For first-time espresso machine owners, the Breville offers the perfect balance between hand-holding and customization. You’re in charge of basic steps like measuring out and pulling your shot, but the Breville makes it easy to adjust things like the coarseness of your grind and the amount of espresso. The user manual walks you through every step of the brewing process, and altering the default settings is easy, thanks to a display panel that clearly labels all buttons and lights. Our shots were beautifully layered and gave us truly gorgeous colors as the espresso flowed out of the portafilter.
“Self-identified coffee snob. Couldn’t be happier. Easy to operate, functions as advertised, instructions are clear. The metal filter included does what it needs to do. I recommend a relatively coarse grind (imagine the feel of cornmeal) with the metal filter to get the full flavor of the coffee. If you’re a bit of a coffee snowflake (no disrespect intended) and don’t like the ‘mud’ at the bottom of the cup, you should stick with the paper filter. Either way, the coffee maker itself does the job nicely.”
We tested 12 models by making shots of espresso and lattes on each machine. We enlisted the help of an expert from Students of Coffee, a group of coffee educators and roasters at New York University, to judge for quality. The majority of the models we tested were semi-automatic, meaning brewers still have to grind the coffee and pack it in the portafilter (the little filter cup with a wand that you place in the front of the machine). Semi-automatic espresso machines heat the water for you, and then pump it through the grounds at varying levels of pressure, depending on the machine. The semi-automatic models we tester were:
CR’s take: This unassuming, inexpensive Hamilton Beach coffee maker might be easy to miss, but it can brew a mean cup of joe at a fantastic price. In a basic black-plastic finish, it has the essentials—it’s programmable and offers auto-shutoff—and it offers solid brew performance in a decent time frame (10 minutes). Hamilton Beach machines even earned a Very Good rating for predicted reliability. At around $25, this simple model will get the job done.
So while yes, $150 (current price as I review this item) is a good chunk of change, I honestly believe it’s worth it. This is a high-quality machine that will hopefully last a very, very long time. The quality of the espresso is very good, and in the long run, it will save you the cost of espresso-based drinks at the coffee shop. It all evens out in the end! If you are considering buying this, my advice is to just do it. It’s worth it! Love love love!”
An evenly tamped shot requires the tamp to fit into its portafilter basket precisely. Each machine comes with its own tamp, so we were surprised to find that not all of them fit. Some were too small, leaving behind a crescent moon of untouched coffee. It’s possible to try and compress in sections, but you’ll run the risk of re-tamping some of the grounds and producing an unpalatable shot.
Because the coffee grounds remain in direct contact with the brewing water and the grounds are filtered from the water via a mesh instead of a paper filter, coffee brewed with the cafetiere captures more of the coffee's flavour and essential oils, which would become trapped in a traditional drip brew machine's paper filters. As with drip-brewed coffee, cafetiere coffee can be brewed to any strength by adjusting the amount of ground coffee which is brewed. If the used grounds remain in the drink after brewing, French pressed coffee left to stand can become "bitter", though this is an effect that many users of cafetiere consider beneficial. For a 1⁄2-litre (0.11 imp gal; 0.13 US gal) cafetiere, the contents are considered spoiled, by some reports, after around 20 minutes. Other approaches consider a brew period that may extend to hours as a method of superior production.
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.
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.
The OXO On 12-Cup feels high-tech without being high maintenance. It’s beautifully constructed, with silicone gaskets, a stainless steel carafe, and sturdy-feeling plastic. But let’s go ahead and get its biggest downside right out there in the open. Of the 10 machines we tested, it took the longest to brew eight cups of coffee — nearly 15 minutes. It heats its entire reservoir of water to temperature before a drop touches the grounds, and if you’re jonesing for a full pot to start off your day, that wait is going to feel like a lifetime. This was particularly noticeable considering four of the machines we tested brewed the same amount of coffee in less than half that time. The Bunn BTX-B Velocity Brew could do it in three minutes flat.
A best seller in its category, this espresso maker from Mr. Coffee has all the bells and whistles you could want out of a machine. Besides espresso, you can also make cappuccino or a latte at the touch of a button. There’s an adjustable cup tray that lets you change the height based on the size of your cup, and the milk and water reservoirs are removable for easy refill and cleanup. A drip catcher will keep things clean if anything spills over, and the machine comes with a single shot filter, double shot filter, measuring scoop, tamper, and coffee recipes.
The Barista Express espresso machine uses a 15 Bar Italian Pump and a 1600W Thermocoil heating system to make rich espresso. Since it's a semi-automatic machine, the Breville automatically adjusts water temperature after steam to extract the most flavor out of your beans. The machine also has a 67 fl.oz (2L) water tank with a nice handle for easy removal, and it comes with a replaceable water filter.
CR’s take: Like the model above, the Cuisinart Burr Grind & Brew takes whole coffee beans and grinds them fresh for each pot. It features programming, brew-strength control, a water filter, a permanent coffee filter, and auto-shutoff. This model earns a great rating for carafe handling. The stainless steel finish and glass carafe certainly elevate the experience of using it. Cuisinart brewers also received an Excellent rating for owner satisfaction. But the performance and finish come at a premium—this machine costs significantly more than the Black+Decker Mill & Brew.