A steam-driven unit operates by forcing water through the coffee by using steam or steam pressure. The first espresso machines were steam types, produced when a common boiler was piped to four group heads so that multiple types of coffee could be made at the same time. This design is still used today in lower-cost consumer machines, as it does not need to contain moving parts. Also, steam-driven machines do not produce as high of a pressure for extraction compared to pump-driven. This results in the crema, a hallmark of an espresso, being of lower quality.
The Breville machine was also the only semi-automatic model to produce a velvety, well-incorporated foam. The consistency with which it incorporated air made for a beautifully textured latte—and our coffee expert was even able to make some latte art with it (something that was impossible with the air bubbles from other models, including the Gaggia and all of the less expensive machines).
For example, if your coffee tastes a bit salty or sour, the grounds are under-extracted, which can be remedied by a finer grind. But what if only some of your grounds are too coarse, and others are too fine – and maybe some are just right? Having uniform grind size throughout your brew basket makes it easier to isolate and adjust this variable in order to get the level of extraction you want. The only way to achieve that is with a burr grinder. Miller — as well as a handful of our other experts — recommends the Barazata Encore Coffee Grinder ($129).
CR’s take: If you’re an aficionado of fresh ground coffee, this Black+Decker is the brewer to buy. As the name suggests, the Mill & Brew goes that extra mile, grinding whole coffee beans just before brewing. As a result, the machine is capable of making a great pot of coffee. Made of plastic with stainless steel accents, this model is easy to use and to clean, earning a Very Good rating in our convenience tests. It allows you to adjust brew strength, and it’s programmable, so you can set it to grind and brew just before you wake up.
When it comes to features, our top pick’s little sister, the OXO On 9-Cup Coffee Maker, looks and feels much the same: a single-button dial, programmable start times — even the timer that lets you know how old the coffee is after it’s been brewed is identical. On this version, the water reservoir isn’t detachable, but it brews coffee significantly faster than the 12-cupper’s 14 minutes(!) and it’s $100 cheaper. It’s a great machine that didn’t earn our top spot simply because the coffee it makes didn’t perform quite as well as the other three top picks in our taste tests, and it doesn’t let you tinker with water temperature and extraction the way the larger machine does.
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.
It can take a little while to get to know the ins and outs of a new coffee maker. In CR’s labs, each drip coffee maker we test brews roughly 65 cups by the time our engineers are through with it. And brewing is just one of many aspects we look at. We test for handling and convenience, too, so you can choose a model that helps you sail through morning madness.