Last Updated on June 27, 2023 by Barry Gray
It only takes me a few minutes of searching online to uncover a host of espresso machines on the market that come at different price points. But this opens up an interesting question for me to answer: should you buy a cheap espresso machine?
In my opinion, a cheap espresso machine will often result in a poor espresso experience. They lack the power and pressure required to pull a good espresso, so a cheap machine may ruin even the best coffee beans on the planet. But don’t worry; you still do not have to spend a fortune to get a decent espresso.
I admit that my very first espresso machine was inexpensive. That was due to me knowing next to nothing at the time about espresso and how it is made. After all, I was raised as a kid drinking only granular coffee from a jar.
But here’s the sad part.
From my perspective, that first espresso machine was out of this world. However, I didn’t realize that there was so much more to the world of espresso if only I had the correct equipment.
I don’t want you to have that same bad experience, so let me explain to you why a cheap espresso machine is not the best option.
But first, I need to talk about something that’s very important and lies at the root of this whole decision to go ahead and buy an espresso machine.
Can anybody successfully make a decent espresso?
Is Making Espresso Easy?
The short answer is that making espresso is not easy. It becomes even more complicated when the equipment you plan to use is sub-standard.
Sadly, I tend to find cheap espresso machines fall into that category. Also, they do so for different reasons.
The key to a good espresso is the pulling of the water through the beans and for it to be done at the correct pressure and temperature. If you can do this, you can turn even average beans into a good espresso.
But again, I tend to find that cheaper espresso machines struggle as the pressure associated with the machines will often be weaker than you would really expect to see with more expensive machines.
Why is a Cheaper Espresso Machine Not Always a Good Purchase?
So what do I mean when I say cheaper espresso machines are not always a good purchase? Well, I have several reasons for that opinion.
First, a commercial espresso machine is finely tuned. It delivers the correct steam temperature and pressure to extract the maximum flavor from the espresso beans.
The engineering that tends to appear in commercial machines is outstanding, but better engineering results in a higher price tag.
The same applies to those expensive espresso machines you can buy for your home. They too come with better engineering, but it also adds to the price you need to pay in order to take it home with you.
And do you know what I’ve identified as the problem with the cheaper machines? Lack of consistency.
More expensive machines deliver consistent temperatures and also consistent pressures. That means you know what to expect when pulling espresso.
Cheaper machines do not have that consistency. Actually, they struggle with delivering what you need.
Also, the best espresso machines will deliver a pressure measured at around 9 bars of pressure. Cheaper machines will often struggle to do this, leading to slightly inferior espresso at the end.
Yet, what happens if you simply do not have the budget to splash out on an espresso machine at the upper end of the market?
Well, I have you covered regarding what to look out for to allow you to locate the best machine for your own needs and within your budget.
What is the Minimum Pressure You Should Look For in an Espresso Machine?
I believe the main attribute to look at with an espresso machine is the pressure it can produce. The pressure largely determines the quality of the espresso shot you are then able to pull.
While better espresso machines can operate around 9 bars of pressure, cheaper ones won’t do that. However, I would try to get as close to 9 bars of pressure as you can to increase the chances of you being able to produce a semi-decent espresso.
But it’s not just getting up to that pressure that’s important. You also need to get it to that pressure fast and for it to stay there.
Cheaper espresso machines can often be lacking in that department.
It’s just not worth it if they simply peak at that pressure rating for a short blast and then lose the pressure. It will practically destroy your espresso, and then you start to think the beans were of poor quality when that wasn’t the actual case.
The Length of Time it Takes for an Espresso Machine to Heat Up
Another thing I would look at is the length of time it takes for the espresso machine to heat up. You don’t want it to take too long.
This time is key. A machine that takes longer than 30 seconds to get up to temperature will often struggle when it comes to making the espresso.
I feel it shows the machine is lacking, and I lose confidence in its ability to deliver that constant temperature you should be looking for with your espresso.
I’m not talking about your espresso machine instantly reaching those temperatures; that’s not the case. However, no machine should leave you hanging for too long.
