‡Pre-Infusing: Pre-infusing is a technique where the dry coffee grounds are initially saturated with hot water, allowing a “bloom” of carbon dioxide to escape. This 45-second(ish) process puts hot water into contact with more surface area around each ground throughout the brewing process, as it’s no longer competing with the escaping gas bubbles. It can improve the quality of the final product, since this more uniform contact creates a more even extraction. It’s a feature that six of the 10 pots we tested incorporated into their designs — as well as all four of our top picks.
The very first espresso machines worked on a steam-pressure basis, and they’re still in use today. With this type of machine, steam or steam pressure is used to force water through the coffee grounds and produce espresso. Some steam-driven machines can produce a measure of foam “crema.” But they can’t generate enough pressure or provide the precise temperature control necessary to produce true espresso: They simply make a very strong cup of coffee. However, they cost considerably less than pump-driven machines. Our verdict is that if you’re a true espresso lover and seeking to make a good shot at home, we recommend you steer clear of steam-driven machines. They’ll likely disappoint you.
The gist: The Litchi Portable is similar to the Cisco in that it's very simple to use. Rather than Nespresso pods, use the measuring scooping to add ground coffee to the two-filter basket. Then, add hot water to the chamber and manually push the pressure pump until the coffee comes out. Soon you'll be brewin' the good stuff into the little included cup (even add a little milk if you want to go the cappuccino route.)
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:
The Hamilton Beach 12 Cup BrewStation coffee maker offers convenient one-hand dispensing without a conventional glass carafe. There's no pouring or spills, and nothing fragile to break and replace. No matter how much you try, it’s impossible to get freshly brewed flavor from coffee that’s been sitting on a hot plate too long. That’s why ion was created, the only coffeemaker that keeps coffee tasting fresh for up to four hours. This best-selling coffee maker works just like a traditional...
One of the many issues with other coffee makers is that the brewing process is inconsistent, with temperature fluctuations that can potentially affect the acidity, aroma, and final flavor of your beverage. The OXO On Barista Brain Coffee Maker is fixed with an intelligent microprocessor that monitors ambient temperatures throughout the brewing process.
A steam-driven unit operates by forcing water through the coffee by using steam or steam pressure. The first espresso machines were steam types, produced when a common boiler was piped to four group heads so that multiple types of coffee could be made at the same time. This design is still used today in lower-cost consumer machines, as it does not need to contain moving parts. Also, steam-driven machines do not produce as high of a pressure for extraction compared to pump-driven. This results in the crema, a hallmark of an espresso, being of lower quality.
Espresso is wonderful, but if you also like regular coffee with breakfast or decaf with dinner, this machine can do it all – and you can use your own coffee rather than proprietary pods or cups. Not only does this make a variety of coffee types, it also brews coffee in a large variety of sizes, from a cup to a carafe and four sizes in between, so you can make just the right amount, whether it’s just for you, or whether you’re serving company
“I LOVE my Breville. I am a career barista. I have had this machine for almost a year now and waited to write a review until now so I wasn’t blinded by the initial excitement of purchasing a home espresso machine. I love to buy more expensive coffee from third-wave roasters, and this machine is so easy to dial in, I come away with professional shots almost every time. While this may be due to my experience in the shop, I will say that my husband is not a barista and picked up dialing in pretty fast using the Breville guides [that were] included. My only complaint is that the steaming wand is not the best. It takes a couple tries starting it up to get it going full blast some mornings, but I have always been able to achieve latte art. That is a very small complaint considering this machine is half the price of its competitors but still can create some awesome coffee. I’d highly recommend it for baristas on a budget.”
As for the seller: when the unit was originally delivered the steam wand wasn't performing well. After following the typical trouble-shooting tips and conferring with the seller, we found the unit was simply unable to produce enough pressure to steam or properly brew. Within a week the seller had replaced the unit, and I'm happy to report it works perfectly. No matter the production value there is always a possibility of a defect here or there. The seller standing by the product and immediately replacing it to our satisfaction really sealed the deal for us. I highly recommend both this product and the seller from whom we purchased it."
The term dual boiler is used narrowly for machines with two separate boilers, and more broadly for what are more properly called dual heater (DH) machines, featuring a boiler for brewing and a separate thermoblock (TB) for heating brew water to steaming temperature – opposite to HX machines, where the boiler is at steaming temperature and is cooled to brewing temperature.
The gist: This "all-in-one" machine includes pretty much everything you need to make quality espresso, minus the beans. It's Amazon's choice for "espresso and cappuccino maker combos" and has a rating of 4.1 stars. It comes with its own electric bean-grinder, a 1.25 liter removable water tank, a measuring spoon and tamper, a stainless steel filter with two basket options, a stainless steel milk frothing cup, and two 3.6-ounce espresso cups. The machine brews espresso with 15 bars of pressure and with the Thermoblock fast heating system, it's ready to use in 45 seconds. The two portafilter baskets allow you to pull either a single or double shot drink.
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:
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.
The Breville's conical burr grinder, made of stainless steel, effortlessly grinds coffee beans and optimizes flavor extraction by maximizing the surface area of the grinds. A 54mm tamper ensures expert tamping control, and a hands-free grinding cradle leaves all the hard work to the machine. Our favorite features are the Breville's grind size/grind amount selector dials, which enable you to customize grinds from fine to coarse.
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.
The Breville is technically a semi-automatic espresso maker, since it requires you to dose and tamp your own shots, but we found it more forgiving than true automatics. The Breville’s dual-wall filter baskets (in addition to two standard single-wall baskets) add extra pressure, providing a little forgiveness for beginners’ mistakes in either grinding the beans or tamping the shot.
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.