What Exactly is Espresso
Despite its popularity, there are still a number of widespread misconceptions about this magical elixir. Espresso is made from the same beans as normal coffee, the difference in the two drinks comes solely from the preparation. When making espresso the beans are normally ground much finer and then compacted or "tamped" to create a dense block of ground coffee. Hot water is then pushed through that coffee at a high pressure. This method concentrates the flavor of the beans into a smaller amount of water, creating a much more intense and robust drink when compared to normal coffee. All of the fancy cafe drinks like lattes and cappuccinos are created by adding hot milk that has been frothed to create various amounts of foam to the espresso.
Choosing the Right Espresso Machine
Step 1: Convenience or Quality? Super-Automatic vs. Semi-Automatic
The biggest decision to make is whether to go with a super automatic or a semi-automatic machine. The basic difference between these two categories is that super-automatic machines are foolproof and do everything automatically at the touch of a button, while semi-automatic machines require you to grind and tamp (think press into a tightly packed hockey puck) the coffee yourself.
Super-automatic machines are for those that place a premium on convenience and just want an easy, no fuss way to make espresso at home. With their single button functionality adding one of these machines to your morning routine takes zero extra brain power. Also, if you have guests you can generally teach them to use the machine in under a minute. The sacrifice you make here is taste. We found that while super-automatic machines can brew some pretty good espresso, they often tended to water it down a bit and couldn't match the rich, full-bodied shots we were able to pull from semi-automatic models. Bottom line: these machines are quick, easy, and even tasty, but they're not going to match the quality of your favorite Starbucks order.
Semi-automatic machines require a bit more labor and have a small but not insignificant learning curve when compared to their super automatic brethren. With these machines, you grind the coffee yourself, put it into a portafilter (that fancy, ice cream scoop looking thing you see baristas flinging around), compact the grinds by pressing them down with a tamper, clamp the portafilter into the espresso machine, press a button, and wait for the brew. This may sound complicated, but if watch it all happen in the video below you'll see that it's fairly simple. It might take pulling 10-20 shots to feel proficient in all of these new skills, but it quickly becomes second nature. We've found that if you invest in a nice semi-automatic machine like the Breville Barista Express, this extra effort will reward you with much better tasting espresso. Semi-automatic machines also give you the option of experimenting with grind size, and the amount of coffee used, so you can play around with the subtleties of espresso. These machines are thus better for those that don't mind putting in more effort in order to improve taste and those that enjoy the ritual of coffee making.
Step 2: To Pod or Not to Pod, is Nespresso Right For You?
Nespresso machines fall within the super-automatic genre and utilize a single serving capsule system, similar to the Keurig coffee makers that have become common in many offices and the waiting rooms of overpriced dentists. These capsules, often referred to as pods, nearly eliminate cleanup and make it easy to quickly switch between types of coffee. Their biggest obvious downside is cost. Making a shot with one of these capsules can be as much as double the cost of making a shot from freshly ground beans.
Aren't Those Capsules Bad For the Environment?
On top of the extra cost, many users will be concerned about the environmental impact of producing all those little capsules. Nespresso does offer a free recycling service for the Capsules. However it is not clear how many users participate in this recycling program, so some people feel that buying into this capsule system is buying into a system of unnecessary waste. Additionally, recycling is not a 100% efficient process, so it is still better to not produce the recyclable waste in the first place (that's why 'recycle' come after 'reduce' and 'reuse') The Guardian recently published an article that called out Nespresso's lack of transparency in reporting how many capsules get recycled. The good news is that same article lauds Nespresso's efforts in responsibly and sustainably sourcing their coffee. Additionally, Nespresso has said they are committed to making their capsules more sustainable.
The greener alternative to Nespresso is a super-automatic machine that you put your own beans in, like the Gaggia Brera. All you have to do is put whole beans in these machines and they will grind and tamp them automatically. This ends up being nearly as convenient as a Nespresso machine, with just a little additional cleanup (since you'll have to rinse the bin where the spent grinds are deposited). Since you can choose your beans for these machines you can make sure you're drinking an ethically and sustainably sourced brew, without having to worry about buying into a system that wastes a bunch of aluminum.
Step 3: Got Milk?
If straight shots of espresso isn't your thing, you'll probably be looking to add milk with varying degrees of frothiness to create lattes and cappuccinos. This requires some sort of milk frothing device. The machines we reviewed ranged from having built-in, automatic milk frothers (Gaggia Anima Prestige) to having cafe style steam wand (Breville Barista Express) to having no way to froth or steam milk (Nespresso Inissia).
