You don’t have to be a coffee expert to know who the real champion in the coffee world is.
I’m talking about espresso. Rich, strong, bold, fresh, smooth… There are many ways to describe it, but we would all agree on one thing: we love espressos.
And if you want to make them at home instead of wasting hundreds of dollars at coffee houses, then this guide of choosing the best espresso machines under $200 could be useful to you. Let’s dive right in!
Types of Home Espresso Machines
All espresso machines can be divided into two broad categories, depending on the brewing mechanism:
- Steam-driven espresso machines.
- Pump-driven espresso machines.
Let’s break down each of them.
Steam-driven espresso machines, as the name implies, use the steam to create pressure and force the water through the ground beans. Their operation is similar to a stovetop coffee maker or a Moka pot. While steam-driven coffee machines are great for foaming milk and can produce a thick foamy cap on your coffee, they might lack accurate temperature regulation, which can result in over-extraction or under-extraction of coffee beans. Thus, the coffee made with these machines, might not be considered an espresso
Pump-driven coffee makers are the most common option on the market. They use an electric pump to force the water through the grounds. The pump can generate from 7 to 15 bars of pressure, depending on the model, and offers a quick and proper extraction of all the flavors right into your cup.
Here’s the deal:
One man’s perfect coffee maker can be another man’s trash.
After all, it all depends on your skills, experience, and coffee drinking habits. That’s why it’s important to be able to maneuver among all the different types of espresso machines (1). And once you figure out the main differences between them, you will easily pick what suits you the most.
So, let’s take a look at the common types of espresso makers and their peculiarities:
- Capsule. These machines are very easy to use, which is why so many coffee lovers search for the best Nespresso machines. With a capsule (or pod) coffee maker, all you have to do is insert the pod and press the button. Additionally, such models are relatively cheap, and you can find a lot of options under $200. They require no skill or experience on your part, which means you can enjoy flavorful espressos without any practice. On the downside, capsule models do not allow for much versatility. While you can test different coffee blends from various pod brands, you won’t be able to experiment with brewing temperature or extraction time, for example. And that’s something more demanding users would not appreciate.
- Manual. These coffee makers have a lever that you are supposed to press down, forcing the water to go through the grounds and extracting your espresso. Manual espresso makers don’t usually have boilers, so you’ll have to use a kettle, and this means more time to make one single espresso shot. Moreover, this type requires a lot of practice and persistence (if you are serious about your coffee). But once you get there, you will start enjoying bold, exquisite espressos, since this brewing method allows for rich crema and full-bodied coffee.
- Semi-automatic. These espresso machines are among the most popular ones due to their functionality. They offer a good balance of user customization and automation. This type is suitable for all experience levels but does require some practice if you want to brew delicious espressos. Semi-automatic machines require you to add your grounds to the portafilter and tamp them, while the machine heats water and runs it through to extract coffee. While this type can be a bit messy when brewing, the result is worth it.
- Super-automatic. These machines are responsible for all the processes, from grinding the coffee beans to extracting espressos. They offer user-friendly controls and require minimal effort on your part. You will have to deal with cleaning only, but many of them help with that too, offering a self-cleaning feature. Super-automatic espresso machines tend to be rather expensive and brew delicious beverages. On the downside, they don’t really allow for much customization outside the pre-programmed options you have. So, they may not suit serious espresso lovers who want to experiment with their beverage extraction.
“The choice of your espresso machine would also depend on how much counter space you have. Also, keep in mind that many models emit steam when brewing, so make sure you don’t place your new device under wooden cabinets.”
Understanding Your Machine: Parts and Functionality
It’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the coffee machine terms, especially if you are a novice user.
Don’t worry, we are going to look at the most common ones to help you understand what you are dealing with:
- Portafilter. This part of your espresso machine holds the filter basket filled with coffee grounds. Typically, a user has to lock the portafilter in place before extracting a shot of espresso. Portafilters come in various sizes, typically between 40 and 60 mm. Some of them support dual filter baskets that allow users to pull double volumes (shots) of espresso.
- Filter basket. A filter basket holds coffee grounds inside the portafilter. Many models come with different filter basket sizes, so you can experiment with your espresso shots and their strength.
- Heating system. You will come across two types: single- and dual-boiler machines. Single-boiler models are more widespread. Dual-boiler models typically come with a steaming wand, so there are separate heaters for pulling espressos and steaming the milk.
- Drip tray. This is where you rest your cup while extracting a shot of espresso. Most machines have removable drip trays, which makes maintenance quite easy. This also allows you to fit taller cups under the portafilter when needed.
