E
spresso is so the new moonshine. But these latter day at-home concoctions don’t run through slipshod copper stills or spend time fermenting in claw foot tubs. Instead, amateurs and connoisseurs across the globe utilize beautiful, complicated and completely legal kitchen countertop machinery to whip up and drip out high-grade buzz that people pay good money to sip.

Novices looking to break into the shot pulling biz, though, will find that buying the proper equipment is an intimidating affair, complicated by ever-escalating price tags and more mechanical nerdery than a bus full of mathletes with erector sets. Rest assured, the right espresso machine for you is out there, and Eliot Ness isn’t going to forcefully confiscate any of these puppies any time soon. Because he’s dead. Follow our guide on buying an espresso machine and you’ll have all the schoolin’ you need to pick an ideal home setup.

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Pick Your Poison

Four main categories of machines — manual, semi auto, full auto, and super automatic — are offered on today’s market, and deciding on one of these types will greatly focus a buyer’s search. If the perfect espresso is one that requires the least effort to produce, the following are, in the broadest of terms, ordered from least to mos desirable:

Manual
machines are like a restored car from the early 1900s — a beautiful homage to heritage, but unimaginably complicated compared to today’s most advanced models. There are no crank start mechanisms or chokes to contend with on manual espresso machines, but because they don’t maintain constant water pressure on their own, users must push water through the coffee manually, which can vary the quality of the final product. In short, these machines should be considered by experienced home baristas only.

Semi-Auto
espresso makers came to be thanks to Achilles Gaggia’s 1938 patent, which introduced electric pumps into devices, resulting in even, hands-free water pressure. Because operators can decide when to turn the pump on and off (hence “semi” automatic), and because boiler temperature controls are automated on these makers, this is the most popular type of traditional machine in use today.

Fully-Auto
machines are very similar to semi-auto machines, but include an electronic nanny to regulate the amount of water passing through the espresso. It is often the case that fully automatics include redundant, semi-automatic controls.

Super Automatic
machines have all the bells and whistles, frequently including a built-in grinding apparatus and other related gadgets. Currently, “caffe crema” — essentially espresso-brewed coffee diluted to the strength of regular joe — has come into vogue as a result of the prevalence of super automatic machines.

Buyer’s Guide

Before You Pull Like a Pro, Shop Like One

Before you go shopping ask yourself one very important question:
What exactly do you want? Since different machines’ faculties and specialties vary, the first step in your espresso-stential journey is asking what types of drinks you’re looking to make (e.g. straight espresso or cappuccino, both?). Furthermore, depending on how many drinks you want to churn out in one swoop and how often you will be making them, the questions of sustained performance and durability may come more into play. Other will you be able to utilize a direct plumb machine that connects directly to your home’s water pipes? (If not, you’ll simply need to fill the machine’s water reservoir manually.) Because some machines need more juice than others, you’ll also need to determine what kind of power supply you have available.

What can you get for your cash money?
Let’s talk boilers. There are three price points to consider, each offering a different boiler configuration with different accompanying mechanicals. It’s common that machines under $1,000 will be single boiler, dual-use setups: because these use a single thermostat to control the water temp (switchable from one boiler to the other at the user’s behest), these machines can’t brew and steam milk simultaneously. Above the $1,000 mark, you’ll come across mostly single boiler, heat exchanger machines, which feature a larger boiler that keeps water at or around 240 degrees Fahrenheit and make it possible to brew and steam simultaneously. Dual boiler machines tend to cost well over $2,000, and feature two separate boilers for simultaneous brewing and steaming. While ‘dualies’ seem like the way to go for serious espresso nerds, keep in mind that North American 110V power outlets can’t always handle the needs of these machines (we have to throw Europe a bone every now and then), though North American brands are slowly coming up with new approaches to work in our market.

Dripping Knowledge

We sat down with Enrico Maso, who as senior product manager at DeLonghi, knows a thing or two about espresso for a quick chat about life’s most important questions.

GP: Why is espresso the finest coffee drink?

EM: I think that several factors make espresso the finest coffee drink: the high pressure of the extraction process enhances the aroma and the body of the coffee. The extraction time plays an important role in making a good espresso, as the right timing will prevent an over extracted or under extracted brew. Right Water Temperature is (92C to 96C) is also key factor that affects the taste. So we can say that espresso is the finest drink because it is the harmonious combination of several elements controlled at a perfect level.

