Served in a variety of drinks, espressos are made by machines that send pressurized hot water through finely-ground coffee beans—thus, the quality of the drink is dictated in large part by the quality of machine that brews it. Historically, the best espresso has been brewed in coffee shops with industrial-grade equipment. Today, continued innovation in the at-home espresso brewing industry has led to the creation of high-quality machines that can contend with some of the best baristas out there.
That said, it’s not as elegant to use as the OXO machines. (Nor is it as nice to look at. One tester described its tall, bulbous body and squat carafe as “UFO-like.”) Take its eight-button controls, for example, which you use to toggle among brew modes, scroll up and down within the menu, and engage a manual brewing feature. Programming it to start brewing at a certain time was about as intuitive as setting an alarm on a clock radio — easy enough, but more technical than sleek. OXO definitely feels like the future; Behmor is more, “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
We wanted to find the best espresso machine available to home brewers for less than $1,000. At this comparatively low price point, we hoped to find a machine that could pull a shot that—if not as high-quality as one served at a prized Italian cafe or as high-dollar as a Brooklyn coffee shop's—would have nuanced flavor, the right amount of brightness and acidity, and very little bitterness.
As a coffee nut, coffee-shop lover, and former professional barista, I don’t normally make recommendations for home espresso equipment. Not because I don't want you to have delicious espresso at home, but because it takes a lot of practice and a lot of burned fingers to learn to make espresso well. Many people invest in an espresso machine like they invest in the exercise equipment that becomes a very expensive coat rack: If you're going to buy it and never use it, you're almost always better off going to the local café.
As legend has it, Ethiopian goats were the first to discover the delightful properties of coffee beans when they ate the raw beans right off the stem. The goats nibbled happily away at the beans, probably right around 2 o'clock every afternoon, until finally an astute goat herder noticed the goats' perky behavior, gave the beans a taste, found them quite stimulating, and rushed them off to the nearest monastery.
Semi-automatic machines are not quite as customizable as a manual machine, but they let you play with a lot: You can change the coarseness of the coffee you use, the amount of coffee you add, and how long you pull your shot. Expect a decent learning curve to figure things out, and know that you’ll also need some additional equipment, like a quality coffee grinder.
Moka pots, also known as stove top espresso makers, are similar to espresso machines in that they brew under pressure and the resulting brew shares some similarities, but in other respects differ. As such, their characterization as "espresso" machines is at times contentious, but due to their use of pressure and steam for brewing, comparable to all espresso prior to the 1948 Gaggia, they are accepted within broader uses of the term, but distinguished from standard modern espresso machines.
If you're ready to pull the trigger on buying an espresso machine, be prepared to shell out a little cash. Espresso machines can be wildly expensive. Rightfully so. Pulling a perfect shot requires precision: the machine must maintain both precise temperature and stable pressure throughout the brewing process. Achieving this stability is difficult and requires complex machinery, which is why you can find machines for upwards of 6,000 dollars.
CR’s take: If you like the look of black stainless steel, you can add a hit of the trendy finish to your kitchen with the Bella Ultimate Elite Collection coffee maker. Appearance aside, this model brews a fresh pot in just 9 minutes and is graceful in action, earning strong ratings in our carafe handling tests. It offers programming, brew-strength control, a pause-and-serve feature, and auto-shutoff. Bella drip machines also received a Very Good rating for predicted reliability. At about $50, this affordable, attractive option won’t disappoint.