Espresso machines

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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.
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.

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.

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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.

Reliability

We received information on 1522 espresso machines in our 2017 appliance reliability survey.

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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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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.

Getting started

Get your espresso machine up and running with these pointers:

  • To remove factory flavours, flush a litre of water through a new machine and push a cup of hot water through the steam wand.
  • A standard espresso shot is 7g of coffee in 30ml of water – you can amp this up by adding more coffee or reducing the water.
  • Use fresh water only. Discard any water that's been sitting in the tank for a few days.
  • Adjust the grind fineness until you can get the machine to give you 30ml of espresso after about 20 seconds. (This time – which is called "extraction" – doesn't include the few seconds of "preinfusion" some machines go through.)
  • The best temperature for brewing is around 91-92°C. Too hot and the coffee can have a bitter flavour. Too cold and the coffee could be under-extracted, leaving you with a watery coffee lacking in flavour.
  • Warm up the cups by leaving them on the cup warmer (if there is one) or running hot water into them.
  • Froth milk immediately after making an espresso (don’t let the coffee cool). Aim for small creamy bubbles. Banging the jug on a table and swirling it around several times will remove the larger bubbles.
  • After frothing milk, clean the nozzle with a sponge that’s not used for anything else. Run a small amount of water to cool the internal parts of the machine (otherwise the extra heat can burn the grind of the next cup of coffee).
  • If you want a "long black", add an espresso shot to hot water rather than extracting it for a long time. Over-extraction causes bitterness.
  • Drink the espresso within a few minutes of it being made.
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Fancy a soft brew?

A soft brew is a coffee made without pressurised water. While espresso is a “wake-you-up” coffee with intense flavours, soft brew is subtle and often allows for more flavours to come to the fore. While there is a fine line between good and bad espresso, soft brews give more leeway.

We trialled several soft brew methods — plunger/French press; pour-over carafe; pour-over cup; and filter machine — assessing how easy the different processes were to use and, just as importantly, clean up afterwards.

More on soft brews

Tips for the home barista

Some handy hints to making the perfect coffee at home.

  • There are 2 main varieties of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica beans generally make a higher-quality coffee.
  • A true espresso is made from darkly roasted and finely ground beans. It’s sometimes called “Italian style”. But this can be misleading, as some coffee using this label is not dark or ground finely enough.
  • If you’re using a manual or semi-automatic espresso machine, you may want to buy your own grinder. Avoid cheaper grinders that won’t let you control the fineness. A decent burr-type grinder will give you the right fineness and control. For best results grind your beans just before making the coffee.
  • Keep your beans fresh by buying in small quantities from a store that has a high turnover (use beans roasted no more than 10 days ago). Keep them in an airtight container somewhere cool, dry and dark. Don’t refrigerate or freeze them.
  • If you like milky coffee, use fresh homogenised milk. Full-fat milk produces the best quality froth. Low-fat milk will produce more froth – but it tends to separate more quickly.
  • Invest in a thermometer that fits inside the frothing jug. Milk should be around 65-70°C. Any hotter and it will burn.

Crema

Espresso has a creamy, pale, golden froth on top of the dark brown coffee.

It’s called the crema, and it’s perhaps the most important thing that distinguishes espresso from other types of coffee. Crema is actually caramel. The high temperature and pressure in an espresso machine caramelise the sugar naturally present in coffee, aerate it and expel it with the espresso.

Perfect crema should be thick and stable, and preserve the coffee flavour, aroma and temperature. The state of the crema can help you diagnose where your espresso-making may be going wrong.

Perfecting the crema

Some common issues and how to fix them:

  • If it’s light, inconsistent, thin and dissipates quickly, the coffee has been under-extracted. It was probably too coarsely ground or the water temperature was too low.
  • If it’s dark and has a hole in the middle, there’s either too much coffee in the filter basket or the coffee was compressed into the filter basket (a process known as tamping) too firmly.
  • If it’s white with big bubbles, the coffee was probably over-extracted because the hot water was passed through the filter for too long.
  • If you still can’t get good crema, check whether the coffee chamber is dirty.