GP: What exactly is crema and why is it so important?

EM: Crema is the flavorful thick layer of foam that sits on top of the coffee liquid. When you sip the drink and break this layer, you enjoy all of the different elements and flavors that go into the espresso in one. Why? Because Crema is an emulsion of air, gases, water & coffee that occurs as a result of the pressurized extraction process. It’s one of the most essential elements in espresso to gives the drink an aroma and body.

GP: How often should you clean an espresso machine / and are there any best practices?

EM: You should clean the espresso machine every day to avoid any residue left behind – this residue can easily cause over-extraction or staleness, resulting in a burnt taste. De’Longhi’s home espresso machines are designed to be easy to clean, the Gran Dama Avant for example features a clean button that automatically performs a clean cycle on the milk tank and removes unwanted residue. Many espresso machines also feature easily removable parts, making them easy to wipe down with a cloth. Taking care of your machine is a simple task that will enhance your espresso experience, making it better everyday.

When actually purchasing a machine
pay attention to how intricate the machine is, and to how easy it will be to maintain and clean. Check out the max pump pressure, and if it’s self-priming, know what type of boiler setup you’re looking at and if there is a thermostat involved — this will determine how much personal effort you’ll need to put into each drink. Furthermore, is the water tank a good size (indeed, is there a water tank at all?), and do you like the size and design of the machine as a whole? Espresso machines can be large and heavy, and they run the aesthetic gamut.

Finally, allow us to offer some advice, straight up.
We can’t stress this bit enough: you must invest in a proper, high-quality bean grinder and learn how to use it. If you don’t properly grind, your espresso will be a complete, disappointing, mediocre failure (the exact reason your first high school dance turned out the same way). Also keep in mind that while in a perfect world the most outfitted, option-laden choice is the best and most desirable, there are some optional espresso machine accouterments that can and/or should be avoided all together. Never mind crema enhancers — these damage the espresso instead of bettering it. Machines that have high bar pressure ratings — 15, 16, or 18 — don’t usually deliver those pressures anyway, due to restrictors or overflow valves, so anything claiming over 9 bars doesn’t make a lick of difference. Frothing aids may seem handy, but the technique isn’t all that difficult to master without help, and these aids can reduce the natural sweetness of milk froth because they continuously administer heat (like your drunk frat brother trying to get a date). Steam buttons are a no-go too: they’re binary, on-or-off affairs, whereas a steam knob offers steam power fine tuning.

Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, it’s time to take a shot at offering up solid recommendations. In the interest of easing potential sticker shock, keep in mind that these machines are ultra-specialized, precision made, and crank out super refined stuff when used properly. Depending on your needs and means, you can probably find something that suits you; regardless, these machines are a serious endeavor, and make for an impressive, tasty, high-octane experience. At any rate, now that you’ve practically got a PhD in coffee technology (which is probably still more useful than a Creative Writing MFA), let’s get to it.

Our 10 Picks for All Budgets

Pull Out Your Wallet and Get Crackin’

Saeco Aroma

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Since it comes in both black and stainless steel, the Philips Saeco Aroma Espresso Machine is ready for whatever kitchen design theme you’ve got going on. It’s versatile too — this little guy’ll brew freshly ground beans or pre-packaged coffee pods, 12 of which are included. For less than a few Benjamins, it’s the best “machine” option available for the budget constrained drinker.

Rancillo Silvia V3

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As its ubiquitous presence attests to, Rancillo’s Silvia V3 ($629) is a classic and popular piece of semi-auto espresso hardware. Brass fixtures ensure even heat, three thermostats keep simple the task of monitoring your brew, and as long as you pay close attention to how your beans are ground (Silvia is sensitive, guys) you’ll be in business. Most sources agree it’s the best single-boiler espresso machine available for under $1,000.

Quick Mill Alexia

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Quick Mill’s Alexia isn’t for latte lovers, as frothing milk is far from little lady’s specialty. If you’re down for sipping’ your swill straight, however, she’s your girl. The Alexia is touted as a good choice for manual machiners testing the semi-auto waters. This is a straightforward pull-style device; the pump is noisier than some and manually regulating the temp requires a small learning curve.

