Do I need an espresso machine?
The best way to approach home espresso is to consider it an investment in a new hobby. On top of the financial commitment, it’s going to take time and patience. Be prepared to dedicate a good section of your kitchen counter to your kit, accept that you’re going to make plenty of mistakes along the way, and know that it is part science and part art. Above all else, dedication is everything.
If you’re just getting started, expect to spend a lot of time pouring bad shots down the drain, fussing with settings as you learn to dial in your machine, and cleaning up coffee grounds. It costs about $700 to $800 just to get up and running with a machine and a burr grinder. If you’re willing to go the manual route, you can get a portable device and a burr grinder for under $500, but that’s still costly.
Making espresso is one of the most time-consuming and messy ways to produce a cup (let alone demitasse) of coffee. If you need something quick and easy on your way out the door in the morning, you may want to consider the Nespresso system. On the flip side, know there are few things as rewarding in the world of home coffee as achieving an immaculate shot of velvety espresso all on your own.
What do I need to make espresso?
Fresh coffee beans: Paramount to making espresso are coffee oils, so you need freshly roasted coffee beans. If you’re buying months-old coffee and putting it through an espresso machine, you’re not going to get a lot of the coveted foam or any of the nuanced flavors associated with espresso. Simply put, get the best, freshest coffee beans you can find. If you like traditional coffee with chocolatey-nutty flavors, go with a medium-dark roast. If you like brighter, more nuanced flavors with floral, citrus, and fruit profiles, go with a light roast.
A burr grinder: Here’s where many of us make our most crucial mistake. Any old grinder simply will not do.
The coffee grinder you choose is possibly more important than the device itself. For espresso, you’ll want a burr grinder, which is made up of two serrated pieces of ceramic or steel that uniformly grind in a way that blade grinders, which indiscriminately chop like blenders, do not. Uniform grounds are always superior, but they’re paramount when it comes to espresso. Our guide to coffee grinders is in the process of being updated, but we like the Baratza Sette 30 or Baratza Sette 270 for now.
No matter the beans you use, you want to wind up with grounds that are somewhere between white flour and table salt. If it’s so fine that it’s almost comparable to dust, the machine is likely going to choke and pour next to nothing. If your grounds are too coarse, you’ll get something more like watery coffee, which will have no crema.
Mineral water: The best water for making espresso, according to Lance Hedrick, is distilled water with an added mineral solution like this one from Third Wave Water. Otherwise, any charcoal water filter will do. Just make sure to not use tap water, as that will scale up your machine and render it useless in six months’ time.
An espresso machine: Here’s the thing: If you’re not willing to put in the time to learn how to pull a shot like the professionals, you don’t want a machine like the ones professionals use. Consider something more pared-down, like our top recommendation, the Gaggia Classic Pro (don’t let the “Pro” intimidate you here, though), or something completely automatic.
What are the different types of espresso?
Normale, or standard espresso: A standard espresso is the most traditional form of the drink, and it’s usually defined by a 1:1.5 or 1:2 ratio of input (coffee in grams) to output (what ends up in your cup/demitasse), or by size at about one to 1.5 ounces (30ml-45ml).
Ristretto: A ristretto is a 1:1 or 1:1.5 input to output ratio, or about three-quarters of an ounce (20ml to 25ml) and an even more concentrated version of espresso where flavor profile is concerned. The caffeine amount is the same or less because you’re pulling a shot from the same amount of grounds.
Lungo: A lungo is a slightly diluted espresso, somewhere between three and four ounces (90ml to 120ml), which is between a normale and an Americano.
Americano, or long black: An Americano is a shot of espresso diluted with hot water to fill out a cup.
Will customizing my machine help me make better espresso?
It can certainly help. Things like bottomless portafilters (Lance Hedrick of Onyx Coffee Labs recommends this one) will help you understand how and why your shots are coming out the way they are and will enable you to better identify issues like channeling. Changing out shower screens and portafilter baskets will also change the pressure and flow of your group head and offer a real upgrade to any machine, including our overall pick and most if not all Breville machines. Hedrick recommends IMS for baskets and shower screens.
Why are espresso machines so expensive?
An espresso machine contains a powerful motor that pumps near-boiling water through a chamber and out the group head (the part of the machine that receives the portafilter). Everything needs to be expertly sealed so that it can contain piping-hot water under immense pressure, or the machine won’t work at all.
Good espresso machines are assembled by hand and are designed to be repaired. Just like your car’s engine, the motor of an espresso machine needs a little care, and unfortunately, the very thing most of us do with at-home espresso machines is among the worst things one can do with a motor: repeatedly turn it on and off. This wears on the motor and will require some level of repair after a few hundred shots.
They’re also built using expensive components usually made of steel. Espresso machines need to be able to generate and maintain about nine bars of pressure at roughly 200 degrees Fahrenheit, and higher-end machines will allow you to control the temperature. On top of that, every component has to be able to withstand vastly changing temperatures, pressures, and levels of humidity since there’s also steam involved.
Can you make regular coffee with an espresso machine?
This depends on your idea of coffee. The closest thing you can get to drip coffee is going to be an Americano, or a long black, which is an enjoyable way of stretching out that precious little ounce that is a shot. Simply pull a shot of espresso and then add whatever amount of hot water to fill out your cup.
If you’re really looking to drink drip coffee most of the time, you may want to save your money and buy a regular coffee machine. Consider a stovetop moka pot to have on hand for an espresso-like drink.