How to Buy the Best Espresso Machine for You
There are a lot of options on the market when it comes to espresso machines! Here are the main types of machines and what to look for in each!
Table of Contents
- Manual Espresso Machines
- Semi-Automatic Machines
- Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
- Prosumer Espresso Machines
- Nespresso Machines
- Espresso Grinders
People are always asking me, “Jeff, how can I make espresso like this at home? Do I need a special coffee maker?” The easy answer I always give is that you need to equip yourself with the correct tools and know-how to use them. Purchasing an espresso machine for your home or office doesn’t have to be a hard decision, as long as you know what you’re looking for.
When jumping into the world of espresso, one must have an understanding of their personal preferences and what one wants the end product to be. Do you want to be able to make a drink like a cappuccino with the push of a button, or do you prefer to control every aspect of a shot of espresso from its grind through the extraction?
There is no universal machine that is perfect for everyone, but there is a machine that is perfect for you. The first decision will be what kind of machine you want to pull your shots on—a manual, semi-automatic, super-automatic, or maybe just a Nespresso capsule option.
Manual Espresso Machines
Manual espresso machines allow you to control every aspect of the extraction process. Manual units are controlled by the barista pulling down on a lever to create the necessary nine bars of pressure, and others are controlled by pulling a lever onto a spring that releases tension to keep the pressure consistent. In either method of manual machines, the barista controls the pressure of the water running through the espresso puck.
These are not the easiest machines to master and are truly for those who want to make their shot of espresso an experience as much as a tasty beverage. Along with the espresso machine, you must also purchase a kettle to produce hot water and a coffee grinder for your espresso beans. This type of machine will be best for households that only require the occasional espresso shot. If you are making drinks like a macchiato, you'll also require the addition of a milk frother to foam milk to add the necessary texture and flavor.
What to Look For in a Manual Machine
Internal boiler: One thing to keep in mind when looking to purchase a manual espresso machine is if the unit has an internal boiler that controls extraction temperature, or if boiling water needs to be added every time you want to make a shot, like most of the models by Flair.
Pressure control: The other main difference between manual machines is whether or not they are a spring-piston or a direct-lever machine. A spring piston machine will begin with an up-facing lever that gets pulled down onto a pre-loaded spring that controls the extraction once initiated. A spring piston will take some of the labor out of pulling a shot but still allows for control of pressure during the pre-infusion part of the extraction.
A direct lever machine is controlled the entire time by the user. A direct lever machine relies on the pressure being put onto the lever by the user to extract the water through the espresso puck. These machines take much time and patience before being able to pull a great shot of espresso.
Brand: Some of the top manufacturers of manual machines are Flair, La Pavoni, and Elektra.
Price: Manual machine price points start as low as $125 for a basic idea, like the Flair Neo, and will extend to over $1,600 for an Elektra S1C that has an easy-to-use lever and a full brass design.
Longevity: Manual machines will last for decades as long as proper maintenance, such as cleaning the associated group head and steaming wands are routinely taken care of.
Other features: Some other features to keep in mind when looking at manual machines are the associated pressure gauge to show how much force is being applied and if you want to be able to have an attached steaming option like that available on the SC1.
A semi-automatic espresso machine allows for control of the espresso extraction time by having the user start and stop the process. Pumps pull from an attached water tank as soon as a button is pushed and stop on demand. This allows for a barista to adjust shot volumes on the fly. Controlling the shot’s extraction time will allow the barista to let it go a little long or short if the grind isn’t perfect. The additional use of a scale to weigh out the shot as it is being extracted lets you know if the grind of your espresso puck is ideal. An example of this is when I’m making a double shot, I am shooting for a 36-gram extraction from my 19-gram puck in 25 seconds. If the brew time takes too long or short to get to my desired weight, I know to adjust my grind before repeating.
Espresso machines that aren’t fully manual are pressurized through an internal boiler. This is true for semi-automatic machines all the way through super-automatic machines. A machine with one boiler will normally need at least ten seconds to switch between extracting the espresso and using the steam wand. The time is needed because the espresso extraction runs at a different temperature than that of the steam wand. This isn’t a big deal, but the ability to froth your milk as your espresso is pouring is nice. To allow for this, many machines are designed with either a heat-exchange system or a two-boiler setup.
A heat exchange system uses steam off of a single boiler to power the steam wand at the same time as the espresso is being extracted. Machines with two boilers are designed the same as commercial machines at your local coffee shop. One boiler is used for extraction and the other for the steam wand. These machines are very high quality and will carry a price tag to reflect this. Most households can function fine with a single boiler unit but, for an office or household that makes many drinks a day, a two-boiler or heat-exchange system will be preferred.
Traditionally, there has been a machine category called automatic espresso machines. The main difference between these and semi-automatics was the ability to control the timing of extraction. Most consumer shops are beginning to do away with the automatic category of machines because the line between an automatic and a super-automatic machine is almost meaningless at this point.
Some of the variables that are controlled with most automated semi-automatic machines are grind and dose size, tamping pressure, and extraction time. These aspects of making a shot, when controlled by a computer, make it much easier to pull a perfect shot for anyone who comes calling. Coffee beans are poured into an attached hopper, then, at the press of a button, are run through a burr grinder before being weighed and tamped directly into your portafilter. All of these machines still have steam wands that either are run by hand or by sensors.
What to Look For in a Semi-Automatic Machine
Since most espresso machines fall into the semi-automatic category there are many nuances between different systems.
