Espresso machines can be some of the most complicated coffee brewing contraptions, and easily some of the most expensive, some costing over $20,000 for commercial level machines.
But, not all machines are created equally; many more expensive models come with a ton of bonus features, such as a milk thermometer inside of the steam arm, bean hoppers than can hold 5 pounds of beans and have a built in coffee grinder, and hot water ejection for certain drinks.
If you are interested in buying an espresso machine, there are a plethora of technical specifications to look into, which can seem quite intimidating.
First, I will go over the different ways that espresso machines make espresso, and then a brief overview of the types of machines that exist, and a few other miscellaneous titbits to watch out for.
How espresso makers work
There are a few different ways that espresso machines can actually make espresso.
The oldest, but least popular method, is through steam pressure.
These machines, or even stove top devices such as the moka pot, heat water to the point where it turns into steam, which causes a build up of pressure inside the machine.
This hot steam is forced through the coffee, and makes what was once known as espresso.
Advantages for these steam machines would be their low cost, some being as low as $45, and ease of use. They are good for people who want to try out something like an espresso machine without spending a fortune.
Disadvantages would include that fact that the temperature of the steam forced through the coffee ground is much higher than the optimal coffee brewing temperature, and can burn the coffee, which is why this type of espresso is no longer known as “real espresso.”
Machines that use a pump are rated by their bar pressure, which is the most popular method, work quite well.
Pressure is built up through either a piston on manual machines, vibration motors, or rotary pumps.
The use of these pressure systems, which create 7-15 bars of atmospheric pressure, allow for a heating element inside the machine to cap off water heat at around 200 degrees Fahrenheit, to prevent the burnt taste that steam machines create.
Most quality machines will allow you to adjust the water temperature.
These styles of machines can create lovely espresso shots, with wonderful crema. But, of course, these machines are more expensive, but the quality sure is there.
Choosing a milk steamer wand
Another thing to look at when buying an espresso machine, is the steam wand.
Some lower end machines meant for the beginner, can come equipped with an automatic steam wand, which will aerate the milk by itself.
This can be good or bad. Essentially, they can limit user input, but on the other side, it is easier for someone who is new to get decent foam, as it does take time to master the art of steaming nice and frothy milk.
I prefer a manual steam wand whisk, which allows for better milk foam, and are more rewarding to use, despite the learning curve.
Important features to look out for
Espresso machines are categorized by their more important features, which are listed below.
Semi-Automatic: These styles of machines requires the user to measure and tamp their own coffee grounds in the portafilter, but the pressure and extraction is done by the machine, only requiring the operator to switch the water off after the shot has pulled, thus leaving a good portion of the shot’s quality to the user.
These are my preferred kind of espresso machine. The steam arms on these machines can also vary as well.
Fully-Automatic: These machines are much like the previous one, except the espresso shots are pre-timed by the machine, by allowing only a certain amount of hot water to pass through the portafilter.
The amount of water passed through can usually be changed by the user, as well as the amount of time it takes the water to go through.
This type is best for the beginner, as failure is less possible, which creates a less discouraging experience.
Super-Automatic: This type of espresso machine is the entire package in one.
With the push of a button, a set amount of beans are ground using the machine’s built in grinder, injected and tamped into the built in portafilter section, and then water is then pumped through.
The grounds are then discarded into a drawer where they can be cleaned out. The easiest of all the machines to use, and the fastest as well.
This makes them ideal for a very busy and fast paced cafe where having the barista tamp their own grounds can cause an inconvenient delay for customers.
As far as cost, there are semi-automatic machines that cost as much as super-automatic machines, and vise versa. For the most part, the cost depends on the manufacturer and features the machine comes with.
Once you pick which type you want, be it semi-automatic and so on, try to decide how much money you are looking to spend, and then look at the type of steam wand it has.
Time taken to produce a drink is a big factor if you have a dinner party of 7 or 8.
You don’t want to be spending 20 minutes to make coffee for them all.
Around 2 minutes is a reasonable time for a good coffee with some machine grinding and foaming milk in less time than that.
Cheap home machines can often take a full 3 minutes to produce foamed milk at the correct temperature and consistency.
You can speed this up by microwaving the milk and foaming it with a small milk whisk manually.
For me, my ideal machine is semi-automatic with a traditional steam wand.
I hope this guide helped clear confusion regarding espresso machines and the pros and cons of different form factors. Happy drinking!