Breville (Sage) Barista Express Espresso Machine Review

People often ask me if there is an espresso machine that even a beginner can use, but one that can still overcome most of the limitations of common automatic espresso machines. In other words, many of you are searching for a machine that looks like it just came out of a coffee shop, but you don’t want to need a B.A. degree (Barista of Arts, obviously) to use it.

Barista Review

People often ask me if there is an espresso machine that even a beginner can use, but one that can still overcome most of the limitations of common automatic espresso machines. In other words, many of you are searching for a machine that looks like it just came out of a coffee shop, but you don’t want to need a B.A. degree (Barista of Arts, obviously) to use it.

Yes, there is such a machine. The Breville BES870XL Barista Express espresso machine has a name that is a mouthful to say, but it is a good candidate for the title of Best Espresso Machine for Beginners.

To make things a bit more confusing, there are different names for what are essentially the same machine, depending on where it’s sold. In the UK, it’s called the Sage BES875UK Barista Express, and in other parts of Europe, such as Germany, it’s called the Gastroback Advanced Pro S 42612 GS – and you thought the American name was long!

The “Pro” and “Advanced” parts of the German name point to this machine being a professional espresso machine, but the features and the price would say otherwise – I bought this machine on April 9, 2017 on Amazon.de for 614 euros (slightly more than $700).

Therefore, the theme of this report is: How can a beginner make a great espresso (or latte or cappuccino), and what makes this machine different from a professional-grade machine?

Breville / Sage Review

Overview of the Test and Review – Do We Recommend the Breville BES870XL Barista Express?

The name “Breville” is one that many people associate with professional cooking, a snack stand or food truck. However, Breville has made inroads in the consumer market and is now offering machines for home cooks who want to feel a bit more like pros. The Breville BES870XL is aiming for exactly this niche market.

At first glance this machine actually does look quite professional, with all the dials, settings and gauges – they will definitely remind you of the espresso machine in your local coffee shop. When taking a closer look, though, you will see that this machine automatically does a lot more than a true espresso machine would do by itself.

Breville BES870XL Barista Express Espresso Machine

For example, the built-in grinder or the connected tamper. If you want to be snarky, you could even say that the Breville BES870XL is actually a super-automatic espresso machine that is just pretending to be a traditional espresso machine.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. However, you should just be aware that when it comes to performance, these “in-between” devices will have to make cuts somewhere. In this case, it is nearly impossible to get any replacement parts. If one thing breaks, the whole thing breaks.

Still, the Breville BES870XL has the necessary parts and steps to make a decent espresso. That makes it almost the perfect guide to enter the world – nay, the art – of true Italian-style coffee.

Plus, the price is absolutely justified by what you get for your money. It has lots of clever little details, such as the two portafilter versions or a milk container with a temperature gauge, which will greatly simplify your life as an up-and-coming DIY Barista.

I’m really sure that many of you will be very happy with this machine and will use it for a long time. I also know, though, that as you get more and more experience, you will eventually gravitate toward “true” espresso machines.

You may be wondering if you will be making an investment in some kind of “flash-in-the-pan” espresso machine. However, I strongly presume that none of you will use this machine for just a few months and then change your mind. This is something that will probably last you for years before you move on.

Once that time does come, I’m quite sure that you will even be able to resell the Breville BES870XL if you took good care of it. It is a solid machine that will last a long time, and there will be nothing stopping you from making your own in-house coffee shop.

So, to summarize:

The Breville BES870XL Barista Express is a great machine for beginners. It adeptly bridges the gap between an automatic espresso machine and a traditional espresso machine with a portafilter, although it does need to make a few compromises as compared to a professional machine.

Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of the Breville BES870XL Barista Express

  • Very easy to use
  • Very stylish design
  • High quality
  • Very good balance between price and performance
  • Many settings for espressos, and it can also learn
  • Accessories and details are well-thought-out
  • Good results
  • Good milk foam

Disadvantages of the Breville BES870XL Barista Express

  • The grinder could be better
  • An “in-between” machine, with the usual limitations

The first disadvantage actually stems from the second one, since a combo machine needs to make compromises. Still, the Breville BES870XL manages to keep these compromises to a minimum. That alone is quite an accomplishment.

The Features of the Breville BES870XL Barista Express

When we talk about traditional or super-automatic espresso machines, we normally only mention accessories as an afterthought. However, when it comes to the Breville BES870XL Barista Express, the accessories are actually pretty interesting because they are the reasons why beginners will enjoy this machine. You will find the following stuff in the box:

  • A half-liter (17 ounce) milk jug (the UK model includes a built-in temperature gauge)
  • A tamper with a magnetic mount on the machine
  • “The Razor” – a dose-trimming tool that lets you precisely level off the coffee
  • Single- and dual-wall filter baskets
  • Removable two-liter water tank

Later in this review, we will take a closer look at double-wall filter baskets and why they are made for beginners.

