Today, we’ll be putting head-to-head possibly the two most popular and widely suggested entry-level espresso machines on the market. The Breville Barista Express, and the Gaggia Classic Pro are both strongly recommended and defended by their respective fan bases, and for good reason!
To make sure that we’re truly comparing these two machines, and not grinder quality, I’ll be pairing the Gaggia Classic Pro with the Breville Smart Grinder Pro. The grind quality of this standalone grinder is almost identical to that of the built-in Breville grinders, and when paired with the Gaggia, brings both systems up to around the same price, at MSRP. However, I’ll leave all of these products linked below so that you can compare your current local pricing
Starting off with build quality, these two machines both use real metal in their construction, but the Gaggia has an overall sturdier feel. Using a single metal piece to make up the shell and sub-frame, there is noticeably less creaking and when doing things like locking in the portafilter. However, there are three areas where the Gaggia actually feels cheaper than the Breville and those are the steam knob, the portafilter handle, and the drip tray… which is unfortunate because these are areas you interact with often.
Moving on to the range of features, the Breville has far more “bells and whistles” to talk about. It has a dedicated hot water spout for things like Americanos or Tea, it has an analog pressure gauge, it has programmable single and double shot buttons, a hidden tools bin behind the drip tray, it will tell you when it’s time to clean it, and of course it has a good quality burr grinder built right into the top.
The Gaggia does not have ANY of those features, but the one’s it does have are refreshingly performance oriented. It has a full-sized 58mm portafilter vs the 54mm found on the Breville. A variable flow steam knob vs an on / off switch. A two hole steam tip vs a single hole steam tip, and a water reservoir that can not only be filled from the top like on the Breville, but also from the front which is very handy if you have low-hanging cabinets.
Both machines also have a cup warming wrack on top, but the cups get significantly warmer on the Gaggia thanks to it using a boiler to heat the water as opposed to the thermocoil heating system found on the Breville.
Now that we’ve discussed the build quality and features, let’s move on to the espresso performance. Both of these machines ship with single wall, and double wall filter baskets. If you want to learn more about the differences, I’ll leave a video linked up here, but for the sake of this review we’ll be focusing only on the true single wall performance.
Even with the same grinder, the Gaggia Classic Pro gives you the opportunity to make better espresso than on the Barista Express thanks to its commercial sized 58mm portafilter. The difference in flavour isn’t earth shattering, but it is certainly there. The disadvantage of a 58mm portafilter is that will be inherently more prone to channeling, meaning that you need to pay more attention to puck prep and tamping consistency.
In terms of espresso workflow, the Gaggia Classic Pro is a completely manual experience. The shot starts when you flip the switch, and doesn’t stop until you switch it off, meaning that you’ll need to pay attention in order to get the right shot time and volume. On the Barista Express, you can also run manually, or, pre-program the single and double shot buttons to run for a certain amount of time. Meaning that once running, you can walk away from the machine and not risk over extracting your shot.
The final thing to note about espresso extraction is the difference in spout clearance between these machines. The Breville has 10.8cm which is enough to fit even a full sized mug. The Gaggia on the other hand, has a whole 3.5cm less clearance, meaning that a full sized cup is out of the question. Of course, if you’re using an espresso shot glass, you will have plenty of room on both.
Next we’ll move on to steaming performance. Both of these machines are single boiler configurations, meaning that you must wait for the machine to reach steaming temperature after brewing your shot. The Barista Express takes around 30 seconds to make this transition, while on the Gaggia Classic Pro, you can start steaming after 35 seconds, slightly before the indicator light comes on. Once up to temperature, the Barista Express will take around 60 seconds to steam your milk up to a temperature of 60 degrees Celcius. The Gaggia, on the other hand, completes the same task in only 30 seconds, showing much better steaming power.
Independent of steaming speed, it’s possible to create latte quality microfoam on both of these machines with the correct technique. The method will just be slightly different due to the fact that the Barista Express uses a single hole steam tip, and the Gaggia uses a 2 hole. I do however, much prefer how the Breville steam arm is on a ball joint, as opposed to the Gaggia where the arm only rotates
So, which of these machines is right for you?
If you’re looking for your first espresso machine, both of these machines will serve you very well. Just remember that you still need to pair a good quality espresso grinder alongside the Gaggia Classic Pro. The decision of which one you should buy depends on how much value you place on convenience, and how much you place on absolute quality.
The Barista Express has long been the king of the entry-level market, and for very good reason. The all-in-one form factor is tough to beat, and the range of features included makes it a great option for someone who wants an intuitive and easy to use machine.
The Gaggia Classic Pro does not have as many features, and is a far more analog experience. You will need to time, measure, or weigh your shots, you will need to remember to clean it regularly, and you will need to save some room in your budget for a standalone grinder. But, you will be rewarded with the potential for better quality espresso, much better steaming power, and a bombproof build quality. Not to mention, the ability to upgrade your grinder at any time, to even further improve your coffee quality when your budget allows.
Need more? Watch the video!