Review Of The Breville Barista Express Espresso Machine: Jack Of All Trades Or Master of None?

People often ask me if there’s a beginner-friendly espresso machine that won’t cramp your brewing style the way super-automatic espresso machines do.

Barista Review

People often ask me if there’s a beginner-friendly espresso machine that won’t cramp your brewing style the way super-automatic espresso machines do.

In other words, the kind of brushed-stainless steel machine you’ll see in coffee shops, but doesn’t require a B.A. (Barista of Arts, obviously) degree to operate it.

And so there is! Meet the Breville Barista Express. A strong contender for the title Best Espresso Machine for Beginners.

Just so you know, this machine is master of disguise, popping up in different places with a new name and passport. In the UK, it’s called the Sage BES875UK Barista Express, while in other parts of Europe, such as Germany, it’s known as the Gastroback Advanced Pro S 42612 GS (a serious mouthful, that).

Solid mid-range espresso machine

Breville Barista Express

Best hybrid espresso machine with grinder.

Very easy operation

Stylish design

High-quality workmanship

Very good value for money

Lots of espresso settings and learning opportunities

A hybrid machine with the usual limitations

Don’t be fooled by all that “Pro” and “Advanced” in the German name. The price — currently slightly under $700 on Amazon — and features indicate this is solid beginner territory.

Which is why this review will focus on how fledgling home baristas can make great espresso (and lattes or cappuccinos) and what sets this machine apart from prosumer appliances.

Breville Barista Express overview

The Breville Barista Express — the Big Picture on a Small Machine

The Breville brand has its roots in Australia where it initially earned its reputation with a sandwich toaster. Since then, it has made inroads into the consumer market with more gourmet-style equipment for home cooks. And that’s just the niche Breville is aiming for with the Barista Express.

First impressions? With all its brushed stainless steel, dials, settings and gauges, the espresso machine certainly looks like it would be at home with the pro baristas in your local coffee shop. But give it a second glance and you’ll see that it’s set up to automate a lot more processes than a bona fide portafilter does.

Breville Barista Express pressure gauge

Take the built-in grinder and auto-tamper, for instance. In fact, purists might sneer that the Breville Barista Express is really just a super-automatic espresso machine dressed up as a portafilter.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As long as you know that hybrid machines are built on compromises — which you’ll notice in the performance. Plus, when push comes to shove, it’s almost impossible to get affordable replacement parts. One bust component means the whole machine is bust.

Despite all that, the Breville Barista Express has what it takes to teach you the steps and maneuvers to pulling a good espresso shot. Which makes it a pretty ideal tutor in the dark arts of coffee à la Italiano.

Honestly, it’s a good deal. Aside from all that brushed stainless steel, there are tons of thoughtful little details, such as the two types of filters and a milk jug with a temperature gauge, which make your barista learning curve a lot less steep.

I can confidently say that many of you will be very happy with this machine and use it for a long time. But sooner or later, as you get into the groove, you’ll eventually feel the irresistible call of a “genuine” portafilter.

Which raises the question of whether it’s worth shelling out for an intro model you’ll outgrow. I strongly believe no one will tire of this machine within a month. Nope, we’re talking years before you get the itch to switch.

And thanks to the quality workmanship, a well-cared-for Breville Barista Express should earn you a good chunk of change on the second-hand market. Consider it a deposit on a proper portafilter machine for your kitchen.

Time for a quick recap:

The Breville Barista Express is a great buy for beginners.

The Breville Barista Express is a great buy for beginners. Despite trade-offs in high-end pro features, it cleverly bridges the gap between a super-automatic and a traditional espresso machine with a portafilter.

Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages.

Breville Barista Express’ Pros and Cons

  • Very easy operation
  • Super-stylish design
  • High-quality workmanship
  • Very good value for money
  • Lots of espresso settings and learning opportunities
  • Cleverly conceived accessories and details
  • Good espresso extraction
  • Great milk froth
  • The grinder could be better
  • A hybrid machine with the usual limitations

The first con actually stems from the second one, since combo equals compromises. Despite that, the Breville Barista Express manages to keep these trade-offs to a minimum. That alone is quite an accomplishment.

The Breville Barista Express’ Features

Accessories — whether for a super-automatic or espresso machine with portafilter — are inevitably something of an afterthought. Not so with the Breville Barista Express. That’s because they’re a big part of the machine’s appeal for beginners. So what’s in the box?

