Australians love coffee. And whether or not we're drinking a little too much, it's certainly important to us that we drink good coffee – which is where home coffee machines come in.
Different types of coffee machines
There are several general types of espresso machines on the market, each with their own pros and cons depending on what you're looking for in a coffee maker.
Pod or capsule machines make up the bulk of espresso machines we buy in Australia. To use them, you insert coffee capsules which are the size and shape of a single-serve UHT milk holder. They're hermetically sealed in aluminium or plastic, giving them the added advantage of staying fresh for about nine months.
Easy Serving Espresso (ESE) pods are discs of coffee compressed between two layers of filter paper (not to be confused with the coffee capsule pods). These aren't hermetically sealed like the capsules. Some machines can cater for both pods and ground coffee by providing a separate filter basket and possibly a different shower head for each.
Nespresso is the biggest-selling capsule machine type. Nespresso capsules come in various styles depending on whether you're using an 'original' type of machine, or its newer Vertuo ones, which accommodate a range of cup sizes (and are only compatible with 'official' Nespresso capsules). The prices for capsules can vary.
Some come with a built-in milk frother, while others require you to buy one separately. Some don't need you to use one at all, and instead sell separate milk capsules. In our tests, the quality of these milk capsules is generally poor.
How to use a pod machine
A pod or capsule of coffee is inserted into the machine, which then pierces the capsule to allow hot water to flow through and pour the shot.
How much do pod machines cost?
Prices range from $37 to over $600, plus the cost of pods.
- Very simple and convenient to use.
- Many flavours of coffee available.
- They require very little cleaning up.
- Usually have a small benchtop footprint (one Aldi Expressi machine is 27 x 13 x 35cm for example, while a Nescafe Dolce Gusto Piccolini is only 29 x 16 x 23cm).
- Enthusiasts may find coffees from these machines lack depth or intensity of flavour.
- Aluminium-based capsules can be recycled via various schemes, but usually end up in landfill, which is very wasteful of the aluminium and other energy and material that goes into making them.
- They do cost more to use in the long run than freshly-ground coffee, but are still cheaper than going to a cafe for your morning brew.
These are a growing part of the market, with major brands including DeLonghi, Gaggia, Jura, Melitta and Miele. While most people prefer to either work a manual model or enjoy the convenience (and cost savings) of a capsule machine, the automated machines definitely have their fans and can be very handy in a small office kitchen or a busy household.
How to use an automatic coffee machine
Your cup goes under the spout, you press the button to grind the coffee beans to make the espresso, then you make your desired beverage depending on the strength and volume you want. Some also automatically froth milk for a cappuccino or latte.
How much do automatic coffee machines cost?
These machines cost between $500 and $5000.
- Easier to use than the semi-automatic and manual machines.
- They use freshly ground beans rather than a capsule and you can control the grind to your requirements.
- You can usually save several 'programs' or user profiles with your favourite styles of coffee.
- Some have 'self-cleaning' modes, which minimises the hassle of washing and descaling the machine, but ongoing maintenance is still essential.
- Can be more expensive than other types of machines, and their higher price isn't a guarantee they'll make good coffee.
- Can be quite heavy, from 8–12kg.
- The depth of the machine can exceed 40cm, so you need to be able to spare the bench space.
- Although they are 'automatic', parts will still require regular cleaning and maintenance, particularly the milk container and associated pipes, the drip tray, coffee grounds container and water tank.
- Depending on the water hardness in your area, descaling will also be important. Some manufacturers recommend water filters which may add to the expense.
These machines let you experiment and get more hands-on with your coffee. They require a bit more knowledge, and practice, of coffee-making techniques such as grinding, dosing and tamping.
Major brands include Breville, DeLonghi, Gaggia, Lelit, Profitec, Rancilio, Sunbeam and Smeg.
Usually, you'll need a separate bean grinder before using them, which is an added cost, but they generally come with a milk frothing capability.
The bench space they take up will vary depending on the complexity and design of the machine but they tend to be 20–40cm wide. The weight can vary from around 3–19kg.
How to use a manual espresso machine
You manually put the required amount of ground coffee into the group head, then set the machine to pour. You'll need to cut the flow of coffee yourself (unlike a semi-automatic machine).
How much do manual coffee machines cost?
A manual machine can cost as little as $200 and go all the way up to over $2000.
- The depth of flavour from using fresh coffee.
- The satisfaction of making your own cup of coffee just the way you like it.
- They can look like works of art and spruce up a boring kitchen – even the budget ones offered by brands like Kmart have a retro appeal.
- Difficult for beginners with no coffee-making experience.
- Ground coffee needs to be prepared before use.
- Ongoing maintenance.
Our home espresso machine reviews compare more than 40 manual, semi-automatic and capsule coffee machines.
A semi-automatic machine mostly operates like a manual machine would, but will automatically cut off the flow of coffee once a pre-set amount has been poured into your cup (a manual machine will require you to cut the flow of coffee yourself).
