Choosing an Espresso Machine
We all know how quickly the cost of a daily shot of espresso at a favorite coffee bar adds up. But if espresso is the brew that gets you going, it's a luxury you don't need to sacrifice to save money. For scores of consumers who have purchased an espresso maker, there's no going back to the costly coffee bar routine. With the right ingredients — filtered water and superior coffee freshly ground to the right consistency — the best cheap espresso machines can satisfyingly supply your fix at home for a fraction of the cost in the long run. We filtered through expert and user reviews to identify several automatic and semi-automatic espresso machines that produce more than decent espresso and cost less than $200. As a bonus, our research turned up two higher-end models that may be worth a splurge, and we also included a stovetop espresso maker and a manual espresso maker for those who like to do things the old-school way.
Pricey vs. Cheap Espresso MachinesSerious espresso addicts generally pooh-pooh more basic, budget-friendly models of the type on our list, asserting they produce shots that are short on strength, flavor, texture, and crema: that rich, caramel-colored foam that's found atop the very best quality espresso brews. They favor machines that give consumers more control over the process, from choosing the optimal dose of coffee grounds to tamping them down for the preferred pressure to setting the temperature of the water and choosing the volume. Espresso machines that allow for all that are fancy, highly engineered kitchen appliances — often gleaming in polished stainless steel with brass underpinnings. Not surprisingly, they also cost a bundle, with prices starting in the mid-three-digit range and surging beyond $2,000. They also hog lots of countertop real estate and require a fair amount of experimentation to reach espresso zen.
For more relaxed espresso fans, the best entry-level models won't disappoint. There are fewer variables to control, making for less guesswork, and arguably more time-saving convenience. Many last a good long time, although the build quality doesn't match that of their fancy counterparts. And many come with a frothing wand, so you can make milk-infused lattes and cappuccinos.
Espresso Maker BrandsAt the budget end of the market, the brands to note include DeLonghi and Breville, both of which are known for high-quality coffee makers and have entry-level products for consumers looking for something a little less spendy. Both also partner with Nespresso and market espresso machines that take proprietary prepackaged pods only. Longstanding American coffee maker brand Mr. Coffee and Swiss-backed Capresso also stake a claim with well-regarded offerings. Cuisinart shows up in this segment as well. Italian brand Gaggia and Brooklyn-based Gourmia are perhaps lesser-known but boast vocal supporters. Jura, Miele, and Saeco are the upscale labels to look for. Krups also has a few comparatively "cheap" machines at the higher end of our price spectrum.
Types of Espresso MakersEspresso is made by forcing hot, pressurized water through tightly packed, very finely ground coffee. The result is a highly concentrated, small cup with a layer of crema on top. There are several types of espresso machines that go about this in different ways.
- Stovetop espresso makers are simple pots of the type found in every Italian household.
- Electric steam-driven espresso makers are based on the same concept behind the pots but typically don't generate enough pressure to brew true espresso.
- Manual espresso machines, also called "lever espresso machines," tend to be costly and challenging to operate. The user pulls a lever to generate the pressure to direct the water through the grounds (hence, the phrase "pulling a shot" of espresso).
- Semi-automatic espresso makers, also use pumps to generate water pressure. They are generally less expensive and require more effort, mostly in the form of measuring out the appropriate amount of grounds and tamping them down before getting the machine started. The user is also responsible for stopping the machine when the desired shot has been poured. Semi-automatic espresso makers give aficionados a certain level of control over the brew while reducing the labor, and brute strength, needed to operate a manual machine.
- Automatic machines are pump-driven and do the tamping, brewing, and, in some cases, grinding on their own (some even clean themselves). Automatic models ask very little of the operator — usually just turning on the power, letting the machine determine the amount of loose grounds or inserting a prepackaged pod with ground beans, and pushing a button to get things going.
Our picks include automatic and semi-automatic espresso machines, the latter being the most popular at-home machines for espresso enthusiasts. Although a mechanism for frothing milk intended for lattes and cappuccinos is common, most entry-level espresso machines have a single boiler, so they can't steam milk and brew espresso at the same time. A few contain dual thermostats so water and steam can be heated simultaneously. Some feature dual sieves for making double shots and/or a programmable function that regulates the delivery of one or two shots.
Pod Espresso MachinesEspresso pod machines are single-serve espresso machines that call for proprietary coffee capsules. They earn accolades from espresso drinkers who crave consistent results each time they pull a shot. Reviews laud the uniformity and dependability of the brew. Although users of these machines were once obliged to buy their single-serve espresso capsules from Nespresso, which pioneered the system, many are now compatible with non-proprietary ESE pods (Easy Serving Espresso). Some take pods as well as loose espresso grounds, and novices who hope to hone their brewing talents over time or aficionados who want don't want their coffee choices constricted may appreciate the versatility of a machine that offers both options. Reviews indicate, however, that most users aren't particularly fazed by the limited selection of beans and roasts available in pod form, and many approvingly note the range of options.
Espresso BeansWhile single-serve pods with ground beans sealed inside are currently all the rage, espresso tradition calls for freshly ground, high-quality beans. If you plan to brew your fix from ground beans, it's worth buying a good burr grinder. (Less costly blade grinders generate more heat and static, which can damage the flavor, and some don't crush beans evenly.) Experts sometimes recommend budgeting half as much for a good grinder as for an espresso machine itself. Alternatively, find the best source for a weekly supply of freshly ground beans, or turn to beans in a can that have been specifically ground for use in an espresso machine. Brands such as Café Bustelo, Illy, and Lavazza offer high-quality ground beans for what amounts to pennies a shot.
