Espresso Machine Review
How to Choose an Espresso Machine
The top performers in our review are the KRUPS Falcon, the Gold Award winner; the Nespresso Citiz Bundle, the Silver Award winner; and the Saeco Intuita, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing an espresso machine that meets your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 10 products.
There’s honesty in espresso. You would be hard pressed to find any other coffee drink that doesn’t hide behind trends, milk or flavor shots. An espresso is about technique and letting the flavor of the roasted coffee bean come through in a perfectly pulled 1 1/2-ounce shot. If the idea of grinding your own coffee and preparing your own cappuccinos in the morning or espresso shots for a quick pick-me-up sounds like your personal heaven, then keep reading because we have some suggestions on finding the best espresso machine for you.
Every barista has a different way of extracting the most flavor in each shot of espresso, but they all follow some basic guidelines: The water should be hot, but never reach a boil. The grind should be fine, but not too fine – unless the weather is exceptionally humid, then you might want a finer grind. There’s an art to tamping the grinds in the portafilter just so with just the right amount of pressure.
There’s an espresso machine for everyone, whether you want to control everything from the timing of the extraction process and the grind of the beans, or you want to relinquish that control and trust the machine to do it all for you. A manual, or semi-automatic, espresso machine lets you decide how long you want that shot. You will need to buy a separate coffee grinder, though, for the freshest and best-tasting espresso. A super automatic espresso machine grinds, tamps, extracts, dispenses and disposes of the puck for you – all you have to do is press a button. Then you can either sip the velvety crema that rests on top of the strong, black liquid by itself or add a splash of steamed milk for a true macchiato. You can also use the steam wand to create a microfoam to mix with your espresso shot for a silky cappuccino or add hot milk for a creamy latte.
Espresso isn’t for everyone, though. If you prefer a regular cup of coffee, and you prefer it one cup at a time, check out the single cup coffee machines we reviewed. The convenience of having a hot cup of coffee ready for you when you wake up can’t be beat for some, which is why drip coffee makers are still extremely popular in American kitchens. Another way to enjoy a strong brew is with a coffee percolator; we looked at stovetop and electric versions.
An espresso machine can be quite expensive or affordable, depending on several factors, such as how often you buy lattes and shots of espresso at your local coffeehouse, or how often you entertain and want to offer espresso at the end of a meal. There’s a lot to learn about espresso and espresso machines – from technique to lingo – so be sure to check out our articles on espresso machines.
Espresso Machines: What We Tested, What We Discovered
There are two main reasons we drink espresso: flavor and caffeine. If you consider how little caffeine is in a single shot of espresso, typically 64 mg compared to the 95 mg found in an 8-ounce cup of coffee, then that leaves flavor as the sole purpose of ordering an espresso. The crema that forms on top of the shot contains the majority of the flavor of the oils from the coffee bean. So, it makes sense to choose the best espresso machine that creates the best espresso.
Every appliance requires some maintenance, but you don’t want to spend the majority of your time cleaning your machine. And it won’t do you any good if you don’t know how to use your machine. It’s important to choose an espresso machine that fits your lifestyle.
Taste is subjective, of course, but there are certain qualities you can expect when you sip espresso. A perfect shot should have a balance of sweet, acidic, and bitter; it should be hot but not scorching; and it should have a thick layer of crema on top. With the help of a seasoned barista, we tested each espresso machine on our lineup with the same brand, roast and grind of coffee for each shot pulled – initially, anyway. The result from each espresso machine was different. We found that machines without pressurized portafilters, or filter baskets, required a finer grind. It was easy to spot the high-quality shots in the crema produced alone, but we also relied on testers' tastebuds to determine which machine made the most consistent and tasty espresso.
An espresso machine doubles as a cappuccino maker, so in addition to taste, we tested each machine’s ability to create tight microfoam out of a variety of milks, including whole, low-fat, skim, soy and almond. We used exactly 4 ounces of milk for each steaming test. We also made sure to heat the milk to about 150 to 155 degrees F. There were a few automatic steaming options that were superior to steam wands because they are regulated, but you don’t get as much control.
Most commercial espresso machines use only 9 bars of pressure, a unit of measurement that refers to atmospheric pressure, which is all that’s needed to properly brew a good cup of espresso. You’ll find that most espresso machines made for home use list 15 bars of pressure or more. The difference here is in the type of pump that’s used, and that’s why commercial machines cost more. The 15 bars of pressure that home espresso machines employ – vibratory pumps – are required to get the full 9 bars of pressure needed to the portafilter, or the basket, that holds your coffee grinds. Anything more than 15, though, is superfluous.
