Best espresso machine 2018: add ground coffee and go

Espresso coffee makers from affordable and compact to premium and massive, with a great big chrome eagle on top

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There are many ways to make a coffee but, for the aficionado for whom only the best will do, nothing, absolutely nothing compares to a good strong espresso, made in the best espresso machine. That's true whether it’s a plain shot, a latte, a cappuccino or a macchiato.   

Yes, espresso makers may be a little more difficult to use than pod coffee machines – well, what isn't? – and a touch more expensive, but the results are way more satisfying. 

Trouble is, there’s a bewildering surfeit of espresso machines out there and that presents a daunting challenge for anyone wishing to narrow the shopping list down to just a handful of machines. We've got everything from manually operated hand-pump machines to cheap portables to larger, semi-pro espresso machines.

What is the best espresso machine?

T3's favourite espresso maker at the moment is the Sage Dual Boiler. That is a trifle pricey. If you're after something reliably excellent but less wallet-worrying, we heartily recommend the Smeg ECF01.

What, that's too expensive as well? Yeesh. Okay De'Longhi's Dedica machine is usually under £150 and does a cracking job at making espresso and also, once you've had a bit/a lot of practice, at frothing milk.

Want something more serious? Try the best bean to cup coffee machines...

How to buy the best espresso maker for you

Despite the modern trend for bean-to-cup and capsule based machines, there’s definitely something to be said for the good old 'manual' espresso maker. 

Their portafilters (the metal container you press the ground coffee into) may require regular emptying and cleaning, and the extraction time is usually down to you rather than being automatically set, but the process is so easy to get to grips with, you’ll seldom need to refer to the instruction manual. 

Moreover, manual machines are likely to be more reliable than the capsule or bean-to-cup variety simply because there are fewer things to go wrong with them.

If you want a richly aromatic espresso, cappuccino or latte and require at least a modicum of help from the machine itself, try the stunning Sage Dual Boiler, the Smeg ECF01 or Gaggia's excellent and more affordable Classic. all these machines excel at making rich aromatic espressos every bit as good as those served in any decent European café.

If you’re a wannabe barista who is keen to sample the complex science behind the art of manual espresso pulling, consider a hand-operated machine like the popular La Pavoni Europiccol or the extraordinary,  if slightly more complex, Elektra S1CO Microcasa Lever.

Most of these machines do much of the work for you, but they need the best ingredients, and they do require maintenance. Especially if you're in a hard water area the Number One, top tip of ALL time is to use filtered water. Even if the machine has a filter built in (they never seem quite as effective as a filter jug). You'll be amazed at how much better the coffee tastes, and you won't need to descale anywhere near as frequently.

The other Top Tip of ALL time is to use good quality, freshly ground beans or, if you don't want to splash out on a grinder, at least keep your pre-ground stuff in a screw-top jar in a dark and cool cupboard (but not the fridge). Whether using beans or ground, your mission is to always try to polish it all off as quickly as possible, as even under ideal storage conditions, it degrades rapidly as soon as the vacuum seal on the bag is opened.

And you know what the best way to get through bags of coffee rapidly is? Buy the best espresso machine, so making great coffee is an easy and pleasurable experience. So, here we go.

The best espresso machines to buy, in order

1. Smeg ECF01

The best espresso machine this side of Rome

Specifications
Height: 33cm
Water capacity: 1 litre
Steam nozzle: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Stunning looker +Well made
Reasons to avoid
-Art deco look might not suit all kitchens

This tall-standing, gorgeous hunk of quintessential Smeggishness is just the ticket for those who love a bit of retro in their Hampstead kitchens. It’s not just the smooth bulbous shape and exquisite finish that draw the eye, it’s the unmissable presence of that classic embossed Smeg logo; a logo that somehow manages to displace the smutty comic value of the brand name.

To say it’s easy to use is an understatement. Just load up the pleasingly weighty stainless steel portafilter with your favourite espresso blend, tap one of the cup buttons and either leave it to complete a predetermined measure of water or stand over it with a stopwatch and press the button to stop it manually, on exactly 27.5 seconds (or whatever your favoured extraction time may be). 

• Buy Smeg ECF01 from John Lewis

The milk frother is just as simple to use though you may need to adjust the angle of the milk container to find the sweet spot. Other fine details: a one-litre removable water reservoir, a cup warming plate (that rarely gets warm) and three simple buttons: one cup, two cups and steam.

The espresso this pretty appliance produces is marvellous. If style and design are as important as flavour when it comes to your morning coffee, get thee to John Lewis at once and purchase this Smeg. It's available in four rich colours, with a Dolce&Gabbana-designed version for the gay oligarch market. 

