What the best espresso makers have

  • Semi-automatic operation: Espresso is highly dependent on the pressure at which water is pushed through the grounds. Semi-automatic machines with nine bars of pressure or more are best for extracting the right amount of flavor from fresh coffee grounds. "For the vast majority of consumers, automatic machines allow enough control over the process while taking out some of the complexities," say editors at ConsumerReports.org.
  • Stainless-steel housing: Espresso machines with plastic housings are generally less durable than stainless-steel machines. Stainless steel also offers more protection against corrosion than other materials, according to Wired editors.
  • A movable steam arm: Rotating steam arms provide users with more control over the amount and consistency of froth.
  • Removable water tank: An espresso maker with a removable water tank is easier to fill and clean. Some machines can weigh up to 30 pounds or more; without a removable water tank, you need a pitcher or other container to add water.
  • A cup warmer: Aficionados say a warm cup is essential for maintaining the temperature of freshly brewed espresso. While a cup warmer is helpful, it's not necessary. Moreover, editors at New Zealand-based Consumer magazine say cup warmers can take up to 20 minutes to work. Instead, they suggest pouring hot water in your cup to warm it before filling it with espresso.
  • Accepts coffee pods: An espresso machine that accepts coffee pods isn't essential if you use fresh grounds, but it's handy if you're in a hurry. Editors of ConsumerReports.org say pods can save several minutes in the brewing process.

Know before you go

Should you buy an espresso machine or a coffee maker? The difference between regular coffee and espresso is the brewing method. Both processes require ground beans and a pressure system to squeeze water through the grounds to extract flavor. However, espresso machines create a firm puck of finer grounds and a high-pressure system squeezes water through the condensed grounds in 25 to 30 seconds. This extracts a more intense flavor. It's possible to create espresso using stovetop methods, but experts say this technique results in an inferior product. Some connoisseurs add that cheaper home-brew espresso makers are incapable of producing "true" espresso.

Will you use your espresso machine every day? Espresso makers designed for home use can be bulky, and will require a permanent spot on the countertop. Measure the dimensions of your cabinets and the space beneath to be sure your machine will fit. If you want an espresso maker for occasional use, look for a model that can be conveniently stored when not in use.

Do you travel often? A few espresso machines like the inexpensive Bialetti Moka Express (*Est. $25 to $75, depending on size) need just a heat source. That means it's easy to toss this pot in a suitcase for great espresso when you're camping or traveling.

Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it

Top-rated espresso machines cost hundreds of dollars, more than most average consumers are willing to spend on a kitchen appliance. However, if you visit a local coffee shop every morning for an espresso or latte, you're likely shelling out hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year.

Espresso machines can cut down significantly on the cost of staying caffeinated. Fresh-ground coffee is much less expensive per cup than the several dollars you'd fork over for a standard coffeehouse beverage. The trade-off is time: Most espresso machines need a few minutes to warm up and a few minutes more to brew each cup. Machines that accept pods are quicker, but pods are more expensive than ground coffee.

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