The Best Espresso Machine, Grinder, and Accessories for Beginners

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After putting in more than 60 hours of research, we enlisted a former barista, aided by Stumptown Coffee’s education crew, to test five espresso machines, four grinders, and a dozen accessories to find the best beginner’s espresso setup for less than $1,000. We recommend starting with the Breville Infuser espresso machine, because it makes pulling consistently great-tasting espresso shots easier and more approachable than the other machines we tested. It also comes with all of the accessories you need to get started.

Our pick
Breville BES840XL the Infuser Espresso Machine
This is a consistent machine that holds your hand as a newbie, yet also satisfies pros with its capabilities.

As a former specialty shop barista, I worked with espresso machines worth well over $10,000, so I’m familiar with the best machines at any price. You may balk at such steep prices, but the truth is, pulling consistently high-quality shots requires precision machinery and precision is usually expensive. Among machines that cost less than $1,000, Breville’s Infuser stands out for its ability to replicate very good shots of espresso for such a reasonable price. It was also the easiest to use: It had the best documentation, most user-friendly design (with ample labeling and easy-to-read instructions), and comes with most of the accessories you need to get started. It’s everything a beginner could want in an espresso machine. If it’s sold out or you want something that is capable of hitting higher highs (at the cost of consistency), the Gaggia Classic is our runner-up.

Our pick
Rancilio Rocky
Here you’ll get professional burrs at a palatable price. There’s a good reason its design hasn’t changed significantly in decades.

While a good espresso machine is crucial to a great espresso setup, most coffee aficionados will tell you that the grinder is actually more important. An imperfect grind simply can’t produce good espresso, whereas a fine and even grind can elevate even mediocre machines. Among the four espresso-ready grinders we tested ranging from $170 to $470, the Rancilio Rocky was our favorite. When the Rocky was introduced in 1989, it was one of the first home-use grinders with commercial-grade burrs. It was a hit then, and it continues to impress decades later thanks to its ease of adjustment and consistent grind. That’s why it’s the grinder we settled on for testing all the espresso machines. If you want something more adjustable and are willing to pay extra for it, the Baratza Vario is our upgrade pick (but it’s a bit trickier to use). And on the cheaper end, our less-adjustable pick for best drip coffee grinder can do a passable job for less money.

Beyond the machine and grinder, many coffee geeks keep a shelf filled with accoutrements of varying degrees of necessity. We tested about a dozen various doodads to find picks for the most popular and important ones:

  • Knock boxes are for disposing of spent grinds. We like the Cafelat because of its high back design and removable bar for easy cleaning.
  • Tampers for evenly pressing your grinds prior to pulling a shot. The Infuser (and all Breville models) come with a surprisingly good plastic tamper that has metal tamping surfaces, but you can get a better, aluminum tamper from Rattleware for not much money, or splurge on the more ergonomic stainless steel Rattleware (you’ll also need one if you go with a non-Breville machine, but make sure to get the right size (most, including our Gaggia runner up pick use a standard 58mm tamper)—consult your manual if you’re not sure).
  • A milk-frothing pitcher is necessary for making lattes and other milk drinks. Again, the Breville comes with a good milk-frothing pitcher, but its 16-ounce capacity is better suited for cappuccinos than lattes (since you need extra space to accommodate the foam), so we have a 20-ounce pick—also from Rattleware.
  • And, of course, you need cups to pull shots into and drink out of. We like the 3.1-ounce version of the Duralex Picardie we recommend in our drinking glass review because they look great and are cheaper than porcelain alternatives. That’s why they’re gaining popularity at cafés around the world.

And finally, if this sounds like too much stuff just to get a cup of coffee in the morning, we’ve got you covered as well in the What about Nespresso? section below.

Table of contents

Why you should trust us

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Cale Guthrie Weissman demonstrating proper milk frothing technique on the Infuser.

Prior to becoming a reporter, Cale Guthrie Weissman was an accomplished barista. He 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, he pulled over 200 shots per week, but that hasn’t dulled his passion for the subject since changing careers. He continues to write about coffee at every opportunity and has previously spent more than a hundred combined hours researching and reviewing coffee makers, grinders, and pour-over methods for The Sweethome.

Who this is for

This is for someone who likes good coffee and wants to take the time to learn more about the craft. Whether you have been making pour-over for years or 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 into the world of espresso making. If you continue on this journey, you may outgrow this setup and 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 on a hobby you might end up quitting anyway.

