I take my espresso seriously. I put myself through college making espresso for others, and I even married my favorite barista. It’s been awhile now since either my wife or I had access to the kind of expensive Italian-made espresso machines you find in nice coffee shops, but thanks to the world of portable espresso makers, I’ve figured out how to make the perfect espresso no matter where I go.
WIRED has looked at some of the best latte and cappuccino machines, best portable coffee makers, and best cold brew makers, but we wanted to share some ways to make great espresso on the road or at the campsite. Making a barista-worthy espresso is challenging. Doing it without electricity or a giant machine is even more daunting.
Coffee fanatics will object that most of these devices use pressurized portafilters to achieve their crema, which is cheating. Usually, I am one of those fanatics, but real espresso machines don’t usually fit in your carry-on. To my surprise, a little “cheating” can still turn out some killer espresso.
Updated April 2021: We’ve added the 9Barista and removed the Handpresso Auto Hybrid as it’s not available.
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1. Best Overall
The Wacaco Nanopresso strikes the best balance between ease of use, portability, and taste. It extracts a nice espresso from almost any beans. There’s very little bitterness, and it reliably produces a nice-looking crema. The compact all-in-one design also means you can shove it in the smallest of bags and have excellent espresso anywhere you go.
A couple of notes to getting the best extraction: Don’t grind your coffee too fine—think table salt rather than powder—and preheat the machine. To preheat, just pump hot water through with nothing in the basket and then make your actual shot. Espresso fanatics argue that you should pump no more than once per second, but I could not tell any difference. It takes a fair amount of pressure to pump the water, though. If you have arthritis, repetitive strain injury, or another source of joint pain in your hands, the Nanopresso is probably not the best choice.
It has an expansion pack called the Barista Kit that offers a larger water tank and grounds basket for making a double espresso. I found the results with the Barista Kit mirrored the single, though it’s more forgiving of poor grinds. If you don’t fill the larger reservoir all the way, you can extract a slightly stronger espresso with the double. The downside is it becomes considerably larger.
2. Best-Tasting Espresso
The Flair is the least portable of the devices reviewed here. It does pack down to a roughly laptop-size case that’s about 2 inches thick, but it’s heavy. It looks great on a kitchen counter between trips, though. And what you lose in portability is more than made up for in the quality of espresso you get. It produces hands-down the best extraction of any device here.
The Flair Signature is simple to use. You can see the process in the company’s very helpful video guide to brewing. It’s also built like a tank, and clean-up is just a matter of dumping the espresso and rinsing out the portafilter.
Experimentation with various grinds is necessary to get the ideal extraction. Of course, the fresher the coffee, the better the results. That said, you can even get excellent results with pre-ground espressos like Medaglia D’Oro.
Flair offers two other models: the Classic and the Signature Pro. The primary differences are the size and the materials of the brew heads. If you’re willing to forgo stainless steel, the classic works the same way and should produce the same results. The Classic is $159 at Amazon. The Signature Pro goes for $300 and is a step up in build quality.
3. Best for the Stovetop
I’ve reviewed a lot of gadgets over the years, but few, if any, have been as astoundingly ingenious as the 9Barista. This is the only stovetop espresso maker I am aware of that actually reaches 9 bars, the amount of pressure you need for true espresso.
The designer is a jet engineer and his background shows in the internals. The double-chambered design traps boiling water until the pressure builds to 9 bars. At that point, a release valve opens and the water travels up a coil, which cools it slightly, before being pushed up into the ground espresso, and finally out into the cup. The results, once you get your grind right, are delicious. It produces a clean, smooth extraction with a nice bit of crema.
Portable is stretch here—the 9Barista is very well made, but does weigh more than three pounds. But for a small apartment with limited kitchen counter space, or for those RV trips you’ve been plotting, it’s perfect.
The main drawback, aside from the price, is that you’ll have to wait for it to cool before opening it to brew a second shot. At least you can grind and prep your coffee while you wait, saving some time. I found that, with a bit of cool water to speed things along, I could brew shots with only a couple of minutes in between. And yes, it’s expensive, but considering the quality of construction and the materials involved, it doesn’t feel outrageous.
