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After more than 60 hours of research and then testing five espresso machines, four grinders, and a dozen accessories with the help of Stumptown Coffee’s education crew, we think the Breville Infuser espresso machine along with the precise and consistent Rancilio Rocky coffee grinder are the best beginner’s espresso setup. The Infuser pulls reliably great espresso shots more easily than any machine we tested, froths milk well enough to make a café-quality latte, and it comes with all of the small accessories that you need to get started.
Our pick: Breville Infuser
Among espresso machines that cost less than $1,000, the Breville Infuser stands out for its ability to reliably produce very good shots of espresso. It was also the easiest to use of all the machines we tested. It has a user-friendly design (with ample labeling and easy-to-read instructions), and comes with the basic accessories that you need to get started. Even its steam wand is excellent: When frothing milk, the Infuser was the only model we tested that was able to produce the dense, rich microfoam you need to make a café-quality latte. It’s everything a beginner could want in an espresso machine.
Runner-up: Gaggia Classic
The Gaggia Classic is capable of hitting higher highs than the Breville Infuser, but at the cost of consistency. Although we pulled some truly great shots with the Gaggia, we weren’t able to do it with the regularity that we were able to get good shots with the Infuser. The Gaggia’s clunky steam wand also failed to produce a good thick foam in our pitcher of milk, no matter how many times we tried. The Gaggia doesn’t come with a good tamper or a milk pitcher, but it’s easy to use and simpler to modify than the Infuser if you are willing to work for better results. With that in mind, it’s a great choice for tinkerers and enthusiasts who don’t mind spending a bit more time with their machine in the interest of achieving an excellent espresso.
Our pick: Rancilio Rocky
Though a good espresso machine is crucial to a great espresso setup, most coffee aficionados will tell you that the grinder is actually more important. You’ll need an espresso-specific grinder, because even good-quality general-purpose coffee grinders can’t produce fine-enough grinds. Among the four grinders we tested, the Rancilio Rocky was our favorite. Adjusting the grind size with the machine’s numbered dial is easy, and the results are consistent. We preferred the simpler model that grinds directly into your portafilter to the version with a doser that measures out a specific amount of coffee, because the attachment trapped stale grounds.
Upgrade pick: Baratza Vario
If you want something more adjustable and are willing to pay extra for it, the Baratza Vario yielded espresso better than we were able to make with any other grinder. Unlike the Rancilio Rocky, the Vario is what’s called a “stepless” machine, which means that you can make micro-adjustments to each grind setting. This precision makes the machine a bit trickier to use—rather than turn a single dial, you have to adjust one lever between 1 and 10 and another lever between A and W.
Beyond the machine and grinder, many coffee geeks keep a shelf filled with accoutrements of varying degrees of necessity. We think the most important accessories you’ll need are a tamper, a knock box (for dumping spent grinds), a milk-frothing pitcher, and a kitchen scale, and we’ve included our recommendations for all of them in this guide as well.
For some tips on how to make espresso at home, see our starter guide.
Why you should trust us
Prior to becoming a reporter, I underwent extensive training from the coffee education program at Stumptown in Portland, Oregon, and trained with a Northeast Barista Champion finalist in New York City. During this time, I pulled more than 200 shots per week, but that hasn’t dulled my passion for the subject since changing careers. I continue to write about coffee at every opportunity and have previously spent more than a hundred combined hours researching and writing the original guides to coffee makers, grinders, and pour-over methods for Wirecutter.
In the process of researching this guide, I also spoke to a number of coffee experts, including Clive Coffee founder Mark Hellweg; Baratza co-founder Kyle Anderson; Steve Rhinehart, brand manager for Prima Coffee; and Tommy Gallagher, then with Counter Culture Coffee and currently a technician for Slayer Espresso. I also read through dozens of articles, browsed forums, and watched videos from coffee blogs such as CoffeeGeek and Home Barista, as well as other sites like Prima Coffee, Whole Latte Love, and Seattle Coffee Gear.
Who this is for
The best candidate for a beginner home espresso setup is someone who likes good coffee and wants to take the time to learn more about the craft behind it. Whether you have been making pour-over for years or you simply enjoy going to your local coffee shop and learning different espresso tasting notes, our picks will give you an approachable and relatively affordable foot in the door of the world of espresso making. If you continue on this journey, you may go on to more expensive and advanced espresso machines, but you will do so with a better understanding of what you’re undertaking and what type of machine you actually want before committing more than a thousand dollars to a new hobby.
