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.
Above all, good espresso requires precision. If you’re looking for phenomenal tasting notes, flavor balance, and texture, there is simply no room for error in the machine, the beans, the user, or even the weather. And even if you’re not holding out for the best coffee on the planet, the margin for error is still slim. To test the machines, we pulled shots following the Italian Espresso National Institute's measurement guidelines and paid attention to the following markers of success:
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 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.
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.
"Honestly, i bought this for my wife as a novelty item. I saw it on a lightning deal, she loves espresso, it looked cool, figured why not? Well, what was supposed to be just something for a little fun (which was, when she has used it) ended up being something she really likes and is planning on taking to work on a regular basis (she says it makes great espresso and is a quick and easy way to do it). Plus, she said it will be great when we go camping (no electric or batteries required, just hot water and it's easy to clean). it arrived quickly and in perfect condition. So, I guess I 'done good' ;)"
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.
Bunn-O-Matic came out with a different drip-brew machine. In this type of coffeemaker, the machine uses a holding tank or boiler pre-filled with water. When the machine is turned on, all of the water in the holding tank is brought to near boiling point (approximately 200–207 °F or 93–97 °C) using a thermostatically-controlled heating element. When water is poured into a top-mounted tray, it descends into a funnel and tube which delivers the cold water to the bottom of the boiler. The less-dense hot water in the boiler is displaced out of the tank and into a tube leading to the spray head, where it drips into a brew basket containing the ground coffee. The pourover, water displacement method of coffeemaking tends to produce brewed coffee at a much faster rate than standard drip designs. Its primary disadvantage is increased electricity consumption in order to preheat the water in the boiler. Additionally, the water displacement method is most efficient when used to brew coffee at the machine's maximum or near-maximum capacity, as typically found in restaurant or office usage. In 1963, Bunn introduced the first automatic coffee brewer, which connected to a waterline for an automatic water feed.
“What I REALLY like about it is that it’s pretty much an all-in-one system without the thousand-dollar-plus all-in-one cost. I push one button and all the magic happens, and it’s quite entertaining to watch the espresso cascade through the milk and create separate layers. I also like that I can take the milk and store it in my fridge. I’ve done some temperature tests, and only noticed a five-degree increase after making a double latte, before I put it back in the fridge. This is nice, as you would think that to be so close to all that heat, it would be a much bigger temperature fluctuation.”
“Small things CAN bring you joy. My recent purchase of this Zojirushi coffee maker has made me very happy. Sounds like a commercial, but consider this … Last year, I bought a more expensive coffee maker that made terrible coffee! Instead of using the machine, I started making pour-overs. Something I hate to do … A year and a bunch of customer reviews later, I ordered this new baby, and I am so happy, I am writing about it here. I don’t know if it’s the water filter that water passes through or the fact that the water is introduced to the coffee a little bit differently, but the result is what I consider a perfect cup of coffee.”
“So simple and easy to use. I’ve had the older version for ten years, tested out and researched so many to try something different only to return to this one, and I have no regrets. I LOVE IT! Most coffee makers put out a lot of steam at the top, which is unfortunate when stored under a cabinet. This has zero steam on top of the coffee maker. Also, most water reservoirs have a lid that flips open, which is also inconvenient when stored under a cabinet. This lid slides side to side, and brews a whole pot of coffee in about three minutes. Very convenient for busy, on-the-go, impatient people like me.”
“This is the same coffee maker that I bought years ago. And it’s even the same price. Yep — they do still make things like they used to. And they last forever. It’s super simple, super reliable, compact, and cheap. There are a lot of places where we can spend money, but a simple cup of coffee doesn’t have to be one of them. Once you get the amount of water and coffee figured out to your taste — simply do that. No K-cup, nothing to recycle, fits the car cup holder. And the coffee stays hot in the mug.”
“To me, a great drip-coffee machine is a reliable one with a timer (which is an awesome feature for large families). The Cuisinart DCC-3200 might not be the first choice of snobby coffee experts, but to me it does the trick. It’s cheap and works just fine (it’s actually the one I use myself at home). I love that I can program the timer and wake up to the smell of fresh coffee. Also, friends and family think you’re the best host when they stay with you (even though you’re still sleeping).” — Guillaume Guevara, founder of Miscelanea NY