It seems like a good idea, buy a home espresso machine and stop spending money on all of those five dollar lattes. But we should probably warn you, making café-quality espresso at home is incredibly difficult, and you’re probably going to burn through a lot of coffee in the process. You’re not going to save any money and you’re still going to spend a lot of money in coffee shops.
But that being said, making espresso at home can be a fun and rewarding hobby, but only if you have the right tools to work with. So if you’re thinking about taking the plunge, make sure the espresso machine you’re buying has several key features.
Perhaps the most important development in espresso machine technology in the last 20 years is the application of PID controllers (proportional, integral, derivative). These devices use an algorithm to precisely control temperature. (If you want to know how espresso machine manufacturers started using PIDs, you can read this fascinating article from La Marzocco.) Before PIDs became standard in industrial espresso machines, it was common to have fairly large temperature swings. Without hot enough water, your espresso is going to taste sour. PIDs have become increasingly common in consumer espresso machines. Even entry level machines like the Breville Infuser BES840XL utilize PIDs, so you definitely shouldn’t buy a home espresso machine that doesn’t have one.
If you only drink espresso or Americanos, this feature is less important. But let’s face it, at least ten percent of your desire to get a home espresso machine is to learn how to pour latte art. If you want to be able to create rich, velvety microfoam, you need a steam wand with a lot of power. Cheaper home espresso machines tend to make really wet steam, which makes proper milk texture almost impossible. Having a dual boiler ensures you’ll always have enough pressure to get a proper extraction on your espresso and then immediately steam some fantastic foam. The Breville BES920XL Dual Boiler is one of the most affordable dual boiler machines on the market, though if you have the budget for it we would recommend going up to the Alex Duetto IV, which has some great features, including a built-in shot timer. If money is no object, get a La Marzocco Linea Mini, which remains the best espresso machine we’ve ever used that doesn’t need to be plumbed.
58 mm Portafilters
There’s universal no rule that says espresso has to be made in a 58 mm. portafilter in order to be good, but I personally wouldn’t buy a home espresso machine that doesn’t have 58 mm. portafilters for a few reasons. For one, all of the best espresso tampers come standard in 58 mm. Although it’s easy enough to find tampers in all shapes and sizes, most smaller ones feel like a toy compared to a quality tamper. (For most beginners we would recommend using a PUSH tamper for a easier learning curve.) Perhaps more importantly, the best espresso baskets come in 58 mm. The espresso basket is the removable metal filter that goes inside the portafilter. Without a good one, it’s impossible to get an even extraction. We’re big fans of VST espresso baskets, which come in a variety of volumes, but only fit 58 mm. portafilters.
Remember, espresso rewards patience, precision, and practice. A busy barista will pull over 200 shots in the course of a shift, so it might be some time before you feel confident behind the machine.