Making good espresso at home takes practice and patience, and you won’t get café-quality drinks right away. Tommy Gallagher, then of Counter Culture Coffee, explained that it’s better to go to a coffee shop where the barista is trained, has dialed in the espresso already (meaning they’ve found the ideal grind size), and uses a multi-thousand–dollar machine to ensure that what you’re drinking is at least moderately good. But results are almost never the only reason to get into making espresso. If you’re interested in learning a culinary craft, an at-home espresso setup can be very rewarding. For one, it impresses your friends. Two, it can be really fun to tinker with techniques and dosage. Also, it does make for a nice ritual (this, says Gallagher, is the real appeal). And you might just prefer making your own espresso to buying one, or to drinking drip coffee instead.
If you already know what you’re doing and have strong opinions about the benefits of “temperature surfing,” this guide is below your pay grade. Similarly, if you’re not limited by budget, you can spend the entire max budget on a grinder alone and then twice again on a top-notch espresso machine—at that point, they’re all pretty good and it’s more about preference. Our goal here was to find an approachable setup for people looking to get into espresso making for the first time. And for further instruction, see our starter guide on how to make espresso at home.
How we picked
At a baseline level, an espresso machine works by forcing hot water through finely ground beans with about 10 bars of pressure. The water must be the right temperature, about 195 degrees Fahrenheit—much cooler, and your espresso will be under-extracted and weak; much hotter, and it can be over-extracted and bitter. And the pressure must be constant, so that water flows evenly through the grounds. There are three different styles of machine that give you more or less control over this process:
•Manual espresso machines require you to create the pressure with your own brute force by pulling on a lever (that’s why it’s called “pulling a shot”). Some manual models, like those from La Pavoni, include a water heater. Others require you to add hot water. Either way, you won’t be able to create the exact same amount of steady pressure each time, and this leads to inconsistent coffee. Because they’re harder to control, we decided not to test manual models.
•Semiautomatic machines heat the water for you and use a pump to create the right amount of pressure, but allow you to decide how long to pull a shot. According to the experts and enthusiasts, semiautomatic is the way to go. Good machines, at least, maintain consistent temperature and pressure while allowing you to tweak other factors (like the fineness of your grind, or the time it takes to pull a shot) to perfect your espresso.
•Super-automatic machines (also called fully automatic) do everything for you, from measuring and grinding the beans to pulling the shot. Many even include an automatic milk frother. Some allow you to adjust the grind or the coffee dose, but still offer less nuance than a dedicated espresso grinder. Although super-automatic espresso makers are convenient, they’re not the best choice if you’re actually interested in learning how to make good espresso, because they do so much of the work for you. There’s also a greater risk of failure when you have a grinder and brewer in one: if one machine breaks, the whole thing is done for. For that reason, we chose not to test super-automatic machines for this guide.
When deciding which semiautomatic machines to test, we considered only single-boiler models, which use the same boiler to heat the water for the espresso shot and for the steam wand. Once you’ve pulled a shot (at a temperature of about 195 ºF), a single-boiler machine has to quickly heat itself enough to steam the milk. A dual-boiler machine has separate boilers: one set to a lower temperature for the espresso, and the other set to the higher temperature needed for the steam wand. This means that there’s no warming-up time between pulling a shot and steaming milk—experienced baristas can even steam milk while the shot is being pulled—but it also means pushing into the $1,000-plus territory. We think for beginners, it’s better to focus on one thing at a time, so the slowness of a single-boiler machine isn’t too big of an issue.
With those basic criteria in mind, we formed a short list of four machines to try. Gaggia has been making espresso machines since the 1930s, and its semiautomatic Classic (which it calls a manual machine, but has a pump and a single boiler) was first introduced in 1991. It was a hit then, and the company has changed the design very little over the decades since—though the company did move manufacturing from Italy to Romania. Similarly, Rancilio has been around since the 1920s, and its Silvia has a similar track record to the Gaggia Classic, but the Silvia is widely considered a better machine than the Classic, with a higher price to match—indeed, some small professional operations use a Silvia to pull shots. Beyond those machines, we wanted to try out Breville’s offerings, which are very popular in the United States. The company’s Infuser came highly recommended by a few experts, including Clive Coffee’s Mark Hellweg, who said it was one of the few sub-$500 machines worth buying. On paper, the cheaper Breville Duo-Temp Pro looks almost identical to the Breville Infuser, save for the lack of programmable buttons and a pressure gauge, so we wanted to see if it could offer similar performance for less money.
