How to make espresso at home without breaking the bank

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably wondered at some point if you’re spending too much money on coffee. Spoiler: you probably are.

Upon realizing this myself a few years ago, I set upon a journey to learn to make my own coffee — the type of espresso-based drinks you tend to get at a hip coffee shop, in particular. Now I’m here to spread the love and help you get started on your own journey.

First things first: Keep in mind this guide isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide to espresso gear, nor do I intend to go deep into the specifics of perfecting your brew. There are much better resources for this.

Instead, I hope to set you off on the right foot with the gear I’ve actually used myself regularly to deliver espresso shots that can rival the typical coffee shop — for much less money in the long run.

What makes espresso different from other coffees?

This guide is specifically for espresso. Espresso differs from most other brewing methods in that the coffee is brewed under intense amounts of pressure, usually anywhere from 6-9 bars.

Long story short: this allows you to extract more caffeine and flavor compounds per gram of brewing water used. That means far more concentrated coffee than most other brewing methods, typically resulting in bolder, more complex flavors.

Because espresso is so concentrated, it also allows for ample flexibility to combine with milk, resulting in the oh-so-popular lattes, mochas, cappuccinos, and other coffee shop staples. (Fun fact: replicating the perfection of the iced mocha at one specific Brooklyn coffee shop was the very reason I set out to become an amateur barista.)

That said, for those of you who want to be as caffeinated as possible, keep in mind I’m talking about caffeine density above. The typical cup of drip coffee or cold brew will still have more caffeine than a regular serving of espresso, simply because the amount of espresso people drink (say, in a latte) in one go is usually much smaller.

Of course, once you know how to make your own espresso, you could make yourself five servings in a row, if that’s your heart’s desire. But, umm, you probably shouldn’t do that.

What do I need to get started?

There is some investment required for making good espresso at home, but this guide is meant to help keep things on the lower end of the price spectrum. By that, I mean roughly $300-$600 in total setup, which might seem like a lot compared to, say, buying a $40 french press, but it is indeed on the low end of the spectrum for espresso.

More importantly, if you’re the type of person who buys a latte several times a week, it will likely pay for itself in a matter of months.

There are three key things you need for good espresso:

  • Fresh coffee beans, ideally roasted within the past three weeks or less.
  • A good burr grinder (as opposed to a blade grinder, these are useless for espresso).
  • A good espresso machine.

I cannot stress enough the importance of having fresh beans and a good grinder. They are even more important than the specific espresso machine you use.

I’d also highly recommend a cheap small kitchen scale. As long as it’s accurate to 0.1g increments, you should be good to go. Eventually, you might figure out how to ‘eyeball’ it, but your coffee will be much more consistent and easier to modify with a scale.

What beans are the best?

I’m of the mindset that any type of coffee bean can be used for espresso, as long as it’s freshly roasted. Look for brands that explicitly print their roast dates on the packaging.

If you’re just getting started, it’s often useful to simply go to your local coffee shop and ask which type of coffee they use for espresso; they’ll usually have a few bags for sale. My experience is that most coffee sold at coffee shops will have the roast date on them as well.

There are also myriad great coffee roasters online that will ship to you directly after roasting.

As for flavor profiles and roast type: experiment! That said, I think a medium roast coffee is a good place to start. Contrary to popular belief, lighter coffee roasts typically have more caffeine than dark roasts, and a medium roast will be less finicky than a light roast.

What type of grinder should I get?

There are dozens of grinders out there at all sorts of price ranges. I’ve extensively researched just about every major product on the market over the years, but I haven’t tested most of them. So instead, I’m recommending products I’ve actually used and have had good experiences with.

A burr grinder is essential. A blade grinder will cut pieces unevenly, leading to uneven coffee extractions, if it can even grind fine enough in the first place.

There are two ways I’d approach choosing a grinder depending on whether you put more emphasis on convenience or quality. At the smaller budgets this guide is designed for, that essentially equates to whether you want to use an electric grinder or a hand grinder, respectively.

What if I want the most convenient grinder?

For maximum convenience, an electric grinder makes sense. The most commonly recommended electric grinder for beginners is the Baratza Encore (~$170). Aside from offering some of the best performance per dollar out there, the company is known for stocking replacement parts so you can keep your grinder running for years to come.

Baratza Encore Grinder

That said, and although I haven’t compared them directly, at the lower end of the price range, I’ve recently been pleasantly surprised with the $105 Oxo Conical Burr grinder.

Oxo conical burr grinder

These grinders are capable of making good coffee, and if you mostly plan to drink your espresso with milk, then having the absolute best grinds isn’t as much of a priority.

What if I want the best quality grinds?

If you do want the best possible quality for your money, then you should almost certainly be getting a hand grinder. To outdo the quality you’d get out of a good $150-$250 hand grinder, you’d almost certainly have to spend upwards of $500 on a machine. And it makes intuitive sense; the money doesn’t go into the motor and the design and shipping logistics of a larger appliance, so more of the cost of a good hand grinder goes larger into the grinding components themselves.

Flair Royal Grinder