Sunday, Apr 14, 2024

Best Budget Espresso Machines Aren’t 15 Bar & Here’s Why.

The fact you’ve landed on this post about the best budget espresso machines would indicate that you’ve decided on taking the plunge, and investing in a home espresso machine – but you don’t want to spend a fortune, hence the budget bit.

Well in my opinion you’re making a great decision getting started in home espresso. Just make sure you figure out which kind of espresso machine user you are first, if you don’t you could end up with completely the wrong type of machine – which can be very frustrating. For more on this, read best home espresso machines.

What Most Alleged Best Budget Espresso Machines Have in Common

In this post, I’m not giving a list of the best budget espresso machines or anything like that, although a bit further in this post I do discuss what I believe to be the best three or four options if you’re looking for a budget espresso machine.

What I’m talking about specifically in this post is the fact that nearly all the alleged “best budget espresso machines”boast 15 bars of pressure, and I’m wanting to arm you with the fact that isn’t a good thing. In fact, having 15 bars of pressure would rule out an espresso machine from being the best budget espresso machine in my humble opinion. 

Most people are aware that pressure is a key component of espresso, but what most people don’t realise is that more pressure isn’t necessarily better. 

I was inspired to write this post when someone commented on one of my YouTube videos, suggesting that the Sage Bambino Plus wasn’t as good as other entry level home espresso machines because it only had 9 bars of pressure, and some of the other, cheaper espresso machines, have 15 bars or even 19 bars of pressure. 

I was a bit confused by this comment at first, but when I did a little bit of research I quickly discovered that many of the folks marketing budget espresso machines are using the 15 bars of pressure as a selling point. Very clever, but also very wrong. 

So there are probably many people who’ve done some browsing on Amazon, Currys, Argos etc., for espresso machines, who’ve formed an opinion that they should be looking for a 15 bar machine, and that machines at 9 bars aren’t as good. This is completely the wrong way around. 

But to explain this properly, lets have a bit of an espresso history lesson.

The History of Espresso

The history of the espresso machine is a really interesting story, but I’ll just cover the highlights here. Before espresso, coffee used to take a fairly long time to brew. In the 19th century, you could be waiting up to five minutes for a cup! In order to shorten the wait time for a caffeine hit, people started to investigate ways to use steam machines to speed up the process.

The first recorded attempt, and the precursor to later espresso machines, was a machine patented in 1884. It used 1.5 bars of pressure to push boiling water through a bed of coffee grounds, making for a faster brew than was previously achievable. But, as we know, it didn’t stop there.

Bezzera’s espresso machine at the 1906 Milan Fair.
Bezzera’s espresso machine at the 1906 Milan Fair. Photo Credit: Bezzera.

In the early 20th century, Luigi Bezzerra and Desiderio Pavoni came up with a design for a single-shot espresso machine. Bezzerra’s initial design worked in a similar way, by passing pressurised hot water through coffee grounds, but with an added feature of lowering the water temperature to something friendlier to coffee brewing. It was a major step forward and could brew a cup of coffee in just seconds, but the main problem with it was consistency. The machine was heated by a flame, making pressure and temperature control incredibly difficult.

1910 La Pavoni Ideale espresso machine
1910 La Pavoni Ideale espresso machine.

Pavoni brought in some quality of life improvements, such as a pressure release valve to prevent unfortunate baristas being splashed with hot coffee the moment the pressure was released. Shortly after that, the rise in electricity replaced steam power, making espresso machines significantly more efficient. Even then though, they could only get up to 2 bars of pressure.

It wasn’t until Achille Gaggia, a café owner, invented a machine with a spring-piston lever for added pressurisation of the water, that the possible pressure for a coffee machine leapt from 1.5-2 bars to 8-10. This lever is also what lead to the term “pulling a shot”, as baristas would pull down on the lever to make the coffee. Ever since the introduction of Gaggia’s espresso machines, 9 bars has been the industry standard for espresso making.

Why More Pressure Doesn’t Lead to Better Espresso. 

The marketing blurb of many low cost espresso machines will try to give the impression that higher pressure is better, bit this isn’t the case at all.

9 bars of pressure is still universally accepted as the perfect pressure for proper extraction. Higher pressure would hinder your chances of getting the best shot, with standard baskets, not improve it. 

Pressurised Baskets vs. Standard Baskets

Standard espresso filter baskets have one layer of metal that are full of holes, the goal being to provide an even flow of extracted espresso through the filter basket, without allowing coffee grinds through into the cup.  

Standard Filter Basket.

Pressurised or pressured baskets on the other hand (what Sage/Breville refer to as dual walled baskets, as the baskets are made of two layers of metal) force the coffee through one tiny hole, thus building pressure which creates the illusion of crema.

Dual walled pressured filter basket.

So what pressurised baskets really are, is a way to fake crema. 

Best Budget Espresso Machines - Crema.
Nice Thick Crema. Photo Credit: Brian Legate.

That lovely crema we all (well I know I do, I assume everyone else does too?) crave on top of our espresso, is created by getting the extraction spot on, with high quality, freshly roasted and freshly ground coffee beans. It’s basically a sign of well extracted espresso.

