Breville’s Barista Express is the best all-in-one, semi-automatic espresso machine you’ll find for under $500 — here’s everything you need to know

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Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

“Home espresso machines are a problem in a box,” one inveterate reporter once told me. She wasn’t wrong, mostly. I’ve spent many a day over the last few months troubleshooting several of them.

Owning and maintaining a true espresso machine (I’m not talking pod machines like Nespresso here) is a meticulous endeavor for the borderline-obsessive coffee fiend. If you don’t crave and cherish an espresso-based drink on a regular basis, stick with a simple drip coffee machine, French Press, or Moka pot if you don’t want a hog of a machine dominating your kitchen counter.

But, unlike many other semi-automatic espresso machines, this one is fairly foolproof and holds your hand through the process. It also comes integrated with Breville’s burr grinder, which we love, and which would run you about $200 if bought separately.

Just as with bartenders, there’s a very good set of reasons why baristas exist. Sure, between pulling shots they can often become our boho-chic shrinks, but perhaps more importantly, they handle our espresso and the machines that produce it with a degree of TLC that many if not most of us either can’t or don’t care to match. (I, for one, have destroyed or in some way disabled more than my fair share.)

What’s the difference between espresso and coffee?

First off, depending on how much you’re drinking, espresso can be a more pedestrian dose of caffeine. “Consumer Reports” writes: “An ounce – or one shot – of espresso contains 63 mg of caffeine, according to nutritional information from the Department of Agriculture. By comparison, regular coffee averages 12 to 16 mg of caffeine per ounce.”

At eight ounces per standard cup, that’s upwards of 96 mg of caffeine per cup of regular coffee. But caffeine concentrations also vary from brand to brand: According to “Consumer Reports,” a shot of espresso at Starbucks has about 75 mg of caffeine, while an 8-ounce cup of Pike Place roast coffee has 155 mg. But then, as with many cafes, the smallest size Starbucks offers is a 12-ounce “Tall,” meaning you’re walking out with about 232.5 mg of caffeine in your hand at minimum. That, if my arithmetic serves me, adds up to more than three shots of their espresso. I shudder at the idea of consuming three shots of espresso at once.

Secondly, the way coffee is brewed, it absorbs much more water than espresso, which is made by a quick pulse of pressure (hence “espresso,” or in full: caffè espresso, which basically translates to “pressed-out coffee”) forcing nearly boiling water through very finely ground coffee beans.

There are no true guidelines as to which beans go with which method of brewing or roasting, but you can expect certain flavors from certain roasts. A dark bean will be more bitter (perhaps overpoweringly so), while “a light roast will provide a sweeter and more complex flavor profile,” the folks at Seattle Coffee Gear explain. Traditionally, dark-roast beans were preferred for espresso “to mask potential flavor defects and inconsistencies,” but “because of the high standards that specialty roasters now hold for the coffees they use,” that’s no longer an issue.

But what about the label on your bag of beans? That’s just a suggestion by the roaster, who’s not necessarily wrong or right. These are subjective and muddy waters at best these days. You’ll be able to find out what you like pretty quickly.

Why spend all that money on an espresso machine?

The main reason espresso machines are so expensive is the boiler. It has to be powerful enough to produce about nine bars of even pressure, but also maintain a consistent temperature just above boiling. Pod machines fool us into thinking they cover these bases, but what you get out of them is something much closer to coffee than espresso.

If you’re trading in your takeout coffee for an espresso machine, it’ll pay for itself in no time (somewhere between one and two years). It’ll also save you time. From start to finish, the Breville will provide you with a top-notch shot of espresso in under 60 seconds, once you’ve gotten the swing of it.

Buy the Barista Express BES870XL for $499.95 on Breville

Buy the Breville Barista Express BES870XL for $499.95 at Amazon

Keep reading for a review and breakdown of the Breville Barista Express:


Specs

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The Breville Barista Express comes with a one-year limited warranty, a brushed stainless steel exterior, a half-pound bean hopper capacity, a 67-ounce water tank capacity, and portafilter baskets for both single and double shots (one of each for either pre-ground or freshly ground beans).