The Control of Your Espresso Machine
If you check out the more expensive machines, you will probably notice they come with different gauges or dials. Those dials are not there for display purposes only.
Instead, they help play an important role in getting you to deliver a quality coffee at the end.
But cheaper machines don’t always come with the same control, which means fewer dials and even the ability to change the pressure or temperature in the machine.
I hate not having this control, as it lets you know if you will get a good coffee at the end.
Also, when pulling my espresso, I check the dials to see if I’m getting the required pressure. If the machine is not getting up to that pressure, then I know something is wrong, and I can then seek to correct it.
Cheaper machines cannot always provide you with this control.
However, if you find one within your budget that does come with these gauges and dials to adjust pressure or temperatures, then I would certainly not ignore it just because of its price.
A Steam Wand
I would never consider purchasing an espresso machine that does not come with a steam wand. Failing to have a steam wand will restrict what you can do with the machine, and that’s a waste of a machine, in my opinion.
A steam wand almost always comes with most espresso machines, but I’d check if your model has one attached.
Without it, you cannot make drinks such as a Cappuccino or steamed milk for a Latte.
The Need for a Tamper
A quality espresso machine must come with a good tamper as one of your main accessories.
If your espresso machine doesn’t come with one, then it could be argued that the manufacturer has missed something that is extremely important in producing a fantastic espresso.
A tamper is a tool used to tamp or pack the ground coffee to ensure it’s evenly distributed. This is crucial as the packing of the coffee contributes to the quality of the espresso you are then able to pull.
If the machine does not have a tamper, you tend to get a coffee lacking intensity and flavor. You aren’t hit in the same manner with the coffee.
The Portafilter in Your Espresso Machine
The portafilter is another key component of your espresso machine. This is the device within your espresso machine that the espresso machine pumps the water into. It also has a basket, and that’s where the coffee is held.
Now, any espresso machine should come with one, but the type of portafilter is the important part here.
The key is to see if it comes with a pressurized portafilter.
If it does, then don’t get the espresso machine. You want the espresso machine to come with a standard non-pressurized portafilter.
The problem with a pressurized version is the size of the hole that opens up. It’s too small and means you are unable to get the correct pull from your espresso. The flow rate is too low, and the only way you can improve this is by using a coarser grind.
But a coarser grind will not lead to a high-quality espresso. You need a finer grind to do this, and it’s just not possible with a pressurized portafilter.
The Weight and Water Distribution In Your Espresso
The final point I want to discuss, which is something you often miss out on with cheaper espresso machines, is to do with both the weight of the machine and the water distribution.
I would expect a quality espresso machine to be quite hefty. I’m not saying it needs to be that heavy you struggle to move it, but there should be a sense of solidity.
But that’s not all.
A lighter espresso machine will tend to come with a smaller water boiler. A larger water boiler is essential for achieving a more consistent boiling temperature.
This consistent temperature leads to better espresso, so if the machine is light, there’s a reasonable chance your espresso will be poor.
The Key Things to Look Out For When Buying a Cheaper Espresso Machine
So far, I’ve covered a series of points about what’s important with an espresso machine, but what if you know you don’t have much money to spend on your new piece of kit?
Well, I feel several of the points I’ve mentioned above are more important than others. So, here’s a reminder as to what’s key.
- You need that even water temperature
- You need to be able to control the pressure and temperature
- You need a non-pressurized portafilter
- A steam wand makes a difference
- It should warm up quickly and not leave you hanging
But I do want to stress something.
There are some cheaper espresso machines on the market that are capable of producing a semi-decent espresso. However, I would stress the need to take time to find those machines out of the multitude of options on the market.
If you take your time, then I do believe you can locate a cheaper espresso machine that will fit your needs.
I would always suggest buying the best espresso machine within your budget. Cheap espresso machines will often fail to deliver that quality espresso you need to make your Americano, Latte, or anything else.
But I’m not telling you to go out and spend a fortune on an espresso machine. Yet there’s no doubt that avoiding the cheapest espresso machines on the market will be your best option if you are serious about trying to enjoy your coffee.