True coffee aficionados who want the full home barista experience turn to manual espresso makers. These require a high level of tweaking -- of grind, quantity, water temperature, tamp, pressure and more. For those who prefer something that gives them at least some help -- the ability to control water temperature and a pump at least -- see our section on the best home espresso machines, which are all semi-automatic. If you would prefer to just push a button and get a delicious espresso with no fussing on your part, see our discussion of super automatic espresso machines.
No manual espresso maker gets the praise from experts and users as the ROK Presso Manual Espresso Maker (Est. $200). In one professional test, it produces a "rich, flavorful espresso and velvety crema." Users agree, saying that, once you master the learning curve, it makes the best espresso they have ever had -- comparable to specialty coffee shops and expert baristas. It's a simple, lever-driven technology that allows you to control the amount of pressure to customize each cup. It includes a frother for making latte, cappuccino and other specialty drinks.
Like all manual espresso makers, the ROK has a learning curve and you may have to experiment quite a bit to get to the point where you get a consistent result. And it takes time -- this is not a push-a-button-receive-coffee machine. By the time you grind, boil and brew it can take 15 minutes or more. You may also need to upgrade your tamper, users say, as the included one is curved too much to be effective. The ROK is made to last for many years, and the company backs up their quality construction with a 10-year warranty.
Another manual espresso maker that gets good reviews is the AeroPress Coffee and Espresso Maker (Est. $30). We included it in our report on single cup coffee makers because it's classified by more review sites as a manual coffee maker, but many people love it for expresso as well. In fact, it's the runner up to the ROK in the professional roundups we saw.
Reviewers say the AeroPress is super simple to use, but there still will be a learning curve to get espresso exactly as you like it, and to consistently achieve those results. You'll also need a source for hot water with both the AeroPress and the ROK -- perhaps the pour over kettle we recommend in our separate report on tea kettles.
Yes, we know, technically moka pots are not espresso makers (although one professional review source refers to them as the "poor man's espresso machine,") but they still make delicious, espresso-like coffee that is rich, complex and bold. Among moka pots, the Bialetti Moka Express (Est. $30 for 6-cup size) gets high marks from reviewers for its flavorful brew. It has a learning curve, they say, but not to the extent of the ROK. It's not quick either, it takes 10 to 15 minutes to brew one shot of espresso.
The Bialetti Moka is an eight-sided aluminum pot that evenly diffuses heat, forcing it up through the coffee grounds. It requires no electricity and users often mention using it for camping as it can be used over a campfire, or an electric or gas stove. However, be careful of the handle. It's plastic and if you leave it unattended and the flame gets up too high it can melt. The Bialetti is available in five sizes -- 1-, 3-, 6-, 9- and 12-cups -- but they're not true, 8-ounce cup sizes. Rather, the "cup" is the equivalent of one shot of espresso, or about an ounce.