Heating system: When looking at options for semi-automatic machines, some of the options to regard are if the machine is designed with a single boiler, heat-exchange boiler, or dual boiler.
Price: The type of boiler your machine has will cause the biggest variations in price. They range in price from a few hundred dollars for something like Breville’s Bambino to well over $5,000 for certain machines from Nuova Simonelli, depending on what your needs are.
Longevity: Regular maintenance such as descaling and cleaning will keep a machine running for years on end.
Other features: The options to keep in mind when purchasing are the ability to control pre and post-infusion, the type of group heads used, whether the boilers are insulated or not, and PID temperature controls.
The associated features of the machine to consider are attached grinders, the type of steam wand, and the level of programmable options such as automatic start or shut-off.
Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
If you are a person that wants a drink just like your local café makes, then a super-automatic espresso machine may be right up your alley. They come ready for you to use with all the bells and whistles already installed. Super-automatic machines are designed with convenience in mind to make café-quality drinks with the push of a button. They automatically weigh, grind, tamp and pour your selected drink in seconds. Most of the super-automatic machines on the market also allow users to select the strength, size, and temperature of their favorite beverage. The milk frother on all of these units is also fully automated making it easy for anyone to make cortados, cappuccinos, or lattes at the touch of a button. These machines are welcome additions to offices and households where everyone that uses it may not be a trained barista.
What to Look For in a Super-Automatic Machine
Grinder: Some of the important aspects to keep in mind when looking to purchase super-automatic machines are the quality and ease of use of its associated grinder.
Drink features: Also check out if the machine comes with an attached milk container, if you can save your favorite drinks and preferences for quick use, and how many drinks are pre-programmed into the unit.
Machine control: In a super-automatic machine, examine how easy it is to access the user interface that controls the temperatures of steamed milk and espresso extraction.
Price: A basic super-automatic machine like the Philips 5400 comes in around $900, and the machines can range in price up to something like a Miele CM 7750 that retails for almost $5,500.
Longevity: These machines are programmed to announce any need for routine maintenance and as long as these recommendations are followed, super-automatic machines will last for years.
Prosumer Espresso Machines
There are also high-end prosumer machines that are available from many different manufacturers. For the barista who knows how to create the perfect heart, body, and crema of a shot, this is the answer. The machines are usually scaled-down models of commercial quality units. These are generally of the semi-automatic variety and most come standard with dual boilers, high-powered steam wands, and the option to be directly plumbed into your kitchen so you never have to worry about filling a water tank.
What to Look For in a Prosumer Machine
The variations between prosumer machines are going to be the same as that of semi-automatics, just with higher-end components involved across the board.
Heating system: The biggest option to keep in mind with the prosumer machines will be whether a heat exchange or dual boiler is used.
Price: The question to keep in mind when shopping for a prosumer machine is “How big do I want to go?” Prosumer machines are all at the higher end of the price point spectrum and start at a little over $1,500 for something like Breville’s dual boiler. These machines can hit up to and over $6,000 for products like the Eagle One Prima from Victoria Arduino (a Nuova Simonelli Corporation).
Longevity: Due to the fact that prosumer machines are created with the highest-end components available, they are built to last for generations.
Other features: Check out if the group head is an E61 variety or a fully immersed idea, and if the controls are digitally accessed or run by manual methods.
Another option that has become more prevalent in recent years is the onset of pod or capsule machines by companies such as Nespresso. These are not the same as what you will get from a true espresso machine but will provide a similar product in a quick and easy manner. These units can make multiple extraction sizes, from single shots to multiple cup carafes depending on the model of the machine and the size of the pod being used. Most of the machines come with a built-in milk frother and easy push-button functions.
What to Look For in a Nespresso Machine
Nespresso machines are all designed to be used with the associated coffee pods that are created for the machines and being so are all fairly similar machines.
Price: The machines start at around $150 for Breville’s Vertuo Next and can extend all the way to around $1,300 for The Creatista Pro which has an associated steaming wand and color touch screen.
Longevity: Most of the Nespresso machines are made with plastic components and will not have the lifespan of a high-end espresso unit.
Something to consider when you’re not purchasing a bean-to-cup machine is the grinder that you will use. A grinder for espresso is key to creating consistent quality shots. Think about buying a high-end sports car and then putting the cheapest gas possible into it. This is the same idea as using a great espresso machine with a sub-par grinder. I think that a decent portion of the money you are planning to spend on espresso should be put towards a high-quality grinder. Pour-through burr grinders are standard to use for getting a fine enough ground for your espresso puck. An inconsistent grind will lead to over or under-extracted espresso, leaving an unpleasant taste in your mouth.
What to Look For in a Grinder
Burr ginder: The most important aspect to consider when purchasing a grinder for espresso is that it is a pour-through burr grinder. A blade grinder will not be able to achieve the fine grind necessary for achieving espresso grinds.
Price: Solid options such as Breville’s Dose Control Pro Grinder start around $150 and products like Rocket Espresso’s Super Faust Grinder that come with commercial 75mm flat burrs will run in excess of $1,600.
Longevity: Most espresso grinders are made of quality metal and, as long as regular cleaning is maintained, will continue to work perfectly for years.
Other features: The type of flat or conical blades on the burr grinder, the number of grind sizes available, how easy it is to program the desired dose size, and options such as touch screen control should all be kept in mind when looking to purchase.
Now that we have looked through the basic ideas behind some of the top espresso machines on the market, you are one step closer to completing your kitchen or office. Any of these options can create so much more than a regular old cup of coffee. These will take ground beans and create something that will make you ready to face the day with a smile on your face.