Espresso Machine Buyers Guide
Espresso Machine Buyers Guide for 2019
Who doesn’t want to be able to brew espresso coffee at home? Yay!! You’ve found the best buying guide for making espresso yourself at home or the office as this guide isn’t written by a marketing executive, an espresso machine salesman, someone out for a fast buck, café owner with affiliations with espresso machine sellers/manufacturers but is simply honest, unbiased advice from an experienced barista.
If you were to come into my café where I was working and asked for my advice, if the café was quiet enough!, this is the honest, unbiased advice I would give for you. This advice is only for those that are looking to make espresso and espresso-based drinks (flat whites, lattes, cappuccinos etc) like what they would get from a specialty coffee shop and brewed from a trained barista.
Have You Considered the Full Cost?
Espresso is many things: flavoursome, romantic, impressive, interesting. With milk, for many, is a daily dose of heavenly respite. For all, it’s focus fuel.
However, making specialty-level espresso is expensive and there are many Pros for not making espresso at home and rather it’s best to leave it to your café – you can read that in this article here.
Your local specialty café has an espresso machine that costs anywhere between $8000 and $25000. That’s not really down to flash brands on the upper price-range. That’s down to the quality of the parts – cafés that depend on espresso-based drinks for a significant portion of their revenue can’t afford their espresso machine to break down and their machines must make anywhere between 80 – 400 espresso daily.
Luckily, you’re likely to only be making 2-4 espresso on a given day at home, more so in an office setting.
Espresso Machine manufacturers that make smaller espresso machines are expensive as they use the exact same level of quality components in their home/prosumer machines as they put in their professional machines eg La Marzocco Linea PB
The Cost of Making Espresso at Home
The first port of call isn’t which type of espresso machine to buy at home, though I will get to that. The most important factor to consider splashing out on is a high quality espresso coffee grinder.
I would prefer to make an espresso with an espresso coffee grinder that is worth $1,000 plus and brew espresso with an espresso machine that is worth under $200 then to use a $10,000 espresso machine and a $100 espresso coffee grinder any day of the week.
It isn’t the espresso machine but the humble coffee grinder that’s the real hero of making espresso, or any coffee for that matter. A coffee grinder is only as good as how it can break down whole coffee beans into particles as even in size as possible. Having even sized coffee particles means you’ll get café-like espresso or filter coffee. However, quality coffee grinders cost for the quality parts. When you’re buying an espresso machine, consider buying the less expensive espresso machine and the more expensive coffee grinder for best results – you won’t regret it.
What to Understand about Espresso?
Espresso is a drink where every part of the preparation must be done well, more so than any other coffee brewing method.
Espresso got its name in the early part of the 20th Century in Italy as you could have a coffee brewed in under a minute – this wasn’t even espresso but a sort of 150ml coffee drink.
Fast forward to what espresso means today and an espresso can be brewed, after grinding, in less than 30 seconds. This is interesting as filter coffee can take anywhere to brew from 2 minutes to 10 minutes but you won’t get anywhere near the flavour intensity of an espresso that you’re looking for.
Espresso is brewed fast because the water is forced upon the ground coffee in the espresso machine under enormous amounts of pressure. If you didn’t prepare the coffee bed right, you’ll either get a very watery (underextracted) espresso or you’ll get something excessively bitter (overextracted) espresso.
Preparing the coffee bed (ground coffee) is the most important aspect of making espresso like a barista. The most important aspect of making an espresso is grinding the whole coffee beans. In fact, the most important piece of brewing equipment for any sort of coffee (espresso, pour over, French press, cold brew coffee) is the humble coffee grinder.
What you want to achieve with your espresso is optimal extraction. To get that right, you need an espresso coffee grinder. You can read up specifically on Espresso Coffee Grinders here but in nutshell – you don’t want to buy a cheap coffee grinder, especially for espresso.
Have You Considered that Making Espresso like a Barista is a Hobby?
To make an espresso like a barista at home is a full on hobby. It’s not just matter of buying the espresso coffee grinder, the espresso machine and buying the freshly-roasted beans – you need to read up on some theory as well and put that theory into practice. Many expect that all you need for espresso is machine plus beans – if you want to have a frustration-free experience, if you want to make espresso like a barista – you’ll need to find the fun in the trial and error that comes with learning a new skill. Luckily, one of the reasons baristas love their jobs is that brewing espresso is very, very fun and satisfying.
