The very first espresso machines worked on a steam-pressure basis, and they’re still in use today. With this type of machine, steam or steam pressure is used to force water through the coffee grounds and produce espresso. Some steam-driven machines can produce a measure of foam “crema.” But they can’t generate enough pressure or provide the precise temperature control necessary to produce true espresso: They simply make a very strong cup of coffee. However, they cost considerably less than pump-driven machines. Our verdict is that if you’re a true espresso lover and seeking to make a good shot at home, we recommend you steer clear of steam-driven machines. They’ll likely disappoint you.
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.
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".
In recent years air-pump-driven espresso machines have emerged. These machines use compressed air to force the hot water through the coffee grounds. The hot water is typically added from a kettle or a thermo flask. The compressed air comes from either a hand-pump, N2 or CO2 cartridges or an electric compressor. One of the advantages of the air-pump-driven machines is that they are much smaller and lighter than electric machines. They are often handheld and portable. The first air-pump-driven machine was the AeroPress, which was invented by Alan Adler, an American inventor, and introduced in 2005. Handpresso Wild, invented by Nielsen Innovation SARL, a French innovation house, was introduced in 2007.
CR’s take: This unassuming, inexpensive Hamilton Beach coffee maker might be easy to miss, but it can brew a mean cup of joe at a fantastic price. In a basic black-plastic finish, it has the essentials—it’s programmable and offers auto-shutoff—and it offers solid brew performance in a decent time frame (10 minutes). Hamilton Beach machines even earned a Very Good rating for predicted reliability. At around $25, this simple model will get the job done.
For first-time espresso machine owners, the Breville offers the perfect balance between hand-holding and customization. You’re in charge of basic steps like measuring out and pulling your shot, but the Breville makes it easy to adjust things like the coarseness of your grind and the amount of espresso. The user manual walks you through every step of the brewing process, and altering the default settings is easy, thanks to a display panel that clearly labels all buttons and lights. Our shots were beautifully layered and gave us truly gorgeous colors as the espresso flowed out of the portafilter.
The Rocket’s espresso lever is an upgrade from the simple on/off button used by most of our models. By only moving the lever part way up, you can play around with pre-infusing your coffee grounds before pulling the shot. Pre-infusion can be fun to tinker with as you try to home in on what makes your perfect espresso. This gives the Rocket an additional level of customization not available on the other models we tested.
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.
Semi-automatic machines are not quite as customizable as a manual machine, but they let you play with a lot: You can change the coarseness of the coffee you use, the amount of coffee you add, and how long you pull your shot. Expect a decent learning curve to figure things out, and know that you’ll also need some additional equipment, like a quality coffee grinder.
Our top pick is the OXO On 12-Cup Coffee Brewing System. It’s a large machine – both in footprint and in capacity — but it earned the second-highest scores in our taste test, and is sleek both to look at and to operate. Convenient features like programmable auto-brewing, a removable water reservoir that doubles as a kettle, and a spigot that stops the brew mid-stream if you remove the carafe make this machine feel high tech without being high maintenance. For those who want to be a little more hands-on with the brewing process, its single-button dial also lets you adjust the water’s brewing temperature, giving you more access to experiment with extraction and flavor.
A good grinder: An even grind is essential for drinkable espresso. In fact, if you’re trying to save money, most experts recommend cheaping out on your espresso machine rather than your grinder. Since we wanted to make sure our machines had the best chance of making great espresso, we started with a $600 grinder recommended to us by Seattle Coffee Gear.
The principle of a vacuum brewer was to heat water in a lower vessel until expansion forced the contents through a narrow tube into an upper vessel containing ground coffee. When the lower vessel was empty and sufficient brewing time had elapsed, the heat was removed and the resulting vacuum would draw the brewed coffee back through a strainer into the lower chamber, from which it could be decanted. The Bauhaus interpretation of this device can be seen in Gerhard Marcks' Sintrax coffee maker of 1925.
This machine is extremely consistent and it brews an excellent espresso or cup of coffee. It also looks like Darth Vader manifested as a coffee machine: it's sleek and black and is definitely what our coffee makers will look like when we're all living on the moon. If your kitchen aesthetic is Space Chic, this machine is for you. It takes the joy and skill out of brewing your own espresso, but it works extremely well and is great for making an almost cafe-quality cup of coffee at home in no time and with very little effort.
With the introduction of the electric drip coffee maker for the home in the early 1970s, the popularity of percolators plummeted, and so did the market for the self-contained ground coffee filters. In 1976, General Foods discontinued the manufacture of Max Pax, and by the end of the decade, even generic ground coffee filter rings were no longer available on U.S. supermarket shelves.
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.
Mr. Coffee doesn’t ask for the 15- to 30-minute boiler warmup like some big-name brands, instead taking just five to 10 minutes. This is ideal both for your morning coffee routine and your quick after-dinner latte or late-night hot chocolate. The machine also boasts a simple milk-steaming method that requires less work than our other picks: Prep your espresso, pour your milk into the milk reservoir, and you can press a button and walk away. Your latte or cappuccino will be ready in less than a minute. The foam quality is on the lower end, but you can customize how much of it you want.
Coffee makers are part of a morning ritual, the first touch point to help you greet the day. And finding the best coffee maker for you can depend on a lot of factors, like the amount of coffee it makes, the way you fill it with water, or what type of coffee you plan on making. Whether you're looking for a coffee maker that makes a single cup or a coffee maker to make enough coffee for family and friends (or even a crowd!), our collection of coffee makers have the perfect design, size and features to fit your coffee brewing needs.
This grinder produced the most even grounds out of all the machines I tested, and its range of output is all-encompassing. The coarsest setting produces large flakes, while the finest setting produces puffy grounds akin to powdered sugar—perfect for Turkish coffee. In between, I was quickly able to find the ideal settings for my Hario Woodneck, Aeropress, and even mason jar cold brew.
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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.