"I have used this machine for about a week, and it is awesome! I had used an espresso machine frequently years ago, but got sick of the grinding, prepping, priming, etc., especially before work in the morning. So, I eventually gave up and bought a plain-ole coffee maker. Unfortunately, "regular" coffee, to me, tastes like hot water. I even tried a Kuerig, but returned it within a month - it was more convenient, but the coffees are no higher quality than any grocery-store brand coffee. So I debated for a long time about whether I should wait for one of these brand-new Nespresso Vertuoline machines, or just buy one of the older, espresso-only Nespresso machines.
In the semi-automatic machine, water pressure and temperature must be stable and consistent, and according to our expert, the pressure shouldn't be too high. Typically, coffee is brewed at a pressure of about 10 bars, and an ideal water temperature is around 195 degrees. Generally, the more expensive the machine, the better the equipment inside that regulates these two factors. High-quality machines tend to have a mechanism called a PID, or proportional-integral-derivative, controller. The PID's function is to maintain constant water temperature with extreme accuracy, down to the degree. Two central problems plaguing inexpensive espresso machines is that they lack a PID, meaning the temperature of the brewing water can fluctuate up and down and yield inconsistent results. Inexpensive machines often advertise that they have 15 or 20 bars of pressure as a selling point. But, higher pressure is not the priority, and too much pressure can actually lead to over-extraction and bitterness in your espresso shot. Therefore, we looked for a machine with good temperature and pressure control.
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 Moccamaster isn't for everyone. Handmade in the Netherlands, it costs around $300—and would never win an award for value. It lacks a programmable timer, and it was also bit more difficult to set up than the rest of the coffee makers—in fact most were ready to go right out of the box. But a quick look at the instruction diagram should clear up any confusion, and the end result is well worth the effort.
CR’s take: If you’re an aficionado of fresh ground coffee, this Black+Decker is the brewer to buy. As the name suggests, the Mill & Brew goes that extra mile, grinding whole coffee beans just before brewing. As a result, the machine is capable of making a great pot of coffee. Made of plastic with stainless steel accents, this model is easy to use and to clean, earning a Very Good rating in our convenience tests. It allows you to adjust brew strength, and it’s programmable, so you can set it to grind and brew just before you wake up.
Tamp: To ensure the espresso is evenly packed, your machine comes with a tamp, which you’ll press into the basket against the grounds. This step is important: When you pull a shot, the water will go to the place of least resistance, avoiding densely packed areas. This denser espresso won’t be properly saturated, making it under-extracted and sour, while the looser espresso will be over-extracted and bitter.
The De'Longhi comes with a durable, high-quality stainless steel boiler which would serve you well over time. Other notable features include a swivel jet frother for easy cappuccino and latte prep, a dual-function filter holder that gives you a choice between ground coffee and pods, and a self-priming function which we recommend for the absolute best results.
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.)
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.
A portafilter (or group handle) attaches to the grouphead of semi-automatic and piston-driven espresso machines, and carries a tamped puck of coffee grounds within its basket. It is usually made of brass for better heat retention, and is attached by a plastic or wooden handle. The portafilter forms a seal with the espresso machine's gasket, and directs high-pressure hot water through the coffee puck. After-market retailers also sell bottomless portafilters that minimize the espresso's contact with any metal. A bottomless portafilter is one tool baristas use to analyze the quality of the coffee grind and the evenness of the extraction and allows for a visual check of "channeling" or the condition in which water is able to pierce a hole in the espresso puck during the brew process leading to poor extraction. Often, baristas use knockboxes to store their spent espresso grounds after they have pulled a shot.
CR’s take: The Cuisinart Coffee on Demand is a self-serve model. It stores 12 cups of brewed coffee in a reservoir and has a dispenser instead of a carafe. It makes sense in homes where people are drinking coffee at different times; it keeps coffee hot and ready, so family and guests can fill their own cups. This model is programmable and features a water filter and a cleaning indicator. The reservoir can be removed for washing. In our tests, the Coffee on Demand performs quite well, receiving a Very Good rating for convenience. At less than $100, it can be a terrific choice for entertaining.