You love coffee, but things change.
Maybe you start working from home more, maybe you want to enjoy a nice espresso on the weekend without changing out of your pajamas.
Maybe you just want to indulge your inner barista. Regardless, you’ve set your heart on getting an espresso maker.
Not any espresso maker, mind you, but the best espresso machine for under $500 that you can find. I’ve been in the same place, very recently in fact. Let me show you what I found.
Everything You Need To Know To Get The Best Home Espresso Machine
Where Should I Start?
The first thing you need to know is espresso machines can cost up to $7000 or more. The commercial/pro-sumer versions, the ones that bring the look and feel of the commercial espresso makers within reach and into the homes of the average consumer like you and I, regularly run in the $1000 to $3000 range.
That’s the bad news.
But here’s the awesomely good news: you don’t have to spend that kind of money to make a nice cup of espresso from the comforts of home.
The market has improved greatly in the past decade or so, allowing a coffee lover like you or I the option of a quality espresso machine in their home for less than $500.
See, told you it was good news.
What you will be getting in this price range is a well-respected, well-built machine that will likely make you as good a cup of espresso as you can get in a coffee shop as long as you do your part. Or in some cases, even if you don’t.
If you’re new to making espresso, there are some steps you’ll need to learn. This is a great video from a former US Barista Champion that shows you most of what you’ll need to know. And, yes, there are barista competitions.
Ground Coffee or Something Else?
In the under $500 range, you’re going to see quite a few kinds of machines on the market. We’re going to focus on the true espresso machines, the ones that use ground coffee, not pods, easy serving pods, K Cups, single serving espresso, or any of the other variations of marketing names.
It’s simple. The best espresso with the best aroma, flavor, caffeine content, crema, and pretty much everything else comes from freshly ground coffee. The longer coffee beans wait after being ground before they are turned into espresso, the lower the quality of the final product.
Can you still pull a good shot of espresso from pre-ground beans?
Honestly, it depends on your own personal palate as well as a few other factors.
While we do feel there is a time and a place for some of the pre-packaged espresso products, that’s not what we’re talking about here.
We’re looking to help you find the best espresso machine that will make the best espresso in your house, which means freshly ground coffee.
Semi or Super?
In the under $500 range for espresso machines, most are going to be semi-automatic. That means that most of the production of the shot will be under the user’s control: grinding the beans, measuring and weighing the amount of ground coffee to use, filling and tamping the portafilter, releasing the pressure from the machine, etc. Basically what a barista does, only it’s you doing it in your own home.
The alternative to a semi-automatic is a super-automatic. You fill the machine’s hopper full of coffee beans and then press a button or two and out comes espresso.
Sounds great, right?
Well, since so many things are automated in a super-automatic, a lot of the control is taken out of the hands of the user.
Some purists love the control, the experimentation, the art of pulling a shot of espresso themselves.
Also, since super-automatics require more in the way of production of the machine themselves, they are generally priced above $500. However, there is one we do like, and we’ll discuss it in a minute.
Here’s a quick rundown of some of the other things you’ll run across when shopping and what’s important to remember.
Single boiler and thermo block are the main two types of technology you’ll find in this price range. Both do their job well, both have cheerleaders and detractors. Some are made from aluminum, some from stainless steel.
If you have a preference, keep your eyes peeled, but in our opinion, this isn’t much of an issue.
This gets important in a few situations: if you’re making multiple shots of espresso all day long and don’t want to refill it, or if you have some sort of injury or physical limitation preventing your lifting a plastic container of water above a certain size and weight.
Also, some people just get bothered with having to refill it too often. If any of these apply to you, keep an eye on the reservoir size. If not, then no worries.
Stainless Steel and Plastic
A lot of these machines will use a mix of stainless steel and plastic on the outside. Truthfully, using one or the other likely will have no impact on the longevity of the machine.
As long as the internals are going strong, you’re good. But stainless steel will probably raise the price some.
The only place you’ll really want stainless is going to be on the steaming wand. Why?
Hot milk and steam can get pretty sticky. A stainless steel wand is far easier to clean up and far more durable than a plastic one or one that is chrome-plated plastic, both of which are found on machines in this price range.
If you’re getting a semi-automatic espresso machine, you’ll need a few accessories, starting with a coffee grinder.
While there are coffee grinders that cost an arm and a leg, there are some fine grinders available for under a hundred.
You’ll also need a tamp and likely a digital scale. Why the scale?
Espresso is made with 7 grams of ground beans. Unless you’re extremely good at eyeballing 7 grams, a scale is needed.
Luckily, all the espresso accessories are available fairly cheaply. Just keep in mind that the plastic ones that come with your new machine aren’t going to cut it for long.
Our Picks For The Best Home Espresso Machines of 2016
We looked long and hard at the marketplace. There are a lot of choices out there; unfortunately, not all are good. Home espresso machines are a huge market and lots of companies try to cash in on it by bringing out inferior or poorly thought out machines. Here are the best that we found.
- Chrome plated brass portafilter and grouphead — commercial level stuff here
- Easy Serving Espresso (ESE) pod capable
- Simplified operation — turn it on, flip the switch when you’re ready, then off again when you get the volume of espresso you want
This is a great machine from a traditional yet innovative Italian company.
Some call the founder, Achille Gaggia, the father of the modern espresso machine, and this one shines.
Its stainless steel exterior looks great and makes for easy cleanup. The chrome plated brass portafilter and grouphead help maintain temperature stability when making shots.
The 17.5 bar pump provides more than enough pressure while the boiler gets hot very fast.
