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.
“I like the Technivorm Moccamaster because, from a scientific standpoint, it creates the proper water temperature (and temperature consistency) for good extraction of flavor from the beans. That’s the problem with most cheap automatics — they’re inconsistent about temperature. It also has a shower-head design for good water dispersion and saturation of the grounds. It consistently tastes almost (almost, I stress) as good as a manual drip.” — Andrew Chou, engineer, General Motors
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.
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.
This Good Housekeeping Seal star features an all-black body, a 12-cup glass carafe, a reusable filter and a backlit LCD screen with digital touchpad controls. You can program the clock to automatically brew coffee in the morning. It'll make a hot pot very quickly, but drink up — the keep warm feature didn't keep the coffee as warm as other models in our tests.
Brewing coffee has never been easier with this Black & Decker 12-Cup Switch Coffee maker. With the switch of a button, you’re coffee will start brewing into the reinforced glass Duralife™ carafe with a comfort grip handle. Grab a cup of coffee on the go with the Sneak-A-Cup™ feature, otherwise your coffee will be ready when you are with the Keep Warm carafe nonstick carafe plate.
You might have heard that purchasing a double-boiler espresso machine or a proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controller will give you more accuracy and control over temperature. They’re definitely features to dig into for advanced espresso crafters, but expect to pay an additional $400 for a PID and $800+ for a second boiler. Since we wanted to focus on beginner machines, we stuck to single-boiler models without PID controllers for this review.
Where MistoBox really shines is in its efficiently designed website and deep customization. If you want to, you can sign up for a scheduled delivery of curated espresso blends or single origin coffees and just let it ride—no input is necessary beyond the initial question of what kind of roast you like. But if you want to get a little more involved, you can rate each coffee you receive to refine future shipments or—if you want to take the future into your own hands—curate your own list of upcoming beans with a feature MistoBox calls the "Brew Queue." The number of choices is dizzying, and there are plenty of user reviews to guide your way thanks to a very active community.
Our brew-performance tests measure the brew temperature and contact time (how long water stays within a sweet spot of 195° to 205° F for brewing). We measure concentration using a refractometer, a device that measures the amount of coffee dissolved in each brew. Our convenience tests look at how easy it is to set timers, fill the reservoir, clean the machine, and more. And for the first time, we’re incorporating predicted reliability and owner satisfaction ratings into the new Overall Score for each model. We determine these ratings for each drip coffee maker brand using survey data collected from thousands of CR members.