We tested 12 models by making shots of espresso and lattes on each machine. We enlisted the help of an expert from Students of Coffee, a group of coffee educators and roasters at New York University, to judge for quality. The majority of the models we tested were semi-automatic, meaning brewers still have to grind the coffee and pack it in the portafilter (the little filter cup with a wand that you place in the front of the machine). Semi-automatic espresso machines heat the water for you, and then pump it through the grounds at varying levels of pressure, depending on the machine. The semi-automatic models we tester were:
The Gaggia Classic is a stylish old-school Italian espresso maker. It can pull a really delicious, creamy shot of espresso, but the machine does not have a PID—therefore its results aren't very consistent. While the machine is pretty, it doesn't have the well-thought design features of the Breville, like a sensor drip tray and a space for the tamper, nor does it come with a milk pitcher. Its plastic tamper is flimsy and won't effectively press down the espresso grounds. The Gaggia's steamer wand also doesn't consistently incorporate foam, and instead produces large bubbles on top.
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.
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.
Other coffee brewing devices became popular throughout the nineteenth century, including various machines using the vacuum principle. The Napier Vacuum Machine, invented in 1840, was an early example of this type. While generally too complex for everyday use, vacuum devices were prized for producing a clear brew, and were popular up until the middle of the twentieth century.
“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
Espresso machines can be intimidating. We wanted something that did not require reading a novel-sized manual, watching a lot of YouTube videos, or reading tons of articles about espresso pulling. Yes, making espresso does require some learning for the home brewer. That's part of the fun, but the machine shouldn't be discouraging and impossible to use out of the box.
While it’s hands down the best cheap espresso machine on the market, Mr. Coffee isn’t on the same level with the Rocket or the Breville. Its shots lack the richness and complexity of true espresso, tasting more like a full-bodied Americano. Its layer of crema disappears quickly, and its shots don’t offer the gorgeous, gradient colors that you’d get from a machine like the Rocket. That said, it ranked fourth for taste among the machines we tested, so it’s still a solid option if you don’t need the finest coffee quality the market has to offer.
To make it easy for you, we’ve gathered up the best espresso machines on the market, carefully weighed, and prioritized several criteria in testing and put together these targeted espresso machine reviews that are specifically meant to help you cut through all the confusion and just get the best deal on the home espresso maker that fits your style.
On August 27, 1930, Inez H. Pierce of Chicago, Illinois filed patent for the first vacuum coffee maker that truly automated the vacuum brewing process, while eliminating the need for a stove top burner or liquid fuels. An electrically heated stove was incorporated into the design of the vacuum brewer. Water was heated in a recessed well, which reduced wait times and forced the hottest water into the reaction chamber. Once the process was complete, a thermostat using bi-metallic expansion principles shut off heat to the unit at the appropriate time. Pierce's invention was the first truly "automatic" vacuum coffee brewer, and was later incorporated in the Farberware Coffee Robot.
“For home brewers, the Mr. Coffee 12-cup, programmable machine can produce great morning coffee that’s decent by most standards. Just make sure you use good water — NYC tap is more than acceptable, though filtered is even better. I’d say it’s also even more important to have a grinder that has a nice, even particle size distribution. I have a Baratza Encore on hand, but recently I’ve been relying heavily on the Handground brand grinder, which is a great ergonomic manual.” — Elliott Foos, barista at Café Integral
It scored the highest in our out-of-the-box taste test, brewing coffee our tasters described as “light” with subtle notes of blueberry, citrus, cherry, tobacco, and hazelnut. The machine simply brews great coffee, and it takes its job seriously. If you’re interested in playing around with the flavor and extraction of your roast, the Behmor Brazen gives you more access to more variables. You can adjust water temperature, play with pre-infusion times (15 seconds to four minutes) — it even has you enter your altitude to better determine water’s boiling point, and calibrate its internal thermometer during setup.
This Good Housekeeping Seal star features an all-black body, a 12-cup glass carafe, a reusable filter and a backlit LCD screen with digital touchpad controls. You can program the clock to automatically brew coffee in the morning. It'll make a hot pot very quickly, but drink up — the keep warm feature didn't keep the coffee as warm as other models in our tests.
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.
CR’s take: If you’re an aficionado of fresh ground coffee, this Black+Decker is the brewer to buy. As the name suggests, the Mill & Brew goes that extra mile, grinding whole coffee beans just before brewing. As a result, the machine is capable of making a great pot of coffee. Made of plastic with stainless steel accents, this model is easy to use and to clean, earning a Very Good rating in our convenience tests. It allows you to adjust brew strength, and it’s programmable, so you can set it to grind and brew just before you wake up.