  • 17-ounce milk jug
  • A magnetic tamper
  • The “Razor” dosing tool to precisely level off coffee
  • “The Razor” – a dose-trimming tool that lets you precisely level off the coffee
  • Single- and dual-wall filter baskets
  • Removable, half0-gallon water tank

As for the double-wall filter baskets, we’ll get to those and why they’re designed for freshman baristas in a bit.

While the Razor dosing tool is a pointless gimmick, at least it’s a harmless one.

Breville Barista Express packaged Razor dosing tool

In contrast, a tamper is an important accessory for extracting perfect espresso. The good news is this one is good quality, with one catch: It’s suspended by a magnet when not in use. If the tamper were any heavier, the magnet wouldn’t be able to support it. For the actual tamping job, heavier would’ve been better. Still, the fact that it is included is a big plus.

A removable water tank is one of the most obvious trademarks of a hybrid or home espresso machine. Since you have to remove and replace the tank at the back of the machine, a half-gallon tank is pretty standard capacity.

The Breville Barista Express water tank

Beware of sloshing and spilling water when maneuvering a full tank, it happens quickly. Another reason to think twice about filling the tank is that if your home isn’t inhabited by coffee-fiends, you won’t consume the water very fast. Water that’s left in the tank is stale and you need fresh water to make good coffee.

That said, what with brewing coffee, running cleaning cycles and making steam for milk froth, etc., the Breville Barista Express gets through half a gallon fairly fast. Some find it a pain the neck, but it promotes good hygiene, so I’m in favor.

Dimensions and Other Specs for the Breville BES870XL

CategoryValue
ManufacturerBreville
NameBreville BES870XL Barista Express
StyleEspresso machine with portafilter and built-in
conical grinder
TypeThermocoil heating system
Grinder settings18
Dimensions (WxDxH)13.2 x 12.5 x 15.8 inches
Water filter
Steam wand
Adjustable temperature
Pre-brewing feature
Hot water function
Volume of bean container½ pound
Maximum pump pressure15 bars
Weight23 pounds
Water tank67 ounces

Check out the specs. You’ll see you will see the Barista Express does a good job of juggling beginner-friendly, super-automatic features and prosumer ones. So let’s dig deeper into the components and functions.

Trust is Good Temperature Control Is Better

The first sign that the Breville BES870XL Barista Express is serious about the pursuit of perfect coffee is the PID controller centered on the actively heated group head. Ignore the intimidating acronym. The thing is just a gauge that permanently monitors the brew head, ensuring perfect espresso extraction in the basket.

What’s more, you can also adjust the water temperature in increments of one or two degrees between 187º F and 205º F. Forget about other beginner machines giving you that kind of temperature control like that. Still finding your feet? The default setting is also a good starting point.

Another bonus is the pre-infusion where the freshly ground coffee is moistened before extraction. Once again, not your average entry-level feature.

The Daily Grind Made Easy

What we have here is not only the machine’s heart and soul but also one of its most persuasive purchasing arguments. That’s because the 18-level integrated conical burr grinder dispenses freshly ground beans directly into the portafilter basket. One less step — and appliance cost — between cup and lip.

Selecting the right grind size is simple, thanks to the clear markings on the dial. Beginners should start with the finest level, before gradually adjusting the coarseness to achieve perfect extraction.

The Breville Barista Express grinder

I admittedly assumed entry-level machine = hit-or-miss on the finest settings. And I wasn’t wrong. Even with the dial tuned to the smallest grind sizes, the Breville Barista Express doesn’t get close to powder.

Adjusting grind coarseness on the Breville Barista Express

Just as there’s no way to change that on the machine itself, you’re also stuck with the grinder and brew head right next to each other.

That can become a bugbear over time. The reason is that although the dispensing is accurate, stray coffee particles still end up mixing with water and getting into places you don’t want them.

Of course, you need to get into the habit of thoroughly cleaning the drip trays daily. But the hard truth is the design makes messes all the more likely.

Another big up to Breville is a the option to adjust coffee dosage entirely by hand or the use of the dial. It’s more evidence of pro-leanings that will appeal to customers who like to experiment.

A final word on the bean hopper: With a capacity of half a pound, it holds enough for about 30 espresso shots. Great for a large family. Less so for smaller households. Rather refill more frequently and avoid filling the container completely.

Packing Heat: Steam Wand and Hot Water

When it comes to milk froth the Breville Barista Express goes all out with a pro-style steam wand. No freshman fripperies. But it can swivel 360 degrees and generates enough water pressure at the tip to create evenly textured microfoam.

