From Breville to DeLonghi: The Best Espresso Machine 2020 | The Ultimate Guide
Published on: September 26, 2020
Even coffee geeks can struggle to choose the right espresso machine. I put espresso machines through their paces to find the best in each category. My latest pick of the budget espresso machines is the Breville Bambino Plus.
Over the years, I’ve drifted pretty far from my roots as a professional barista. I’ve explored all kinds of brewing methods for you. Just not portafilter machines. In this guide I’ll show you my top choices of the best espresso machines for your budget.
Despite the fact that this is the pinnacle of professional coffee culture and the only way to make a bona fide espresso. The reason I’ve held back is espresso machines have an image problem: Consumers look at the labor, learning curve and array of accessories and say, thanks but no thanks.
For their part, portafilter machine manufacturers did nothing to alter those perceptions. By designing and pricing their espresso machines for an exclusive clientele, they turned up their noses at the uninitiated.
But things have changed. It’s the dawning of a new age for portafilter machines. Manufacturers are constantly launching new consumer and entry-level espresso machines on the market. The mid-price segment is also buzzing with activity.
Unfortunately, the videos in this guide are only available in German.
Customers are obssessing over the ideal combination of coffee beans, grind size and pressure. And have realized the hard truth. Even with the best will in the world, a super-automatic machine just isn’t up to perfection.
Enter the hybrid machine. This completely new category of espresso maker aims to fill the gap between super-automatic machines and professional portafilters. So far, the Breville Oracle Touch has held its own in this segment as the crème de la crème of portafilter machines with a grinder.
Now for the genuine article: I’ve reviewed lots of traditional espresso machines and discovered new top picks in categories, such as the best espresso machine for beginners. The DeLonghi EC 685 Dedica, for example, has a firm footing in the segment. This worthy successor to the EC 680 is also highly rated by Germany’s consumer watchdog.
One niche that is still very new is espresso machines under $500. While in the past there were no real contenders, I can now recommend the Breville the Bambino Plus, among others, in good conscience.
What about the perfect all-rounder? The bad news is there’s no such thing. The myriad different portafilter machines operate on different principles and meet different needs.
It’s high time that I updated this guide this guide and article to share the latest information on the following points:
How to choose which espresso machine will suit you best.
Which features contribute to producing the perfect espresso.
Why you can’t get decent espresso out of a portafilter machine.
What do you really want – a super-automatic or portafilter machine?
Before giving you all the details on my favorites, here’s a bit of background to my approach: Much like with my super-automatic reviews, if a unit doesn’t make sense for end consumers, I don’t rewview it.
In contrast to super-automatic machines, very good espresso machines can easily set you back $10,000. But who can afford that? That’s why I’ve set $3,000 as the upper price limit for the average end user. Anything above that doesn’t get a second look.
The Best Espresso Machine Under $400: DeLonghi Dedica
Just a few years ago, I had this category wrapped up in no time. When I reviewed the DeLonghi EC 685 Dedica back then, there was nothing to touch it. The few other machines in the category were junk.
Today, there are more options, but the proportion of duds is still similarly high. As a single boiler designed entirely with beginners in mind, the new edition DeLonghi Dedica EC685 still ticks all the boxes. Not even its DeLonghi stablemates can knock it off its perch.
DeLonghi has done itself absolutely no favors with the ECOV 311.11 GR, for instance. But I predict that things will hot up for this price point in the near future. After all, the financial outlay is relatively small and interest in this kind of product is theoretically big.
The Best Espresso Machine Under $500: Breville’s the Bambino Plus
How much does a machine for absolute novices that still delivers good performance cost? Breville’s the Bambino Plus is is the answer. The design is sleek and contemporary without making a break from tradition. An equally pleasant surprise is how easy it is to adjust temperature and water volumes.
For many espresso rookies, having an automatic milk wand that basically saves you the trouble of learning how to make milk foam is an added bonus. Yes, the tamper is rubbish and only a novice could get excited over the baskets.
But that doesn’t change the fact that its functioning is carefully engineered and it transforms coffee grounds into high-quality espresso.
The Best Hybrid Machine: Breville Oracle Touch
The Breville Oracle Touch is the machine that converted me on hybrid machines. Why? Because it succeeds in finding a reasonable middle ground between automation and the need to learn the ropes.
You’re sure to pick up a whole bag of portafilter tricks without needing to know every you little detail in order to make yourself a good cup of coffee.
This is the reason I personally feel it pips other good (and more affordable) options to the post. Many of those also-rans don’t handle common hybrid machine bugs as successfully.
Although it takes an intentionally different approach to the Breville, the DeLonghi La Specialista also deserves a shout-out. It’s a machine that caters to a distinct target group – users keen to immerse themselves in all the ins and outs of making espresso.
Those not so inclined will find La Specialista a bit of a pain in the butt. Nevertheless, the automatic wand produces spectacular milk froth – even if you screw up on just about everything possible.
This isn’t a category where I need to peer into my crystal ball. I can say with certainty: The hybrid market is the next big thing for manufacturers. At the Berlin kitchen appliances show (IFA 2019), every coffee machine supplier had something to say on the topic. The consensus was clear:
Hybrids make the leap to a portafilter more of a hop, skip and jump. Which is why they’re already the newest big hit with customers.
The Most Aspirational Portafilter Machine: Rancilio Silvia
When I say “apirational,” I mean an espresso machine that not only looks the part but is also totally dedicated to the extraction process and has the high-quality components to match.