Making good espresso requires more than just an espresso machine—it needs a great burr grinder. As Steve Rhinehart from the well-known coffee website Prima Coffee told us, “The grinder is the biggest, most important purchase you can make [when it comes to espresso].” Just like when brewing any other type of coffee, the fineness and evenness of the grounds can have a dramatic effect on how the resulting coffee tastes. If the grind is too coarse, your coffee may come out under-brewed and watery or sour; too fine and it will be over-extracted, muddy, and bitter. And if the grind is uneven, you may brew coffee with an uneven mix of both bitter and sour flavors, without much of the pleasant, middle notes.
Finding a machine that will correctly grind beans to drip size is hard enough; finding a machine that will accurately produce fine espresso grinds is even harder. For example, our picks for the best drip coffee grinder are great for everything from pour-over to French press, but even our upgrade pick, the Baratza Virtuoso, isn’t nuanced enough for great espresso. Coffee for espresso must be ground much finer than the grind for other brewing methods, in order to extract fully even in the short time it takes to pull a shot. You need a rig with burrs that are specially made to pulverize the coffee to a very fine grind of the exact right size—no smaller, no larger—and for that you’ll have to pay more. (To learn more about how burrs work and why they are so important, see our grinder guide.)
The other advantage of a dedicated espresso grinder is that it’s designed to grind directly into your espresso machine’s portafilter. With a regular coffee grinder, you have to deal with the messy step of scooping coffee into the portafilter after it’s been ground.
With that in mind, we polled our experts for espresso grinder recommendations and scanned through online reviews for the best-rated machines. We looked for models that were:
•Easy to adjust. You’ll inevitably need to spend some time dialing in just the right grind for your beans and your machine.
•Consistent. You won’t have to worry about any grind variation once you’ve got your shot dialed in.
•Nuanced. Small changes in coarseness can make a big difference to the quality of your shot. The smaller the adjustments you can make, the closer you’ll be able to get to the perfect espresso.
Ultimately, we settled on four grinders to test, ranging from $170 to $470. On the low end was the Breville Dose Control Pro, which we tested alongside the Baratza Virtuoso (the upgrade pick from our guide to the best grinder for drip coffee), the higher-end Baratza Vario, and the classic Rancilio Rocky. A good espresso grinder won’t come cheap, but it’ll be worth it, because even the most consistent espresso machine will still pull inconsistent shots if your grinder isn’t reliable.
How we tested
Because this is a guide for beginners, we tested all of the espresso machines from the perspective of someone unboxing and trying to get familiar with it for the first time. We spent at least an hour learning the ropes on each model, starting by reading through the manual and going through the setup process as it was described.
Once the machines were set up, we started pulling shots using Stumptown’s renowned and ubiquitous Hair Bender espresso blend. First we evaluated how easy it was to fill each model’s portafilter (the metal cup with a long handle that locks into the machine) with a double-shot’s worth of ground coffee (18 grams). Then we dialed in the machine (by making adjustments to our grind size) until it was producing good coffee—this typically took three to six tries, depending on the machine.
Once dialed in, we tried to pull three shots in a row to see how consistent the output was. During this time, David Cook, David Chou, and Emily Rosenberg from the Stumptown Coffee education team also pulled and tasted a few shots of their own. After the third espresso was made, we used the steam wand to froth milk, noting how fine a foam each could produce (smaller bubbles are better for lattes and cappuccinos). We also timed every step, including how long it took to make an entire cappuccino.
In testing grinders, we analyzed how long it took each one to adjust to a correct espresso grind—a process referred to as dialing in. We noted how easy it was to change one grind size to another, and if the grinder’s user interface was easy to master, even for a novice coffee maker. Though I would have liked to sift the grinds the way we did in our drip coffee grinder review, to see how evenly each model ground, that’s not feasible at espresso settings. The tiny particles cling too readily to sieve holes and block them, preventing further grinds from falling through, even if they’re small enough to pass through. Instead, we judged the quality of the grind by the quality of espresso we were able to make.
