Two or three years ago, I was asking this question myself. I wanted to make my own Espresso at home, and I wanted to do it as well as possible on the budget I had available at that time, which was roughly zero ;-), and I started asking people how much I would need to spend on an Espresso Machine and grinder setup, what was the minimum I needed to spend?
It seems like a simple question, but actually, I’ve realised from experience, that it’s not simple – and that actually, no one can answer this question for you without knowing quite a lot about you. If you ask someone this question, the answer you’ll get will usually relate to them, not you, and how much they might need to spend on an Espresso set up for them, doesn’t have any relation to how much you might need to spend. Don’t worry if I’m confusing you, I confuse myself sometimes, but I’ll explain shortly ;-).
So, I started reaching out to the professionals, the really experienced people on the forums, coffee roasters, and so on – and the general consensus was that I needed to be spending about a thousand or upwards in total on a new setup including Espresso machine and grinder, or that I might get into it a few hundred cheaper for used.
I didn’t like this answer, because I didn’t have a grand to spare – I didn’t have a few hundred to spare – whatever the cost was I’d have to find the money from somewhere, and if it was several hundred, it would have to wait quite a while, and at the time I wanted to do it now.
This advice on how much you need to spend on an Espresso machine & grinder setup isn’t just the opinion of one person, it’s generally the advice you’ll get if you look around on most of the forums, and speak to the most really experienced professionals in the coffee industry.
And it makes perfect sense. But it’s wrong – in my humble opinion because as I said earlier, it will relate to the person you’re asking, and not to you.
There are three main elements I’ll come to in a minute, which I believe are the important areas when it comes to the ability for anyone to make great Espresso at home, and the first two change with time and experience – and I believe that how much you can get away with spending in order to get started at home, depends on where you’re at with these two elements.
When you’re asking people who’re much more advanced, the advice you’ll get will relate to where they’re at. So when you ask an experienced Barista, roaster, or one of the experienced people on the forums, they’re going to be suggesting the prosumer level equipment, which is pricey.
To go any lower value than this would lead to frustration from someone like this, due to how advanced they are with the first two elements below, but this doesn’t mean this will be the case with you where you’re at right now with your home barista skills.
The two crucial factors, and the three elements to gradually improve upon.
The first thing I’ve figured out about making Espresso (and brewing coffee via all other brew methods, come to think of it) at home, there are two crucial factors. As long as these two crucial things are covered, everything else can be improved over time.
These two crucial factors are:
The coffee beans
Grinding your own
If you’re buying great coffee beans (see my best place to buy coffee post), and you’re grinding your own coffee – in my opinion, in terms of starting out pulling espresso at home – this is all that matters, to begin with, and you can then work on gradually improving upon these three main elements:
Skills & Abilities
Yes, you can start off spending several hundred, or thousands of pounds worth of equipment, if you have the budget. But actually, as I’ll explain shortly, I don’t believe this increased investment will actually show in the cup until the other two factors have improved sufficiently.
So, basically, I think that starting off with a tiny budget is fine if you’re a complete novice, as I was when I started. You may well outgrow this Espresso kit in the not too distant future when you improve in these areas to the point that you’re limited by the setup, but I don’t think this is a bad approach, at all.
So first of all to explain the two crucial factors:
The coffee beans.
This really matters, and I think it matters more than just about any other element.
Many people will instinctively just go to the supermarket (as I did when I first started brewing fresh coffee at home) and pick up whatever beans are on offer, and if you’re doing this, you’re probably not going to experience the best coffee, because you’re not working with the best coffee in the first place.
The majority (not all, to be fair, there are some decent small batch roasters who have their beans in some supermarkets now, but still, I’d prefer to buy from a coffee shop or direct from the roaster) of the coffee you’ll pick up in the aisles of your favourite supermarket, is commodity coffee as opposed to speciality coffee, and it’s different.
Commodity coffee is bought up in huge volumes, based on price rather than on grade & roasted in huge volumes, and usually, by the time you get your coffee beans, quite some time has passed since they were roasted. Weeks or months, or longer, not days.
Speciality coffee is really a different kettle of fish from commodity coffee, it’s far more artisan, relationship driven – less commercial, than commodity coffee.