Anything this uncompromising inevitably creates certain challenges for users.
In the past, I used to characterize my personal favourite, the Rancilio Silvia, as a definite entry-level model. While this is still true from a pro-barista’s perspective, the new classifications have shaken things up. Thanks to its single boiler (see below), the unit is cheaper than some very high-end machines with a different water heating systems.
The size and nature of the Silvia’s water tank alone has novice written all over it. Details, such as the amount of plastic used in the casing and on switches, are a dead giveaway that there’s room for improvement.
Even so, it’s a solid, hard-working machine that will go the distance and features a nice retro-portafilter design minus the frills.
Many of you will prefer the Quick Mill Silvano 04005 purely because of its functionality. It also put in a compelling performance on my espresso test, thanks to some clever workarounds for the water-heating issues typical of single boilers.
My heart still belongs to the Rancilio. But that’s only because I’ve had hands-on experience with both machines and have more of a feel for the Silvia. To my mind, I make a better espresso with it.
It seems I’ve been caught napping at the wheel in this category. I got it into my head that you guys had no interest in pricey, complicated machines. Wrong! As your numerous comments make abundantly clear.
To give you an overview of the most popular machines in this category, I’ve added links (where available) to highly rated portafilter machines:
ECM Classika II: A traditional single boiler that’s been around for a while already but is a real slice of bella Italia for around $1,500
Bezerra BZ10: Similar to the ECM in almost every way
I’m seriously itching to review machines in this category again. So let me know which new products or trusty, time-honored models you’d like me to put under the microscope. As I’ve already said, anything over $3,000 euros is too rich for the average customer’s blood. Other than that, I’m all ears, so get commenting.
The Best Manual-Lever Machine: La Pavoni Professional
OK, I admit it. I have a soft spot for machines like La Pavoni Professional. Since technology has made yanking levers redundant that probably makes me a bit of a show-off.
Plus, La Pavoni is a total diva whose every whim has to be met. With the right treatment, however, it exactingly produces espresso of a higher caliber than any other manual-lever machine.
Have you stumbled on any equally exciting alternatives in this category? I’d love to hear about them, so please leave a comment.
Which Portafilter is Right for You? Compact, Hybrid, Traditional or Manual-Lever?
The fact that there is no best-of-the-best espresso machine in this review should clue you in to my thinking. Each category responds to a different set of needs. In the past, I classified machines into of three easily distinguishable types:
Single-boiler (dual use) espresso machines
Heat-exchange espresso machines
Dual-boiler espresso machines
The categories are based on how water is heated in the machine and the conditions necessary to move it through the brew group and steam wand. When I first wrote the review, no other breakdown made sense. Because manufacturers – excluding those offering cheap junk – followed the exact same system.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record… things have changed dramatically. Ignoring the professional machines for a moment, there are now at least five separate types of espresso machines, each targeting a very different clientele:
Portafilter machines around $300
Espresso machines starting from $500
Traditional portafilter machines starting from $700
Hybrid machines combining aspects of a super-automatic coffee machine with a portafilter
When shopping for an espresso machine, I think it is important that you’re not only understand but have also internalized both classification systems. That way you’ll be in a position to decide exactly what are your portafilter dealbreakers.
Besides, it never hurts to have a few technical terms and concepts up your sleeve so you can pick apart certain manufacturers’ marketing mumbo jumbo. Especially considering some of what I’ve come across lately.
Espresso Machines around $300: Do Bare Basics Cut it?
Personally, I wouldn’t dream of getting a $300 portafilter machine for my kitchen. If for no other reason than its longevity – or lack thereof. These machines don’t last. What’s more, the bargain basement components can’t produce the pressure, temperature or precision required for the perfect espresso in the long term.
Some of you have told me that you really only briefly dipped a toe in this category before quickly taking the plunge with a better model. What’s really interesting is that nobody seems to go back to a super-automatic espresso machine after moving on to a portafilter – even if it was cheapest of the el cheapos.
For manufacturers, this is an especially lucrative category because the low price point makes barriers to purchase negligible. And when the machine gives in, the customer is hooked and automatically upgrades to a more expensive model. Bright colors and cute designs also go a long way in this category to scoring points with the Instagram crowd.
Pretty but pretty useless: The DeLonghi ECOV 311 looks great on Insta but that’s about all it’s good for.
The only reason I spend any time on this category is that the market is literally flooded with machines of this kind. Even though I appreciate that the DeLonghi EC 685 Dedica is great value for money, the bar is set very low here.
So what does that mean for you guys? Ideally, it would be really cool if someone out there opened a real “self-service” espresso bar where customers operated the portafilters themselves. Then it would be easy for anyone to test the waters.
That (pricey) espresso machine sitting on your countertop demands respect. With a $300 unit, there’s no pressure. So it’s totally fine to go with one of the few good products in this category. Just be aware that you’ll want a better machine – and soon.
Espresso Machines Starting from $500: Inspiration Comes in Small Packages
A decent super-automatic coffee machine runs to between $600 and $800. For less than than than, you can get a good portafilter machine. Plus, the levels of innovation in this category are incredible. Just look at those handy, automatic milk wands, for instance.
One very successful example is Breville’s the Bambino Plus. It’s a compelling offer with exactly that kind of milk frothing system in addition to variable temperature settings, adjustable water volumes and decent pressure. All for just under $500.