Breville Barista Express steam wand

There’s a separate hot water outlet (we like!). Similarly to the steam wand, you can select it via a dial on the side of the machine. Be warned, the spout sits fairly high up on the machine, so there is a danger of unavoidable spattering. Keep your hands clear!

Portafilter and Baskets

It’s time to talk about those disconcerting double-wall filter baskets that come with the Breville Barista Express. I’ve already written a lot about these in my review of the DeLonghi Dedica EC 685.

Why two walls? These beginner baskets allow the espresso to flow into the basket through many holes, but only exit through one. The upshot is that, even if you bungle the setup, you’ll still get a shot of espresso with a thick crema.

In other words, your espresso will pass the taste test, although sophisticated palates might pick up on how you fudged things with the filter.

Once you feel more confident, you should switch over to the single-wall baskets. They give you more precise control of the finer points without needing to cheat your way to good results.

I’m pleased to report that the portafilter is high quality and locks neatly into place (once you’ve got the hang of it).

Every barista knows that is a tricky step when you’re still new to the game. We all remember cleaning up a few small coffee explosions after failing to properly secure the portafilter. With this machine, that’s very unlikely to happen.

Breville Barista Express portafilter plastic inlay

Unfortunately, the portafilter contains a small and unnecessary plastic inlay.

High-Water Marks: The Tank and Filter

While I’ve already said my piece about the half-gallon water tank, I should add here that Breville Barista Express also includes a very good water filter. Kit that’s not common on most beginner machines.

Getting with the Program: The Control Panel and Settings

In terms of settings, there’s almost nothing that you can’t program on the Breville Barista Express. In that sense, it’s very professional. But it’s not a stretch to get great results simply by adjusting the grind size and grind amount (single or double shot).

You can also save three personalized settings. The front control panel clearly displays the important factors at a glance. You only really need to grab the manual when fine-tuning individual components.

For such adjustments, you use specific button combinations. Starting out by programming the perfect coffee dosage for a single or double shot really isn’t difficult.

One feature to keep an eye on is the pressure gauge on the machine’s front. It tells you the current pressure in the brew unit, making it the ideal visual aid to help you master the dark art of coffee. That’s because it immediately tells you if your settings will work together to produce enough pressure.

It’s also worth looking out for the different lights and symbols that indicate when cleaning or emptying is required. The (frequent) flashing and message is pretty unmistakable, so you won’t be left wondering what to do next.

Getting the Breville Barista Express To Do its Thing

The components rundown already shows that operating the Breville Barista Express is pretty much idiotproof.

I would still definitely recommend that you start off with cheap espresso beans and keep the manual at your side for the first few coffees.

Breville’s instructions are actually an excellent textbook for home baristas. In fact, a lot of what you learn translates seamlessly to operating professional espresso machines.

Anyone who already kinda knows the drill will feel right at home. Which is another point in the machine’s favor. When I put the machine through its paces, I noticed a couple of points which are worth mentioning.

Decibels and Safety Whistles

The noise (which my grumbling only added to) is grinder’s rumblings. So it’s not the world’s quietest stainless-steel conical burr grinder.

At least, the 23-pound machine is very sturdy. Even when using the tamper while it is attached to the machine (which I dutifully did for the review, although normally I do it by hand), nothing shifted at all.

Frothing Milk with the Breville Barista Express

This steam wand is a blast in every sense of the word! Sure, the pressure is more home-barista than coffee shop. But the steam wand can pivot 360-degrees and the handy milk pitcher make it a breeze to produce microfoam that’s good enough for even latte art.

Breville Barista Express milk pitcher

Thanks to the rubber grip on the steam wand, you’re far less like to burn yourself. From a pro perspective though, I have a small gripe.

Milk froth from the Breville Barista Express

Because there isn’t much space in front of the machine, you have to hold a cloth over the steam wand when flushing out milk residues. On other machines, you can just the release the cleansing steam into the drip tray without any risk of scalding yourself.

Making milk froth with the Breville Barista Express

It’s not the end of the world but with the Barista Express, you risk messing in your coffee or even splattering the whole machine.

Coffee Extraction and Getting Your Brew on

Ultimately, what makes or breaks a machine is how good it’s black (caffeinated) magic is. And while the Barista Express checks a number of boxes, there are some definite negatives:

  • Once you’ve mastered single-wall filters and the ins and outs of brewing a good espresso shot, you can no longer overlook how the Barista Express falls short in the espresso grinder department. No matter how perfect your dose control and water temperature, a mediocre grinder negates those efforts.
  • If you’re the type that can turn a blind eye, the factory presets will serve you well enough. As is par for the course, you’ll need to decrease the water volume and increase the coffee dosage.

