Do you come unhinged without your daily latte? The artisanal coffee craze has given rise to a fleet of make-it-yourself machines that turn out delicious cups. —Dan Kehn
Why are they so expensive?
Consistency. Good machines are made from durable materials like copper and steel and have a double boiler or a heat exchanger — expensive internals that allow you to simultaneously pull shots and run the steamer. Cheap machines also do a poor job of preinfusion (wetting and expanding the grounds before brewing), which results in flat, woody-tasting espresso.
What’s the deal with coffee pods?
Machines that rely on capsules (prepackaged doses of espresso) are easier to use and less expensive up front. But convenience comes at a cost — 75 cents to $1 per shot — and the results lack the richness and subtlety of fresh-ground beans. There’s also the enviro-guilt that comes with throwing out a paper pod after every shot you pull.
Will I need anything else?
Don’t blow your wad on the machine. The most important piece of hardware in your home café is the grinder. Blades produce a random mix of dust and boulders that will make your espresso bitter. Metal burr grinders, like the Baratza 685 Virtuoso Preciso ($325), yield a uniform output and better crema — the prized lather that floats atop every good shot of espresso.
The heavier, the better. You want a machine with a steel body and as little plastic as possible. If you’re looking for equipment that delivers consistently good espresso without a learning curve, a unit with electronic temperature control will increase your odds of getting perfect crema every time. Single-boiler designs, while cheaper, brew and steam from the same tank, so your shot can go cold while you’re frothing your milk. Double-boiler and heat-exchanger machines let you do both simultaneously for quicker and more ample output.
How We Tested
We put our beans through a professional-grade grinder, then churned out espressos, cappuccinos, and lattes with each machine, adjusting the grind, dose, and extraction to yield the best result in terms of body, crema, balance, and clarity.
Built around a heat exchanger — which flash-heats the brew water in a copper tube that passes through the boiler — the sturdy, compact Bezzera can produce several drinks in rapid succession, making it perfect for dinner-party cappuccinos. It also lets you shift brew temperature on the fly (higher for more chocolate flavor, lower for more fruit). Such micromanagement may appeal only to espresso aficionados, but the payoff is real: tasty quaffs that stand up to what you’d get from machines three times the cost.
1. Gaggia New Baby
Limited counter space needn’t be an issue. This machine packs an impressive feature set into a compact footprint. You can use your own beans or prepackaged pods. It has only a single boiler, but the powerful heating element makes for a snappy transition from brew to steam mode (less than a minute), so your crema doesn’t dissolve before you’ve foamed the milk.
get-gadget Price performer for beginners. Easy to monitor and refill the water reservoir. Third-party wand attachment helped carve pretty pictures into the foam.
TIRED Stock steam arm produces dull-tasting, airy steamed milk. Inconsistent brew temperature produces uneven results. Have to purge some boiler water through the steam wand before doing the milk. Plastic casing looks cheap.
2. Elektra Microcasa a Leva
This mirror-polished brass and chrome beaut would fit perfectly in Federico Fellini’s cucina. It takes some muscle to pull the spring-loaded lever that draws the water into the brew chamber, forcing the rich coffee goodness to slowly drip out — but that’s half the fun. It’s a preindustrial delight to operate — no buzzing motor or clicking valves. But it can churn out only a couple of drinks at a time; that’s enough for a double 6-ounce cappuccino, but not a big-gulp latte.
get-gadget Antique looks. Steam wand produces velvety-smooth foam. Goes from stone-cold to espresso-ready in 12 minutes.
TIRED Proper brew temperature management requires skilled technique. Yes, it’s pretty, but don’t touch — exposed boiler surface gets extremely hot.
3. Vibiemme Doublebar Super V2011
The supercharged Vibiemme bangs out shots fast enough to serve a large pack of caffeine hounds. Not feeling supremely confident in your technique? Built-in preinfusion helps by preparing the coffee puck for a solid brew. A digital display with up and down arrows for adjusting temperature in 1-degree increments adds to the no-brainer operation.
get-gadget As idiot-proof as a true artisanal machine can get. Abundant dry steam makes it equally appealing to latte lovers and espresso purists. Quiet rotary pump. Can be switched to plumbed-in water source with a turn of a valve.
TIRED Consumes considerable countertop space. Metal casing sometimes vibrates irritatingly. Takes more than 30 minutes to heat up. Too expensive.