5 Espresso Machines to Elevate Your Coffee (and Your Kitchen)
There are a few things in life I simply won't tolerate. People speaking with their mouths full, ranch dressing on pizza—we all have our boundaries. It's one of the many reasons I fell in love with my husband, who shares my disdain for open-mouthed eating (what my native German brethren aptly call schmatzen) and a common revulsion for an American salad dressing on Italian pizza.
These rules also apply to coffee. I would never have married a man who drank shitty coffee on the regular—moments of extreme desperation in airport lounges or hospital waiting rooms aside. Luckily, I married an Australian who naturally appreciates a properly crafted cup of coffee. Aussie kids are born with flat whites running through their veins. It is a nation that learned from the best in the business.
Like America, Australia is the rich sum of many parts, and Italians who sailed south in the 1950s after WWII and found their way to Sydney and Melbourne brought their espresso machines with them. For a nation desperate to throw off the shackles of its British colonial past, Italian espresso represented something alluringly cosmopolitan (that wasn't French) that was also a direct departure from British tea.
And so, a sophisticated coffee culture was born that culminated in a diaspora of Aussie café owners spreading across the globe. It is an almost universal truth that all of London or New York City's best coffee shops are owned or operated by Australians. (Fighting words, I know.) To my incredibly good fortune, my husband happens to be the owner of an Aussie café. He cares deeply about coffee, yet he doesn't have tattoos, horn-rimmed glasses, or facial hair. (Aussies don't take themselves too seriously; any one of Chris Hemsworth's recent Affirmations videos will attest to that.) But he does pull a good shot that'll rattle your brain and help you form vowels in the morning.
Like eleventy-hundred percent of the population, coffee makes me function better as a human. I strongly advocate investing in a quality espresso machine for your kitchen, especially at a point in time when many of us are working from home and staring down an uncertain winter. If you can't get out to support your local independent coffee shop, you can set up your very own aesthetically pleasing coffee counter at home. And you're in luck— we tested out some of the best on the market.
Our testing process
My husband and I put five machines through their paces with our team at our café, comparing the resulting espresso shot to the one from our top-of-the-line commercial La Marzocco Linea PB. Not because we wanted to bring Iron Man to a cage fight with a mere human, but because it would give us a benchmark and a consistent way of judging quality. We used Partners Brooklyn blend beans, a professional Mahlkonig burr grinder, and a pour-over scale to measure the time and dosage of the espresso shots.
The five machines included a hand-cranked manual contraption, a capsule version, and three that allow for customization of the espresso shot through volume. We assessed each machine for functionality and ease of use, tasted for temperature, balance, and flavor, and evaluated the milk frothing capabilities from the steam wand for a latté should a milky coffee be your go-to.
What makes a 'good' coffee?
A good shot of espresso is defined by balance, meaning the holy trinity of bitterness, acidity, and sweetness. It shouldn't be so bitter that it makes you scowl (a sign that it is over-extracted). It shouldn't be so sour that you pull a cat's bum expression (under-extracted). The extraction is also affected by the roast, how coarse the grind is, the volume of coffee, how it is tamped down, the ratio of water to coffee, and the pressure behind the shot. A good extraction will force the right amount of oils, acids, and caramelized sugars out of the coffee bean, partly evident in the crema on top of your shot. It matters how you "dial-in" your shot—that is, measuring how many grams of coffee you use (16-18 grams is ideal to pull 30 grams of espresso) and making sure the grind is fine enough that the resulting shot takes 28-32 seconds to pull. Shorter than that, and your face might pucker from the sourness. Longer than that and you might scowl at the bitter taste. This is my best stab at summarizing the science of coffee.
A note on equipment
If you're going to invest in a statement espresso machine, you're going to need to pony up the cash for some tools. You'll need a small set of scales to measure the volume of coffee (though you could use baking scales in a pinch), a burr grinder for your beans (unless you are using pods), and a milk frothing jug. I am quite partial to the stylish coffee accessories from Fellow. You'll also want a timer or your phone on hand, though some nifty little coffee scales include a timer, such as the one we use at the café.
