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.
Why it's great: As much as we appreciate freshly ground coffee beans for our espresso, let's be honest: when you *accidentally* snooze your alarm (five times) in the morning and don't even have time to brush your hair, chances are the last think you're gonna think about doing is grinding some freakin' beans. This could be a problem if you're someone (like me) who can't function without a strong dose of caffeine in the morning. However, not a problem with Nespresso. This life-saver heats up in less than 15 seconds and gets you tasty espresso at the push of a button. You get your quick fix without sacrificing quality.
Picking up a bag of coffee beans from the roaster is a great way to make sure you have fresh beans. Because coffee gets damaged as it’s exposed to air, espresso connoisseurs recommend using beans within two weeks of their roast date. But you won’t want to use them the same day that they’ve been roasted — they need a few days to de-gas from the roasting process.
As a coffee nut, coffee-shop lover, and former professional barista, I don’t normally make recommendations for home espresso equipment. Not because I don't want you to have delicious espresso at home, but because it takes a lot of practice and a lot of burned fingers to learn to make espresso well. Many people invest in an espresso machine like they invest in the exercise equipment that becomes a very expensive coat rack: If you're going to buy it and never use it, you're almost always better off going to the local café.
If you’re ready to drop serious money on a high-quality espresso machine that produces smooth, complex shots, our pick is the Rocket Espresso Appartamento Espresso Machine. The machine lets you cycle quickly between steaming milk and pulling espresso: It uses a heat exchanger, rather than the more typical thermoblock, which means that the Rocket’s boiler heats all the way up to milk-steaming temperatures when you first turn it on. When you’re ready to pull shots, the heat-exchanger sends a burst of cool water through a copper tube in the boiler, bringing the temperature briefly back to espresso-friendly levels before heating back up.
"Put off buying a Keurig type machine for years because it didn't seem their coffee was that much better than what I could make for the money. Went out of the country and was staying in a 5 star hotel where they had this little miracle machine in the room with some of the coffee capsules. We were at a retreat where sometimes we had to meet at the beach at 6 a.m. It was so fantastic to be able to make the most incredible, luxurious, espresso I've ever had in my life (and I've had a lot of bad espresso). It takes very little time and is super easy to use. There are fantastic "how to" videos about the machine on youtube that I checked out when it arrived. It's small, sleek and makes seriously incredibly fantastic espresso and lungo (which is a larger version of espresso). Loved that the amazon price was like $90 less than anywhere else online too! The vendor I purchaesd it from sent the wrong color by mistake but we were able to send the original back unopened and they sent a replacement out immediately. Absolutely recommended item if you love coffee and want a special treat at home."
The OXO is SCAA-certified, so we knew going in that it would heat water to the right temperature range and let coffee brew for the right amount of time. But what really sold us on the OXO was how its scrolling dial made even that customizable. Assuming you want to bring the extraction down a touch for lighter, subtler coffee, you can lower the water temperature with a twist of the dial. Likewise, if you want a slightly more robust aroma from your brew, you can increase the water’s temp the same way.
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.