Breville Barista Max VCF126 full review
The Barista Max is a bean-to-cup machine for people who want to make quality coffee at home. It won’t be the perfect machine for people who want zero-effort coffee, and it won’t appeal to hobbyists who want a machine that they can tinker with and modify.
For the rest of us, I’d say it’s the best of both worlds: you can use fresh beans and get a delicious espresso and there are enough settings (grinding fineness, water temperature, infusion profile) to play around with to get a really great extraction. But fundamentally, this is a reliable, easy to use machine that delivers consistently good coffee. And for its price point, it’s superb.
Because the Barista Max has an inbuilt coffee grinder and milk frother – and comes with a tamper, milk jug and portafilter – you won’t need anything else in your coffee-making kit. That’s a good thing because this is a big machine (31 x 31 x 33cm) and the trade-off for its high-quality coffee is that you’ll need to give up a correspondingly large space on your kitchen counter.
Don’t even think about putting it in a cupboard when you’re not using it. This is a machine that should be used daily – it’s too heavy (as it should be) and cumbersome to be dragged out on special occasions.
If you don’t want to make proper coffee on a daily basis, this is probably not the appliance for you. But if you’ve wavering over whether or not an espresso machine is worth the faff, the Barista Max might be the one to persuade you. It’s much easier and less messy than using a separate grinder and espresso maker. It’s also much less expensive than a fully automatic machine.
The machine itself is rectangular, with curved edges and a brushed aluminium plate at its front. It’s attractive enough but not as beautiful as the Smeg Espresso Coffee Maker. However, it has the advantage of the inbuilt burr grinder and it costs around the same price. To get the same functionality as the Barista Max, you’d have to buy both the Smeg Espresso Coffee Maker and the Smeg Coffee Grinder, spending £500.
The Barista Max is a solid machine that feels well made. All the removable parts click into place pleasingly and aside from a few flaws, it’s nicely designed. There’s a large drip tray with a float to alert you when it’s getting full. There's a separate trough to catch spilt coffee grounds, and a storage area to hold accessories. There’s also plenty of height between the cup stand and the coffee spout – more than enough to fit an ordinary mug.
There's no pressure gauge on the machine, which is another sign that this is not a purchase for coffee hobbyists. You can't change the pressure in a coffee machine but the number on the gauge can give you a clue as to how coarse or or fine your grind should be.
The machine has a 2-litre frosted plastic water tank that clips into the back. I don’t love the look of the tank, or its placement but almost all coffee machines feature a reservoir in a similarly inaccessible position. In this case, it’s slightly less annoying than usual, as the tank has an easy-access flip-up lid, which means you can add water without shifting the entire appliance, although you still won’t get the clearest view of the process without moving the machine.
One small flaw is the reduced space on top of the machine for keeping your cups warm. There’s only really room for a couple of espresso cups. That’s because a large amount of area is taken up with a 250g bean hopper.
The hopper isn’t airtight, so you’ll still want to keep your beans in an airtight jar nearby and only add what you want to use for each grinding. It has 30 grinding settings (not all of which will be useful) and you might have to experiment a bit to find the perfect fineness for your beans. How you feel about that should give you more of an idea of whether or not you’ll enjoy this machine.
I’ve written before about how a good burr grinder can make all the difference to the quality of your coffee at home. In a nutshell, there are two reasons for this: freshness and the size and evenness of the grind.
Buying freshly ground coffee is good. But grinding beans just before use is much better. It’ll give a huge lift to the taste of your coffee. You can buy a separate grinder – and from here you have the option of going for a manual grinder (cheaper but requires a bit of elbow grease) or automatic (easier, faster but more expensive – for a good one, at least).
A good grinder will ensure that you don’t end up with an uneven grind, which can leave your coffee bitter. The Barista Max has a very decent conical burr grinder that produces even grinds.
Measuring out beans, grinding coffee and transferring it to your portafilter is messy and time-consuming, particularly in the mornings if you are (like me) the type of person who needs that first caffeine hit to wake up properly.
The Barista Max makes this a bit easier with its “Tap & Go Grinding Cradle”. This is an awful name for a really nicely made mechanism. Essentially, beneath the grinder, there’s a half hoop that you stick the portafilter into. When you press down, the grinder starts up and coffee is deposited right into the portafilter basket. A light even comes on to illuminate the process. It’s very satisfying to use.
However, there’s no getting around the fact that you still have to deal with the portafilter. This means that the process is not quite as simple as with a fully automated machine, where you add beans to the hopper at the top, press a button and get fresh coffee delivered from a spout.
If that’s what you’re after, we’d recommend the Gaggia Naviglio. At £400+, it’s more expensive but it’ll save you having to deal with coffee grinds (at least until the time comes to empty them into the bin – there’s sadly no escape from that).
However, the advantage of a machine like this is that it doesn’t have to move coffee grinds around inside, which means it’s less likely to break down. If you take care of your Barista Max by using filtered water (especially if you live in a hard water area) and cleaning it regularly, it should serve you well for years to come.
The machine can make one or two shots of espresso at a time, which you choose by pressing a single button. Altering the water temperature, which comes set at 92°C, is more complicated. You’ll need to consult the manual and use a sequence of multifunction button presses but this will allow you to choose a temperature from 88-96°C.
You can also change the infusion profile so that more or less water is added to the ground coffee before the full flow, which will subtly alter the taste.
The machine only has a single heater, so you can’t extract coffee and use the milk wand at the same time and it needs a bit of time to move from one process to the other. However, if you’re usually only making two cups of coffee, the additional time it takes isn’t much of a problem.
The milk wand itself is very manoeuvrable, with a heat-resistant silicone band to protect you from scalds. The wand is effective and makes foamy, creamy milk for cappuccinos and lattes.
Price and availability
The Barista Max is currently available to buy from Currys PC World. The price has jumped around a little but is currently at its lowest ever point: £299. If you can't find it in your region, Breville coffee machines are also sold under the Sage or Sunbeam brand names, depending on where you are in the world.
For its price, you get a lot for your money with the Barista Max. It's not going to appeal to hardcore coffee enthusiasts, but for people looking to upgrade their coffee experience from pod machines or a similar standard of coffee maker, this will be an excellent purchase.
To see which other coffee machines we rate highly and how the Barista Max measures up, have a look at our round-up of the best coffee machines we've tested.
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