As for accessories, these were the icing on the cake. Some espresso machines come with decent accessories, but others don’t, so we wanted to find some reliable options sold separately. After talking to experts and trawling dozens of review sites, we decided that the three essentials you need are a tamper, a steam pitcher for milk, and a knock box for dumping spent grounds. We narrowed a list of the brands people like most for espresso gear and selected a handful of accessories from them to test for durability and design as we pulled shots and steamed milk.
Our pick: Breville Infuser
The Breville Infuser was the easiest to use of all the machines we tested, and it performed well at both pulling shots and steaming milk. Plus, unlike most of the other models we tried, it comes with both a good-quality steaming pitcher and a tamper. Setup was simple, and we were able to consistently make a flavorful shot of espresso. Clive Coffee’s Mark Hellweg said that Breville’s espresso machines—starting with the Infuser—are some of the best home-use machines “designed with professional needs in mind.” Indeed, the professionals from Stumptown’s coffee education program were all impressed by how easy it was to make good espresso with the Infuser.
Once you open the Infuser’s package, all of its components are in front of you and marked clearly. The manual is easy to follow and heavily illustrated, whereas the Italian machines we tested had unclear instructions with few diagrams. The Breville also comes with a “how to get started making espresso” sheet that anyone can follow. Upon seeing it, Stumptown’s David Cook quipped: “We could just make copies of this and hand them out to baristas we train instead of doing a presentation.” High praise, indeed!
Using the Infuser is a breeze, even if you’ve never touched an espresso machine before. First off, its water reservoir is removable, so you can take it to the sink and fill it up—there’s no fussing with an extra pitcher to ferry water to the machine, which both the Rancilio Silvia and Gaggia Classic needed. The Infuser can heat water to brewing temperature in less than a minute, and will beep to tell you when it’s ready. The machine has preset timers to automatically pull a single or double shot (which can be customized), but we opted not to use those and instead started and stopped it manually. And whether using the Hair Bender blend or single-origin beans, were were able to dial in a good shot in just a few minutes.
Tasters were all impressed by the consistency of the finished espresso coming out of the Infuser. Each shot had great mouthfeel and a good amount of crema (the dense and foamy part on top), like what you’d expect from a high-quality café. Although the Infuser’s best-tasting shots didn’t quite live up to the best ones we pulled from the Gaggia Classic and Rancilio Silvia—we got a few truly barista-quality shots from the Silvia—those machines were more finicky to use and had lower lows that tainted their higher highs.
Part of what keeps the Infuser so consistent is the fact that it comes with a built-in electronic, PID (proportional integral derivative) controller, which maintains water temperature within a very narrow range by varying the voltage used to heat the boiler (this video from Seattle Coffee Gear offers a good explanation). Simpler thermostats, like those on the Rancilio or Gaggia we tested, can only turn the boiler on or off, leading to greater temperature fluctuations. These fluctuations mean that you’ll have a harder time pulling a shot at the optimal temperature—too cool and it will be watery or sour; too hot and it may be over-extracted and bitter. Though you can add a PID to the Rancilio and Gaggia machines, it will cost a couple of hundred dollars extra and/or require some DIY know-how.
The Infuser’s pump was strong enough to pull shots using coffee that was ground very finely (we used setting 8.5/55 on the Rancilio Rocky—where 55/55 is the coarsest). In comparison, cheaper machines, like the Breville Duo-Temp Pro, couldn’t handle anything finer than an 11/55, resulting in a duller, more sour espresso. The Infuser’s pump also kept consistent pressure throughout the brewing process, so that a steady stream of espresso flowed from the portafilter. The Gaggia Classic, on the other hand, experienced some fluctuations as indicated by uneven flow rate.
When it comes to making milk drinks, the Breville Infuser’s steam wand was by far the best we tested. The wand does take a little bit of time to fully steam and to heat the milk to temperature—about a minute compared with the 30 seconds you’d expect from a $1,000-plus machine. But the Infuser was the only one we tested that could produce café-quality microfoam capable of producing latte art. The other machines just couldn’t get the foam to be dense enough. The Gaggia Classic was particularly bad in this regard, making big bubbles that instantly collapsed when poured.
