An Expert Guide to Prosumer Espresso Machines
If you're getting serious about at-home espresso-making, you're going to want a prosumer espresso machine! Learn more about the features to look for in your machine.
Where I roast coffee, there is a cafe next door with everything required to make amazing shots of espresso and exquisitely crafted milk drinks. I pull my shots every day on a beautiful handmade Synesso Espresso Machine (soon to enter the prosumer market!). Making my espresso at home on a plastic domestic espresso machine doesn’t appeal to me.
Any home barista worth their weight wants the best gear for the job. So if the art of extracting the perfect espresso is your thing, then a prosumer machine is for you. They take the build quality and professional components from commercial machines and shrink them down to fit into your home or office.
A type of semi-automatic espresso machine, baristas grind, distribute, tamper and control the timing of the extraction on these prosumer machines. They are more expensive, but you get quality that lasts for years and features for the ultimate control of your coffee extractions. In the world of prosumer machines, there are distinct features that affect espresso quality. Some models offer more than others.
Heat Exchange Boilers
A major difference between high-quality semi-automatic machines is their internal boilers. Some offer a heat-exchange boiler system that simultaneously operates the steam wand and the extraction. It achieves this through a large boiler with two chambers. One is kept hot enough to produce steam. The other maintains a lower temperature and circulates through the group head to produce water for the extraction.
Compared to a single boiler system where you have to wait between using the steam wand and pulling an extraction, a heat exchange system ensures your milk is at the proper temperature when mixing drinks like lattes. Some machines give the internal boiler a wrap of insulation. This minor detail means even more stable and consistent temperatures.
PID Temperature Controller
Internal boiler temperature is controlled by a thermostat or a PID system. PID stands for “proportional integral derivative.” This system uses an algorithm to maintain temperature stability within one degree of optimal at all times. Machines that use a conventional thermostat vary as much as 10 degrees when idle.
A heat exchange system without a PID requires a second flush of the group head after sitting for over 20 minutes. Dual boiler machines, which we’ll cover shortly, don’t require this additional step. PID systems are controlled by a dial somewhere on the machine or via a digital display that often includes an extraction timer.
Digital displays are more convenient if you make your espresso with different coffee roasts. Each level of roasting requires a different extraction time to get the best flavor.
Dual-boiler espresso machines are standard for most commercial and prosumer machines that don’t have a heat exchange system. A dual-boiler system, as the name suggests, has two separate internal boilers. One controls the steam power, and the other operates solely for the extraction.
This technology produces the most consistent temperatures. Each boiler has an independent PID controller system, one for extraction temperature and the other for the steam boiler, perfect for dispensing hot water for Americanos or tea.
This means that if you want to run an extraction at a lower temperature, you don’t have to lower the steam temperature like you would in a heat exchange machine. They add a little bulk to the machine as compared to a heat exchange system but give more control over the steam and extraction temperatures.
Group heads in prosumer machines are a vital part of what dictates extraction temperature consistency. The three main types of group heads in the consumer market are electric, E61, and fully saturated.
Electric Group Heads
Electric group heads are found in machines like the Bazera BZ10. They are rarely used in the prosumer market but allow for faster heat-up time, which is important to some. However, they don’t regulate temperature consistently, like an E61 or a fully saturated group head.
E61 Group Head
Most prosumer machines use an E61 group head created in 1961 by Ernesto Valente. It first appeared in the Faema E61 espresso machine and was named after a solar eclipse that occurred that same year. It is internally constructed of solid brass enclosed by stainless steel and accommodates a 58mm portafilter—the industry standard. The E61 is controlled by a pull lever that releases water through the group head. When it’s pulled completely open, it releases 9 bars of flow pressure.
Saturated Group Head
Some brands offer fully saturated group heads that provide even more control than an E61. They take temperature control to the next level. As the name dictates, the entire group head is submerged in water pumped directly from the boiler. One can think of the group head as an extension of the boiler itself. Its constant immersion ensures that no external factors create temperature variations. A saturated group head heats up faster than an E61, another advantage.
An additional feature present in many prosumer machines is the ability to control the pre-infusion during extraction. Pre-infusion temperature is important when using different coffee roasts. Many prosumer machines adjust manually to determine the initial flow pressure from the group head to the portafilter basket to begin the extraction.
Some machines come pre-programmed with multiple options to saturate the espresso puck. This allows for the best extraction before 9 bars of pressure are applied and can vary in both time and the amount of pressure for the pre-infusion process.
Some premium prosumer machines also control post-infusion. This regulates the last few seconds of espresso extraction, the period when the less ideal characteristics of the coffee are pressed out. This is essential to balance out the intensity of the shot in a controlled manner.
Variations and Options
The beauty of high-end prosumer products is the wide range of options available. Some target performance, while others are simply aesthetic or make life easier. One feature to look out for on many of these machines is a magnetic drip tray. It may be minor, but it assures everything is where it should be when it’s time to pull the shot.
Steam wands also have subtle feature differences. All Rocket Espresso Machines come with an anti-burn steam arm. Some assume that simply not grabbing the steam arm with your bare hands during use is common sense. I don’t disagree, but the more important aspect of the feature is that milk won’t stick to the arm, which makes it easier to clean.
A new option appearing in espresso machines is Bluetooth connectivity. Now you can control every aspect, such as boiler temperature, machine statistics, pre-infusion, turning the machine on or off, or setting up a brewing schedule from your smartphone.
Most prosumer machines come with accompanying accessories such as a high-quality portafilter, stainless steel tamper and steaming pitcher, cleaning detergent, and a water testing kit.
If you want to wake up and push a button for a morning cappuccino, then a super-automatic machine or something with the ease of use of a Nespresso might better suit you. If quality extractions of your delicious gourmet, custom-roasted coffee beans at home are essential, then a prosumer machine is ideal for you.
For help picking out a prosumer machine, talk to your Coffee & Espresso Expert!