For a coffee lover on a budget, buying an espresso machine might prove challenging. How do you choose the best cheap espresso machine? What are the criteria that separates a good espresso brewer from a bad one? This is what this post proposes, to familiarize you with the technology, and give you a few hints on how to choose the best espresso machine for your budget.
For years owning an espresso machine was synonym with spending a lot of money, and the espresso and latte preparation was reserved to professional baristas, or wealthy people. That is not the case anymore, espresso preparing is now affordable, and if you purchase the right equipment, you will soon forget about the burnt, overpriced espresso shots from Starbucks.
WalMart doesn't want you to buy the best espresso machine, because they want to sell all the espresso brewers on the shelves. And in all fairness, their personnel couldn't possibly know which are the best machines, unless they were espresso lovers.
Many specialty stores don't carry the low end equipment because the margin is lower. One of the most convenient alternatives is online shopping. Besides the convenience, online shopping is great because shoppers can see the product's rating and see other people's experience with the product. For espresso machines, the ratings and buyers' comments are very important, because it allows potential buyers to know what is the bang for their buck, if the product is reliable, and how easy is to use it.
How To Choose an Espresso Machine
For the low end of espresso machines, there are a lot of questions a potential buyer needs to answer when planning. A good planning will allow them to budget the purchase, and to plan for an upgrade, if necessary. From the budget perspective, most looked for price ranges for espresso machines are under 100 dollars, under 200 dollars, and under 500.
What are the differences between these espresso brewers? There are a lot of differences, and some of these could make or break your shot. According to Wikipedia, an espresso machine brews by forcing pressurized water through a puck of compacted coffee. However, we are not going to talk about Aeropress or Moka pot, even though by extension they can be considered espresso brewers.
Depending on your needs, the budget might need to be adjusted. If you are new to espresso, and you are just learning the art, a machine under 100$ should be OK. If you budget permits it, set your budget to 200 for the brewer only, you will get some nice features that will help control the process better. If you are not completely new to espresso brewing, a more expensive brewer it's recommended, because it will give you more control over the brewing, and more consistent results.
Steam Based Espresso Machines
For close espresso replicas, without pretentions, a steam based brewer will do it. They are very appropriate for preparing milk based coffee beverages, where espresso flavor is drenched in milk and sugar anyway. These will give you a quality similar to Starbucks where the espresso is not that great, but who cares anyway.
On the other hand, if you want great espresso shots, and are trying to escape the daily Starbucks routine, a more expensive, pump driven equipment would be the right choice.
Steam espresso machines are inexpensive, but you aren’t pulling a real espresso shot. Your caffeinated beverage is similar to a moka pot coffee. It is close to an espresso, but because of the lower pressure during the brewing, there is no way you can get a great espresso. It is a great starter machine, or a machine for an unpretentious coffee lover. The price tag for a steam based espresso machine is around 50$.
Mr. Coffee ECM160 is a decent, inexpensive espresso machine, that can satisfy most of the latte lovers. It makes a decent espresso if you know how to use it, and it steams milk beautifully. As a steam espresso machine, it does not have enough power to make a real espresso. The shot you get from Mr. Coffee though, is better than a moka pot "shot".
This is a great introductory espresso machine for people on a low budget. It will help you refine your taste buds, and make you understand better espresso as a gourmet coffee drink, but it will never satisfy espresso lovers.
If you buy this, plan to buy a tamper as well. The machine does not include a real tamper. If you want to buy one, you will need a 50mm tamper, like this one.
Don't forget to budget for a decent grinding machine. Or, if you plan to keep it on a low budget, you can buy pre-ground coffee.
Inexpensive Pump-Driven Espresso Machines
There are a few types of pump-driven espresso machines, and depending on the amount of features they can range from around one hundred dollars to a couple of thousands. These includes semi-automatic, automatic, and super automatic machines. We will only touch the semi automatic class, since the other two are out of the intended budget.
The inexpensive semi-automatic espresso machines are the perfect way to start your espresso journey and escape the daily visits to the coffee shop. Even the cheapest machine like the De’Longhi EC155 can get you great espresso results. Sure, you have to know what you are doing, and there is a learning curve associated with brewing espresso, but that is true with more expensive equipment as well.
A cheap, well made pump driven espresso machine will ensure you have enough pressure to pull a great shot. It has two thermostats, one for the brewing unit and one for the steaming unit, it has a pump that is capable of ensuring the required 9 bar of pressure needed for brewing. Also the pressure and brewing temperature are automated, for your convenience.
With one of these machines you can pull great shots day after day, and these machines are pretty reliable, since they are fairly simple in construction.
De’Longhi EC155 One of the Best Cheap Espresso Machines
This is one of the best cheap espresso machines on the market. I recommend it to anyone who is starting with espresso brewing and doesn't want to spend a lot of money on equipment.
The machine has separate thermostats for brewing and steaming, it has two filter baskets, a removable water reservoir,
The basic tamper that comes with it doesn't do a good job. You might want to replace that with a proper tamper. The tamper size for the De'Longhi EC155 is 52 mm, but this 51mm tamper is perfect for you filter-baskets. A 50mm tamper would work too.
As you can see in the video below, you can get a great coffee, and a great frothed milk, but the use of the machine is a bit cumbersome, and even the most organized people would have problems using it neatly.
All in all De'Longhi is one of the most cost effective espresso machines, offering the most bang for your buck.
What You Don’t Get With Cheap Espresso Machines
OK, you might ask, why would I pay more, if a cheap machine is so great? Well as great as they are the inexpensive espresso machines, being so cheap, they have their limitations. These limitations makes them undesirable for the advanced espresso enthusiasts. Smaller boiler, cheaper materials, no PIDs for precise temperature brewing, less brewing controls, etc...
The more expensive machines from the automatic and super automatic classes have more control options, allowing you to tweak your shots to perfection. This, unfortunately, is not available even with the best cheap espresso machines.
Mr. Coffee BVMC-ECMP1000 Espresso Maker is a brewer under 200$, with some surprising features for a budget equipment. The greatest feature in our opinion is the automatic milk frother. This is a fantastic feature that turns any novice into a barista. You just need to fill in the milk reservoir and press a button and voila, your frothed milk is ready. This is a feature seen only at machines a few time more expensive.
The espresso unit is also great, you can get a decent espresso, as long as you use good, fresh, coffee beans, and you own a decent grinder. Most buyers of this absolute bargain buy it for the automatic cappuccino and latte brewing, but let's not forget that the espresso brewed with this machine is great.
Sure the machine is a little messy, and there are features that I would totally miss if I were using this for my daily routine. But at the end of the day this is probably one of the most feature rich machine for the price.
Gaggia 14101 Classic is one of the most discussed machine in the semi-automatic class, designed in Italy, Gaggia machines are among the most prevalent names in the industry. Gaggia Classic is often compared to Rancilio Silvia, a machine that sell a few hundreds more expensive. While in our eyes Silvia is the winner, Gaggia Classic is a worthy competitor, and it costs almost half price. This is a deal you can't pass, if you are looking for an inexpensive machine.
Featuring a stainless steel housing, it has an amazing look and feel, you just love to have it in your kitchen counter. The brass portafilters, and the brass grouphead, ensure brewing temperature stability. It comes with one single, and one double shot filter basket, a basic tamper, (which you might want to replace), and a measuring scoop.
The three-way solenoid valve ensures the pressure is released once you finished brewing, this minimizes the mess, and allows you to remove the portafilter right after brewing.
The bonus feature is the fact that it can be used with ESE pods, for people who use them.