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SAGE BARISTA EXPRESS — THE BEST ENTRY-LEVEL ESPRESSO MACHINE?

breville / sage barista express

Introduction:

There’s nothing quite like a coffee shop latte – silky texture and layered art lend to an experience beyond the palate. But many people are wondering how we can get into this home coffee game and make something as good as the café, but without spending years training as a barista.

The Sage Barista Express is an espresso machine that will hit the sweet spot for many people just coming into the home coffee game.

Breville is an Australian company, also known as Sage in the UK, are in a top position to win a lot of new customers with a range of machines that balances ease of use and good design ergonomics, with enough flexibility to be creative as a coffee maker.

Sage Barista Express – Summary Up Front

The Barista Express is a semi-automatic machine with a carefully considered user-first design. Although it has some limitations which we’ll discuss, it gives the home barista the flexibility to make great coffee, while largely avoiding the intimidation that some other machines inflict.

We think it is a good choice for people get into making true quality coffee at home, while providing them some headroom to grow as they improve. As long as you can live with its limitations, this could be the perfect first or second espresso machine.

If you don’t like the brushed steel look, it comes in black and looks great in our opinion.

It is tempting to think how much you could save and the new speciality coffees you could experience if you had an espresso machine at home.

But, there’s so much choice out there, where do you start? Possibly this is the question that has led you here. Don’t worry, we’re going to put you on the right path.

But your nerdy coffee friend has explained that you’ll have to buy a separate grinder, and an espresso machine with ability to steam milk. Now the dream seems like too much of a hassle and you might not have that much counter space you’re willing to give up.

The Sage Barista Express solves this dilemma by making a small-footprint all-in-one espresso machine, grinder and milk frother that the whole family can operate, and which the barista inside you can still express themselves. 

This review will explore the details, good and bad, of the Sage Barista Express. Settle in and let’s get started.

BARISTA EXPRESS PRODUCT DETAILS

Specification

  • Dose control grinding: Integrated conical burr grinder grinds on demand
  • Digital temperature control (PID) delivers water at the right temperature. Does require a flush from the head before use.
  • A mid-class steam wand allows creation of good quality foam
  • 54mm instead of the standard 58mm portafilter
  • Small cup warmer on top, most people don’t use except to keep a couple cups handy
  • Grind size dial operates in steps giving quick and predictable control over the grind size. Not infinitely adjustable like a stepless, but expected for this level of machine
  • Useful grinding cradle allows you to grind directly into the espresso portafilter
  • Bean Hopper Capacity: 1/2 lb.; Water Tank Capacity: 67 oz.
  • Settings: Single or double shots; Adjustable grind amount & manual overrides;
  • Power 1600 Watts; Volts 120
  • 2 Year Limited Product Warranty

Highlights of the Barista Express

The Sage Barista Express is a single boiler semi-automatic coffee machine. The term “semi-automatic” refers to the machines’ ability to do a lot of the work for you. It will require more skill than a fully automatic, or a drip coffee machine (one touch and go) but it will make it relatively easy to start making great espresso drinks. 

Single-boiler machines utilize a single heating element to provide water for multiple functions (pulling a shot and steaming milk). This just means that your coffee making process will take a bit longer as you’ll have to wait for the machine to heat up enough to get to the steaming level. 

Brewing Capability 4/5

It will take practice to get down the perfect espresso shot. You’ll have to adjust your grind size, grind amount, and tamp pressure in order to figure out how to get that lever into “Espresso Range”. Thankfully, the machine makes it easy to tell if you’re there, versus under or over extracting, by the dial right on the front. 

Pre-Infusion

A surprising inclusion is the use of some soft pre-infusion at the start of the extraction. This process soaks the coffee puck with low pressure water for a few seconds, allowing the grinds to expand before the machine starts to ramp pressure up.

The pre-infusion stage helps avoid channelling, where the water finds a way an easy path through the puck – often at the sides by the basket. A good shot requires the water to be evenly pushed through all the grinds in the basket.

Pressure Gauge

A clear gauge in the centre of the machine shows if the extraction is happening at the ideal pressure, or if you’re over or under-extracting.

