Espresso machines

Espresso machine

Can you make the perfect coffee in your kitchen?

Several types of machine claim to make espresso-based coffee, but only one really can — the pump type. Here’s more on different machine types, their pros and cons, plus tips to get you making the perfect coffee at home. Got your machine sorted? Check out our test results for roasters and grinders.

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Which type of espresso machine?

Automatic machines

Automatic and automatic-manual espresso machines (also known as “super automatic”) automatically grind the coffee, tamp it, and extract the espresso shot. You fill the bean hopper or add pre-ground coffee, add water to a reservoir and press a button or 2. Some models contain an automated milk frothing and dispensing device.

Pros
  • You can choose from a wide variety of beans or pre-ground coffee.
  • Digital displays and indicators make using them easy.
  • You don’t need to fuss about with portafilters and filter baskets or separate grinders.
Cons
  • You don’t have the “control” over the extraction process (and sometimes the frothing process) that you do with a manual or semi-automatic model and this may result in a less satisfactory taste.
  • They can be more expensive than semi-automatic and manual machines.

Semi-automatic machines

Semi-automatic and manual espresso machines work along similar lines: you pack the coffee into the filter basket, which sits in the portafilter. You then twist the portafilter into the machine. The only significant difference is that manual machines require you to judge the amount of water that flows through the filter basket whereas semi-autos cut off the flow once a pre-set amount is poured.

Pros
  • You can choose from a wide variety of ground coffee.
  • You can easily change the strength of your espresso by adjusting the amount of ground coffee and water used.
Cons
  • Semi-autos and manuals take time to master.
  • Portafilters and filter baskets can be fiddly to use and clean; some portafilters require some effort to twist into place.

Capsule machines

Capsule machines use hermetically sealed pods of coffee. You drop a capsule in the top, pull a lever and push a switch. The machine pierces the capsule and forces hot water through to make an espresso.

These machines use proprietary systems such as Caffitaly or Nespresso.

Pros
  • They’re convenient to use and easy to clean.
  • The sealed capsules can keep the coffee fresh for up to 9 months.
  • Wide variety of coffee blends available.
  • Coffee delivery, on average, takes less than 20 seconds.
Cons
  • These machines use proprietary systems such as Caffitaly or Nespresso. So they tie you to using certain brands of capsule.
  • Capsules cost more than ground coffee and result in extra packaging waste.
  • You have less control over the strength of your espresso.

Buying tips

Some quick tips for buying an espresso machine:

  • Ask the salesperson if there's a demonstration model. Get them to make an espresso so you can check the quality before you buy.
  • Check the milk-frothing mechanism to make sure you can create good-quality creamy froth without large bubbles.
  • Make sure the controls are easy to operate. A digital display is better than indicator lights.

Features to look for

If you’re thinking of buying an espresso machine, here’s what you should consider.

  • Clear and simple controls: Digital displays are generally easier to understand than indicator lights, especially when you’re programming the machine.
  • Grinder: An adjustable grinder lets you adjust the grind to suit the bean and machine. Check that the grinder mechanism’s safely inaccessible, or that the grinder automatically shuts off when the hopper lid is removed.
  • Variable coffee strength (automatic machines): A machine with several coffee-strength settings or a continuous range of settings lets you adjust the intensity of the coffee to your taste.
  • Footprint: A big espresso machine is fine if you have plenty of bench space in your kitchen, but you may want one that takes up less space.
  • Cup warmer: This can help keep your cups at a constant temperature, which helps the taste of the coffee and keeps the milk frothy.
  • Froth enhancer: Some machines come with a froth enhancer on the milk-frothing wand. This is intended to make frothing easier, but often it produces large bubbles instead of the fine foam suitable for latte and cappuccino. Removing the enhancer often makes it easier to produce fine velvety foam.
  • Water container: This should be big, accessible and transparent (so you can easily check the water level).
  • Drip tray: Go for big and easy-to-drain.
  • Exterior: A groove-less exterior will be easier to keep clean. Stainless-steel and matte finishes look stylish but show up fingerprints and grime.
  • Tamper: A tamper turns the loose coffee into a firm, evenly distributed pellet in the filter basket. A good tamper allows you to pack the coffee down evenly. Tampers fixed to the machine are poor substitutes for solid-metal hand-held tampers.

