Automatic espresso machines are great, but for those amongst us who’d get a kick out of working out the right combination of variables to pull off the perfect shot of rich, crema-topped coffee goodness by trial and error, a manual espresso machine is the way to go. Though for the uninitiated, ‘manual’ may leave you thinking about complicated paraphernalia and mastering a complex skillset just to get a single shot of espresso, the principle of extracting coffee by pumping hot water at high pressure through coffee beans is essentially all there is to it, and many manual machines do away with the intricate automated bits (and the risk that damage to just one of those bits cripples your whole unit) to settle for the basics.
Choose the right machine and perfect the right equation of water temperature, how finely ground the beans are, how much you need to tamp and so on, and you’ll find yourself pulling the perfect espresso shots every time, brilliant not just for the layers and depth of flavor and aroma you get to enjoy afterwards, but also for the satisfaction of knowing you’ve mastered the art. So which manual espresso machine should you consider to get you started? Here are our top picks.
Flair Espresso Maker – Classic: All Manual Lever Espresso Maker
Go simple with style using this fuss-free yet brilliant manual press espresso maker, taking up virtually no counterspace and usable practically anywhere and at any time, since it isn’t powered by electricity or batteries. Featuring a removable brewhead, made up of a detachable cylinder, porta-filter and dispersion screen, whipping up the perfect handcrafted espresso with this unit is all in the prep-work. The detachable cylinder and espresso cup need to be pre-heated, the beans ground up finely in a burr grinder or bought finely ground before being scooped into the porta-filter and tamped down. Assembled with the pre-heated cylinder and dispersion screen, the brewhead is mounted on – all you need to do next is pour in hot water, within the temperature ranges of 195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit, popping on the piston and pulling the lever down to extract a delectable shot of hand-pulled espresso, with a lovely rich layer of crema once you’ve managed to get all the variables right.
We love this unit for its simple yet ingenious design, simplifying the process of espresso-making from complicated machinery to an intuitive and easy-to-grasp set-up you can fine-tune until you’re effortlessly pulling flawless shots. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that you might wind up preferring manually pulling your espresso. The hand-cranked lever allows for more control over the extraction process, allowing you to work around hiccups that would have otherwise stopped an automatic espresso machine dead – for instance, applying a little more elbow grease to force water through coffee grounds tamped too much or too tightly packed together, or moderating the pressure for a coarser ground, without having to start from scratch.
KEN’S BUDGET PICK
Bialetti 6-Cup Stovetop Espresso Maker
Let’s go back to basics with the classic Italian stovetop style of brewing espresso, pleasing not just because of the nostalgia factor but also because of the aromatic and delectable brews it serves up. The base unscrews from this classic octagonal pot, so you can fill it with water until just below the valve. Fill up the funnel with finely ground coffee beans and place it into the chamber, assembling the unit with the upper section, placing on the stove to boil. And that’s it – as pressurized water surges through the coffee grounds, the rich pulled liquid is pushed out of the center-post of the upper chamber of the pot. All you need do next is stir and pour, with this particular unit letting you pull roughly 12 ounces of espresso in one round. Smooth assembly and disassembly makes for intuitive use and easy clean-up, the heavy-duty aluminum of the pot making for a sturdy and durable unit promising to last you hundreds of shots.
Aeropress Coffee and Espresso Maker
When it comes to inventions that revolutionized coffee, we’re willing to bet the Aeropress is going to be pretty high on the list. This simple, inexpensive contraption lets your pull multiple shots of espresso, perfect by themselves with frothy layers of crema or as a base for an Americano or whipped together with steamed or frothed milk for lattes and cappuccinos – without any fancy accessories, electricity or prep-work. In fact, Aeropress enthusiasts swear that an espresso pulled with this unit has a better, more full-bodied taste compared to machine-extracted shots thanks to the extra steeping time the contraption’s design allows. To make a double shot of espresso, you simply place one of the 700 microfilters included with this unit in the bottom cap, with two scoops of ground coffee (a scoop per shot of espresso you’re going to pull) measured with the scoop included.
Placing the chamber on a robust mug to extract the espresso into, pour in hot water of around 175 degrees Fahrenheit, stirring the coffee and water around for about 10 seconds using the paddle that comes with the unit. Using the plunger, you then press down slowly and gently about three quarters of the way down, extraction ideally lasting about 20 to 30 seconds. And voila – as long as your water was the right temperature and your beans freshly roasted, you’ll have a lovely dark double shot of espresso with a rich foamy layer of crema to either drink as is, or water down for an Americano or mix up with some milk or cream for lattes, cappuccinos and more. This completely ousts elements like porta-filters or the need to preheat brewheads from the equation, and because the coarseness of your coffee beans doesn’t factor in at all, you don’t have to worry about tamping the beans just right either. The microfilters catch the finest of loose grounds to keep your drink from becoming muddy or bitter, making this not just a brilliant cost-effective alternative to an automated espresso machine, but also a fuss-free one.
Wacaco Company MiniPresso GR Espresso Maker
On the go, and unable to drag your stovetop espresso maker or automatic unit with you? This one-person MiniPresso is the answer to your prayers. A sleek, capsule-like unit you can tuck into your carry-bag, the unit disassembles easily, allowing you to scoop in your finely ground coffee beans into the filter basket, and fit into the nozzle-end of the housing. At the pump-end of the housing, fill the reservoir with boiling water, and then carefully assemble the two segments together, turning the capsule upside-down (nozzle-end down), steadily pumping over a cup to pour out a shot of perfectly pulled espresso with frothy crema and rich flavor, as long as your coffee beans are freshly roasted and your water of the right temperature. Unlike many espresso machines, manual and automatic, you’re advised not to tamp the coffee beans when pulling shots with this unit.