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Something magical happened a few years ago. Affordable, totally legit, and not overly fussy home espresso machines became a thing. We've been using our Breville Barista Express for quite a while now, and we love it. Here's the story.
Finding the right home espresso machine
Twenty years ago we had a well-intentioned but truly terrible home "espresso" machine that didn't make espresso. As with all home espresso machines back then that didn't cost as much as a car, it didn't come anywhere close to creating the amount of pressure you need to extract rich-tasting espresso with gorgeous crema. And if you could afford to put a car in your kitchen, it needed to be serviced ALL the time.
For years and years after that, I wrote off the idea that a legit home espresso machine would exist in our lifetimes. One that was reasonably affordable, not likely to break or need regular servicing, and highly likely to let you pull a good shot. I stopped paying attention. And that's when Breville introduced the Barista Express.
You guys, I LOVE this espresso machine.
The Barista Express has everything you need to pull professional-quality espresso in your own kitchen, quickly and easily.
- Integrated conical burr grinder with grind size and grind amount adjusters. Grinding beans immediately before pulling is critical for creating the taste and texture of great espresso at home. The ability to adjust both grind size and grind amount allows you to dial in the perfect settings for your particular beans. (Once you've done this, you won't need to change it unless you switch beans.) The grinder holds about half a pound of beans at a time.
- Pressure gauge. This is how you know for sure (before tasting!) that you're pulling a good shot. The gauge shows whether you're in the right pressure range to create delicious espresso. (If not, you can adjust the grind size and amount and your tamping style until it's perfect.) Under-extracted espresso is thin, too sour, and lacks crema. Over-extracted espresso tastes bitter and astringent. Lots of variables go into the extraction process (and the science behind it is both pretty fascinating and more than you need to know), but with the Barista Express, this visual cue that you're in the "espresso range" takes the mystery out of the process.
- Integrated magnetic tamper. It's nothing special that this machine comes with a tamper for creating that perfect puck of ground beans, but the fact that they made a little magnetic storage spot for it in the machine makes me kinda swoony.
- Steam wand. Heat and foam your milk for cappuccinos, lattes, macchiatos, etc. The wand works great to provide pro-level foam.
- Water dispenser. Make Americano or even a cup of tea without a kettle.
- Large water tank. You won't have to fill it annoyingly often.
- Drip tray. The Barista Express is messier than a pod system, but this feature keeps the mess in check.
- Cup warmer. The top of the machine helps warm your cups.
Here's what the Barista Express doesn't give you, that professional machines would: ability to control water temperature and to control pressure directly. For those of us without virtuosic skills (hi!), this means you have enough control to make great espresso but not so much that you'll lose your mind overthinking and/or underdelivering the process. After all, you've got to make this happen BEFORE you've had your coffee.
The machine also comes with multiple types of filter baskets for single and double shots, a cleaning kit, water filters, and a razor that I keep forgetting about in case you want precise consistency in measuring your ground beans.
How to use the Barista Express
Step 1. Fill the grinder basket with whole beans. If you're super-obsessive, you can weigh out your beans and do this every time. I fill the whole thing at once, which yields slightly less consistent dosage. Set the grind size. (This is something you'll have to experiment with a bit each time you start with a new type of coffee bean. Once you find the perfect grind size for that bean type, you can set it and forget it.)
Step 2. Choose the correct filter basket for your needs and place it firmly into the portafilter (that's the tool with the handle). There are two parameters: single or double shot, and freshly ground or pre-ground beans. Full disclosure: I only ever use the double basket for freshly ground beans.
Step 3. Slide the portafilter into the grinding area, choose single or double shot, and set the grind amount. (Like grind size, you'll experiment here until you find your perfect amount.) Push the portafilter gently toward the machine to grind the beans.
Step 4. Even out the ground beans in the filter and tamp them down with the tamper to create a puck. If you like, you can use the razor tool to remove any excess grounds.
Step 5. Insert the portafilter into the brewing area and pull the handle to the right to lock it. Place your preheated cup underneath and press the button to extract a single or double shot.
Step 6. If you're making a fancypants drink, steam the milk.
Step 7. Remove the used grounds and rinse out the filter. That's it. Nailed it.
Breville Barista Express vs. Nespresso
Wondering whether to buy a Nespresso machine or a Barista Express? Here's how to think about it.
Well-pulled shots from both a Nespresso (for which you need zero skill) and a Barista Express (for which you need a little bit of skill) taste good. Nespresso makes perfectly consistent coffee.
Texture and Crema
Here there's simply no comparison. Nespresso resembles espresso, but not in a particularly convincing way.
A Nespresso shot has a thinner, less creamy mouthfeel than espresso pulled from a real espresso machine (including the Barista Express).
There's a fairly thick layer of foam on top of a Nespresso shot, with tiny bubbles that make it thicker than a true crema in one sense but thinner in another. It's amazing and totally admirable that Nespresso figured out how to do this by punching a tiny hole through a tiny pod, but it's not the same as the gentle, truly creamy-feeling crema you get from real espresso.
A well-pulled shot from the Barista Express has the same texture and crema you'd get in a coffee shop.
The Barista Express costs more than your average Nespresso machine up front. But it's WAY less expensive after that. Your mileage may vary, but you'll spend about 10 cents per shot pulled from the Barista Express, vs. about a dollar a shot from the Nespresso.
Over the course of a single year of daily coffee consumption, you'll more than make up the price difference in machines. Breville products tend to last many years without the need for servicing, so over the lifespan of the product, you're likely to save thousands of dollars with the Barista Express.
Convenience and consistency
There's no question that Nespresso is a simpler, more convenient, more perfectly consistent system. The coffee tastes good, and other than recycling the used pods, there's very little effort involved. If this is your jam, go with Nespresso.
The Barista Express requires a little bit more energy and enthusiasm for the process. To me, it's well worth the difference. This is one of those choices you just have to make for yourself.