Pasquini Livia 90

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The prosumer espresso machine market owes its own existence in large part to the Pasquinia Livia 90 ($1,735). The auto refill feature and automated pressure system make it possible to enjoy shot after shot of the serious stuff. Its core technology is somewhat dated and sensitive to technique, though, and making repairs an expensive proposition.

Rocket Espresso Giotto Evoluzione V2

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If you’re looking to get molto autentico, first stop saying “Eye-talian” and then refinance your villa so you can pick up a Rocket Espresso Giotto Evoluzione V2. This made-in-Milan prosumer model looks old school (pictures don’t do it justice) but boasts trick features like a new insulated all-copper boiler to better stabilize temperatures, a vibratory pump to prevent line blockage and a dual pre-infusion system. There’s a 2.9-liter water reservoir for those “off the grid”, but it can connect directly to water supply should your habit escalate.

Izzo Alex Duetto III

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The Izzo Alex Duetto III’s patented lever-controlled brew system handily maintains a constant temperature, and its rotary pump is whisper quiet. The machine’s Proportional-Integral-Derivative (PID) maintains strict temperatures in the group and steam boiler while providing a variety of other useful controls including switching the machine’s operational mode from 15 to 20 amps, its temp readout between Fahrenheit to Celsius and turning off either boiler if you don’t need heated milk or to save energy. Think of it like a steady-handed nanny, keeping things even and reliable no matter how jittery your caffeine-laden hands are. Shoppers looking for an espresso heavyweight should look no further — not only is this machine extra-accurate, it weighs in at over 70 pounds.

Editor’s Note: Upgraders should note that the Duetto shown here and in our slideshow above have been customized with a variety of accessories including a Clive Style 7 Walnut Bottomless PF, a Duetto brew lever knob and wood-grain tampers sold exclusively by our friends Clive Coffee.

DeLonghi Gran Dama ESAM6700

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If you prefer drinking espresso and could care less about making it then the DeLonghi ESAM6700 Gran Dama Avant Touch-Screen Super-Automatic Espresso Machine is worth a gander. The modernized counter-yacht easily prepares practically any espresso drink you’d order at a coffee bar with the touch of a button — from grinding all the way to the finished product. There’s even a “long coffee” function, which replicates the taste of traditional drip via an extended brewing process, for those mornings when you don’t feel like being an Italian.

La Cimbali Junior Casea DT1

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If you’re the type who takes his business home after work, you should have a commercial quality espresso machine at home that means business too. The La Cimbali Junior Casea DT1 is a looker that’s built to last. Commercial-grade construction, programmable volumetric dosing and a new three-hole steam tip for creating rich foam even in low doses means this one has potential to make it into your will. But commercial grade doesn’t mean commercial size: the DT1 will fit under standard kitchen cabinets (though it does tip the scale at nearly 80 pounds). It can’t be used anywhere, however, since it must be plumbed in.

La Marzocco GS/3

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Unlike the other stainless steel doppelgängers on this list, La Marzocco’s silhouette can be customized with exotic wood paneling for a more natural look that somewhat underplays its freak-of-nature powers within. Top-line components, including a PID temperature controller, dual boilers and saturated brew groups, provide unrivaled performance, but you’ll need to directly plumb it for optimal use. On the downside, its digital programming isn’t the most intuitive option on the market for today’s iPhone-addicted masses. It’s constructed to take a beating, and can be configured as an automatic or manual machine, though the latter will cost you a bit more. The manual version features a “paddle” that allows users to fine-tune pre-infusion and extraction as they see fit.

Kees van der Westen Mirage

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Let’s say you win the lottery, or maybe that you have a seriously inadequate… errm… espresso tamper (or perhaps both) and you happen to want to make ultra-premium espresso. It’d be absurd if you didn’t buy the Mirage (if you have to ask, it’s too much). The Kees van der Westen-designed beast is often referred to as the best espresso machine in the world, and looks like the offspring of a Spyker C8 that copulated with a suit of armor. Classic lever operation and museum quality everything else make this the things java dreams are made of.