How we tested
Being an espresso lover can be vexing. For one thing, your habit will hit you in the wallet. A single shot—just 1 ounce—recently cost me almost $3.00 at a local coffee bar, before tip. And it took less time to drink than I spent standing in line to order. Not to mention that I had to leave the house to obtain that tiny, pricey, life-giving elixir. So I was excited about testing home espresso machines, especially ones that promised to do most of the work for me. As it turns out, I’m not alone in my desire for espresso’s rich, strong boost: Daily consumption of espresso-based beverages has nearly tripled in America since 2008, according to the National Coffee Association’s 2016 trends report.
But shopping for espresso machines is complicated. They range in price from about $100 for basic machines to elaborate, glossy marvels that can set you back more than almost $8,000. And that’s for a machine without a grinder or a scale, both of which experts say are necessary for the best results. Since we know that coffee tastes best if the beans are ground just before brewing and we didn’t want to mess around grinding and portioning coffee in the early morning, we decided to focus on models that have grinders built in, which dramatically narrowed the field. Because most Americans enjoy milky espresso drinks such as cappuccinos and lattes, we chose only machines that included a method of frothing milk. We also capped the price around $1,000, high enough to (we hoped) ensure quality but not so high as to be, well, ridiculous. We bought six machines priced from about $400 to about $1,000—five with grinders and one that uses pods.
We knew what we wanted in an espresso machine. First and foremost, it should make espresso as good as a barista can produce, and you should be able to customize the brew strength and size to your taste. Second, the machine must be easy to use and relatively straightforward to maintain. Brewing a drink or two should not make much of a mess, take too long, or require a discouraging amount of fuss for a busy weekday morning.
Speed is at the heart of espresso, which is a modern invention; it became popular just after World War II as a way to brew coffee fast. It takes a barista just 20 to 30 seconds to “pull” a shot of espresso, sending heated water through a small, packed puck of finely ground coffee. With drip coffee, gravity does the work. But with espresso, the water is forced through the coffee using intense pressure. The standard for this type of espresso machine is a peak capacity of about 15 bars of pressure—the equivalent of 217.5 pounds per square inch (psi). According to espresso experts, the machine needs to be able to reach a peak capacity of 15 bars in order to consistently generate the roughly nine bars of that pressure it needs to brew proper espresso. Inside automatic machines such as those in our lineup, a boiler heats the water and a pump creates the pressure to force it through the grounds. The result is a hot, dark, rich, and slightly bitter brew topped by a layer of golden-brown froth called crema, the flavorful and aromatic emulsified oils extruded under pressure.
To level the playing field for our testing, we used tap water and bought a dozen pounds of coffee beans roasted in the same batch so that the only difference between our espresso drinks would originate in the machines themselves. One thing we learned: You don’t need special “espresso-roast” coffee; the only caveats offered in some of our machines’ manuals were against using very oily beans or flavored and artificially coated beans, which could leave damaging residue in the machines. We used the same nonoily roast in each machine and chose the closest match of pods for the Nespresso machine.
Before we started brewing, we went through the machines’ lengthy setup procedures, which included checking the tap water’s hardness with a color-changing strip and programming this into the machines’ settings, installing water filters, and following elaborate multistep rinsing programs. The process wasn’t onerous for any of the machines. Soon enough, we’d filled the tanks with fresh water and the hoppers with beans and begun brewing cup after cup of single and double espresso. Later we learned to froth milk for a steamy array of cappuccinos, macchiatos, and lattes. Two of the machines automatically pumped out frothed milk once we’d inserted attachments, while the other four had steam wands that we inserted into a vessel of cold milk to froth it manually.
First the good news: We didn’t get terrible espresso from any of the machines, and some were outstanding. Even if the first shots were not great, each machine permits adjustments to some or all factors including the temperature, strength, and volume, so you can move closer to your ideal espresso shot. A few machines even let you program buttons and save favorite settings for one or more users; the rest make any changes the new default.
We quickly learned to look for the gold standard of espresso extraction: steady, slim streams of mottled, hazelnut-colored espresso from the dual spouts, resulting in a brew topped by a layer of foamy, marbled crema. We discovered that if the espresso dribbles out too slowly, looking like ink, the flavor will be sour and harsh because water is spending too much time in contact with the grounds, overextracting bad flavor compounds. The cause? Coffee that was too finely ground or, in machines where you tamp down the coffee, a sign that it was too firmly packed, slowing the water’s passage. By contrast, when the streams rush out too quickly or are too pale, the espresso will be weak, thin, and sour because it is underextracted. The coffee was too coarsely ground, too lightly tamped, or insufficient in quantity, so there wasn’t enough contact between water and coffee.
After pulling and sipping shot after shot and making adjustments to the grind size, temperature settings, shot volume, and more, we extracted good-quality shots, although admittedly our favorites made good shots from the start. The longest but perhaps most rewarding learning curve came from the Breville Barista Express, a semiautomatic machine that required some hands-on work. While it automatically dispensed the portion of coffee into a portafilter (the handled metal filter cup that holds the grounds during brewing), we had to learn to tamp it down properly with an included tamper and then lock the portafilter in place under the brew head before pushing a button to commence brewing. A gauge on the front let us see if we’d ground and tamped correctly (an arrow would go into a clearly marked gray zone), providing immediate feedback that the drink was extracted at the correct pressure. After brewing, we had to manually remove and tap out the used puck of coffee and rinse the portafilter. As espresso-making novices, we started out a bit nervous about the DIY aspects of the Breville Barista Express, but we quickly gained confidence, thanks to its clear, intuitive buttons and manual. Soon we were happily dialing in our ideal shots and feeling like pros. By contrast, all of the other machines worked behind the scenes and were virtually hands-off, automatically grinding, portioning, brewing, and ejecting the puck into a hidden bin. (These collected anywhere from 9 to 16 pucks or pods before the machine signaled us to empty them.)
