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.
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.
All of the espresso machines we tested only included a single boiler for heating. This means that there's only one mechanism for heating both the water for brewing and the steamer wand. Because of this, it'll take the steamer wand a while to heat up after pulling the espresso shot, since the steamer wand operates at a much higher temperature than the brewing temperature of around 195°F. It is possible to buy a home machine with a double boiler (Breville makes one) but this raises the price significantly (we didn't test the Breville because it's over $1,000), and the minor wait time wasn't a major concern for us. We figured it wouldn't be for home brewers either.
In recent years air-pump-driven espresso machines have emerged. These machines use compressed air to force the hot water through the coffee grounds. The hot water is typically added from a kettle or a thermo flask. The compressed air comes from either a hand-pump, N2 or CO2 cartridges or an electric compressor. One of the advantages of the air-pump-driven machines is that they are much smaller and lighter than electric machines. They are often handheld and portable. The first air-pump-driven machine was the AeroPress, which was invented by Alan Adler, an American inventor, and introduced in 2005. Handpresso Wild, invented by Nielsen Innovation SARL, a French innovation house, was introduced in 2007.
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.
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:
An electric drip coffee maker can also be referred to as a dripolator. It normally works by admitting water from a cold water reservoir into a flexible hose in the base of the reservoir leading directly to a thin metal tube or heating chamber (usually, of aluminum), where a heating element surrounding the metal tube heats the water. The heated water moves through the machine using the thermosiphon principle. Thermally-induced pressure and the siphoning effect move the heated water through an insulated rubber or vinyl riser hose, into a spray head, and onto the ground coffee, which is contained in a brew basket mounted below the spray head. The coffee passes through a filter and drips down into the carafe. A one-way valve in the tubing prevents water from siphoning back into the reservoir. A thermostat attached to the heating element turns off the heating element as needed to prevent overheating the water in the metal tube (overheating would produce only steam in the supply hose), then turns back on when the water cools below a certain threshold. For a standard 10-12 cup drip coffeemaker, using a more powerful thermostatically-controlled heating element (in terms of wattage produced), can heat increased amounts of water more quickly using larger heating chambers, generally producing higher average water temperatures at the spray head over the entire brewing cycle. This process can be further improved by changing the aluminum construction of most heating chambers to a metal with superior heat transfer qualities, such as copper.
While it’s hands down the best cheap espresso machine on the market, Mr. Coffee isn’t on the same level with the Rocket or the Breville. Its shots lack the richness and complexity of true espresso, tasting more like a full-bodied Americano. Its layer of crema disappears quickly, and its shots don’t offer the gorgeous, gradient colors that you’d get from a machine like the Rocket. That said, it ranked fourth for taste among the machines we tested, so it’s still a solid option if you don’t need the finest coffee quality the market has to offer.
“Small things CAN bring you joy. My recent purchase of this Zojirushi coffee maker has made me very happy. Sounds like a commercial, but consider this … Last year, I bought a more expensive coffee maker that made terrible coffee! Instead of using the machine, I started making pour-overs. Something I hate to do … A year and a bunch of customer reviews later, I ordered this new baby, and I am so happy, I am writing about it here. I don’t know if it’s the water filter that water passes through or the fact that the water is introduced to the coffee a little bit differently, but the result is what I consider a perfect cup of coffee.”
You might have heard that purchasing a double-boiler espresso machine or a proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controller will give you more accuracy and control over temperature. They’re definitely features to dig into for advanced espresso crafters, but expect to pay an additional $400 for a PID and $800+ for a second boiler. Since we wanted to focus on beginner machines, we stuck to single-boiler models without PID controllers for this review.
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.