Filters: Breville BES870XL

Filters double single

The Razor card is kind of dumb or at least unnecessary, but otherwise it is harmless. However, a true barista surely would not be caught dead holding a milk jug with a temperature gauge – they would instead make milk foam based on intuition, or at least use a real thermometer.

Razor: Breville BES870XL

Breville Sage razor

The tamper, on the other hand, is an important accessory that helps you make the perfect espresso. However, because you can use it hands-free by putting it in the magnetic mount, it doesn’t feel quite as heavy as I would like. Still, just the fact that it is included is a big plus.

Tamper

Tamper magnet

A removable water tank is obviously one of the most noticeable features of a combo or home espresso machine. A two-liter tank is pretty common because you need to remove and replace it at the back of the machine.

Water Tank

It is pretty easy to slosh and spill the water. If you live in a house with people who drink lots of coffee, you will likely use up the water really quickly and not even have to remember to always use fresh water, since you will be refilling it so often anyhow.

The 2 liters also get used up pretty quickly by making the coffee, using the cleaning cycle, making steam for milk foam, etc. Some people might not like that, but I think it’s good because it is more hygienic.

Technical Specifications and an Overview of the Parts

CategoryValue
ManufacturerBreville
NameBreville BES870XL Barista Express
StyleEspresso machine with portafilter and built-in
conical grinder
TypeThermocoil heating system
Grinder settings18
DimensionsWidth x Depth x Height:
13.2 x 12.5 x 15.8 inches (310 x 300 x 405 millimeters)
Water filter
Steam wand
Adjustable temperature
Pre-brewing feature
Hot water function
Volume of bean container½ pound (250 grams)
Maximum pump pressure15 bars
Weight23 pounds (10.4 kilograms)
Water tank67 ounces (2 liters)

If you look carefully at these specifications, you will see that it bounces rather sophisticatedly between feeling like a super-automatic espresso machine for beginners and a full-featured professional machine. So let’s take a closer look at the components and functions, including the temperature control.

The first hint that the Breville BES870XL Barista Express is serious about making the perfect coffee is the PID controller on the actively heated brewing unit. Basically, that just means that there is a control unit that is permanently connected to the brewing unit, monitoring the temperature, so that you will get the perfect espresso coming out of the portafilter.

You also have the ability to adjust the water temperature by one or two degrees at a time, between 187 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit (86 to 96 degrees Celsius), so that you can get closer to your perfect temperature. Other beginner machines won’t let you fine tune the temperature like that. In any case, the default temperature is also a good starting point.

It also does a pre-brew of the espresso. That means that it adds a bit of water to the ground coffee before it starts the extraction. That is another detail that you won’t find on any other entry-level machines.

The Grinder on the Breville BES870XL Barista Express

This part is actually the heart of the whole machine, and one of the best arguments in favor of buying it. The 18-level conical grinder dispenses the ground coffee directly into the filter, which sits in the “grinding cradle.” That saves you an extra step, and it also saves you from having to buy a separate grinder.

It is easy to select the right amount of ground coffee you want, and it is all clearly marked on a dial. Beginners should start with the finest level at first, and then gradually adjust the level until you get the perfect extraction.

Grinder

As is always the case with these entry-level machines, I assumed that the machine would have trouble working with the finest settings. That is where the Breville also clearly shows its limitations because, when using the finest settings, it doesn’t actually grind the beans very finely. That is something you can’t change, at least not by doing anything to the machine.

Grinder adjusting

In the long term, some people might find it annoying that the grinder and the inner workings of the machine sit right next to each other. Even though the dispenser is very precise, it is still common for a bit of ground coffee dust and water to make their way to other parts of the machine that aren’t supposed to have coffee or water.

Of course, you should thoroughly clean the drip trays every daily. However, the design makes it more likely for problems like this to happen.

It’s nice that you can completely manually ajust the amount of ground coffee, or you can also adjust and set it using a dial. That is another professional characteristic that will appeal to customers who like to experiment.

One more thing about the bean compartment: It can hold half a pound (250 grams), which will give you about 30 shots of espresso. This is really good for a large family. However, smaller households should never fill up the container completely, but instead should frequently add more beans, as needed.

Milk Frothing Wand and Hot Water Function

The Breville BES870XL Barista Express is really trying hard to make a professional impression by using this frothing wand. It doesn’t have any of the gimmicks that impress beginners. It can swivel 360 degrees and can build up enough water pressure at its tip that the frothed milk in the jug is uniform.

