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I got a $30 espresso machine a year and half ago to see if we would actually use it much. It gets used several times a week (and we haven't bought anything from Starbucks in months), and the gasket in it's cap is leaking, so we're looking to buy a replacement.

The price range is truly impressive, and I have no real understanding of what the difference between a $30 machine and a $500 machine. What are the features that I should look for that make one machine better than another?

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The differences can be many, especially once you get away from department store machines (Breville, etc.). They generally use inexpensive pumps and heating systems, and a pressurized portafilter to simulate crema. I don't have time for a full answer at the moment, but check out CoffeeGeek's forums for more information than you can shake a coffee bean at. –  JoeFish Jan 28 '13 at 22:49
    
At $30 I assume you are talking about a stove top espresso maker. $500 probably gets you something like a Gaggia Classic that has a pressurised basket to simulate crema. At that level, I guess the difference is convenience. We used to have a fancy Gaggia at work and frankly I would prefer a stove top. –  Megasaur Jan 29 '13 at 13:05
    
It is the imusa counter-top plugin. Works real well for what I paid for it. –  BostonJohn Jan 29 '13 at 17:33
    
It's likely the overpressure valve in the cap that's doing the leaking. You can usually take the cap apart to get to it and clean with a brush and some citric acid. That'll extend the life of your unit another year or two. Likely the cap comes with the usual "no user serviceable parts" warning for litigious people. –  Wayfaring Stranger Jun 21 '13 at 12:37

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

An espresso machine usually needs to push water at somewhere between 8 and 15 bar pressure, which is quite a lot. And since it is the high-pressure components that are key to how they work, it is the quality and durability of these that tends to set the price point.

The quality of the pump varies from a device intended to be used for two or three cups once a week, all the way to professional machines designed to produce thousand of cups a day, month after month. This is why domestic machines are usually quite clear that they are for domestic use only: they simply cannot cope with the duty cycle of any more than that. Many domestic espresso machines will turn themselves off if they are used to make too many cups in one session - quite simply, they overheat.

It sounds like one you bought is one intended for occasional use. My advice is to visit a couple of retailers that have staff dedicated to selling espresso machines. They will, of course, try to sell you "their" brand, but they will also recognise when someone needs a domestic unit designed for daily use as opposed to one just for special occasions.

As a bonus, you generally get what you pay for with espresso machines. The more expensive domestic ones usually really do last much longer.

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You can find some more information on presure in this question. –  J.A.I.L. Jan 29 '13 at 12:19

There is no right answer for this.

the 2 main things I'd look for:

  • 15 PSI or more
  • a way to adjust and keep temperature as constant as possible

My current machine does well on the first point, terrible on the second.

This is only tiny part of the answer to good espresso though. Beans, freshness, and a good grinder may take you further for your money.

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Disagree with the 15 PSI. It's often used more as a technical term to show off the machine's capabilities. The official standard is 9 PSI, too high will change the flavor. Link: coffeegeek.com/guides/howtobuyanespressomachine/… –  Muz Feb 14 '13 at 12:48

The difference is not just about the espresso shot but also the milk-steaming ability. To get sweet, velvety milk is a real challenge on a cheaper machine with a plastic frother (you can usually get better results by just taking it off and using the naked pipe).

If you're prepared to go on a journey of discovery, a Gaggia Classic is a good place to start. You can get them online for about $300. This is about the cheapest machine that offers the flexibility to make great espresso. You can swap out the steam arm for a metal one, switch to a plain, unpressurised basket and adjust the pressure (with a few tools).

Anything cheaper than this is too limiting (if you're interested in honing your skills). Pressurised baskets will never allow you to get the full richness out of your beans, and render the arts of grind and tamp redundant. Plastic milk frothers will never be able to create perfect microfoam (and keeping them free of rancid milk gunk is a pain).

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