Espresso Machines are complicated. They use pressure to force water through a small puck of finely ground coffee to create a highly concentrated shot of coffee. Traditional Espresso consists of finely ground coffee that is extracted from nine bars of pressure that yields a 1:1 ratio of coffee to water in about 25-30 seconds.
Then there is the steam function that creates enough steam to create what is called microfoam. Delicious foam that looks like paint, with bubbles so small they are seemingly invisible.
Types of Machines
Manual Machines, Semi-Auto Machines, Super Automatic Machines
They look awesome, they brew amazing coffee, but they are expensive and difficult to use.
Brands such as La Pavoni, La Peppina and Elektra are some good examples of these machines.
How they work: These machines are simple. There is a heating element inside of a boiler that has 2 compartments. When the lever is lifted, a valve opens to the group head allowing hot water to pass through the coffee. The user presses down on the lever pressing the water through the coffee puck allowing him/her to control the pressure and time that the coffee is extracted by.
Steaming Milk: There is usually a steam wand on the side of the machine that will allow the user to froth milk. since there is no second boiler, often the steam pressure is not great enough in these machines to easily create “microfoam” the most delicious aerated milk.
How they work: The pressure of the water is driven by a pump, and the Steam pressure used to aerate the milk is controlled by the user.
These machines are both cheaper and more expensive than manual machines. There are a few things to look out for when searching for the best machine in this category.
Boiler vs. Thermoblock
In Boiler models, water is brought up to temperature with a heating element then driven through the coffee by a pump. This type is the preferred method to get consistent and proper temperature water to the coffee. The downside is they cost more and they take longer to heat up.
In Thermoblock models cold water from the reservoir is pumped through a hot metal block that then heats up the water on its way to the group head. The upside to these machines are that the thermoblock is heated up in about 2 mins and they are very cheap! The downside is that the water going to the group head is not consistent and therefore the coffee is not extracted properly.
Pressurized Basket vs Non-Pressurized
The basket that the coffee goes into either has one hole on the bottom of it or a hundred holes. You want the models that have 100 holes, not one hole! What the single hole baskets do is funnel all of the coffee to a single hole, pressurizing the coffee creating “fake crema.” Crema is that top foamy layer on top of espresso that traps in aroma in the shot. The many hole baskets allow the coffee to be extracted evenly across the basket and allows the “pressure” to be controlled by the fineness of the coffee grind, and the tamping of the user.
Steaming Milk: These machines are equipped with steam wands which the user will have to manually steam milk with. The more expensive models allow you to pull a shot and steam at the same time with the use of a dual boiler or a heat exchange in them. The less expensive models make you wait for the boiler to heat up a little more to create steam temperature inside the boiler.
Super Automatic Machines
These machines carry a hefty price tag and are the easiest and most convenient to use. They grind, tamp, pull the shot and steam milk for you! The downside to them is that there isn’t much for the user to control, so the quality you get from the machine is pretty much what you are stuck with. If you want the grinder finer or the coffee tamped with more pressure or the milk steamed differently, tough luck.
There is also a lot more maintenance with these machines because of the moving parts. But if you want to push a button that says “cappuccino” and have it be made for you, short of going to a coffee shop, this is the machine for you!
Which Machine Is Right for Me?
It really depends on your needs. Our favorite is the semi-automatic option. The pump driven boiler model allows us to focus on the grind and the tamping of the coffee to create consistently delicious shots of espresso.
For those with less experience it may be good start off with a thermoblock machine and work your way up. While it isn’t the end all espresso machine, at it’s price point you’ll certainly get your feet wet and figure out what your espresso machine needs are.
For the user that doesn’t want all the fuss with an external grinder, steam pitchers and tamping, go the easy route with a super automatic!