Sage actually provides some direction in their manual to explain what to do when you encounter either of these scenarios – and, of course, we all do. The grind since and quantity will vary depending on the beans used, the type of espresso you’re making and even the temperature.

Heating Element

This machine heats up fast thanks to the Thermacoil heating system. Though switching to steam mode isn’t as quick as it would be with a dual-boiler machine, you’re certainly not going to grow old waiting on the Barista. 

A  thermocoil or thermoblock uses water from the reservoir in an espresso machine and heats it up in real time unlike a boiler design which requires the boiler to head up first.

The benefits of a thermocoil will be apparent to anyone who has stood staring at their espresso machine first thing in the morning, while they wait for the heating light to come on. The only drawback to these designs is that the consistency of the temperature is not as good as on a boiler.

For this level of machine, it’s probably a good decision to go with the faster system.

Built in Water Filter

The Barista Express comes with a water filter built in as standard that has some basic settings that allow you to pick the right level of filtration for the amount of alkalinity from your mains.

Clean water is necessary to avoid limescale build-up inside the machine, and helps reduce the need to descale as frequently. This is not the same however, as having water with the ideal balance of minerals to ensure a smooth extraction of coffee.

In fact, having a specialist water filter that is calibrated to your mains water type will make a vast and immediatly noticable difference to the tast of your espresso.

This is not what the Sage filter does, it is a simple carbon filter that reduces limescale build-up, and while that is not a bad thing, it actually causes a problem.

  • You can’t bypass this water filter, meaning you can’t use an external specialist coffee water filter, like the Peak, which dramatically improves coffee taste 
  • You’re stuck with the proprietary filter from Sage, and it costs about double what a regular Brita filter sells for

The Grinder 3.5/5

A lot of things go into making a great espresso based coffee, and a good grinder is crucial in the equation. Actually, it’s pretty hard to make good espresso without a good grinder.

You could fill a bookshelf with what it takes to understand grinders, but here’s the short reason why you should pay attention to this part of the setup.

Why the Grinder Matters

Coffee is extracted by hot water coming into contact with with the ground coffee. The shape and surface area of the grind greatly affects the extraction. Therefore,; if the grinds come out uneven, your extraction will be uneven.

If you were wondering. Uneven extraction = bad coffee.

Sage has been making standalone grinders for years. I own a few grinders, including the Sage Smart Grinder Pro. Mine has worked like a charm for the year or more I’ve owned it, and I’m keeping it – even thought I have another big commercial flat burr grinder.

But I don’t use it for making espresso at home. I only use it for grinding filter coffee or other similar brew methods. The reason for this is the type of technology they use – a conical burr, is a design that suits itself for grinding slightly more coarsely. Not everyone will agree with me, I’m sure, but I’ve found my espressos are smoother with a flat burr grinder, while I extract more flavour from a pour over with the conical burrs from my Sage Smart Grinder Pro.

The Barista Express uses the same conical burrs in their built-in grinder as they do with their separate standalone grinders.

Now, you can get carried away with such nuances, but unless you’re very serious with making espresso, the chance are you won’t notice. In fact there will be many other things that will impact the quality more – such as the kind of water you’re using. See our review of the Peak Water filter if you’re looking for a solution to that!

So the Barista Express has a built-in conical burr grinder, which is great if you’re trying to save kitchen space and want to keep the experience as integrated and simple as possible.

‘Only’ 18 Steps on the Grinder

The biggest issue with the grinder may not be the burrs however, but the fact that there are only 18 ‘steps’ to choose from. I was initially surprised since my Sage Smart Grinder Pro has 60 settings if I remember correctly.

But consider that the Smart Grinder Pro has to grind for any type of brew method, while the Barista Express is just for espresso. I prefer stepless grinders, but for this price point, it’s understandable.

In the future, if you do want to upgrade to a different grinder, it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to use the Barista Express. My friend has a separate Bartaza grinder next to his Sage espresso machine for exactly this reason.

