Let’s quickly start by saying that if your machine is not broken and is producing great espresso, don’t upgrade your machine! It would be too easy to tell you the top 10 reasons to upgrade your espresso equipment based on the latest and greatest tech and espresso machine features, but don’t fall into that trap. If you consistently make great espresso drinks for your taste, then keep your gear and wait until you have a reason to upgrade.
That said, if your espresso drinks are not quite where you want them and you aren’t hitting that café quality that you expected, read on, and we’ll outline a few points on where your machine may be struggling and where an upgrade may be warranted.
Also, if you have a machine of decent value, always consider listing it on sites like Used Coffee Gear or even Facebook Marketplace to make a few bucks before you upgrade. And consider looking at the same places for your upgrade, as someone is always moving to a more expensive machine from a moderately priced one.
Here are the top 10 reasons to upgrade your espresso machine
- Your espresso machine lacks temperature control.
Your espresso machine produces inconsistent shots.
- Unpredictable brew pressure and temperature
- Difficulty measuring shot time and preinfusion
Making espresso drinks is slow and frustrating.
- Boiler type
- Quick steaming
- Great temperature stability
- Small water reservoir
- Your portafilter and basket can’t fit 18 grams or more.
- You are looking for a quality-built machine that will last.
Your espresso machine can only handle certain types of coffee.
- Temperature control
- Your portafilter doesn’t fit any of the aftermarket accessories.
- You want to become a pro and mess around with pressure profiling.
- Your espresso machine doesn’t have a direct plumbing option.
- The built-in grinder just doesn’t cut it.
Your espresso machine lacks temperature control
Many machines under the $1,000 price tag lack one crucial component of making great espresso across varying roast levels: a PID controller.
PID controller: A PID controller, which stands for Proportional-Integral-Derivative, is a device that employs the PID algorithm to manage various processes effectively. In the context of an espresso machine, it plays a crucial role in regulating temperature. Unlike conventional thermostats that tend to switch the heating element on and off as the temperature fluctuates around the target, resulting in inconsistent shot quality, PID controllers maintain a steady brew temperature. They are typically visible on the machine and equipped with control buttons for adjusting the brewing temperature, allowing for greater control and flexibility, especially for home baristas who enjoy experimenting with different coffee roasts and temperatures.
So, not only does a PID controller help stabilize your brew temperatures, but it also allows the user to change the brew temperature.
If a machine lacks a PID controller, expect inconsistent brew temperatures from one shot to the next and a static brew temperature that you cannot change.
Why is changing your espresso brew temperature such a big deal? Well, if you only brew one type of coffee, a very dark roast, the brew temperature your current machine is set to may work well for that coffee. As you experiment with coffees of varying roast levels, you will soon find that coffees of one roast level taste best at one brew temperature versus lighter or darker ones.
Here is a basic guideline on where you may want your brew temperatures based on the stated roast level. With that said, some coffee brands (like us) roast coffee lighter than your standard grocery store coffee, which means a dark roast from a specialty coffee brand may be more in line with a light to medium roast from a grocery store brand (yes, it varies that much.)
|Roast Type||Optimal Brewing Temperature (Fahrenheit)||Optimal Brewing Temperature (Celsius)|
Light Roast Espresso
199 - 205
93 - 96
Medium Roast Espresso
194 - 200
90 - 93
Dark Roast Espresso
188 - 194
87 - 90
Your espresso machines produces inconsistent shots
To brew the perfect espresso, or any coffee drink for that matter, and at minimum, you need control over time, temperature, and a recipe.
Espresso brewing is complex, and adding control over pressure (think pressure profiling), preinfusion length and volume can all be helpful but not necessarily paramount if you are beginning your espresso journey.
Inconsistency results when you do not have the tools to control, repeat, or record, time, temperature, and recipe (volumetrics.)
When it comes to time, you can buy a cheap magnetic timer to place on your machine or use a scale to help display the time and volume when you are brewing your espresso. Being able to hit a specific time and volume all fall under adhering to a recipe. Knowing how your espresso tastes at a particular time and volume will give you the information you need to adjust your next espresso to make it taste even better.
While purchasing a cheap magnetic timer or using a scale that records time and volume to help improve your espresso, some more sophisticated machines already have this.
As discussed in the previous section, having control over your brew temperatures means you have more options on the type of coffees you can brew well; it also refers to your machine's stable and consistent temperature.
Not every machine on the market has a stable water temperature from the boiler through the group head. When the temperature is unstable, it is difficult to brew at the intended temperature, and brewing back-to-back shots will result in wildly inconsistent profiles.
Espresso machines with good temperature stability should have
A PID controller: A PID temperature controller is not a necessary component for an espresso machine to operate, but it does provide an added level of precision and consistency in temperature control for baristas.
