There’s coffee drinkers, coffee lovers, and then there’s full blown coffee purists. And those nerds know full well that the holy grail is mastering the perfect cup at home—trial and error after trial and error. When it comes to espressos, there’s lots of great machines out there to choose from, each with a bevy of features to make nailing that perfect shot an experience you can look forward to daily. Below, we narrowed the, um, crema of the crop—from hands down the best four machines out there, to all the accoutrements to help you on your barista journey, and our favorite coffee subscription services—because for the love of God man do not get caught buying your * pre-ground* beans from the grocery store (but seriously, don’t).
NUOVA SIMONELLI OSCAR II
The Nuova Simonelli Oscar 2 is great for small businesses and home baristas looking to kick their espresso routine up a notch. It has great features like a soft infusion system and programmable timed dosing, but won’t take up your entire counter. Most commercial espresso machines are either semiautomatic or automatic. This is a semiautomatic, which means you’ll need to both start and end the brew cycle. This matters because the time you spend pulling a shot of espresso will make or break the development of its flavor. You don’t want to extract the espresso for too long or too short. That said, the Oscar II will require some practice to nail pulling perfect shots, but you can program the correct durations for single and double shots into the machine which really helps this process. When you need to brew a shot, just press the single or double buttons and the machine will stop at the right time. Once you have this down, it’s a great machine even for beginners, but high end enough for experts.
GAGGIA CLASSIC PRO $450
The Italian-made Gaggia is considered by many to be the best entry level machine of all time; a machine that makes authentic home espresso more accessible than ever. Features include a rapid heating boiler, 3-way solenoid valve, 58 mm commercial chrome-plated brass portafilter, and a commercial style steam wand—a feature which takes this machine to the next level as it’s capable of producing rich, velvety milk foam for the perfect latte. The brew boiler has embedded heating elements, making it ready to brew in five or so minutes. Recent updates include the change from a single control panel to distinct rocker switches for power, brew, and steam. The decompression duct now has a rubber grip for safe, easy removal. New indents in the frame make it easier to remove the water reservoir.
As for as espresso machines go, it’s fairly simple, but you’ll need a grinder to make that perfect espresso. If you buy pre-ground coffee (don’t), the machine comes with a pressurized basket—but we recommend getting a grinder and doing it yourself for fresher beans. We also recommend getting the Baristapro Nanotech Filter Basket and the Bottomless Portafilter, which will create a great pour with perfect crema at the top.
BREVILLE THE BARISTA EXPRESS
The Breville is the closest you’ll come to having a coffee shop (with barista) right in your kitchen. It produces consistent pressure for espresso steamed milk with an easily adjustable steam wand and grinds the beans for you. It’s fully automatic with a 9 bar extraction pressure system, automatically doses out grinds based on preference and has a razor tool that trims down espresso to the most precise dose level and consistent extraction. A digital touch screen lets you select Espresso, Americano, latte, flat white or cappuccino and lets you adjust shot volume, milk texture and temp to make up to 8 personalized drinks. The automatic milk texturing allows you to make perfect latte milk and aerated cappuccino foam totally hands free. As a bonus, it’s super easy to clean.
ALEX DUETTO IV PLUS
This beautiful dual boiler machine turns making an espresso into a great daily experience thanks to its many capable features. It can handle multiple café style drinks one after another due to its quick recovery time, large boilers, and heavy duty heating elements. It comes standard with a dual PID with built in shot timer for better shot consistency and efficiency—which means it allows for extreme temperature stability by accurately monitoring the water temperature and keeping it within the desired range. Combine that with an 8 lbs. chrome plated brass group head that keeps your water temperature stable, which means getting the best shot with minimal heat loss. Plus its 1.8 liter boiler allows for great steam pressure, and the well-designed 2 hole steam tips makes it very easy to get that coveted well-textured micro foam.
Its sturdy lead-free copper and brass boilers retain heat better than materials such as stainless steel, and will make the machine less susceptible to chloride corrosion (which can happen after a few years of use).
If you’re brewing with an espresso machine you need to be extra careful which beans you choose. Some, like Italian coffee, will taste great and others… won’t. Below are some of our favorites.
Coffee beans are at their freshest for only three to four weeks past roast, after which, the flavors start to take a serious nose dive. Even just a few weeks later, the beans are nowhere near their best tasting selves. Most grocery stores don’t have the bandwidth to trade out coffee beans as often as that with fresh bags. Believe it or not, coffee is the rare food item that’s best purchased online. Enter coffee subscriptions. This means getting fresh coffee delivered to your door every week (or every two weeks) and a chance to try out new beans from around the world. As a bonus they customize it to your taste buds based on a survey you fill out when signing up.
We included three of the most popular services out there, but you can also subscribe directly to your favorite coffee brand if you’re not feeling experimental. Intelligentsia, Blue Bottle, Verve, Volcanica and more all have their own subscription service.
Coffee is at its most flavorful when it’s first ground. Even ten minutes after grinding, it begins to lose that flavor. To explain it simply, grinding beans will increase the surface area exposed to air. The more surface area exposed, the faster the coffee’s flavor degrades. Coffee that has been ground elsewhere, then stored Lord-knows how long, then shipped to your local grocery store for possibly weeks on end, then left to sit in a bag in your cabinet has been given all the time it needs to lose its flavor and freshness.
In other words, if you’re serious about getting the best tasting, freshest cup of coffee, grind your own beans.
An espresso shot runs between 1 and 1.5 ounces. The crema, also known as the Guinness effect, becomes thinned out when poured in too-large a cup, so it’s ideal to keep the espresso shot contained in the right vessel. Therefore the ideal espresso cup should be 2 to 3 ounces, so that the crema at the top of the shot stays intact.
Bottomless portafilters are undoubtedly the best way to improve technique, help to improve consistency, and allows for a lot more crema to form—plus they are easier to clean and don’t get the oil build-ups regular portafilters do.
Tamping is the method a barista uses to take a loosely dosed amount of coffee grounds and turn them into a tightly compressed, evenly dispersed puck within the portafilter. A good distribution tool will groom the coffee in your portafilter quickly and easily, ensuring a much easier time getting a consistent and level tamp and removing one of the many variables from pulling the perfect shot. The depth at which you level the grounds in your portafilter is adjustable to the millimeter, with each setting clicking into place and locking in for consistent results.
Tamping is a key part of making that great shot of espresso, and a quality tamper can contribute to your success. Too much tamping pressure can result in a bitter cup and too little pressure can result in a watery shot.
A knock box saves you from dripping your way over to the nearest garbage can. More importantly it makes it easier to clean your portafilter immediately, sparing it from the build-up of coffee oil gunk.
Do you really need a scale to make a great espresso? If consistency is what you’re after, then yes. A good smart scale can be used to weigh ground coffee, liquid espresso, and brewed coffee for next level accuracy and precision. Once coffee and water are measured, a scale enables you to repeat this with the same result every time, getting you a consistency that will help you nail your perfect cup every time. It also saves you from wasting coffee, as it is easy to grind more than you’ll actually use otherwise. The Acaia Lunar, though a somewhat ridiculous price for a coffee scale, is heralded by coffee nerds the world over. We also love the Brewista Smart Scale II.