Summary so far:
– Making espresso is tricky but far, far from impossible and is a lot of fun
– Making espresso as good as a specialty café is a hobby that will need some theory to learn and trial and error – money aside, do you really want to take the time and effort to make your own daily espresso? I find it a lot of fun but not everybody does. (There’s cleaning and maintenance involved too!)
– Coffee Grinders are the most important piece of brewing equipment, especially for espresso, so be prepared to spend $500 on an espresso coffee grinder.
Espresso Machine Types
The 6 Categories of Espresso Machine
- Manual Espresso Machines
- Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
- Automatic Espresso Machines
- Super-Atomatic Espresso Machines
- Portable espresso machines
- Single-Serve Pod espresso machines
Manual Espresso Machines
(aka lever, spring-lever, piston or pump espresso machines)
Have you got lever fever?
Manual espresso machines are those that have a hand lever that the barista pulls on to manually create the pressure required to make an espresso.
The phrase “pulling a shot” comes from the pulling mechanism of this espresso machine type. They allow you to control the amount of pressure is in an espresso shot by hand. They’re wonderful and fun to have at home. For the barista, pulling hundreds of shots daily, the mechanism is certainly a romantic chore.
- Lends a romantic, theatrical and craft image when pulling espresso
- Greater barista control over pressure profiling for each individual espresso shot
- Everything is mechanical – less prone to long-term small-part damage
- Tend to be quieter espresso machines
- Time consuming – which is a pleasure for the home barista but for those working in a busy professional setting, it’s not recommended to have a manual espresso machine as the barista has to be present for the duration of the espresso shot unlike with semi-automatics or automatic espresso machines.
- Greater learning curve for a newly-trained barista – need to get a sense of how to pull the lever properly as opposed to simply pushing a button on other espresso machine types
- Greater risk of inconsistent espresso shots due to manual control of shots
- Tend to not have a pressure-relief valve meaning shots take an additional 3-4 seconds to carefully remove the portafilter from the grouphead
- Need heating flushes during idle periods to maintain brew chamber temperature
- Needs a higher operational height in café settings to make lever easier to pull (less barista-customer interaction)
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
These espresso machines have electric pumps and on/off switches for the pump that controls the amount of water going through the ground coffee.
– More user-friendly than manual machines
– Greater consistency over manual espresso machines through consistent pressure from electric pump
– Control the total water flow for every shot that you make
– Easier maintenance and more reliable operation than automatic espresso machines
– Often feature programmable temperature controls for the boiler
– Lesser ability for espresso consistency than using an automatic espresso machine
Automatic Espresso Machines
Automatic espresso machines are very similar to semi-automatic espresso machines. Their only difference is that baristas can make coffee using a one-touch brew system. The volume of coffee that results in the coffee after brewing can be pre-programmed by one of three techniques that the automatic was designed with; time – where the pump shuts off after a set amount of time, volumetrics – where the pump switches off after a set volume of coffee flows through the coffee grounds, or gravimetrics – where the pump switches off once a set mass of coffee is in the cup. Simply push the button to initiate brewing and once the pre-determined amount of espresso is brewed, the machine will stop automatically.
– Conveniently allows the barista to focus on other aspects of service, or the next order, rather than paying attention on when to switch the pump off.
– Allows for greater consistency in espresso-making than using semi-automatic espresso machines.
– Great for multi-tasking
– Contain semi-automatic functions for controlling pump.
– With the electronics involved in automatic machines, it’s one more thing that could possibly break down.
Super-Automatic Espresso Machine
These espresso machines have a built-in automated brewing system where coffee grinding, brewing and milk-frothing are performed at the touch of a button.
– All you have to do is add whole coffee beans, milk, water and make sure you press the right button.
– If you enjoy coffee from specialty cafés, you won’t enjoy this coffee
– The most-expensive, advanced superautomatics will make a good cup of coffee on a good day but never anything close to a great cup of coffee on an average day that typical manual, automatic or semi-automatics can produce (once paired with a decent coffee grinder!).
Portable Espresso Makers
This section refers to espresso makers that are handheld and simple to travel with. While some f these designs don’t align with the strict guidelines of the modern espresso – critics can’t deny that these brew methods are capable of creating brilliant craft coffee beverages too. The designs and moes of operation differ from one to the next and most have only come to market in recent years.
– Affordability – while most baristas may not want to work with many of these models in an hectic café setting, they are sadly what most baristas can afford when it comes to crafting an espresso at home.
– Portability – models are super-easy to travel with and most are durable enough to survive a full easily.
These are not fit for the vast majority of café settings yet this is not what they were designed for.