E61 group head: The E-61 group is a feature that provides consistency and enhances the flavor of the espresso. It continuously circulates hot water through the boiler and group head, maintaining the appropriate brew temperature range at the group head. Additionally, its automatic pre-infusion function saturates the coffee in the group head when you start extraction, leading to a more evenly extracted and refined flavor profile. The best part is that this feature operates independently, so it does not require any actions from the user to benefit from its performance.
Making espresso drinks is slow and frustrating
If you only make one espresso drink a day, you might still have some frustrating experiences due to speed, but the real issue is when making back-to-back drinks. While this blog is not intended to show what to look out for in a commercial setting, we know many of our customers make two drinks every morning, and even at that level, specific home machines can be slow and erratic.
First, most espresso machines under the $700.00 price tag have imprecise temperature control and cannot brew and steam simultaneously.
At a minimum, you will want an espresso machine with a heat exchanger to have more stable brew temperatures and the ability to brew espresso and steam milk simultaneously.
Most low-cost home espresso machines have a single boiler, which cannot brew and steam milk simultaneously.
Single-boiler espresso machine: Single-boiler espresso machines utilize a single boiler for brewing coffee and steaming milk. These compact machines make them an ideal choice for small kitchens, and they heat up rapidly, ensuring you have coffee drinks on demand. With manual steam wands, you can enjoy more control when preparing occasional cappuccinos or lattes. For enhanced precision, upscale single-boiler espresso machines are furnished with PID temperature controllers to maintain a stable brewing temperature.
Heat exchanger espresso machines: A heat exchanger is a device that transfers heat between two fluids without them directly contacting each other. In an espresso machine, it's crucial to regulate water temperature. Heat exchanger machines separate these processes from standard boilers that serve steaming and brewing. This separation is necessary because steam and brewing water require significantly different temperatures. The brew water is carefully heated in a copper pipe within the heat exchanger, ensuring precise brewing temperature. Steam, on the other hand, is drawn directly from the boiler. While heat exchangers offer good consistency and cost-effectiveness, they may struggle in high-volume scenarios, potentially leading to temperature fluctuations and less consistent espresso flavor.
Dual boiler espresso machines: Dual boiler espresso machines are equipped with two separate boilers, one for brewing and one for steaming, ensuring consistent temperature control for both processes. This design eliminates the risk of temperature fluctuations during shot preparation. It's especially advantageous in high-volume cafés, where quick recovery is essential. While they offer excellent performance, dual boiler machines are more costly due to the additional materials and components.
Heat exchanger and dual boiler espresso machines will be able to push more pressure to the steam wand, allowing you to steam milk up to temperature much faster than a single-boiler espresso machine. The added steam pressure will allow you to get that café quality milk texture as some single-boiler espresso machines are not strong enough and leave you with a more “wet” and flat milk that lacks the texture needed for latte art.
Finally, don’t forget that the smaller the machine, the smaller the water reservoir unless you can directly plumb (not the case in most smaller machines). Machines with 64 ounces or fewer reservoirs need constant refilling, especially if you drink daily espresso and steam milk.
Your portafilter and basket can’t fit enough espresso grounds
Most inexpensive single-boiler home espresso machines will come with 54mm baskets, holding only 14 – 16 grams of espresso. Many manufacturers claim their 54mm baskets can hold 18 grams of espresso, but overstuffing your basket is the quickest way of producing a poor-quality drink.
To truly get that café quality taste and to make traditional and modern milk-based espresso drinks, you will need espresso baskets that can adequately hold 18 grams of espresso grounds or more. Once you invest in a machine with a 58mm portafilter and basket, your options for basket sizes (up to 25g from VST) and accessories are limitless.
You are looking for a quality-built machine that will last
If your current machine is broken beyond repair or the repair itself will cost just as much as the machine itself, consider your next machine to be one that will last a long time!
How do you ensure you purchase a machine that will last years?
- Know what your machine is built out of, inside and out. Machines like Rocket Espresso are built using the finest components like 304 stainless steel and commercial-grade internal copper and brass components. You will find very little plastic on higher-grade machines; everything is built to last. It also helps to find a machine with a solid warranty and ample parts in case you need something fixed or want an upgrade.
- Read the reviews of past purchasers or look up feedback on coffee and espresso forms; there is a ton of information out there!
One small point we made that we would like to elaborate on further is that finding parts and upgrades for your machine is a huge plus. Buying an obscure machine that is hard to find parts for will also be likewise for those who service those machines. Call your local espresso machine service facility and ask which machines they work on and their opinion on high-quality ones; you will likely hear names like La Marzocco, Rocket Espresso, Profitec, and others.
Your espresso machine can only handle certain types of coffee
Have you found that your espresso machine only makes specific types of coffee well? Maybe you notice that darker-roasted coffees always come out a bit too bitter for your liking, or lighter-roasted coffees are not hitting the brightness you expect.
As mentioned earlier, controlling the brew temperature is one of the most crucial aspects of brewing a great espresso. If you cannot change and maintain stable temperatures, the type of coffee your machine can brew best is somewhat of a guessing game.