Our goal here was to find an approachable setup for people looking to get into espresso making for the first time.

Indeed, at-home espresso is not for the faint of heart. Tommy Gallagher from 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 already), 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 do it. 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).

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 kick-ass 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.

What about Nespresso?

Nespresso Inissia
It makes as-good-as-Starbucks espresso drinks at the push of a button.

If you want a decent espresso drink at home, but don’t have the time or patience to practice and learn the ins and outs of making espresso, try Nespresso. Machines start at just over $100 and you can pay more for features like faster preheating, and built-in milk frothing—but they all share the same brewing mechanism and produce the same decent-tasting coffee. The coffee pods themselves cost about 70¢ a shot (it works out to about $50/pound), which isn’t bad for a consistently decent espresso (with crema!) that tastes as good (or better than) Starbucks, yet requires almost no effort on your part. Just fill the water reservoir and pop in a pod. And unlike some other single-serving coffee systems, Nespresso has a prepaid pod-recycling program in place already. To be clear, Nespresso makes decent coffee every time, but even a beginner working with a cheap espresso machine can achieve better results with just a bit of practice. Nespresso is just a whole lot easier.

How we picked and tested

To figure out just what was needed to make a cost-effective home espresso setup, I talked with eight coffee experts. They included award-winning baristas from some of Manhattan’s best coffee shops, the technical brains behind two of the most well-known roasters in the country (Counter Culture and Stumptown), as well as experts and entrepreneurs who focus on connecting coffee enthusiasts (both professional and consumer) with the correct equipment. I also read through hundreds of articles and forums on coffee blogs such as CoffeeGeek and Home Barista, and other sites like Prima Coffee.

If an espresso machine is consistent, but the coffee you put in it is inconsistent, the resulting shots will be inconsistent.

According to the experts and enthusiasts, semi-automatic is the way to go. Espresso is made 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. And the pressure must be constant. Manual machines let the user add the hot water and use their own brute force to create the pressure. This is imprecise and leads to inconsistent coffee. A semi-automatic machine heats the water for the user and uses a pump to create the right amount of pressure. The more expensive the machine, the better the equipment inside. But ultimately, a solid machine will use the right water heater and be able to maintain solid pressure while pulling a shot.

Likewise, I only considered single boiler machines, which use the same boiler to heat up the water for the espresso shot and for the steam wand. So once a shot is pulled (at a temperature of about 195˚F), the machine has to quickly heat itself up to get ready to steam the milk. A dual-boiler has separate boilers: one set to lower temperature for the espresso, and the other to the higher temperature needed for the steam wand. This means there’s no warm-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 isn’t too big of an issue.

espressomachines-fullres-8075-group-testing-units

Our testing units from left: Gaggia Classic, Breville Duo Temp Pro, Breville Infuser, Rancilio Silvia.

With that in mind, I formed a short list of four machines to try out. Gaggia has been making espresso machines since the 1930s and its semi-automatic Classic was first introduced in 1991. It was a hit then, and the design has changed very little over the decades since—though they 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, I’ve seen small professional operations use a Silvia to pull shots. Beyond those machines, I wanted to try out Breville’s offerings, which are very popular in the United States. The Infuser came highly recommended by a few experts I talked with, 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.

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If the coffee going into the portafilter is inconsistently ground, it can mess up the resulting coffee more than if you had used a bad espresso machine.

Mind you, making good espresso requires more than just an espresso machine—it needs a great grinder. In fact, as Steve Rhinehart from the well-known coffee website Prima Coffee told me, “The grinder is the biggest, most important purchase you can make [when it comes to espresso].” That’s because if an espresso machine is consistent, but the coffee you put in it is inconsistent, the resulting shots will be inconsistent. The requirements for a good espresso grinders are similar to those for a normal coffee grinder, but they go a bit deeper. All of the grinders I tested were given good marks by the experts I interviewed, as well as highly rated by numerous consumer reviews. I personally tested each machine, analyzing how long it took each one to adjust to a correct espresso grind—a process referred to as dialing in. I took note of how easy it was to change one grind size to another, and whether the grinder’s UI was easy to master, even for a novice coffee maker. While I would have liked to repeat the sand shaker testing protocol used in our drip coffee grinder review, it’s not feasible at espresso settings. The tiny particles cling too readily to the sieve holes and block them, preventing further grinds from falling through, even if they’re small enough to pass through.

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Emily Rosenberg of Stumptown Coffee’s education team pulls a shot with the Infuser.