On performance and consistency alone, Breville’s Infuser was our clear winner. But it also comes with accessories that are far better than those of all the other contenders. The Infuser comes with its own tamper, which is nice enough that even the Stumptown educators said they wouldn’t bother replacing it. As a bonus, the tamper has a magnetic end that fits perfectly into a compartment next to the portafilter. You also get a 16–fluid-ounce milk-frothing pitcher that’s built as solidly as the Rattleware pitcher we tested.
A handful of nice design features also make the Infuser pleasant and easy to use. The drip-catcher tray is large enough to accommodate the many mistakes you’ll make as a novice, and has a nice floating sign saying “Empty Me” that pops up when the tray gets too full. The water tank is removable for easy filling and cleaning. Plus it comes with a water filter and has the instructions for changing it out printed right onto the back to save you from digging through the manual. It even has a nifty manual calendar that you can set to keep track of when the filter needs to be changed. And the machine itself has a light that lets you know when it’s time to clean it.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
For all its strengths, the Infuser did not make the absolute best cup of espresso. That distinction went to the Rancilio Silvia. But the quality of shots from the Silvia varied greatly, and overall we think the Infuser’s consistency made up for its not-as-high highlights. Furthermore, some coffee aficionados may be a bit miffed at the Infuser’s 54-millimeter portafilter, which is smaller than many other machines’. This odd size makes the Infuser harder to customize. For instance, many tampers don’t come with a 54 mm size—though we found that a 53 mm tamper works just fine. In contrast, both the Gaggia Classic and the Silvia had 58 mm portafilters, which are much more standard.
But in terms of performance, the Infuser’s smaller portafilter was better than the other standard-size portafilters. The Silvia’s basket, for example, was wider but also shallower. This meant that less coffee was able to fit into the filter, which made it difficult to pull a real double shot. In fact, we were unable to put more than 18 grams of coffee into the Silvia’s basket, and the Infuser could easily fit 19, or even 20, grams. So although the unorthodox size was a bit of a pitfall, the actual part was superior than the competition.
Runner-up: Gaggia Classic
The Gaggia Classic has been pulling decent shots since 1991, and came in a close second to the Breville Infuser in our tests. It made some really great shots, but the pump occasionally skipped a beat mid-shot, leading to pressure fluctuations, and the steam wand wasn’t up to par. We think most beginners are better off with a more fully featured machine that will hold your hand a bit better, but the Gaggia has a smaller footprint than the Breville and is easier to modify with extras that offer more control.
Like the Infuser, the Gaggia was easy and intuitive to use. All you have to do is fill the portafilter with coffee, attach it to the machine, and then press a button for it to start. It pulled shots that were similarly consistent to the Infuser’s, although it seemed to have trouble maintaining constant pressure after a few simultaneous shots were pulled. (Quite honestly, nearly every machine less than $1,000 suffers from this problem.)
What the Gaggia lacks, however, is a good steam wand. Unlike the Breville, it uses a pannarello wand, a honking piece of plastic that’s meant to make frothing easier. A pannarello wand releases air as well as steam, saving you from having to aerate the milk manually by angling the wand against the surface of the milk just so. Unfortunately, the wand on the Gaggia produced foam with large, unwieldy bubbles. Though this will make a cappuccino similar to the ones you see at old-timey Italian cafés, it won’t be up to the standards of a modern coffee boutique. Despite trying several times with different approaches, we found it impossible to foam milk with micro-bubbles, meaning latte art was simply out of the question.
The Classic also doesn’t have the polish of the Infuser. The drip-catch tray is both tiny and spill-prone. There’s no removable water tank and no water filter. The manual is hard to read. None of these are dealbreakers, but they do knock the Classic down a notch when compared with the Infuser. The Classic is usually cheaper than the Infuser, but keep in mind that the Infuser comes with a milk-frothing pitcher, decent tamper, and a few other bonuses. The Classic comes with only a plastic tamper, and one that has more in common with the little plastic table you get in the middle of a pizza than anything you’d find behind the counter of a coffee shop. It’s basically unusable.