For example, lighter roasted coffees tend to brew best at 198 – 205 degrees Fahrenheit, while darker roasted coffees taste best when brewing below 190 degrees. If your machine cannot change brew temperatures, you are either stuck brewing one type of coffee well or potentially all types of coffee not so well.
Find an espresso machine where you can control the brew temperature!
Your portafilter doesn't fit any aftermarket accessories
While this is certainly not the sole reason to update your espresso machine, there are a lot of aftermarket accessories like WDT tools, baskets, puck screens, paper filters, and portafilters that are either only made for 58mm portafilters or very hard to find for 54mm portafilters.
Just note that when you expect to upgrade your machine, watch for a more standard 58mm portafilter.
You want to become a pro and mess around with pressure profiling
Many new espresso machines come with the ability for the barista to pressure profile.
What is pressure profiling in espresso brewing?
An example of pressure profiling is adjusting the brewing pressure of your espresso from the standard 9 bar to a pattern where it gradually increases and then decreases. This deviation from the traditional Italian espresso method of a constant 9 bar throughout the shot is a common technique used to refine the flavor of the coffee. Pressure profiling aims to discover a personalized recipe that yields the optimal result for the specific coffee being brewed.
A great example of pressure profiling would be one that naturally happens when using a lever-based espresso machine like the Flair or the La San Marco Leva machines. What is great about pressure and flow profiling is that users can move away from the traditional 9 bar pressure throughout the shot and experiment with other methodologies. One would follow how a lever machine naturally operates by having a peak pressure and a slow, gradual decline in pressure throughout the brew. This tends to help extraction due to puck integrity decreasing throughout the brew.
While we won’t go too much into pressure, flow, and even temperature profiling in this blog, do know that it exists and opens many recipe options for you as the barista.
Your espresso machine doesn't have a direct plumbing option
A direct plumbing option for your espresso machine is fantastic and will save you time and energy constantly refilling your reservoir. While a direct plumb option is not on our list of must-haves in a home setting, it is worth having on your machine in case you ever want to use it.
The true benefit of a direct plumb option is being able to do your water filtration external to the machine and, in the long run, potentially saving you money from constantly feeding your machine good spring water.
Most machines above the $1,500 price tag have a direct plumb option available; again, this shouldn’t be the sole reason you seek an upgrade, but it is definitely nice to have.
The built-in grinder just doesn't cut it
Finally, one of the first machines most home baristas start with an espresso machine with a built-in grinder. While this option at first may seem like the most logical purchase, you are potentially stuck with a subpar grinder and one that, if it breaks, your entire espresso machine needs to be serviced as it is built into the machine.
Don’t get me wrong, you can pull excellent espresso shots from machines with built-in grinders, but you need to understand its limitations.
Espresso machines with built-in grinders don’t have much internal space to work with, so all (at least we know of) are built with conical burr grinders.
While conical burr grinders can undoubtedly get the job done when brewing espresso, note that they work best with certain types of coffees and may not hit the fineness and clarity needed for lighter roasted coffees.
Our espresso machine picks
Best Beginner Espresso Machine
Breville Bambino | Espresso Machine
Easily create delicious coffee beverages with Breville's Bambino Plus Espresso Machine. Designed to suit any budget, the Bambino BES500 is the ideal espresso machine for beginners. Featuring a straightforward 5-button control panel and Breville's innovative Thermojet heating system.
- Compact footprint
- Simple 5-button display
- Hands free milk texturing
- PID temp control
- Low pressure infussion
Best Entry-level Espresso Machine
Breville Barista Express | Espresso Machine
Experience the art of crafting third-wave specialty coffee in the comfort of your home, from the beans to a perfectly pulled espresso, all in under a minute. With the Barista Express (BES870XL), you have the ability to grind your beans just before extraction, unlocking their rich, full flavor potential.
- 19 - 22g dose
- Built-in conical grinder
- Volumetric controls
- PID temp control
- Low pressure infusion
Best Mid-tier Espresso Machine
Rocket Espresso Appartamento | Espresso Machine
The Rocket Espresso Appartamento offers café drink quality and commercial components in a tidy 304 Stainless Steel body for the perfect at-home espresso experience.The Rocket Espresso Appartamento leverages a high-performance E61 group head. The E61 group head is the gold standard for temperature stability.
- Boiler gauge
- E61 group head
- Brass components
- 304 stainless steel body
- Brass/copper boiler
Best High-end Espresso Machine
Rocket Espresso Giotto Type V | Espresso Machine
The Rocket Espresso Giotto Type V offers café drink quality and commercial components in a tidy 304 Stainless Steel body for the perfect at-home espresso experience. The Rocket Espresso Giotto Type V features a PID controller to ensure perfect temperature stability regardless of your temperature setting.
- PID Controller with adjustable temperature
- Digital shot timer
- E61 group head
- Built by hand in Milan, Italy
- Brass and copper components