Which espresso machine is best?

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Dec. 10 2004 6:23 AM

Totally Wired

Which espresso machine is best?

(Continued from Page 1)

Krups Novo 3000, $179.99
The Novo 3000 is a no-frills machine; your neighbors won't covet it, and your dinner guests won't be blown away by its black-box exterior. But if you're looking for a cup of high-octane espresso, you could do worse than spring for this reasonably priced pump. The minimalist controls are easy to figure out: The steam wand works as well as those on more expensive models; the plastic exterior was easy to wipe down and clean; and the espresso came out in a thick, full-bodied stream. And yet the machine wasn't entirely reliable—three out of 10 cups I brewed were bitter or watery for no discernable reason, and the cup-warming plate didn't get especially warm. Also, judging by the reviews I've read online, Krups' service department leaves something to be desired. So, while the Novo is miles ahead of steam-driven espresso machines, serious espresso fiends will want to spring for a more expensive model.

Grades:
Looks: 6 points
Quality: 5 points
Convenience/Usability: 6 points
Value: 9 points
Total: 26 points

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Starbucks Barista, $399
Sure, Starbucks is easy to hate, but having lived with two of their Italian-made espresso machines for a few months, I developed something of an affection for the brand. The Barista is good-looking, well-designed, and sturdily constructed. Moreover, despite its dauntingly complicated looks, it's easily mastered: Within an hour of opening the box, I was producing dark, flavorful espresso. True, it might not be quite as rich as the coffee one can make with the more expensive Gaggia or Francis! Francis! models, but it does beat the overly bitter brew you'll find at your local Starbucks. The only thing I disliked about the Barista was its steam wand, which is located on the left side of the machine—I kept expecting it to be on the right, as with most machines, and burned my hands repeatedly as a result. But given the stiff competition, this minor flaw was enough to knock an otherwise excellent machine into a two-way tie for third. (Nota bene: Although this didn't figure into my ratings, dozens of the customer reviews I read remarked that Starbucks has an exceptionally good customer service department.)

Grades:
Looks: 8 points
Quality: 7 points
Convenience/Usability: 8 points
Value: 6 points
Total: 29 points

Gaggia Classic, $499
The brushed-nickel exterior and boxy lines of this machine haven't changed for more than 20 years (hence the "Classic" in its name). Then again, why mess with a good thing? The Gaggia makes espresso as tasty as any I've had in my favorite Italian cafes—with an unusually thick crema to boot. Its controls are simple and quickly mastered. The machine is easy to take apart, clean, and reassemble, and it's sturdy enough to stand up to years of daily use. The downside? A smallish cup warmer and the long warm-up time this machine requires to pump out a truly great cup of espresso. But these are minor quibbles; it was the Gaggia's high price that knocked it into third place.

Grades:
Looks: 8 points
Quality: 9 points
Convenience/Usability: 7 points
Value: 5 points
Total: 29 points

Francis! Francis! X3, $399
Looking like the prow of some World War II-era battleship, the Italian-made X3 is the most beautiful model I tested—and produced some of the best shots. The machine is compact enough to fit in the smallest kitchen, but a metal exterior and brass boiler give it heft and solidity, and the cup warmer is big enough to hold six espresso cups. While the X3 takes a while to heat up, it makes unfailingly rich shots with thick layers of swirling crema. If not for a few minor inconveniences—the steam wand (too short), a rear-mounted water reservoir (too hard to reach), and a (very) noisy pump—the X3 would have joined Levi's and Zippos in my personal pantheon of perfectly designed consumer goods.

Grades:
Looks: 10 points
Quality: 9 points
Convenience/Usability: 6 points
Value: 6 points
Total: 31 points

Nespresso D290, $499
Espresso machines are the home-appliance equivalent of six-speed sports cars—they take countless hours to get used to and even then continue to act up. Not so in the case of Nespresso's handsome D290 model, which is so simple that a 5-year-old could master it and so consistent that I managed to get a near-perfect espresso shot out of it every time. The machine uses small, proprietary capsules—slip one into place, close the cover, press a button, and you're off to the races (more or less literally, if you're drinking double shots). On the one hand, this is a significant drawback: The capsules are available only through Nespresso's Web site, and at 50 cents a pop, they cost slightly more than store-bought beans. On the other hand, the machine is so reliable and easy to use that I found myself overlooking the inconvenience of Nespresso's online ordering system. The capsules come in nine caffeinated and three decaffeinated varieties, with Italianate names like "Roma," "Cosi," and "Decaffeinato Intenso." All were tasty, and each sported a thicker crema than anything I'd managed to produce with beans I'd ground on my own. The downside here is that if you're not grinding your own beans, the only way to exert control over the strength and flavor of the espresso is to choose among the available capsules. (I suspect a practiced barista could make a better espresso with most of the semiautomatics reviewed above.) The upside is that neophytes could spend all day trying to make a better cup of espresso—or cappuccino—than the one this machine will produce at the touch of a button.

Grades:
Looks: 9 points
Quality: 8 points
Convenience/Usability: 10 points
Value: 5 points
Total: 32 points

Alex Abramovich has been writing for Slate since 2001. In 2008, Riverhead will publish a history of rock 'n' roll he's been working on for the last four years.