Before we get into the technical aspects of the two types of espresso machines, here’s what you really need to know. Semi-automatic espresso machines are going to be perfect for the espresso connoisseur. If you’re the type that really wants to get the best-quality and taste out of your espresso machine and don’t mind taking a little more time and effort out of your schedule, the semi-automatic espresso maker is going to be for you. It’s a little bit more work, but the key here is that you ultimately have more control over every subtle nuance that goes into your version of the perfect shot of espresso with a semi-automatic.
For the first time in the entire history of coffee, finally, in 1906, people could enjoy coffee made expressly for them: espresso. (I told you I would get back to this). And, while rumor has it the first espresso tasted pretty bad - watery and bitter, they say - the Italians stuck with it, perfecting it, marketing it, teaching people how to enjoy it.
“Strength, blend, decaf, cream, or sugar, there are many options when it comes to a cup of coffee. It seems every person has his or her own unique preferences to get them that perfect cup of joe. However, one factor that was often out of the home-coffee fan’s control was temperature. You either drank it at the temperature it came out of the coffee maker or you let it cool somewhat before sipping began. Cuisinart has aimed to turn that limitation on its head. This Cuisinart DCC-3650 adds a temperature control. It actually brews the coffee at one of three different user-defined temperatures. Impressive.”
†Programmable Brew Time: Conventional wisdom frowns at grinding beans early and programming a pot to brew later. The aromatic compounds in coffee beans start to oxidize as quickly as 15 minutes after grinding, which causes coffee to start losing aroma and flavor. But Michael Ebert, senior consultant at Firedancer Coffee Consultants, LLC, assured us that, given the trade-offs for convenience, “grinding the night before will still make a great coffee — just not as great as it could be.” Seven of the 10 pots we tested are programmable, including three of our top picks (all but the Bonavita).
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We wanted to find the best espresso machine available to home brewers for less than $1,000. At this comparatively low price point, we hoped to find a machine that could pull a shot that—if not as high-quality as one served at a prized Italian cafe or as high-dollar as a Brooklyn coffee shop's—would have nuanced flavor, the right amount of brightness and acidity, and very little bitterness.
One of the many issues with other coffee makers is that the brewing process is inconsistent, with temperature fluctuations that can potentially affect the acidity, aroma, and final flavor of your beverage. The OXO On Barista Brain Coffee Maker is fixed with an intelligent microprocessor that monitors ambient temperatures throughout the brewing process.
*SCAA Certified: A Specialty Coffee Association of America certification indicates the machine can heat water to a temperature between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit and ensures that hot water will be in contact with coffee grounds for no less than four and no greater than eight minutes. It’s a solid confirmation of quality. But according to Joseph Rivera, a research coffee scientist at coffeechemistry.com, not every manufacturer chooses to submit their coffee makers for SCAA certification, and there are definitely great drip coffee makers out there without its stamp of approval. Six of the 10 coffee makers we tested are SCAA-certified — including all four of our top picks.
"Having worked in a coffee shop I was familiar with espresso and milk steaming machines. While this product is not intended for commercial use, it is perfect for the home. The machine itself has an amazingly small footprint, and puts out adequate pressure for brewing single/double espresso shots and for properly steaming milk. The inclusion of different sized "inserts" which allow switching depth of the coffee filter attachment is a novel idea and well executed. Bought this item as a gift for my wife who loves it, but I use it myself frequently as well. Keep it clean and it should serve you for an extended period of time. For the price, I don't believe this item can be beat.
The Bonavita is a simple, compact machine (about 12 inches x 12 inches) for only $190, and it makes coffee that ranked in the top three in our taste test. Its philosophy seems to be “everything you absolutely need, nothing you don’t.” That means it’s SCAA-certified for water temperature and brew times, boasts pre-infusion capabilities, and has a flat-bottom filter basket that extracts grounds evenly. That’s it.
CR’s take: If you like the look of black stainless steel, you can add a hit of the trendy finish to your kitchen with the Bella Ultimate Elite Collection coffee maker. Appearance aside, this model brews a fresh pot in just 9 minutes and is graceful in action, earning strong ratings in our carafe handling tests. It offers programming, brew-strength control, a pause-and-serve feature, and auto-shutoff. Bella drip machines also received a Very Good rating for predicted reliability. At about $50, this affordable, attractive option won’t disappoint.