"Oh my goodness! I never knew such a thing existed. This tiny espresso maker makes great espressos! I have taken this to work with me and everyone is jealous. I mean everyone is jealous for real. I think I even persuaded some of my colleagues to buy one themselves! How funny is that? It's so easy to use. I usually use hot water to begin with and I don't bother with getting it to heat my water for me because that just takes a little bit too long. Holding the button for more than 5 seconds will activate the pressurized pumping gear. It is all electronic so you don't have to make any difficult pumping like in some other smaller products. The coffee comes out just as good as any espresso you can make. And the pods are crazy cheap. I found pods that are literally $0.10 each."
Since semi-automatic espresso makers require you to dose the coffee yourself, grind and pack it, they give the brewer more control. You can tinker and master the art of making espresso. You can learn to pull the perfect shot. Still, fully automatic machines are a good option for someone who wants quality espresso at home, but wants to put in less effort (and skill). According to our expert from Students of Coffee—and our own online research—a semi-automatic machine is the best way to make espresso.
The gist: The Litchi Portable is similar to the Cisco in that it's very simple to use. Rather than Nespresso pods, use the measuring scooping to add ground coffee to the two-filter basket. Then, add hot water to the chamber and manually push the pressure pump until the coffee comes out. Soon you'll be brewin' the good stuff into the little included cup (even add a little milk if you want to go the cappuccino route.)
Why it's great: Bialetti is a trusted name brand in the motherland of espresso: Italy. According to their page, you can find a Bialetti product in nine out of ten households in Italy. Point being: they know a thing or two about a quality machine. The Bialetti Stovetop is really nothing fancy. No electronics, no buttons to push. Just fill the bottom chamber with water, fill the second chamber with ground coffee beans, put it on the stove, and wait for the coffee to start coming out the top. Boom. The coffee is fresh and the machine maintenance is basically nothing.
Some machines use a single boiler kept at steaming temperature, but water for brewing is passed through a heat exchanger, taking some heat from the steam without rising to the same temperature. Although the water for brewing remains at a lower range than that required for steaming milk, it is still too hot for proper coffee extraction without first cooling; thus this type of machine requires a cooling flush of 4–6 seconds prior to the first espresso pull. Once the machine is dialed into the proper temperature, as many shots can be pulled as required without refreshing. However, if the user leaves the machine idle again for some period, the flushing process will need to be repeated. The HX variety is found in many mid-range machines and many users install thermometers to assist them is dialing in correct temperatures. There is some controversy as to the temperature stability of the brewing water, since it is indirectly converted from steaming temperature to brewing temperature, rather than kept at a brewing temperature.
The Bonavita is a simple, compact machine (about 12 inches x 12 inches) for only $190, and it makes coffee that ranked in the top three in our taste test. Its philosophy seems to be “everything you absolutely need, nothing you don’t.” That means it’s SCAA-certified for water temperature and brew times, boasts pre-infusion capabilities, and has a flat-bottom filter basket that extracts grounds evenly. That’s it.
CR’s take: If you like the look of black stainless steel, you can add a hit of the trendy finish to your kitchen with the Bella Ultimate Elite Collection coffee maker. Appearance aside, this model brews a fresh pot in just 9 minutes and is graceful in action, earning strong ratings in our carafe handling tests. It offers programming, brew-strength control, a pause-and-serve feature, and auto-shutoff. Bella drip machines also received a Very Good rating for predicted reliability. At about $50, this affordable, attractive option won’t disappoint.