It comes with a tamper so you don’t have to start out buying a new one if you don’t want to, as well as a 7-gram measuring scoop.
Two stainless steel filter baskets set you up for a single or double shot of espresso. It’s got a huge 72-ounce water reservoir, allowing you to keep coming back again and again for just one more shot.
The built-in milk frother is easy to use and easy to clean, but it is plastic.
- Made in Italy — great heritage, great design
- Easy cleanup. Used coffee puck comes out dry and easy
- Large water reservoir
- Provides everything you’ll need to get started except the beans
- Can use ESE pods if you want to try them out
- Lowest priced machine on the list
- Tamp and scoop are plastic, so will not last very long
- Frother wand is plastic; you can and should replace it with a stainless steel one
BEST SUITED FOR: All in all, the Gaggia Classic is a great machine for both novices and old hands who don’t care about fancy features. If you do your part, it will make a great little cup of espresso and likely continue to do so for many years to come. It isn’t the fanciest, doesn’t have the most bells and whistles. But it has more than enough in a sleekly styled package and can do a great job.
- Pre-infusion technology makes for an even extraction
- Cup warmer to keep your espresso from cooling too quickly
- Sleep mode and auto shutoff
Breville is a well-respected Australian company who sells and distributes their appliances worldwide.
The Infuser is a great machine that combines the control of a semi-automatic espresso machine with some of the touches of a super-automatic machine.
One of the nice things this machine has is its pre-infusion function. What it does is apply low water pressure into the portafilter at the start of the extraction, allowing the grounds to gently expand before pushing the rest of the water through. In theory this will create a more even extraction.
Also, a nice touch: it comes with cleaning discs and tablets for when you eventually need to clean your system. Not super important, but it shows the company’s attention to detail and dedication to providing an excellent consumer experience. There’s even a little “clean me” light when cleaning is needed.
But none of that matters if it doesn’t make a decent cup of espresso, right?
Everything is set up to make that happen. Automatic temperature settings and programmable volumetric control means you can have as much or as little control in crating your espresso shot as you choose. The attached steel milk frother, hot water dispenser, and the pre-infusion function all work together to make an excellent cup of espresso.
- Extra tall cup clearance for travel mugs
- Excess water removal from basket for a drier puck
- Replaceable water filter makes for easily descaling
- Stainless steel wand is of better quality than other machines in this price range
- 61 ounce reservoir — not as big as the Gaggia Classic
- Can vibrate quite a bit when making espresso
BEST SUITED FOR: The Breville Infuser is a great choice if you’re looking for an all-in-one kit to get you started making good espresso at home. It’s easy enough for a budding barista to learn how to pull a shot of espresso but has enough advanced features to satisfy the experienced home espresso maker.
- Airtight bean hopper keeps your beans from going stale
- Bypass doser, allowing one-at-a-time use of ground coffee without removing beans
- Programmable and adjustable settings let the user choose strength and volume of shot
Ahh, Gaggia. Thank you for coming in with a super-automatic under the $500 mark.
As mentioned above, Gaggia knows espresso. Their DNA is infused with it (get it, infused? No? Sorry.) They’ve also clearly got the end-user in mind.
The drip tray, water tank, and disposal tray are all easily accessible. Its grinder blades are made from ceramic to prevent the burning of coffee that can occur with steel-bladed grinders. The boiler is made from stainless steel, a feature people who hate aluminum boilers or thermo blocks can appreciate.
Also, it has a four-stage water filter that will remove impurities. The reservoir, at 1.2 liters, is a little on the small size, but it’ll be fine as long as you aren’t a heavy drinker or have a lot of guests. If you do, just refill it — it’s easily accessible after all.
What else do you want?
Bypass doser that lets you drop in some pre-ground coffee for the one person at your dinner party that wants decaf? Check.
Height adjustable dispenser to use pretty much any size of cup (within reason)? Check. Stainless steel steam wand? Check.
Goofy cover for the wand that makes espresso art impossible but can be removed (voiding warranty)? Check.
Pre-infusion function like the Breville Infuser? Oh yeah.
The Brera’s got a lot under the hood for less than $500. And without needing to pick up a grinder, tamper, scale, scoop, and all the other accessories, you might come out ahead with this one.
- A super-automatic machine by one of the best names in the industry for under $500
- That bypass doser if you have picky people over often
- Easily programmable and selectable settings for both grind and espresso
- Small footprint means smaller reservoir — could be a pain if you drink a lot of espresso
- The protector on the steam wand gets messy, requiring thorough cleaning
BEST SUITED FOR: This machine is great for someone who either has no desire to learn the ins and outs of pulling a shot of espresso by hand, doesn’t want to mess with the cleanup or regularly drinks or makes a fair amount of espresso. The Gaggia name carries a lot of weight and getting a super-automatic under $500 is pretty much unheard of. At least, not one from a reputable company.
Now, our choice. Actually, my choice, because I ended up getting one.
The Gaggia Classic. Why?
Tradition and experience, to start with; Gaggia is a reputable name in espresso machines.
Second, though the machine doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles, it just flat-out works, making great espresso every time.
Third, I dig how it looks. Kinda has an eighties, no-nonsense style to it.
Finally, the low price allowed me to get more than just the best espresso machine under $500; for five bills, I got the machine, a stainless steel tamper, a stainless steel scoop, a serviceable grinder, and a bag of coffee beans, and had it all delivered to my door.
That being said, any of the machines we list here will do a fine job. We wouldn’t list them if we didn’t think they would. If I weren’t interested in pulling my own shots of espresso, I’d get the Gaggia Brera. But since I want to do it, it’s the Gaggia Classic.