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.
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.
“This little espresso maker is just awesome! It is fun to use and always makes a great cup of espresso. I’ve used it to make macchiatos, affogatos, and as a espresso shot to my coffee. The simplicity of this stovetop espresso maker is amazing. You won’t get as much crema as you would with an espresso machine but the aroma and taste are unmatched. I’ve had the three-cup model for a few months now, and I use it often. I’ve had no problems with it at all. After it use I just rinse it with warm water and let it air dry.”
The Barista Express espresso machine uses a 15 Bar Italian Pump and a 1600W Thermocoil heating system to make rich espresso. Since it's a semi-automatic machine, the Breville automatically adjusts water temperature after steam to extract the most flavor out of your beans. The machine also has a 67 fl.oz (2L) water tank with a nice handle for easy removal, and it comes with a replaceable water filter.
Regardless of whether you buy extra accessories, it's still very affordable, and you're really buying this machine for the espresso. The De'Longhi delivers in that regard. It's a 15 bar machine with a self-priming function, so you don't have to go through the hassle of prepping the machine. The 35oz water tank is removable for cleaning and it has a drip tray to catch spills. and a durable, high-quality stainless steel boiler to ensure many years of delicious espresso.
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A steam-driven unit operates by forcing water through the coffee by using steam or steam pressure. The first espresso machines were steam types, produced when a common boiler was piped to four group heads so that multiple types of coffee could be made at the same time. This design is still used today in lower-cost consumer machines, as it does not need to contain moving parts. Also, steam-driven machines do not produce as high of a pressure for extraction compared to pump-driven. This results in the crema, a hallmark of an espresso, being of lower quality.
This is an easy-to-use coffee maker that'll add some retro style to your countertop. It includes a pause-and-pour feature for times when you need caffeine before the brewing process is done — and after brewing, it keeps your coffee piping hot for 40 minutes (you can monitor the length of time on the indicator gauge on the front display). Available in black, cream, white and red.
“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
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: 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.