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?

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Eight months ago, during a walk to my local Starbucks, I counted up the amount of money I'd spent on venti espressos over the course of a year. Duly chastened, I spun on my heels, walked home, and began looking into buying an espresso maker of my own.

The following week, I spent $60 on a small, steam-driven espresso machine, only to discover that steam-driven machines aren't powerful enough to make a decent shot of espresso—it tastes burned and bitter and nowhere near as good as what I'd get at my corner deli, much less a Starbucks. With a little more research, I learned that to make barista-quality espresso in my own kitchen, I should upgrade to a pump-driven espresso maker, which heats water in a sealed reservoir, then forces it through pre-ground espresso beans at a requisite 15 atmospheres of pressure. (Click here for a more detailed description of how these high-tech machines work.) These espresso makers are bigger, heavier, and more difficult to use than their steam-driven cousins. They're also messier and a lot more expensive. But they'll produce a dark, rich, foamy espresso, with the flavorful oils of a good coffee all on the surface. Once you've made a few shots, it's hard to go back to anything else. And while most pump-driven machines will set you back hundreds of dollars, heavy caffeinators will find that even the most expensive machines will pay for themselves in less than a year. (Think about it: $4 a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year amounts to $1,456 per annum.) But with dozens of machines to choose from—some requiring a graduate degree to master and others completely idiot-proof—how do you decide which one is best for you?

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To find out, I spent the next six months testing five popular semiautomatic models (for which I had to grind my own beans), one comparably priced automatic (which packaged capsules of pre-ground beans), and, for comparison's sake, two expensive, fully automatic models (which grind the beans for you and will make your espresso with the push of a button). (Click here to see the results of this bonus round.) Most produced espresso of at least Starbucks' quality, and many gave me a better cup than I've had at the best cafes. Plus, when coffee-savvy friends dropped by for a visit, I discovered that a good barista could even coax an excellent shot out of a fairly mediocre model. In the end, I ranked the machines on a 10-point scale, in each of the following four categories:

Looks: Making a good cup of espresso is something of an art form, and the best espresso machines are themselves works of art. As well they should be, given how much they cost and how much time you'll spend using them (not to mention looking at them sitting on your kitchen counter). All of which is to say that, when it comes to espresso makers, looks count.

Quality: How consistent was the machine? How good were the shots of espresso it produced? The layer of foam at the top of a shot is called the crema—how thick and well-formed was this layer? When I poured some sugar on it, did it take more than a second or two for the granules to sink through? And how well did it foam milk for cappuccinos?

Convenience/Usability: How difficult was the machine to master? How easy was the machine to use on a daily basis? How long did it take to disassemble and clean? How quickly did it heat up? Espresso cups should be warmed before use—did the machine have a cup warmer? And, for those living in cramped quarters and cooking in cramped kitchens, how much countertop space did it occupy?

Value: Because the machines I tested ranged from $180 to $1,000, I created a formula that allowed them to compete on a level playing field: I added up the scores for looks, quality, and convenience/usability, multiplied the result by 100, and divided by the machine's price. So, for instance, a machine that scored sevens across the board and cost $700 received three value points (21 x 100 divided by $700) while a machine that scored fives but only cost $250 received six value points (15 x 100 divided by $250).

Here are the results, from worst to best:

Capresso EspressoPRO, $249.99
The EspressoPRO's smooth curves and chrome-tinted surfaces aim for an art-deco effect, but the machine's chintzy plastic exterior was enough to put me off Van Alen for a fortnight. To be fair, this Swiss-made model did crank out full-throttle espresso shots, and it won't cost you the proverbial arm and leg. The machine's peculiar autofrothing system siphons milk out of a special tank and into the steam wand, whereas the other machines I tested are designed to shoot steam into a mug or pitcher of milk. (The advantage here seems to be that you can froth more milk quickly without creating a mess. In practice, however, it offers only the slightest improvement over standard-issue steam wands.) The machine is compact and easy to clean. But alas, its looks didn't do it for me, and, more important, the espresso it made tasted burned and bitter.

Grades:
Looks: 5 points
Quality: 6 points:
Convenience/Usability: 6 points
Value: 7 points
Total: 24 points

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