A refinement of the piston machine is the pump-driven machine, which was introduced in the Faema E61 in 1961, and has become the most popular design in commercial espresso bars. Instead of using manual force, a motor-driven pump provides the force necessary for espresso brewing. Espresso machines are made to accept water directly from a cold water line supply, common in commercial installations, or from a separate tank that must be filled with water by hand. The latter is more common with lower-volume commercial installations and domestic espresso machines. Due to the required high pumping pressure and precision flow control needed, the particular type of electric pumps typically used are known as solenoid-piston pumps. These pumps are classified as a positive displacement type (general category) of pump.
“For home brewers, the Mr. Coffee 12-cup, programmable machine can produce great morning coffee that’s decent by most standards. Just make sure you use good water — NYC tap is more than acceptable, though filtered is even better. I’d say it’s also even more important to have a grinder that has a nice, even particle size distribution. I have a Baratza Encore on hand, but recently I’ve been relying heavily on the Handground brand grinder, which is a great ergonomic manual.” — Elliott Foos, barista at Café Integral
Before we get into the technical aspects of the two types of espresso machines, here’s what you really need to know. Semi-automatic espresso machines are going to be perfect for the espresso connoisseur. If you’re the type that really wants to get the best-quality and taste out of your espresso machine and don’t mind taking a little more time and effort out of your schedule, the semi-automatic espresso maker is going to be for you. It’s a little bit more work, but the key here is that you ultimately have more control over every subtle nuance that goes into your version of the perfect shot of espresso with a semi-automatic.
The gist: This machine is clearly a fan favorite, as it’s raked in over 2,400 reviews on Amazon, giving it an average of 4 out of 5 stars — with over 60% of users awarding it a perfect 5 star rating. The machine comes with a lot of bragging rights. Not only is it “Amazon’s Choice” for super-automatic espresso machines, it’s also their #1 best seller.
The gist: The Cisno is the perfect way to enjoy good espresso on the go and takes the spot as Amazon's Choice for portable espresso makers with 4.5/5 stars. This little guy is small enough to fit in a cup holder, yet pumps at 15 bars of pressure, powered by a rechargeable lithium battery. All you need are Originaline Nespresso capsules and some water. The process is super simple: Insert the Nespresso capsule, pour water into the 50ml water cavity, push the one big button on the Cisno, and boom— automatically pump and enjoy you cup of espresso. Tryna stay fancy? You still have the option of using your own coffee grounds if you get reusable stainless steel capsules.
Water quality also plays a massive role in the way your coffee tastes. As we discovered in our review of the best water filters, water isn’t tasteless. Total dissolved solids (TDS) are what give “good tasting” water its sweetness — in fact, the SCAA recommends water with 150 milligrams per liter of TDS to brew coffee. (Want to check your water? A TDS reader is only about 15 bucks.)
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:
This product brings easy brewing and convenient cleaning to your countertop. With the brew-pause feature, you can sneak a cup while the coffee maker is still brewing without interrupting the process. The keep-warm function keeps your coffee nice and warm so you can come back again and again to a fresh-tasting cup. An easy cleaning cycle and durable dishwasher safe carafe help to reduce the time you spend cleaning up.
The gist: Okay, so in case any connoisseurs out there have been reading this section and thinking "a portable espresso machine takes the art away from espresso-making," this one's for you. Flair claims that this model was the answer to their question "What is the minimum needed to brew a professional-level shot of espresso?" The resulting product is this single-lever machine that doesn't need pods or electricity. It pulls a quality shot at 8-16 bars of pressure, has a 60ml water capacity, and brews a single cup in 25-45 seconds. You can get it in either black or chrome colors.
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.