There’s no shortage of ways to make coffee.
If you don’t have tastebuds or shame, there’s instant. Then there are stovetop percolators, cafetieres, manual pour-over makers and the ingenious AeroPress. But if you want consistently good cups of the energising black stuff every morning (and don’t want to pay through the nose for it), you’re probably going to want to buy a machine.
But there are hundreds of them out there. Some excellent, some terrible, most sitting somewhere in-between. To find out which deserves your hard-earned cash, we’ve been testing them – and subjecting ourselves to possibly fatal levels of caffeine in the process.
Sage by Heston Blumenthal Barista Express (£550)
With the look of a shrink-rayed professional espresso machine, the grinning fizzog of shaven-headed culinary chemist Heston Blumenthal on the box and a price tag that puts it out of reach of all but the most well-heeled caffeine fiend, the Barista Express (branded as Breville in the US and Sage in the UK) is clearly aimed at those seeking a major step up in their home-brewed coffee.
It’s a lovely looking, all-metal thing, with even accessories like the tamper and milk jug exuding an air of quiet, understated luxury. The portafilter is reassuringly weighty and solid, locking into the group head with a satisfying twist. There are clever little touches you can’t see or immediately feel that add to the feeling of quality too: on top is a tray that warms your cups, and the 2l water tank has an integrated, changeable filter.
While not as large as it might appear in photos, the machine will struggle to slide under cupboards on the average British kitchen counter – you’ll need to have space above to refill the coffee bean hopper, for one thing.
Yep, the Barista Express isn’t just an elegant, well-built espresso machine – it also features a built-in grinder, allowing you to make coffee with beans you’ve smashed into dust literally seconds earlier. Freshness means a lot in the coffee world, so this is a Big Deal – as is the low-pressure pre-infusion of the grounds before the water is forced through them at higher 50 bar pressure.
And it bears out in the coffee the machine produces: our very first cup was a delicious and gloriously smooth latte with barely a hint of bitterness. The milk steaming wand is excellent too, producing much lighter, airier foam than the (admittedly way, way cheaper) Morphy Richards’ model, and there’s also a hot water spout for those who want to make an Americano by topping up their espresso.
Its steep price means most won’t consider it, but if you have the cash and don’t want to ever set foot in a Starbucks or Costa again, Sage’s machine should be high on your list.
Water tank size: 2l • Pressure: 15 bar • Milk foaming arm: Yes • Wattage: 1850W • Dimensions: 400 x 330 x 310mm • Weight: 11.3kg
Panasonic NC-ZA1 (£400)
Like the Sage Express, Panasonic’s NC-ZA1 is a “bean to cup” espresso machine: it takes whole beans, grinds them and pushes hot water through them at pressure to produce a cup of coffee. That’s pretty much where the similarities end, however, because unlike the old-school Express, the NC-ZA1 makes almost the entire process automated – and controllable via touchscreen.
You don’t even have to deal with the coffee grounds right away: they just drop into a little box that needs periodic emptying. Like the the 1.4l water tank, this box slides out of the front of the machine, which means you don’t need to fumble around at the back or move it away from the wall every few cups of coffee you make. It’s a nice touch, especially as the water tank in particular requires regular topping up: every time you switch the machine on, it flushes water through its pipes to keep them clean. It’s a bit of a faff, but it has its benefits: the NC-ZA1 makes a surprisingly delicious cup of coffee.
Our first espresso out of the machine was a disappointment: watery and bland. “Clearly, robots can’t make good coffee,” we muttered. But the second was far, far better: rich, smooth and with an attractive crema on top, it was actually right up there with the more manual, much more expensive Sage.
You can also make milky or foamed coffees, thanks to a tube that can be placed in a milk jug (or Panasonic’s own optional “Milktank” accessory). Or just have the machine squirt out hot water for tea-making. You can also tweak the amount of coffee, water and milk, and the temperature before a drink is made, and save up to four of these combinations on the machine as personal favourites.
Cleaning the machine is mostly done via pre-programmed procedures (you’ll be prompted by the screen when cleaning is required), although the brewing unit will need to be periodically removed (again, it slides out from the front) and washed.