I tested each of the machines from the perspective of someone unboxing and trying to get familiar with it for the first time. Each machine had at least an hour to wow me with its setup process, documentation, and ability to create consistently good espresso using Stumptown’s renowned and ubiquitous Hair Bender espresso blend. Once the machines were set up, I evaluated how easy it was to fill its portafilter (the metal cup with a long handle that locks into the machine) with a double-shot worth of ground coffee (18 grams) and dialed in the machine until it was producing good coffee—this typically took three to six tries for each machine. Once satisfied with the result, I then 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 joined me to pull and taste a few shots of their own. After the third espresso was made, I used the steam wand to froth milk, noting how small I could make the bubbles in the foam (smaller bubbles are better for lattes and cappuccinos). I timed each of these actions, including how long it took to make an entire cappuccino. Putting all of this together, along with how easy it was for me to get the espresso machines up and running, I was able to figure out which machines performed the best and which were more finicky.

espresso-machine-grinder-accessories-feature

That shot needs to go into something. The Duralex Picardie is our pick for best drinking glass and comes in a demitasse (espresso) size as well. Perfect for a double shot.

As for accessories, these were the icing on the cake. After asking experts and trawling dozens of review sites, I narrowed down a list of the brands people like most for espresso gear and what really makes the process more seamless. With this, I formed a list of accessories I thought necessary to test—namely, tampers, steam pitchers, and knock boxes—as well as which companies make the best of these.

Espresso machine

espresso-machine-grinder-accessories-8050-breville-infuser

The Breville Infuser looks great on any kitchen counter.

Our pick
Breville BES840XL the Infuser Espresso Machine
This is a consistent machine that holds your hand as a newbie, yet also satisfies pros with its capabilities.

The Breville Infuser was the best out of all the machines because of its performance for both espresso and milk steaming, ease of use, and the fact that it comes with all the accessories needed to get started. It made a consistently flavorful shot of espresso, and it was easy to set up and use. 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. And it starts with the second you open the box.

Once you open the Infuser’s package, all of its components are in front of you and marked clearly. The documentation is easy to follow and heavily illustrated whereas the Italian machines we tested had unclear instructions with few diagrams. It 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!

espresso-machine-grinder-accessories-8039-breville-infuser-interface

The Breville’s interface is very user-friendly.

“We could just make copies of this and hand them out to baristas we train instead of doing a presentation.” -David Cook, Stumptown

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 pop it back in—there’s no fussing with an extra pitcher to ferry water into the machine, which both the Rancilio Silvia and Gaggia Classic needed. Press the Power button and the Infuser turns on. Less than a minute later, it beeps when the water gets to brewing temperature. Once everything is ready, you fill the portafilter with coffee grounds, use a tamper to press them in, attach the portafilter to the machine, and press a button. The machine has a preset single and double shot timer (which can be personally customized), but I opted not to use those and instead started and stopped it manually. I was able to quickly dial in the Hair Bender blend in just a few minutes (here’s a quick primer on dialing in espresso). Subsequent single-origin testing was similarly painless.

espresso-machine-grinder-accessories-7687-breville-infuser-tasty-sho

The Infuser consistently pulled tasty shots in the correct amount of time with robust crema.

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 on top (the dense and foamy part on top), like what you’d expect from a high-quality cafe. While its best-tasting shots didn’t quite live up to those we pulled from the Gaggia Classic and Rancilio Silvia—we had 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.

We speculate that part of what makes the Infuser so consistent is the fact that it was one of the only machines with a built-in electronic, PID (proportional integral derivative) temperature controller. According to Clive Coffee, “A PID sends short bursts of power to your boiler, keeping the temperature within a very narrow range.” And accurate temperatures make for consistent coffee. While you can add a PID to the Rancilio and Gaggia machines, it will cost a couple of hundred dollars extra and/or requires some DIY know-how.

The Infuser’s pump was another highlight. It 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), while cheaper machines, like the Breville Duo-Temp Pro, couldn’t handle anything finer than an 11/55—the result was a duller, more sour espresso. The Infuser’s pump also kept consistent pressure throughout the brewing process maintaining a steady stream of espresso coming out of the portafilter. The Gaggia Classic, on the other hand, experienced some fluctuations as indicated by uneven flow rate.

espresso-machine-grinder-accessories-7746-breville-infuser-steam-wand

The Infuser’s steam wand was among the few capable of making the dense microfoam needed for creating latte art.

