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

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  • For an all-in-one espresso machine package with a burr grinder and frother, it's hard to beat the Breville Barista Express. 
  • Breville has newer and more expensive machines, but this one is still our favorite, and at around $700, it's a solid value.
  • Sturdy, sleek, and powerful, the Barista Express holds your hand while helping you pull a shot of espresso like a pro. 
  • If you're looking for more options, check out our guide to the best espresso machines.
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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 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 relatively compact for an espresso machine. 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 — should fit on your countertop and hopefully, under cabinets, though be sure to take the measurements yourself.

Setting the grind size

Adjusting the grind size is easy. For a thick, rich, almost sludgy shot, go for a fine grind. This is an important step and it could take a while for you to get it to your liking. That said, this isn't the most sophisticated grinder. Dedicated home baristas will want grinders with 50 or 60 settings, whereas this one has 18. Still, it's not bad.

My advice is that I wouldn't go much coarser than "4" or "5" — you're getting into drip coffee territory and you'll start to get a more watery shot, which isn't why you bought an espresso machine. 

Adjusting the grind amount

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

Tamping requires a good tamper. Thankfully, the Barista Express comes with a handy and sufficiently weighty one, and it can slide into its storage space via 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. A little shoulder weight is all you need and the most important thing is getting your grounds evenly distributed, which is where the trimming Razor tool comes in handy. 

If you're looking to upgrade your tamper, check out our guide.

Tidying your tamped shot

Using this little brush to clean off excess grinds 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.

 

Monitoring the pressure gauge

A gauge, apart from offering a nostalgia-inducing aesthetic, is generally pretty helpful. You want to try to hit about nine bars and stay there, and while this machine might not exactly achieve that (a machine that maintains perfect pressure is going to cost a lot more), the gauge is a good guideline, and something which we wish was included on the newer Barista Pro.

Pulling the perfect shot

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

And what a wicked elixir this thing breweth.

Operating the milk frother

Frothing is easy. Just make sure the machine is primed and the "Hot water/Steam" light is on in front, then turn the dial on the right side of the machine to steam. 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 with milk, and switch it on. The best advice for steamed milk I've ever heard from Breville was to set the steam wand in the middle of the pitcher and then tilt it so that you're set one-fourth of the diameter away from the wall, then just hold it still until it's almost too hot to touch.

For frothed milk, for a cappuccino, you'll want to keep it moving until you have airy, fine bubbles throughout.

Special features

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, but you'll often forget to use them if you're like me.

Another simple but gracious touch is that there's a little numbered wheel atop the filter that you can set to the month so you know when it's time to change.

Problems to consider

I have but one bone to pick with the Barista Express.

Adjusting the grind amount is probably the trickiest thing with this machine. 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?

It would be 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. And at around the $700 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 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 $200 for a decent one.

If you really prefer a hands-on experience, check out the La Pavoni Europiccola. It's a bit pricier and far more finicky, and getting a good shot is going to involve a heavy learning curve.

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 manual but pulls the best shot of espresso I've ever made. 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.

And, if you want something close to espresso but are on a budget, a stovetop maker is a timeless classic. Bialetti is the household name for stovetop makers, 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 one of our favorites, which you can read all about in our guide to the best stovetop espresso makers.

The bottom line

If what you want is a quick but true espresso from an all-in-one machine that doesn't eat up too much counter space, you'll want the Breville Barista Express. The price might be daunting, but espresso machines are an investment and this one is actually at the bottom end of the price range for a quality machine.

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 or two. You'll also find that by the end of that year (or two), you'll probably be dialing far better drinks to your liking than any barista could.

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