Espresso Maker Buying Guide

espresso-2Which Espresso Machine to Buy? The good news is that it is possible to get high quality espresso drinks at home from many of today’s modern espresso machines. But you’re not alone if you find it intimidating to choose from hundreds of espresso machines on the market today — some inexpensive, some very expensive — each boasting a myriad of features. This Rated4Stars.com Espresso Machine Buyers Guide provides you with the basic information for choosing the right model for your specific needs. Don’t worry, we won’t overload you with technical details like many other buying guides. Our aim is to provide you with the basic information you need to make the right decision about your purchase…in plain English. Once you decide what kind of system and features you’re looking for, we’ve already done the homework for you in researching features, performance, reviews and ratings for many of the models on the market today, and we’ve distilled that down to a short list of the “best of the best” in our Espresso Machine Reviews section. As with all the products featured at Rated4Stars.com, all of the espresso makers we feature are rated 4 stars or more.

EspressoHow Good Espresso is Made. In the simplest (and most unromantic) terms, espresso is produced when hot (but not boiling) water, under high pressure, is forced through tightly packed coffee that has been finely ground, sometimes to the consistency of a fine powder. Espresso aficionados will tell you that what happens well before you “tamp” (pack) your ground coffee and “pull a shot” (make a cup of approximately 1.25 ounces) of espresso is just as important as what happens in the espresso machine itself. This includes picking the right coffee, using a quality burr grinder to grind it to the right consistency, using pure water, etc. Great espresso is noted by the presence of “crema,” a reddish-brown foam on top, composed of vegetable oils, proteins and sugars and responsible for imparting a smooth creamy flavor to the espresso, as well as a rich texture. Because espresso is so concentrated, it is ideal as the basis for a variety of increasingly popular coffee drinks, including cappuccino, latte, macchiato and mocha. Another espresso drink of note which is rapidly rising in popularity is “Café Crema,” essentially diluted espresso, a pressure-brewed alternative to drip coffee. Pressured brewed coffee is considered superior to drip coffee as more flavor and aroma are extracted under pressure, and brewing time is much shorter.

Types of Espresso Makers

There is a wide range of espresso makers for the home, ranging from less than $50 to several thousand dollars. Do expensive espresso machines really make better espresso? In a word, yes, though we’ve found that you don’t necessarily have to spend a thousand dollars to get a really great cup of espresso. What it really boils down to (no pun intended) is pressure. Producing the best espresso requires achieving high pressure, something best achieved with an internal electric pump. Espresso makers that rely only on steam (stove-top “moka pots” or steam espresso machines) simply can’t achieve a high enough pressure necessary to fully extract all the goodies, including the crema, from the ground espresso beans. If you’re a purist and have a strong arm, you might try your hand at a manual lever-equipped espresso maker, which uses your arm’s muscles and its lever/piston to create pressure. However, we agree with a leading consumer magazine which states, “…because typical lower-end steam or stovetop machines don’t generate a sufficient level of pressure to make good espresso, it might be worth the extra money to buy a pricier pump version.” Therefore, our reviews cover only Pump Espresso Machines which consistently achieve the highest marks.

Non-Pump Espresso Makers

Because they cannot generate the water high pressure of Pump Espresso Makers (see below), the quality of espresso produced by espresso makers without an electric pump is generally inferior to that of pump-equipped machines

Stove-Top “Moka Pot” Espresso Maker

Bialetti-Brikka-Moka-Pot

The simplest and cheapest way to make espresso is with a stove-top “Moka Pot.” Water in the pot’s lower portion forces steam through the coffee into the upper portion of the pot. Unfortunately, Moka Pots can not achieve nearly the same level of pressure that pump-equipped machines can, limiting the quality of the resulting espresso.

Manual Lever/Piston Espresso Maker

La-Pavoni-EPG-8-Europiccola

For the purist who wants to control every aspect of the espresso making process, the classic lever/piston is a work of art. Pressure is generated manually — you pull down on the lever and a piston forces water through the coffee. Unfortunately, it requires the most effort and can not (easily) attain the same level of pressure that pump machines can. Still, if you want to become one with your espresso, this is the machine for you.

Steam-Powered Espresso Machine

Capresso-302-01-Mini-S

The under-$100 espresso machine market is dominated by steam-powered units, which, like the Moka Pot, rely on boiling water and steam pressure alone. Also like the Moke Pot, steam-powered espresso machines can not achieve the high pressure possible only with a pump-equipped machine, and therefore the quality of espresso is quite limited. One advantage over Moka Pots is the availability of a milk frothing/foaming attachment.

