Served in a variety of drinks, espressos are made by machines that send pressurized hot water through finely-ground coffee beans—thus, the quality of the drink is dictated in large part by the quality of machine that brews it. Historically, the best espresso has been brewed in coffee shops with industrial-grade equipment. Today, continued innovation in the at-home espresso brewing industry has led to the creation of high-quality machines that can contend with some of the best baristas out there.
It also automatically pre-infuses the coffee, allowing the grounds to vent their CO2 and “bloom.” Remember, only half of the machines we tested had this feature, and it proved to pay off in our taste tests. The four machines we recommend all pre-infuse. Only one coffee maker without it, the Hamilton Beach, performed well at all in our taste tests — but that guy was so cheap and flimsy, part of the brew basket broke during our testing. Sorry, Hamilton Beach.
If you’re ready to drop serious money on a high-quality espresso machine that produces smooth, complex shots, our pick is the Rocket Espresso Appartamento Espresso Machine. The machine lets you cycle quickly between steaming milk and pulling espresso: It uses a heat exchanger, rather than the more typical thermoblock, which means that the Rocket’s boiler heats all the way up to milk-steaming temperatures when you first turn it on. When you’re ready to pull shots, the heat-exchanger sends a burst of cool water through a copper tube in the boiler, bringing the temperature briefly back to espresso-friendly levels before heating back up.
The gist: The Nespresso Inissia is very similar to the Pixie. It also comes with one-touch options for either a single espresso or lungo cup size. It pumps with 19 bars of pressure and also heats up in less than 25 seconds. With over 2,500 reviews, it stands out with a 4.4 star rating on Amazon. The Inissia has more or less the same internal workings as the Pixie (including the 0.7 liter water tank), so the quality of espresso produced should be pretty identical. The difference: unlike the Pixie, which is made of metal, the Inissia's exterior is mostly plastic and has a slightly funkier design. However the Inissia comes in several colors, including red, black, silver, and titan.
“My boyfriend is a gadget nerd, and he bought the Bonavita 1900TS drip for us — it’s turned out to be pretty great. We had been using Chemex, but it’s hard to be patient in the morning! If you take the time you’d spend waiting for a pour-over and actually weigh the beans, then this baby is unbeatable. It tastes almost the same as the Chemex.” — Sara Conklin, owner, Glasserie
If your busy life keeps you from making coffee by hand, you can also consider a capsule machine such as a Nespresso coffee maker. These machines use small capsules or pods of coffee, so you don’t have to worry about measuring grounds and adding them to your device. Simply add a capsule, fill up the reservoir and press the On button. If you’re more of a traditionalist, a stovetop espresso maker might be the right option for you. This type of maker uses your stove to heat up water, which then steams up and passes through a capsule of grounds above the reservoir. The steamy espresso then collects in an upper reservoir at the top of the maker. These espresso makers are very popular in Europe and require no electricity to function.
If tinkering is what you’re most excited about, we recommend the Behmor Brazen Plus Customizable Temperature Control Brew System. This is a drip machine that takes its job seriously. It performed the very best in our out-of-the-box taste testing, but still gives you the opportunity to play around with different variables, from water temperature to pre-infusion times. At around $200, it’s on-par with the OXO 9-Cup price-wise, but is definitely not as nice to look at or use, with a tall, bulbous body, squat carafe, and an eight-button programmable interface that reminded us of a digital alarm clock.
A portafilter (or group handle) attaches to the grouphead of semi-automatic and piston-driven espresso machines, and carries a tamped puck of coffee grounds within its basket. It is usually made of brass for better heat retention, and is attached by a plastic or wooden handle. The portafilter forms a seal with the espresso machine's gasket, and directs high-pressure hot water through the coffee puck. After-market retailers also sell bottomless portafilters that minimize the espresso's contact with any metal. A bottomless portafilter is one tool baristas use to analyze the quality of the coffee grind and the evenness of the extraction and allows for a visual check of "channeling" or the condition in which water is able to pierce a hole in the espresso puck during the brew process leading to poor extraction. Often, baristas use knockboxes to store their spent espresso grounds after they have pulled a shot.