So you wanna be your own in-house barista. I get it. Little by little, we’ve evolved from classic drip-machine folks to pour-over coffee fanatics, but when Breville introduced its new Barista Express Impress, we got onboard — quite enthusiastically. Is it the best assisted manual espresso machine out there? For its price point and manual operation option for purists, along with a bunch of other sweet features I’ll get into shortly, there are plenty of arguments that all point to YES.
The best (assisted) manual espresso machine: looks
Yeah, yeah — I hear you: we shouldn’t judge a book by its blah blah blah. But when it comes to a countertop appliance that’s going to be taking up prime real estate in one of the most-trafficked rooms of your home, you want it to look good. And the Breville Barista Express Impress does, well, impress in the looks department.
She’s a thing of stainless steel beauty that fits perfectly under our floating shelves and would blend in with any decor style — from modern farmhouse to mid-century modern. It’s not tiny (at 33cm x 38cm x 41cm) by any means, but it looks like the designers have made it as efficiently sized as possible, with the water reservoir at the back and the bean hopper on top increasing the overall height by only a couple of inches. The steamer arm rotates, which means it tucks into the machine nicely when not in use, keeping its overall look streamlined.
If you have other stainless steel Breville products in your kitchen, you’ll be glad to read that the look and feel is consistent with the Barista Express Impress and you can achieve total cohesion by bringing this baby home.
The best (assisted) manual espresso machine: functionality
I gifted this thing of beauty to Big B for Christmas. He’s gone well beyond hinting — for many years — that having an espresso machine at home was on his wish list. But after downsizing from a drip machine to pour-over, I have to admit that it took me a long time to come around to the idea of adding an appliance to my kitchen countertop again. But I finally relented and here we are.
Let’s talk about the initial set-up, which I observed from a distance but left entirely in Big B’s hands. He scanned a QR set-up code on the box and it was as if Siri herself walked him through the minutia in baby steps. I swear, it basically did everything for him but unbox the thing.
I’d suggest grabbing a small bag of cheap coffee beans for the set-up process; because of the machine-learning aspect of the Barista Express Impress, there was some trial and error between man and machine to get his preferred taste and strength just right.
All said and done, he went from box to bean to perfect cup in about two hours. Now, it may sound bonkers that an espresso machine takes two hours to set up, but she’s complex with a lot happening under the hood. My guess is that if you decide to keep a lot of the functionality on manual mode, this lengthy, in-depth set-up is avoided.
What we were after, however, was the feeling of being a barista with a whole lot of machine hand-holding. A little grind here, a little tamp there and the biggest decision of all: is it a single- or double-shot kind of day?
Once our Breville espresso machine knew what custom settings to remember, everything has been easy street ever since. It was just that initial set-up process that was time-consuming. (Easy as all get-out thanks to the step-by-step guided instructions, but you definitely need to set aside a good chunk of time.)
You’re looking at a bean hopper that holds 250 grams’ worth of coffee beans and a two-litre water tank. The Barista Express Impress is self-grinding and dispenses water intuitively. The only thing you’re responsible for is making sure it doesn’t run out of beans or water — and refilling both is really straightforward.
This is one smart machine, and it learns on the job. Every time you hit the “Dose” button to grind beans to make a puck, it’s measuring and learning. It automatically calculates and adjusts every dose based on the last dose. This “Auto Dose Correct” ensures that you get consistent, perfect espresso pucks almost every time.
Yes, almost. Every once in a while, you’ll find that the machine needs to adjust its settings. I’d say this happens about once every 20 cups or so and it’s not a big deal; it’s just the espresso machine doing some extra thinking and making tweaks so it gets back to perfect puck creation. It’s such an easy fix that it might take an extra six seconds out of your day in the end, usually involving an extra press of the Dose button, followed by some extra grinding, and an extra push on the tamp. That’s it.
Conical burr grinder
There are a total of 25 grind settings on this Breville espresso machine — more than we will probably ever bother to try. I don’t know how many my husband went through on Christmas morning during his set-up bonanza, but once we found the result we liked best, we’ve just left it alone.
It is, I’m sure, an incredibly precise fine-tuning within these 25 settings, much like each individual’s incredibly precise preferences. So I feel entirely confident telling you that there’s going to be a grind that’s just right for you.
Here’s why it matters: because there are so many varieties of coffee beans out there, each with its own unique characteristics and flavour profiles, grind size can have a significant impact on extraction speed — and that ultimately affects the taste of your espresso shot. With the 25 settings available on this machine, you can dial in on the perfect grind size for your coffee beans of choice to get perfect-for-you results.
A Thermocoil heating system uses water from the machine’s built-in reservoir and heats it on-demand rather than boiling all of the water at once. This is obviously more energy efficient, but its precision also produces better-tasting coffee — and that’s really the whole point, isn’t it?!
