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.
‡Pre-Infusing: Pre-infusing is a technique where the dry coffee grounds are initially saturated with hot water, allowing a “bloom” of carbon dioxide to escape. This 45-second(ish) process puts hot water into contact with more surface area around each ground throughout the brewing process, as it’s no longer competing with the escaping gas bubbles. It can improve the quality of the final product, since this more uniform contact creates a more even extraction. It’s a feature that six of the 10 pots we tested incorporated into their designs — as well as all four of our top picks.
In France, in about 1710, the Infusion brewing process was introduced. This involved submersing the ground coffee, usually enclosed in a linen bag, in hot water and letting it steep or "infuse" until the desired strength brew was achieved. Nevertheless, throughout the 19th and even the early 20th centuries, it was considered adequate to add ground coffee to hot water in a pot or pan, boil it until it smelled right, and pour the brew into a cup.
The gist: The Cisno is the perfect way to enjoy good espresso on the go and takes the spot as Amazon's Choice for portable espresso makers with 4.5/5 stars. This little guy is small enough to fit in a cup holder, yet pumps at 15 bars of pressure, powered by a rechargeable lithium battery. All you need are Originaline Nespresso capsules and some water. The process is super simple: Insert the Nespresso capsule, pour water into the 50ml water cavity, push the one big button on the Cisno, and boom— automatically pump and enjoy you cup of espresso. Tryna stay fancy? You still have the option of using your own coffee grounds if you get reusable stainless steel capsules.
“My mom gave me a Gevalia 12-cup, programmable coffee maker a few years ago, and it’s gone with me through multiple Brooklyn apartments. It’s hard to find now, so if it ever breaks, she has a killer Cuisinart DCC-1200. I actually look forward to her coffee every time I’m home. It makes a mellow brew. If my Gevalia machine ever gives out on me, I’ll upgrade to that.” — Allie LaPorte, wine representative, Wilson Daniels
An electric drip coffee maker can also be referred to as a dripolator. It normally works by admitting water from a cold water reservoir into a flexible hose in the base of the reservoir leading directly to a thin metal tube or heating chamber (usually, of aluminum), where a heating element surrounding the metal tube heats the water. The heated water moves through the machine using the thermosiphon principle. Thermally-induced pressure and the siphoning effect move the heated water through an insulated rubber or vinyl riser hose, into a spray head, and onto the ground coffee, which is contained in a brew basket mounted below the spray head. The coffee passes through a filter and drips down into the carafe. A one-way valve in the tubing prevents water from siphoning back into the reservoir. A thermostat attached to the heating element turns off the heating element as needed to prevent overheating the water in the metal tube (overheating would produce only steam in the supply hose), then turns back on when the water cools below a certain threshold. For a standard 10-12 cup drip coffeemaker, using a more powerful thermostatically-controlled heating element (in terms of wattage produced), can heat increased amounts of water more quickly using larger heating chambers, generally producing higher average water temperatures at the spray head over the entire brewing cycle. This process can be further improved by changing the aluminum construction of most heating chambers to a metal with superior heat transfer qualities, such as copper.
CR’s take: For $80, this Mr. Coffee 12-cup drip brewer is surprisingly stylish. Its airy design sets it apart from the blocky shapes common to the category. This model earns a rating of Very Good in CR’s brew-performance tests and makes a full pot in just 9 minutes. It offers brew-strength control, programming, and a permanent coffee filter. With its performance and striking appearance, you might not mind having it out on the counter—especially in a kitchen with a stainless fridge and range.
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.
The single-serve or single-cup coffeemaker has gained popularity in recent years. Single-serve brewing systems let a certain amount of water heated at a precise temperature go through a coffee portion pack (or coffee pod), brewing a standardized cup of coffee into a recipient placed under the beverage outlet. A coffee portion pack has an air-tight seal to ensure product freshness. It contains a determined quantity of ground coffee and usually encloses an internal filter paper for optimal brewing results. The single-serve coffeemaker technology often allows the choice of cup size and brew strength, and delivers a cup of brewed coffee rapidly, usually at the touch of a button. Today, a variety of beverages are available for brewing with single-cup machines such as tea, hot chocolate and milk-based specialty beverages. Single-cup coffee machines are designed for both home and commercial use.
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.
It’s obvious, but easy to forget: If you don’t clean out your coffee machine’s carafe after each use with soap and water, you’ll always end up tasting a little bit of yesterday’s now-bitter brew. Thermal carafes need to be hand-washed, but all the plastic components of our top picks — brew baskets, lids, etc. — are dishwasher-safe if you keep them on the top rack.
The Breville is technically a semi-automatic espresso maker, since it requires you to dose and tamp your own shots, but we found it more forgiving than true automatics. The Breville’s dual-wall filter baskets (in addition to two standard single-wall baskets) add extra pressure, providing a little forgiveness for beginners’ mistakes in either grinding the beans or tamping the shot.
The Gaggia Classic is a stylish old-school Italian espresso maker. It can pull a really delicious, creamy shot of espresso, but the machine does not have a PID—therefore its results aren't very consistent. While the machine is pretty, it doesn't have the well-thought design features of the Breville, like a sensor drip tray and a space for the tamper, nor does it come with a milk pitcher. Its plastic tamper is flimsy and won't effectively press down the espresso grounds. The Gaggia's steamer wand also doesn't consistently incorporate foam, and instead produces large bubbles on top.
There’s a coffee machine for everyone in our stylish and modern range: with pause-and-serve functions, 24-hour timers and larger carafes for up to fourteen cups, our coffee machines can be used in a variety of settings, from your kitchen counter to your office area. The water level indicator means you can choose exactly how many cups to brew, so there’s no need for anybody to go without, and nothing is wasted.
What Amazon users have to say: It's a beast. In a good way. And by that we mean this thing is in it for the long haul. Aside from the astounding beverage quality and ease that the machine produces, one of the most consistent comments made is that the machine will last you a while. Several customer reviews go on to say how they've had the Magnifica for a long time and love it just as much as the day they bought it, even after using it multiple times a day for several years. The machine is obviously a bit pricier than the others on this list, but according to reviewers, the machine is so consistently good and efficient that it pays for itself several times over when you account for all the money you'll save by skipping out on the coffee shops.
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The Baratza Encore is simplicity defined and our top coffee grinder. This burr grinder has a 40-setting grind size selector, an on-off switch for continuous grinding, and a push-button for manual control. That's it. Other grinders include complicated timers, built-in scales, strength adjustment sliders, and other doodads, but Baratza suggests that you don't need them—and they're right. Measure your beans using a separate scale, grind them fresh for each cup. That's the way to do it.
The next is the machine’s auto-pause. If you remove the carafe before your full pot is done brewing, the flow will stop until the carafe goes back in. It’s not a perfect system. There are a few inevitable drips that add an extra step to clean-up, and if the water is held up in the brew basket for too long, it increases the chance of over-extraction. But if you want a great first cup to sip on while the rest of your pot is brewing, you’ll get it in a much more satisfying time frame.
There’s also no way to adjust the temperature of the water on the Bonavita, or tinker with any of the other variables some of our other top picks gave access to. And that’s the other downside to this excellent machine: What you get is what you get, and if you do want to experiment with the flavor of your coffee, it will depend entirely on the beans you buy and the size you grind them to. Good thing the coffee it brews right out of the box is so dang good.
For many of us, the daily grind can't begin until we've had that first cup of piping hot coffee—so the right brewer is at the top of the list. The most basic coffee makers make at least a decent cup, but a little more money buys conveniences such as programmability, a thermal carafe to keep coffee hot longer, settings that let you adjust brew strength, and more.