- Water reservoir. The bigger it is, the more espressos you can make without refilling and reheating. This means a smaller reservoir would make you spend more time brewing (since you will have to wait for the water to heat up every time you refill the tank). The reservoirs of more advanced models may have a water-softener component or a filter to prevent limescale (2).
- Grinder. Though this component is optional, many coffee makers come with a built-in grinder. Getting an espresso machine with a grinder could benefit you in many ways. Firstly, espresso made with freshly ground beans always tastes much better than when using pre-ground coffee. Moreover, an integrated grinder is more convenient to use. Most of them allow for coarseness adjustments, so you will be able to test various grind configurations to brew an ideal cup of coffee.
Factors to ConsiderShopping for a suitable espresso machine under $200 may seem like a daunting task when you don’t know what you’re looking for. And while the Internet is filled with helpful information on the topic, no one can tell you what you need exactly. You have to decide for yourself based on your personal preferences and habits. However, there are some important factors you shouldn’t omit when shopping:
- Durability. Most espresso machines under the $200 price tag will have plastic parts, which can affect their durability. Make sure that the plastic they use is commercial-grade, doesn’t come into contact with brewing gear, and doesn’t contain harmful components, such as phthalates or BPA (hint: these compounds always have a strong plastic smell).
- Budget. Again, a $200 price tag doesn’t give you plenty of features, but if you can, choose coffee makers with a built-in grinder and some programmable settings: this can make your experience way better.
- Size. While espresso machines come in all shapes and sizes, you need to check how much counter space you have. Moreover, if you (and your family) drink a lot of coffee daily, you may want to invest in a bigger machine with a larger water reservoir, e.g. somewhere between 48 and 60 oz.
- Maintenance. Let’s not forget that coffee oils and water minerals can build up inside of your machine, so you will need to clean it regularly and thoroughly. If this seems too finicky to you, you can consider models with self-cleaning and descaling functions.
- Your coffee drinking habits. Do you drink coffee multiple times a day? Then a model with a larger water tank would be suitable. Do you like espressos only? In this case, a rather basic machine would suffice. However, if you love lattes and cappuccinos, you should consider quality latte machines that come with a steaming wand for the milk.
- Customization and controls. Based on your experience, you may require more or less freedom when brewing coffee. Typically, you can find the most customizable models among the best espresso machines under $ 1,000. Cheaper options can also be programmable, but the number of functions would probably be limited to brew strength controls and coffee volume adjustments. Temperature controls are also common, but the temperature range is usually quite limited (to prevent users from under- or over-extracting their espressos).
“A grinder is another investment you need to consider, especially if you want rich and fresh espressos. Generally, conical burr grinders are considered to be the optimal choice, as they give you the freedom to adjust the coarseness.”
What defines the final price of a coffee machine?
A lot of factors can play a part, including the brand name and even color. However, the most influential factor tends to be the number of features, programmable settings, and the overall performance of the coffee maker. If a brewer doesn’t require your participation in the process, it’s probably going to be expensive.
What is considered a high dose of espresso?
The general recommendation on caffeine intake is no more than 400 mg per day. An espresso shot contains 65 mg of caffeine on average, so you can drink up to 6 shots before you hit the limit. However, certain people are more sensitive to caffeine, so be sure to listen to your body.
How does an espresso machine work?
An espresso machine features a pump that forces pressurized water through the grounds into your cup. However, the amount of your work may vary depending on its type. Some espresso machines go from grinding the beans to foaming the milk with a touch of a button, others need you to do these steps by yourself.
Which is better: pod or capsule coffee machine?
These are just different names for the same brewing process, where you take a pre-measured serving of ground beans, place it into a coffee maker and brew it. It’s just the pods can offer you a broader variety of drinks, including mocha, hot cocoa, or granulated tea, whereas capsules are great for brewing espresso with specialty blends.
- Max Haydon (2018, December 10). Understanding The Different Types of Espresso Machine. Retrieved from https://perfectdailygrind.com/2018/12/understanding-the-different-types-of-espresso-machine/
- Yasmin Zinni (2017, September 26). The Parts of an Espresso Machine. Retrieved from https://itstillworks.com/13657047/the-parts-of-an-espresso-machine
My name is Yurii Brown. I am a passionate coffee geek and, concurrently, a certified coffee specialist.
I’ve been learning about coffee for a long time, testing various devices and practicing in home coffee brewing. I like to share my experience and insights with fellow coffee lovers so that my readers could enjoy the real taste of quality-brewed beverages.