Overall, the Classic is a good machine that can make some really nice espresso if you know what you’re doing. It’s also easier to modify than the Infuser, with add-ons ranging from portafilters to PID controllers, so it could be a good pick for a home tinkerer. But it’s much less approachable for beginners. The Infuser is a little nicer on the eyes, and in our tests was consistent and made better foam, which makes it better for most beginners.
What about Nespresso?
If you want an espresso-like drink at home but don’t have the time or patience to practice and learn the ins and outs of making espresso, you might consider Nespresso. It’s the easiest, fastest way to get pretty close to making an espresso at home, and requires none of the learning curve or cleanup of a real home espresso machine. Just fill the water reservoir, pop in a coffee capsule, and press the brew button. All Nespressos have the same brewing mechanism and can make the same quality of drinks. So we recommend the least expensive one, the Essenza Mini.
But keep in mind that—as we learned in writing our guide to Nespresso machines—Nespresso isn’t quite real espresso. The machines produce super-concentrated shots of coffee that, despite impressive caps of crema, aren’t as syrupy or nuanced as the real thing. We found some capsules tasted watery or burnt, but overall weren’t too far off from Starbucks. If you’re not picky about your coffee, you might not mind trading flavor for the ultra-convenience of Nespresso.
There are some other caveats to getting a Nespresso machine. For one, the capsules themselves are pricey. According to a report from The New York Times (Wirecutter’s parent company), a cup of Nespresso costs about 70¢ a shot (which works out to a whopping $50 per pound of coffee). So it’s cheaper than buying espresso in a coffee shop, but more expensive than simply brewing a daily cup of coffee.
And if sustainability’s your thing, there are also some environmental implications to consider when using a single-serve coffee system like Nespresso. The company has a prepaid pod-recycling program that’s pretty easy to use, but if you’re really worried about creating waste, perhaps don’t use a Nespresso in the first place.
You can read more of our observations on the various Nespresso capsules and machines in the full guide.
Our pick: Rancilio Rocky
Out of the four espresso grinders we tested, the Rancilio Rocky—a 25-year-old coffee classic—did the best at balancing precision with usability. A good coffee grinder not only grinds the beans well, but also makes it easy to adjust. The Rocky does both of these easily.
We found that making small adjustments on the Rocky to dial in espresso was easier than most other machines we tested. You simply move a knob on the bean hopper to the left or right. Compare that with the Baratza Vario, which has a two-tiered adjustment system labeled with numbers and letters. The Rocky’s simple adjustment also makes it easy to flip between bigger grinds for drip or French press and back to espresso size again.
The Rocky’s size (it’s 13¾ inches tall) and relatively quiet operation make it a much better pick for home use than the commercial machines many enthusiasts covet. Mazzer, in particular, has a lot of popular models, but even the smallest, the Mazzer Mini, is almost 5 inches taller than the Rocky.
The Rocky is available with an optional doser mechanism for an additional charge, but we prefer the cheaper standard model. Although a doser supposedly makes it easier to measure the grinds into the portafilter, coffee gets trapped in the additional basin where it becomes stale, and it’s a pain to clean. Also, the rubber grip on the dosing lever kept falling off during testing. The Rocky without the doser works just great as is.
And though its price ($355 at time of writing) may shock you at first, note that this grinder will work for any kind of coffee you make—espresso, drip, French press.
Upgrade pick: Baratza Vario
Though the Rocky is definitely a solid grinder, it wasn’t the best that we tested. If good, consistent, and accurate grinding is what you’re looking for at any cost, the Baratza Vario is the way to go. It’s on the higher end of Baratza’s offerings, tailored to more advanced users. It is considered a “stepless” machine, which means that you are able make micro-adjustments between the larger grind settings. This gives the user more options when dialing in the espresso, which ultimately means the coffee will taste better.
The Vario’s user interface, however, isn’t as intuitive as the Rocky’s. Instead of having one dial that’s meant to adjust the grind from coarse to fine, the Vario comes with two levers: one for larger changes in the grind size—from 1 (very fine) to 10 (coarse)—and another for micro-adjustments between each number (from A to W). If you move the grind from a lower number to a higher one, you must be sure to put the micro-adjuster to A; conversely you must put it to W when making a smaller grind. Visually this isn’t too confusing—and it does give you much more power when figuring out the right grind—but it’s a bit of a steep learning curve. Additionally, at its current price of $480 the Vario is the most expensive grinder we tested. At the same time, its results blew away the competition. So if you have a little more money to spend and intend on really honing your espresso-making craft, the Vario is the best choice. Seattle Coffee Gear has an informative video walk-through of the differences between the Vario and the Rocky if you’re interested in learning more.
