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:
CR’s take: This Cuisinart drip coffee maker with a stainless steel finish and glass carafe earns an Excellent rating for brew performance. It’s programmable and features a water filter, a permanent coffee filter, cleaning mode, a cleaning indicator, and auto-shutoff. The machine also allows you to adjust the strength of your brew. For the money, this model offers style and features that are hard to beat. If you can live without the built-in grinder of the Cuisinart Burr Grind & Brew above, you can save yourself some money and still enjoy Cuisinart quality for a lot less.
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.
The OXO is SCAA-certified, so we knew going in that it would heat water to the right temperature range and let coffee brew for the right amount of time. But what really sold us on the OXO was how its scrolling dial made even that customizable. Assuming you want to bring the extraction down a touch for lighter, subtler coffee, you can lower the water temperature with a twist of the dial. Likewise, if you want a slightly more robust aroma from your brew, you can increase the water’s temp the same way.
Why it's great: With the exception of a few exterior differences, getting the Inissia is basically like getting the Pixie at a discounted price. Aside from the quality espresso, it comes with all the same Nespresso perks: The Nespresso welcome kit has 14 unique capsules and access to the Nespresso club. Through the Nespresso Club you can order capsules either online or by phone, as well as get personalized advice and technical support for your machine 24/7. Not too shabby for a tiny little machine of its price. For those who don't mind being a little less fancy with the exterior design, the Inissia is definitely a great option.
The tall tower is fixed on a rectangular base, with a water tank that looks something akin to a trapezoid. The hard plastic funnel allows your favorite paper filters to fit inside of it. It is recommended that you use type 4 paper filters, however. You also have the option to use permanent gold filters if you want to move away from reoccurring costs.
It scored the highest in our out-of-the-box taste test, brewing coffee our tasters described as “light” with subtle notes of blueberry, citrus, cherry, tobacco, and hazelnut. The machine simply brews great coffee, and it takes its job seriously. If you’re interested in playing around with the flavor and extraction of your roast, the Behmor Brazen gives you more access to more variables. You can adjust water temperature, play with pre-infusion times (15 seconds to four minutes) — it even has you enter your altitude to better determine water’s boiling point, and calibrate its internal thermometer during setup.
If you’re shopping for coffee at the grocery store, “check the roast date, rather than the ‘best by’ date,” says Awan. With mass market roasters, the “best by” date can obfuscate the window in which coffee beans are at their best: about 4 days after roasting, when some, but not all, of the carbon dioxide has escaped from the beans. (Too much carbon dioxide captured within beans tends to create uneven extraction, as the gas escapes — this is what pre-infusing tries to counter. Conversely, too little carbon dioxide in the bean can lead to a loss of flavor.)
Our bean-to-cup espresso machines are easy to clean, with front-accessible components and a removable water tank and drip tray for easy cleanup. Many of our machines also have indicators that remind you when it’s time to clean your espresso machine, so you don’t have to worry about a build-up of limescale putting strain on your machine. Our espresso machines are best cleaned using the De’Longhi descaling solution, which has been proven to be up to three times as effective as regular lime scale removers.
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.
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If you're highly particular about how your coffee tastes, you'll want the Behmor Brazen Plus. It was the only drip machine we tested that brewed at the optimal temperature to bring out the best flavor from coffee beans. Getting this perfect brew takes a little more time to set up than most coffee makers require— before starting, you have to calibrate it for the altitude in your area— but overall it's easy to use.
As a coffee nut, coffee-shop lover, and former professional barista, I don’t normally make recommendations for home espresso equipment. Not because I don't want you to have delicious espresso at home, but because it takes a lot of practice and a lot of burned fingers to learn to make espresso well. Many people invest in an espresso machine like they invest in the exercise equipment that becomes a very expensive coat rack: If you're going to buy it and never use it, you're almost always better off going to the local café.
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The Bonavita is a simple, compact machine (about 12 inches x 12 inches) for only $190, and it makes coffee that ranked in the top three in our taste test. Its philosophy seems to be “everything you absolutely need, nothing you don’t.” That means it’s SCAA-certified for water temperature and brew times, boasts pre-infusion capabilities, and has a flat-bottom filter basket that extracts grounds evenly. That’s it.
CR’s take: For $80, this Mr. Coffee 12-cup drip brewer is surprisingly stylish. Its airy design sets it apart from the blocky shapes common to the category. This model earns a rating of Very Good in CR’s brew-performance tests and makes a full pot in just 9 minutes. It offers brew-strength control, programming, and a permanent coffee filter. With its performance and striking appearance, you might not mind having it out on the counter—especially in a kitchen with a stainless fridge and range.