Picking up a bag of coffee beans from the roaster is a great way to make sure you have fresh beans. Because coffee gets damaged as it’s exposed to air, espresso connoisseurs recommend using beans within two weeks of their roast date. But you won’t want to use them the same day that they’ve been roasted — they need a few days to de-gas from the roasting process.
An evenly tamped shot requires the tamp to fit into its portafilter basket precisely. Each machine comes with its own tamp, so we were surprised to find that not all of them fit. Some were too small, leaving behind a crescent moon of untouched coffee. It’s possible to try and compress in sections, but you’ll run the risk of re-tamping some of the grounds and producing an unpalatable shot.
All the machines we tested came with either insulated carafes or glass pots with built-in warmers. Both have pros and cons. Glass pots are typically easier to clean because they tend to have wider mouths, and the lack of internal insulation means that glass pots will have a greater interior volume relative to its exterior volume — basically, it’s easier to get your hand or dish sponge into a glass pot. On the other hand, glass pots are more fragile and have to be heated from a base plate. In our tests, those base plates could even raise the temperature of the coffee, like with the CuisinArt, which can make coffee taste burnt.
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:
Programmable coffee makers exist to make the brewing process as painless as possible. Outside of maybe grinding your coffee beans, the drip coffee system will use optimal water temperatures of around 205 degrees Fahrenheit or 96.11 degrees Celsius for maximum extraction of the ground coffee beans. The best automatic coffee maker will seamlessly reach this temperature within minutes of the brewing process.
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.
The OXO On 12-Cup feels high-tech without being high maintenance. It’s beautifully constructed, with silicone gaskets, a stainless steel carafe, and sturdy-feeling plastic. But let’s go ahead and get its biggest downside right out there in the open. Of the 10 machines we tested, it took the longest to brew eight cups of coffee — nearly 15 minutes. It heats its entire reservoir of water to temperature before a drop touches the grounds, and if you’re jonesing for a full pot to start off your day, that wait is going to feel like a lifetime. This was particularly noticeable considering four of the machines we tested brewed the same amount of coffee in less than half that time. The Bunn BTX-B Velocity Brew could do it in three minutes flat.
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.
First, of all of the espresso machines we tested, the two Breville models are the only ones that contain the above-mentioned PID for extremely precise temperature control. This means that the machine consistently pulled a slightly-sweet, creamy shot of espresso. It had plenty of crema on top. Another reason this machine pulls such a consistently wonderful shot is that it maintains consistent pressure—where other machines made bitter, flat-tasting shots, the consistent pressure of the Breville machine meant the espresso was flavorful and delicious.
I have to say that I'm very happy that I waited for this one! The espresso is excellent, the drinks have all been hot (even when adding milk from the Aeroccino), the whole spinning process takes about 15 seconds (or less) to pour into the cup, and - most surprisingly - the new coffee-sized cartridges are AWESOME! They taste NOTHING like regular, ground grocery-store coffee-in-a-can. They are much more flavorful, much stronger, and seem fresher even than using whole coffee with a grinder (maybe it's from being sealed in the aluminum cartridges?)."
We're recommending the version of the Breville espresso machine that comes with a built-in grinder. You place the beans in a compartment at the top, then use the portafilter to press a lever on the machine, which dispenses the grounds right into your portafilter compartment. It's easy to use, compact, and has a wheel on the side that allows you to change the grind. Since the grind of your espresso is one of the most important parts, we think it's worth having this grinder attached right to the machine. Especially since the Barista Express only costs about $100 more than the Infuser—Breville's model without the grinder. (However if you're looking for a smaller, more compact model, the Infuser performs as well as the Barista Express.)
‡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.
Why it's great: A true espresso drinker knows that when it comes to espresso, there are a few things that can't be overlooked when it comes to a quality cup: freshness and a good grinding method. The burr grinder is a known Barista-favorite, as it maximizes the surface area of the grinds resulting in optimal flavor. The BES870 even allows you to adjust the grind and portion size, so you can go from fine to course depending on your desired flavor.
Let’s circle back to that extra-long brew time. There are two factors that didn’t make it an automatic “no” for us. The first is that the OXO On 12-Cup is programmable. Like our experts say, grinding coffee in advance isn’t going to make the most perfect cup of coffee. But the fact that you can program the machine’s “wake-up time” to start brewing and have coffee ready when you are takes the sting out of the wait.