4. Most Unusual
The Uniterra Nomad is also not the most portable device, though it is smaller and lighter than the Flair. It puts that heft to good use by looking like a little piece of metal art sitting on your desk while cranking out an excellent, creamy espresso.
The Nomad, which grew out of a Kickstarter campaign, is made mostly of solid metal, which gives it a sturdy feel some of our other options lack. It’s also the only one to include a proper, heavy, high-quality tamper to evenly press down your coffee.
The company touts its True Crema Valve, a bit of engineering that helps compensate for a bad grind or poor tamping. I tested this by using some pre-ground coffee from a large chain that shall remain nameless. The extraction from the poorly ground coffee with the True Crema valve was better than the extraction without it.
You should always use high-quality beans—nothing will improve your espresso so much as good, freshly roasted beans. But if you mess up the grind or don’t tamp the grounds properly, the Nomad’s True Crema Valve can save you from yourself.
5. Best for Hiking and Cold-Brew Espresso
The Cafflano Kompresso is the lightest espresso maker in this roundup and also the easiest to clean, making it ideal for backpacking.
It relies on a manual hydraulic compressor to force the water through and extract espresso. It’s the least forgiving device I tested, and the results can be the best cup of espresso or the worst among these picks. You need fresh, high-quality beans and time to get the grind right. Grind too coarse and you’ll end up with a watery mess. Grind too fine and you’ll have to use your whole body weight to force the extraction. But when you find the sweet spot, you can get a good 3/8 inch of crema and a deliciously smooth shot.
Unlike every other device, the Kompresso makes a good cold-brew shot too. The secret, which I found on the company’s Instagram account, is to tamp extra hard and presoak for one minute. The results are amazing (again, assuming you have high-quality beans and a good grind).
Why I Didn’t Test the AeroPress
Coffee must meet three requirements to qualify as espresso.
- It must be brewed under pressure instead of infused.
- It should have a very high brew ratio, usually two parts water to one part coffee. Brewed coffee is more like 15 to one.
- Espresso tends to be darker, heavier, and richer than infusion-brewed coffee. As such, the beans are typically a darker roast, though I’ve noticed lighter roasts may be growing in popularity.
For this review, I limited the options to pressurized brewers, which is why there’s no AeroPress or moka pot, neither of which make espresso. (A moka pot is pressurized, but not enough to qualify as espresso.) The Aeropress is in our Best Portable Coffee Makers guide.
How to Make Great Portable Espresso
There are three basic, vital espresso tips I’ll leave you with.
Find good, fresh beans: If you haven’t made espresso before, start with high-quality beans. Quality beans can make even cheap brewing equipment shine. And high quality means fresh. Find a local coffee roaster in your area.
If you don’t have a coffee roaster nearby, you can order beans online or try one of the preground espresso blends at your local grocery store. I’ve tried popular espresso blends like Lavazza, Medaglia D’Oro, and Café Bustelo. Medaglia D’Oro has a smoother flavor than the others, but it’s still more bitter than freshly roasted and ground whole beans.
For testing, I used beans from Jittery Joe’s roasting company in Athens, Georgia, specifically the Wake-n-Bake blend. (Disclosure: I worked for Jittery Joe’s for many years, so I grew to like its coffee.) I also used an espresso blend from Fahrenheit Coffee Roaster in Mancos, Colorado. The latter are the best beans I’ve purchased in the United States in two years of traveling. If you can’t find something near you, have a look at our guide to coffee subscription services.
Get a quality grinder: Once you have good, freshly roasted beans you need to grind them. You’ll want a burr grinder, which grinds your beans evenly rather than chopping them like a blade grinder. See our guide to coffee grinders to find the perfect one for you.
Start experimenting: Pick one of these makers and start experimenting. At first, make sure you weigh out your beans and water using a good scale like this Eravsow Digital Scale, and take notes. It may sound like extreme nerdery, and it is, but after experimenting for a few days you’ll likely find something you love, and you’ll know how to pull your perfect shot every time for espresso—no matter where you are.
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