5 Common Mistakes When Buying an Espresso Machine
Looking to get a new espresso machine? Coffee & Espresso Expert Jeff Sutton explains mistakes to avoid when deciding on your new machine.
Table of Contents
- Types of Espresso Machines
- Grinder Quality
- Boiler and Pump Type Issues
- The Dimensions of Espresso Machines
- Not Having the Correct Accessories
Every day I talk to people who are tired of spending money at their local cafes and coffee shops to get their daily americano or taste of espresso and want to start making delicious beverages on a home espresso machine. I am a firm believer in people learning both the art and the science behind making an espresso shot, but many people jump into the game and, unknowingly, make avoidable mistakes. To spare you, and your pockets, let’s go through five of these common mistakes so that you can (hopefully) avoid them.
1. Types of Espresso Machines
Although people all over the world commonly refer to capsule machines and moka pots for the stove as “espresso”, and there are niche markets for things like manual lever machines, true espresso machines can be broken down into two main categories: semi-automatic and super-automatic. The differences between these two machines are substantial, and the consumer who is unaware of their varying functions can end up purchasing a machine that doesn’t perform as expected.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
A semi-automatic machine is a more traditional form of making espresso from start to finish. With a semi-automatic machine, the beans must be ground (normally with a separate grinder) then distributed and tamped into an espresso puck that will be put into the machine's group head before the extraction. Then, depending on the machine’s design, the timing of the extraction also will need to be started and stopped before the drink’s milk can be steamed and textured.
Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
A super-automatic machine is also often referred to as a “bean-to-cup” espresso machine. This machine provides the most convenience for the consumer. It takes much of the espresso creation process out of the user's hands and into the control of the machine's computer. These machines are created so the user can simply pour beans into a hopper, connect a milk source, then push a button to have a latte or cappuccino created right before their eyes. These ideas also will tell you when the water filter needs replaced or when any routine maintenance needs to be done.
Another point to note is that there are some machines that blend the lines between semi and super-automatic, and will grind, distribute, and tamp before you make your espresso drinks. The main thing to keep in mind while deciding between the two designs is whether or not you want to take the time to learn about making espresso and steaming milk. A high-quality super-automatic machine will be able to make a delicious drink but never to the level of a trained barista on a nice semi-automatic machine.
2. Grinder Quality
One issue that commonly occurs with many people who end up with a nice semi-automatic espresso machine is that they are never fully able to dial in their espresso to the degree they want. They are under the impression that any coffee grinder can work for espresso but this is not the case. This is because most mid-level to higher-end units only use non-pressurized baskets with their associated portafilter. This gives the user the ability to create a truly amazing shot but the precision of the grind size then becomes extremely important. If your burr grinder only has 20 adjustments, and the grind between two of the selections is what would work best, well then you are plain out of luck.
Many higher-end grinders are of the stepless variety, which means that they are capable of infinite levels of adjustability and increased consistency for any kind of coffee beans. This works great for grinders that are being used exclusively for espresso, but for a grinder that will work for everything, something that contains both macro and micro adjustments generally works best. These types of grinders will typically have 200 or more levels of adjustments.
For the user who is content using the pressurized basket machine that comes with machines like the Breville Bambino or the De’Longhi Dedica, the grinder doesn’t matter as much. One could even get away with using ground coffee and still end up with a decent-tasting shot.
Expert Tip: A common rule of thumb for beginners is that they should plan to spend upwards of 40% of their espresso budget on their grinder.
3. Boiler and Pump Type Issues
Another common mistake when looking to purchase an espresso machine is not understanding how boilers in machines work. Boilers in semi-automatic machines can be broken down into three main categories: single boiler, heat exchange, and dual boiler.
Single Boiler Machines
A single boiler machine requires time to adjust the temperature between steaming and espresso extraction. This can be anything from a few seconds, or up to a minute, depending on the machine. This means that consumers will need to either steam their milk and wait to pull their espresso extraction, or do their extraction then wait to steam the milk. For someone who is making one drink at a time this isn’t the end of the world, but for someone who wants to make several drinks back-to-back, this becomes an issue.
Heat Exchange Boilers
A heat exchange boiler can solve this issue by allowing the consumer to pull a shot and use the steam wand at the same time. This is achieved through the use of a separate chamber which allows water to be held at different temperatures for extraction and steaming.
Dual Boiler Machines
A dual boiler machine, as the name suggests, has a steam boiler and a boiler that is specifically for espresso extraction. These are seen in most machines designed for the “prosumer” or commercial categories. They create a system that has the most stable temperature and the boilers are normally independently controlled.
Rotary Pump vs. Vibratory Pump
Another common mistake people make is buying an espresso maker that doesn’t have a pump capable of meeting their needs. If people wish to plumb their machine directly into their water line then a rotary pump is required. If the machine is to be run off of an associated tank, then a vibratory pump will work fine.
4. The Dimensions of Espresso Machines
When shopping, people sometimes forget that the machines used to create espresso can be quite large. Often, people see all of the features associated with a system and think that it’s perfect for them until they realize they have nowhere to put it. Some prosumer machines can be large enough to necessitate them being shipped on a pallet. This is something to keep in mind when making the decision on what would work best in your kitchen. Some models have a grinder integrated into the unit and this saves the consumer from having to make space for both a grinder and machine on the counter. On the other hand, this limits options and creates a scenario where the entire system will need replacing if one of its parts (like the grinder) stops working.
5. Not Having the Correct Accessories
When someone orders their first espresso machine, it comes with most of the parts necessary to get you started right off the bat. But, as with most things in today's world, there are always add-ons that can be included to make life easier, and espresso machines are no different. There are lots of small accessories that are available to consumers that make espresso-making easier and less messy in the long haul.
One of the most important things that is often overlooked is a knockbox. This is a small box that has something (normally a padded bar) that allows you to dump out all of the used espresso after your shot has been extracted. It provides a much cleaner and sanitary solution than trying to clean out your portafilter basket directly into the garbage or a basket.
Another item that generally doesn’t come standard with machines is a distribution tool. These are used to create an even surface before tamping pressure is applied. Making sure that your surface is smooth before you apply the pressure of a tamp will increase your odds of water passing through the espresso puck evenly and not channeling, thus giving you the best shot possible.
A final but important smaller detail that is often overlooked is a tamping pad. These pads are used to protect the counter space when you are applying pressure onto the basket of your portafilter before extraction. It is a relief to know that you aren’t making marks or risking permanently damaging your counter every time you make a shot of espresso.
The hope now is that this article has properly prepared you to steer clear of some of these avoidable mistakes as you make your way into the world of espresso. The best advice is to do some research, figure out your personal preferences and talk to an Expert about what machine might work best for you.