Coffee isn’t coffee until it’s an espresso. And espresso isn’t an espresso until you create all the right conditions to extract the flavor, oils, and aroma from perfectly roasted beans, ground right. The perfect grind, the exact pressure, and the precise temperature must come together to extract the full flavor every time.
And that is why you need an espresso machine that can do all that consistently without any of the drama and without breaking the bank.
The best espresso machines come with a grinder built-in simply because the best flavor comes from beans that were ground moments before extraction. The longer it remains ground, the more it oxidizes and the lesser it tastes. But if you are looking for an espresso machine that’s less than $500 and comes with the grinder, it is going to be hard.
Good machines also have the ability to boil quickly and keep the water heated to a specific temperature so that you can pull multiple shots. It should also have a pump that provides consistent pressure. Between 15 and 20 bars at the pump is best for that perfect look, feel and taste.
As for temperature, 100 degrees Celsius is too much. The best pulls come from light water heated to between 93 and 95 degrees Celsius (200 to 203 degrees F). To be able to pull subsequent cups with any consistency, the espresso machine has to be able to keep the water temperature and steam pressure consistent.
Keeping all this in mind, and making sure that the budget remained strictly below $500, we looked at all the espresso machines that are currently available. We found seven models that will do the job.
It is rare to find an espresso machine at this price level that comes with a grinder built-in. But this Italian build seems to exceed the expectations its price infers. Not only does it come with a grinder, but it’s also a bur grinder, something only the higher-priced espresso makers come with.
Bur grinders are better than blade grinders because the former delivers consistent coarseness while the latter produces fine powder mixed in with larger grounds.
Since the level of coarseness determines the flavor, having fine and coarse grounds in the portafilter results in varying levels of flavor. Too course and you could pull a sour cup. Too fine, and it might be too bitter. Having a bur grinder is the first step in getting consistent flavor each time.
The Gaggia Brera grinder uses ceramic burs. This prevents heat from the machine (from generating all that steam) from affecting the beans during the grinding process. Once the beans are toasted perfectly, any additional heat will only serve to degrade their flavor.
The Gaggia Brera accommodates five settings so that you can set the diameter of the grounds depending on your beans, the roast, and the pallet you are aiming for. The grounds are consistent at each setting, allowing you to choose a coarse texture at its highest setting down to a fine texture at its lowest setting.
In case you don’t wish to grind your beans, the doser has a bypass function that allows you to use pre-ground coffee. That’s handy when you are looking to make a cup of decaf.
The Gaggia Brera is a fully automatic espresso machine that delivers the perfect cup at a push of a button. You don’t need to manually set the pressure or fiddle with the temperature. In some cases that also means you can’t adjust the flavor, you are looking for.
Not true when it comes to the Brera. You can alter two key settings. We talked about one in the last section – grinder settings, for coarseness. The second one is the aroma intensity. On the user interface, you will see a selection of one, two, and three beans.
One gives you a lighter aroma and kick while three gives you everything the bean has to offer. Gaggia accomplishes this by controlling the rate of water it channels through the portafilter. In the end, it’s not about how much water, it’s about how long the water takes to go through the grounds. Quicker passage results in under-extraction. Slower passage results in over-extraction.
To control your flavor, the otherwise automatic machine gives you two avenues to control and personalize your cup with five grinder settings and three aroma settings.
The Gaggia also brings one more feature that catapults this espresso machine to the top of its class. The Brera pre-infuses the portafilter before every extraction. By dampening the grounds, the carbon dioxide that is part of the grounds and has been protecting it is removed. That allows better flavor extraction. Some machines don’t pre-infuse, while others have it as an option. Brera has it all the time.
It is easy to forget that the basis of a great espresso is good water. To this end, good filtered water has to be the point of departure for every pull. However, the Brera does not come with a water filter. But considering its price, that’s not surprising or disappointing. If you are inclined to get one, it is compatible with Intenza filters that you can purchase separately.
One of the key components of any espresso machine is the boiler and the mechanisms that manage the boiler. The Brera comes with a stainless steel tank which makes a tremendous difference in the taste and quality of the espresso.
Plastic tanks infuse unwanted aromas and flavors into the coffee and spoil the experience. Stainless steel, more than any other metal, remains neutral and does not impart any flavor into the water to taint the coffee.
The stainless steel facade is both aesthetically pleasing and easy to clean.
The Brera also comes with something unexpected with espresso machines at this price point. It has a memory function. If you have a house full of espresso drinkers with each preferring their own strength, then resetting it each time can be a chore. The Brera allows you to remember a particular setting and then repeats that every time you pull a cup.
Now, this is a fully automatic espresso machine, so it doesn’t come with a portafilter or a tamper that you have to mess with. Just hit a couple of buttons and you’re thirty seconds away from a great-tasting espresso. It comes with a steaming wand as well so you’ll be able to transform that espresso into a professional latte if you so choose.
If you plan on tailoring your cup of espresso down to the last detail then this is not the machine for you. This is a hassle-free, consistent espresso machine built for convenience.
Unlike the Gaggia Brera, the Breville Bambino is as straightforward as you can get. Having tasted the espresso it makes repeatedly, I have to say I am quite impressed considering its sub-$500 price.
In understanding its value, it helps to realize that the Bambino comes from a family of high-end espresso models. That may explain why its design and attention to quality are consistent. Its brewing technology is identical to its more expensive models.