You’ll also get a shot-measuring razor, which lets you trim excess grounds off the top of your filter basket, as well as a cleaning disc and tablets, a coffee scoop, a stainless steel milk jug, and a stowable tamper.

The Barista Express is, all things considered, fairly compact. The measurements – 15.8 inches tall (due to the hopper standing proud from the rest of the machine), 12.6 inches wide, and 13.2 inches wide – bode well for it fitting on your countertop but under any cabinets, though be sure to take the measurements yourself.


Setting the grind size

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Adjusting the grind size is easy. For a thick, rich, almost sludgy shot, go for a “FINE” grind setting. That said, this is an important step and it could take a while for you to get it to your liking.

My only, if heavily subjective, advice is that I wouldn’t go much coarser than “4” or “5”. You’re getting into drip coffee territory there, and you’ll start to get a more watery shot which isn’t why you bought an espresso machine. To each our own, though.


Adjusting the grind amount

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Too much and your portafilter basket overflows. Too little, and, well, we all know that’s never a good thing. This isn’t numerical, so you’ll have to dial it in on your own and keep it there, or remember which little notch in the scale fills the basket. The good news is that there’s a button to switch between a single and a double (but you’ll still have to account for single-walled and double-walled baskets). More on this later.


Tamping your shot

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Tamping, first of all, requires a good tamper. The Barista Express comes with a handy and sufficiently weighty one, but it’s kept on the light side so that it can slide into its storage space, thanks to a magnet. We gather that if this tamper were any heavier, the magnet wouldn’t hold it. All in all, the heavier the tamper, the easier the task becomes (not that it’s all that much of a job).


Tidying your tamped shot

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Using this little finesse brush is surprisingly more important than you might expect. It seems like a chore you could probably skip over, but start gunking up your brewing head and you’ll soon find that it becomes difficult (if not impossible) to lock your portafilter in place. Then you have to clean it. That’s another duty you want to perform as infrequently as possible.

Otherwise, Breville manages to equip you with just about everything you’d need for the Barista. Changeable portafilter baskets (two singles and two doubles, depending on whether or not you’re using pre-ground or freshly ground coffee), a finesse brush, a tamper, and the “razor,” a trimming tool (not pictured) to measure out perfect shots and discard excess.


Monitoring the pressure gauge

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A gauge, apart from offering a classic, nostalgia-inducing aesthetic, is generally a good idea with more powerful machines like this. You’ll probably never have to worry, but if something does get jammed and the pressure gets out of control, you’ll know to abort, hopefully before it’s too late.


Pulling the perfect shot

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Once you’re locked and loaded, select single or double (one espresso cup or two on the machine), and let it (d)rip. There are few prettier sights in this life than watching espresso seep from a portafilter into a demitasse, are there not?


The product, straight up

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And what a wicked elixir this thing breweth.


Operating the milk frother

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Frothing is easy. Just make sure the machine is primed and the “Hot water/Steam” light is on in front, and then turn the dial on the right side of the machine to steam. Note: Either place the steam wand over the grate or catch any liquid remnants with a cup. You can switch it back to standby once it’s spewing out pure steam, then place it in your pitcher (which should have some form of milk in it) and let it rip. Hold it down deep and wait until it approaches the desired thickness (depending on whether you’re making a latte or a cappuccino).


Special features

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One thing that really sets the Breville Barista Express apart from similar machines is the integrated charcoal filter in the water tank. There are a couple of brands that offer purification tablets, and other things of that sort, but this is the only machine I’ve come across with a full-on Brita-style filter, and it’s popular belief, as with pizza, that good coffee starts with good water.

And, in simple but gracious touch, there’s a little numbered wheel atop the filter (like you’d find in or on a Brita) that you can set to the month so you know when it’s time to change.


Problems

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There are a few slight issues we’ve had with the Breville Barista Express, but none we couldn’t overcome.
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I have but one bone to pick with the Barista Express. Adjusting the grind amount is probably the trickiest thing on the Barista Express. Breville’s burr grinders come with an LCD screen that lets you control exactly how many grams of grounds you produce. This dial isn’t numerical, and you sort of have to guess (and memorize) what evens out to a single and a double.


How does it measure up?

