Breville Barista Express Review

When the Breville BES870XL Barista Express was first released, there was a fair bit of excitement around it. A fully featured domestic machine that brews with enough power to pull real shots and steam latte art ready milk? AND it comes with a built-in grinder?

All of that for under $1000.

If you’re on the hunt for a mid-priced home espresso maker, this machine might be the one you’ve been looking for. But it’s not suitable for everyone. Below we take a deeper look via our Breville Barista Express review to see if it’s right for you.

Breville Barista Express Review: Is The BES870XL Any Good In 2021?

Whether you are a professional barista exploring home espresso options, or a coffee curious individual wanting to learn about espresso brewing, the Barista Express is a solid option.

It delivers loads of tweakable features and enough pressure to make it fun to use (unlike most home espresso options)— a pretty huge achievement for an espresso machine at this price point. 

Breville The Barista Express Coffee Machine, Black Sesame
$599.95
SEE NOW ON AMAZON Learn More
We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.
05/10/2021 01:41 pm GMT

PROS (+)

  • Includes everything you need to start brewing espresso
  • Capable of producing adequate pressure to brew coffee and steam milk exceptionally well
  • One of the best domestic espresso options for the money

CONS (-)

  • It is a single boiler machine, meaning you can’t brew and steam at the same time.
  • Uses smaller than commercial-sized portafilters

Product highlights: The Breville Barista Express comes with everything you need to get started brewing espresso. It features a built-in adjustable conical burr grinder with dosage control, a large 67 ounce water tank, programmable volumetric shot buttons, and both pressurized and regular 54mm portafilter baskets.  

Great for: Anyone wanting to dive headfirst into the world of espresso, eager to learn. If you already know your way around an espresso machine, this is still a good option. Advanced users can take advantage of deeper features like pre-infusion.  

Not great for: Those who don’t want a new hobby. Also, if you already have a killer grinder at home, you could spend a little less and get the Breville Infuser. Basically the same thing without the coffee grinder.

Perfect for Exploring the World of Espresso at Home

barista express by breville specs infographic

Brewing Standards

Home espresso machines are usually super frustrating. 

I’ve had multiple friends tell me excitedly that they just got a new home espresso maker. They ask me to come over and check it out. As the token caffeine geek in their lives, I am asked for a few tips to brew a tasty shot of espresso. 

Upon arriving and seeing said machine and the shots they are pulling, it’s always awkward finding a nice way of saying, “that’s about the best you’re going to get, I’m afraid”.

So what differentiates good espresso machines from bad ones?

Mainly the pressure that the device generates for pulling shots and steaming milk, and the temperature of the brew water.

Under Pressure

When it comes to an espresso shot, we use pressure to force hot water through very fine, freshly ground coffee. If the espresso machine can’t produce enough pressure, the water won’t be able to make it through the portafilter in the time that we need it to.

This will force us to grind coarser. 

A shot of espresso needs a super fine grind size. Why? Because the finer that beans are ground, the easier it is for hot water to extract all the goodness from them.

If we are forced to grind coarser due to inadequate pressure, it becomes way harder to extract everything we want for our shot. 

We also need some decent pressure to steam milk. 

It may come as no surprise that the mist that comes out of the steam wand is, in fact, steam.

Some espresso machines shoot steam out of their wands like an old school steam train. But others look more like an aromatherapy diffuser. 

We need some oomph behind our steam! It needs to spray out with enough pressure to steam milk reasonably quickly. Too slow, and we won’t get microfoam. And we want that sweet microfoam!

It’s getting hot in here…

Stuff dissolves easier in hot water. It’s like that for sugar, and it’s the same for ground coffee. If we can’t reach a high enough temperature with our brew water, we might not extract much from the coffee grounds. 

This really leaves us in a predicament— we could try to grind finer to help the extraction along. But if the device is having heat issues, then it is probably also having pressure issues too, so grinding finer isn’t an option.

How Well Does the Breville Brew?

Ok so let’s just cut to it— can the Barista Express brew well? Yes, it can. 

The Breville checks all the boxes tech-wise that allow it to brew delicious espresso. 