Think of the Breville BES870XL Barista Express as a typical system camera. Use it in auto mode and you’ll get rather meh pictures, much like from a cheap point-and-shoot camera. Put the camera in manual, make some adjustments and you’ll get an improvement. But the results still won’t compare to what you get from an expensive DSLR with an excellent sensor and a great lens.

Gallery ImageGallery ImageGallery Image
Breville Barista Express Espresso

Getting the Breville Barista Express Clean Enough to Drink off

Let’s be real: If the Breville Barista Express stops working like it should because it is too dirty, then it’s most likely your own fault. After all, there’s no shortage of cleaning accessories, settings and programs.

In fact, the obligatory rubber portafilter insert, Allen key, soft brush and bristles to clean the little holes in the filter are right on hand thanks to the convenient storage compartment in the machine.

It’s advisable to change the water filter more frequently than absolutely necessary.

Accessing the stainless-steel grinder is also no sweat. Although, as an experienced nuts-and-bolts guy I like to take disassembly a bit further than what’s described in the manual.

The cleaning tools for the Breville Barista Express

In addition to using the appropriate detergent, you have to be extra cautious about cleaning portafilter – and especially hybrid – machines. Much more so than with super-automatic espresso machines. The reason is that there are a lot of coils and features packed tightly into a small space.

The first commandment for coffee machines: Thou shalt clean out the drip tray and grounds tray every day. And don’t leave the steam wand for more than a day before soaking it overnight.

That’s because milk goes bad (in a germ free-for-all way) faster than ground coffee. Flushing deals with the worst of the residues.

Sounds like a hassle? It’s not that bad. Make a habit of it and cleaning the Breville Barista Express won’t take longer than washing a plate. OK, so I’m exaggerating only slightly.

Speaking of hygiene, the more you clean the brew head, the better. Again, this entails flushing in short bursts – preferably before and after every brewing cycle.

Another aspect of keeping your machine shipshape is all that brushed stainless steel. Which is a big part of the retro cool that got you to open your wallet in the first place. Problem is every fingerprint shows so you’ll have to get polishing.

A final word of advice: No part of this machine should go in the dishwasher. You’re probably looking at the portafilter and baskets and thinking, really? But if you ask me, espresso machines are artisanal machines and that means doing things the old-fashioned way. The milk pitcher is the one possible exception (grumbles to himself).

Cleaning the steam wand on the Breville Barista Express

Verdict on the Breville Barista Express

Bottom line: I’m excited – but not totally crazy – about the Breville Barista Express.

I think it is a great machine for beginners to learn about espresso and portafilter machines. But its hybrid nature means you quickly hit wall when trying to dig deeper into the various factors that go into the perfect espresso.

Solid mid-range espresso machine.

Breville Barista Express

Best hybrid espresso machine with grinder.

Very easy operation

Stylish design

High-quality workmanship

Very good value for money

Lots of espresso settings and learning opportunities

A hybrid machine with the usual limitations

To put it another way, if the manufacturer had skipped the integrated conical burr grinder and instead focused more on functionality, this machine could really have gone the distance to meeting pro expectations, too.

By the same token, I know that many of you will like it precisely because it gives you everything in wrapped up in a nice, tidy little format. All things considered, it’s fairly priced at just under $700 on Amazon.

Breville Barista Express Arne tastes Latte Macchiato

Of course, buying an espresso machine and separate grinder is never going to be as compact a package. That said, I think it’s a better choice by a country mile because you don’t have to compromise on anything.

Admittedly, two appliances also cost more, as is evident in my perfect pairing. The super-cute Rancilio Silvia is a compact machine and equally user friendly, priced at just over $700.

I (almost always) recommend the Eureka Mignon coffee grinder to go with it. Unfortunately, that will make another $700-shaped hole in your wallet. Quality never does come cheap and the Mignon is of the best.

Together, these two machines don’t take up much more space than the Breville Barista Express, but they might look a tad cooler. Plus, each is dedicated to producing flawless results in its specific niche.

If the Breville Barista Express has caught your eye, rest assured, there are reasons enough to recommend it. Those who know that their approach to coffee is on a fast-track to sophisticated should, consider my alternatives from the get-go.

Otherwise, you risk buying two machines in quick succession. Remember my little comparison earlier: The Breville BES870XL Barista Express is the system camera of espresso machines and there distinct advantages and disadvantages that go with that.

Let me know if I can clarify anything else for you, or if you’ve used the Breville Barista Express. See you in the comments!

I look forward to your comment

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