- Versatile – gives you the best of both worlds in terms of having control of your cup while not worrying about when to stop the coffee flow.
- Less costly than a fully-automatic machine.
- Like a manual machine, there is still a learning and experimentation process.
- Ongoing maintenance.
Clear and simple controls
Digital displays are generally easier to understand than indicator lights, especially when programming the machine.
This lets you adjust the grind to suit the bean and machine (automatic machines have built-in grinders).
Variable coffee strength
This means you can adjust the intensity of the coffee to your taste.
A big espresso machine is fine if you have plenty of bench space in your kitchen, but you may want one that takes up less room.
Some machines come with a froth enhancer on the milk-frothing wand. This is supposed to make frothing easier, but it often produces large bubbles rather than the fine foam that's suitable for lattes and cappuccinos.
If the enhancer is removable you may find it easier to produce fine, velvety foam.
This helps keep your cups at a warm, constant temperature, which stops the coffee from cooling down too quickly.
Many models can make two espressos at once, but they often just grind one dose of beans for this, usually about the same amount they'd make for a single cup, which leads to weaker coffee.
If you often make two cups, look for models that make them in quick succession rather than at the same time – these models grind a fresh dose for each cup, which is the best way for a good, strong cup of coffee.
The warm-up times can vary depending on the machine – a manual machine might take 1–2 minutes while a capsule might be about 20–30 seconds.
Automatic espresso machines may be Wi-Fi compatible, allowing you to initiate a brew from afar or monitor the cleaning and maintenance process using a dedicated app.
Dual boiler vs heat exchanger? Thermoblock?
On a manual/semi-automatic coffee machine, a dual boiler means you can froth milk and make coffee at the same time (from each boiler), but these machines cost extra. Coffee machines that use heat exchanger systems only have one boiler which keeps the water at the right temperature for steaming milk (which is too high for brewing coffee), but there is a metal tube inside (the heat exchanger) that fresh water flows through which warms up to the temperature required for brewing coffee.
They take up less room than a dual boiler system but you can't brew and steam at the same time. The same goes for thermoblock systems (which are usually cheaper and more energy efficient). These use a single block of metal (such as aluminium) and heat water when needed, as it passes through an embedded pipe. However, we've seen some espresso machines with dual thermoblocks that let you brew and steam simultaneously.
Other useful features include a 'water tank empty' reminder, a height-adjustable spout to accommodate larger cups, and adjustable coffee volume.
How easy is it to repair a coffee machine?
Regular cleaning and correct usage of your coffee machine, regardless of type, will help prolong its life. But you may still run into issues over time. Thankfully many issues can be repaired, saving the entire unit from being replaced. CHOICE members have told us of problems they've experienced such as a leaking water tank, faulty steam valve, broken plastic tubing, motherboard replacement or a failed pump, all of which were repaired.
How easy is it to recycle a coffee machine?
In some cases, it may not be worth the cost of replacing a fault if the unit is out of warranty, but you don't need to dump your old electrical appliance into landfill. For instance, cheap capsule machines are largely made of composite plastic material (ABS), which can be recycled – look for the recycling number '7' on the unit.
Other recyclable materials include polypropylene plastic and steel, but these aren't accepted in kerbside rubbish. Planet Ark's Recycling Near You website lists places that accept electrical appliances for recycling.
How do you recycle used coffee pods?
Although Nespresso pods (the most common) are made of aluminium, they do have a thermal coating so need to be recycled through a Nespresso shop. Alternatively you can buy a Nespresso satchel to fill with used capsules and return it to a Nespresso shop or drop-off point, or you can buy a satchel to fill with used capsules and return it via Australia Post.
Some other brands that use plastic pods can be recycled through TerraCycle. These include L'OR, Moccona, illy, Lavazza and Nescafé Dolce Gusto but collection points may be limited. Check the TerraCycle website for the latest information.
So which brand of espresso machine should you buy? We've identified the best of the bunch based on our test results as well as feedback from our members on satisfaction and reliability.
CHOICE has tested more than 170 espresso machines in our labs over the past nine years from major brands including Breville, DeLonghi, Sunbeam and more. But only five brands met our stringent eligibility criteria for Best Brand.
Best espresso machine brand for 2021: Breville
Breville (manual and semi-automatic machines) is the Best Brand espresso machine for the past 12 months. For the second year running, the Australian home appliances brand has good average test scores – we recommend nine of the 14 models we've tested recently – as well as high customer satisfaction and strong reliability results in our CHOICE member survey.
Best espresso machine brand 2021 scores
1. Breville (semi-auto and manual machines) – 77%
2. Sunbeam – 75%
3. DeLonghi (semi-auto and manual machines) – 71%
4. DeLonghi Nespresso – 70%
5. Breville Nespresso – 67%
It's important to note that the performance of specific product models may vary quite significantly, so don't assume that one brand's products are the best across the many different features, functions and price points.