What to Look for in a Good Espresso Maker for the HomeIf you're going to make that perfect cup of espresso coffee, you're going to have to have an espresso maker that is up to the task. My recommendation in this post is not going to be an expensive top-of-the-line model, but a modestly priced machine that will enable you to turn out perfect crema nonetheless. And it's the machine that I personally used for many years in my home.
If you are visiting Espresso Coffee Snobs, it's probably because you are new to the world of espresso-making at home, and perhaps not yet so passionate about espresso coffee that you're willing to drop a cool thousand bucks on a machine. Don't panic! There are many machines made for the home that will make perfect espresso and are priced less than $300. No one machine is going to be without its drawbacks in the $300 range, let alone the $1,000 range for that matter, but from my personal experience, I know that my recommendation will do a great job, and far better than it's similarly-priced competitors.
There are some brands that you can basically rely on to get you on your way to the perfect shot. Over time I have had 2 Krups machines (German), a Delonghi (Italian), Briel (Portugese), and a Gaggia. As you can see, it's a trip around the world.
There's no point in going over my entire life-story of espresso machines, however; we just want to get to the one that I finally settled on as the best of the bunch.
Until recently, I never spent over $500 for a machine, and mostly a lot less than that in fact. The Briel I owned was a monster. Heavy, sturdy semi-commercial machine that had separate steamer boiler and a built in grinder. I loved it for its weight; I never had to hold the machine while I loaded the portafilter, and it made great espresso. I almost thought I was back behind the coffee bar. The horrible thing though was that if I had the steamer unit turned on, pressure would build up on the portafilter side to the extent that when removing the portafilter it would explosively blow the coffee grinds all over the kitchen walls! Perhaps it had a fault, but I couldn't be bothered hauling it into a service shop, and as you'll read below, the one time I had done that before, I had to suffer coffee withdrawal symptoms for a long time!
I abandoned using the steamer as a result of this flaw, and anyway, that's when I discovered I could make just as good milk foam with an Aerolatte whisk anyway, and it was much easier to clean up as well. (You can read about frothing milk with an Aerolatte whisk in my post Making Milk for Espresso Drinks.) Anyhow, back to the Briel. After about a year or so the grinder gave up the ghost, and then after about 2 years, so did the pump. It's a common thing with domestic machines if you use them daily; I have found they have a life of about two years on average, if you use them as much as I do. As I alluded to above, I once tried that with one of my Krups machines when it needed some servicing. I took it to a listed Krups service agent, and they had to send out for a part that took months to come! You know that that just won't do for an espresso coffee snob, so let's get to my recommendation for an espresso maker that will last well and make great espresso!
My Espresso Coffee Machine Recommendation - Gaggia EvolutionFor many years all I used to make espresso coffee at home was a Gaggia Evolution espresso maker, and I liked it a lot. They really pump out great crema, so you'll be on your way to becoming a pro with one of these. If you want to use the steamer, that too is really up to the task with its separate dedicated boiler that won't take hot water away from extracting your espresso shots. The steamer side can also be used to supply scalding-hot water. The boiler head is made from brass so it's designed to retain the correct temperature while you're busy pulling multiple shots.
I do have to mention a couple of minor drawbacks with this machine. The housing of the machine is completely plastic, so it's a light machine and when using it you may find the machine moves when locking the portafilter in place, and again when removing it. Also, the water tank is a little on the small side so needs pretty regular topping up.
But these are minor drawbacks in an area where you can spend as much money for a machine that will never make espresso shots as good as this machine does. So despite these minor drawbacks, I am very happy with this machine, and it is my favorite espresso maker in this price range. It can be relied on to produce the goods, that all-important crema, provided all you are following all my other guidelines to making perfect espresso shots.
It also comes in some pretty cool neon colors if you want to jazz up your kitchen, including a bright red, and a lime green. You can expect to pay around $250 at Amazon.com for one, and much less if you're prepared to buy a reconditioned unit.
Note that since using my Gaggia Evolution for many years, I now use a Breville Dual Boiler BES900XL espresso maker. This is definitely more expensive than the Gaggia Evolution, so depending on your budget and level of "coffee snobbery", I recommend either machine.
Here is a link to my review of the Breville BES900XL.
Next up: The next most important piece of equipment for making perfect espresso is a good conical burr grinder. Here is my review and recommendation for a conical burr coffee bean grinder.