The hot water spout is separate (very nice!) and, like the foaming wand, you can control it with a switch on the side of the machine. However, it is fairly high up on the machine, so you should always be careful of your hands so that you don’t accidentally spray yourself with hot water.

Milk wand

Portafilter and Filters

Now we come to the ominous double-wall filter baskets that come with the Breville BES870XL. I have already written a lot about these in my review of the DeLonghi Dedica EC 680.

Portafilter

Double spout

The double walls of this filter ensure that the espresso flows through many holes, yet at the same time only comes out of one single spout. The advantage is that, even if you don’t set up things perfectly, you will still get an espresso with thick crema.

In other words: Your espresso will generally taste convincing, even if people with highly-trained palates might notice that you “cheated” a bit with the filter.

Once you feel more confident, you should switch over to the single-wall filter. This gives you more fine-tuned control, without feeling like you are “cheating.”

I’m pleased to say that the portafilter is high quality, and it is easy to fit perfectly it into place, even on the first couple tries.

Every espresso lover who has started out with a new machine knows that this step can be hard at first. Who among us hasn’t had to clean up a few small coffee explosions because the portafilter wasn’t attached correctly? With this machine, though, that is very unlikely to happen.

Unfortunately, there is a small and unnecessary plastic inlay on this portafilter.

Plastic portafilter

Water Tank and Water Filter

I have already talked about the two-liter water tank, but I want to mention here how the Breville BES870XL also includes a very good water filter. It is something you won’t find with most beginner machines.

Using the Control Panel and Saving Settings

In terms of controls, there’s almost nothing that you can’t adjust on the Breville BES870XL. It is very professional in that sense. Still, you will be able to get good tasting espresso simply by adjusting the grind coarseness and the amount of coffee (single or double shot) you want.

You can also save three individual settings. When you program the settings, it will clearly show you on the control panel what important settings you are saving. You will only really need to take a look at the manual if you want to make finer adjustments to individual components. To make those adjustments, you will have to use specific button combinations. However, at the beginning you can just stick to choosing a single or double shot.

One interesting feature is the pressure gauge on the machine’s front. It tells you the current pressure in the brewing unit. This detail is a perfect visual aid that will help you on your way to becoming a Jedi Barista because it immediately tells you whether your combination of settings is giving you enough pressure to work correctly.

It is also worth mentioning that the Breville uses different lights to let you know when it needs to be cleaned or emptied. You will see them flashing rather frequently, but fortunately it is very easy to understand what you need to do when you see them.

Using the Breville BES870XL Barista Express

We have essentially seen that – in terms of components, features and operation – the Breville BES870XL Barista Express is basically dummy-proof. I would still definitely recommend that you start off with inexpensive espresso beans for a little bit, and to keep the manual on hand while you enjoy your new machine.

The manual is actually an excellent textbook to learn about how to be a good barista. You can take the same knowledge you get from the manual and apply it directly to using professional espresso machines. If you have already checked out the manual, you will feel right at home using the machine, which is another plus. I had a few small things come up when I was making drinks, and it was good to know what was going on.

Noise and Safety Issues

One complaint I have is about the grinder’s rumbling noise. It is definitely not the quietest stainless-steel conical grinder that you will find.

On the other hand, the 23-pound (10-kilogram) machine is very sturdy. Even when using the tamper while it is attached to the machine (which I did for testing purposes – normally I do it by hand), nothing moved around at all.

Frothing Milk with the Breville BES870XL Barista Express

It is really fun to use this steam wand! Of course, it uses lower pressure, like any home espresso machine. However, the nozzle can pivot all around, and the little milk jug is very practical, so you can quickly learn to use them to get professional-looking milk foam – you could even use it to make latte art.

Temperature gauge

The rubber grip on the nozzle greatly decreases the chances that you will burn yourself. However, this is another place where I have a small complaint, from a professional perspective.

When you clean out the nozzle, you need to send short bursts of steam through the wand so that it cleans out the milk residue inside. Because there isn’t much space in front of the machine, you will have to spray that steam into a cloth. With other machines, it is usually possible to just spray it into the drip tray without any problems.

Foaming

Foam technique

Temperature

Foam for atte

There is a chance you will mess up your coffee or even splatter on the whole machine, but it is just a small consideration.