When it comes to making milk drinks, the Breville Infuser’s steam wand was by far the best we tested. Though the steam wand does take a little bit of time to fully steam and heat the milk to temperature—about a minute compared with the 30 seconds you’d expect from a $1,000-plus machine—we found it was the only sub-$1,000 machine 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.

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We loved that the Infuser tells you when you need to empty the drip catch, so you never accidentally overfill it and spill onto the counter.

It was the only sub-$1,000 machine that could produce café-quality microfoam capable of producing latte art.

Putting these core factors together, Breville’s Infuser was already the clear winner. But there was plenty of icing on the cake. For instance, its packaging and extra odds and ends are far better than those of all the other contenders. It comes with its own tamper (which worked surprisingly well!) that has a magnetic end that fits perfectly into a compartment next to the portafilter where it will never get lost. It’s nice enough that even the Stumptown educators said they wouldn’t bother replacing it. You also get a 16fluid-ounce milk-frothing pitcher that’s built as solidly as the Rattleware we tested. The drip-catcher tray below is large enough to accommodate the many mistakes you’ll make as a novice, and has a nice floating sign saying “Empty Me” that appears if it gets too full. The water tank is removable for easy cleaning and 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 so you can instantly check the next time it needs to be changed. And the machine itself even has a light that lets you know when it’s time to clean it.

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The Breville comes with a lot of accessories and a place to store them.

Of course, we did have our nits to pick. For one, it didn’t make the absolute best cup of espresso. That one went to the Silvia. But 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 54-millimeter portafilter, which is smaller than many other machines. Indeed, both the Classic and the Silvia had 58-mm portafilters, which are much more standard. This means that it’s hard to customize the device since the sizes are slightly more proprietary. For instance, many tampers don’t come with a 54-mm size—though we found that a 53-mm tamper works just fine. Speaking of tampers, the plastic one included with the Infuser is good, but it would be nicer if it were fully metallic instead of mostly plastic.

At the same time, even though it had a narrower width, it was still better than the other standard-size portafilters. The Silvia, for example, had a wider, 58-mm basket (standard width) but was 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, I was 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 while the unorthodox size was a bit of a pitfall, the actual part was superior than the competition.

espresso-machine-grinder-accessories-8061-gaggia-classic

The Gaggia Classic has an, ahem, classic aesthetic that adds some retro-Italian flair to your counter.

We think most beginners are better off with a more fully featured machine that will hold your hand a bit better, but the Gaggia Classic has been pulling decent shots since 1991. Despite its age, the Classic came in a close second because it wasn’t quite as consistent. 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.

Like the Infuser, it 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, 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.)

espresso-machine-grinder-accessories-7711-gaggia-classic-steam-wand

Those big bubbles are the sign of a weak steam wand. They should be tiny and dense.

What it doesn’t have, however, is a good steam wand. The Classic’s wand is a honking piece of plastic and produces foam with large, unwieldy bubbles. While this will make a cappuccino similar to the ones you see at old-timey Italian cafes, it won’t be up to the standards of a modern coffee boutique. Despite trying several times with different approaches, I found it impossible to foam milk with micro-bubbles, meaning latte art was simply out of the question. Compare this to the Infuser’s steam wand, which was quite easy to use and master.

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 about $100 cheaper than the Infuser on most days, but the Infuser comes with a milk-frothing pitcher, decent tamper, and a few other bonuses. The Classic only comes with 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 with add-ons than the Infuser, meaning 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.

All-in-one

We caution against all-in-one machines because you’re combining the failure rates of two machines, and if one breaks, the other does too. But if you must, the Breville Barista Express is the way to go. It’s basically an Infuser with a built-in Dose Control Pro. While Breville’s grinders aren’t the very best on the market, they do perform well enough. Since its machines pull great shots, this all-in-one setup is a good bet. Mark Hellweg agrees with this, calling it one of the best “feature-packed consumer machines.” And CNET gave it rave reviews as well as its Editors’ Choice award.

Espresso grinder

espresso-machine-grinder-accessories-7739-rancilio-rocky

The Rocky lives up to its reputation as one of the most capable home-use grinders available.

Our pick
Rancilio Rocky
Here you’ll get professional burrs at a palatable price. There’s a good reason its design hasn’t changed significantly in decades.

