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Cheap Espresso Machines Buying Guide

There are five types of espresso makers: stovetop pots of the type found in every Italian household; steam espresso makers that typically don't generate enough pressure to brew true espresso; very high-end automatic machines that grind, tamp, and brew (and sometimes clean themselves); manual machines, which are costly and challenging to use; and semi-automatic espresso makers, by far the most popular choice for the average consumer. Semi-automatic machines require you to activate the pump and turn it off, which means you control the amount of water and the brewing time.

Our picks for best cheap espresso machine are semiautomatic and led by the DeLonghi EC155 (starting at $82), a perennial favorite with espresso devotees for its speed, durability, and consistent delivery of a good shot.

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If you need to make only one cup at a time, take your espresso straight up, and are committed to pre-measured coffee capsules, the Nespresso Citiz C110 (starting at $230) is the machine for you. In the runner-up category sit the Capresso EC100 (starting at $135), which can whip out several shots in quick succession, and the Saeco Aroma 00347 (starting at $219), a versatile machine that crosses over into tea and instant soup territory but still manages to produce good espresso. We also spotted a cheap espresso maker that looks good on paper -- the programmable Cuisinart EM-200 (starting at $179) -- but a finicky steam wand and pump, slow heating, and questionable durability give users a metaphorical heartburn.

Espresso is made by forcing hot, pressurized water through tightly packed, very finely ground coffee. The result is a highly concentrated, small cup with a layer of marbleized, caramel-colored foam on top called "crema" (a mark of a well-made espresso). Pump pressure, measured in bars, affects the rate at which water is pushed through the grinds, which in turn is a key factor in determining how strong or watery the espresso is.

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There is some disagreement about the number of bars needed to brew the best espresso. One expert at Coffee Geek argues that anything above nine bars of pressure is superfluous. Other experts say they would rather the machine automatically regulate down to nine bars of pressure than struggle to reach that level, and note that a higher number of bars means a shorter wait between shots. Regardless, all the cheap espresso machines on our list of top picks feature at least 15 bars of maximum brewing pressure, although brewing typically occurs at a lower level.

Cheap espresso machines have a single boiler, so they can't steam milk and brew espresso at the same time. Some models feature dual sieves for making double shots or a programmable function that regulates the delivery of one or two shots, and most have warming trays to take the chill off little ceramic cups. A cheap espresso machine typically comes with a pressurized portafilter (the long-handled attachment that holds the coffee and through which pressurized water flows), but on some models you can switch to a non-pressurized filter, which skilled baristas prefer.

While single-serve pods with ground beans sealed inside are the new in thing, espresso tradition calls for freshly ground, high quality beans. With many cheap espresso machines -- including all but one of those we researched -- you can go either way. If you plan to brew your fix from ground beans, it's worth investing in a good burr grinder. Experts at Coffee Geek recommend taking half the money you've budgeted for an espresso machine and using it for a grinder instead. (Less costly blade grinders generate more heat and static, which can damage the flavor, and some don't crush beans evenly.) Alternatively, find the best source for a weekly supply of freshly ground beans or turn to beans in a can that have been specifically ground for use in an espresso machine; brands such as Cafe Bustelo, Illy, and Lavazzo offer high quality ground beans for what amounts to pennies a shot.

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by Elizabeth Sheer (Google+ Profile)

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