Bringing Home the Coffee Shop: What Are the Different Kinds of Espresso Machines?

Ever wondered about the different espresso machines you see at cafes or in homes? Read on to find out about the 13 different types of espresso machines!

A man is about to fit the portafilter into a black espresso machine.

Photo by Luke Porter

If you are one of the millions of Americans looking for a way to brew the perfect morning cappuccino or an after-dinner espresso, knowing the differences in the main types of espresso makers is crucial. The market for espresso machines has become a blend of caffeinated desire and amazing technology, and today, there is seemingly a machine out there to suit everyone’s needs and tastes.

There is some overlap among the styles and features that espresso machines offer, and it is important to note that not all of the machine types on this list are mutually exclusive. For example, it is common for a machine with a double boiler to also be a direct-connect machine. However, when these appliances are broken down by these important attributes and preferences, it is much easier to comprehend and digest all of them.

Do not forget that many of these machines do not include accessories like coffee grinders, tampers, stainless steel milk pitchers, measuring tools for dosing, or filter baskets, so you will have to invest in additional accessories and maintenance supplies.

Now let’s take a look at the main players in the espresso game to distinguish what it takes to get the espresso fix that you desire and the best espresso machine for your lifestyle.

1. Steam-Driven Espresso Machines

The Moka pot, a stovetop, steam-driven espresso machine.

Similar to a coffee percolator, the Moka Pot is a stovetop, steam-driven espresso machine

A derivative of the coffee percolator, steam-driven espresso machines like the Moka Pot offer an inexpensive cup. Many espresso lovers probably have a Moka Pot collecting dust in their cabinet of unused appliances or owned a Krups steam-driven machine years ago. These machines were among the first to make their way into the American household. Steam-driven machines are unlike most on the market today because they do not operate with a pump. They heat water to a boil and allow the pressure from steam to build. The pressure is then transferred into the grounds for brewing.

However, aficionados would say that this isn’t quite espresso, due to the inconsistent pressure and temperature. Steam-driven machines are not without fault, as they can be quite finicky, requiring a good amount of experience to operate, and the amount of pressure the device creates makes them quite unstable. Internally, the water that is used to create steam is also used to brew the coffee, which means that it is near its boiling point when it reaches the beans, potentially causing a bad flavor due to over-extraction. These reasons are why steam-driven machines are now in a small corner of the market and do not get much attention these days.

2. Pod Espresso Machines

The Nespresso Gran Lattissima Coffee and Espresso Machine, a pod espresso machine.

The Nespresso Gran Lattissima Coffee and Espresso Machine by De'Longhi is an example of a pod espresso machine capable of making mixed coffee drinks like lattes and cappuccinos

Much like other kitchen gadgets like the air fryer and Instant Pot, Keurig stormed the at-home coffee market, and now you can find these drip capsule machines in virtually every home, office, and hotel room in the U.S. Because of its popularity, along came its cousin, the Nespresso. Simply fill the reservoir, insert a pod of pre-ground beans into the portafilter, let it heat, and watch it brew. It’s as simple as that, which is why it has become a household name.

Like the Moka Pot, connoisseurs would say that it’s not quite espresso, but for those on the go and with a limited budget, it makes a consistent cup. If you have little room for large appliances, pod machines are somewhat compact, and while they certainly have their limitations, pod machines do offer convenience and ease of use, despite the high cost of the espresso pods.

3. Manual or Lever Espresso Machines

The La Pavoni Professional, a manual espresso machine.

The La Pavoni Professional is an example of a manual lever espresso machine where the barista has full control over pulling the shot

With a manual or lever espresso machine, the power is in the hands of the barista. And, it does require some power and strength to “pull the shot” from one of these machines. Unlike fully automated machines that grind and tamp beans for you, these machines require the purchase of a grinder and tamper to pack the grind and load it into the portafilter. There are two types of manual espresso machines, a direct lever, which has no spring, and a piston lever, which does have a piston spring. The piston lever uses a calibrated spring to pull the shot when compressed and released, while the direct lever creates pressure by manually pulling it down.

With a lever-driven machine, you, the barista, control the amount of pressure, as well as the water flow and brew time, and with enough practice and experience, you can create a wonderfully customized cup. Unlike other types of espresso machines, the simplicity of the manual lever machine allows it to excel. These machines lack the frills associated with tech-driven gadgets on the market today. In turn, there is no pump or machinery that can fail with a manual lever machine.

4. Pour-Over or Reservoir Espresso Machines

The Nuova Simonelli Oscar Pour-Over Espresso machine, a reservoir machine.

The Nuova Simonelli Oscar Pour-Over espresso machine has a 2L water reservoir which does not require it to be attached to a direct water line

Pour-over or reservoir machines refer to those which utilize a water reservoir rather than a direct water line. While these machines require filtered water poured into a reservoir, they do not require a direct water source like a direct-connect machine. There are water reservoirs on many manual and automatic machines, and the concept is similar to that of a Keurig or Mr. Coffee.

These are ideal for those who do not want or have the ability to create a direct line for their machine. Because they do not have a direct water line, these machines do require regular cleaning and descaling, and some offer a removable water tank for ease of access.

5. Direct-Connect or Plumbed-In Espresso Machines

The La Spaziale S1 Dream, an espresso machine that uses a direct water line source.

The La Spaziale S1 Dream, an espresso machine that uses a direct water line source

These are simply the espresso machines that operate with a direct water line source. They offer an endless water source, similar to the water coming from a faucet. These machines do not use a water reservoir, thus, they never need to be refilled. However, they do generally require professional installation and cannot be easily moved without professional help.