Takes time to do two espresso one after another, when compared to the portafilter of an espresso machine
Single-Serve Pod Coffee
I mainly have this section so as to include all forms of espresso. Pod coffee gets a lot of bad rap from baristas and coffee snobs. Environmentally, and all-too-often in terms of ethical trade, this bad rap is 100% deserved. However, there may be some hope in using reusable pod capsules as seen below.
About Espresso Machine Boiler Types
One outstanding issue in brewing espresso drinks is the need for 2 different temperatures; frothing milk needs steam while brewing temperatures require between 198-204°F (93-95°C). Within the automatic and semi-automatic espresso machine categories, there are 3 main subclasses. These subclasses are all to do with how the espresso machine heats and dispenses their water.
Single Boiler Dual Use (aka SBDUs)
Singe Boiler Dual Use espresso machines heat a single tank of heated water that is used for brewing espresso and the steam wand for frothing milk. SBDUs consist of a boiler and two thermostats (temperature regulators). One thermostat for brewing espresso, the other set to a higher temperature for steaming milk. The espresso machine transitions from one thermostat to the next once you press a button or flip a switch to do so. These are mainly found in cheaper models and made of less expensive materials. Steaming first, then brewing the espresso is usually recommended.
– Cheaper – less than $1000
– The time it takes to steam milk. Need to wait up to 2 minutes for the steam wand to achieve the necessary temperatre. If you want to pull another espresso after using the wand, you have to also wait for the boiler to cool down.
– Can’t brew espresso and steam milk simultaneously.
Single Boiler Heat Exchange Machines (HX Machines)
Despite having a single boiler, espresso machines can brew and steam at the same time. A large boiler maintains water at a temperature ideal for making steam. Water for brewing espresso makes its way to the grouphead in a coiled tube inside the boiler. This coiled tube is the heat exchanger, where fresh cool water is drawn from a reservoir and flash-heated in the coiled tube for optimum brewing temperature and not the steaming temperature.
– Lower price than dual boiler machines
– Can steam milk and produce espresso simultaneously
– Requires flushing if left idle. 4-8oz needs to be flushed (put through the grouphead with empty portafilter) if the machine is left idle for 5-10 minutes as the water in the coil is heated to steam (non-brewing temperature).
– Inconsistent brewing temperature when compared with dual boiler machines (below)
Dual Boiler Espresso Machines (aka DB Machines)
Dual boiler machines use two boilers, each with it’s own heating element; one for brewing temperature, another for steaming temperature.
– Temperature consistency from one drink to the next.
– Can brew espresso and steam milk simultaneously.
– Require a lot of power for each boiler
– Expensive – from $2000 upwards
Key Terminology for Buying an Espresso Machine Explained
Here are some of the key terms to watch out for:
This is a term used to describe a high-end product created with commercial (long-lasting) commercial parts, like that found in high-end, high-output cafés.
9 bars of pressure is all that’s needed. Higher pressure on cheap machines are an indicator that more pressure is needed to be applied because of pressure loss in the brewing chamber due to cheap parts and/or poor construction.
That’s the term for the part that you use to heat milk. The quality of steam will be due to the quality of the boiler. Essentially, steam wands heat milk and create a current with only a certain level of steam that’s wanted – there’s a Goldilocks amount. For more info on steam wands, check out this article here.
The component of the espresso machine that heats up and stores water.
A single boiler is a boiler in which the hot water is stored and shared between the same component. It is less desirable than a dual boiler system (below)
This is more desirable than a single boiler. One boiler is for the shots of espresso while the other is for the steam wand
This is the component where the percolation occurs, where the machine meets the portafilter.
This is the component with the handle that you remove from the espresso machine to fill with ground coffee and put back into the espresso machine
The term for the area where the percolation occurs – where the hot water meets the ground coffee
This is where a little water is added before the full flush of water over the ground coffee. This allows for all the ground coffee to be immersed in water before all the hot water is forced through the coffee bed. This is non-essential though with pre-infusion, you will obtain greater levels of consistency in optimal extraction.
Some espresso machines allow you to play around with the temperature of your brewing water. This is nce but absolutely non-essential to add or remove heat from the water. What is importnt is that whichever your temperature you set your temperature at, that the espresso machine leaves it at that temperature throughout the day, requiring a PID.
An espresso machine that has a PID allows for the temperature to remain consistent throughout the day. PID stands for Proportional-Integral-Derivative. PIDs are used in all sorts of industrious processes and products. All you have to know is that it controls the temperature of your water for the best consistency in brewing temperature.