Buying a good grinder is just as important as buying a good espresso machine. If the coffee beans aren’t ground to consistent and uniformly sized particles, it doesn’t matter how good the water heater and pump are because the coffee will taste bad. While finding a machine that will correctly grind beans to drip size is expensive enough (in the $200 range), finding a machine that will accurately do fine espresso grinds is even harder. You need a rig with burrs that are specially made to pulverize the coffee to the exact right size—no smaller, no larger. (To learn more about how burrs work and why they are so important, see our grinder guide.)

For this guide, everything we tested had a price tag of at least $180. More, they were all highly reviewed by both experts and customers. Ultimately, we found that a 25-year-old coffee classic—the Rancilio Rocky—performed best in its price range. A good coffee grinder not only grinds the beans well, but also makes it easy to adjust. The Rocky does both of these easily.

To use it, you must flip a switch and beans are automatically drawn through a chute into the open. I 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 13.75 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 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. While 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 while the $355 price tag 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
With 230 grind settings, the Vario is bound to have one that works for your favorite bean.

While the Rocky is definitely a solid grinder, it wasn’t the best we tested. If good, consistent, and accurate grinding is what you’re looking for, the Baratza Vario is the way to go. It’s on the higher end of Baratza’s offerings, tailored to more advanced users. And this comes through when you use the machine. 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 dialling in the espresso, which ultimately means the coffee will taste better.

Its UI, however, isn’t as intuitive as the Rocky’s. Instead of having one dial from coarse to fine that’s meant to adjust the grind, 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, it’s the most expensive grinder, coming in at $480. 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.

Budget pick
Baratza Virtuoso
With only 40 grind settings, the Virtuoso will get you in the ballpark, but not the exact setting you need.

When push comes to shove, a good grinder is a good grinder. While Baratza’s Virtuoso was not necessarily built with espresso in mind, it will do an good enough job if you’re on a tight budget. And you can purchase a nice accessory that makes it possible to dose directly from grinder to portafilter. The problem with the Virtuoso has nothing to do with grind consistency though. It’s just that 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.

You can actually hack the Virtuoso to better handle finer grinds pretty easily, but that still doesn’t solve the adjustment issue. Even Baratza cofounder Kyle Anderson agrees that the machine isn’t great for espresso (he recommends the soon-to-be-released Sette 270 as its best low-end espresso grinder—we’ll test it when it’s available later in the summer).

Accessories

A knock box, which is simply a small receptacle you put used coffee grinds in, is a nice thing to have. It’s basically a countertop trashcan with a bar going across the top for you to hit your portafilter against—thus ejecting the spent grinds from the portafilter into the waste box. After testing several competing designs, the Cafelat is our favorite. It had a sleek design with a removable bar for easy cleaning. This gives it an advantage over the otherwise similar 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 out with a tug. There are also more seams in the Breville for coffee gunk to collect in compared to the Cafelat’s smooth rubber design. The Breville is a fine pick if you want a stainless steel look, but otherwise the Cafelat is the superior product.

The real joy of espresso is in the drinking. So, of course, it’s important to have a good cup. Personally, I enjoy drinking espresso out of glass—it looks nice, and feels modern. The Duralex Picardie—which was the overall pick in our glass guide—makes a 3.1-ounce glass that is perfect for espresso sipping and is even big enough to make a macchiato or cortado. You can read more about why we like them in the drinking glass review.

If you prefer ceramic, Clive Coffee and Prima Coffee both recommend the Ancap Verona espresso cup. They are Italian-made porcelain coffee cups that are known for keeping coffee warm and having a good cafe-like aesthetic. They do cost a lot more per cup than the Duralex though.

Tamping the espresso is both an important step in the coffee-making process and hotly contested. There are forums about how hard one should press on the tamper when compressing the beans; some even say tamping is not necessary (I wholly disagree with this). Whatever you believe, it’s important that you remain consistent in your tamping ritual for every cup of coffee you make. Thus, it’s helpful to own a tamper that you like. 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 (although the Breville’s bundled tamper 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 is 54 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 I found myself partial to the rounded-handle model. This Rattleware tamper felt good in my hand, had a nice weight, which made it easy to comfortably press the grounds into the portafilter. While it’s a bit on the more expensive side—$50—Rattleware does offer another cheaper aluminum tamper for about $25 that’s also very nice.

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 a great addition to the package!). The pitcher is fine enough, but I prefer Rattleware’s pitchers, which are a bit sturdier and have a better finish. It was a bit heavier than the generic RSVP and Update International pitchers we tested and felt nicer in the hand, which we think is worth a couple bucks extra. 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. I prefer a sturdy pitcher with a handle; other like pitchers that have an insulated cover and no handle. It’s honestly up to you.