Microfoam steam wand
I love this thing. As I’m building the most gorgeous oat milk foam using the integrated steam wand, this is when I really feel my inner barista. I have yet to master a pretty pour; there are no designs atop my homemade lattes, I’m afraid. (Trust me, I’ve tried — it’s harder than you think.)
Beside the steam wand, there’s a little hole that dispenses hot water, too, which means making Americanos or even just steeping tea without filling up my stovetop kettle is a breeze.
I did learn the hard way, though, that you can’t make espresso and steam at the same time. This Breville espresso machine uses the same internal water source for both functions, so you’ll have to pull up your big girl pants (or boy pants; whatever) and be patient. That, or you can fork over an extra thousand dollars or more for the Breville machine that can do both at the same time.
I love a countertop appliance, but so many of them are tough to keep clean. I have to say, though, that the Barista Express Impress has been a dream so far! The stainless steel wipes clean every time without a hint of coffee stains, and the excess water drawer has a little red sign that literally pops up when it needs to be emptied, so we’ve never had it overflow and make a mess.
Although we’ve been using this machine daily since December 25, we haven’t yet needed to descale it but we have Breville’s cleaning tabs on-hand when the time comes. After you’ve finished what comes in the box, they’re around $20 for eight tabs, which isn’t too bad if we only need to descale every two or three months.
The best (assisted) manual espresso machine: what comes with it?
There are a number of accessories included with the Breville Barista Express Impress. At times, I’ve also seen “bonus packs” promoted at Breville.ca for those purchasing espresso machines, with extra accessories like glassware and airtight bean storage.
But even without a bonus pack, there’s a lot in the box:
- 54 mm stainless steel portafilter
- 480 ml stainless steel milk jug
- 1 & 2 cup single- and dual-wall filter baskets
- Water filter holder with filter
- The Razor™ precision trimming tool
- Cleaning tablets
- Allen key
- Steam wand cleaning tool
- Cleaning disc
- Cleaning brush
- Descaling powder
The best (assisted) manual espresso machine: taste
So, we’ve determined that Breville’s Barista Express Impress espresso machine — an assisted manual espresso machine — looks great, functions beautifully and comes with a lot of cool stuff.
But — you ask — what does the coffee taste like? Well, the short answer is easy: damn fine.
The longer answer goes a little something like this… with all of the options we now have at home to craft the perfect cup of whatever we’re in the mood for — a double-shot of espresso with a beautiful crema, an on-the-go cortado or a silky oat milk latte with just the right amount of foam — we rarely go to Starbucks anymore. So rarely, in fact, that the baristas at our local SBUX asked my husband where the heck we’ve been of late when he popped in to grab us all breakfast and bevvies for a road trip the other day.
And there’s more. While we used to be the double-double types, as our palates have become more in tune with java preferences and we’ve refined the way we drink it over the years, we switched from two or more teaspoons of sugar per cup to about a teaspoon of xylitol to just a drizzle of maple syrup within the last few years. It’s been a long road, but we have consciously reduced our sugar consumption significantly over time — with coffee being the biggest daily conduit. It’s not an exaggeration to tell you, dear reader, that the coffee we now make with our new assisted manual espresso machine is so freaking delicious that we don’t even add maple syrup anymore.
Hand to heart, it’s really that good.
The best (assisted) manual espresso machine: price
The way I justify any splurge-y purchase — and this is one, let’s be clear — is by calculating cost per use. That is, over time, what does a product (or shoes or clothing item, you get the idea) cost every time you expect to use it?
Here’s the math I did on this assisted manual espresso machine:
- The Breville Barista Express Impress costs $1,299 (and includes free delivery). Factoring in HST because I’m in Ontario, that comes to $1,467.87
- My husband and I were making our own coffee on weekends, but buying Starbucks out of convenience during the work week; most days, we just got grande dark-roast coffee, but once a week we would usually get something fancier, like a flat white or mocha. At $2.10 for a grande brewed java (before tax) and more than $5 for a mocha with oat milk, SBUX alone was costing us an average of $30 per week
- Multiply $30 times 52 weeks and that’s $1,560 — more than the Barista Express Impress
- Therefore, with our coffee habits, we would pay for the espresso machine in about a year
Yes, you also have to factor in the cost of beans and water over time, but I think it’s pretty clear that if you’re drinking coffee like we do (and one drink a day is pretty low by most coffee-lover standards, I think!), getting a machine like this is certainly an investment that will save you money in the long run.
And then there’s the time we save — no more daily detours or special car trips. We brew what we love from the comfort of our kitchen. All in all, the math is in your favour if you caffeinate every day and want something more elevated than a regular drip coffee.
At the end of the day, the Barista Express Impress has been a stellar addition to our home and my husband will tell you it’s the best gift I’ve ever given him during our 20 years together. Is it the best assisted manual espresso machine? For us, that’d be a big, resounding Y-E-S.
DISCLAIMER: Breville Canada compensated me for this content. All opinions are, however, my own based on our real experience with this product.
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