Reviews You Can Rely On

How We Tested Espresso Machines

Tuesday November 8, 2022
espresso machine
Credit: Jenna Ammerman

The best home-espresso machine makes great-tasting espresso, steams some milk, and is simple to use. With those bases covered, you'll never avoid using your machine out of laziness, and you won't go to the coffee shop looking for the perfect shot. Accordingly, we focused our testing on how well each machine could satisfy our taste buds and how easy they were to use and clean.

Espresso Quality

To evaluate espresso quality, we recruited the most diverse set of palettes we could. We wanted to ensure we got opinions from people who aren't particularly fussy about their coffee and from people who can pick apart the nuances of a shot. So, after an intense round of recruitment, our diverse taste-testing team included a few casual coffee drinkers, a few people who already own their espresso machine, a professional coffee roaster, and two former professional baristas.

For the taste test, we pulled straight espresso from each machine. We used the same coffee beans across all machines except those that required proprietary capsules. We made sure each shot was fresh so that each espresso was at its optimal taste level. This practice prevented skewing of the results by shots sitting that sat around stagnating. Once our testers had their espresso in hand, we asked them some basic questions. First, does the coffee have balance — do the sweet flavors jive with the bitterness? Is the brew thick or watery?

Additionally, we assessed the mechanics of the device. We want to know if the machines allow customization to meet the bean roaster's recommendations. We also look at how many shots the machine can pull. Does the machine have enough pressure to permeate fine espresso grounds and create silky crema? All these questions were answered using a proper coffee shop shot as the benchmark for comparison.

espresso machine - mmmmm smell those beans? we went through a lot of them in our testing.
Mmmmm smell those beans? We went through a lot of them in our testing.
Credit: Jenna Ammerman

Ease of Use

Our testers made hundreds of espresso shots 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 each machine's initial setup, the interface's design, and how easy it was to remove and refill the water tank. Finally, we performed a cappuccino time trial for each machine. We started the clock when we began making the drink and stopped the clock when the drink was ready, and all parts requiring immediate attention were clean. This method gave us a definitive measure of the fastest machines. This info will be most helpful for those in a hurry in the morning.

espresso machine - we tirelessly went down the line, pulling and tasting shots one...
We tirelessly went down the line, pulling and tasting shots one after another.
Credit: Jenna Ammerman

Ease of Cleaning

The lab was akin to a bustling cafe during testing, so we had plenty of opportunities to clean all of the espresso machines. We split our ease of cleaning evaluation into three categories: daily cleaning, weekly cleaning, and descaling (essentially long-term cleaning). Our daily cleaning evaluation focused on the things that need cleaning after each use — namely milk wands and frothers. Weekly cleaning testing looked at how easy it was to empty the drip tray, which was 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 the demands the process placed on the user.

espresso machine - with all of the real world use we put our machines through they got...
With all of the real world use we put our machines through they got pretty gunky, lending authenticity to our cleaning tests.
Credit: Jenna Ammerman

Milk Quality

Our milk quality evaluation focuses on microfoam production and steam wand consistency. As with the espresso quality evaluation, we used the foam from a professional, well-equipped coffee shop as our standard. The texture of the milk is key when it comes to microfoam. Accordingly, we looked for the right size bubbles in the milk — quality foam will pour like paint — and assessed the foam for velvety mouthfeel. We also looked at the foam's temperature and assessed its consistency over the course of many foam frothings. More specifically, we checked the steam wand's temperature and the pressure of the steam it produced. Finally, we assessed the wand's ease of use.

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