But with pressured baskets, you can get great looking crema, without the perfect extraction.

You can get any bag of stale pre-ground supermarket coffee that was roasted and ground who knows when and who knows where, and pull a shot which looks perfectly extracted. But looks aren’t everything!

While this may lead to an espresso which looks the part, the only way to get the perfect tasting shot of espresso is to use great coffee beans, freshly roasted, freshly ground, properly dialled in (correct grind size), and to nail the extraction.   

The problem is, while pressured baskets give the appearance of crema, it’s been created by the pressure within the basket, so it looks the part, but it won’t necessarily taste the part. 

I’m not just saying this in theory, by the way. In this video I experiment with the exact same coffee (thanks to Blue Coffee Box, who sent me the same coffee beans both wholebean and pre ground) pre-ground via the pressurized baskets and freshly ground via the standard baskets to see if there’s any difference in taste.  Also, in this video, I do another experiment testing both baskets with both freshly ground and pre-ground coffee via both baskets. 

What I discovered during these tests, is that even with very high quality speciality coffee beans, freshly roasted, pressured baskets do a good job of making espresso look like it’s been well extracted, but it’s style over substance to quite a large degree, it doesn’t quite taste as good as it looks like it should.

To be fair, I found during my test that with the exact same coffee, pre-ground did taste slightly better via a pressured basket than via a standard basket. This is why I say it’s style over substance “to a large degree” and not completely.

The same coffee freshly ground via the standard basket tasted better as espresso than pre-ground in the pressurized basket, but the one via the pressurized basket was still drinkable, it wasn’t awful, but this is because it was great quality speciality coffee. 

Once you’ve diluted the espresso with a load of milk though, to make a latte, cappuccino of flat white, I found that while I could still detect the difference, there wasn’t a great deal in it.

So if you’re not a perfectionist, and you’re happy with fairly good tasting milkies, then using pressurized baskets with a machine like the Sage Bambino Plus or the Gaggia Classic Pro, and either using pre-ground, or just using a lower cost grinder like the Sage Smart Grinder Pro and not bothering to waste time and coffee dialling in, is an option – as long as you’re using great quality freshly roasted coffee beans. 

My main issue with pressurized baskets is they will make poor quality supermarket commodity coffee look like well extracted espresso, but taste like something else entirely.

If a fellow coffee botherer (my term for coffee lovers) buys a budget espresso machine with pressurized baskets, and just picks up bags of whatever takes their fancy while masked up and browsing the aisles, or after finally managing to get a delivery slot and shopping online; they’re going to think, from looks alone, that they’re creating great espresso, but often they’ll be drinking terrible espresso, made with poor quality coffee, which doesn’t taste how it looks like it should. 

15 Bar Pressure and Standard Baskets

If you get hold of one of the many 15 bar espresso machines on offer, you could swap out the basket to a standard basket. If you search Amazon & Ebay for compatible standard baskets, you’ll find you can get compatible standard baskets to fit most portafilters. My only concern really with higher pressure machines and standard baskets, is I would expect more issues with channelling.

What the Chuff is Channeling? 

Under pressure, if there’s a path of least resistance through the puck of ground coffee beans in the basket, the water will find it – and in doing so will create channels. The coffee grounds around the channels won’t extract properly, so you end up with poor tasting espresso. In fact, channeling is one of the major causes of poor tasting espresso. See this rather humorous video below showing a bloke using a bottomless portafilter and ending up with espresso all over the show, thanks to channelling.

If I was to use a 15 bar espresso machine with standard baskets, I’d be doing a few things to prevent channeling.

First, I’d work on my tamp, to ensure that it’s level, and I’d make sure that I’m not banging the portafilter on the worktop or into the machine when locking it into the group, which can break the puck and increase the chances of channeling. If there’s a levelling tool that fits the portafilter size, then I’d consider getting one. 

Secondly, I’d be looking for some form of preinfusion.

Preinfusion is where water is introduced to the coffee without pressure. With a commercial espresso machine, water is introduced to the coffee at line pressure, meaning at the pressure coming from the mains that it’s plumbed into, which would be nothing like 9 or 15 bars. Then after 5-10 seconds, generally speaking, the pressure is increased, and the shot begins to be pulled. The total shot time, by the way, is from the second the water comes into contact with the ground coffee. 

The benefit of preinfusion is that the water is gently introduced to the coffee, so it has started to find its flow evenly through the coffee before the pressure is introduced, which reduces the chance of channelling.

This is one of the things that really impresses me about the Sage Bambino Plus, such a low cost machine (RRP £299, but you can get it from as little as £220-£250 if you’re lucky), but it comes with automated and manual low pressure preinfusion! It also comes at 9 bars of pressure, so I wouldn’t be quite as concerned about channelling anyway as I would be with a higher pressured machine.