The Espresso Machines
La Marzocco Linea Mini
First, let's talk about the elephant in the room. Yes, this is a pricey machine, the price of a used car, even. Is it worth it? Hell, yes! The Mini pulled almost the same quality shot as our commercial machine, and it should—it's a professional-grade machine for home. This is an investment, and if you care deeply about coffee, it will pay itself off in spades over the years. It's extremely easy to set up and operate. It differs from the commercial machine in that you manually operate the brew time (which is where a timer will come in handy.) Slide the brew switch off when it reaches the desired shot length. This machine pumps enough heat to steam milk in no time resulting in an excellent milky microfoam, the texture of wet paint. Our shot was 28 seconds for 17 grams of coffee and was perfectly balanced. If you are serious about coffee and want to replicate café-quality results at home, there is no question this machine ticks all the boxes.
"Wow, is that machine made of concrete? That's dope!" chirped one of our young baristas. She's not wrong—this fine specimen just looks so dang good. Its Brutalist lines and pocked texture coupled with porcelain "faucet" handle and brass highlights make a real statement. (No wonder I first saw a prototype at a kitchen and bath convention.) Like the La Marzocco, you need to toggle the coffee switch once it reaches your desired amount of coffee, so you'll need a timer on hand. It's easy to operate, but if we were to pick a design flaw, it's that you can't remove the water tank to empty or fill it. We pulled a 30 second shot from 18 grams of coffee and it was a little sour. Playing around with a finer grind rectified it. It has good pressure and fast steam forthcoming from the wand to froth milk. This machine is one for the aesthetes while also delivering a quality shot.
AnZa Concrete, $1,180 at anzacoffee.com
Ascaso Dream PID
We came for the attractive retro styling and stayed for the extremely pleasing precision and quality results. Our team of baristas loved this killer little specimen that behaves like a pro machine thanks to the digital display that lets you time and dose a shot. It also has plenty of grunt under its small curved hood—a true marriage of tech and style. (The available colors! The wood trim!) You can program a bunch of things on this Spanish-designed beauty: water temperature, pre-infusion (which wets the ground coffee to allow the water pressure to hammer through more evenly when you start extracting); and the length of the dose, measured in seconds.
Once you set the timed dose to match your grind and volume of coffee, it's truly a dream to use. The programming itself is a little fiddly and not entirely intuitive, but it's good to go once you input your settings. The steam wand has one of the best ergonomic designs, too. We pulled 17 grams of coffee for a 32-second shot and it was perfectly balanced. A bonus: the machine is more compact than you might think, a boon for smaller kitchens. It also includes an attachment for pods, if that is your thing. For the price, the style, precision, and performance, this is our top pick and we'll be getting the vibrant yellow one for our home.
Illy X1 iperEspresso Anniversary 1935 Machine
It would be remiss of us not to look at a capsule machine here; not everyone has the time or inclination to tinker around and dial in a coffee. And that's OK. We won't lie—we picked the Illy anniversary edition for its good looks alone, its style reminiscent of an Italian Vespa scooter, and are pleased to say it extracts a pretty decent shot for an automated machine. The accompanying "iperEspresso" capsule has a patented two-step extraction that results in a nice crema. The capsules are made from recycled plastic; Illy sells prepaid capsule bags that can be used for shipping capsules to a recycling facility. The steam wand is a bit short for our liking but does a fine job frothing milk if a cappuccino is your drink of choice. This sexy little machine is great for those short on time who crave convenience and a relatively decent shot of coffee.
Flair Signature Espresso Maker
This doodad is wild; you don't even need to plug it into a wall, and it pulls a shot of espresso almost as good as the La Marzocco—not bad for the cheapest machine on this list. You can even take it with you everywhere you go; you just need access to hot water. But what it delivers also requires some patience and geeky attention to detail. The reason it's almost as good as the Linea is that it allows for control and precision, but you need to put in the time to get the result. The makers refer to this as "slow espresso"; using the Flair is a morning meditation and you should treat it as such. You will need scales to measure the volume of your shot and we'd recommend the manual Royal grinder that you can also purchase with Flair. The grind we used for the other machines was too fine here. The Flair has a brew head where you put your dose of coffee, a reservoir for hot water, and a pressure gauge to make sure you are administering the right amount as you pull the handle. This may sound complicated, but it comes with a really handy and digestible guide that explains how to dial in your Flair and there are plenty of instructive YouTube videos to watch online. Once you get the hang of it, you're good to go. We pulled a 16 gram shot for 38 seconds and it was bang-on. The Flair is for the budget-conscious yet quality-minded coffee nerd.