Speciality coffee is bought in smaller volume, based on quality – the better grading it gets, the more it costs, basically. It’s often bought by the roaster directly from the farmer or the farming cooperative, or via a specialist coffee agent.
This means the roaster knows literally everything there is to know about the coffee they’re about to roast, including the varietal(s), the processing method used, the exact altitude the coffee is grown at, and in some cases (especially when it comes to roasters like has been) the roaster knows the full story of the farmer, how they ended up growing that particular coffee, and may have developed a strong direct friendship with them over years of working together.
It’s roasted in much, much smaller batches, with a lot of care and attention to ensure the very best of the taste of this particular coffee bean is experienced in the cup.
When you’re buying coffee from one of the several hundred UK small batch coffee roasters or via one of the several popular coffee subscription services, you’re buying very freshly roasted (usually within days of dispatch), very high-quality coffee beans, along with all of the information about this coffee, often telling you of the prominent taste notes to expect, and info such as altitude, varietal, and processing method.
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The reason this info (which you wouldn’t usually get with commodity coffee) is important, is because if you’re trying lots of different coffees (which I really think you should, as there’s such a vast amount of different coffee available, from different origins, different varietals, different processes, different roast profiles, different blends…) you’ll taste some which you’re not keen on, and you’ll taste some which you absolutely love.
Over time you’ll begin to get an idea of which varietals you prefer, which processing methods you prefer, which origins you prefer over others, and so on. Similar to wine, for instance, you might generally prefer Shiraz over Merlot, or you might enjoy blends of Shiraz and Cabernet over either of the two on their own – you can develop this same kind of knowledge when it comes to coffee.
So as far as I’m concerned, number one is the coffee, you need to be getting great coffee beans – freshly roasted speciality coffee beans from small-batch roasters.
Grinding your own coffee.
The next important thing, in my humble opinion, is that you grind your own beans, and this is especially important when it comes to Espresso.
The two reasons you need to be grinding your own is freshness, and dialing in.
You can’t get as fresh as just after grinding. As soon as you’ve ground coffee beans, air is able to get to so much more of the coffee, and it starts to go stale. Not stale as in “off” but stale as in not quite the same as it would have been if you’d brewed it freshly ground.
I also think that grinding is part of the whole experience of brewing coffee, and if you’re outsourcing the grind, you’re missing a really enjoyable part of the process.
When it comes to dialing in, this means achieving the right grind size for the beans you’re using and the brew method you’re using.
This is important with all brew methods, but it’s most important with Espresso. This is because you have no idea of the exact grind size required with a particular coffee bean and a particular Espresso machine paired with a particular grinder until you try it, and slight differences in grind can result in big differences in the cup.
Best Budget Electric Burr Grinder ReviewBest Manual Coffee Grinder Review
Watch my review on the Best Budget Coffee Grinders under £200:
Dialing in consists of starting off generally in the grind range that you think should about work, and then going for a finer grind if the shot flows too quickly, or for a more coarse grind if the shot flows too slowly until you get it bang on.
You can’t possibly do this with pre-ground coffee for Espresso, so when you’re buying pre-ground for Espresso, you’re more than likely going to end up with over extracted or under extracted Espresso.
The same will probably be true with pre-ground coffee for any brew method, but the difference is harder to notice. With Espresso it’s very noticeable in the cup when you have over extracted or under-extracted Espresso, it doesn’t taste great.
So you really do need to grind your own coffee.
Now to explain what I believe are the three important elements to improve over time:
Skills & Abilities.
It’s the same with anything, regardless of the quality of the equipment, the results are limited to the skills and experience of the user.
Lewis Hamilton does a great job in millions upon millions of pounds worth of F1 car, but that doesn’t mean if I go out and buy a car like that, that I’ll end up on the podium ;-). It’s an extreme example, but you get the point I’m sure – gear alone doesn’t ensure results.
At the level I was at when I started contemplating setting up for Espresso at home (complete and utter novice) the kind of kit that people were suggesting is the bare minimum, would have been wasted on me, at least to begin with.
The skills that I had, or lack of, would have meant that if I’d gone for the cheapest electric burr grinder I could possibly find (which, by the way, is the Krups Expert) or started out with a manual coffee grinder, along with something like the Amazon Basics Espresso machine which is just about the cheapest Espresso machine you can get your hands on, I think this would have actually been fine for me at that point.