Besides the ability to set everything up easily, I found the Bambino was easy to clean. When it comes to an espresso machine, that is more important than most people think. With clean lines and few projections, a clean hand cloth easily slides around it from daily upkeep. And when it’s time for deeper cleaning, the Bambino is easily disassembled.
As far as flavor is concerned, it’s not as consistent as the Brera for a very obvious reason. The Brera is fully super-automatic while the Bambino is not. It also does not have a grinder that comes with it so the grind quality can be inconsistent from one kitchen to the next depending on whether there is a bur or blade grinder.
Not having a grinder built-in introduces the uncertainty of the grounds and the inability to control it at the point of serving. it also means that the ground beans you have, more than likely are not going to be as fresh as the ones that are ground moments before the brew.
While all these may sound like deal breakers, it’s actually the opposite. The reason for the inconsistency, is also why you have the ability to control each dimension of the flavor profile. The final taste is in your hands if you are willing to take the time to get there.
That, I find to be exciting. Will you make mistakes? Yes. Will you be consistent? Not at first. So if you plan on taking coffee seriously, this is a great place to start before you move up to something a little more complicated and complex.
I love this machine for the fact that I can tailor my flavor profile as much or as little as I want. While the Brera earlier gives consistency at the push of a button, it has little room to improve. This model, however, gives me control.
For use as a home espresso machine, the Brera comes with a quality that is a must. Its water is boiled and maintained at 200 degrees Fahrenheit with speed and uniformity. When you are in the mood for a pick-me-up, the last thing you want to do is wait for the water to boil. For the Bambino, the wait time, from a cold start, is no more than a few seconds because it has a robust ThermoJet heating system with PID temperature control.
Then it has a pump and pressure delivery system that gets 9 bars of pressure to the portafilter. There is a healthy debate about which pressure is the best for the best espresso. Is it nine, or nineteen?
The answer is that it depends on where it is being measured. Measuring the pressure at the portafilter is to know that that’s the pressure the grounds will experience. Measuring it at the pump is an altogether different matter. Because by the time the pressure gets to the head, it has a lot of its potency. So while it may begin at 15 bars at the exit of the pump, it may only be 9 by the time it hits the grounds.
Like the Bambino that measured 9 bars at the portafilter, it will give the grounds sufficient time to flow through and force the oils and flavor out. Too much pressure at the top of the portafilter and the water passes through too quickly, with too little pressure it passes through slowly. The former results in a more sour taste. The latter is a little more bitter. The key is to find your balance.
One way to compare how good a machine really is is to observe the crema it produces. Espresso flavors closely parallel the color and longevity of its crema. You can think of this as the tell-tale sign of a good espresso.
After working with the Breville Bambino I found that it provided enough freedom and enough character to get a quality pull as long as the beans were evenly roasted and freshly fine-ground. This delivered a crema that stood at about a tenth of the height of the espressos and stayed in the cup for more than a minute.
And finally, there is the Breville Infuser. It has the largest footprint of the three espresso makers we’re looking at and is semi-automatic like the Breville Bambino above.
The Infuser comes with a 58mm portafilter allowing you to pack in 18 grams of grounds when they are finely ground and a little less if they are coarse. This is going to impact the flavor of your espresso but in a good way. A small portafilter, which this is not, will give you very little flavor in a tall glass or adequate flavor in insufficient amounts.
The boiler is also a rapid heating system, using the same ThermoJet boiler that is also controlled by a PID that monitors the temperature and then actively adjusts the power needed in the 1600 Watt coils to raise or lower the temperature.
The Breville Infuser also incorporates a pre-infuser. It’s one of my must-have features in any brew. Having a pre-infuser always results in a better flavor profile as it prepares the grounds for the pressurized steam that is about to follow. Hitting the grounds dry, doesn’t get as much out of it as you potentially could.
If you want to test this out, try a machine that does not have a pre-infuser and compare the crema that results from the pull from two cups that are otherwise identical.
The Infuser also has an auto-purge function that allows me to go from steaming to brewing. Remember this is a sub-$500 machine and so it does not come with dual boilers—just one to supply the steam and the water. So the auto-purge comes in handy. I can make a couple of cups at a time, going back and forth without too much lag between the two. There is also a hot water spout for you to make tea or other warm beverage. This is great when you have to make cocoa or tea for a non-coffee drinker.
Then there is the ability to pull a single or a double. This gives me the flexibility of having two single cups as the portafilter comes with two ports.
As for aesthetics, the Breville is a handsome piece of machinery and the largest of the three that are featured here. It stands at approximately 10 x 10 x 13 inches and has a brushed stainless steel look which blends in with most kitchen designs.
The downside for the Infuser is that it does not come with a grinder, so that is something you are going to have to purchase separately, and I suggest you do as there is a noticeable difference between getting store-ground coffees and grinding them yourself. And, if you are going to get a grinder, invest in a bur grinder so that you get a better flavor profile.
The one thing you have to make a note of is that it is not as fast as the other two espresso machines described above. It can take anywhere from 40 seconds to a minute to get your first cup ready when you start from a cold position. But once you get going, it is fairly easy after that.
The surprise that I wasn’t expecting was the quality of the steam wand. Aside from the fact that it rotates 360 degrees – which is a little too much since I don’t need it pointed at the ceiling, it does allow me to get larger than usual milk frothing pitcher into position.
The steam wand is not a given in every machine, especially when you are looking at one in this price bracket. But the one that comes on the Breville Infuser is one to be exceptionally pleased with.