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.
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.
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.
Why it's great: As much as we appreciate freshly ground coffee beans for our espresso, let's be honest: when you *accidentally* snooze your alarm (five times) in the morning and don't even have time to brush your hair, chances are the last think you're gonna think about doing is grinding some freakin' beans. This could be a problem if you're someone (like me) who can't function without a strong dose of caffeine in the morning. However, not a problem with Nespresso. This life-saver heats up in less than 15 seconds and gets you tasty espresso at the push of a button. You get your quick fix without sacrificing quality.
“What I REALLY like about it is that it’s pretty much an all-in-one system without the thousand-dollar-plus all-in-one cost. I push one button and all the magic happens, and it’s quite entertaining to watch the espresso cascade through the milk and create separate layers. I also like that I can take the milk and store it in my fridge. I’ve done some temperature tests, and only noticed a five-degree increase after making a double latte, before I put it back in the fridge. This is nice, as you would think that to be so close to all that heat, it would be a much bigger temperature fluctuation.”
Since semi-automatic espresso makers require you to dose the coffee yourself, grind and pack it, they give the brewer more control. You can tinker and master the art of making espresso. You can learn to pull the perfect shot. Still, fully automatic machines are a good option for someone who wants quality espresso at home, but wants to put in less effort (and skill). According to our expert from Students of Coffee—and our own online research—a semi-automatic machine is the best way to make espresso.
We opted to look only at “entry level” machines — those billed as semi-automatic and super-automatic — meaning they do some of the work for you. Manual machines, the third type, allow for more personalization but require a much longer learning curve and aren’t typically a good fit for first-time users. We also skipped models that couldn’t steam milk, ensuring that the best espresso maker is also the best cappuccino maker.
Our brew-performance tests measure the brew temperature and contact time (how long water stays within a sweet spot of 195° to 205° F for brewing). We measure concentration using a refractometer, a device that measures the amount of coffee dissolved in each brew. Our convenience tests look at how easy it is to set timers, fill the reservoir, clean the machine, and more. And for the first time, we’re incorporating predicted reliability and owner satisfaction ratings into the new Overall Score for each model. We determine these ratings for each drip coffee maker brand using survey data collected from thousands of CR members.