What one person thinks is good coffee can vary, so we enlist a panel of experts to come up with an overall taste test score.
With many years' experience in the small appliances laboratory, we're proud of our expert testers. They've seen all kinds of features and builds of espresso machines come through the labs, but one thing never changes – they need to produce a good shot of coffee.
For our taste tests we rely on the expert palates of brothers David and Matthew Gee from Barista Basics as well as Anee Sampath, managing director of Samson Coffee House. We also have in-house experts to use when required, including CHOICE's home economist, Fiona Mair.
For our espresso reviews, our testers taste a 30mL shot of espresso from each machine in a blind taste test and assess each shot by looking at the colour and thickness of the crema, the aroma, flavour, mouthfeel and aftertaste. We use a reference machine to check the consistency of our taste testers. Our lab testers use single-wall baskets where supplied (double-wall if no single is supplied) and an ECM grinder to get the right grind.
Non-espresso coffee machines taste tests are conducted differently; in our latest test we asked Anee Sampath to give us an expert rating, and also asked a layperson taste test panel to sample the results.
Why do we choose one coffee machine over another? What about the type of espresso machine – pod, automatic or manual? There are a number of reasons for this, but our priority is to test what you'll see in the shops. That means that sometimes we might not cover that one brand that's sold a small number of just one model in Australia, and instead focus on the big-brand machines that you'll most likely see in the retailer. How do we know what's in retailers? We check current market figures to see what's selling well. We'll also include models that you've requested; if a lot of members want it, we're going to test it.
When we know what you want, our buyers go out and use your member funds to buy the espresso machines from a variety of retailers, then bring them in as-is – this means we get what you'd get, so we can be sure the results are what you'll find at home, and not 'tweaked' any way.
For capsule machines, we go to great trouble to get the coffee that's most suitable. Every few years we'll consider whether we should change the blend we use, for example if new flavours come onto the market. If we do this, and think it will impact on our comparative results, we'll review previously-tested models again with the newer blend so that they can be fairly compared.
We cover several types of coffee machine in our tests:
- Capsule coffee machines are designed to capture and convert the hearts of instant coffee lovers as well as those who value ease of use. With a variety of brands available at a range of prices and the emergence of these machines in supermarkets, this category has gone from strength to strength. These machines use a coffee capsule filled with enough coffee for a single shot. Simply insert the capsule, press a button, and the machine pierces it to allow hot water to flow through and make the shot.
- Manual and semi-automatic coffee machines are for people who want the hands-on experience of making their own coffee exactly how they like it. Semi-automatic machines will automatically cut off the flow of coffee once a pre-set amount has been poured into the cup, while with a manual machine you have total control and need to cut the flow of coffee yourself.
- Automatic coffee machines make the espresso experience easy, as they grind the beans freshly each time and make the espresso all at the press of a button. Many models even automatically heat and froth the milk but in some cases milk frothing can be a manual process. But unfortunately, despite their relatively high prices, not all make a great espresso.
- Hand-pump coffee machines work on the same principles as a manual machine, except that you need to use a pump action to push the water through the ground coffee. We've tested one of these.
- Filter, or non-espresso coffee machines, cover a range of alternative brewing methods such as vacuum (siphon/syphon), electric drip filter and pour over. These produce lighter brews than a traditional espresso, and should be judged on their expected flavour profile.
If you want to learn more about the different kinds of coffee machines, read our coffee machine buying guide.
For espresso machines, our expert tester primes the machine to remove any residual factory smells and tastes, and pumps a litre of hot water through each of the machines. They then make 12 shots of espresso coffee (not for testing), one after another. For automatic machines, they make 20 to 25 shots of espresso to make sure the built-in grinder is at the correct setting.
A 30mL shot of espresso forms the basis of any coffee. For best results, you need to use fresh coffee beans and grind them just before use. Which means that unless you're using an automatic espresso machine, you'll need a coffee grinder. We don't just use any old coffee beans for our tests – we use the best we can find.
The overall score is a combination of the taste, ease of use, frothing milk and coffee temperature consistency scores, weighted as follows:
- Taste (60%)
- Ease of use (20%)
- Frothing milk (15%)
- Coffee temperature consistency (5%)
Three experts test the espressos in a 'blind' tasting, checking the colour and thickness of the crema (the tan-coloured foam on the top of an espresso shot), aroma, flavour, mouth feel (for example, creaminess or wateriness) and aftertaste.
Ease of use
We try the controls, fill the water tank and the bean hopper, adjust the grinder, make a coffee, and clean inside and out, to see how easy each machine will be to use and maintain.
We experiment with each machine to find how it best froths milk, looking for fine, pourable froth.
Coffee temperature consistency
We measure the consistency of four consecutive coffees for each machine after warming it up for five minutes. We add five minutes for thermoblock and small boiler machines, and 30 minutes for heat exchangers.
The overall score for non-espresso machines is a combination of the taste (professional), taste (lay panel), and ease of use scores, weighted as follows:
- Taste – professional (60%)
- Taste – lay panel (10%)
- Ease of use (30%)
Ease of use
When rating ease of use and cleaning, our expert testers follow the preparation instructions provided with the machines. He also assesses how easy they are to clean and how quickly the coffee flows through the filter.
We assess these differently to our espresso and capsule machines. Many consumers are used to drinking espresso-based coffee, which tastes stronger and has more viscosity than alternative methods. So, to avoid an unfair comparison, Anee Sampath prepares the coffee himself according to his taste (for example, he often adds more coffee than prescribed for some models). He then rates them based on his expected characteristics of the brew profile. We also get a lay panel to taste the coffee that our experts prepare to the instructions.
We maintain a lab that is up to date with the latest reference machines and calibrated measurement tools for our testers to bring you accurate results.