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.
Although it's very easy to use — you just fill the portafilter with grounds, attach it to the machine, and press the button to start — The Gaggia Classic isn't as flexible or intuitive as the Breville Barista Express. The user manual is less detailed, too, so you have to have a basic idea of what you're doing or browse the internet for tips. The machine has a one-year warranty if you run into problems.
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 principle of a vacuum brewer was to heat water in a lower vessel until expansion forced the contents through a narrow tube into an upper vessel containing ground coffee. When the lower vessel was empty and sufficient brewing time had elapsed, the heat was removed and the resulting vacuum would draw the brewed coffee back through a strainer into the lower chamber, from which it could be decanted. The Bauhaus interpretation of this device can be seen in Gerhard Marcks' Sintrax coffee maker of 1925.
If your busy life keeps you from making coffee by hand, you can also consider a capsule machine such as a Nespresso coffee maker. These machines use small capsules or pods of coffee, so you don’t have to worry about measuring grounds and adding them to your device. Simply add a capsule, fill up the reservoir and press the On button. If you’re more of a traditionalist, a stovetop espresso maker might be the right option for you. This type of maker uses your stove to heat up water, which then steams up and passes through a capsule of grounds above the reservoir. The steamy espresso then collects in an upper reservoir at the top of the maker. These espresso makers are very popular in Europe and require no electricity to function.
Manual or semi-automatic machines offer more control of shot quality. Because when to cut the shot (brew time) is a critical variable, which is often adjusted shot-by-shot, semi-automatic machines are often preferred over automatics, though some machines are automatic. Manual machines are more popular in Europe, where it is more common to drink straight espresso.
"I've wanted an espresso machine for a while now but just don't have the room for it. I started researching the Nespresso line and wasn't sure how I'd like it at first. I am not usually a fan of pod style coffee machines and was worried about how well this would perform. I got the Pixie model because I don't have a big kitchen and this thing takes up barely any space on my counter. The water heats up quickly so in less than a minute you can have a cup of espresso. As other people have mentioned, it is kind of loud but it is only for a few seconds and doesn't seem to disturb anyone else in my house. The few seconds of noise is worth it for me to have a delicious latte a few minutes later. There is a little box that collects the pods (up to 10 I think) for easy disposal. I also feel like the Nespresso pods have a much better flavor that other pod coffee. If you want a quick espresso and don't have a lot of space for a machine then I highly recommend the Pixie. I am very happy with it and use it daily."
CR’s take: Like the model above, the Cuisinart Burr Grind & Brew takes whole coffee beans and grinds them fresh for each pot. It features programming, brew-strength control, a water filter, a permanent coffee filter, and auto-shutoff. This model earns a great rating for carafe handling. The stainless steel finish and glass carafe certainly elevate the experience of using it. Cuisinart brewers also received an Excellent rating for owner satisfaction. But the performance and finish come at a premium—this machine costs significantly more than the Black+Decker Mill & Brew.