Baratza also makes our pick and upgrade pick for drip coffee grinders (the Encore and Virtuoso, respectively), but those grinders aren’t ideal for making espresso. The Virtuoso is $100 cheaper than the Rocky, and it will do a passable job if you’re on a tight budget. You can even purchase a nice accessory that makes it possible to dose directly from grinder to portafilter. But espresso is not really what the Virtuoso is meant for. It can’t achieve as fine a grind as you need for the best espresso, and the differences between the distinct grind-size settings are a bit too big. This limits your ability to dial in the grind size. You will be able to generally dial in the Virtuoso so that an espresso machine pulls an okay shot of coffee, but you won’t get it perfect.
Our pick: Rattleware 53-Millimeter Round-Handled Tamper
Tamping the grinds in the portafilter is both an important and hotly contested step in the espresso-making process. There are whole forum posts dedicated to how hard one should press on the tamper when compressing the beans; some even say tamping is not necessary (though we disagree). Whatever you believe, it’s important to tamp the grinds evenly so that water flows through them at an even rate. You should also remain consistent in your tamping ritual for every cup of coffee you make, because the espresso will brew differently depending on how tightly the grinds are compressed. So it’s helpful to own a tamper that feels comfortable. Every machine comes with its own tamper, although some are better than others. Rancilio and Gaggia, for example, come with tiny plastic presses that are annoying to hold and anything but sturdy. The Breville’s bundled tamper, on the other hand, is pretty great.
If you want to get your own tamper, however, the world is your oyster. You have to figure out how wide the portafilter you’re using is (Breville’s is 54 millimeters, the Gaggia’s is a more standard 58 millimeters). Then figure out what weight and shape you like. This second part is honestly aesthetic preference mixed with ergonomics. That is, what feels good in your hand. We found Rattleware’s tampers to be good quality. They come in a variety of shapes, but we were partial to the rounded-handle model. This Rattleware tamper felt good in the hand and had a nice weight, which made it easy to comfortably press the grounds into the portafilter. Though it’s a bit on the more expensive side—$50 at the time of writing—Rattleware does offer another, cheaper aluminum tamper for about $25 that’s also very nice.
Our pick: Rattleware 20-Ounce Latte Art Milk Frothing Pitcher
If you want to make milk drinks, you’re going to need a frothing pitcher. Though many look alike, some are nicer than others. The Infuser, for example, comes with its own pitcher, which is fine enough. But Rattleware’s pitchers are a bit sturdier and have a better finish. The model we tested was bit heavier than the generic RSVP and Update International pitchers, and it felt nicer in the hand, which we think is worth a couple bucks extra.
Another reason you might want to get the larger 20-ounce Rattleware pitcher is that it’s a better size for large lattes than the Infuser’s 16-ounce pitcher. On the other hand, people who prefer the more contemporary style of more silken-textured, smaller-volume cappuccinos (as opposed to the very foamy old-school type) will almost certainly want a pitcher smaller than 16 ounces. (Rattleware also makes a 12-ounce pitcher.) Rattleware also offers a Milk to Perfection pitcher, which has an internal tube that helps guide the steam wand to the correct position. For beginners, this is a nice addition, because it makes it somewhat easier to learn how to correctly steam milk. But, again, it comes down to preference. Some prefer a sturdy pitcher with a handle; others like pitchers that have an insulated cover and no handle. It’s honestly up to you.
Our pick: Escali Primo Digital Scale
For consistency, it’s important to use the same amount of coffee each time you pull a shot. The best way to measure is by weight (in grams), which is much more precise than using a scoop (where the weight of your coffee may vary depending on how compressed the grounds are). Some very thorough baristas also like to weigh the resulting shot to make sure that their output is consistent. For a beginner, weighing both coffee and shot is a good way to control some of the variables as you learn how to dial in a shot. So if you don’t have one already, a kitchen scale is worth the investment. The Escali Primo is the top pick in our full guide to scales because it’s one of the most accurate we’ve tested. It’s also compact and lightweight, and has a simple, intuitive interface.
