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Buyer's Guide: Espresso makers

Get excellent espresso, and maybe save money, by slinging shots at home

Last reviewed: December 2009
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Gourmet coffee is a booming business in the United States. Coffee connoisseurs, thirsting for a higher-quality coffee, are shifting their money into premium brews. As more Americans have started enjoying top-tier espressos, lattes, and cappuccinos, many fans are trying to replicate the coffeehouse experience in their homes.

What's available

There are many brands of espresso machines sold in the U.S., including Bialetti, Braun, Breville, Capresso, DeLonghi, Krups, Melitta, Mr. Coffee, Nespresso, Saeco, Starbucks, and West Bend. Krups and Mr. Coffee account for more than half of the U.S. market. Prices range from less than $25 to $1,000 or more. Almost 70 percent of all machines sold in the U.S. cost less than $75. Espresso machines represent a niche market, garnering only about 4 percent of the 27 million coffeemakers sold annually.

Espresso machines run the gamut from simple stovetop models (such as those you might have seen in an Italian restaurant) to steam machines (steam pressure pushes hot water through the ground coffee) to electric-pump versions (they produce the best coffee and. tend to cost the most). Among the pump types, you'll find completely manual versions with which you control the full brewing cycle as well as fully automatic models that grind the beans, make the coffee, and collect the spent grounds in a bin that you have to empty occasionally. Others, sometimes referred to as semiautomatics, fall in between in terms of how much work they do for you.

Some machines employ capsules or pods—preground, measured portions of coffee that ease the process. You need not measure, fill, and tamp (press) ground coffee. Some machines take pods or capsules exclusively, while others can use either ground coffee or pods.

Be aware that some models, including both Nespresso machines we tested, can use only the manufacturer's capsules or pods. That means the company sets the price for the capsule or pod and that you can't just buy more at the local supermarket or even specialty retailer. In some cases, you'll have to join a company's club to order coffee on the Web or by phone. (Testing for this project was conducted in partnership with International Consumer Research & Testing, a worldwide association of 37 consumer organizations of which Consumer Reports is a leading member.)

How to choose

Espresso is made by forcing hot water under pressure through tightly packed, or tamped, finely ground coffee. The result is a small (about 1.25 ounces) cup, or shot, of highly concentrated coffee with a layer of foam known as crema. Consider your dedication to the art of coffee because making a top-notch cup with a manual pump machine takes a bit of knowledge and practice. To succeed as a barista, you'll need to know which beans to buy and how to grind and store them, how much coffee to use per shot, and how to deliver the hot water at the proper temperature and pressure. But once you figure it out, the results will be worth it in terms of taste and cost. (To learn how to make the perfect cup, see "Espresso 101".)

You can eliminate the effects of technique—but not necessarily the creativity—by using an automatic machine instead of a manual model. Some highly automated pump models grind the beans as well but still allow you to adjust the grind, amount of coffee, and water volume to your preference. For the vast majority of consumers, automatic machines allow enough control over the process while taking out some of the complexities.

Automatic machines that use pods or capsules are the simplest of all, but it's more expensive to make coffee this way than to buy beans and grind them yourself. The capsules from Nespresso cost about 60 cents per cup, including shipping. You could slash the cost to about 30 cents per cup by purchasing a $10 can of espresso—enough to yield about 30 shots. That means you would save more than $100 a year if were to make one shot a day. And if your machine allows you to wean yourself from the local java joint—where you're certainly spending at least $1 per shot—your savings will be even greater (especially if you tend to deposit some change in the ubiquitous tip jar).

Machines equipped with an integrated grinder tend to be heavier and take up more counter space. Cleaning espresso makers can be a bit involved, too, particularly with manual machines where you tamp the coffee grounds into a metal filter. The two Nespresso machines, with their capsule design, and the Krups XP7230, with its automatic cleaning program, were judged easiest to clean among those tested.

Machine performance

We judged seven pump-style machines on many aspects, including taste, convenience, brew temperature, speed, and, where applicable, frothing. The tested machines, all automated to some extent, are expensive relative to what is available on the market. But 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. Indeed, all of the machines we tested produced a very good cup of espresso.

Here's what we found in our testing:

  • The seven models did well in the time needed to produce the first two cups of espresso, including warm-up time. The range was 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 minutes.
  • Among machines that frothed milk, three steamed ahead of the rest: the Krups XP7230 and XP4050 and the Starbucks Barista.
  • Most models we tested were easy to clean. Note that there were sharp edges on the DeLonghi's drip tray, so more care was required during cleanup.
  • When it came to the ultimate test—taste—price did not equate to the best espresso, according to our expert testers. While all machines received at least very good marks for taste, two were rated excellent: the Nespresso Essenza C100, $230, and Nespresso Le Cube C180, $300. Tasters said those models made balanced and strong coffee with the correct amount and color of foam. And because you don't have loose grounds or filter holders to clean, both proved very easy to clean. If you're a cappuccino fan or envision using your espresso machine to make warm cups of milk, you're out of luck—these are espresso-only models.

If you want a tasty cup of espresso with minimal hassle, the Nespresso C100 is the machine to buy. While it's relatively inexpensive for a pump-style model, you will have to buy the company's coffee capsules. But if you want a solid performer and can afford to splurge, the Krups XP7230 might be the choice. It did an excellent job frothing milk for cappuccino and other drinks and offered very good convenience.