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 separate 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 a synonym for spending a lot of money, and the espresso and latte preparation was reserved for professional baristas or wealthy people. This has changed now, and espresso preparing is 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 a budget perspective, most looked for price ranges for espresso machines are the 100 dollars machine, the 200 dollars range, and under 500 equipment.
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, you might need to adjust your budget. If you are new to espresso, and you are just learning the art, a machine under 100$ should be OK. If your 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 have some experience with espresso brewing, I recommend considering a slightly more expensive machine. This will give you more control over the brewing, and more consistent results.
A list with the best cheap espresso machines, from steam espresso machines at 50$, to pump driven machines at $100. (Mr. Coffee, De’Longhi, illy, Nespresso)
Steam Based Espresso Makers
For close espresso replicas, without pretensions, a steam-based brewer will do it. They are very appropriate for preparing milk-based coffee beverages, where espresso flavor is drenched in milk and sugar anyway. These will give you a quality similar to Starbucks where the espresso is not that great, but who cares anyway.
On the other hand, if you want great espresso shots, and are trying to escape the daily Starbucks routine, a more expensive, pump driven equipment would be the right choice.
We dedicated an entire article for steam espresso coffee makers, and we recommend you read it. There are a few advantages to get a steam based machine, and we explain all the pros and cons in our article.
A Moka pot is a a low pressure steam espresso maker, and we have an article where we compare the best stove top espresso makers on the market. But if you want the best tasting espresso, you should probably steer away from this option.
Steam espresso machines are inexpensive, but you aren’t pulling a real espresso shot. Your caffeinated beverage is similar to a moka pot coffee. It is close to an espresso, but because of the lower pressure during the brewing, there is no way you can get a great espresso. It is a great starter machine or a machine for an unpretentious coffee lover. The price tag for a steam-based espresso machine is around 50$.
Mr. Coffee ECM160 4-Cup Steam Espresso Machine
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.
Inexpensive Pump-Driven Espresso Machines
There are a few types of pump-driven espresso machines, and depending on the number of features they can range from one hundred to two thousand dollars. These include 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 capable to ensure the required 9 bar of pressure we need 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 your filter-baskets. A 50mm tamper might 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.
De'Longhi EC155 Pump Espresso Machine Video Review
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 make 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 Pump Driven Espresso Maker
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 machines for the price.
The next spot belonged once to the absolute winner in its class, the amazing Gaggia 14101 Classic. It breaks our heart to have removed it from this page but they don't make it anymore. Unfairly compared to Rancilio Silvia, a machine that sells a few hundred more, was probably the best choice for a beginner barista. Our closest alternative is a De'Longhi machine that is a great competitor, filling the gap left by the great Classic.
De'Longhi EC702 Pump Driven Espresso Machine
The EC702 is a solid choice for an entry-level espresso machine. It features a stainless steel cup warmer, a thermoblock heating system, and it uses the DeLonghi's patented dual thermostat system that allows separate temperature control for milk steaming and for brewing.
The thermoblock is quite well built, maintaining the proper temperature for back-to-back shots.
The machine can use ground coffee and ESE pods for those who like a bit more convenience in their espresso brewing routine.
The patented panarello milk frother is a great addition, allowing perfectly steamed milk without any training.
The machine comes with a set of pressurized filter baskets, which are great for beginners. If you are into serious espresso brewing, you'll want to buy some unpressurized baskets though.
The pressurized baskets help you get crema every time, but the taste can vary a lot between shots.
The water reservoir is decently sized, holding 44 ounces, and it is removable, and accessible from the side.
The machine looks great, and it will blend nicely in most kitchens.
DeLonghi EC702 Video Review
illy Y3.2 iperEspresso
illy Y3.2 is an easy-to-use, practical and aesthetically appealing espresso machine. With a small footprint, at 10 inches height, and the width of 3.94 inches, the machine fits small kitchens, and it looks great on the counter. But that's not its most important feature. Unlike other pod-based espresso makers, illy pulls real espresso shots with real crema. We discussed the difference between Nespresso and illy before, but just as a reminder, illy are better.
The iperEspresso machines hold a few patents and the amount of innovation that goes into them makes them the best on the market. The idea behind iperEspresso machines is to produce quality espresso with the convenience of a pod coffee maker.
We love the Y3.2 for the clean lines with a minimalist approach, and because they pull great shots.
Nespresso Essenza Mini - Espresso Machine by Breville
Essenza made by Breville is one of the smallest espresso machines. We know we said we like better illy, but you are the one who drinks it, and in our comparison article we said that not everybody likes the same coffee.
Nespresso has its own fans because coffee is more mellow than a regular espresso. If you are a Nespresso fan and you know you want one of their coffee makers, Essenza Mini is a great inexpensive one.
The things we like about Breville Essenza Mini:
- It's very fast, water gets hot in 25 seconds.
- Adjustable shot size normale and lungo. (normal shot and long shot)
- Very compact
- Clean lines with a modern look
The coffee maker is cheaper, but in the long run, your daily cup of coffee will get more expensive because of the capsules.