It does take some know-how to get the most out of it. And the same thing goes for all espresso makers, commercial or domestic. Espresso is a hobby— not a quick caffeine fix. 

With a little practice playing with a combination of particle size, dose, and shot size, you will be able to brew something delicious. I’m certain of it. This is assuming you are using some high quality, specialty grade beans, of course. Good beans in mean a good beverage out!   

So, in short, as long as you make sure to take it step by step and are willing to learn, you’ll be pulling quick and tasty shots in no time!

4 Filter Baskets

Breville includes 4 portafilter baskets with this coffee maker. These baskets are what hold the freshly ground beans while brewing. 

Each Barista Express espresso machine includes a single and a double shot filter basket of both the pressurized and normal variety. 

For the uninitiated, a normal filter basket is a metal basket that has loads of tiny holes in the bottom. This means that you need to have your grind particle size perfect in order to brew a tasty shot. 

With normal filter baskets, there is nothing to create resistance other than the grounds themselves. So if your coffee grinder is set too coarse, the shot will flow too quickly and will be watery and sour. 

Pressurized portafilter baskets, on the other hand, have fewer holes in the bottom. This creates a sort of artificial pressure, ensuring a crema heavy shot even with a sub-optimal grind. Pressurized portafilters won’t brew an as tasty shot, but they will make brewing something ok, easier. 

If you have literally never touched an espresso maker before, the pressurized baskets might be nice to use for your first few tries. They might also be cool for the times you are feeling too lazy to dial in the coffee grinder. But I think you’ll graduate from the pressurized filters pretty quickly. 

The Barista Express uses a 54mm portafilter. This is smaller than the industry standard 58mm portafilters used on commercial machines. It’s a shame Breville didn’t squeeze in full 58mm portafilters, as this would really boost it to the next level. 

Breville ship out two double baskets and two single baskets for either a single or double shot.

Single baskets are never really used in specialty coffee because of their shape that encourages uneven extraction. Some people might get use out of the singles, but for me, they pretty much stay in the box.

Thermocoil for rapid heat up

The Barista Express uses what is known as a PID. PID stands for ‘precise temperature control’. What this is, is a digital temperature control that ensures the brewing water is at the optimal temperature for espresso extraction.

If the sensor reads that the water is too hot, it will purge some of that heat through the release value, which goes into the drip tray.  

Commercial machines use boilers for water and steam. A boiler is essentially a big pressurized metal tank that holds hot water. Machines that use these traditional boilers take around 20 minutes to heat up, ready to brew.

The wait time, along with the sheer size and weight of boilers make them impractical for the average home espresso brewer. 

Rather than using a boiler, the Barista Express uses a thermocoil heating system.

Imagine a steel tube, coiled up, surrounded by an aluminum block. Cold water enters the coil from the bottom, and on its way to the group head, is heated to the perfect temperature. This system heats water on the fly and does so super quickly.

The Barista Express will have water up to temperature in around a minute.

Pre-infusion Capable

Because espresso needs to bloom too!

Most coffee lovers are familiar with blooming in relation to filter coffee. It is a way of releasing some of the C02 that is trapped inside the coffee. Letting go of some of this gas will allow for a more even brew.

What many people don’t know, is that you can (and should) bloom your espresso, too!

When it comes to espresso, we call it pre-infusion.

Basically, before the pressure kicks in, a small amount of water is released as we begin a shot. The goal here is to fully saturate the coffee in the portafilter.  

This allows the coffee puck to expand, reducing channeling risk, which may cause over/under extraction. You can manually adjust the amount of time you want to spend in the ‘bloom’ phase.

It’s a really cool feature to have, and I’m glad Breville chose to include it in the Barista Express.

Pressure gauge gives easy brewing visibility

For a long time, the standard pressure for brewing espresso has been 9 bars. Some cafes brew with lower pressures, but 9 bars has been the golden number. 

If your espresso machine can reach 9 bars, you’ll be able to brew legitimate shots. Ask any barista— they’ll tell you!

The Breville Barista Express has this handy little pressure gauge on the control panel. This gauge gives you visual feedback of the pressures your brewer is using. 