The touchscreen is a little basic (it’s resistive rather than capacitive, so you have to give it a good press to have your touches register), but fulfils its role just fine. And the general design of the machine is quite fetching if you’re into futuristic appliances (we prefer the retro look of the Sage machine ourselves).
Considering this is Panasonic’s first stab at a coffee machine, it’s incredibly impressive. The styling is a bit Marmite and the need to keep flushing it and refilling the water tank a touch annoying, but those things aside the NC-ZA1 is an excellent bean to cup machine.
Water tank size: 1.4l • Pressure: 15 bar • Milk foaming arm: Yes • Wattage: 1550W • Dimensions: 410 x 335 x 195mm • Weight: 10.3kg
Jura E8 (£1100)
Upgrading to a big-boy’s coffee machine is big step in a coffee lover’s life.
Time to put away the stove-top espresso pot, the paper filters and drip jug. Even those convenient single-use pods can stay on the supermarket shelf. The right bean-to-cup machine will replace your previous coffee making attempts, and you can sip your latte macchiato safe in the knowledge it took next to no effort to brew.
The JURA E8 is such a machine. One that’s fair old investment, sure - it’ll pay itself back through use after about two years, assuming you’re mainlining at least one Starbucks filter coffee every day. Get the optional Smart Connect Bluetooth dongle, though, and it’ll open up a whole world of coffee.
The styling falls somewhere between Apple-esque, all polished metal and screen, and steampunk. It’s packing some serious pump action at the front, after all. It makes it perfect for dual-wielding the morning espresso cups.
Setup is way easier than the manual would have you believe - the pathetic printed booklet is by far the weakest link in this coffee production line. Fitting the water filter and the Smart Connect dongle is not explained well at all. You’ll find answers to most of your questions online - but probably not on JURA’s website. Unofficial YouTube videos proved much more useful.
Actually using the thing is a doddle, too. The screen is bright and colourful, with onboard menus putting several types of coffee just a few buttons away. The coffee itself tastes great, plus it looks like a professionally prepared brew - good crema, beautiful aroma, fine froth (if you like that sort of thing). It’s heavenly.
There’s a complete set of maintenance modes to keep the machine clean, so while you might be doing it every day, it’ll be worth doing properly to keep the taste top-notch.
It’s the £45 Smart Connect dongle that separates the E8 from your common-or-garden bean-to-cup machine. Download the JURA Coffee app (for iOS and Android), select your machine and you’re good to go.
The options list is practically overflowing, but the app is simple enough. You can tweak recipes and save new presets for your favourite cuppa: length of drink, temperature, amount of milk and froth… If you’re not careful you’ll quickly become lost as the head barista of your own home.
If your coffee addiction is at the level where every barista in the local Starbucks knows your name and order off by heart, it’s time to start thinking about the E8. Yes, the price is stratospheric, but true caffeine-fiends will love it.
Water tank size: 1.9l • Pressure: 15bar • Milk foaming arm: Automatic • Wattage: 1450W • Dimensions: 351x280x351mm • Weight: 9.8kg
De’Longhi Nescafé Dolce Gusto Jovia (£70)
A slim and sleek machine that uses Nescafé’s Dolce Gusto pod system (think Nespresso but larger – and far more widely available in shops), the Jovia attempts to place itself somewhere in the hinterland between no-fuss convenience and the world of Serious Coffee.
It’s affordable (£70 at Argos at the time of writing; Dolce Gusto pods are priced at around £4 for a box of 16) and incredibly simple to set up and use. Simply fill the removable water tank with cold H2O, pop your chosen coffee pod into a slide-out drawer at the front, stick a cup under the spout and hit the power button. When it turns from red to green (a mere few seconds) the machine is ready. You then push the water lever either left (for cold drinks) or right (for hot drinks) until the desired amount of your drink is in the cup. Then slide out the drawer, expel the pod and throw it away.
And that’s it. There’s very little in the way of cleaning or maintenance to be done, bar an occasional emptying of the drip tray, an occasional rinsing of the removable pod holder and, of course, the refilling of the water tank. The tank isn’t huge (0.8l), so you’ll need to do the latter fairly frequently. The drip tray, for its part, is adjustable – you can place it at one of three heights to suit the size of drinking vessel and reduce the chance of spillage.