Nespresso machines are the most likely to not includes a milk frothing device (the De'Longhi Nespresso Lattissima Pro being an exception). This can be remedied by buying a standalone milk frother like the Epica Automatic Electric Milk Frother or the Nespresso Aeroccino Plus Milk Frother. However, these frothers require some scrubbing and cleaning after each use. While this isn't particularly arduous it felt like it really detracted from the convenience of pod capsule machines.
In general, we found machines with built-in automatic frothers the easiest to use. Stand Alone milk frothers are also easy to use, but slightly harder to clean. Steam wands produced the best milk in our testing, but definitely required the most effort and had a bit of a learning curve. However, if you want anything close to latte art quality milk you'll have to use a steam wand. For a more in-depth review of frothers, see the 'Which Milk Device do You Want?' section below.
Step 4: Consider Ease of Cleaning
Cleaning will probably be your least favorite part about owning an espresso machine. In our ease of cleaning metric, we've evaluated everything from day to day cleaning requirements, like emptying drip trays and wiping down steam wands, to long-term cleaning processes like descaling (which flushes out mineral buildup). Descaling is generally only done every few months (depending on usage and how hard your water is), so it should factor into your decision less than daily cleaning.
Generally, we found models that use capsules, like the Nespresso Inissia to be the easiest to clean when making straight espresso, but adding in a separate milk frother to make cappuccinos increased cleanup significantly. If you want to add milk to your drink, super automatic models like the Gaggia Anima Prestige, which have built-in automatic milk frothers, were the most painless to clean in our testing. Just make a few drinks and then throw the milk frother into the dishwasher.
Step 5: Don't Forget a Coffee Grinder
Most of the models we tested either have a built-in grinder or use capsules that negate the need for grinding (the Mr. Coffee being the one exception). If you end up going with a machine that doesn't include a grinder, you'll need to get one. Espresso tastes much better with freshly ground beans. You won't want to skimp on the grinder either, as a sub-par grind will make poor tasting espresso, no matter how good of a machine you have. We would recommend a quality burr grinder, like the Oxo On Barista Brain.
Types of Espresso Machines
A number of different methods have been developed to create the high pressures required to extract a perfect shot of espresso. However, these different methods represent a wide range of success and complexity.
Stovetop Espresso Makers
Manual Espresso Makers
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
Single Serving Capsule Espresso Machines
Which Milk Device do You Want?
For those of us that are trying to recreate one of those heavenly coffee shop drinks at home, milk quality is just as important as espresso quality. Before we get into the different types of milk prep devices it is worth reviewing the difference between steamed milk and frothed milk, the two types of milk used in espresso beverages. Steamed milk is essentially heated milk that has had a small amount of air introduced to create a creamy texture and a hint of sweetness, ideally with just a little bit of foam on top. Steamed milk is a key ingredient in lattes and is responsible for the leaves and hearts your barista creates on the top of your drink. Frothed milk, on the other hand, has had much more air introduced in order to create a velvety milk foam. Frothed milk is the very foamy layer on the top of a cappuccino that has adorned many a mustache.
Steam wands are the most capable milk preppers of the espresso drink world. They can both create the luscious texture of steamed milk and blast in more air to create voluminous and luxurious milk foam. Steam wands are also the most difficult milk tools to use. They require you put the wand into a small pitcher of milk and skillfully move the pitcher around to get the desired result. There is a small learning curve to this, but with some practice, you can get barista level results from some home machines. Also, prepping milk with a steam wand is a hands-on process from start to finish, as opposed to other processes that just require pushing a button. If you're diligent about purging and wiping off the steam wand between each use cleaning is fairly easy, but if you forget a couple of times a stubborn buildup of gunk can form relatively quickly. Below is a helpful video detailing how to prepare milk with a steam wand.
Stand-alone electric milk frothers boast a very convenient 'pour milk push button' functionality, and they excel at making fluffy milk foam. Most also have a heating function that aims to create steamed milk, but sometimes it is difficult to get that little bit of foam on top of the steamed milk that makes the perfect latte. Also, the little metal coil used to froth the milk can be a bit of a pain to clean.
Automatic Milk Frother
Some of the machines we tested have built-in, automatic milk frothers. These devices automatically heat and frother the right amount of milk for the drink you want and mix it with the espresso, all at the push of a button. These frothers are about as easy to clean as stand-alone models, but most have a large milk tank that can be removed from the larger machine and stored in the fridge, negating the need for cleaning after each use. These machines are definitely the easiest, most convenient way to prepare milk. The one downside: like stand-alone milk frothers they often can't make the steamed milk with just a hint of foam that you'd want for a latte, so you make a small sacrifice in texture.
What's the Deal With Those $4000 Machines?