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Espresso Maker Reviews: What We Considered
Our research drew on reviews and testing results posted by experts, including CNET, TopTenReviews, and Consumer Reports. We also looked to niche sites maintained by knowledgeable experts, such as Whole Latte Love, Coffee Geek, Seattle Coffee Gear, and Fourth Estate Coffee. For input from everyday users, we turned to Amazon, Bed Bath & Beyond, Best Buy, Walmart, Target, Macy's, Crate & Barrel, Williams Sonoma, and manufacturer web pages.
Consumers who have made the switch to one of our top picks are well pleased with the results: They get a satisfying espresso drink in a matter of minutes and save pennies to put toward other small indulgences. There are a few grumbles about shots that aren't hot enough or strong enough, but for the most part, owners are enthusiastic about the overall value of these entry-level machines in espresso maker reviews.
Pump PressureSemi-automatic and automatic machines typically use a pump to push water through the coffee grounds. Pump pressure is measured in bars: The more bars, the more pressure. There is some disagreement about the number of bars needed to brew the best espresso. Nine bars is generally considered the sweet spot, and many experts argue that anything above this number is superfluous. Other experts say they would rather a machine tout a higher number of bars and automatically regulate down to nine bars of pressure than struggle to reach that level, and note that a higher number of bars means a shorter wait between shots.
The espresso machines on our list of top picks feature at least 15 bars of maximum brewing pressure, although brewing typically occurs at a lower level. One notable exception: With its Vertuo line, Nespresso has pioneered a new extraction method by which centrifugal action, rather than a pump, is used to circulate water through espresso pods. Termed "centrifusion" (centrifugal action plus water infusion), this technology, coupled with bar-coded pods that tell the machine exactly how much water is to be added and the optimal brewing time, is said to produce a great cup. (It also makes cleanup even easier, as the high spin rate leaves behind a completely dry pod.)
Ease of UseRegardless which espresso machine winds up on your kitchen counter, if it's not fully or semi-automatic, it's bound to be a complicated device. Fans of espresso drinks may justify their addiction to high-priced coffee shop fare because of anxiety over acquiring the skills needed to make a comparable brew. A rich, luscious drink requires that both you, the at-home barista, and the machine do your parts. But reviewers say the results and savings from an espresso machine that automates at least some of the steps — even at the budget end of the market are worth it.
Of course, pod espresso machines have garnered such a huge fan base because they're just so simple to use. Sealed, single-serve, capsules or paper-filter discs packed with carefully measured espresso grounds eliminate guesswork. Loose grounds are messier, and the end result is somewhat less consistent. Die-hards, however, insist that loose grounds produce a superior cup. And they're obviously cheaper: A single-serve pod costs anywhere from about 30 cents to $1, and sometimes even more.
PortafilterThe portafilter is the long-handled attachment that holds espresso grounds or ESE pods. Pressurized water flows through this gizmo and produces the espresso and crema. A commercial portafilter gives the most control over the brewing process and occasionally appears in higher-end machines designed for home use. It also has the steepest learning curve and is far more susceptible to user error.
The pressurized portafilters on entry-level espresso machines require less expertise but have their own drawbacks. Pressurized portafilters tend to be lightweight and less durable, and they aren't as good at maintaining heat. They can produce a messy, soggy "puck" — a hunk of grounds left over after the water flows through. Users find that aggressive tamping or over-grinding can clog the portafilter and cause the grounds to explode out of it. On some semi-automatic espresso machines, it's possible to change out the pressurized portafilter for a non-pressurized one like the type found on commercial machines. Still, that's an extra expense.
FrothingMost semi-automatic espresso machines come with steamer wands for steaming and frothing milk for cappuccino and the like. These wands sometimes draw complaints for their low clearance, which makes it difficult to fit a cup or pitcher underneath. Some cappuccino lovers solve this problem by setting the machine on top of a chopping board or at the edge of the counter. Experts prefer machines with knobs that control the amount of steam, but this feature is rare at the low end of the market.
Cup-Warming TrayMany espresso machines offer some type of cup-warming tray to take the chill off a ceramic cup and maintain the heat of the beverage. Cup-warming trays are either passive (heat from the boiler warms the cups) or active (there's a separate heating mechanism). Most machines in the budget range feature passive warming trays, which may not be all that useful. By the time the machine is ready to brew, the warmer has only just started to heat. Some users opt to run a cycle with only water to warm up the cups and then proceed with the espresso.
Durability and MaintenanceOne of the advantages of high-end espresso machines over budget models is durability. They're generally crafted from more stainless steel and brass components, sit heavier on the countertop, and can pull shots in sequence without struggling to reheat between brewing. Cheaper espresso makers aren't likely to last as long as these workhorses, but some are surprisingly sturdy for the price. Regardless of make, the warranties on most of these machines extend for only about a year.
Coffee aficionados recommend choosing a model that's primarily metal and/or stainless steel. Not only is this construction aesthetically pleasing, it's also practical. Metal parts tend to hold up longer, and stainless steel construction adds to the weight. (Heavier machines shift less on the countertop when you're inserting or removing the portafilter and frothing/steaming the milk.)
A quick cleanup after each use is a must with a budget espresso maker and helps maintain its functionality. Milk left to crust on the wand can clog steam pores; ditto for grounds left to harden in the portafilter. Descaling is required periodically, particularly if you have hard water. Most parts are not dishwasher-safe; be sure to follow manufacturer instructions. Of course, one way to minimize cleanup stress is by using sealed pods. Although you must dispose of the pods, the portafilter just needs a quick rinse.