Anyone keen on a “serious” entry-level machine to learn the espresso pulling ropes and build confidence should expect to invest around $500 to $700. Remember, you need to get a feel for an espresso machine. So if you’re just starting out and haven’t warmed to the Breville, give it a bit of time.
You can definitely expect competition in this price category to hot up soon. More and more new products are reaching the market. Which is means increased pressure on prices. Yay!
Espresso Machines from $700: Timeless for a Reason
The Rancilio Silvia and Quick Mill Silvano 4005 used to be my recommendations for newcomers. Now, they’ve been nudged further up my skill scale. Yes, a bigger price tag is part of that but so is the fact that they are undoubtedly more intimidating.
Both machines are deservedly regarded as classics. High-quality, durable construction is just one of they reasons they’re a cut above the $500 bracket. But be warned that they are a bit more complicated and can be slow to heat up.
The good news is that if you buy one of these portafilters, it’s unlikely you’ll change models unless something seriously turns your head. As an average joe (drinker), you can’t really do better than the Silvia or a stablemate – especially once you’re comfortable with all its quirks and operation.
Disagree? I’m open to being persuaded otherwise. After all, there are loads of reasons to fall for a beast of a machine like the Rocket Espresso Dual Boiler R58 (love it!!!).
Admittedly, that’s kinda like comparing a Ford and a Ferrari. Both are cars; both will get you where you want to go. The Ford has a ton of advantages over the sports car. But for lots of people, the Ferrari is more car than the Ford.
Hybrid Machines: The Hip Remix
All the trademark consumer brands are beating their drums the loudest by far for their new espresso machines with grinders. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve dubbed these hybrids.
This is not exactly a new idea. I briefly dug into these machines with the old Breville the Barista Express way back in 2015. Then nothing happened for years.
At the IFA 2019 kitchen appliances show, I got to play with similar new products from master grinder-makers Graef and Swiss brand Solis (marketed as Breville in the U.S). I would even go so far as to say that hybrid machines are currently the trend in the world of coffee machines.
Why? Because they fuse two machine concepts to create a whole lot many advantages:
Real (!) espresso from a machine that’s usually as easy to use as a super-automatic
No need to buy an separate grinder
Largely automatic milk frothing
Many common espresso settings are automated
Hybrids are more forgiving of mistakes
Pretty compact units with high functionality
More effective cleaning because the coffee doesn’t pass through the machine
At the end of the day, these machines are still built on a compromise. Many manufacturers understand all too well that the purpose of this category is to make portafilters less intimidating. Of course, this half-and-half option also has its disadvantages – most of which overlap with super-automatic machine issues:
If a crucial part breaks, the whole machine is useless
Heat from the machine affects the beans
As your skills improve, you can’t take more control of the process
It’s not possible to upgrade individual components – least of all the grinder
In terms of sheer numbers, the advantages currrently outweigh the disadvantages. Which is why I’m really enjoying testing hybrids. When it comes to price, use La Specialista as your entry-level benchmark.
I don’t recommend investing more than what the Breville Oracle Touch costs. Sooner or later people who buy hybrid machines find they want a real portafilter and separate grinder. It’s practically a done deal.
What I can’t tell you for sure is how long it will take before you’re ready to take your credit card out again. After all, a hybrid is a big ticket item which makes most people think twice before replacing it. Besides, these machines do a nice job.
Unless the grinder gives problems or the whole thing packs up, there is little practical incentive for a change. The espresso from a good machine hits the spot and the milk froth is often even better.
Which is why I’ve come to the conclusion that you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of status and bragging rights. Hybrids are great and all. But come the next espresso drinkers anonymous meeting, you won’t get the same respect as the guys pulling shots from a swanky Italian-style portafilter.
Manual-Lever Machines: Patience and Plenty of Poseurs
Honestly, it’s not worth getting caught up in manual-lever machines. There’s also a reason La Pavoni Professional is the only one of these machines in this review.
Manual-lever machines are really only for design victims. No one is denying that look awesome and are the badge of a true coffee connoisseur. But they make life unnecessarily complicated and are comparatively hard on the wallet.
Think about it. If there really was more to it than showboating, coffee bars everywhere would be equipped with nothing but manual-lever espresso machines.
Of course, the hand-operated mechanism pays homage to the very first machines capable of making espresso to today’s quality standards. But automation has since overtaken them – making most things better and easier.
Ins and outs of a manual-lever machine
At a nuts and bolts level, manual-lever machines also extract espresso at a pressure of 9 bar. To do this, the lever is first lifted so water forces the piston up and creates resistance (Figure 1).
As soon as the water enters the brew chamber, it comes into contact with the espresso grounds in the portafilter. Don’t stress. Hang on a few more seconds and what you get is a pre-infusion that makes for perfect extraction.
The water cools down quickly on the first shot of the day because the brew group – which is a pretty chunky component – itself is not heated. Pulling a blank shot is warms it up, while flushing the portafilter at the same time.
In the second picture, you can see me depressing the lever to create the necessary pressure for the shot. Since the water is no longer being heated by the boiler at this point, the temperature in the basket should’ve dropped below that of the boiler so that it’s just cool enough.
Getting to the point where you can do this in your sleep, no matter what life throws at you, is going to take a lot of practice. Also keep in mind that a manual-lever machine is very unforgiving of a suboptimal grind and choice of espresso beans.
Another spanner in the works is that manual-lever machines (especially La Pavoni) tend to overheat after just a few espresso shots and need to stand for a while. And don’t even think about milk froth. Even so, La Pavoni Professional is a firm feature of my kitchen.