In October, 2020 Breville (Sage) bought Baratza, so we perhaps can expect to see some of their technology introduced in the next 12-18 months. But don’t be put off by the existing technology used – there are a number of benefits i ncluding:

  • The conical burrs are made from ceramic and work well
  • The whole system is easy to clean with a simple twist and pull mechanism to remove the burr
  • Conical burrs retain very little grounds inside the grinder, so you are assured that you’re not going to have stale grounds from the day before ruining your morning espresso

Steaming and Frothing Milk 3.5/5

Remember that this machine is a single-boiler, so you will have to practice some patience while you wait for it to heat up in between functions. If you need something faster (think, how many family members are going to want lattes in the morning?) go for a dual-boiler machine, but be ready to pay a significant premium.

The Barista Express isn’t especially powerful, so the steaming process takes longer than some other machines in its class.

Personally, I don’t see this as a negative. A fast steaming wand is only useful if you’re making back to back coffees. Frothing milk at a slower pace gives you time to correct your position and improve your technique. Trust me on this one, the extra 20 seconds you’ll wait will be saved by not having to throw away the milk you just ruined because your wand position was wrong.

Comes with the milk jug and temperature strip

It does come with a milk jug however, but the temperature reading on the side, while not exactly gimmicky, isn’t as useful as you might think if you’re holding the jug to feel the heat, as your hand covers the strip.

The best way to use it in fact is to place the jug on the drop tray and position the wand just below the surface. If you need to raise the wand slightly during the steaming process, that’s easy to do because the steam wand is not so powerful, and you’ll have plenty of time to make small adjustments.

To get the perfect milk consistency for pouring art into your cup, you will be practising a LOT. That pristinely frothed milk needs to look like a can of snow-white paint. But if you want art, this is the journey you’re signing up for. 

Controls and Ease of Use 4/5

We felt ambivalent about the score for Ease of Use with the Barista Express. Some functions are difficult to access and will probably require frequent review of the manual. However, there are so many nice touches on the machine, the manual is well written, and for the average user this is aimed at, it will soon become second nature.

For basic operations, you’ll get used to the system in a week or two. The Breville engineers have worked hard to pack in a lot of functionality into a design that isn’t too crowded with knobs, dials and buttons.

There’s enough in the controls and basic LCD interface to make you feel excited about the possibilities without overwhelming you too much. But.

Limitations with the controls

When you go beyond a certain point, for example adjusting the temperature, the Sage Barista Express interface shows you a glimpse of the ugly side.

Keeping a limit to the number of buttons meant that the company had to make some of those multi-function.

Temperature Control – It’s Fiddly

For example, turning the temperature on the PID down requires you to go into Advanced Temperature Mode by switching the machine off, then turning it back on and holding the Programme button.

You then have 5 seconds to press another button which puts you into the correct mode. Now, you’ll need to press the 2 Cup button to increase the temperature or the Filter Size button to decrease the temperature.

If you are going to use the same kind of beans every time, then you won’t need to change the temperature. If you swtich between darker and lighter roasts, you should be changing the temperature which affects extraction time.

I like to change my beans weekly, sometimes going dark, sometimes medium/light. Sometimes I’ll have a darker roast in the morning, and go lighter later in the day. My wife only drinks dark roast beans.

Build Quality and Reliability 3.5/5

This is a machine with a stainless steel finish that looks good and will fit in with most kitchens. The build quality feels fine to the touch. The machine height and hopper is short enough so that fitting it under kitchen cabinets doesn’t turn into a sudden ‘doh’ moment.

The feel of the machine is slightly better than I expected when I only saw it in photos. It has a comfortable solid-enough feeling.

Nice Touches

There’s a hidden tray behind the drip tray which keeps your spare baskets and even some cleaning saches close to hand while being neat and tidy.

The magnetic tamper hangs so that it doesn’t pick up and dampness by sitting on the work surface (an issue I struggle with on my other machines, tamping with a damp base makes the grinds stick to the bottom).

Mixed Results on Reliability and Support

However, this is not a machine that you can modify or repair yourself. It’s a utensil and it either works or it doesn’t. The problems come when it doesn’t work.

