Single-Serve Manual Coffee Makers
Can these compact, manual devices deliver café-quality results at home? We gave three models a shot.
How We Tested
The allure of a rich cup of espresso brewed quickly and conveniently at home might be too strong for many coffee lovers to resist. Unfortunately, most espresso machines intended for home use, including our winner, are fairly bulky and come with a hefty price tag. If you’re looking to save space and money, you might consider a smaller, manually operated device instead. These devices use hot water and manual pressure to brew small amounts of strong, full-bodied coffee that’s often described by manufacturers as espresso or espresso-style concentrate.
For years, we’ve recommended manual models made by ROK and AeroPress. ROK recently redesigned its model’s hot-water chamber using a glass-composite polymer, claiming that the new material improves coffee extraction. AeroPress now offers a new model, the AeroPress Go Travel Coffee Press, which is designed for maximum portability with collapsible components that fit into a travel mug. Given these changes, we decided to test the new ROK EspressoGC (about $190) and the AeroPress Go Travel Coffee Press against the standard AeroPress Coffee Maker (both about $30). To assess the machines’ performances, we brewed (or “pulled”) dozens of coffee shots and evaluated the ease of use, ease of cleanup, and durability of each machine. We also rated the taste, body, and appearance of the coffee they produced, noting how it compared with the rich, full-bodied shots we can reliably produce with a countertop espresso maker.
Operating the Presses
The revamped ROK model consists of three pieces: an 11.5-inch-tall, wishbone-shaped body with two curved levers; a hot-water chamber; and a metal portafilter that holds the coffee grounds and latches on to the machine. To brew, we filled the portafilter with ground coffee, locked it in place, and poured hot water into the water chamber. We pressed the water through the coffee grounds by pushing down on the attached levers, sending coffee into the mug below. We liked that cleaning the ROK model was straightforward: We simply knocked the compacted grounds out of the portafilter, ran it under the faucet, and then wiped it dry.
The AeroPress models were impressively simple to use. To brew, we attached a filter to the bottom of a cylindrical chamber and then added ground coffee and hot water, which we stirred and allowed to steep. Then, we inserted a plunger into the chamber and pressed, forcing the coffee through the filter and into the mug below. Cleaning both AeroPress models was a cinch: The grounds were pressed into a solid disk at the bottom of the chamber, so an additional quick push of the plunger after removing the filter sent the grounds cleanly into the compost bin without having to rinse the chamber. Conveniently, all components of both AeroPress models are dishwasher-safe. But the AeroPress Go Travel Coffee Press outshined its predecessor with its portable design: We loved that its components collapse into a 15-ounce mug that will fit comfortably in a handbag headed to the office or a backpack full of camping gear.
Evaluating Coffee Quality
As promised, the devices were all streamlined and relatively simple to operate. Determining whether they really made espresso was a bit more complicated. Real espresso is a highly concentrated shot of coffee brewed under intense heat and pressure. Automatic espresso machines use pumps to generate up to 15 “bars” of pressure, or the equivalent of 217.5 pounds per square inch (psi), which forcibly pushes water through tightly packed coffee grounds, creating a “crema,” the foamy mixture of air and the coffee’s soluble oils that floats atop a shot. According to coffee experts, true espresso can’t be achieved if a brewing device can’t reach at least 9 bars of pressure.
The ROK EspressoGC is marketed as a manual espresso maker. But despite extensive efforts from multiple testers, it couldn’t generate the required 9 bars of pressure needed to make real espresso. We tried different amounts and styles of coffee: two freshly ground to various consistencies and one preground espresso-style. We tried different water temperatures and coffee tamping pressures to no avail. When we still failed to produce a proper espresso, we replaced the model’s gasket and purchased a second model to test. The results were the same: True espresso eluded us. Our determination is that the ROK doesn’t make espresso; it makes 2-ounce shots of strong coffee. It was good coffee, akin to what we make with a French press, but it was too weak to be diluted for an espresso-based drink, and the yield wasn’t worth the effort.
The AeroPress models, on the other hand, are marketed as coffee makers designed to brew something called “espresso-style concentrate,” or a small cup of coffee meant to be drunk either in the style of espresso or diluted for drinks such as lattes, Americanos, and cappuccinos. The original AeroPress model’s brew was more subdued in flavor than true espresso, without a frothy crema to round out the pull. The AeroPress Go Travel Coffee Press’s coffee was similarly mild. Still, both models produced smooth, full-bodied coffee that was stronger than that made in the ROK model—strong enough to be diluted for appealing, if a bit subdued, Americanos. Both AeroPress models were fully customizable, allowing us to add whatever amounts of ground coffee and water we desired.
However, there is one drawback to both of the AeroPress models. The company claims that users can make cold-brew coffee concentrate by steeping and stirring ground coffee in room-temperature water in the presses’ brewing chambers. But when we tested this technique, the tepid water didn’t extract any coffee flavor from the grounds, and though the instructions directed us to stir for 1 minute and then press the plunger, the water drained out on its own well before the minute was up. In spite of this slight disappointment, we still like the AeroPress Coffee Maker and the new AeroPress Go Travel Coffee Press for hot espresso-style concentrate and Americanos. For cold-brew coffee, we recommend either our winning cold-brew coffee maker or our cold-brew concentrate recipe.
The Best Single-Serve Manual Coffee Maker: AeroPress Go Travel Coffee Press
In the end, we can’t recommend the updated ROK model; it couldn’t create the pressure necessary to produce the boldly flavored and full-bodied espresso we are able to achieve with our favorite automatic espresso maker. And because the ROK model produced only 2 ounces of coffee, it’s really not worth the effort; you’d be better off using a French press or a drip coffee maker. However, either AeroPress model would be a welcome addition to any coffee lover’s arsenal. While they didn’t yield authentic espresso, they brewed a more concentrated coffee than the ROK model that was strong enough to be diluted for Americanos. They also produced more coffee in a single batch than the ROK model. Both models were simple to operate, easy to clean, and fully customizable when it came to coffee strength, but the AeroPress Go Travel Coffee Press’s innovative design gave it a leg up. While the original AeroPress model is a bit bulky and difficult to store, the new model collapses into a 15-ounce mug that can fit virtually anywhere. We recommend it for everyday use at home, in the office, or on the go.
- Test three single-serve manual coffee makers, priced from about $29 to around $190
- Pull coffee shots following manufacturers’ instructions using freshly ground dark roast coffee and preground espresso-style coffee
- For AeroPress models, steep and press cold-brew concentrate following manufacturer’s instructions
- Taste and rate coffee concentrate, American-style coffee, and cold brew (where applicable)
- Wash models 10 times according to manufacturers’ instructions
- Knock models over on counter to assess durability
Performance: We rated the taste, body, and appearance of the coffee produced by each model, noting whether it was strong enough to be diluted for use in an Americano. Where applicable, we also evaluated their ability to make cold brew.
Ease of Use: We evaluated the coffee makers on how straightforward their brewing processes were and how easy it was to press down on the mechanisms needed to pull shots.
Ease of Cleanup: We considered how easy the models were to clean and maintain.
Durability: We rated the coffee makers on how well they stood up to dozens of pulls, several cleanings, and tumbles onto the counter.