What Amazon users have to say: As you may expect, there are rave reviews for Nespresso. Users love the ease of making quality espresso with little to no effort or cleanup. The machine is energy and space-saving, and comes with top notch customer service should you need it. Amazon user LT was especially feelin' it, saying "If I could marry an appliance (is it legal?) I would spend the rest of my life with this espresso machine." We'll be sure to look into those marriage laws. In the meantime, here's more Inissia praise:
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.
“Quite possibly the best investment I’ve made in an appliance to date. This powerful machine makes THE BEST COFFEE. I’m a coffee snob, so Keurig never impressed me, and I don’t have the space to purchase a full espresso machine. The Ninja system is compact, but offers a variety of brewing settings. Very easy to clean. Huge fan of this brand in general, and I’m so glad I made this purchase. Even comes with a travel mug.”
Why it's great: Flair *really* stresses how important espresso as an "art form" really is. The Flair is for someone who genuinely enjoys the process of creating espresso. It's unique design makes it appealing on the counter or wherever you decide to take it, since it disassembles and folds up nicely into a carrying case. Since it doesn't require electricity, you can take this fancy piece of hardware anywhere. The only downside is that you have to buy your own burr grinder for the best results, but chances are this won't be an issue for someone who is already gung-ho about "the process."
“I am a coffee snob, and one of my favorite things about traveling to Europe is their espresso and cappuccinos. A couple years ago, I bought a Nespresso Aeroccino machine for making froth and a stovetop Moka pot for making espresso; the system has worked fine, but the espresso can take awhile to make (around 5-8 minutes) and there’s definitely a learning curve to making good coffee with it. … [How] does this machine do [in comparison]? Stellar. Absolutely stellar. Once the water is in and it heats up, you flip up a lever, drop in the pod, and press the size button (espresso or lungo). Off it goes! Brewing is super quick and the espresso always comes out with a beautiful crema on top. My first drink was a cappuccino, and it was so much better than the ones I’ve been making with my Moka pot! …
The Baratza Encore is simplicity defined and our top coffee grinder. This burr grinder has a 40-setting grind size selector, an on-off switch for continuous grinding, and a push-button for manual control. That's it. Other grinders include complicated timers, built-in scales, strength adjustment sliders, and other doodads, but Baratza suggests that you don't need them—and they're right. Measure your beans using a separate scale, grind them fresh for each cup. That's the way to do it.
“We really love this machine because we love great coffee, but we don’t make frothy milk drinks. This machine produces very, very good coffee from scratch at the push of a button, automatically grinding the beans pumping through hot water, and dumping out the “puck” of coffee grounds into the internal bin. It’s a nice compact size, and fits easily on a counter under the cabinets.”
It also automatically pre-infuses the coffee, allowing the grounds to vent their CO2 and “bloom.” Remember, only half of the machines we tested had this feature, and it proved to pay off in our taste tests. The four machines we recommend all pre-infuse. Only one coffee maker without it, the Hamilton Beach, performed well at all in our taste tests — but that guy was so cheap and flimsy, part of the brew basket broke during our testing. Sorry, Hamilton Beach.
The bottom chamber contains the water. The middle chamber is a filter-basket holding the ground coffee and sits within the bottom chamber. The top chamber, with a metal filter, screws onto the bottom chamber. When the pot is heated on a stove, the pressure from the steam in the bottom chamber forces the water through a tube into the filter-basket, through the ground coffee, the metal filter, and it then funnels into the top chamber where the coffee is then ready to serve. They are commonly found in Italy, Spain and Portugal. They are also known as a macchinetta, Italian for little machine or caffettiera, Italian for coffee maker.
“Self-identified coffee snob. Couldn’t be happier. Easy to operate, functions as advertised, instructions are clear. The metal filter included does what it needs to do. I recommend a relatively coarse grind (imagine the feel of cornmeal) with the metal filter to get the full flavor of the coffee. If you’re a bit of a coffee snowflake (no disrespect intended) and don’t like the ‘mud’ at the bottom of the cup, you should stick with the paper filter. Either way, the coffee maker itself does the job nicely.”
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.
In our quest to find the best, we pitted 10 highly regarded coffee makers against each other. These are the machines that regularly make it on best-of lists, earn accolades, and/or are recommendations from the coffee experts we talked to over the course of this review. We aimed for multi-cup carafes — no single serves — and drip machines only. (We didn’t want to muddy the results with French press, pour-over, or espresso. Those are for other reviews.)