Domestic electrification simplified the operation of percolators by providing for a self-contained, electrically powered heating element that removed the need to use a stovetop burner. A critical element in the success of the electric coffee maker was the creation of safe and secure fuses and heating elements. In an article in House Furnishing Review, May 1915, Lewis Stephenson of Landers, Frary and Clark described a modular safety plug being used in his company's Universal appliances, and the advent of numerous patents and innovations in temperature control and circuit breakers provided for the success of many new percolator and vacuum models. While early percolators had utilized all-glass construction (prized for maintaining purity of flavor), most percolators made from the 1930s were constructed of metal, especially aluminum and nickel-plated copper.
For hundreds of years, making a cup of coffee was a simple process. Roasted and ground coffee beans were placed in a pot or pan, to which hot water was added, followed by attachment of a lid to commence the infusion process. Pots were designed specifically for brewing coffee, all with the purpose of trying to trap the coffee grounds before the coffee is poured. Typical designs feature a pot with a flat expanded bottom to catch sinking grounds and a sharp pour spout that traps the floating grinds. Other designs feature a wide bulge in the middle of the pot to catch grounds when coffee is poured.
It’s not that cone filters won’t make a great cup of coffee — the OXO On 9-Cup still ranked fifth out of 10 in our taste test. But flat bottoms generally allow for the grounds to be more evenly extracted and increase the coffee’s flavor. (It’s no coincidence our other three recommendations have flat-bottom brew baskets). You may have to do a little more tweaking to get this coffee maker’s brew to the best it can be, and that’s the other reason we like the 12-cupper more. This smaller version doesn’t let you tinker with water temperature.
We're recommending the version of the Breville espresso machine that comes with a built-in grinder. You place the beans in a compartment at the top, then use the portafilter to press a lever on the machine, which dispenses the grounds right into your portafilter compartment. It's easy to use, compact, and has a wheel on the side that allows you to change the grind. Since the grind of your espresso is one of the most important parts, we think it's worth having this grinder attached right to the machine. Especially since the Barista Express only costs about $100 more than the Infuser—Breville's model without the grinder. (However if you're looking for a smaller, more compact model, the Infuser performs as well as the Barista Express.)
No one wants to wait in line for espresso, right? This machine lets you make two shots at once, so you can make drinks for two in half the time, and you can choose a single- or double-shot portafilter for different serving sizes. The machine has a 15-bar pump system and a frothing arm to make a creamy froth for your cappuccinos and lattes. An indicator light lets you know when the process is complete.
Why it's great: The relatively lightweight machine by Mr. Coffee is a triple threat, meaning you’re not limited to just espresso. You can also make cappuccino and regular coffee, not to mention a variety of specialty drinks from the included recipe book (think espresso martinis, raspberry cappuccinos, choco-nutty lattes, etc.) The machine comes with an electric pump that shoots out 15 bars of pressure. It also has a one-touch feature that lets you select either a single or double-shot drink, and it even has an automatic milk frother with an adjustable knob, so you can customize the amount of froth you’d like in your drink of choice.
Since semi-automatic espresso makers require you to dose the coffee yourself, grind and pack it, they give the brewer more control. You can tinker and master the art of making espresso. You can learn to pull the perfect shot. Still, fully automatic machines are a good option for someone who wants quality espresso at home, but wants to put in less effort (and skill). According to our expert from Students of Coffee—and our own online research—a semi-automatic machine is the best way to make espresso.
“I grind the beans in a Hario hand grinder gifted from my brother to me when he upgraded to a fancy electric one. Using the hand grinder is meditative. It feels like you’re ‘earning’ your morning coffee a little bit more. At home, I use a Muji porcelain pour-over, but when I’m at my family’s house in metro Detroit, I love using their Bonavita BV1800SS. Unfortunately, I don’t have one of my own, but seriously, you can’t fuck it up. Super-easy and delicious every single time.” — Kimberly Chou, co-director of Food Book Fair
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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:
The well-designed Braun BrewSense came closer to the gold standard for water brewing temperature than almost any other drip coffee maker in our testing, and delivered a rich, bold and hot cup of coffee. It has settings to program the coffee to brew ahead of time and you can adjust the brew strength and the temperature of the warming plate. Also available in black.
The piston-driven, or lever-driven, machine was developed in Italy in 1945 by Achille Gaggia, founder of espresso machine manufacturer Gaggia. The design generically uses a lever, pumped by the operator, to pressurize hot water and send it through the coffee grinds. The act of producing a shot of espresso is colloquially termed pulling a shot, because these lever-driven espresso machines required pulling a long handle to produce a shot. Lever-driven espresso machines are sometimes called manual espresso machines because of this.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, although some coffee makers tended to uniformity of design (particularly stovetop percolators), others displayed a wide variety of styling differences. In particular, the vacuum brewer, which required two fully separate chambers joined in an hourglass configuration, seemed to inspire industrial designers. Interest in new designs for the vacuum brewer revived during the American Arts & Crafts movement with the introduction of "Silex" brand coffee makers, based on models developed by Massachusetts housewives Ann Bridges and Mrs. Sutton. Their use of Pyrex solved the problem of fragility and breakability that had made this type of machine commercially unattractive. During the 1930s, simple, clean forms, increasingly of metal, attracted positive attention from industrial designers heavily influenced by the functionalist imperative of the Bauhaus and Streamline movements. It was at this time that Sunbeam's sleek Coffeemaster vacuum brewer appeared, styled by the famous industrial designer Alfonso Iannelli. The popularity of glass and Pyrex globes temporarily revived during the Second World War, since aluminum, chrome, and other metals used in traditional coffee makers became restricted in availability.
