantly, a commercial machine can build up loads of pressure. This pressure is not only important for steaming silky smooth milk, but it is also important for pulling shots of espresso (more on this below!).
Benefits of Using a Budget Espresso Machine
Why buy a budget espresso machine? Why not just decide between the Nespresso Original and Vertuo, or stick with a trusty Keurig?
While still more expensive than manual brew methods, a budget espresso machine can be relatively inexpensive. You’ll be saving money by not going to the local coffee shop, so eventually, the machine will pay for itself. This means more money to spend on premium Cuban coffee!
Fun to Experiment With
Brewing espresso is a hobby. And it’s a fun one!
You get to feel like a mad scientist— brewing and tasting and tweaking your recipes. When brewing your own espresso at home, you can experiment with adding different things to your coffee that you may not have before. Try using honey as a coffee sweetener. Maybe pull a shot of Brazillian coffee and try enhancing the coffee flavor using cream. There are so many options when you DIY.
You can also try your hand at brewing coffees like a cortado. Cortado is one shot of espresso plus a little milk, and it is super delicious!
Brew Cafe Lattes and Cappuccinos at Home
Who doesn’t love a latte at home? But that’s not all that an espresso machine can do.
Because many people call it a semi-automatic cappuccino maker, it may come as no surprise that you can also make a cappuccino!
Using espresso, you can make loads of different espresso-based drinks. Both the Americano and the cafe latte contain espresso, as do the macchiato and the iced latte. There are so many different drinks to perfect.
How Does a Budget Espresso Machine Work
Let’s take a brief look at how a budget espresso machine works.
In any espresso machine, we’ll have a few different parts. Possibly the most well-known is the portafilter. The portafilter, also known as the group handle, is where the ground coffee goes. After the ground coffee is added to the portafilter, it is compacted down using a tamper. The coffee will now look like a little cake. We call this cake the puck.
Once the coffee is tamped, the portafilter is inserted into the group head. This is where the brewing will take place. Upon engaging the shot, a pump will begin forcing hot water through the puck of coffee. The water will be pushed through at a pressure of around 9 bars. Quite a lot of pressure! The importance of pressure in espresso brewing shouldn’t be underestimated. Without high pressures, the water won’t make it through the coffee puck. Upon reaching the desired yield, the shot can be stopped. The result is (hopefully) a super tasty shot of espresso!
If a shot runs too fast, the coffee should be ground finer. If it runs too slow, the grind should be made coarser. Brewing espresso is all about this balancing act between grind size and brew time. While it can be tricky, getting it right is well worth it. An espresso maker preserves a deep coffee taste like no other brew method.
The biggest challenge with budget espresso machines is reaching this required 9 bars of pressure. The pressure is what allows the water to push its way through the finely ground coffee. Without high enough pressure, the coffee will need to be ground coarser. And if the coffee is ground too coarse, the water won’t extract it sufficiently. The shot will end up weak, sour, and watery— all tell-tale signs of under-extraction.
Pretty much all brew methods use hot water to brew coffee. Except for the delicious cold brew method, of course. Pour-overs, the AeroPress, and Keurig coffee makers use hot water as the main tool for extraction.
The key difference with espresso machines is that they use pressure – it’s their secret ingredient.
Pros and Cons of Using a Budget Espresso Machine
- Brew different espresso-based drinks at home.
- Save money by not going to expensive coffee shops.
- Fun to play with and experiment.
- Use any coffee and milk that you want.
- More expensive than manual brewing methods.
- Does takes some time to learn how to pull shots and steam milk properly.
How to Choose the Best Budget Espresso Machine
Choosing a good budget espresso machine can be tricky. But with the right information, we can learn exactly what to look for and exactly what to avoid.
No-one wants a flimsy espresso machine. A good espresso machine should feel solid and shouldn’t slide around on the benchtop when loading the portafilter into the group head. Solid construction does cost money. Your budget will really dictate how solid your machine will be. A $500 budget will buy you a machine leagues better than a $200 one.
Ease of Use
Espresso machines aren’t known for being the most user-friendly of devices. But some machines are certainly easier than others. Many Breville machines contain features that make learning to brew espresso as easy as possible. Machines with built-in grinders can be great for learning, as are machines with pressurized portafilters.
Ease of Cleaning
Most espresso machines are fairly easy to clean. The task shouldn’t take any longer than 20 minutes and will dramatically improve the taste of your coffee. Using a simple descaling solution, we can clean almost all parts of the espresso machine, including the portafilters, the water reservoir, and the machine’s insides, as we backflush it.
