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?

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

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

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.