What is espresso?
You may be wondering, what the differences are between your standard pot of coffee and an espresso machine. Why is it worth purchasing? These questions often arise due to confusion. Many believe they’ve already tried espresso because they purchased a bag of beans marked “espresso”. Espresso doesn’t refer to the type of roast, but rather, the extraction method for preparing it. It’s extracted under very high pressure and temperature, making for a much quicker, smaller, intense beverage – something many café connoisseurs prefer. The top layer of foam on the beverage is called “crema”, and tells you a lot from the espresso quality, such as freshness and pressure. Oh, and for those who can never seem to stay awake, did we mention espresso has more caffeine per ounce than your average cup of coffee?
What to expect from an espresso machine under $200?
At this price point, you should expect a good shot of espresso, but perhaps not the best shot you’ve ever had in your life. In some cases, some of the very delicate flavors and aromas will get lost during the brewing process, however, it will retain the vast majority of deliciousness. The Mueller and the Vertuo definitely feature world-class flavor, but keep in mind the others do come close. You can expect an auto shut-off feature, but relatively loud operation. The machines will be small and portable, but may not be as durable as some of the more expensive ones. They do, however, typically look quite attractive and make a great addition to any desk or kitchen counter.
Features to consider while choosing an espresso machine
If you like espresso but are not ready to spend a bunch of money on a top-notch coffee machine, it’s still possible for you to get a decent cup of espresso by investing in an espresso machine under $200. You just need to pay attention to several features described below.
You’ll find that there are two main types of automatic espresso machines: semi-automatic and super automatic. Semi-automatic machines are great if you want a “traditional” home espresso machine. They have a boiler, portafilter, and switch to activate/deactivate the extraction pump. You actually have more control over your shot here, as you control water flow.
Super automatics are definitely more convenient, and grind, tamp, brew, and even steam milk for you. They’re extremely easy to use, and produce consistent quality. The machines vary in levels of programmability, but you can typically adjust your temperature, volume, extraction time, and even water hardness.
While each have their ups and downs, it all depends on your preferences. However, we should mention that super automatics are nearly impossible to find at this price point.
Brew temperature and water pressure
Water temperature and pressure are crucial to making the perfect shot of espresso. Without heat, you can’t properly brew or steam, and you should have consistency with both to get quality. A Thermoblock system is always a good idea and keeps water at the ideal temperature, which is 90 degrees Celsius/194 degrees Fahrenheit.
The bar pressure is what actually creates the crema on your espresso. It’s what helps extract all of the flavors and lets you experience the aroma it intended you to. It’s what allows the machine to obtain the proper amount of steam within the correct speed. Fifteen to nineteen is ideal for home use, and if your beans are grounded properly, 9–11.
If your machine has poor bar pressure, you’ll get bitter and sometimes even sour results.
Even the biggest espresso lover may want to change things up sometimes. Perhaps you’d like the option to also have a latte once in a while! The steam arm is what is going to froth your milk, allowing you some more versatility to create milk-based drinks in various ways. If you also enjoy a latte, cappuccino, or even a flat white now-and-then, then make sure yours has a good steam arm with it!
Maintenance and ease of cleaning
Raise your hand if you love cleaning! We have a feeling many of you are going to keep your arms at your sides. Wouldn’t you prefer to be spending your time, oh, I don’t know, drinking that delicious coffee beverage you just helped make? With that being said, choose a machine that is going to be easy to clean and not require maintenance all of the time. You may also want to select a product that has a larger water tank so that you don’t have to continuously be filling and refilling every time you put a new pod in.
This section is quite straightforward and simple to understand. Most of the best espresso machines under $200 are going to come with a 1-year warranty, however, the Mueller does come with a 2-year warranty, which is definitely a bonus. After a year is when you’ll start to see the defects appear anyway!
Tips on making a cup of perfect espresso
With your new espresso machine, it’s only going to be able to do so much. While the VertuoLine definitely takes things up a level with their patented Centrifusion Extraction Technology, most under $200 are going to need your assistance with making the perfect espresso.
The type of coffee you use is so important, here. However, with the majority only accepting Nespresso cups or compatible capsules, there aren’t too many options here. Creating your recipe can be altered, though. Changing up the water temperature, espresso volume, time, and grind consistency all make a huge impact. If you can, set your machine anywhere between 197 and 205 °F, and extract for 30 seconds. Timing does rely on achieving a good grind, which means you must adjust often.
What is “perfection” for you, is going to greatly depend on your personal palate, preferences, machine, and coffee, so keep an eye on what you’re doing.