6. Single-Boiler Espresso Machines

The Gaggia Classic Pro is an example of a single boiler espresso machine.

The Gaggia Classic Pro is an example of a single boiler espresso machine

Single-boiler machines use one heating element to brew espresso and to steam milk. Because of that, they are often cheaper than other machines. These machines are among the smallest and most compact, making them not only a budget-friendly choice but also ideal for those with little counter space. While they do offer the benefit of a steam wand for steaming and frothing milk, one downside is that they do require a cool-down period between shots of espresso.

7. Double-Boiler Espresso Machines

The Rocket R58, a dual boiler machine.

The Rocket Espresso R58 has dual boilers making it a great option for small businesses that need to make drink after drink without waiting for the machine to heat up more milk and steam after every drink

These machines, unsurprisingly, have two heating elements or dual boilers—one for brewing coffee and one for milk. Thus, there is no need for a cool-down period like single boiler machines. Because they have two heating elements, they are also bigger, bulkier, and more expensive, but they are easily capable of making double shots.

8. Heat-Exchanger Espresso Machines

The Rocket Appartamento Nera machine, a heat exchanger espresso machine.

The Rocket Espresso Appartamento Nera is a heat exchanger espresso machine. It uses one boiler, and it is ideal for those who love milk-based drinks and want to save money over a pricey double boiler unit

Heat-exchangers use one heating element to create the benefits of a double boiler machine without the bulkiness and hefty price tag. The single heating element heats both the water for brewing and the water for steaming and frothing milk. With a heat-exchanger machine, there is little to no need for cool-down time between shots of espresso.

9. Pump-Driven Espresso Machines

The De'Longhi ECP3420 Bar Pump Espresso Machine.

The De'Longhi ECP3420 Bar Pump Espresso Machine is an example of a pump-driven espresso machine

These are among the most popular machines today. They require a single pump to create the amount of pressure necessary to make espresso. Unlike pulling the shot from a manual espresso machine, pump-driven espresso machines take the physical nature out of the equation, while making a consistent cup with some degree of customization. Most machines on the market, sans steam-driven and the majority of manual machines, are pump-driven.

10. Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

The Diletta Mio Espresso Machine.

The Diletta Mio Espresso Machine is a semi-automatic espresso machine

Semi-automatic espresso machines also use a pump to create the necessary pressure. They feature an on/off switch, so you will have to monitor the flow of espresso and shut the machine off when desired; therefore, some brewing experience is necessary. These machines offer an option for steaming milk, however many of them do not have the water temperature controls that may be desired by the espresso aficionado. Additionally, you will need to source your own ground coffee, as these espresso machines do not include a grinding device.

11. Automatic or Volumetric Espresso Machines

The Nuova Simonelli Musica, a volumetric espresso machine.

The Nuova Simonelli Musica is an example of a volumetric espresso machine, available as a pour-over or direct-connect

Automatic machines are very similar to semi-automatic machines, but they shut off the water flow automatically. They also measure the amount of water coming from your reservoir or water line and automatically shut it off when the specific volume has been reached. This ensures the consistency of the brew.

Volumetric machines also offer preset timers and a set-it-and-forget-it style of brewing. They require little to no experience, and while they do not offer control of temperature and brew time, they do create a consistent cup with little effort. With automatic espresso machines, you will have to grind and tamp your own beans and prepare milk to your liking.

12. Super-Automatic Espresso Machines

The Breville Barista Pro Espresso Machine, an example of a super-automatic machine,

The Breville Barista Pro Espresso Machine is an example of a super-automatic machine, which makes espresso with the touch of a button

Super-automatic machines take automation one step further, as they incorporate an automatic shut-off feature with timing options. They also grind coffee beans for you. This allows for a wonderfully fresh cup of quality espresso. However, these machines do not generally allow for fine adjustments to the grind like you would find with a manual or standalone electric grinder.

With a super-automatic like the Breville Barista Pro, you will still need to manually tamp the grind and texture your milk. These machines are best for those on the go and for those who also want the freshest grind for an aromatic cup of espresso.

13. Ultra-Automatic Espresso Machines

The Jura Giga X7 Professional, an ultra-automatic espresso machine.

The Jura Giga X7 Professional is not just one ultra-automatic espresso machine, but in this case, two ultra-automatics in one. It has the ability to mix countless milk-based specialty coffee drinks with the touch of a button

Ulta-automatic machines take everything from a super-automatic and add in automatically frothing milk and steaming milk. These machines do it all. They grind, dose, and tamp your beans, brew your coffee, and can even create mixed coffees like lattes, macchiatos, and cappuccinos with the touch of a button. They are also extremely expensive and offer very little customization. However, if you are looking for a fresh morning latte or an evening espresso with a luxurious crema and little to no effort, then one of these pricey coffee makers may be for you!

So what espresso machine is right for you? That largely depends on your budget and lifestyle. Fortunately, there is a machine on the market that fills almost everyone's needs. Whether it's a manual-lever machine for the most experienced barista or an ultra-automatic espresso machine for those who want a full, at-home espresso bar with a touch of a button, rest assured that there is a machine out there for you. The coffee industry is alive and well, and with so many great options on the market, the perfect cup is only a few clicks of the mouse away!

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Growing up studying music and art, I always found myself in the local coffee shop after rehearsals and performances. Working through music school I became more and more of a foodie, and as I worked through my comprehensive exams, thesis, and dissertation, a hot, caffeinated beverage was always by my...

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