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.
If you're ready to pull the trigger on buying an espresso machine, be prepared to shell out a little cash. Espresso machines can be wildly expensive. Rightfully so. Pulling a perfect shot requires precision: the machine must maintain both precise temperature and stable pressure throughout the brewing process. Achieving this stability is difficult and requires complex machinery, which is why you can find machines for upwards of 6,000 dollars.
The gist: Taking the first spot on our list is the Breville BES870XL. This machine is no joke and its 4.3 star Amazon rating from over 1,800 reviews speaks to that. It boasts a 15 bar Italian pump and a 1600 watt thermo coil heating system. It comes with a 54mm tamper, a stainless steel conical burr grinder, and a 2-liter removable water tank. It's available in three colors: black, red, and silver.
“Quite possibly the best investment I’ve made in an appliance to date. This powerful machine makes THE BEST COFFEE. I’m a coffee snob, so Keurig never impressed me, and I don’t have the space to purchase a full espresso machine. The Ninja system is compact, but offers a variety of brewing settings. Very easy to clean. Huge fan of this brand in general, and I’m so glad I made this purchase. Even comes with a travel mug.”
Prior to the introduction of pre-measured self-contained ground coffee filter rings, fresh coffee grounds were measured out in scoopfuls and placed into the metal percolator basket. This process enabled small amounts of coffee grounds to leak into the fresh coffee. Additionally, the process left wet grounds in the percolator basket, which were very tedious to clean. The benefit of the Max Pax coffee filter rings was two-fold: First, because the amount of coffee contained in the rings was pre-measured, it negated the need to measure each scoop and then place it in the metal percolator basket. Second, the filter paper was strong enough to hold all the coffee grounds within the sealed paper. After use, the coffee filter ring could be easily removed from the basket and discarded. This saved the consumer from the tedious task of cleaning out the remaining wet coffee grounds from the percolator basket.
Espresso shots need to be pulled between 186 and 194 degrees F. If the water is too cold when it hits the espresso, the shot tastes sour. Too hot, and it tastes burnt. It’s trickier to hit this window if you also want your machine to steam milk, since steam requires a higher temperature — at least 212 degrees. But we struggled to get several of our machines just to pull decent espresso, never mind the milk. Sour shots were a clear sign that the water wasn’t hot enough; scorched shots indicated that the water climbed over 200 degrees.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.