Pods vs Portafilters
Pods are essentially designed to replicate espresso. Some do a great job, while others not so much. If you want the espresso taste without learning how to brew, you can go for one of the many pod-based machines. There are loads of options for pods produced by some really excellent coffee roasters around the world.
But if you want the real thing, you’ll need to use an espresso machine with real portafilters. The benefit here is that you can brew absolutely any coffee you like. You can even pull shots of decaf! Good decaf espresso doesn’t really taste different, making it the perfect nighttime coffee.
Single or Double Shot
Before you buy an espresso machine, think about the shots you want to brew. Do you want single shots, or do you want to pull doubles? The standard in most specialty cafes is doubles, while much of Italy pulls single shots. Filter baskets sit inside the portafilter. A single basket is smaller, at around half the size of a double. A single might hold 10g of ground coffee, whereas a double will hold up to 22g. Once you’ve decided which you want to brew, make sure the espresso machine you’re looking at includes the correct size filter baskets.
Steaming and Frothing Capability
If you want to make milk-based espresso coffees, like lattes or flat whites, you’ll need a steam wand. A steam wand heats and aerates the milk, turning it from plain old milk into silky, velvety microfoam.
Water Reservoir Capacity
Commercial espresso machines are almost always plumbed into the water mains of the buildings that house them. This isn’t an option for most people. Dometic espresso machines, especially budget ones, use a water reservoir instead. These water reservoirs come in the form of a plastic tank that either sits inside, on the side, or at the back of the espresso machine. Make sure that you choose a reservoir size that works for you. If you know you’ll be pulling shot after shot, make sure the tank is of a reasonable size.
Pump pressure is the most important aspect to consider. If the espresso machine you are looking at has all the bells and whistles but falls flat when it comes to pump pressure, the machine is no good to anyone! We need 9 bars of pressure. It is essential for pulling good shots of espresso. The pressure that the machine uses is usually mentioned in the specs of the machine. Remember— 9 bars!
No dirt cheap espresso machine will ever brew good espresso. A decent machine will cost a bit of money. You don’t need to spend thousands to get something decent. But a good budget espresso machine won’t be super cheap. Spending $500 on a coffee machine may not seem budget, but it is in the world of espresso!
Do’s and Don’ts With Budget Espresso Machines
- Do have fun with it! Brewing espresso should be enjoyable.
- Do buy the machine you can afford and experiment with it. Learning about brewing will help you get the most out of your espresso machine.
- Do try different coffees from different origins. Espresso is a great way of tasting the differences between different coffees.
- Do make sure your machine can reach 9 bars of pressure!
- Don’t be tempted to fully drink every shot you pull as soon as you get your own espresso machine. This will have you buzzing like crazy! Get used to the idea that you’ll waste a little coffee at first while you dial in your shots. Coffee drinking frequency is associated with caffeine tolerance – so drinking shot after shot will surely increase your tolerance.
- Don’t think that you need to spend thousands of dollars to buy a decent machine. There are plenty of machines around the $500 mark that are pretty great for the money.
FAQ About Budget Espresso Machines
Are cheap espresso machines good?
Short answer, no. The cheapest espresso machines on the market cannot reach the temperatures and pressures required for brewing good espresso. Some of the best coffee makers are made in the USA. And they are not cheap. Budget machines can be very good and well priced, but they are rarely cheap. Just stick to the points above and you’ll find something solid!
What is the difference between an expensive and cheap espresso machine?
Expensive espresso machines will use better pumps and boilers, which will allow for a better espresso shot. Expensive machines also usually last longer and have a much higher build quality.
How much does a good espresso machine cost?
Coffee machines aren’t cheap. Even buying a Keurig isn’t cheap. There are many different components in coffee machines that can make them pretty pricey. So when you look for an espresso machine, try to manage your expectations. Don’t expect to spend $100 and get a fantastic machine. This might work when buying a filter coffee brewer but certainly won’t with an espresso machine.
A decent espresso machine will cost around $500. The more you spend, the better and more reliable the machine will be.
What price range are budget espresso machines in?
Espresso machines range in price anywhere from $100 all the up to $30,000! While it may be worth investing in an espresso machine when opening your coffee place, spending loads of money on a home espresso machine isn’t always necessary. You’ll able to pick up a decent machine for under $1000. Even machines in the $500 price range can be good.
Making espresso at home doesn’t have to mean taking out a second mortgage. While they may be tricky to find, there are some pretty great, budget espresso machines out there. Learn about what to look for and you’ll be able to choose the perfect budget espresso machine for you.
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