If your shot is too far outside of the ‘Espresso Range’ on the pressure gauge, the grinds are probably too coarse or too fine. The ‘Espresso Range’ indicates pressures from 8-10 bars.

Build Quality

Here we should cover two main parts of the Barista Express. The internals and the body. 

Breville has done a good job of making compromises to cut the costs of the machine without sacrificing quality. Putting high-quality parts where it matters, basically. 

The heating system is constructed of stainless steel and aluminum and is made in Italy. Both the single and double baskets and the portafilters themselves are also made of steel. 

The casing of the Barista Express is brushed stainless steel wrapped over a plastic body. It would be nice if the machine’s body weren’t mostly plastic, but this isn’t really necessary. If the body was entirely steel, not only would it be really heavy, but much more expensive. 

The only option that I could find with similar specs to the Breville, but with higher build quality in this price range was the Rancillio Silvia. But the Silvia doesn’t come with an espresso grinder, so factor in another $300+ for that.

The casing of the Barista Express is brushed stainless steel wrapped over a plastic body. It would be nice if the machine’s body weren’t mostly plastic, but this isn’t really necessary. If the body was entirely steel, not only would it be really heavy, but much more expensive. 

The only option that I could find with similar specs to the Breville, but with higher build quality in this price range was the Rancillio Silvia. But the Silvia doesn’t come with an espresso grinder, so factor in another $300+ for that.

The Grinder

The importance of a good burr grinder can not be exaggerated.

This is true with any form of coffee brewing. It is especially true in the case of espresso. An espresso grinder not only cuts the coffee for brewing but also creates the resistance needed for pressure to build up in the portafilter.

On the left side of the Breville Barista Express, we find its burr coffee grinder.

Grinding is taken care of by a stainless steel conical burr grinder, and grind size can be adjusted via a dial on the unit’s left side. You’ll find 18 grind settings on the dial.

If these settings don’t cut it, you can also adjust the way the inner burr sits in the outer burr to allow for a finer grind size. 

At the top, we have an 8-ounce bean hopper made of durable plastic. This bean hopper can be easily removed for cleaning and swapping out coffee beans. 

By placing the portafilter in the portafilter cradle, the espresso grinder will automatically engage and grind your chosen dose, either single or double.

The grind amount can be adjusted using the ‘Coffee Amount’ dial on the machine’s control panel. There are two dosage buttons here that are programmable and are based on grind time. 

Basically, you place a portafilter into the cradle and grind until you are happy. The Barista Express will remember the grind amount based on how many seconds it was grinding for.

It will assign this grind amount to your chosen button— single or double. It’s not the most accurate way of dosing, but it’s not bad and should get you close each time.        

One of the nicest things about having a built-in grinder is that you know it’ll do the job. You won’t bring it home only to release that it doesn’t grind fine enough, as might be the case with an external grinder. 

The whole workflow of the Barista Express is nice. Going from grinding to tamping and brewing works well.

Milk Frothing

The Barista Express proves that steaming milk on a domestic machine doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no commercial machine, and it will be slower if that’s what you’re used to. But it can produce quality microfoam. 

If you know what you are doing, you will be able to make some solid steamed milk and will be able to pour latte art.

Because the steaming on this machine is slower than a commercial machine, it is perfect for total newbies to practice on. It gives you more time to introduce air to the milk and more time to fix potential mistakes you might make in the process. 

You’ll be able to find the right position for your milk jug too, thanks to the steam wand’s ability to pivot. It can rotate any which way— so regardless of the jug you are using, or the eccentric angle you like to steam at, the steam wand adapts to you. Not the other way round.   

Being a single boiler machine, brewing coffee and steaming milk need to be done separately. They can’t be done at the same time. You won’t be able to engage your shot, then steam your milk while the shot is brewing.

Whether or not this is an issue is entirely up to you. For me, I would like to pull my shot and steam my milk at the same time, but it’s not the end of the world if I can’t. I don’t mind if I have to pull my shot, wait 30 seconds or so for the steamer to be ready, then steam my milk. 

This whole not being able to do both at the same time isn’t specific to the Barista Express, but more of a thing with any machine at this price point. If you want to do both at the same time, you need to be willing to spend the extra dollars for that.