The most expensive machine we tested lists for $1100, but you can easily spend $4000 and even $10,000 on an espresso machine. You might be wondering what you gain from spending the extra dough. Perhaps the most obvious is a better pump. A better pump does not create more pressure but can create the perfect amount of water pressure more consistently, and that consistency translates into the quality of the shots being pulled (that being said, we were quite impressed with the consistency of the Breville Barista Express).
The biggest difference, however, is that these machines generally utilize a dual boiler system. One boiler is kept at optimum espresso making temperature, while the other is kept right at boiling to supply the steam wand. This means you can pull a shot and steam milk simultaneously, whereas a cheaper machine would have to pull the shot, quickly ramp up the heat to create steam, and then steam the milk. Technically the faster milk is added to espresso the better and fresher it will taste, so this is a distinct advantage, but we were still quite happy with the milk drinks made in the machines we tested.
Finally, all of these expensive machines are geared towards professionals that want to serve coffee to customers and thus are all semi-automatic. If you're willing to spend a lot, want the absolute best, and want to learn the ways of the barista, one of these more expensive machines may work for you. However, we feel their slight advantages will not be worth the large additional cost to most consumers, and that the machines we tested are more than adequate for a good at homebrew.
Espresso Lingo and Terminology: Sound Like a Pro
The world of espresso brings with it a mountain of jargon that can be intimidating even to coffee drinking veterans, whether you're researching what machine to buy or just trying to put in an order at your local cafe. We've compiled some of the most common terms here to make your path from novice to home brewing barista master a little bit easier.
Espresso Making Terms
Tamping refers to pushing down on the ground coffee beans to create the dense block needed to make espresso, The small, circular press used to do this is called a tamper.
A portafilter looks kind of like an ice cream scoop. It has a handle and a circular basket where ground coffee is inserted and then tamped. The portafilter then locks into the espresso machine for brewing.
Filter baskets are small filters that are placed within the portafilter. Depending on how much or what type of espresso you're making, some semi-automatic machines come with different filter baskets for different situations.
Crema is the light brown, slightly foamy layer that appears at the top of a freshly brewed espresso shot. This is often lauded as a sign of a great shot as it indicates fresh beans with a good content of fats and oils. This is true if it is proper crema, which is the result of CO2 outgassing from the beans (which only occurs if they've been freshly roasted) and emulsification of the fats and oils (a high fat and oil content is indicative of beans that were roasted properly). However, many others claim that a crema-like layer of foam can be created by a number of different variables, and therefore is not a definite indication of quality. Regardless of its origins, many people enjoy the texture that is added from this foamy top layer.
Steamed vs. Frothed Milk
Steamed milk is essentially hot milk. When prepared correctly a small amount of air is introduced into the milk that creates a creamier texture and adds a hint of sweetness. Most say that perfectly steamed milk will also have just a tiny bit of foam on top (this foam is responsible for the hearts and leaves your barista creates on top of your latte).
Frothed milk, on the other hand, has had much more air introduced into it, creating a rich and fluffy foam (think the top of a cappuccino). The smaller the bubbles are the richer the foam. In fact, many aficionados refer to high quality frothed milk as microfoam.
Most espresso milk drinks have a combination of steamed and frothed milk. For example, a classic cappuccino is ⅓ espresso, ⅓ steamed milk, and ⅓ frothed milk (foam).
Types of Espresso and Espresso Drinks
Espresso itself can be prepared in a number of different ways, each providing subtle differences in taste and texture. Adding different types and amounts of frothed or steamed milk creates we whole slew of other drinks. A quick visual reference can be found here, but we'll give a quick rundown so you can get the terminology right.
- Single shot: one shot of espresso, normally about 1 fluid ounce
- Doppio: refers to a double shot, or about 2 fluid ounces of espresso, most milk drinks use a double shot
- Ristretto: a slightly more concentrated shot of espresso, usually around ⅔ of a fluid ounce
- Lungo: also referred to as a long shot, a slightly watered down shot that is about 2 fluid ounces but uses the same amount of coffee beans as a single shot
- Americano: 2 ounces of espresso (double shot), 3 ounces of hot water, essentially waters the espresso down to have the texture of a normal cup of coffee
- Cappuccino: 2 ounces of espresso, 2 ounces of steamed milk, 2 ounces of foamed milk
- Latte: 2 ounces of espresso, 10 ounces of steamed milk, just a bit of milk foam
Home espresso machines vary widely, and choosing the right one largely comes down to a tradeoff between quality and convenience. You can get a machine that will pull a good shot at the push of a button, or get a machine that will pull a great shot with a bit more required effort and skill.
For a discussion of the ins and outs of all the models we tested, check out our espresso machine review. If you want to know exactly how we determined which machines were the best, see our how we test article.