How do I use this stuff?

Pulling a shot: When learning the ropes of espresso, your machine’s manual is your best starting point since every machine is a little different, but it also helps to know what to look for from a good shot. That way, you know if it’s the correct consistency and is pouring in the general time frame. Here are the key elements: You should dose about 18 grams of finely ground coffee for a double shot of espresso; once the portafilter is filled, tamped, and in the machine, you press a button/flip a switch and start a timer—the espresso shot should begin dropping to the cup at about 6 seconds; the consistency should be dark and syrupy; by the end it will become more liquidy and its color will brighten (we call this “blonding”); a double shot should take anywhere from 21 to 30 seconds, and its volume should be about double the dose—in this case, around 31 grams. This is a very rudimentary starting point. I recommend reading more thorough how-to guides and watching YouTube videos. These Intelligentsia posts about dialing in shots and the full shot-pulling process are a good starting point.

espresso-machine-grinder-accessories-7742

The key to good steamed milk is finding and maintaining the sweet spot that generates foam but doesn’t make big bubbles. It changes as foam is made though, so you have to adjust as you go.

Steaming milk: For many, the coffee is only half the battle, it’s the cappuccino that’s the end goal. If that’s you, Intelligentsia coffee has an easy to follow illustrated guide to steaming milk with common troubleshooting tips.

Care and maintenance

Keeping your espresso machine clean is as important as buying the right one. If you don’t do these small actions to keep the machine up to par, the quality of the espresso will most definitely suffer and you may even do damage to the machine.

I don’t consider a latte to be done until after the steam wand is wiped.

The portafilter and group head (where the water comes out of the machine) should be cleaned after every use, to ensure coffee buildup doesn’t form on the inside (here’s a good illustrated guide from Intelligentsia, and Whole Latte Love has a good video). If buildup does form inside the portafilter, there are biodegradable tablets and powders you can buy that mix with water that will clean it out (Breville comes with a few in the box or Cafiza is a popular option recommended in the cleaning guides from Intelligentsia and Whole Latte Love). It’s also very important to wipe down the steam wand with a wet rag after each use.

The rig should be descaled when buildup begins to form. Seattle Coffee Gear has a good guide on how to do this with commercial descaling agents, or this WikiHow article (and many forum users) opts for distilled white vinegar, but this can be smelly so most people opt for a commercial descaler, like Cafiza.

This may sound like a lot, but most espresso upkeep is just having the right routine. For instance, I don’t consider a latte to be done until after the steam wand is wiped. And emptying out the used coffee grounds and wiping out the filters inside is just part of my coffee-making muscle memory.

(Photos by Michael Hession.)

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Sources

  1. Reddy4Coffee, Temperature Surfing Your Way to Great Espresso, Whole Latte Love
  2. Oliver Strand, With Coffee, the Price of Individualism Can Be High, The New York Times, February 7, 2012
  3. Methodically Dialing in Espresso, Intelligentsia Coffee
  4. How to Make Espresso, Intelligentsia Coffee
  5. Milk Steaming, Intelligentsia Coffee
  6. Cleaning, Intelligentsia Coffee
  7. Espresso FAQ, Clive Coffee
  8. Mark, Rancilio Silvia: Do I Need a PID?, Clive Coffee, March 29, 2011
  9. Ruslan Kabalin, Gaggia Classic. Controlling temperature using PID., A bit about everything, March 28, 2014
  10. sourbrew, Gaggia Classic PID mod, CoffeeGeek.com, December, 22, 2007
  11. Brian Bennett, Breville Barista Express review, CNET, March 18, 2006
  12. Seattle Coffee Gear, Baratza Vario vs. Rancilio Rocky | CR Comparison, YouTube, March 22, 2013
  13. Baratza Grinders, How to Recalibrate an Encore or Virtuoso Conical Grinder, YouTube, April 15, 2014
  14. Whole Latte Love, Cleaning Portafilter and Baskets, YouTube, April 24, 2012
  15. How to Descale a Home Espresso Machine, Seattle Coffee Gear
  16. How to Clean an Espresso Machine, wikiHow
  17. Mark Hellweg, Founder, Clive Coffee, Interview
  18. Steve Rhinehart, Brand lead, Prima Coffee, Interview
  19. Tommy Gallagher, Technical Services, Counter Culture Coffee, Interview
  20. Kyle Anderson, Co-founder, Baratza, Interview

Originally published: May 6, 2016

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