Cappuccino

Making Coffee

In the end, the main thing you really need to concern yourself with is how well it makes that sweet, black, caffeinated beverage we all love. In that sense, there are lots and lots of plusses and one big minus:

  • As soon as you have learned to use the single-wall filter and have mastered the details of making a good espresso, you will notice the limitations of this Breville. That’s because a mediocre grinder can cancel out all the efforts you will make to perfectly control the amount of coffee and the water temperature you want to use.
  • If you just stick to the factory presets, you will mostly be fine, but – as always – you should decrease the amount of water and increase the amount of ground coffee you use.

Essentially, the Breville BES870XL Barista Express is like a mid-range camera: If you just use it in auto mode, you will get mediocre pictures, as if you had just used a cheap point-and-shoot camera. You can fix a lot of problems by putting it in Manual and making some adjustments, but you still shouldn’t expect the kind of results you would get with an expensive DSLR that has an excellent sensor and a great lens.

Grinder amount automatic

Tamper pressing

Espresso

Crema

Cleaning the Breville BES870XL Barista Express

Let’s be real: If the Breville BES870XL stops working like it should because it is too dirty, then in most cases, it is your own fault. After all, it has plenty of settings and cleaning programs to help you out.

It is especially practical that the machine has a specific compartment where you can store the rubber insert for the portafilter, the small wrench, and the brush to clean out the little holes in the filter. That means they will always be handy.

It is good to change the water filter more frequently than absolutely necessary. It is also pretty easy to access the grinder, although I like to go a bit deeper into the machine – that is just the tinkerer in me, I guess.

Tools

When it comes to cleaning an espresso machine with a portafilter – especially a combo machine – you should always be more careful about using the correct cleaning products than you would need to be when cleaning a super-automatic espresso machine. That is simply because of all the curves and features that are close together in a small space.

The important thing is to clean out the drip tray and the coffee grounds tray every day. You should also not wait longer than a day to soak and clean the milk frother. That’s because milk goes bad more quickly than coffee.

As mentioned before, you can do a rough cleaning by turning on the steam in short bursts. This may sound like a hassle, but it’s not that bad. As long as you stick to routine cleaning, it won’t take you longer to clean the Breville BES870XL that it would to wash a few plates. Speaking of cleaning, the more you clean the spout, the better. You can also clean this with short bursts of steam, preferably before and after every brewing cycle.

One other cleaning detail you should not forget: One reason you bought the Breville BES870XL is likely because of its lovely retro, stainless-steel look. However, it shows every fingerprint, which means you will need to polish it!

One more little piece of advice: If you ask me, not a single piece of this machine should go in the dishwasher, even though you probably could put the filters in there. I think you should clean espresso machines manually.

If you have the milk jug with the temperature gauge, it can’t be maschine washed, either. If you just have a regular one, though, that might be the one part I would let you put in the dishwasher.

Cleaning

Summary: Breville BES870XL Barista Express Review

In a nutshell, I’m quite excited – although not absolutely crazy – about the Breville BES870XL Barista Express.

I think it is a great machine for beginners to learn about espresso and portafilter machines. I also think it pushes the limits of what a combo machine – between a traditional and automatic espresso machine – can do, especially if you want to understand more about what it takes to make a perfect espresso.

Taste

By that I mean: If the manufacturer had done without the built-in grinder and instead focused more on functionality, this machine would definitely be able to meet even the demands of professionals.

However, I also know that many of you will like it specifically because it gives you everything in once nice package – and it does that considerably well. Therefore, the price is therefore justified. I bought the German-market model on April 9, 2017 on Amazon.de for 614 euros, but you can likely get it cheaper in the US or UK.

Of course, you won’t get as compact of a package if you buy a full-on espresso machine and a separate grinder. However, I actually find that combination much better specifically because you don’t need to make any compromises or sacrifices.

Getting both devices also usually means spending more money, as we can see with my suggested alternative. The super cute Rancilio Silvia is a compact machine that is just as easy to use, and it only costs around $700.

I (almost always) recommend the Eureka Mignon coffee grinder to go with it. Unfortunately, that will take a dent of about $450 out of your wallet, although you will also have the best quality you can buy.

Together, these two machines don’t take up much more space than the Breville BES870XL, but they might look a tad cooler. The main thing is that they both concentrate on giving you perfect results in the one thing they are designed to handle.

Still, if it has already caught your eye, the Breville BES870XL is certainly a recommendable machine. However, if you happen to know that your coffee needs and demands will increase sometime soon, then I would suggest you check out my alternative recommendations from the get-go. Otherwise, there is a good chance you will end up buying two machines.

The Breville BES870XL Barista Express is like the mid-range camera of espresso machines, with both the advantages and disadvantages that come with that distinction.

Let me know if I can clarify anything else for you, or if you have had any personal experiences with the Breville BES870XL Barista Express. See you in the comments!

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