Ease of Use

Semi-automatic espresso machines aren’t the easiest way to brew coffee. They take a little practice and some trial and error at first.

When you first get the Barista Express, you can start with the pressurized portafilter baskets. It’ll make things much easier and less overwhelming. Once you know your way around the machine, start playing with the regular baskets. 

Taking small baby steps makes this semi-automatic machine far less intimidating. Just have fun with it, and the good coffee will come. 

Breville has made tweaking the brewing parameters super easy on this coffee machine. Adjusting the grind amount and size is simple, as is changing the espresso extraction volume.

Semi-automatic machines are certainly more complicated than automatic ones. But because they are hands-on, being semi-automatic rather than fully automatic, the results possible are better than even the best automatic espresso machine.

Cleaning

As opposed to popular belief, cleaning an espresso coffee maker isn’t that complicated. I swear I’m not just saying that because I spend most afternoons cleaning my 3-group Synesso machine at work.

Sure, it takes a little time— but that time is well spent.  

So what goes into cleaning the Breville Barista Express? 

The inside of the Barista Express, the group head, is cleaned using a descaling solution. Breville kindly includes a little cleaning kit so you’ll be all set to backflush the machine.

The face of the machine houses a ‘clean me’ light. When the ‘clean me’ light illuminates, it’s time for a cleaning.  

The water tank is housed at the back of the machine and easily slides out. Remove the included charcoal water filter, and you can soak the water tank with a descaling solution to get rid of any calcium buildup.

Cleaning the grinder is also easy. Remove the bean hopper with one twist to reveal the stainless steel conical burrs. Pull the inner burr out, and you can clean both easily. Burr coffee grinders are best cleaned often so that oils don’t build up on the bean hopper and the burrs.

You’ll know when the drip tray is ready to be emptied and cleaned too, with this charming little floating indicator. As the drip tray fills up, the indicator floats and becomes visible. I don’t know why, but this is very cute to me.

The Breville BES870XL Barista Express Isn’t For You If…

You’re After An Effortless Experience

As I mentioned earlier, to get really good shots of espresso, you need to learn how. 

It’s not super complicated, but there is a learning curve. If you’re not interested in learning how to dial in your espresso, best go with an automatic espresso machine.  

If you’ve got a slick burr grinder like the Wilfa Uniform or Niche Zero sitting on your bench, this is probably not the machine for you. The grinder on the Breville would probably just go to waste. In this case, you could go with the Breville Infuser, which is the exact same espresso coffee maker minus the grinder.

You’re Not The Type To Invest Heavily

The Barista Express isn’t a cheap machine. While it is relatively inexpensive when we compare it to other semi-automatic machines on the market, let’s be real, it is still a big-ticket item.

 But that’s the thing with brewing espresso at home— it comes with a hefty initial investment. Though this investment will eventually pay off, not needing to go to the coffee shop for a daily shot of espresso. 

If you’re on a tight budget, brewing espresso at home should probably be avoided altogether if you’re after quality. 

Buying a lesser machine than the Barista Express will most likely result in disappointment, if you’re after coffee shop quality in my opinion.

The Final Verdict

My younger brother received the Breville Barista Express espresso machine as a Christmas gift from his wife last year. No BS, I swear.

Breville The Barista Express Coffee Machine, Black Sesame
$599.95
SEE NOW ON AMAZON Learn More
We earn a commission if you click this link and make a purchase at no additional cost to you.
05/10/2021 01:41 pm GMT

In the couple of months since, he went from having zero experience to pulling shots and pouring tulips in his flat whites.

Espresso isn’t just for the coffee shop, nor is it just for professionals. If you’re keen to get your hands dirty, this semi-automatic machine by Breville will be an excellent choice for brewing quality espresso at home.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Barista express review and see in the next one!

Beau

beau Badinski

Specialty Coffee Expert (Ex-Barista & Coffee Trainer)

Beau is a writer and coffee professional with over 10 years of specialty coffee experience. From starting as a barista to becoming a coffee trainer across the last decade. If he’s not thinking about or brewing coffee, he’s probably gone skateboarding!