Which Type of Espresso Machine Is Best For You?

Published on 09/29/2022 · 10 min readDive into a full guide of the six different espresso machines and check out the pros and cons of each to find the right option for you!
Jeff Sutton, Coffee Expert
By Coffee Expert Jeff Sutton

Photo by Thanos Pal

Most people know that they can find a quality shot of espresso or a beautifully textured cappuccino at any number of cafés around the world. However, the process of recreating that perfect drink at home is something that can elude many people. There are many things to take into consideration when looking into making espresso at home. Some of the main things to consider are...

  • your overall budget for a grinder and machine
  • what kind of drinks you'll make most often
  • how many drinks will be made each day

Many people suggest that a set percentage of your overall budget should be put towards a grinder. This makes sense to emphasize, as a grinder is just as important as the machine that it's used for. A common number that's recommended is 40% of your overall budget, however, that becomes relative if you're in pursuit of the highest-quality, highest-investment machines.

The number and type of drinks you plan to make each day will also impact your decision—specifically, the ideal number of boilers your machine uses.

  • If you want to make multiple drinks that require steamed milk, such as lattes, then a heat-exchange boiler or a dual-boiler system will work best. These are able to keep water at separate temperatures for steaming milk and extracting espresso.
  • If you plan to make espresso drinks without milk, then a machine with a single boiler could make sense.

Before we break down your options further to find you the perfect machine, you might be asking...

What Even Is Espresso?

Espresso began as a way to make a faster cup of coffee for the masses to enjoy. It was Angelo Moriondo who first used steam pressure to push hot water through ground coffee back in 1884. Moriondo never had enough capital to commercialize his idea and eventually sold his patents to Desiderio Pavoni in 1903. In 1906, a collaboration at the Milan World Expo between Luigi Bazzera and Pavoni dubbed “Caffe Espresso” introduced the world’s first commercial espresso machine that pushed water through a tamped puck of finely ground coffee at a pressure of 0.75 atm. This first espresso was closer to today's drip coffee. The main difference was that the brewing process went from almost five minutes per cup to around 45 seconds.

Photo by Andreas Behr

It wasn’t until after World War II, in 1948, that the Italian company Gaggia began selling the first commercial machines capable of producing what we now consider espresso. These machines used an internal boiler to increase the pressure of the water to 9 atm before passing it through the espresso puck. The increase in pressure allows essential oils and colloids from the bean to be extracted and form what we refer to as the shot’s heart, body, and crema.

From simple beginnings, espresso has become a worldwide phenomenon and can now be found in every corner of the Earth. These once bulky and heavy machines have been modernized and are now available for your home or office. From basic lever-operated machines all the way to units that will make a cappuccino with the push of a single button, there is an excellent espresso machine for every coffee lover.

Manual Espresso Machines

Manual espresso machines, also called lever espresso machines, allow every aspect of the extraction process to be controlled by the brewer. Grinding coffee beans, weighing, and tamping grounds, making sure water temperature is correct, then timing and weighing the extraction must all be performed by the barista.

Water is heated in a separate kettle and then put into the head of the unit. Water pressure is created by pulling down a lever either manually during the extraction or by placing the lever into a preloaded spring piston that slowly releases to create a consistent water pressure on the grounds. Even with the spring piston, the amount of pressure is still controllable. These machines have gauges to help achieve optimum pressure but require a good bit of skill and practice to pull a perfect shot with the flavor of your local coffee shop.

Good For:

  • Controlling all aspects of making an espresso shot
  • The barista who wants to create an experience along with a shot
  • A hobbyist looking for the perfect extraction

Not Good For:

  • A person who wants a quick, easy espresso with the push of a button
  • Someone who needs a drink without a long wait
  • Making multiple drinks back to back

Semi-Automatic Machines

Semi-automatic espresso machines create a high level of control and convenience for the home and professional barista. These machines are generally designed with either one or two boilers that can operate temperature for both the espresso and the steam wand. A dual boiler system or heat exchange system, which keeps water at a high enough temperature internally to use for the steaming wand, is seen in most commercial devices. By contrast, many home machines use a single boiler which requires some wait time between extraction and milk frothing.

The biggest difference between semi-automatic and automatic machines is the ability to manually cut the flow of water on and off. Controlling the amount of time that water is run through the portafilter’s basket allows a greater ability to adjust extraction levels on the fly.

Someone looking for a little more control over the process will likely enjoy this option. If a shot is taking too much or too little time to reach its ideal weight, then the grind size can be adjusted to get it back to optimal levels.

