That said, there is a true magic to having espresso at home, making yourself a cappuccino in your pajamas, and avoiding awkwardly waiting around the end of a bar with a cluster of strangers, all desperate to grab the first latte that hits the counter. Espresso is hard, but that doesn't mean it's impossible—especially if you're easy to please, ready to practice, and up for a good culinary challenge. There are lots of resources available online for learning how to make good espresso: Look up videos on YouTube, read articles and DIY books, and don't be too shy to ask your favorite barista for pointers—many of us love getting geeky on the technical stuff with our favorite customers.
"This machine has turned me into a bonafide coffee snob. While it took some time to tweak all of the essential dimensions (water temp, grind size, coffee amount, draw time, basket type, etc.), I now make the most delectable coffee on earth because of this gorgeous contraption. It's the first thing I think about when my eyes open in the morning. I've ditched all of the other coffee-making paraphernalia in my kitchen (french press, grinders, baskets, pour-over devices, and others . . .) because they pale (literally) in comparison to the gold that comes out of this happy faucet. If my apartment goes up in flames and I have to escape quickly down the fire escape, my espresso machine is coming with me."
Espresso machines can be intimidating. We wanted something that did not require reading a novel-sized manual, watching a lot of YouTube videos, or reading tons of articles about espresso pulling. Yes, making espresso does require some learning for the home brewer. That's part of the fun, but the machine shouldn't be discouraging and impossible to use out of the box.
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.
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.
Caffè Espresso translates to “pressed-out coffee.” It’s what happens when you force hot water through finely ground coffee beans. This brewing method is challenging to master, as slight variations in pressure and temperature can produce an extremely unpalatable shot. As such, the best espresso machine is forgiving to first-time owners, it extracts rich flavor from its beans, and it offers a complex balance of sweet, sour, and bitter.
“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
We're recommending the version of the Breville espresso machine that comes with a built-in grinder. You place the beans in a compartment at the top, then use the portafilter to press a lever on the machine, which dispenses the grounds right into your portafilter compartment. It's easy to use, compact, and has a wheel on the side that allows you to change the grind. Since the grind of your espresso is one of the most important parts, we think it's worth having this grinder attached right to the machine. Especially since the Barista Express only costs about $100 more than the Infuser—Breville's model without the grinder. (However if you're looking for a smaller, more compact model, the Infuser performs as well as the Barista Express.)
“To me, a great drip-coffee machine is a reliable one with a timer (which is an awesome feature for large families). The Cuisinart DCC-3200 might not be the first choice of snobby coffee experts, but to me it does the trick. It’s cheap and works just fine (it’s actually the one I use myself at home). I love that I can program the timer and wake up to the smell of fresh coffee. Also, friends and family think you’re the best host when they stay with you (even though you’re still sleeping).” — Guillaume Guevara, founder of Miscelanea NY
“On mornings when I don’t make a pour-over (weigh out the water, the beans, all that fun stuff), the Capresso drip machine yields the cleanest-tasting cup that brings out beans’ floral flavors, without burning the grinds or yielding an overly acidic cup. It’s also got a built-in, conical burr grinder, which saves you from having to buy a separate gadget, too.” — Kat Odell, author of Day Drinking
Some home pump espresso machines use a single chamber both to heat water to brewing temperature and to boil water for steaming milk. However, they can perform only one operation at a time, requiring a warm up period between the execution of espresso pull and the milk frothing process. Since the temperature for brewing is less than the temperature for creating steam the machine requires time to make the transition from one mode to the other. Moreover, after the brewing process, a single boiler will expel (usually minor) quantities of water through the steam wand that were left over from brewing, which can cause the steam heated milk to then have a slightly watered down taste. To avoid this, the leftover water needs to be collected from the steam wand before steaming of the milk should begin. SB/DUs are generally found within the lower tiers of enthusiast home models, with steam wands being a simple and valued addition.
“So simple and easy to use. I’ve had the older version for ten years, tested out and researched so many to try something different only to return to this one, and I have no regrets. I LOVE IT! Most coffee makers put out a lot of steam at the top, which is unfortunate when stored under a cabinet. This has zero steam on top of the coffee maker. Also, most water reservoirs have a lid that flips open, which is also inconvenient when stored under a cabinet. This lid slides side to side, and brews a whole pot of coffee in about three minutes. Very convenient for busy, on-the-go, impatient people like me.”