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Okay, so I’ve not mastered cappuccino art just yet. But now that we have a Barista Express in the office, you just wait and see.
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Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

It would be extremely hard to pull a better shot of espresso with any less effort. The Breville Barista Express is among the more user-friendly espresso machines on the market – semi-automatic or otherwise. Full stop. And around the $600 mark, it surely stands alone, for now.

I’m also a big fan of the Gaggia Classic Pro, which is a little more hands-on for those more curious about perfecting their skills, but that also makes it a more temperamental machine (you can break it, but then you can also fix it). The biggest issue with the Gaggia, though, is that it’s about the same price as the Barista Express but without the built-in burr grinder, which is going to cost you at least $100 for a decent one.

If you really prefer a hands-on experience, check out the La Pavoni Europiccola, but it’s a bit pricier and far more finicky (leave this thing on, and you’ll be sorry).

Likewise, if you want to get meticulous with your java routine while saving a couple of Benjamins, the Flair Espresso (I recommend the bundle) is a manual device that pulls the best damn shot of espresso I’ve ever made, but only when I’m on point. It takes some practice, and if you’re making espresso for any more than, say, two people, it can really compound into a headache. The pros, however, are not worth ignoring: It’s portable, and it requires no electricity (supposing you can acquire hot water otherwise).

And, if you want real espresso but are on a budget, a stovetop is a timeless classic. Bialetti is sort of the household name, but they’re using cheap plastic handles these days that work fine until you forget your pot on the stove for a couple of minutes too long, and then you’ve got to order a fresh one. Grosche makes our favorite, but here’s our guide to the best stovetop espresso makers you can buy.


The bottom line

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It might take up a bit of counter space in the kitchen, but it sure looks pretty in doing so.
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Hollis Johnson/Business Insider

If what you want is a quick but true espresso from a machine that doesn’t eat up too much counter space but does it all, the Breville Barista Express is all you’ll ever need. The price might be daunting, but if you have a Starbucks or Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf habit that you’re committed to kicking, it’ll pay for itself within about a year. You’ll also find that by the end of that year, you’ll be dialing far better drinks than either purveyor.

Pros: All-in-one machine with all high-quality components, almost foolproof

Cons: Harder to fix (replacing the machine is often cheaper), optimizing grounds delivery can be tricky

Buy the Breville Barista Express BES870XL for $499.95 at Amazon


Check out all of our espresso and coffee-related guides

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The best espresso machines you can buy:

Coffee lovers start out innocently enough with drip filters, French presses, milk frothers, and stovetop espresso makers; but then next thing you know, they’re browsing Amazon for full-on espresso machines with all the bells and whistles. If you’ve reached that stage of coffee addiction, don’t worry, we’re here for you.

The best coffee makers you can buy, whether you want drip coffee or espresso:

A great coffee maker can make or break your brew – and your morning. These are the best coffee makers you can buy, whether you want a drip coffee, French Press, espresso, pour-over, or cold brew coffee maker.

The best French Presses you can buy:

You can brew coffee in a number of ways, but many caffeine addicts swear by the French Press method. Of all the French Presses we researched, these are the best we’ve found:

The best stovetop espresso makers you can buy:

After hours and hours of research, testing, and countless ensuing caffeine overloads, these are the best stovetop espresso makers we’ve found to make strong, delicious coffee right at home:

The best coffee grinders you can buy:

Freshly ground coffee is addictive and delicious. If you want to make the perfect brew each morning, you need a coffee grinder. After much research and some testing, we found that these to be the best coffee grinders you can buy:

The best milk frothers you can buy:

If you love cappuccinos, you need a great milk frother. After much research and testing, here are the best we’ve found:

The best tampers you can buy for your espresso machine:

If you love to make espresso at home, you need a high-quality tamper to ensure that your grounds are ready to make the best shot of espresso possible.

Here are the best espresso tampers you can buy:

The best coffee and espresso pod machines you can buy:

Pod machines bring speed, convenience, and consistency to the coffee-making process. You’re not going to get the best shot of espresso or cup of coffee ever made, but you will get a nicely made drink that tastes good with minimal effort.

We’ve spent countless shaky, teeth-gritting hours testing all the coffee and espresso pod machines we could get our hands on to find the best.