I TAKE MY espresso seriously and I I've figured out how to make the perfect espresso no matter where I go.
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.
1. Best Overall
The 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 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, RSI, or other source of joint pain in your hands, the Nanopresso is probably not the best choice.
The Nanopresso has an expansion pack called the Barista Kit with 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 bit stronger espresso with the double. The downside is that the device becomes considerably larger.
The Nanopresso is lighter and easier to clean up, but the Handpresso Wild Hybrid makes an equally good shot, possibly better.
The Flair is the least portable of the devices reviewed here. It does break 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. The Flair Signature produces hands-down the best extraction of any device here.
The Flair 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, and 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. The primary differences are the size and the materials of the brew heads. If you're willing 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.
The Uniterra Nomad is also not the most portable device—though it is smaller and lighter than the Flair—but it puts that heft to good use by looking like a little piece of metal art sitting on your desk and 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.
It's more work than the Nanopresso, but it produces a marginally deeper and richer brew, though less of it—the water reservoir is 1.5 fluid ounces versus the 2.7-ounce reservoir of the Nanopresso. The difference is in the pumping. With a Nanopresso, you build pressure by continually pumping the water through. With the Handpresso, you build up pressure and then release a valve to force the water through the grounds all at once. The Handpresso also pumps up like a bike pump, which is easier than the finger button on the Nanopresso.
To get the best extraction, you need to experiment with your grind. My favourite results came from a very fine grind and minimal tamping. The Handpresso also works with paper filtered Easy Serving Espresso (ESE) pods.
Luckily, manual coffee grinders offer stellar performance at a far lower price point than the typical electric counterparts.If you want to get the maximum bang for your coffee-allocated buck, going for a hand grinder is a surefire way to do it.