A super automatic espresso maker is going to be much easier to use than a manual machine, so when we looked at how easy these were to use, we graded on a curve. You need a basic understanding of how fine you should grind your coffee beans and how much pressure to apply when tamping the grinds in the portafilter. An auto machine doesn’t require you to have any expertise. Once you understand how to grind your beans and pull a quality shot, though, it becomes like second nature.
We started timing how long each machine took to heat up, but we gave up because every machine on our lineup was ready to brew in less than a minute. However, there are some machines that require you to prime the pump, or rather, the boiler. It’s a good habit to get into and really only needs to be done when you haven’t used the machine in a while. Self-priming machines are more convenient and more hands-off than the others are.
It’s also important to know what sort of maintenance your espresso maker needs. We cleaned each machine according to the manufacturer’s suggestions and noted the difficulty in order to come up with a comprehensive score to let you know how easy it is to maintain your espresso machine daily.
Little details, like a removable cup tray or an adjustable grouphead to allow for bigger cups (for when you want to make a double shot or a latte), are important to note. We also looked at whether the machine includes a cup-warming tray, which is convenient, because espresso cools off very quickly. A larger water reservoir cuts down on maintenance and auto-shutoff is a safety feature that is invaluable, especially on mornings when you’re just not awake enough to remember to turn off the machine.
What Else Is Important in Choosing an Espresso Machine?
Safety is always an important consideration when buying a new appliance. Some espresso machines come with helpful features to prevent accidents, like burns, or if you have a tendency to leave the machine on all day.
You’re going to spend quite a bit of cash when you buy an espresso machine, so it’s an added value when a manufacturer includes accessories that you need to make espresso. Some specific bits of information you might want to know, but they aren’t vital to choosing a great espresso machine, so we included that information in a separate category.
It’s also beneficial to know what the warranty includes and how long it protects your purchase, so we checked out the information to help you make the best decision.
We checked the temperature of the exterior of each espresso machine as they brewed espresso. Most of the machines in our lineup were warm to the touch but didn’t burn. A status light that lets you know when the espresso machine is on can help prevent accidental burns, too, in case buttons are pressed accidentally. And the espresso makers with auto shut-off received more credit than those without that feature.
An espresso machine that includes all the pieces you need to get started right away is desirable, although none of the machines on our list include shot glasses. We didn’t score the products based on the accessories included, because they don’t make or break the machine. Also, some of the best espresso machines are either super automatic or pod machines and don’t require the extra bits. Some manufacturers give you a pitcher for frothing milk so you can make a cappuccino or mocha right out of the box. The semi-automatic espresso machines include at least one portafilter, but some may include a second one or a pod-adaptable filter. Most espresso makers also give you a tamping tool, and some include a measuring spoon.
Warranty & Support
Ideally, an espresso machine includes a solid guarantee that your product is free of defects. The length of the warranty varies from one year to two years. We found that all of the espresso machines we tested offer support by email, at least, and most of them offer phone customer care. Other manufacturers include live chat, too. All of the espresso machines on our lineup give you access to the user manual online.
Espresso Machines: Our Verdict and Recommendations
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the units in our comparison on loan from some manufacturers and purchased the others. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
After several cups of espresso, lattes and cappuccinos, we made our choice of the best espresso machines based on the factors listed above and in our matrix.
The KRUPS Falcon rose to the top like the thick, rich crema it produced consistently for each shot. Our testers gave it the highest score for the best-tasting espresso compared to all of the other machines on our list. The super cappuccino accessory created very creamy milk foam, regardless of which milk we used. It was incredibly easy to use and quick to clean.
The Nespresso Citiz Bundle also produced consistently creamy espresso shots, though it wasn’t as flavorful as some of the other machines on our lineup. The separate milk frother worked faster and better than any steam wand we used. The carafe quickly heats and steams milk, and we got consistent results every time. You won’t find a machine that’s easier to use and maintain – you simply pop a pod into the machine, press a button and you have espresso. Cleaning the machine is as easy as emptying the bin of pods once it’s full.
Another super-automatic espresso machine to make our top-rated products is the Saeco Intuita, which also produced delicious espresso almost every time. As with most super-autos, you have less flexibility – you can’t use ground coffee or pods – but it’s one of the most convenient choices. This espresso maker holds more than 50 ounces of water, so you can pull shot after shot without having to refill the water reservoir.
While those are the overall best espresso makers, it’s also worth noting that the Gaggia, a manual espresso machine, also created very good espresso. Its steam wand worked well to create creamy, sweet steamed milk.
Also, the DeLonghi delivered a delicious shot, and it’s the most affordable machine on our lineup, but it doesn’t shut off automatically and you’ll have to do a bit more maintenance to keep it clean.
When you buy the right espresso machine for you, you can save hundreds of dollars per year and still enjoy delicious espressos, lattes, mochas and macchiatos.