Here at the Strategist, we like to think of ourselves as crazy (in the good way) about the stuff we buy (like pillows), but as much as we’d like to, we can’t try everything. Which is why we have People’s Choice, in which we find the best-reviewed (that’s four-to-five-star reviews and lots of ‘em) products and single out the most convincing. While we’ve written about coffee machines, coffee grinders, even gifts for coffee lovers, here, we’ve gone deep on the best espresso machines on Amazon, according to the people. (Note that reviews have been edited for length and clarity.)
Drip-style coffee makers already have a bit of a flavor handicap when compared with other brewing methods, like pour-over and French press, which give coffee drinkers ultimate control over every aspect of the brewing (and therefore extraction) process. This makes it even more important to select a high-quality coffee bean for your at-home drip coffee maker. To learn more, we spoke with Saadat Awan at Woodcat Coffee in Los Angeles.
“For home brewers, the Mr. Coffee 12-cup, programmable machine can produce great morning coffee that’s decent by most standards. Just make sure you use good water — NYC tap is more than acceptable, though filtered is even better. I’d say it’s also even more important to have a grinder that has a nice, even particle size distribution. I have a Baratza Encore on hand, but recently I’ve been relying heavily on the Handground brand grinder, which is a great ergonomic manual.” — Elliott Foos, barista at Café Integral
All of the espresso machines we tested only included a single boiler for heating. This means that there's only one mechanism for heating both the water for brewing and the steamer wand. Because of this, it'll take the steamer wand a while to heat up after pulling the espresso shot, since the steamer wand operates at a much higher temperature than the brewing temperature of around 195°F. It is possible to buy a home machine with a double boiler (Breville makes one) but this raises the price significantly (we didn't test the Breville because it's over $1,000), and the minor wait time wasn't a major concern for us. We figured it wouldn't be for home brewers either.
Picking up a bag of coffee beans from the roaster is a great way to make sure you have fresh beans. Because coffee gets damaged as it’s exposed to air, espresso connoisseurs recommend using beans within two weeks of their roast date. But you won’t want to use them the same day that they’ve been roasted — they need a few days to de-gas from the roasting process.
Why it's great: The relatively lightweight machine by Mr. Coffee is a triple threat, meaning you’re not limited to just espresso. You can also make cappuccino and regular coffee, not to mention a variety of specialty drinks from the included recipe book (think espresso martinis, raspberry cappuccinos, choco-nutty lattes, etc.) The machine comes with an electric pump that shoots out 15 bars of pressure. It also has a one-touch feature that lets you select either a single or double-shot drink, and it even has an automatic milk frother with an adjustable knob, so you can customize the amount of froth you’d like in your drink of choice.
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.
*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.
A cafetiere (Coffee Plunger, French press in US English) requires coffee of a coarser grind than does a drip brew coffee filter, as finer grounds will seep through the press filter and into the coffee. Coffee is brewed by placing the coffee and water together, stirring it and leaving to brew for a few minutes, then pressing the plunger to trap the coffee grounds at the bottom of the beaker.
These machines automatically grind the coffee, tamp it, and extract the espresso shot. The operator only has to fill the bean hopper and, if the machine is not connected to a water line, add water to a reservoir. Some models contain an automated milk frothing and dispensing device. Super-automatic machines take away the ability to manually tamp and grind the coffee, which may affect the quality of the espresso.
The gist: Okay, so in case any connoisseurs out there have been reading this section and thinking "a portable espresso machine takes the art away from espresso-making," this one's for you. Flair claims that this model was the answer to their question "What is the minimum needed to brew a professional-level shot of espresso?" The resulting product is this single-lever machine that doesn't need pods or electricity. It pulls a quality shot at 8-16 bars of pressure, has a 60ml water capacity, and brews a single cup in 25-45 seconds. You can get it in either black or chrome colors.
