Espresso shots need to be pulled between 186 and 194 degrees F. If the water is too cold when it hits the espresso, the shot tastes sour. Too hot, and it tastes burnt. It’s trickier to hit this window if you also want your machine to steam milk, since steam requires a higher temperature — at least 212 degrees. But we struggled to get several of our machines just to pull decent espresso, never mind the milk. Sour shots were a clear sign that the water wasn’t hot enough; scorched shots indicated that the water climbed over 200 degrees.
You might have heard that purchasing a double-boiler espresso machine or a proportional-integral-derivative (PID) controller will give you more accuracy and control over temperature. They’re definitely features to dig into for advanced espresso crafters, but expect to pay an additional $400 for a PID and $800+ for a second boiler. Since we wanted to focus on beginner machines, we stuck to single-boiler models without PID controllers for this review.
“I like the Technivorm Moccamaster because, from a scientific standpoint, it creates the proper water temperature (and temperature consistency) for good extraction of flavor from the beans. That’s the problem with most cheap automatics — they’re inconsistent about temperature. It also has a shower-head design for good water dispersion and saturation of the grounds. It consistently tastes almost (almost, I stress) as good as a manual drip.” — Andrew Chou, engineer, General Motors
Tamp: To ensure the espresso is evenly packed, your machine comes with a tamp, which you’ll press into the basket against the grounds. This step is important: When you pull a shot, the water will go to the place of least resistance, avoiding densely packed areas. This denser espresso won’t be properly saturated, making it under-extracted and sour, while the looser espresso will be over-extracted and bitter.
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.
The gist: The Nespresso Pixie is an Amazon's Choice product and boasts a 4.5-star rating. It pumps espresso with 19 bars of pressure and has a 25-second heat-up time. It has two one-touch buttons (in case you want a single espresso or a slightly larger "Lungo" serving), a 0.7 liter water tank and an empty water tank alert that let's you know when you're running low on H2O. The machine also comes with a welcome kit that includes a range of capsules featuring various flavors.
The Mr. Coffee Optimal Brew coffee maker System has a highly modular design, with its rectangular water reservoir easily sliding in and out of the chassis. For those who only want a cup of basic coffee, you will find that the Mr. Coffee Optimal Brew coffee maker System will do that very well – its "brew now" button is found on the front of the machine.
The gist: The Nespresso Inissia is very similar to the Pixie. It also comes with one-touch options for either a single espresso or lungo cup size. It pumps with 19 bars of pressure and also heats up in less than 25 seconds. With over 2,500 reviews, it stands out with a 4.4 star rating on Amazon. The Inissia has more or less the same internal workings as the Pixie (including the 0.7 liter water tank), so the quality of espresso produced should be pretty identical. The difference: unlike the Pixie, which is made of metal, the Inissia's exterior is mostly plastic and has a slightly funkier design. However the Inissia comes in several colors, including red, black, silver, and titan.
If you want a fully automatic machine that makes a great espresso, the Jura is a great option. It has a built in burr grinder, meaning you'll get the freshness of a semi-automatic machine. It allows you to choose from three cup sizes, meaning it will brew a coffee, an espresso, or a ristretto (a short shot). You can also choose the strength of your coffee, selecting between dosage sizes of 8–10 grams. The machine has a relatively easy to use touch screen. And, the spout that dispenses the coffee has an adjustable height, making it possible to maximize your crema depending on your cup size—the closer to the cup the spout, the better the foamy creaminess will be on top. It includes a milk steaming compartment and steamer, which creates a creamy, well-incorporated foam.
Caffè Espresso translates to “pressed-out coffee.” It’s what happens when you force hot water through finely ground coffee beans. This brewing method is challenging to master, as slight variations in pressure and temperature can produce an extremely unpalatable shot. As such, the best espresso machine is forgiving to first-time owners, it extracts rich flavor from its beans, and it offers a complex balance of sweet, sour, and bitter.
In the semi-automatic machine, water pressure and temperature must be stable and consistent, and according to our expert, the pressure shouldn't be too high. Typically, coffee is brewed at a pressure of about 10 bars, and an ideal water temperature is around 195 degrees. Generally, the more expensive the machine, the better the equipment inside that regulates these two factors. High-quality machines tend to have a mechanism called a PID, or proportional-integral-derivative, controller. The PID's function is to maintain constant water temperature with extreme accuracy, down to the degree. Two central problems plaguing inexpensive espresso machines is that they lack a PID, meaning the temperature of the brewing water can fluctuate up and down and yield inconsistent results. Inexpensive machines often advertise that they have 15 or 20 bars of pressure as a selling point. But, higher pressure is not the priority, and too much pressure can actually lead to over-extraction and bitterness in your espresso shot. Therefore, we looked for a machine with good temperature and pressure control.
If all you’re looking for is a gorgeous cup of coffee and no fuss, we strongly recommend the Bonavita BV1900TS. It’s the smallest machine among our top picks and, at $190, the cheapest. Even better, it ranked in the top three out of 10 during our taste tests. It’s also the simplest and most straightforward: one button you click to start brewing, and that’s it. You can’t program brew times; you can’t play around with water temperature; and it even lacks some convenient touches like a brew basket that attaches to the machine (when you’re done brewing, you have to place the brew basket on a plate or in the sink before it makes a total mess). But it’s by far the fastest machine out of our top picks, brewing up a full eight-cup pot in under six minutes. It’s a straightforward, high-end coffee maker that leaves little to complain about.
From there, it’s up to your personal preference. Arabica beans have a higher acidity, with notes of fruit and berries. Robusta beans are darker and richer, with more caffeine. Different levels of roasts — light, medium, dark — determine how much of the beans’ oils will break through the surface of the bean, which also affects acidity, flavor, and caffeine levels. “Get to know your local coffee expert,” recommends Awan. Nothing beats a conversation with a barista or local coffee roaster who can help you try different beans and roasts, and to experiment with those variables in real time. Finding your favorite is all part of the fun.
Espresso fans can let their imaginations run wild with an espresso maker from Sur La Table. Part ritual and part art, making the perfect espresso is a passion for many and we have the tools. Whether you enjoy the simplicity of a single-shot machine or you prefer fully featured espresso machines with all the bells and whistles, you’re sure to find exactly what you’re looking for. And since we carry brands like Breville, Jura and Nespresso, you know they’ll provide delicious coffee for years to come. When it’s time to make the perfect espresso, visit Sur La Table.
If you don’t have the time or want to build a highly customized taste for your espresso mixes and just want a great tasting cup of espresso, super-automatic espresso makers are going to be your best bet. While you do give up some of the control you have over the final product, a super-automatic espresso maker automates almost all of the process for you, meaning that you can just get a great shot of espresso without having to do any extra work. This makes it perfect for people on the go or who prefer convenience over control.
These machines automatically grind the coffee, tamp it, and extract the espresso shot. The operator only has to fill the bean hopper and, if the machine is not connected to a water line, add water to a reservoir. Some models contain an automated milk frothing and dispensing device. Super-automatic machines take away the ability to manually tamp and grind the coffee, which may affect the quality of the espresso.
CR’s take: Though this Bialetti lacks typical drip-machine features such as programming and brew-strength control, it more than compensates with a Very Good rating in our brew performance test and a crisp 8-minute brew time. If you’re the type who sometimes prefers a morning shot of espresso to a cup of joe, this twofer—drip machine beside espresso maker—may be for you. It features a built-in milk frother, a permanent coffee filter, and auto-shutoff. CR does not yet have enough survey data on Bialetti machines to rate them on reliability and satisfaction, but when we do, we’ll add that info to our ratings.