By Cale Guthrie Weissman
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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.
Who this is for
This guide is for someone who likes good coffee and wants to take the time to learn more about the craft. Whether you've 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 a relatively affordable start in the world of espresso making.
How we picked and tested
To figure out just what was needed to make a cost-effective home espresso setup, we started by consulting eight coffee experts, ranging from baristas to roasters to industry entrepreneurs, and reading hundreds of articles, blog posts, and forums.
According to the experts, a semiautomatic, single-boiler machine is the way to go. The best espresso is made by forcing 195 ºF water through finely ground beans with about 10 bars of pressure. A semiautomatic machine heats the water precisely and uses a pump to create the right amount of pressure every time.
Single-boiler espresso machines use only one boiler for both the water for the espresso shot and the steam wand. This means they require some down time between pulling a shot and steaming milk, but they're significantly less expensive than their double-boiler cousins.
We tested four machines from the perspective of someone unboxing and trying to get familiar for the first time. Each machine had at least an hour to wow us with its setup process, documentation, and ability to create consistently good espresso without too much tinkering. We scrutinized each machine's portafilter, and used the steam wand to make a cappuccino. We also tested grinders, which are just as important to making good espresso as the machine itself, along with a range of accessories. To learn more about our testing process, please see our full guide to espresso gear.
The Breville Infuser was the best out of all the machines because of its superior 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 very easy to set up and use. The experts we consulted were even impressed with how easy it was to pull a decent shot with the Breville—high praise from a group of people experienced with $1,000+ machines!
Using the Infuser is a breeze, even if you've never touched an espresso machine before. It comes with a straightforward "how to get started making espresso" sheet, a removable water reservoir, preset options for single and double shots, and a manual mode for precision control. Although it didn't make the absolute tastiest shot of espresso we tried, our testers were impressed with its consistency and pleasant mouthfeel. Every shot we pulled had a good amount of crema on top, as you'd expect from a high-end cafe. And the Breville's steam wand was by far the best tested, though it does take a bit of time to heat up fully.
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 machine is — the coffee will taste bad. Finding a machine that can accurately produce fine espresso grinds is difficult, and even the picks in our drip coffee grinders guide aren't nuanced enough for a proper grind. You need a rig with burrs that are specially made to pulverize the coffee to a very fine grind of the exact right size, like the Rancilio Rocky, though acquiring such a grinder comes with a steep price tag.
In our tests, the Rocky was great at grinding beans consistently and was easy to adjust. To change the size of your grind from espresso to French press and back again, you simply move a knob on the hopper from left to right. We also liked that the grinder was relatively quiet compared with many of the others we tested.
A knock box is basically a small countertop trash can with a bar going across the top for you to hit your portafilter against to eject used grounds. We tested several competing designs and thought the Cafelat was the best. It has a sleek design with a removable bar for easy cleaning, and very few seams for gunk to collect in.
The real joy of espresso is in the drinking. Personally, I enjoy drinking espresso out of glass because it looks nice and feels modern. The Duralex Picardie—our top pick for drinking glasses—comes in a 3.1-ounce glass that's perfect for espresso sipping, macchiatos, and cortados.
When it comes to tamping your espresso, consistency is key. Thus, it's helpful to own a tamper that you like. We found Rattleware's tampers felt good in the hand and had a nice weight, though they're a bit on the expensive side.
Frothing pitcher for lattes
If you want to make milk drinks, you're going to need a frothing pitcher. Many look alike, but some are nicer than others. We prefer Rattleware's pitchers, which are a bit sturdier and have a better finish than other models, but it really comes down to your personal preferences.
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