I don’t think it would have lasted long, as I improved quite quickly, but it would have been a start, and that’s all I was looking for.
I think this is something that is overlooked by most people when it comes to coffee.
How sensitive and well developed your palate is, will make a big difference in terms of how well you are able to appreciate the difference in the cup as a result of the improvement of your skills and the capabilities of your equipment.
The Palate is a really individual thing, and it’s something that improves over time in terms of how well trained our taste buds are for that particular type of food or drink.
Even the most experienced wine tasters, for example, start out at some point having to acquire a taste for wine in the first place and then develop their palate over time to allow them to detect the full range of taste notes from each wine they’re tasting. People aren’t born an expert in any kind of taste, of course, it’s a case of training our palate over time.
So your ability to experience and fully appreciate the improvement in the coffee you’re making as you increase your skills and abilities, and as you improve your setup, will be partly determined by your palate, but thankfully this is something that will also improve over time.
How well developed your coffee palate is right now will depend on your experience in tasting coffee. As a bit of an extreme example, someone who has been drinking mainly instant coffee all their life with about one-third milk and two heaped teaspoons of sugar is unlikely to have as refined and sensitive a coffee palate as a Barista who has been developing his palate by tasting lots of different speciality coffees for years, including hundreds of cupping sessions.
If you’ve only recently started to realise that there’s a difference between instant coffee and freshly brewed coffee, and you’ve only recently started to try tasting coffee without anything else in it (no sugar, no milk) so you can taste the actual coffee without any distractions – then your palate will probably have a way to go (as mine did when I was in this position not all that long ago) until you can start detecting the subtle differences in the cup that may come from upgrading your Espresso machine and/or grinder.
For example, if I put two Espresso setups side by side two or three years back, the cheapest setup I could possibly get, and a prosumer setup, and made a shot of espresso using the same coffee, on each setup – and then blind tasted the two.
I don’t know, as I didn’t do this, but I would hazard a guess that I wouldn’t have had a good enough palate at that time to distinguish the benefit in the cup, for instance from the more even particle distribution that would probably come from using a higher quality grinder.
Put the experienced Barista with a developed palate in the same scenario, though, and I’m sure this person would be able to detect the difference.
I remember when I first started trying various different speciality coffees, it began with my pact coffee subscription, and I used to make the coffee, drink it and read the info card that came with it, along with Will (Pact’s head of coffee) descriptions about the taste, and often I would be slightly puzzled at some of the descriptions.
“Grapefruit, where? Hazelnut, where? Leather… WHAT? I’m tasting coffee, it’s nice, but it tastes like coffee” is the kind of thing I’d be thinking to myself at times when reading these cards.
But over time, I started to detect things. First of all, it was mainly the most obvious things I was noticing, for instance, I noticed that the Ethiopian coffees I was tasting had a really distinctive taste vs the Brazilian coffees, and I began to start to be able to detect differences in origin.
Over two or three years, my palate has really improved, to the point that I can detect some of the more obscure taste notes in coffee, and I can taste the difference (quite distinctly in some cases) between one processing method over another. I don’t consider myself an expert by any stretch, and I’m still developing, but I’ve no doubt that my palate is way more developed now than it was when I was initially looking to invest in my first Espresso machine and grinder setup.
So – How much do you need to spend on an Espresso machine and Grinder setup?
The answer to the question I was asking at the beginning of my quest for home Espresso, I believe, is – it depends on where you’re at when it comes to your current skills and abilities, and how developed your coffee palate is right now – but basically, start off wherever you can and grow from there.
£100 or under? Sure, why not? If you’re a complete Espresso novice, then I think literally anything which gets you pulling shots at home will be fine to start.
Yes, you will probably outgrow such a setup fairly soon, but you can cross that bridge when you come to it. If the option is to either not have an Espresso set up at home at all or to start off with a budget set up and improve as and when you can, I know which one I’d choose.
I don’t know about you, but I started out driving with a Lada Riva… I would hate to drive that now, but it was a start, and I couldn’t really drive it anyway at first – driving lessons teach you to pass the test, and then you learn to drive… but I digress.
When it comes to the grinder – make sure it’s a burr grinder, not a blade grinder (blades don’t grind, they slice, the particle distribution isn’t likely to be good), and check the reviews, especially taking note of whether others are saying they’re getting good results for Espresso.