Once you’ve got the hang of it, there’s not much that can top it for getting the very best out of your espresso beans. La Pavoni will cost you around $1,000 upwards on Amazon. Plus a lot of time, patience and elbow grease.
Single-Boiler Espresso Machines: Basics for Purists
Let’s move on to the first “pro” category and its mechanics – which are also a good way to spot entry-level espresso machines even without referring to the price tag.
As the the name explains, single-boiler machines have a single source of hot water for both the coffee extraction and steam wand.
This is an issue because the water for frothing milk has to be hotter than to make the espresso. In fact, the temperature difference is quite big: For the espresso you need water at around 201°F, while decent steam is only formed at 230–266°F.
Bottom line, the temperature has to increase after the espresso has been pulled or drop before you can start on the next cappuccino or flat white. If that doesn’t happen, the coffee will be badly extracted and the espresso shot bitter. No surprises there.
Annoyingly, these heating and cooling processes always take a while. The problem is that a good cappuccino depends on the milk and coffee being combined as quickly as possible. By the same logic:
If you only drink espresso, or even Americano, a single-boiler espresso machine is perfectly fine!
As a die-hard purist, this why I’m a huge fan of the Rancilio Silvia. Despite its top-notch components and coffee, it’s more affordable than its competitors because it only has one boiler. The Breville BES500BSS Bambino Plus is an equally pleasant surprise at an even lower price.
Adventurous types who enjoy milky coffees can still get in on the single-boiler action by learning to temperature surf. This entails skillfully balancing wait times, blank shots and machine savvy. You can find out more in the Whole latte love blog post on the topic.
For a very successful mechanical solution to the temperature problem, look no further than the Quick Mill Silvano 4005, which adds a thermoblock to the single-boiler design. Voilà, you get to a stable steam temperature faster.
Heat-Exchanger Espresso Machines
Heat-exchangers also only have one boiler, the difference is that these portafilter machines feature two water circuits that operate at separate temperatures.
As a result, the steam for frothing milk and the brewing water for the espresso extraction can be move through the system simultaneously. No waiting time.
As you can see in the sketch (Only in German), the water in the boiler is heated to 230–266°F. This is what’s used to froth the milk. But there’s also a coil that runs through the boiler.
A combination of pipe material and flow time ensure that the water flowing through it reaches the optimal temperature range for extraction. This coil is the heat exchanger. On a lot of online platforms, it’s abbreviated (out of laziness or Internetiquette) to HX.
Unfortunately, there is still a risk of overheating inside the tube. You’ll know when this happens because steam escapes out of the portafilter outlet. So it’s back to the same problem as the single boiler: When the water is too hot, you get bitter espresso.
What works in your favor is that there’s a limited amount of water in the heat exchanger coil. So if there’s steam coming out of the portafilter machine, press the espresso button and flush the liquid. As a neat trick, use the drained water to warm your espresso cup.
The word thermosiphon often comes up in connection with heat exchanger systems. It’s a part that can help to control the temperature. For those of you like t get technical, you can read more about it on the Coffee Technicians Guild blog.
Now in its second generation, the entry-level heat exchanger with the highest name recognition is the Oscar Nuova Simonelli. From its striking design to its stellar brew, it makes a strong impression on coffee lovers.
At roughly $1,300 it’s also testimony to the frequently steep price hike between single boilers and heat exchangers.
What’s more, its weight of 52 pounds and slow heating time mean it’s not exactly neat and nippy. What’s more, there’s no hot water outlet, no way of visually monitoring pressure via a manometer and no standard option for pressure reduction.
If you really want to treat yourself, take a peek at the tradition-steeped ECM Technika IV, for one. No longer the newest model on the block, it’s nevertheless a good example of what you can get for around $2,600.
The ECM is the very definition of “prosumer” – blurring the line between home and pro barista. It’s drop-dead gorgeous and of a caliber to match. A number of the Bezerra espresso machines are also worth investigating.
Dual-Boiler Espresso Machines
The third “pro” category is devoted to portafilter machines with two independent boilers, which I’ve labeled “boiler I” and “boiler II” in the sketch (Only in German).
Much like with a heat exchanger, there are two separate systems: Boiler I supplies water for espresso and the necessary pressure, while boiler II supplies steam for the milk froth. This eliminates all the problems associated with single boilers and heat exchangers:
Zero waiting time, therefore zero impact on quality
No overheating due to the completely separate systems
Instead dual boilers open a new can of worms: If not subject to heavy use, the water can sit in the relevant boiler for extended periods because it’s only used for one thing. Constant reheating does nothing to improve water quality.
Be sure to consider what boiler size best suits your needs when buying a dual boiler. My advice: Smaller is better!
My pick of the dual boilers is very personal and highly subjective. When I was still a student and had just started Coffeeness, I had a special collection jar to save towards the Rocket Espresso Dual Boiler R58.
It still costs some $3,000, weighs a back-breaking 64 pounds and is still as alluring as ever. I’ll also probably still be raving about its functionality for the rest of time:
Brewing temperature can be set as desired. The PID has an external control unit. How cool is that?! This allows you to adjust the water temperature. Plus, it’s also beautifully engineered and quiet.
Sadly, I still haven’t managed to get one into my test kitchen. In part, that’s because I own so many other machines. But I also suspect that its price tag and my Coffeeness philosophy are simply incompatible. What do you think?
