Above all, good espresso requires precision. If you’re looking for phenomenal tasting notes, flavor balance, and texture, there is simply no room for error in the machine, the beans, the user, or even the weather. And even if you’re not holding out for the best coffee on the planet, the margin for error is still slim. To test the machines, we pulled shots following the Italian Espresso National Institute's measurement guidelines and paid attention to the following markers of success:
Why it's great: Bialetti is a trusted name brand in the motherland of espresso: Italy. According to their page, you can find a Bialetti product in nine out of ten households in Italy. Point being: they know a thing or two about a quality machine. The Bialetti Stovetop is really nothing fancy. No electronics, no buttons to push. Just fill the bottom chamber with water, fill the second chamber with ground coffee beans, put it on the stove, and wait for the coffee to start coming out the top. Boom. The coffee is fresh and the machine maintenance is basically nothing.
First, of all of the espresso machines we tested, the two Breville models are the only ones that contain the above-mentioned PID for extremely precise temperature control. This means that the machine consistently pulled a slightly-sweet, creamy shot of espresso. It had plenty of crema on top. Another reason this machine pulls such a consistently wonderful shot is that it maintains consistent pressure—where other machines made bitter, flat-tasting shots, the consistent pressure of the Breville machine meant the espresso was flavorful and delicious.
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*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.
The Mr. Coffee Optimal Brew coffee maker System has a highly modular design, with its rectangular water reservoir easily sliding in and out of the chassis. For those who only want a cup of basic coffee, you will find that the Mr. Coffee Optimal Brew coffee maker System will do that very well – its "brew now" button is found on the front of the machine.
‡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.
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.