We’ve been monitoring the website for several weeks, and a number of parts for the Barista Express seem to be out of stock during this period.

We have read of some frustrated consumers who can’t get parts being advised to buy a new one.

This is certainly not everyone’s experience. A number of people recite their excellent experiences with Sage customer support, but it’s worth mentioning here because unlike other machines at a similar price point, like the Gaggia Classic Pro, you can’t easily maintain them yourself.

Parts Availability

Half the parts on the Sage Appliance Website were not available over a 3-week period we checked. Click on the images below to see some screenshot examples.

Amazon sellers are buying these parts in advance and selling them at inflated prices, sometimes 200% or more than the cost from Sage directly. This kind of arbitrage is possible when demand outstrips supply, and it seems like it’s been this way for a while.

Who is the Sage Barista Express for?

This coffee maker is perfect for the aspiring home barista. If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to make shots and pour latte art, this is the best introductory machine you’re going to find. You’ll get the best of both worlds with an affordable machine that has everything you need in one convenient package. 

Grind, pull, and steam all from a single machine and it won’t melt your wallet in the process. It’s easy to use, fun to learn with and makes a lovely cup of coffee. As great of an average-user machine it is, it’s not going to be the perfect fit for everyone. 

The following users would do better to invest in a more capable dual-boiler espresso machine:

  • Large households that need to make a lot of coffee
  • Small businesses wanting to outfit their break rooms with a coffee maker
  • The coffee-elitist that’s looking for the perfect pour

Summary – Overall Score 4/5

The real answer to the question – should I buy the Sage Barista Express is that it depends on what you want and your level of expertise.

Pros:

  • All-in-one package with small footprint
  • Can be obtained at good value – IF under £500, but no more.
  • Fast startup time thanks to thermoblock
  • Comes with everything you need in the box
  • Nice design and user friendly touches

Customer reviews consistently mention the excellent quality of the machine, delicious coffee, and amazing longevity. The Sage Barista Express is a total fan favorite among home coffee makers. 

Cons:

  • Some people experience problems and report that parts can be hard to get, support is not helpful
  • Limited grind settings
  • Some functionality hidden in complicated menu system
  • 54mm portafilter may limit your creative ambitions

Do Buy If:

You only make espresso based drinks, including milky coffees and want a good amount of control over creativity. You don’t want to become an insane espresso aficionado like your friend Dan, but you would like to retain as much kitch work space as possible.

Don’t Buy If:

You want get ‘into’ espresso, you know that you’re going to need a separate grinder, or you want to sometimes make other coffees, like pour overs or other types of immersive brews that require a different kind of grinder.

The common thread among users reporting issues with the machine includes the lengthy process of making more than 5 drinks at a time and a grinder that tends to fall short of expectations. 

Reviews from the Public

After 6 years of daily use we had a leak on our Barista Express and were frustrated that it could not be repaired locally. However, after contacting Sage direct we were offered a discounted new machine which was delivered promptly. So glad to be drinking ‘proper’ coffee again!

TRUSTPILOT

Despite what I’ve read online, I think the SBE is a fabulous machine, especially considering the price.

REDDIT

Still going strong after 5 years. In a hardwater area so must be kept clean with very regular descaling. Starting to need maintenance with some leaks inside but were repairable by a local firm and the online spares and telephone support is great. Only improvement would be a dishwasher safe drip tray. Will upgrade one day to a dual boiler and bigger portafilter but it will be sad day too!

SAGE APPLIANCES

I got my Barista Express about 6-9 months ago. During this time I have played around with different grind sizes and amounts but never can fully achieve the 25-30 sec extraction. Nearly each time gets about 20 seconds

BARISTA HUSTLE FORUMS

Summary

For the home-coffee brewers and wannabe baristas wanting to try their hand an espresso extraction and latte art: this is a great buy for you. It’s an easy decision for your wallet and your counter space, as you’ll get everything you need to make a variety of coffee drinks in one compact machine. 

Overall, the Sage Barista Express is an excellent buy. So, stop sipping that murky drip coffee and get to practising your tulips and swans! 

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