Perfecting the froth

Here’s how to get professional, silky froth:

  • Use fresh, homogenised milk. Full-fat milk produces the best quality froth. Low-fat milk will produce more froth – but it tends to separate more quickly.
  • Use a stainless steel jug, half full of milk straight from the fridge. Turn on the steam and purge any water from the wand. Stop and put the wand into the milk just below the surface. Angle the jug and turn the steam on to full.
  • Move the jug around to create a whirlpool effect, keeping the nozzle just under the milk level and well under the foam as it develops.
  • When the foam has risen to almost twice the original milk level, drop the nozzle down to heat the milk. Keep heating until the jug is almost too hot to touch.
  • The froth should be a creamy froth where the bubbles are so tiny that they can’t be seen, and the surface should look shiny, almost glasslike.
  • After frothing the milk, bang the jug on the table to remove larger bubbles from the froth, swirl it around a few times, bang it again and pour it on the top of the coffee straight away. The milk and froth should be poured out of the jug on to the crema – you shouldn’t have to spoon it out.

First Looks & Trials

See what we thought of these other coffee-making gadgets.

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First Look: Aeropress & Minipresso

So you appreciate good coffee but don’t have the budget for an expensive espresso machine, what can you do? We’ve taken a look at two upstart devices: the Aeropress and the Minipresso.

Learn more

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Handpresso Wild

It looks like a bicycle pump but the Handpresso Wild ($215) makes a shot of espresso straight into your cup whether you’re travelling, boating or camping.

  • You start by pumping it exactly like a bicycle pump until it reaches the green zone in its pressure gauge. Then fill the small water tank with boiling water and place a coffee pod (similar to a round tea bag) into the small filter.
  • Next screw on the lid, turn the machine over and press the release button. And – hey presto! – pressurised air drives the water through the coffee and into your cup. This can be rather fiddly, especially if you’re already shaking from caffeine withdrawal.
  • The idea behind this on-the-go gadget is primo, but unfortunately the coffee it delivers isn’t. The espresso is extremely weak, with little crema – and there are large air bubbles released towards the end of the operation. The water in the tank doesn’t maintain the desirable 92°C long enough, resulting in under-extracted coffee.

While the Handpresso may be portable, you still need an electric jug or gas stove to boil the water. Hot water in a good-quality thermos can reduce from 100°C to around 80°C in 4 hours, which would even further reduce the coffee quality. And since there's no milk-frother, you’re limited to an espresso or long black.

Our view
Given the Handpresso’s high price and lack of coffee quality, we can’t recommend it. But if you really need an espresso while fishing in a dinghy or trekking to a mountain peak it’s one of the few options.

Coffee types

Here are the proportions of espresso to milk for 3 classic coffees, and 2 recipes for a smaller cup or glass. All require a double-shot of espresso.

Steamed milk sits in the jug in layers: the most finely-textured milk is at the bottom whereas heavier textures are towards the top. The quality of flat whites, cappuccinos and lattes is often determined by the blend (or separation) of these textures.

Latté

Espresso with lightly-frothed milk.

  • 1/5 espresso
  • 4/5 lightly-frothed milk

Flat white

Espresso with less milk than a latte, and little froth.

  • 1/4 espresso
  • 3/4 steamed milk

Cappuccino

Espresso with a mix of finely-textured and frothy milk.

  • 1/3 espresso
  • 1/3 steamed milk
  • 1/3 froth (shake aerated milk from the top of the jug)

Piccolo

A mini-latte, served in a 100ml glass or cup.

  • 1/3 espresso
  • 2/3 steamed milk

Macchiato

Espresso with the tiniest "mark" of milk.

  • A double shot of espresso.
  • A spoonful of milk (the milk must have enough texture to sit on top of the espresso)

Cuppa in a capsule

Tea is the latest drink to hop on the capsule bandwagon. Dilmah is selling tea capsules that can be used in Nespresso-compatible machines. At around 78c per capsule that’s a whopping 70c more expensive than a Dilmah tea bag of the same blend.

You’ll also need to stock up because the capsules only come in packs of 10. A black tea blend needs to infuse for 3-5 minutes, but a capsule machine can create a cup of tea in around 30 seconds. Great on the time front but it’s definitely not saving you money.

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