If you’re not one yourself, you definitely know one. Espresso, which originated in Italy, is a finely ground, highly concentrated version of coffee that packs a punch of caffeine into a single one-ounce shot (or two, if you’d like a double-shot), making it richer and stronger than a regular cup of coffee. People who drink espresso know that it’s all about quality, which means if you’re not getting your tiny cup of life from your local barista, you best do your research and invest in a worthy espresso machine to make it at home.
Dual-boiler espresso systems are undoubtedly the gold standard for home or commercial equipment: They allow the machine to maintain the optimum temperature for simultaneously brewing espresso coffee (195–205 degrees Fahrenheit) as well as for creating steam (closer to 250 degrees Fahrenheit), which means no waiting around, watching your crema disappear while you wait to steam milk. The Breville also has programmable options for softly pre-infusing the coffee, and has a control valve that monitors extraction pressure—two things most home machines don't feature. If espresso is your go-to coffee every day, this is the machine for you.
The Breville Barista Express comes with everything you need to pull great espresso. A built-in grinder lets you adjust grind coarseness, and changing the amount of ground coffee that you want in your shot is easy: Simply turn a dial or press the portafilter firmly against the dispensing cradle. A button at the back allows you to dose as much or as little coffee as you wish.
Steaming milk is straightforward, utilizing a simple on/off switch, and we got some stunning microfoam. However, the process isn’t flawless. You’ll need to prime the steam wand prior to using it on your milk, or else water will drip into your pitcher as the steam begins to sputter out. This sputtering caused us to have a few larger bubbles, frowned upon by hardcore espresso lovers.
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.
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.
For many of us, the daily grind can't begin until we've had that first cup of piping hot coffee—so the right brewer is at the top of the list. The most basic coffee makers make at least a decent cup, but a little more money buys conveniences such as programmability, a thermal carafe to keep coffee hot longer, settings that let you adjust brew strength, and more.