My excitement over the PID control propbably needs more explanation. Here goes: PID stands for “proportional integral derivative.” To put it simply, this device is responsible for ensuring that the water temperature ALWAYS remains constant during brewing.
To do this there are three aspects interact and things get seriously technical. Just remember, PID is a primarily a feature of dual boilers and (literally) hot stuff. Especially on a machine like the Rocket.
High-Pressure Situation: How an Espresso Machine Works
I’d need half the Internet to really get into the nitty gritty of espresso machine functioning. And you’d need an engineering degree. None of that is necesary to get a handle on the basics:
Water is heated in a boiler, coil or container, depending on the machine design. See single boilers vs heat exchangers vs dual boilers.
A high-quality pump ensures that this water doesn’t simply trickle from the spout, but is instead forced out under pressure.
The key to achieving this is the portafilter basket. Filled with an exact quantity of perfectly compressed grounds of the right grain size, it creates resistance from below.
According to the Italians, your machine is only one of five factors needed to create great espresso. They call it the 5M formula:
Miscela (espresso blend): High-quality espresso beans, preferably with a visible proportion of robusta beans for an extra-stable crema. Dosing matters. About a quarter of an ounce or 7 grams to be precise (and you should) is combined with just under one fluid ounce (25 ml) of water for a single shot.
Macinadosatore (grinder): Producing the finest possible grounds not only optimizes exctraction but also ensures an ideal contact time of around 25 seconds.
Macchina (espresso machine): The machine should ideally produce 9 bar of pressure to force water at a temperature of 201°F through the portafilter basket
Mano dell’operatore (user’s skill): Neat leveling and tamping, flushing the machine clean and perfectly adjusting settings are what turn good espresso into great espresso.
Manutenzione (maintenance): Flushing and cleaning your machine.
Although the formula never changes, you can tweak the variables to suit your taste, shot size, choice of blend and machine characteristics.
So you see, there’s more to mouth-watering espresso than just a machine. An insanely expensive professional machine can still produce a foul brew if you neglect the other aspects or use inferior quality.
It’s NOT having the flashiest tools that makes a master barista, but knowing how to use them!
What's the Hoo-Ha over Dual-Wall (Crema) Baskets?
Time and again, you’ve heard me be a bit a bit rude about dual-wall or “crema” filter baskets. Which may have given you the idea that not all baskets are equal. A quick way to tell an entry-level espresso machine from a professional one is the filter baskets – and sometimes the holders.
All you have to do is flip the baskets upside down and feel them:
If the baskets are double walled and have only a few small holes or a single hole at the bottom, they are “crema” baskets for beginners.
Baskets with a single wall and a base that looks like a strainer are the professional version.
As the name “crema” strainer suggests, this is all about producing that hotly debated foam on an espresso. Whether you consider crema important for espresso or not, it’s a foolproof indicator that your 5M preparation process is gelling nicely.
Achieving the necessary pressure is usually where the wheels come off. To do this, you need to dovetail four of the five aspects: machine performance, puck compression, grind and coffee dosage. Beginner machines and beginner skills often miss the mark on all four.
Which is where double-walled baskets come in. The smaller hole compensates for these shortcomings by creating the necessary resistance to the water. So it’s a bit of a cheat to help you pull a drinkable espresso.
Of course, no pro would be seen dead with such things. Proper – perfectly calibrated – machinery and an unfailing deft touch mean seasoned baristas are aiming for full, even and clean extraction. With a basket that’s up the the task.
Real purists go for the “naked” (bottomless) portafilter without the usual spouts. That way, you can watch the espresso extraction process directly. Some professionals even insist that it’s better for the coffee not to come into contact with too much metal or worse – plastic (cheap machines!).
Rationalizations for this thinking range from hygiene issues, through questionable materials, to how contact with metal reduces the temperature. I like naked portafilters, too. But my priority is a quality basket and a handle that fits perfectly in your palm.
Portafilter vs. Super-Automatic Machine: Which One is Right for You?
You guys often ask me which portafilter machine I would recommend. Another question that comes up at least as often is whether you should put an espresso machine or a super-automatic coffee machine in your shopping cart.
The short answer is:
Doesn’t matter – as long as you use decent coffee beans.
For the longer version, you also need to answer a question:
How committed are you to making coffee?
And I don’t just mean in terms of willingness to learn, but also time, money and patience. A portafilter machine isn’t just a nice to have the way a super-automatic machine is. Real espresso is made with a portafilter. What comes out of super-automatic is espresso-esque. I could go on.
But that won’t help anyone. Instead, I’ve made you a kind of checklist with typical questions and answers to match. If there is anything important missing here, feel free to write me a comment!
I don’t know anything about either type of machine, but I’m very interested in espresso, cappuccino, etc. If they didn’t already exist, I’d have to invent hybrids just to answer this question. In many ways, they are much simpler machines than super-automatic coffee makers. But they don’t require the same level of expertise as a portafilter. The integrated grinder and, in most cases, automatic steam wand are, of course, big pluses. And don’t forget the built-in tamper. Best of all, you can whip up real (!) espresso.
I like to try out different beans and have high standards in coffee. You mean espresso beans and espresso coffee, right? Then nothing beats a portafilter machine. Because that’s the only way to tease the best out of the ingredients just as the roaster intended – without compromising or messing around. But if it’s pour-over coffee and coffee beans you’re after, go with a dripper all the way. A super-automatic machine is always (!) a compromise and what comes out of the spout is neither espresso nor pour-over coffee.
