In the past few decades, big chains like Starbucks and Caribou Coffee and cozy, independent coffee shops have become hallmarks of almost every city and town. With this ubiquitousness of artisanal coffee, it would be close to a miracle if you've made it into adulthood without developing a taste for fancy espresso drinks. Seeing as these drinks aren't exactly cheap, and the lines to buy a latte before work are only getting longer, it is very tempting brew espresso at home. However, making espresso is much more complicated than pouring hot water over coffee grinds, and the complicated machinery required can be somewhat intimidating. Not to fear. We've put together a step by step decision guide that can lead you to your perfect morning caffeine machine. We've also summarized some of the finer points of making espresso at home, so you can impress your friends with your barista skills.
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 various amounts of steamed, textured milk 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 coffee shop 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.
Are 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 aren't your thing, you'll probably be looking to add varying amounts of hot, textured milk to that espresso in order 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 wands (Breville Barista Express) to having no way steam milk (Nespresso Inissia).
Nespresso machines are the most likely to not include a milk frothing device (the De'Longhi Nespresso Lattissima Pro being an exception). This can be remedied by buying a standalone 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. They also tend to create very forthy, foamy milk. Some people love this texture, particularly those with an affinity for dry cappuccinos, but it is much different than the creamy, more finely textured milk that many cafes currently favor. You'll need a proper steam wand and a little bit of practice to achieve that.
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 of 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 Breville: the Smart Grinder Pro.
If you're looking to buy a separate grinder for your espresso machine, make sure it has a wide range of small, espresso worthy grind sizes. Experimenting with grind size is a great way to improve your espresso making, and you'll want to make sure you have some options. Avoid grinders that call their smallest grind size 'espresso'. This likely means the smallest grind it can produce is just small enough to be considered espresso worthy, but if that size doesn't work well in your espresso machine then you're SOL. Case in point, we love the OXO Burr Grinder, but we still couldn't pull a decent shot using its espresso setting, even with the help of our professional barista.
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.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to prepping milk for espresso drinks: some like it wet and some like it dry. Wet textured milk (sometimes referred to as steamed milk) generally has only very small 'microfoam' bubbles in it, resulting in a very smooth and creamy quality. Most lattes are made with this type of milk. Dry textured milk (sometimes referred to as foamed milk) has big bubbles, resulting in very foamy, dairy milk. This kind of milk tends to top off dry cappuccinos.
Steam wands are the most capable milk preppers of the espresso drink world. They are also really the only tool around that can create the luscious, creamy microfoam that most people associate with cafe espresso drinks. they can also create the super airy foam to top off a dry cappuccino. Steam wands are certainly the hardest milk prepping devices to use, however, requires a bit of practice to get your desired texture. However, once you master the technique, sticking the steam wand in a pitcher of milk and coming our with perfectly textured creaminess is super satisfying.
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 for those that don't like very dry foam, but in general, these machines can't create the creamy microfoam that many people are seeking.
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. This is definitely the most convenient route when it comes to prepping milk, but again they tend not to be able to create creamy microfoam. Therefore these frothers are best for people that like their milk on the dry side.
What's the Deal With Those $4000 Machines?
There are a number of machines on the market in the $4000 price range that are marketed as 'prosumer' (essentially because they sit between the sub $1000 price point of most consumer machines and the $10,000+ price point of most professional machines you'll find in a coffee shop). So what advantages do these types of machines provide over their less expensive brethren? And is it worth the extra price?
Pressure profiling has been getting a lot of press in the coffee world, and it is one of the main advantages you'll get with one of these super expensive machines. Pressure profiling essentially allows a slow ramp up to full pressure, followed by a slow decrease in pressure at the end. This results in a more even extraction, as the grinds are able to settle evenly as the pressure ramps up. Without pressure profiling, you run the risk of channeling, where a sudden burst of pressure find the point of least resistance in the grinds and creates a channel through which most of the water move. If this happens you're over extracting the grinds in the channel, and under extracting the grinds away from the channel.
Some less expensive machines, namely the Breville models that we tested, use a pre-infusion feature that attempts to mimic the effects of pressure profiling. However, this isn't true pressure profiling as it is usually done in two distinct stages, one low pressure to start and then a big burst up to full brewing pressure. While this still can avoid some channeling problems, it isn't as effective as true pressure profiling.
The other feature that sets these more expensive machines apart is a dual boiler system. Having two boilers gives both the brew head and the steam wand their own dedicated hot water supplies. This allows the brewing water to always be at an ideal temperature, the steam wand boiler to always be boiling, and for both to function simultaneously without any loss of performance. Adding milk protects the espresso from the oxidizing effects of the atmosphere, so being able to steam milk while the shot is brewing and then add it right away improves overall taste. Conversely, milk that sits out tends to lose its creaminess and texture, so again doing things simultaneously is better.
We were able to pull a shot and simultaneously steam milk with some of the less expensive machines we tested, namely the Gaggia Classic, and get decent results. However, it does mean you lose a little bit of power in teh steam wand, so it is noticeably inferior to a dual boiler.
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.
Milk and Foam
when it comes to espresso drinks, milk preferences have been evolving. Today, most coffee shops favor very creamy, slightly sweet, gently aerated milk for all of their drinks. Most refer to this milk as having fine microfoam. Some more classic styles call for very frothy, foamy milk. The main example of this difference is the modern day cappuccino. Most coffee shops would make a cappuccino with a double shot of espresso and about 4 ounces of creamy, aerated milk. A dry or classic cappuccino would be a double shot, 2 ounces of creamy aerated milk, and 2 ounces of fluffy, foamy milk on top.
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
- Double shot: double the amount of a single shot, the base for most espresso drinks
- 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: double shot, 3 ounces of hot water, essentially waters the espresso down to have the texture of a normal cup of coffee
- Cappuccino: double shot, about 4 ounces of steamed, textured milk (dry version would have half steamed milk and half foam)
- Latte: double shot, about 10 ounces of steamed, textured milk
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.