There’s no steam wand for heating and foaming milk, but the Dolce Gusto system has its own way of doing that: drinks such as cappuccinos and lattes are made with two pods: one coffee pod and one special milk pod, used in the amounts specified on the pod lid. Drinking milk expelled from a pod isn’t as appetising as fresh cow juice, we think you’ll agree – but it’s less effort and less mess.
So what’s the coffee like? It’s tasty, especially if you stick with the simpler, non-milk varieties such as espresso, and comes out of the pods with a nice crema on the surface. You have very little control over how the coffee is made, of course, and aficionados using a £25 AeroPress will be able to beat the Jovia for taste every time. But this machine is so convenient and easy to live with that it charms you regardless.
Water tank size: 0.8l • Pressure: 15 bar • Milk foaming arm: No • Wattage: 1500W • Dimensions: 228 x 171 x 325mm • Weight: 2.5kg
Morphy Richards Accents Espresso (£65)
Best for: Aspiring baristas starting out on the espresso expressway
A bigger, bulkier and more robust prospect than the Jovia, this Morphy Richards machine is part of the company’s Accents range of kitchen appliances – and very handsome it is too, with its curvy brushed metal front and drip tray. Size-wise, it’s compact enough to slide comfortably into the worktop space under the average set of kitchen cupboards.
A “proper” machine that can deliver both single and double shot espressos, its spout has a dual opening allowing you to make two coffees simultaneously. There’s also a steam wand for foaming milk, and the water tank has a decent 1.2l capacity, meaning you won’t need to refill it after making three cups o’ joe. In addition to ground coffee, it’ll also accept E.S.E. coffee pods (we weren’t able to test these, but as they’re made in almost precisely the same way as regular espressos, we imagine they’ll work just fine).
Having supped both espressos and lattes made by the machine, we’re reasonably impressed. The milk foamer isn’t outstandingly good but the 15 bar pressure makes for tasty, smooth coffee with a healthy-looking crema on the surface.
It requires a touch more cleaning and faffing around than the Jovia – you’ll need to wipe off the foamer arm after every use – but operation is simple, with only three buttons (coffee, power and milk steamer controls) and one dial (for the foamer) to worry about.
The price is incredibly low for a product of this standard (the above price is Amazon.co.uk, and represents a huge reduction from the Accents Espresso’s original price of £120), making this the ideal affordable entry point to the world of decent homemade espresso-based coffee.
Water tank size: 1.25l • Pressure: 15 bar • Milk foaming arm: Yes • Wattage: 1000W • Dimensions: 288 x 220 x 315mm • Weight: 3.6kg
Smarter Coffee (£180)
Coffee’s been far too stupid for far too long, hasn’t it? Waiting for you to manually spoon it into a receptacle before being covered in near-boiling water. It needs an injection of intelligence to make getting a caffeine fix less of an effort for sleepy humans.
If the name is anything to go by, that’s exactly what the Smarter Coffee machine is offering. True, you still have to fill it with coffee and water, but you can pour in a whole bag of beans (it will also handle grounds) and a couple of jugs of water in one go, and then go completely hands-free with your coffee making.
Except for binning the used grounds so you don’t have a percolator full of manky mush, of course, and giving it a clean every so often… OK, so this isn’t an entirely hands-free experience, but Smarter Coffee does connect to your Wi-Fi and there’s a dedicated app from which you can start a brew with a single tap.
Working upstairs or lying in bed? Press the button and (depending on how palatial your abode is) you’ll instantly hear beans being ground into tasty oblivion before the water is heated and poured through them. Then, when you’re ready (the hot plate gives you a 40-minute window), you can brave the trek to the kitchen and find a jug of the delicious black stuff waiting for you.
You can create a schedule so it’s ready for when you get up, and use location tracking to make sure it’s ready when you get home from work. IFTTT support is promised soon.
Notifications for depleted water and beans would be useful so you could top up before bed and prevent a coffee-free morning, but all in all this is indeed a smarter way to get your caffeine fix.
Water tank size: 1.5l • Milk foaming arm: No • Weight: 7kg • Dimensions: 46.6 x 36.4 x 25.4cm