Pump Espresso Makers

Pump-equipped espresso machines use an electric pump to generate the high water pressure

Semi-Automatic

FrancisFrancis-X3-w160

Semi-automatic machines produce high-quality espresso and generally include a milk frothing/foaming wand. Coffee must be loaded and emptied each time espresso is made.

Fully Automatic or Super-Automatic

Saeco-00065-Incanto-Espress

Super-automatic machines produce high-quality espresso at the touch of a button and need only be refilled and emptied periodically. Some machines include integrated bean grinders as well.

Capsule-Only Pump Espresso Machine

These machines use pods or capsules of pre-ground and pre-measured portions of coffee. Pods and capsules ensure a consistent brew and make cleanup a breeze.

Pump Espresso Machines

Strength ControlsPump-equipped espresso machines use an electric pump to generate the high water pressure necessary for a great espresso. And because they can precisely regulate temperature and pressure, they consistently produce the best results of all espresso machines. Prices of most popular models range from $200 to $2,000, depending upon their capacity and to what degree functions are automated. There are two basic classes of pump espresso machines: Semi-Automatic, and Super-Automatic, determined by how many functions the unit automates. For example, some high-end machines will do everything at the touch of a button, including grinding the beans and brewing the espresso to your specifications, ideal if you enjoy espresso frequently or often host guests. Cleanup is also much easier — used grounds are stored in a removable “dump box” which can be emptied when full. Some units include an indicator light to inform you when the dump box is full.

Pump Espresso Machine Features

When choosing your pump espresso machine, there are a growing number of options to choose from, especially on super-automatic machines. We summarize the most important features you’ll want to consider.

Espresso PodsPod- or Capsule-Compatible
A popular trend, especially for those who don’t have the time or don’t want to be bothered with grinding, measuring and tamping coffee, is the use of pods or capsules which contain preground and premeasured portions of coffee. Pods and capsules ensure a consistent brew and make cleanup a breeze. Note that some machines take pods or capsules exclusively, while others can use either ground coffee or pods. Some machines will only accept their manufacturer’s own proprietary pods, limiting your coffee choices. Be aware that some models, including both Nespresso machines we tested, can use only the manufacturer’s capsules or pods. And you’ll want to consider that using pods or capsules will cost more — roughly twice the cost of grinding beans yourself.

Adjustable Strength/Dosing
The ”dose” of coffee refers to the number of grams of coffee used for brewing a shot of espresso. Adjustable dosing allows you to adjust this amount to obtain the desired strength of your shot. Some machines will alternatively/also allow you to adjust the amount of water per pull.

Milk Frothing/Foaming Wand

Milk Frothing/Foaming Wand
If you’re a cappuccino or latte drinker, you’ll need a steam-producing milk frothing/foaming wand. Most, but not all, pump machines include one. High-end machines may also include an integrated milk cannister.

Pre-Brew/Pre-Moistening
When this feature is activated, the coffee is pre-moistened before you pull your shot. While results vary, this process can provide for more effective extraction of oils and can provide a superior tasting espresso.

Brass Boiler
Besides offering more durability, because a brass boiler absorbs heat itself, it helps retain warmth, meaning faster reheating and overall less fluctuation in water temperature.

Integrated Bean Grinder
For the freshest cup of espresso, integrated bean grinders (found on super-automatic units) will automatically grind the appropriate amount of coffee needed for each brew.

Bypass DoserBypass Doser
For machines with integrated bean grinders, this handy feature allows you to substitute a different blend of coffee for what’s already in the hopper without removing the hopper’s contents.

Removable Brew Group
Many super-automatic units allow you to remove the “brew group,” the components where the brewing takes place. This allows for easier cleaning and maintenance. Alternatively, units without removable brew groups often use an automatic self-cleaning cycle.

Water Filter
Higher-end espresso machines often include built-in water filters to remove chlorine and other contaminants in tap water that can affect the taste of your espresso. Such filters do require periodic changing.

Cup WarmerCup Warmer
Don’t underestimate the importance of having pre-warmed cups for your espresso. They’ll keep your espresso warm much longer. Many units utilize the space on top of the machine where cups stay warm.

Cappuccino

Read Our Espresso Machine Reviews

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