A portafilter (or group handle) attaches to the grouphead of semi-automatic and piston-driven espresso machines, and carries a tamped puck of coffee grounds within its basket. It is usually made of brass for better heat retention, and is attached by a plastic or wooden handle. The portafilter forms a seal with the espresso machine's gasket, and directs high-pressure hot water through the coffee puck. After-market retailers also sell bottomless portafilters that minimize the espresso's contact with any metal. A bottomless portafilter is one tool baristas use to analyze the quality of the coffee grind and the evenness of the extraction and allows for a visual check of "channeling" or the condition in which water is able to pierce a hole in the espresso puck during the brew process leading to poor extraction. Often, baristas use knockboxes to store their spent espresso grounds after they have pulled a shot.
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.
On August 27, 1930, Inez H. Pierce of Chicago, Illinois filed patent for the first vacuum coffee maker that truly automated the vacuum brewing process, while eliminating the need for a stove top burner or liquid fuels. An electrically heated stove was incorporated into the design of the vacuum brewer. Water was heated in a recessed well, which reduced wait times and forced the hottest water into the reaction chamber. Once the process was complete, a thermostat using bi-metallic expansion principles shut off heat to the unit at the appropriate time. Pierce's invention was the first truly "automatic" vacuum coffee brewer, and was later incorporated in the Farberware Coffee Robot.
What Amazon users have to say: As you may expect, there are rave reviews for Nespresso. Users love the ease of making quality espresso with little to no effort or cleanup. The machine is energy and space-saving, and comes with top notch customer service should you need it. Amazon user LT was especially feelin' it, saying "If I could marry an appliance (is it legal?) I would spend the rest of my life with this espresso machine." We'll be sure to look into those marriage laws. In the meantime, here's more Inissia praise:
If all you’re looking for is a gorgeous cup of coffee and no fuss, we strongly recommend the Bonavita BV1900TS. It’s the smallest machine among our top picks and, at $190, the cheapest. Even better, it ranked in the top three out of 10 during our taste tests. It’s also the simplest and most straightforward: one button you click to start brewing, and that’s it. You can’t program brew times; you can’t play around with water temperature; and it even lacks some convenient touches like a brew basket that attaches to the machine (when you’re done brewing, you have to place the brew basket on a plate or in the sink before it makes a total mess). But it’s by far the fastest machine out of our top picks, brewing up a full eight-cup pot in under six minutes. It’s a straightforward, high-end coffee maker that leaves little to complain about.
What Amazon users have to say: Reviewers love that you can customize the amount of froth in your drink. They also love the simplicity of use: just add water, add milk to the frother container, add coffee, and you’re ready to go. A major plus for the aficionados: this machine still gives you the option to use your own coffee grounds instead of pods, allowing for fresh and customizable brews. Several users noted how the quality of the espresso is “amazing for the price” of the machine.
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.
CR’s take: Though this Bialetti lacks typical drip-machine features such as programming and brew-strength control, it more than compensates with a Very Good rating in our brew performance test and a crisp 8-minute brew time. If you’re the type who sometimes prefers a morning shot of espresso to a cup of joe, this twofer—drip machine beside espresso maker—may be for you. It features a built-in milk frother, a permanent coffee filter, and auto-shutoff. CR does not yet have enough survey data on Bialetti machines to rate them on reliability and satisfaction, but when we do, we’ll add that info to our ratings.