If you get into making espresso and decide you want to refine your shots further, you may want to upgrade to a more precise scale that can measure in increments of 0.1 gram. Our favorite precision scale, the American Weigh Scales AMW-SC-2KG Digital Pocket Scale is a bit too small to easily hold a portafilter, but you can put a plate on top of it to give you a larger surface area (just make sure to tare out both the plate and your portafilter before you load the latter with coffee). As an alternative, there are some coffee-specific scales—like the pricey Acaia, which is favored by many pros. But for most people just starting out with making espresso, the Escali offers enough precision to dial in a good shot.
Our pick: Cafelat Tubbi Knockbox
A knock box, which is simply a small receptacle you dump used coffee grinds in, is a nice thing to have. It’s basically a countertop trash can with a bar going across the top for you to hit your portafilter against—thus ejecting the spent grinds from the portafilter without letting the insert that holds the grinds fall into the trash. After testing several competing designs, we like the Cafelat Tubbi the best. It has a sleek design with a removable bar that makes cleaning out every last bit of crud easy. This gives it an advantage over the otherwise similar Dreamfarm Grindenstein. Breville also offers a knock box with a removable bar, which we tested and liked. But the bar is a bit tougher to take out, requiring unscrewing the end caps as opposed to just popping it out with a tug. The Breville also has more seams for coffee gunk to collect in compared with the Cafelat’s smooth rubber design. The Breville is a fine pick if you want a stainless steel look, but otherwise the Cafelat is superior.
The Breville Duo-Temp Pro lacks the programmable buttons of the Infuser, so you have to start and stop pulling a shot manually. It also lacks a pressure gauge, and we found that the pump wasn’t as strong as the one on the Infuser. As a result, we had to use coffee ground a bit more coarsely than for other machines, resulting in a duller-tasting shot.
The Rancilio Silvia made the best shot we were able to get from any machine we tested. But it’s not as consistent as the Infuser, and much harder for a beginner to master. At around $700, it also costs much more than either the Gaggia Classic or the Infuser. It’s a good machine for someone with more experience, but we wouldn’t recommend it for someone just starting out.
The Breville Barista Express is basically an Infuser with a built-in Dose Control Pro grinder. We haven’t tested it because we’re wary of all-in-one machines: You’re combining the failure rates of two machines, and if one breaks, the other does too. But if you want to spend less for a full espresso setup, the Barista Express is probably the way to go. Although Breville’s grinders aren’t the very best available, they do perform well enough. And because the company’s machines pull great shots, this all-in-one setup is a good bet. Mark Hellweg agrees with this, calling the Barista Express one of the best “feature-packed consumer machines.” And CNET gave it rave reviews.
The Breville Dose Control Pro is inexpensive for an espresso grinder, but wasn’t as consistent as the Rancilio Rocky or the Baratza Vario. To get the control you need to make great espresso, we think you’re better off investing a bit more in the Rocky.
1. Reddy4Coffee, Temperature Surfing Your Way to Great Espresso, Whole Latte Love, August 26, 2016
2. Oliver Strand, With Coffee, the Price of Individualism Can Be High, The New York Times, February 7, 2012
3. Ruslan Kabalin, Gaggia Classic. Controlling temperature using PID., A bit about everything, March 28, 2014
4. Seattle Coffee Gear, Baratza Vario vs. Rancilio Rocky | CR Comparison, YouTube, March 22, 2013
5. Brian Bennett, Breville Barista Express review, CNET, March 18, 2006
6. Baratza Grinders, How to Recalibrate an Encore or Virtuoso Conical Grinder, YouTube, April 15, 2014
7. Whole Latte Love, Cleaning Portafilter and Baskets, YouTube, April 24, 2012
8. How to Descale a Home Espresso Machine, Seattle Coffee Gear
9. Mark Hellweg, Founder, Clive Coffee, interview, March 1, 2016
10. Steve Rhinehart, brand lead, Prima Coffee, interview, March 1, 2016
11. Tommy Gallagher, then technical services, Counter Culture Coffee, in-person interview, February 26, 2016
12. Kyle Anderson, co-founder, Baratza, interview, March 1, 2016
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