I love espresso and frothed milk drinks, but my budget is tight. Even though there’s a flurry of activity at the very affordable end of the espresso machine market, you still have to budget for a good coffee grinder, decent tamper, knock box and, of course, beans. Which is what gives the all-in-one, super-automatic allrounders an edge over the rest. But don’t discount a good-quality portafilter’s huge advantage – durability. If a component breaks, you don’t have to toss the whole machine.
My family is very coffee-politan – everyone likes something different. As long as they’re not all total coffee geeks, I recommend a super-automatic machine. Otherwise life gets too complicated and things break faster. Plus, everyone can program their favorite drinks on a super-automatic machine. And the automatic milk frothing system is not to be sniffed at.
I only drink espresso. Portafilter, no ifs or buts. Even if it’s inexpensive. Super-automatic machines produce an espresso-esque drink, but the real deal only comes out of a portafilter machine. Need to compromise? Get a hybrid machine.
I sometimes forget the cleaning schedule. Portafilter! Since the coffee doesn’t pass through the machine, there’s less chance of mold. Cleaning and descaling are still not negotiable, but are less of a job than with a super-automatic machine.
I want a quick cup of coffee in the morning. Depends. If you’ve spent a lot time honing your portafilter prowess, you can be sipping almost as quickly as with a super-automatic machine. But remember that higher priced models, in particular, have longer heat-up times. The conveniences of a super-automatic machine are better at easing you into the day.
I need a machine for the office. Super-automatic, no question. All those people with different skill levels and needs fiddling around with a complex piece of precision engineering. Bad idea.
I want to make a splash on Instagram. Is that even a question? Portafilter, what else?! No matter how many followers you have, nothing can match it for style. It makes every kitchen look like a gourmet temple.
What Accessories do I Need for an Espresso Machine?
That little word “need” tells you the whole story: Investing in making espresso unfortunately doesn’t begin and end with the machine. After all, unlike with super-automatic espresso machines, your portafilter won’t have a built-in coffee grinder. Which means buying a separate one.
Even if you dodge that bullet by getting a hybrid machine, you’ll notice after a bit of playing around with what comes in the box that something is missing. You haven’t yet reached absolute portafilter nirvana.
Let me help you out with a whistle-stop tour of the most important portafilter accessories – from the essential to the optional extras:
Invest in a good coffee grinder!
Or better yet … an exceptional espresso grinder. One of the drawbacks to many entry-level automatic models is that they don’t grind the beans finely enough to ensure sufficient pressure builds up in the portafilter.
Believe it or not, you almost never encounter this problem with good manual espresso grinders like my Comandante (pricey) or the Porlex Tall hand mill. But who wants to crank up an arm cramp every time you want a cup of espresso?
Not sure what I mean by an exceptional grinder? Check out these two models from my coffee grinder review (currently in German only), which are ideal for pairing with a portafilter:
Both have a rather hefty price tag. Based on my long-term testing, I can confidently tell you that these grinders are practically indestructible. What’s more, you’ll be hard pressed to find a mill in this price range that produces a more even grind.
Despite being a much thriftier option, the Graef CM 800 also gets constant use in our kitchen.
A number of upgrades later, the Graef 800 series continues to be characterized by its excellent performance and relatively low price. Although not a seamless range, 40 grind settings make for pretty fine calibration.
So what’s the catch? Well, disassembling the machine to clean it is no walk in the park. And what with all that plastic and the static it creates, it’s also something you’ll need to do often. Even so, you’re off to a good start with Graef CM 8 series.
And don’t be so quick to dismiss a separate grinder just beause you have a hybrid machine. With a standalone grinder, you can save yourself a lot of the hassle of resetting the DeLonghi La Specialista when, for example, you try out new beans. It’s not essential, but worth considering.
Treat yourself to a “real” tamper
Let me brutally honest. Virtually all the portafilter machines I’ve tested for you come with a tamper that looks like something out of a lucky packet. Most of them are not ergonomically designed. Plus, they’re too flimsy which is why can’t generate that all-important surface pressure of about 30 pounds.
No pressure, no properly packed coffee puck. The water easily slips through the grounds, the portafilter might pop off or you find a sloppy mess inside when you remove it. Bottom line: Tamping saves the espresso!
Things usually go better when there’s an automatic tamping station – a feature of hybrids. But it doesn’t always produce the level of compaction you want. Or the mechanism is acting up. You get the picture.
A decent tamper is a convenience that needn’t cost the earth. I’ve been thinking this is something worth reviewing. Do you agree?
So far, I haven’t settled on a favorite tamper. What matters to me is that the base is made of a very heavy and smooth alloy. The handle should be shaped so it fits perfectly in my hand, allowing me to apply firm downward pressure properly without pain.
Simplify your life with a knock box
So how do you get a used coffee puck out of the portafilter? Espresso machine manufacturers step back from the process at this point and leave it entirely up to you. You could bang your portafilter on the edge of the garbage can – ew! Otherwise, you have to find a suitable receptacle lying around the house or buy a knock box.
For your tabletop waste bin to be a knock box, it needs one special feature – the crossbar that you whack the edge of your portafilter against so that the coffee puck pops out in one go.
Considering the beating it will take, your knock box should be sturdy and as heavy as possible. A rubber or similar coating on the crossbar also helps dull the noise.