Compare test results and features for all the espresso machines we've tested.

Pump or steam?

Several types of machine claim to make espresso-based coffee, but only one really can – the pump type. Pump machines operate at higher pressure than steam machines and employ a thermostat to control the water temperature. The pump both makes the coffee and froths the milk.

Pump machines typically have large, removable water tanks that let you make 10 or more small (demitasse) cups consecutively without having to refill the tank. You can also froth milk for other drinks without making coffee first, as you must with steam machines.

Thermoblock or boiler?

A thermoblock is a metal block through which water passes (and is heated) on the way to the pump. It only holds a little water, so it's supposed to keep a constant water temperature that's not too hot. A boiler, on the other hand, contains a larger body of water. It works in the same way as your hot water tank at home.

Reliability

We asked our members about their espresso machines to find out which brand is most reliable.

To see which brands are best, become a paying Consumer member or log in.

Espresso machine Top Brands

The Top Brand award recognises brands that perform consistently well across product testing, reliability and customer satisfaction.

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Capsule brands

Capsule espresso machines work best with that brand’s capsule. This means choosing a machine that uses coffee capsules you like. Try out the flavours before you buy. Some stores offer taste tests or if you have friends with a capsule machine, invite yourself over for a coffee. Here’s our summary of the major brands available.

Nespresso
They have six capsule ranges available, including George Clooney’s favourite Decaffeinato Intenso. Each range comes in four or more strengths. They also have a Variations range that blend flavours such as caramel and vanilla with the coffee. Nespresso capsules are sold at five stores and online.

Nescafe Dolce Gusto
Nescafe have 11 flavours from macchiato to Americano, one tea flavour and two hot chocolates. Capsules are available in supermarkets and selected appliance retailers. For some flavours, Nescafe also include milk capsules (used like coffee capsules). However, this results in extra waste.

Caffitaly
Sold in Countdown stores under the Select brand, these capsules come in four strengths – standard, medium roast, smooth and decaffeinated. Other businesses, such as Gloria Jean’s and Moccona, also produce Caffitaly capsules with their own grind blends.

Other brands
No manufacturer recommends using third-party capsules in its machines, but that doesn’t mean they won’t work in them. “Compatible” capsules are readily available in supermarkets, but using them could potentially void your warranty. Your CGA rights would only be affected if they caused a fault.

There are compostable capsules on the market. There are also refillable coffee capsules you can prepare yourself – although this does take away from the convenience of a capsule machine.

Capsule change

We've changed the flavour of Nespresso capsule used for testing Nespresso machines. Previously we used Roma capsules. However, we found its Arpeggio capsules were closer in taste to what we use when testing other capsule machines. This change means some models have been re-tested and scores have changed.

Waste

Why is recycling used coffee capsules so difficult? Because they’re made of different materials that can vary from brand to brand. Some are entirely aluminium or plastic, while others are a mixture. None are marked with a plastic recycling number, which means they can’t be thrown out with your household recycling.

We emptied coffee capsules from three major brands and weighed them. Nespresso (aluminium) capsules weighed 1g on average, while Nescafe Dolce Gusto (aluminium and plastic) and Caffitaly (plastic) capsules were just over 3g each.

Increasingly, manufacturers are turning to a third party to deal with the capsule waste. TerraCycle collects Nespresso, Nescafe Dolce Gusto and L’OR capsules. It has partnered with 125 florists and garden centres where you can drop off or post used capsules. Since 2014, it has gathered more than 610,000 Nescafe Dolce Gusto and L’OR capsules. Figures weren’t available for Nespresso capsules.

However, over four years, TerraCycle is yet to recycle any of these capsules. It says it needs a “large enough” volume before processing can begin.

You can drop off Nespresso capsules in any of their five store. They are then sent to a recycling plant in south Auckland that the company has partnered with “to put in place a dedicated system to recycle Nespresso used aluminium capsules”.

You can’t recycle Caffitaly capsules. They go straight to the landfill.

This isn’t good enough. Manufacturers, in choosing to use capsules to deliver coffee, are responsible for generating this waste and must take an active role in helping consumers recycle them.

Survey

Our survey of 94 capsule coffee drinkers found 58% recycled their capsules. However, 30% didn’t know they could recycle capsules.

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