Sage by Heston Blumenthal Dual Boiler

2. Sage by Heston Blumenthal The Dual Boiler

Best money-no-object espresso machine

Specifications
Height: 36cm
Water capacity: 2.5 litres
Steam nozzle: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Consistently excellent coffee+Minimal effort
Reasons to avoid
-Rather a large thing

A hulking brute of an appliance, in Sage's usual battleship-like brushed metal (with matching, tough plastic bits), this is a near-cube of 36x37x36cm. However, if your kitchen can take it – hey, it's almost compact in comparison to the brand's bean-to-cup behemoths – you should seriously consider one.

The great thing about Sage's best coffee makers is they look, act and feel like professional machines. However, your dirty secret is that the delicious coffee they produce is not down to your skills as a barista; clever electronics and well engineered components are taking the guesswork out of it for you.

• Buy Sage Dual Boiler from John Lewis

The Dual Boiler, as its name suggests, has two boilers. There's one for steaming the milk and one for making the coffee, so you can do both at once. If you don't run a coffee shop or have a large household full of caffeine fiends who all need their fix at the same time each morning, that is arguably not very useful. However, the brace of boilers also allows more consistent water temperature for your beverage, which means it tastes better. Coffee making is a precision art, but the Dual Boiler makes it pretty simple. 

There are manual settings you can play with as well, so if you want to experiment and develop some real barista skills, the Dual Boiler is still a good choice.

As you'd expect for its premium price, the Dual Boiler comes with a very good tamper, is easy to clean (although not so easy to descale; another good reason to use filtered water) and gives the impression that, if maintained properly, it ought to last forever.

The milk frother works well enough but unlike some of the newer Sage machines, it isn't fully automated, and while it's fine for lattes, you may find you struggle to get milk to the denser consistency required for cappuccino. You could always add one of the best milk frothers to your setup, I suppose…

3. Gaggia Classic

Specifications
Height: 38cm
Water capacity: 2.1 litres
Steam nozzle: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Authentic espressos+Large water tank+Commercial build quality
Reasons to avoid
-A bit noisy, maybe

A sort of artisan blend of Sage's commercial/industrial approach, but with a footprint and price more like the Smeg, this brings a slice of full-on Shoreditch to your kitchenette. 

Gaggia pretty much invented the espresso so we think it’s safe to say the Italian company knows a thing or two about the subject. The Classic is built to near commercial standards and constructed almost entirely out of stainless steel, including the boiler. At 38cm tall, it will still easily fit the space between the kitchen worktop and the wall units.

• Buy Gaggia Classic from Amazon

Whether you like quite such an industrial-looking machine on your kitchen worktop is up to you, but what can’t be argued with is the quality of its espresso. Despite the noise, this thing makes a sensational, kick-up-the-jacksy cup of black gold with a deep, almost Guinness-like crema. 

In fact, the results were so consistently palette-smacking, I’m considering ditching my favourite Lavazza capsule machine in favour of going manual again.

The standard machine comes with a plastic drip tray and plastic twin spouts fitted to the portafilter. However, for an admittedly substantial outlay, you can up the ante by purchasing a range of metal parts, including a stainless steel drip tray, a metal frothing sleeve and a portafilter with steel spouts.

You thankfully don’t need a degree in baristaology to operate this one since it comes with just three industrial-size buttons: one to turn it on and off, another for the coffee and a third for the steam wand. You will, however, need to stop the extraction process yourself. 

Also, be careful when filling the sizeable, 2.1-litre water reservoir through the fixed funnel or, like me, you may over do it and end up with Niagara Falls pouring off the worktop.

The Gaggia Classic is a stonking espresso maker that is easy enough for even the most tech illiterate user to get a handle on.

4. Minipresso GR

Best portable espresso machine

Specifications
Height: 18cm
Water capacity: 70ml
Steam nozzle: No
Reasons to buy
+Brilliant portable option +Surprisingly excellent espresso
Reasons to avoid
-A bit fiddly to use-Requires a strong arm

If you’re a travelling espresso junkie who can’t function without a decent caffeine hit, try this little portable lifesaver. The cylindrical Minipresso measures just 18cm x 5cm and comes with everything you need to make a genuinely creamy espresso.

Just add hot water and a scoop of fine-ground blend and slowly squeeze the piston for an unexpectedly rich, aromatic espresso as good as the majority of machines on this page. And that’s no exaggeration. It’s made from seemingly unbreakable plastic, too, so it should stand up to a lot of knocks.

• Buy Minipresso from Amazon

If hotel coffee rarely meets your high expectations or you’re stuck out in the wilds, pop one of these in the shoulder bag and you’ll never be without a proper caffeine fix again. Best budget buy bar none.