A dedicated knockbox isn’t just a question of hygiene and rounding out your coffee station. It’s also a form of quality control. Observing how the puck comes out of the portafilter and how well it keeps it’s shape when it lands in the container tells you a lot about how successfully you pulled your shot.
A pile of wet mud that plops into the container is just as bad as a bone-dry brickett that crumbles into dust on impact. The perfect puck remains largely intact before drying out and disintegrating.
(Only) latte artists need special pitchers
Do you need a milk pitcher that handles like a precision tool? Not unless you want to become a master of latte arts. Everyone else should be fine using the jug that arrives with their machine. If you’re short of a jug, it won’t cost much to get one and the payoff is huge.
Milk pitchers are shaped to facilitate frothing and are totally impervious to heat and steam. Whereas I would’t trust some types of glass.
When your money is burning a hole in your pocket…
… and you’re running out of ideas for what to spend it on, a tamping mat is sure to spark just as much joy as a fancy wooden cleaning brush. Of course, you can also splash out on a drawer base for your coffee pucks. And don’t even let me get started on the most exquisite espresso cups.
But before forking out for gimmicks, always (!) rather spend your money on choice beans. No supermarket brands, no mass-produced beans of dubious origin. Look for fair-trade roasters who are not only open about their procurement channels and sources of supply but also take pains over the roasting process.
This really is a non-negotiable. There’s good reason that the “miscela” (blend) is comes first in the 5M formula.
Top Tips for Awesome Espresso from a Portafilter
I’m not going to waste your time with an in-depth intro to the theory of espresso extraction using a portafilter machine. That would be pretty pointless. Because with these machines more than any other, learning by doing is the ony way. And repeat. Over and over again. After all, no two machines – or grinders – are exactly alike.
Instead, here are a few good tips to help you eliminate common mistakes and you get you pulling barista-quality espresso faster.
A high proportion of robusta beans is a big help: Although robusta – in contrast to arabica – is only starting to gain devotees, it’s by no means news to drinkers of Italian-style espresso. Italian roasts often feature a fairly high robusta content. The result? A good caffeine kick and stable crema. Even with a few hiccups in your 5M formula, you can still pull a full-bodied espresso.
Learn the operating instructions off by heart: On many super-automatic machines and other equipment, the functions are self-explanatory or go unused. With a portafilter machine, you need to read the operating instructions carefully and run through the whole procedure a number of times (!) in full.
Start troubleshooting with the grinder: Most extraction flaws are introduced at the grinding stage. Identifying your mill’s sweet spot – where the grind is fine, but not too fine – can be a drawn out process. If no coffee comes out of the portafilter, it’s probably because the water can’t get through the puck. Start by adjusting the grinder to a coarser setting. In contrast, a quick gush of weak espresso indicates the opposite. Still getting nowhere? Check whether the grinder is up to the job.
Practice with a kitchen scale: Every aspiring barista has to first practice tamping with a kitchen scale. It’s the only way to learn how to exert just thre right amount of pressure on the coffee puck. Eventually, you can rely on muscle memory. We’ve already seen how optimal pressure is make or break for espresso. So be sure to get it spot on.
Become a clean freak: Below, there are detailed instructions on cleaning an espresso machine. Commit them to memory and – above all – be a conscientious cleaner. Although the coffee doesn’t pass through a portafilter machine’s innards, limescale and other water-related deposits are a major issue. The more often you clean between extractions, the less likely you are to struggle with limescale and blocked baskets.
Is Getting a Second-Hand Portafilter a Good Idea?
In response to the same question about super-automatic espresso machines, I always say steer clear of second hand. Because you never know how the previous owner looked after the machine – or if it was cared for at all.
Same goes for used espresso machines, of course. The difference – and advantage – is that the coffee grounds never travel through the machine, so there’s no chance of mold in deep, dark corners. Everything else you can see and test directly. Which is exactly what you should always do before buying a used machine.
Thanks to the longer life spans that very high-end espresso machines are expected to have, they can be a real bargain when bought second hand. As always, however, don’t go in blind. Usually, chatting to sellers reveals whether they know anything about the machine and have treated it with respect.
Descaling and Cleaning a Portafilter Machine: Simple Necessity
Compared to super-automatic machines, the cleaning an espresso machine is an absolute cinch. No milk hoses, no internal brewing group and no built-in grinder to painstakingly disassemble.
Unfortunately, this often lulls people into thinking that the usual flushing between shots is good enough and they can let the cleaning slide. But they’re forgetting about all the water used. And where there’s water, you’re going to have to descale.
Depending on the machine, I generally recommend up to six different cleaning steps, which you have to perform with varying frequency and intensity:
Before, between and after each espresso shot
Quickly cleaning and drying portafilter handles and baskets
Removing coffee residues from the brew group with a special brush, if necessary
Flushing the brew group. Let a little hot water pass through the machine without attaching the portafilter
Before, between and after frothing milk
Cleaning and drying milk pitchers
Quickly flushing the wand with steam
Removing milk froth residue from the wand’s exterior with a clean, damp cloth reserved (!) especially for the purpose
Every time you top up the water
Briefly rinsing the tank before refilling
At the end of a day’s use
Flushing and brushing the brew group
Deep cleaning and drying of all removable components (baskets, handles, water tank, milk pitcher, drip tray, tamper, knock box, etc.)
Apply special powder detergent to remove stubborn coffee oils
The key tool for this job is the blind basket. If you have Breville’s the Bambino Plus mini-machine, it’s called the backflush disc. Whatever you call it, it’s job is to stop the water flowing out of the portafilter and keep it in the machine.