But it’s very doubtful you’ll get any preinfusion with a cheaper 15 bar machine, so I’d experiment to see if I can find some way to create preinfusion. With the Gaggia Classic Pro for instance (a more expensive machine than the Bambino, RRP £399) it doesn’t have automatic preinfusion, but there’s a manual method you can use by opening the steam valve for the first 5-10 seconds of the shot, or for however long you want preinfusion to last.

I’d even experiment with manually pouring hot water from the kettle into the portafilter if I can’t find any other way around it, but my concern with that is that it would be very difficult to get the portafilter into the group without disturbing the puck and causing channeling, once the grounds are wet.

Third, I’d look at getting a naked portafilter.

Bottomless Portafilter for Delonghi Dedica.
This is the bottomless portafilter I’ve just bought for the DeLonghi EC685 video review I’m working on.

Naked, or bottomless portafilters are filter holders with the bottom removed, and with no spouts. The photo above is of the bottomless portafilter I recently bought to fit the Delonghi Dedica EC685, for a video review (coming soon to my YouTube channel).

You’re looking at the bottom of the portafilter in the photo above. In use, you can see the espresso being extracted, and this means you’ll be able to see channelling in action, little jets of espresso coming out in random positions. So with a bottomless portafilter, as well as being mesmerised by the espresso being extracted (it’s really cool to watch ) you’ll be able to see if you have channelling or not.

So this is what I’d be looking at if I were buying a budget espresso machine at 15 bars of pressure.

Best Budget Espresso Machines - Gran Gaggia Style.
Gran Gaggia Style.

But I probably wouldn’t bother, to be honest – unless I was thinking about buying used.

From what I can gather, the only machines of this level really worth getting would be the DeLonghi Dedica or the Gran Gaggia

The Gran Gaggia is available from £115 at the moment from Gaggia Direct (the UK dealer for Gaggia Milano, I’d recommend these guys, they handle all the UK warranty, and from personal experience I’ve found their support to be brilliant).

By the time you’ve bought a standard basket for it, under a tenner, it stands you at about £123. I can’t find anyone offering naked portafilters for the Gran (it’s a 53mm portafilter). The Gran has a slightly bigger group & portafilter, at 53mm vs 51mm, which I would see as a slight advantage for reasons I won’t get into as I don’t want this post to start getting really technical.

So the Gran Gaggia, on paper, could be one of the best budget espresso machines at this price. By the way, I do have a Gran Gaggia, and a Delonghi Dedica – and I’m working on blog post reviews and video reviews of both. Subscribe to my YouTube channel and allow notifications, and you’ll be pinged a notification when I’ve uploaded these videos.

The Delonghi Dedica is about £220, but usually available for around £190, click here to see the current Amazon UK price. If you buy just a standard basket, that puts you up to about £200, and if you buy the bottomless portafilter (including standard basket) you’re up to about £210. 

Given that the Sage Bambino plus is sometimes available from £220-£250 on offer, personally I’d recommend sitting on your hands and waiting until the Bambino is on offer, as that’s such a great machine for the money.

Its already at 9 bars out of the box, but in addition to that, it has a PID (automated temp control), automatic and manual preinfusion. It’s ready to use in 3 seconds, it’ll auto steam your milk, it’s ready for steam almost instantly, and ready to pull shots again almost instantly.

It auto purges the steam wand, it’s capable of great milk texturing, and is a very forgiving for beginners when it comes to learning to texture milk. Its just an amazing little machine for the price. I’ve just taken it on holiday for a week down in Cornwall, it’s tiny so it took no space up in the car, and it was a really fun little machine to use every day, love it.


So I’d only recommend plumping for the Dedica if you can get it much cheaper. You can pick the Dedica up for £50/£60 used on eBay, and at that price, I think it’s a good option. If you’re thinking of buying a Dedica new, given that you’re going to end up paying not much less than you can get the Bambino for, I’d highly recommend waiting a bit for them to come back on offer again, and saving up a bit while you’re at it.  But like I say, I think getting a used Dedica for about £50-£60 is a good option.

If you’re going down the pre-loved route though, just keep in mind that if you’re lucky (or patient, or a it of both) you might get hold of a pre 2009 original Gaggia classic for £100 – £150. This is what I went for, for my first home espresso machine. I picked up a used one for £100, fitted a pro steam wand, had it serviced by Gaggia Direct, and it’s still going strong at over 17 years old. Click here for Gaggia Classics ending soon on eBay.

These machines came out of the box at around 12/13 bars, so if you’re buying one used, I’d recommend getting a portafilter pressure gauge to check what the pressure is, as someone else might have already adjusted the over pressure valve to drop the pressure down. If they haven’t, there are lots of tuturials on adjusting the pressure, like this one, that you can follow to drop it down to 9 bars.

But whether you go for this particular machine or not, hopefully you’re now armed with an understanding of why 15 bar espresso machines aren’t necessarily the best option!

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The post Best Budget Espresso Machines Aren’t 15 Bar & Here’s Why. appeared first on Coffee Blog.

By: Kev
Title: Best Budget Espresso Machines Aren’t 15 Bar & Here’s Why.
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Published Date: Sat, 29 Aug 2020 14:20:59 +0000