Good For:

  • The home or professional barista who wants the most control on a pressurized machine
  • An aspiring barista that aims to learn more about the art of espresso
  • Controlling the start and end of an extraction’s timing

Not Good For:

  • A high-volume shop where training baristas is costly
  • Someone who doesn’t want to steam their own milk

Prosumer Espresso Machines

The Eagle One from Victoria Arduino is capable of turning an ordinary kitchen into your favorite café with its quality construction and components

When someone wants the pinnacle in quality, they are ready to enter the prosumer market of espresso machines. These are created with the same high-quality materials used in professional machines but sized down to fit into a kitchen. Most prosumer machines are of the semi-automatic variety and designed to be directly plumbed into your kitchen. These machines are able to recreate the quality of a high-end café and come with price tags exceeding the $5,000 mark.

Good For:

  • People who want the best possible machines for their house or small business
  • Higher volume due to increased quality of components
  • More control of extraction due to pre-infusion and pressure profiling

Not Good For:

  • Anyone trying to cut costs on their espresso machine
  • Untrained customers who don't want to take the time to learn all aspects of pulling shots

Automatic Espresso Machines

The Breville Barista Express is an example of a machine with a built-in coffee grinder that is very user-friendly but still leaves some control to the barista

Automatic espresso machines take some of the guesswork out of creating high levels of consistency. Most machines come with a built-in grinder and many also have an automatic tamper to reduce variables. An internal computer in an automatic machine will push a predetermined amount of heated water through the portafilter at the push of a button. This class of machines also has the ability to foam milk for drinks with attached steaming wands.

Good For:

  • The consumer who wants to pull a great shot at the push of a button
  • Higher volume shops with high turn-over that want the training process simplified

Not Good For:

  • Baristas that want to control the timing of the espresso extraction process
  • Someone who wants to control fine aspects of their grind

Pod or Capsule Machines

A new type of machine is billed as pod-style espresso machines. These machines are created so that the user can simply place a pre-packaged pod into the unit and, with the push of a button, have a shot of espresso. These machines do brew a strong cup of coffee on the level of a Moka pot but not a true shot of espresso.

They generally are made of a much smaller dose size than traditional espresso shots and are not able to extract as many oils from the coffee itself. Other concerns include the amount of waste created by the packaging of pods and the fact that beans are ground long in advance of their actual use. However, it is still a solid option for those who want a quick and easy mug of coffee to enjoy by itself or with milk and sugar.

Good For:

  • The home consumer that wants a quick and easy shot of espresso
  • Being able to create drip coffee or espresso from the same machine

Not Good For:

  • People looking for authentic shots of espresso
  • Environmentally conscious consumers

Super-Automatic Espresso Machines

The future of quality espresso has arrived with the development of super-automatic espresso machines. These cutting-edge computerized baristas are created for people who want the ease of push-button coffee with the quality of a café drink. Everything from the grinding of the beans and the tamping and creation of the espresso puck through the shot extraction is controlled internally by computers.

Machines have either an attachment hose to pull in milk from an external source or a separate removable container to hold and then steam milk. This allows the unit to create drinks such as cappuccinos, lattes, and cortados on command. Most come equipped with touch screen displays that allow users to browse and select beverages. These screens also allow the user to control such variables as the size and strength of any given drink.

Super-automatic machines have become fixtures in higher-end offices that want to provide employees with quality refreshments and households that want café-style delights at the push of a button. Many of these are pre-set with a myriad of options to provide consumers with a new drink for every day of the week.

One factor that needs to be taken into consideration when using a “bean to cup” machine is the roast level of the coffee being used. Any coffee taken to a darker roast level that creates a glossy sheen to the beans can gunk up parts and create lasting issues for the internal grinder. The bulk of super-automatic machines are programmed to announce when any maintenance, such as removal and rinsing of the brew group, the need to replace the water filter, or running through a prescribed cleaning routine as recommended by the manufacturer, is required to keep the unit running like new.

Good For:

  • The consumer looking for quality cafe-style drinks at the push of a button
  • Offices that want to provide staff with drinking options for every palate
  • Homes that want cafe drinks at the push of a button

Not Good For:

  • Someone who wants to have the ability to froth their own milk and control the extraction process.
  • Consumers trying to save money on their coffee experience

The days of standing in line to have your morning wake-up are gone. With the advent of so many types of espresso makers for both the house and office, the future has never looked brighter and more caffeinated. Hopefully, this helps you find the best way to brew your cup of morning joy. If you're still confused, reach out to a Coffee & Espresso Expert, and we can help!

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