I’ve even heard it referred to in German as “letting the machine gargle.” Which is actually pretty accurate. Because the detergent has nowhere else to go, it swishes around the brew group until it’s spotless.
If that sounds elaborate and complicated, it’s not. Seconds later, you’re all done. Make a habit of it and it soon becomes part of your routine. Cleaning a portafilter machine is really no big deal.
Descaling an espresso machine also sounds like a chore. Don’t worry, you don’t have to do it as often as cleaning and it’s a pretty routine affair. Of course, descaling intervals depend on:
How hard your water is
In fact, descaling is easier and the intervals are longer than for a super-automatic. We’re talking once a month or even once a quarter.
Keeping an eye on your machine’s outward appearance will help you guage things. When you spot mineral buildup in the coffee, on the portafilter handle or brew group, it’s almost too late.
For starters, simply put the descaler in the water tank or a bowl and allow all the moving parts to soak for the appropriate length of time. Portafilter baskets and handles should soak for about 30 minutes before being thoroughly washed and dried.
Fill the water reservoir with descaling liquid and leave it to stand for a similar length of time. The same goes for milk lances (the kind that unscrew) and shower screens.
To a certan extent, descaling a portafilter machine depends on its design and construction – i.e. single boiler, heat exchanger, dual boiler, etc. More affordable single-boilers such as Breville’s the Bambino Plus guide you through the process with illuminated buttons and specific button combinations. Things are more complicated with higher-end models with a classic design.
I can’t say it often enough – it’s imperatve that you to always follow the operating instructions for your particular machine.
In the original version of this article, I mentioned that I prefer to avoid harsh chemicals and use citric acid for descaling instead. Many of you have rightly taken me to task over this.
I was thinking of my La Pavoni Professional and its non-aluminum boiler. But many other portafilter machines contain aluminum, which is corroded by citric acid.
So my tip now is: Use a descaling agent recommended by the manufacturer. You don’t necessarily have to stick to a branded product, just its ingredients.
Milk Froth from an Espresso Machine: A Whole Different Ball Game
Making milk froth with a steam wand is no cake walk, which is why I’ve dedicated a whole, detailed section to it in my post on the topic (currently only in German). There, you’ll find all the basic pointers on how to perform the decidedly tricky wand procedure to create a pourable, microfoam of just the right temperature.
Despite all the milk frothing finesse I’ve gained doing the job by hand over the years, I have to admit that the automatic milk wands on many inexpensive espresso machines and hybrids are amazing!
Ok, so they do nothing for your skill set. And not every automatic wand produces results that a latte artist would be proud of. But producing froth like the DeLonghi La Specialista or the Breville Bambino is no mean feat!
Which is to say that all-manual milk wands are a hallmark of very premium espresso machines. Getting the knack of it is quite the status symbol.
If the thought of having to froth milk this way is one of the reasons why a portafilter gives you the heebie-jeebies, the new generation of consumer machines will come to your rescue. And do it more hygienically than the automated system on a super-automatic machine.
Deciphering Data Sheets When Buying an Espresso Machine: What to Focus on and What You Can Forget About
Instead of huffing and puffing through a very long conclusion, here are a few final tips on how to read portafilter machine data sheets or product descriptions. It is important to me that you don’t let the wrong numbers distract you or buy a machine that you won’t use to the full.
Single boiler, heat exchanger, dual boiler: If you drink espresso black, you only need one boiler. There’s no reason you can’t save the extra cost for more complicated features.
Heat-up time: The bigger and more detailed the boiler design or machine, the longer the heating time. A very important consideration for those who are short of time in the mornings. The Rancilio Silvia, for example, takes about 20 minutes to heat up, while Breville’s the Bambino Plus is all set in three minutes.
Pressure rating: “It’s pushes out 19 bar. Pretty awesome, hey?” Nope. Even if it can produce as much as 19 bar, let’s hope it’s only 9 bar directly at the brew group. Much like with super-automatic machines, ignore pressure ratings unless they’re totally outside the ball park in a bad way. Everything else is more for more’s sake.
PID: A temperature controller and major plus point that delivers better results.
Single- or double-walled baskets: Double equals less toil and trouble because they increase pressure in the basket. But in the long run, you get better results with single-walled baskets. So check whether the baskets can be switched out for “pro” models. The key here is noting the basket diameter (you may need to convert inches into millimeters).
Reservoir size: I’m all for a couple of extra ounces. Thorough flushing etc. cosumes quite a lot of water. Constantly having to refill the water tank qets old quickly. The hybrid La Specialista, for one, has a great reservoir volume that allows it to take continual use and countless shots in its stride.
Grinder calibration: Only a factor on hybrids, of course. No debate here – the more, the better!
Spout height and cup raisers: A higher spout is great for latte cups. But ensuring the espresso demitasse is close to the spout is more important. Otherwise the coffee splatters and gets cold quickly. In this case, you should look for a cup raiser or something to put underneath the espresso cup to lift it up closer to the brew group.
Measurements: Remember with a manual milk wand to allow space to the left or right so there’s room to maneuver. Depending on the model, machine depth is important when removing the tank, as is the height.
Weight: A double-edged sword: There’s a risk with light-weight machines that the whole machine will shift when you insert the portafilter. For a hefty hunk of machinery – 45 pounds and up – you’ll need a really solid support.
What tips, tricks can you offer? Questions are also welcome. I’d love to hear your comments!