In our opinion, the best home-espresso machine makes great-tasting espresso, steams some milk, and is simple to use. And with those bases covered, you'll never shy away from using it out of laziness and you won't go to the coffee shop instead. Accordingly, we focused our testing on how well each machine could satisfy our taste buds and how easy they were to use and clean.
To evaluate taste we recruited the most diverse set of palettes we could. We wanted to make sure we got opinions ranging from people who aren't particularly fussy about their coffee to people who could really pick apart the nuances of each shot. So after an intense round of recruitment, our talented taste-testing team included a few casual coffee drinkers, a few people who already own their own espresso machine, a professional coffee roaster, and two former professional baristas.
For the actual taste testing, we first had everyone sample some straight espresso from each machine. We used the same coffee beans across all machines, except those that required their own dedicated capsules. We made sure each shot was freshly poured so that each espresso was at its optimal taste level, and our results weren't skewed by shots sitting around stagnating. Next, we repeated this process but used each machine's milk prepping capabilities to make a cappuccino for each tester to taste. For the machines that didn't have built-in milk frothing/steaming capabilities, we used both an Epica Automatic Electric Milk Frother and a Nespresso Aeroccino Plus Milk Frother. After all of this, the testers ranked and scored the qualities of each machine's various espresso offerings.
Ease of Use
All of our testers made hundreds of shots of espresso in our testing lab. Thus we gained a very intuitive feel of how easy or difficult each one of our machines was to use. Throughout the process, we took careful notes on the initial setup of each machine, the design of the interface, and how easy it was to remove and refill the water tank. Finally, we performed a cappuccino time trial for each machine, with the clock starting when we began making the drink and the clock stopping when the drink was ready and all parts that required immediate attention got cleaned. This method gave us a definitive measure of the fastest machines to use daily for those who tend to rush out the door every morning.
Ease of Cleaning
Testing was a bustling place, so we had plenty of opportunities (and need) to clean all of our machines. We split our ease of cleaning evaluation into three categories: daily cleaning, weekly cleaning, and descaling (essentially long-term cleaning). Our daily cleaning testing focused on the things that needed cleaning after making each drink, namely milk wands and frothers. Weekly cleaning testing looked at how easy it was to empty the drip tray, which ended up being quite simple on all the machines. Finally, descaling, a process completed every few months to remove any mineral buildup, was performed by our testers on each machine. We took careful notes on how this process differed between machines and how annoying it was (because let's face it, the best any required cleaning can be is not annoying).
Our milk steaming/frothing test focused on which machines could produce cafe-quality milk for those looking to make latte art. We made both steamed and frothed milk on each machine and compared them both visually by looking for the right-sized bubbles and through side-by-side taste testing. The milk with the best taste, texture, and foam composition scored higher.