What the best espresso makers have
- Adjustable pressure. 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. Some semi-automatic machines may have too much pressure or too little pressure for optimal brewing, you need to be able to dial it up or down.
- Stainless-steel housing. Because espresso is made with steam and pressure, it can be hard on less-durable materials. Espresso machines with plastic housings won't hold up as well as stainless-steel machines. Stainless steel also offers more protection against corrosion than other materials.
- A movable steam arm. Rotating, articulating steam arms provide users with more control over the amount and consistency of froth. They should also be long enough and adjustable enough to comfortably fit a container under them.
- 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. You can always rinse your cup to in hot water to warm it, but an included cup warmer is a nice extra.
- Adaptability for 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. This can save some time in the brewing process.
Know before you go
Do you mind a learning curve? Semi-automatic and manual machines require some practice and finesse to get brewing right. Some require a lot. The good news is that there are videos, forums and helpful experts all over the Internet at coffee specialty sites; the bad news is that some people never figure it out to their satisfaction and end up trading in their espresso machines and going back to Starbucks or buying a super automatic machine.
Are you impatient? In general, making espresso is not a quick proposition. You have to grind the beans, heat the water (or wait for it to heat), wait for the immersion and extraction processes, etc. It can take 15 minutes or more before you actually end up with a beverage. For some, that's a soothing, satisfying process. For others, it's just that much time out of their lives they'll never get back. Again, for the latter, we recommend either pods or a super automatic machine.
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 is, at its core, a "shot" of very strong coffee; not more than about 1.5 ounces. It's not exactly a cup of coffee. If you prefer a true coffee, to sip or to keep going back to the carafe for more, see our report on coffee makers. If you drink coffee throughout the day and like a fresh cup each time, without the additional "cooking" that comes with a glass carafe sitting on a heating element, you'll want to check out our report on single cup coffee makers.
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.
Value expectations: The dollars and cents of it
Top-rated espresso machines cost hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of dollars, more than what many are willing to spend on a kitchen appliance of this type. However, if you visit a local coffee shop every morning for an espresso or latte, you're likely shelling out at least that much per year anyway.
In budgeting for an espresso machine, be sure you include any other accessories you will need in addition to whatever machine you buy. Unless you buy a machine with a built-in grinder, or one that exclusively uses espresso pods, you'll need to invest in a top-quality burr grinder, which can run you from $100 to $300. (See our report on coffee grinders for our recommendations). In addition, you may need a frother, a stainless steel frothing mug, tamper, etc. Some machines come with these accessories, but they don't work as well as some aftermarket versions, so you may want to upgrade. Some machines don't include them at all. Be sure you add up the extras to figure out your total cost outlay.