For the cappuccino lover in the house, its patented system mixes steam and milk to create a rich froth. All you have to do is stick a container of milk under the nozzle and let it go to work. Then pour as much as that creamy goodness on top of your coffee as you like. For espresso aficionados, the patented "direct-to-brew" system is key. Remember what we said above about the burr grinder? The Magnifica also comes with a built-in burr, which grinds your favorite beans immediately before brewing for maximum freshness. (If you prefer, it also works with pre-ground beans.) The machine has an instant reheat function which keeps it at the perfect temperature, so you don't have to wait for your machine to reheat if you decide to go for that second cup (no matter how long you wait after the first.) The Magnifica has a 1.8 liter removable water container and a 7.1 ounce bean container. To keep things simple, everything happens at the push of a button: choose from five different espresso strengths, cup size, and determine the fineness of the grind.
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.
While we love the all-inclusive features of the Breville, there’s one thing it can’t do on its own, at least not without a hefty repair bill. If you love dark roasts, any machine that features an internal grinder is off-limits. The oily shine characteristic of dark roasts builds up in any grinder — but while you can disassemble and clean standalone grinders, this is rarely an option for internal ones. The residual oil left in an internal grinder will, at best, give future shots a rancid flavor. At worst, the oil will clog the grinder. If you want to brew dark roasts on the Breville, plan on buying a separate grinder.
The very first espresso machines worked on a steam-pressure basis, and they’re still in use today. With this type of machine, steam or steam pressure is used to force water through the coffee grounds and produce espresso. Some steam-driven machines can produce a measure of foam “crema.” But they can’t generate enough pressure or provide the precise temperature control necessary to produce true espresso: They simply make a very strong cup of coffee. However, they cost considerably less than pump-driven machines. Our verdict is that if you’re a true espresso lover and seeking to make a good shot at home, we recommend you steer clear of steam-driven machines. They’ll likely disappoint you.
The Rocket’s espresso lever is an upgrade from the simple on/off button used by most of our models. By only moving the lever part way up, you can play around with pre-infusing your coffee grounds before pulling the shot. Pre-infusion can be fun to tinker with as you try to home in on what makes your perfect espresso. This gives the Rocket an additional level of customization not available on the other models we tested.
"Love the Flair. Bought about a month ago and have been dialing in my home roasted espresso routine. The crema production is unrivaled even with commercial machines costing 5x more. Any shot less than spectacular is due to user error or inadequate grinds/bean quality. Using this device has been a treat and I thoroughly enjoy the fun ritualistic aspect. There is something to be said for physically pressing out all those tasty flavors rather than letting a machine. Owning the flair puts you in full control of every single aspect of the shot and allows for pressure profiling which no device can do cost effectively. Highly recommend the signature chrome and it looks stunning as a permanent countertop staple. Just found out you can make espresso with room temperature water that produces some outstanding results."
“My absolute love of the DeLonghi Magnifica ESAM3300 is hard to describe. It has been a faithful, crema-steeped friend and morning ritual for at least eight years, and the current unit I bought as a replacement last week (another ESAM3300) is a testament to why I give this well-built Italian stallion and ‘super automatic’ espresso dream machine a SOLID five-star rating. With very few adjustments and some good Italian or locally roasted whole beans, the Magnifica consistently puts out shot after shot of delicious espresso that will FAR exceed anything you could get at most coffee shops. I always use many of the yummy Lavazza beans, including the Super Crema, Gold Selection, and others that work really well with this machine. The Illy beans are also a nice pairing for this superb machine. The key is, you want nonoily and fairly dry beans (as other reviewers have said here already).”
CR’s take: Our highest-rated drip brewer with an insulated, thermal carafe, the Ninja Bar Brewer CF085 has plenty to recommend it. CR’s testers find that it offers superb brew performance and is very easy to use. In our member surveys, Ninja drip coffee makers received an Excellent rating for owner satisfaction. (We don’t yet have enough data to judge reliability.) This model has a full suite of features, including an unusual over-ice brew mode for making iced coffee. Ninja claims its thermal carafe will keep coffee hot for 2 hours, and the machine comes with a milk frother and a standalone French-press brewer. These features come at a price, of course; the Ninja Bar Brewer is the second most expensive model on this list.