All the machines we tested came with either insulated carafes or glass pots with built-in warmers. Both have pros and cons. Glass pots are typically easier to clean because they tend to have wider mouths, and the lack of internal insulation means that glass pots will have a greater interior volume relative to its exterior volume — basically, it’s easier to get your hand or dish sponge into a glass pot. On the other hand, glass pots are more fragile and have to be heated from a base plate. In our tests, those base plates could even raise the temperature of the coffee, like with the CuisinArt, which can make coffee taste burnt.
†Programmable Brew Time: Conventional wisdom frowns at grinding beans early and programming a pot to brew later. The aromatic compounds in coffee beans start to oxidize as quickly as 15 minutes after grinding, which causes coffee to start losing aroma and flavor. But Michael Ebert, senior consultant at Firedancer Coffee Consultants, LLC, assured us that, given the trade-offs for convenience, “grinding the night before will still make a great coffee — just not as great as it could be.” Seven of the 10 pots we tested are programmable, including three of our top picks (all but the Bonavita).
Before we get into the technical aspects of the two types of espresso machines, here’s what you really need to know. Semi-automatic espresso machines are going to be perfect for the espresso connoisseur. If you’re the type that really wants to get the best-quality and taste out of your espresso machine and don’t mind taking a little more time and effort out of your schedule, the semi-automatic espresso maker is going to be for you. It’s a little bit more work, but the key here is that you ultimately have more control over every subtle nuance that goes into your version of the perfect shot of espresso with a semi-automatic.
There’s also no way to adjust the temperature of the water on the Bonavita, or tinker with any of the other variables some of our other top picks gave access to. And that’s the other downside to this excellent machine: What you get is what you get, and if you do want to experiment with the flavor of your coffee, it will depend entirely on the beans you buy and the size you grind them to. Good thing the coffee it brews right out of the box is so dang good.
“What I REALLY like about it is that it’s pretty much an all-in-one system without the thousand-dollar-plus all-in-one cost. I push one button and all the magic happens, and it’s quite entertaining to watch the espresso cascade through the milk and create separate layers. I also like that I can take the milk and store it in my fridge. I’ve done some temperature tests, and only noticed a five-degree increase after making a double latte, before I put it back in the fridge. This is nice, as you would think that to be so close to all that heat, it would be a much bigger temperature fluctuation.”
Thankfully we have Amazon, and moreover Amazon users (aka fellow espresso connoisseurs) who happen to be very vocal when it comes to their favorite machines. (We have read dozens of reviews and these folks are THOROUGH, to say the least.) To save you some time, we put together a list of the best espresso makers based on Amazon reviews. Our number one favorite was the Breville BES870XL. Not only does it take the spot of "best of the best" on Amazon's ranks page, its ease of use, freshness factor, and straight up *amazing* espresso-making capabilities have reviewers swooning.
“I am a coffee snob, and one of my favorite things about traveling to Europe is their espresso and cappuccinos. A couple years ago, I bought a Nespresso Aeroccino machine for making froth and a stovetop Moka pot for making espresso; the system has worked fine, but the espresso can take awhile to make (around 5-8 minutes) and there’s definitely a learning curve to making good coffee with it. … [How] does this machine do [in comparison]? Stellar. Absolutely stellar. Once the water is in and it heats up, you flip up a lever, drop in the pod, and press the size button (espresso or lungo). Off it goes! Brewing is super quick and the espresso always comes out with a beautiful crema on top. My first drink was a cappuccino, and it was so much better than the ones I’ve been making with my Moka pot! …
In later years, coffeemakers began to adopt more standardized forms commensurate with a large increase in the scale of production required to meet postwar consumer demand. Plastics and composite materials began to replace metal, particularly with the advent of newer electric drip coffeemakers in the 1970s. During the 1990s, consumer demand for more attractive appliances to complement expensive modern kitchens resulted in a new wave of redesigned coffeemakers in a wider range of available colors and styles.
The gist: Okay, so although most of our list focuses on countertop espresso makers, if we're going by Amazon reviews, it'd be an injustice to ignore this Bialetti Stovertop Espresso Maker. As Amazon's best-selling stovetop espresso maker, this classy little thing is POP-U-LAR. As in 6,950 reviews (and counting) popular. Most impressively, those reviews give it an average of 4.3 stars, with 74% of them giving it a perfect 5-star rating. That's a hell of a lot of happy people. Now, disclaimer: we do have to mention straight away that the Bialetti doesn't *technically* make espresso, considering it's not able to build the amount of bars of pressure necessary to again, *technically* qualify it as espresso. However, Bialetti does give tips and guidelines for how to brew their "moka" coffee to your liking. (Moka is described as a mix between coffee and espresso.) Also, some reviewers (see below for example) claim they can't even tell the difference between the moka and a shot of espresso.
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.
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).
Made in Italy by a company that has been manufacturing coffee makers for over 80 years, this espresso maker takes less than five minutes to produce up to 3 demitasses (2 ounces) cups of espresso. It is made from polished aluminum in a classic octagon shape that will look good on your stove or table, while the shape also helps to diffuse heat perfectly. It has a patented safety valve for protection and is easy to disassemble for cleaning.
The best part about this machine is that it comes with everything you need (except the beans). You don't have to spend an extra $100+ on a good grinder or $25-$100 on a milk frothing pitcher and tamper. You will pay a bit more for it than other machines on this list, but it's well worth it — especially now that this machine costs $548.96 instead of $999.99.
The term dual boiler is used narrowly for machines with two separate boilers, and more broadly for what are more properly called dual heater (DH) machines, featuring a boiler for brewing and a separate thermoblock (TB) for heating brew water to steaming temperature – opposite to HX machines, where the boiler is at steaming temperature and is cooled to brewing temperature.