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.
It’s obvious, but easy to forget: If you don’t clean out your coffee machine’s carafe after each use with soap and water, you’ll always end up tasting a little bit of yesterday’s now-bitter brew. Thermal carafes need to be hand-washed, but all the plastic components of our top picks — brew baskets, lids, etc. — are dishwasher-safe if you keep them on the top rack.
The Bonavita Coffee Brewer performs stellar when it comes to coffee drip brewing, easily outpacing more expensive coffee makers. It'll take about six minutes to create 44 ounces of coffee. Brisk brewing has caught the attention of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, since it's threshold for recognition is a brewing time of fewer than eight minutes.
Let’s circle back to that extra-long brew time. There are two factors that didn’t make it an automatic “no” for us. The first is that the OXO On 12-Cup is programmable. Like our experts say, grinding coffee in advance isn’t going to make the most perfect cup of coffee. But the fact that you can program the machine’s “wake-up time” to start brewing and have coffee ready when you are takes the sting out of the wait.
The Breville is technically a semi-automatic espresso maker, since it requires you to dose and tamp your own shots, but we found it more forgiving than true automatics. The Breville’s dual-wall filter baskets (in addition to two standard single-wall baskets) add extra pressure, providing a little forgiveness for beginners’ mistakes in either grinding the beans or tamping the shot.
These machines automatically grind the coffee, tamp it, and extract the espresso shot. The operator only has to fill the bean hopper and, if the machine is not connected to a water line, add water to a reservoir. Some models contain an automated milk frothing and dispensing device. Super-automatic machines take away the ability to manually tamp and grind the coffee, which may affect the quality of the espresso.
“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.”
Finally, the design and extra tools that the Breville machine comes with are impeccable. It includes a large drip tray to catch spilled coffee and milk and has a sensor that lets you know when the tray is too full. It also has a compartment under the drip tray that allows you to store the extra filters the machine comes with. It includes a hefty, stainless steel milk steaming jug and a tamper for pressing the expresso grounds down. Other machines' tampers are made of flimsy plastic that left loose grounds around the sides of the portafilter, but the Breville tamper is made of thick, durable plastic and metal. It's strong enough to actually work well at compacting the grounds, plus it's perfectly sized to fit the entire circumference of the portafilter, reaching all of the grounds and not leaving loose stragglers. There's also a magnetic slot on the machine where you can house the tamper. It can be used while it's attached to the top of the machine, or taken down for more leverage—this is an impressive extra design feature, since the many parts required in making espresso can make for clutter.
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.
Programmable coffee makers exist to make the brewing process as painless as possible. Outside of maybe grinding your coffee beans, the drip coffee system will use optimal water temperatures of around 205 degrees Fahrenheit or 96.11 degrees Celsius for maximum extraction of the ground coffee beans. The best automatic coffee maker will seamlessly reach this temperature within minutes of the brewing process.
With its mid-century design and an exposed reservoir, you'll want to leave the Moccamaster out on the counter even when it’s not in use. But it doesn't just look great. Indeed, the pricey Moccamaster brews a complex and smooth pot of coffee that ranked highest in our taste test. This machine also fills a full pot quickly—a necessity for the morning rush.
To make it easy for you, we’ve gathered up the best espresso machines on the market, carefully weighed, and prioritized several criteria in testing and put together these targeted espresso machine reviews that are specifically meant to help you cut through all the confusion and just get the best deal on the home espresso maker that fits your style.
Manual or semi-automatic machines offer more control of shot quality. Because when to cut the shot (brew time) is a critical variable, which is often adjusted shot-by-shot, semi-automatic machines are often preferred over automatics, though some machines are automatic. Manual machines are more popular in Europe, where it is more common to drink straight espresso.
When you’re looking for an espresso maker, you have a few different options. Electric espresso makers are popular choices, and they make creating your own espresso drinks quick and easy. This type of machine feeds pressurized water through a series of tubes in the device, heats it up and then feeds it through compacted grounds. Most electric espresso machines include milk frothing wands, which use steam to create delicious foamy milk or cream that’s ideal for cappuccinos or lattes. Many machines are fully automatic, so there isn’t much of a learning curve involved. A few even include built-in coffee mills, offering fresh coffee with zero effort.
A cafetiere (Coffee Plunger, French press in US English) requires coffee of a coarser grind than does a drip brew coffee filter, as finer grounds will seep through the press filter and into the coffee. Coffee is brewed by placing the coffee and water together, stirring it and leaving to brew for a few minutes, then pressing the plunger to trap the coffee grounds at the bottom of the beaker.
The first machine for making espresso was built and patented by Angelo Moriondo of Turin, Italy, who demonstrated a working example at the Turin General Exposition of 1884. He was granted patent no. 33/256 dated 16 May 1884 (according to the "Bollettino delle privative industriali del Regno d'Italia", 2nd Series, Volume 15, Year 1884, pages 635 – 655). A certificate of industrial title was awarded to Mr. Moriondo Angelo, of Turin, for an invention called "New steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage, method 'A. Moriondo', Plate CXL".
Why it's great: A true espresso drinker knows that when it comes to espresso, there are a few things that can't be overlooked when it comes to a quality cup: freshness and a good grinding method. The burr grinder is a known Barista-favorite, as it maximizes the surface area of the grinds resulting in optimal flavor. The BES870 even allows you to adjust the grind and portion size, so you can go from fine to course depending on your desired flavor.
Expert reviewers and buyers alike love this espresso machine. BravoTV wrote a review explaining why it's worth the money even though it's pricey. Indeed, when you do the math to calculate just how much money you spend over the course of a year on espresso, cappuccinos, and other high-end coffee drinks, you'll see just how much money this admittedly expensive machine will save you in the long run.
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.