The espresso is a fundamental staple of coffee culture – the full-bodied, deliciously dark result of brewing coffee under pressure with hot water, characteristically topped with a velvety crema.
This forms the basis of most coffee-house classics including cappuccino, latte, mocha, americanos and more. Traditional espresso machines use a pump mechanism to push near-boiling water through compacted coffee grounds with around 15 bars of pressure, and there is now a host to choose from for achieving barista-style coffee at a less industrial-scale in your own kitchen.
Like coffee a different way? Find out how to make coffee like a barista with our guide to achieving the perfect cup of cafetière, AeroPress or pour over.
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How to choose the best espresso machine
Depending on your budget and level of passion for the process, there are different considerations when finding the perfect espresso machine for you. The number of personalisation options on your espresso machine will correlate to the price: the more you spend, usually the more features to help you tailor each element to your taste, from the grind-grade to brewing time and milk temperature.
Additional features often include a milk steam wand. Single and double cup filters are common staples. Some machines will also be ESE pod compatible, which are biodegradable and mess-free alternatives to coffee pods or ground coffee. A two-in-one dosing spoon and tamper is another common accessory.
Bean-to-cup machines have integrated bean grinders that will automatically grind and dose coffee grounds depending on your selected drink. Some ‘manual’ espresso machines still plug into the mains but require you to do the dosing and tamping before it heats the water and adds pressure to extract the espresso.
These models often come with a button interface offering single, double and ESE pod options.
Fully manual pump espresso machines don’t need to be plugged into the mains so share one obvious credential: sustainability. This is only to a certain extent, considering you need to preheat the water in a kettle anyway. It does mean, however, that espresso can be made while out and about.
Top tips for making great espresso every time
- Grind your own beans: freshly ground beans offer the best flavour and taste.
- Buy beans with a ‘roasted on’ date rather than a ‘use by’ date: store them in an airtight, opaque container. Old coffee beans can taste bitter.
- Invest in a proper tamper: most espresso machines will arrive with a two-in-one dosing spoon and tamper. But there’s a reason professional baristas use heavy little numbers and put their body weight into compressing the grounds. The goal is to press out any air bubbles and create an even layer for brewing, particularly for achieving the same amount when splitting a double espresso into two cups.
- Preheat manual pump espresso makers: pulling a ‘mock espresso’ without coffee will help prevent a cold machine from stealing all the precious heat from the hot water as it infuses your grinds.
- Clean your filter and milk wand after every use: coffee residue and oils linger long after you’ve rinsed your portafilter.
Best espresso machines at a glance
- Best mid-range espresso machine: SMEG ECF01 home espresso machine, £319
- Most stylish espresso machine: De’Longhi Dedica EC685.M manual espresso maker, £180
- Best bean-to-cup espresso machine: Sage Oracle Touch espresso machine, £1,999.95
- Best espresso machine for adventures: Wacaco Minipresso GR espresso maker, £36.90
- Best manual espresso machine for experimenting: ROK GC Explorer’s Edition, £199
- Best manual pump espresso machine: Flair Signature espresso maker (bundle), £249
- Best mid-range buy for simplicity: Sage Bambino Plus espresso maker, £399
The best coffee machines to buy in 2021
Score: 5/5 stars
Best mid-range espresso machine
This espresso machine is unmistakably SMEG’s, channelling the brand’s chunky 1950s styling into a slimline footprint. Behind the deceptively simple three-button interface lies a comprehensive series of personalisation features.
Everything from water temperature, coffee quantity and automatic shut off timings can be tailored to your taste. The milk steam wand is efficient, although the lack of stainless-steel milk jug is a shame considering the price of the machine. But most importantly, the dark espresso is rich in flavour and topped with a silky crema. Read our full SMEG ECF01 espresso machine review.
Best mid-range buy for simplicity
This is a sleek little gadget that delivers on the style front as much as the performance with a brushed-metal body and textured control buttons.
Like its bigger counterpart, the Bambino comes with a water filter which slots into the water tank – a well thought out addition that will help prolong the life of the espresso machine, particularly handy for those in hard-water areas. It also has an in-depth manual that guides you through tamping techniques and filter fill levels. Read our full Sage Bambino plus espresso maker review.
Most stylish espresso machine
This espresso machine has the look and feel of a modern-classic. Just 14cm wide and 33cm deep, it’s also a practical option for smaller countertops, packing 15 bars of pressure into this compact footprint for professional espresso extraction.
The result was gleefully strong and aromatic without a hint of bitterness. It’s an excellent example of both style and substance being packed into an affordable espresso machine. Read our full De’Longhi Dedica EC685.M review.
Best bean-to-cup espresso machine
This Sage is as forgiving to those who know nothing about coffee, as it’s adjustable for those who know exactly what they want. It’s a bean-to-cup machine that combines 11 automated pre-sets with sophisticated personalisation features, while leaving the fun bits to you, like loading the portafilter and frothing the milk in a stainless-steel jug. It grinds and doses beans depending on the filter basket you’ve loaded.
Grind level is adjustable, as is milk froth level, temperature and up to eight tailored drinks can be saved for selection on its touchscreen. Despite its bells and whistles, it fulfils the fundamental requirements of guaranteeing a great cup of coffee every time. But if you’re after simple, delicious espresso, the same quality can be achieved from a much smaller and less expensive machine. Read our full Sage Oracle Touch espresso maker review.
Best espresso machine for adventures
The portability, design quality and experience of the Wacaco makes it one of the most satisfying espresso makers we’ve ever tested. It’s like a Russian doll – each part slots into another until you’re left with one hand-sized gadget with a manual pump.
Despite its size it produces 9 bars of pressure for a single espresso and the result is a rocket-fuel shot topped with silky crema that rivals all the others tested. Plus you can chuck it in your bag for easy transportation. Read our full Wacaco MiniPresso GR espresso maker review.
Best manual espresso machine for experimenting
As far as manual espresso makers go, the ROK GC is the pick for anyone that enjoys navigating the process of extraction for producing a perfect shot. The Explorer’s GC Edition features the brand’s traditional cast-aluminium exterior, but an upgraded glass composite brewing chamber along with accessories and three portafilters.
The body easily absorbs heat from the hot water but when you get it right, it’s a gratifying, hands-on experience. We found that pre-heating the machine and using the naked portafilter produced the best crema-topped espresso. Read our full ROK GC espresso maker review.
Best manual pump espresso machine
For the eco-conscious, the slimline footprint of the Flair is incredibly practical if you’re looking for a manual espresso machine that’s both elegant and easy to store. Importantly, it produces outstanding espresso.
The bundle includes a branded pressure gauge and chess piece tamper with great quality feel, although these are sold separately. Thanks to the two-piece set-up, it’s also a cinch to clean. Read our full Flair Signature espresso maker review.
How we tested espresso machines
The espresso machines featured in this review were the best performing appliances chosen from a longlist of more than 20 machines. All were tested in control conditions using a standardised criterion with ground espresso coffee and scored out of five against the following areas:
- Quality of espresso
- Value for money
- Ease of use
- Quality of materials
- Design and aesthetic for keeping on the countertop
The average score out of 5 decided the overall star rating. The additional criteria played into our decision making:
- Variety of functions
- Kitchen footprint
- Ease of cleaning
- Advanced features
This review was last updated in June 2021. If you have any questions, suggestions for future reviews or spot anything that has changed in price or availability, please get in touch at email@example.com.