Now for the bad news: A few machines were absurdly complicated to use. The worst offender, by DeLonghi, had a 3 by 3-inch square display filled with rows of tiny symbols like so many hieroglyphics; they were frustratingly cryptic, and so was the manual, which showed page after page of them with lengthy explanations. (Worse, some symbols stood for different things if they were blinking rather than simply on.) At the other end of the spectrum, a model by Jura was too pared down. While its blank face looked extremely sleek, it constantly forced us back to the manual to be sure we were operating it correctly, to make any adjustments, or to froth milk. Since we had set out to find an automatic machine that made getting espresso simpler and quicker, we put a premium on how easy the machines were to use, and these two models lost a few initial points. But what really sank them were their fatal flaws.
The grinders on these two most complicated-to-operate machines frequently didn’t work. Beans often failed to drop down into the grinding blades. We could find no obvious correlation between the type of grinder and this occurrence; the shapes of their bean hoppers just tended to keep coffee beans from reaching the blades without help. The Jura would halt and flash a “fill beans” display, even if the hopper was filled to the brim. The DeLonghi would grind the few beans that did drop from the hopper into the blades and then produce thin, brownish dishwater instead of espresso. In both cases, if we pushed the button to brew and quickly opened the hopper to push the coffee beans down with our fingers as they ground, enough beans entered the grinder to make great espresso. But this was simply not acceptable.
We wondered if the very slight oily sheen on the exterior of our darker-roasted coffee beans was a factor, so we bought medium-roast beans with extremely dry surfaces and tried again, brewing 40 espresso shots in each machine. This time, the beans did drop down successfully in both without our assistance (although the DeLonghi still brewed a few watery shots from too-few beans as the hopper emptied, before a light came on indicating that it needed to be refilled). However, these were the two most expensive machines in our lineup, at about $1,000.00 apiece, a price that shouldn’t limit us to certain types of roasts. We can only recommend these models with reservations.
The pod machine, the Nespresso Lattisima Touch, was by far the easiest to use, the neatest, and the most compact on the counter—as well as the least expensive of our lineup. The crema it produced was the thickest and longest-lasting. But beneath the crema, the coffee itself was thin and a bit disappointing, lacking in body and flavor. This machine offered the fewest adjustments to tweak the outcome, so there wasn’t much we could do about it. Nevertheless, many of our testers felt they could forgive the slightly subpar espresso because the machine was so easy to use (and a lot of users dilute their espresso with milk and sugar). We recommend this machine with the reservation that while it doesn’t produce the best home espresso, it is certainly the easiest.
That left us with two finalists. One was the Breville Barista Express, which requires some commitment to learn and carry out the steps to brew espresso every day. The other was a fully automatic machine that prepared drinks with the touch of a few well-designed buttons. Compact, easy to understand, consistent in the high quality of its espresso, and simple to adjust so that you can experiment with settings, the Gaggia Anima let us enjoy espresso without having to become part-time professional baristas; it is our favorite espresso machine. If you want push-button convenience and fantastic espresso, choose the Gaggia. If you are happier getting your hands on at least some of the experience of preparing your beverages, then the handsome, semiautomatic Breville Barista Express is just the ticket.
We tested six espresso machines (four fully automatic, one semiautomatic, and one pod-style) ranging in price from about $400.00 to about $1,000.00. We used Peets Arabica Mocha Java, a dark roast with chocolaty notes. For the Nespresso pod machine, we chose its proprietary roast, Arpeggio, the closest match to the Peets coffee. All models except for the pod-style machine had built-in coffee grinders, and all had the capability to produce frothed milk for cappuccino and other milk-based espresso drinks. We indicated which machines offer a small chute and scoop for making a single cup of preground coffee, as well as a platform for holding and passively warming cups. We measured the maximum height of the space beneath the espresso-dispensing spouts to determine the tallest cup size you could use on each machine. We rated the machines on coffee quality, milk frothing, ease of use, and cleanup. All machines were purchased online, and they appear in order of preference.
Espresso Quality: We prepared multiple rounds of espresso and double espresso with each machine, evaluating the results visually and through tastings; we adjusted settings to reach optimal flavor quality for each machine. We also held a blind tasting in which tasters rated the flavor, body, and overall appeal of single shots of espresso, and we measured the depth of the crema on three shots and averaged the results. We rated machines higher if they reliably and repeatedly produced shots of espresso with good flavor, body, and crema.
Milk Frothing: We prepared cappuccino on each machine, both singly and several in succession. We rated the texture of the froth and the quality of the finished brew.
Ease of Use: As we used the machines, we noted the level of difficulty and effort required to prepare single and multiple rounds of espresso-based drinks, as well as to fill the bean hopper and water reservoir. We gave higher marks to models that had simple, clear, and intuitive displays, buttons, and controls; had easy-to-fill tanks and hoppers; and didn’t force us to consult the manual repeatedly for basic operation. Machines that made frothing milk easier received higher marks.
Cleanup: We evaluated how easy it was to keep each machine clean and running, including emptying used coffee grounds (or pods) and drip trays and cleaning the milk-frothing apparatus, taking into account demands for longer-term cleaning cycles, descaling, and filter replacement. Machines that were designed to be simpler to maintain rated highest.