For instance, the Krups Expert grinder I mentioned earlier, is one of the cheapest electric grinders I’ve ever seen, it is a burr grinder, and if you read the Amazon reviews there are plenty of users saying they’re happy with this grinder for Espresso.
It’s a similar case with the De’Longhi KG79, it’s under £50, it’s a Burr grinder, it has not far off a thousand Amazon reviews, with a total score of 4/5, and there are some reviews stating that it doesn’t go fine enough for Espresso, but then there are answered questions and reviews which point to a simple modification that can be made to allow finer grinding for Espresso, so it’s just a case of doing a little bit of research.
Do I think a grinder at this price point is going to be as good as my beloved Sage smart grinder pro? No, I doubt it, but that’s a couple of hundred quid. Do I think you’d want to upgrade fairly soon if you’re starting out with a sub £50 grinder – yes, quite possibly, depending on how quickly your skills, abilities and palate out-grow your equipment, but again, we’re just talking about getting started with the money you can currently afford to spend.
At a bit higher level there are grinders like the Baratza Encore & the Sage Dose Control Pro – both around £150 (sometimes on offer on Amazon), my choice between these two would be the Sage, but I’m biased as I’ve had the Smart grinder pro for ages, and I love it. The Dose control pro is basically the same grinder as the smart grinder pro, but without the LED display and controls.
And you can keep on going higher and higher in value to your heart’s content. I’ll be upgrading from the smart grinder pro at some point, it’s been a fantastic grinder for me, for the money, I’ve ground hundreds of bags of coffee with it, and I can’t fault it – but as I’m starting to look at going to the next level with my Espresso setup, I’ll be looking at more commercial level grinders, probably the Eureka Mignon.
I’d like something like the Mazzer mini doserless, but at about £700 it’s a bit steep for me. These are proper commercial level grinders, you can pick them up used or reconditioned on eBay though, so I do keep my eye out for them.
The reason these tend to come up on eBay is that they’ve been so popular for use in cafe’s, and when cafe businesses have closed, the machinery often ends up on eBay and can end up selling for a bargain. They may need some maintenance though if they’ve been put through their paces for a few years in a commercial setting, but these kinds of grinders are built to last.
When it comes to the espresso machine, see my best cheap espresso machines post – my personal favourite (because it was my first Espresso machine and I used it for a good while) is the Gaggia Classic.
For the money, I think you’ll struggle to get much better, especially if you go used (as I did, I paid a hundred quid for a used one in great condition on eBay) – and I modded it (took 5-10 mins) with a pro steam wand for £15 so I could properly steam milk for pouring latte art. For more info see my Gaggia classic review.
Generally speaking, the Rancilio Silvia is generally regarded as the entry-level prosumer espresso machine (prosumer meaning commercial level machinery for home use), which are about £400-£450 without PID (temperature regulator), and the PID kit is around £100-150 depending on which one you go for. From what I’ve seen, the Silvia without PID is a bit tricky, but with the PID it seems like a great option if you have the budget.
Slightly more pricey is the Nuova Simonelli Oscar II – which I have had my eye on for ages! Really like the look of this Espresso machine.
It’s £650, so not “cheap” but if you spend some time looking at the options when it comes to prosumer Espresso machines, you’ll see that this does seem to be very good value from looking at the specs of the machine, and it’s been around a long time and comes from a very well respected Espresso machine manufacturer.
My current Espresso machine isn’t a semi-auto, it’s a manual piston Espresso machine – the La Pavoni Euripiccola, I love it! It’s a traditional lever machine, so it’s not for everyone, and I do plan on getting a semi-auto machine too.
For more ideas when it comes to prosumer Espresso machines, see my best prosumer espresso machines post.
Conclusion – just get started.
To put all the above into a nutshell – I think the answer when it comes to getting into home Espresso on a budget, is to just get started where you can, at the budget you can afford now, and work on gradually improving your home Barista skills and abilities and developing your coffee palate. Your first setup might last you long, but as long as it gets you started, that’s all that matters, in my opinion.
Just make sure you get a burr grinder, do some research on the Espresso machine, and get something that you can afford and seems to be well reviewed, and most importantly, make sure you’re buying great quality, freshly roasted coffee beans.
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