5. Delonghi Dedica

Best espresso machine under £150

Specifications
Height: 33cm
Water capacity: 1 litre
Steam nozzle: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Compact+Makes excellent espresso+Surprisingly good steam wand
Reasons to avoid
-Doesn't look or feel hugely robust

A much more compact espresso maker, this feels a slot – both in terms of size and as a product – that in years past would probably have been taken by a Krupps machine such as this

However, Delonghi has usurped the German brand by producing the Dedica, a machine that looks a little insubstantial, but which makes coffee and textured milk that are anything but.

• Buy Delonghi Dedica from Amazon

Just fill the portafilter, press one cup or two, and it produces an excellent brew with very little fuss. Or at least, it does once you dispense with the fairly terrible tamper that the Dedica comes with, and invest in something a little more heavyweight. You'll also need to experiment with what size dose of coffee you use, but this is soon mastered. Delonghi makes a matching grinder that is designed to dispense exactly the right dose, but if you have your own grinder, or use pre-ground, that's not much use.

The steam wands on cheaper espresso machines are ofter terrible, and the one on this doesn't appear very promising, but with very little practice, it can actually turn out very nicely textured milk to service your latte or cappuccino needs.

An excellent budget buy, all in all.

6. La Pavoni Europiccola

Okay, now we're getting serious

Specifications
Height: 32cm
Water capacity: 0.8 litres
Steam nozzle: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Great looks+Excellent results
Reasons to avoid
-Copious manual reading required-A chore to clean

If you truly believe espresso making is an art form, this debonair cast brass and chromium-plated machine is for you. Unlike most domestic computer-controlled espresso makers that use pre-programmed presets to determine the right levels of extraction time and pressure, this one is a back-to-basics manual job that involves a bit of elbow grease.

• Buy La Pavoni from Amazon

The concept is simple enough: a lift of the lever raises a piston that allows water under pressure to infuse the coffee in the filter holder. When you pull back down on the lever, the piston forces the water through the coffee and into the cup. The knack here – and it’s very trial and error – is to vary the speed at which the water passes through the coffee. The slower you pull, the stronger the brew. 

This imposing workhorse is capable of producing up to eight consecutive top-flight espressos at a time and will even whip up a semi-automatic cappuccino. By which time your biceps will resemble a tree trunk.

7. Handpresso Auto

Another great portable espresso number

Specifications
Height: 22cm
Water capacity: 50ml
Steam nozzle: No
Reasons to buy
+Makes great espressos+Highly portable
Reasons to avoid
-Noisy, messy and fiddly

You’re in the car, stuck in a monumental jam on the M6. Everything’s ground to a standstill and you’re still 10 miles away from a motorway services. But you have a plan. You’ve still got half a bottle of Evian to hand, and a Handpresso Auto and a packet of Lavazza in the glove compartment.

• Buy Handpresso Auto from Amazon

Fill the chamber with water, scoop in some pre-ground espresso blend (or an ESE pod for less mess), plug it into the cigarette lighter, close your ears while it emits its irritating miniature pneumatic drill-type sound and, voila, you now have a damn fine hot cup of instant espresso replete with obligatory crema. Cool car kit.

In general I prefer the Minipresso as it's both a coffee maker and an upper-body workout, but this requires less effort. Well, it requires less effort to extract the espresso. Filling and cleaning it is somewhat more of a chore, but it does produce a damn fine coffee.

8. Elektra S1CO Microcasa Levera

Now we're just being ridiculous

Specifications
Height: 50.8cm
Water capacity: 1.8 litres
Steam nozzle: Yes
Reasons to buy
+A real conversation piece+Produces a truly authentic espresso
Reasons to avoid
-Complicated to use-Decidedly 'distinctive' looking

Constructed almost entirely out of beautifully polished chrome and brass, this manually-operated Italian model is as much a style statement as it is an espresso machine. 

Admittedly, the process required to make an espresso is so complex – and slow – that it’ll likely take you a number of attempts before you achieve a perfect extraction, but we assume you'll put in the effort having stumped up the readies that this requires. 

From base to eagle, this stands nearly half a metre in height, if you count the lever. It's 25cm in diameter, so despite the 'Microcasa' name, it is not very 'micro' at all. All that metal work gets scalding hot too, so maybe avoid this machine if you have small kids who can reach the worktop. I don't know why I even say that; nobody with kids would buy this, unless their job description is 'dictator of small country with large oil reserves'.

• Buy Elektra Microcasa from Amazon

Aside from the complexities of the coffee-making process itself, lever-based machines of this nature don’t appreciate having their portafilters removed immediately after extraction. You have to wait a few minutes for the pressure to equalise or the contents of the portafilter – and some very hot water – could be disgorged over you in a rather discomforting manner.

If you can handle the learning curve and don't mind having a crazy, chrome, eagle-topped gizmo in your kitchen, you won’t be disappointed. This barista-spec machine is not only a 'striking conversation piece' (or 'explosion in a bad-taste factory', depending on your aesthetic sensibilities). It also happens to produce an exquisite, flavourful espresso with bags of silky crema.