Buy an Espresso Machine That’s Perfect for You: 5 Important Considerations That Will Help
Whether you are a first time buyer and looking for only the basics, or you are a bonafide espresso aficionado and have owned 2 or more espresso machines, buying an espresso machine can cause some anxiety and confusion. There are so many machines out there, each offering a host of features.What does it all mean? I’m writing this article to help shed light on some of the mystery so that you can make the right decision for you and your budget. While there are many espresso machine reviews out there detailing the features of various machines, many of them don’t tell you why these features are so important.
Creating a balanced, flavorful shot of espresso requires knowledge of and experimentation with the following:
1. The grind of the bean
2. The pressure applied when tamping in the basket
3. The pressure with which the water is forced through the filter
4. The temperature of the water
It’s finding the right combination and expression of the above factors that makes or breaks the quality of the espresso, and so a great espresso machine will take all of these into consideration. So let’s get down to it.
1. Super-automatic espresso machine or commercial espresso machine features?
The first factor you will want to consider is how involved you want to be in the process of pulling your espresso shots. Do you want to hone barista skills in your home, or do you want espresso-to-go — the ability to pop in a pod, push a button and be on your way? This is probably dependent on your personality type.
For instance, I admire the convenience of the super automatic espresso machines like illy’s Francis Francis x7, but at heart, I am a person who loves tradition and the art of a well-honed craft. So I want to be involved in — as well as perfect — the process of grinding the bean, tamping the grounds just so, adjusting temperature and pressure, and extracting that exquisite, masterful shot.
For that reason, a better espresso machine for me is a good semi-automatic espresso machine like the Breville dual boiler. With this machine, I get to be involved in the process and control the flavor and intensity of the shot, but the manufacturer also makes it easy and fun for me to do so.
There are three classes of automatic espresso machines:
Semi-automatic espresso machines. These machines use a pump to deliver water, and the the remaining brew pressure is released via a 3-way valve. This gives the user a lot of control over the quality of the shot. A semi-automatic is a good bet for people who want a barista espresso machine experience in a home environment. While semi-automatics automate a lot of the factors involved in making espresso, you have ultimate control over the extraction derived from your efforts. The Breville dual boiler espresso machine is a great example of a good semi-automatic espresso machine.
Automatic espresso machines. These espresso machines automate the brew time and volume by adding an in-line flowmeter to the group head. When espresso is made, hot water is forced through the group head under pressure. The group head has many holes and sprays the water evenly (hopefully) across the grounds in the filter basket. When the programmed amount of water has passed through the meter, the pump turns off. Grinding and tamping of coffee beans are still manual for these machines, so you will still have some interaction with the process. These espresso machines are best for people who are looking for convenience and cost efficiency, but still want some participation in how the shot evolves. The Gaggia Classic is a good example of an automatic espresso machine.
Super-automatic espresso machines. These machines grind and tamp the coffee, and extract the espresso shot. These days this translates into buying pods and inserting them into the portafilter basket and then pushing a button to extract the shot. These espresso and cappuccino machines are usually more compact and take up less counter space. They are wonderful for people who just want to make a coffee drink with no muss or fuss and get out the door. A fantastic super-automatic espresso machine is illy’s Francis Francis x7.
Budget is always a consideration. While we would all like to own the best and most expensive epresso maker, we have to respect what our pocketbook dictates. The good news is that there are excellent machines at all price points, so you can relax and know that whatever your financial situation, there is a good machine out there that you can afford.
The question is, do you want an appliance like a can opener or blender that you expect to use regularly and toss out in a few years? Or are you looking for a solid, quality machine that will grace your counter for many years to come? Espresso and cappuccino makers run the entire gradient, from both ends to the middle.
The lower end espresso machines such as the steam driven machines will serve you for a year or two, maybe more. But they will lose their efficacy over time and you will want to either upgrade or go back to Starbuck’s for your morning shot. They will not have good resell value, but you’ll probably be able to get $30 – $40 on ebay for one of these used and in good condition. One to three years is a good expectation to have from one of these.
A super-automatic or automatic from a distinguished manufacturer like illy or Gaggia will cost more ($250 +), but last longer. It will always be a joy to use and look good on your counter. Depending upon the condition it’s in, you may be able to get $100 or more from it when you decide to move on. Look to have one of these for 5 years, possibly longer.
The semi-automatic machines that are on the higher cost spectrum of home espresso machines ($1,000 +) can provide many years, maybe even decades of reliable service, and if you are one who is in the market for this level of quality of product, it will bring you a lot of joy over those years. This class of machine will also have a much higher resell value, again depending upon the condition of the machine.
3. Temperature and Pressure
Precision in water temperature and pressure control are two of the most important considerations for pulling perfect shots of espresso.
Modern high-end espresso machines offer what is known as PID control. PID stands for proportional-integral-derivative controller. This of course is Gobbledygook for the average non-engineer espresso lover, so I’ll explain.
Think of it like this. When you are getting ready to take a shower or bath, you turn on the water and adjust the hot and cold valves to maintain a desired water temperature. This involves the mixing of two streams, the hot and cold water. You touch the water to gauge its temperature, then adjust until it’s just right. A PID control operates electronically in this way, gauging the proper water temperature, adjusting and then maintaining that temperature so that your shot is extracted at the right temperature for the most refined flavor.
On more sophisticated espresso machines, you would have the ability to adjust the temperature according to the grind and roast of your bean. Less expensive machines simply signal when the boiler is at a good overall temperature for making espresso. The difference is in the fine tuning, which is the difference you also can taste when you get an espresso at your local café. It’s always consistent and flavorful, and you know what experience you will have when you visit.
The pump is a most important consideration for deciding upon the right machine. When discussing pressure systems, a bar is the common use of expression. A bar is simply a measuring unit for pressure. Espresso and cappuccino makers should provide pressure of 8 bar or higher. And while most machines these days provide 15 bars and more, an 8 to 10 bar pump is the standard for pulling a good shot of espresso, with the higher pressure providing for more intense flavor. This is important to know because with more pressure, the water can be forced through the finer grinds of beans, creating better extraction for more flavor.
The less expensive espresso machines do not allow the user to set the pressure, and therefore the output will be unalterable, and in some machines may be inconsistent in taste and texture.
A more expensive, sophisticated machine, will allow for tweaking and you can set the pressure to get the shot that tastes best to you.
While there are some unique manual lever pump espresso machines that can be had, most home espresso machines (commercial espresso machines as well) utilize some form of motor-driven pump to provide the force necessary for espresso brewing. These fall into two categories:
Rotary vane pump. These are the pumps found in commercial espresso machines with a direct water line connection. It is possible to have one of these machines in the home, though pricey in the thousands of dollars. You don’t typically find this type of pump on home espresso machines because they can cause damage to the machine. Rotary pumps are used mostly for commercial use because they can extract many more shots of espresso in a day than other pumps.
Vibration pump. These are typically found in home espresso machines that use a reservoir or tank, though there are exceptions. More than likely, you will be shopping for a machine that is utilizing a vibration pump to produce pressure.
A few more options
Air pump. In the past few year, several models of air-pump driven coffee and espresso makers have arrived on the scene. The most notable is the AeroPress coffee and espresso maker. Inexpensive, smaller and lighter, these use compressed air and a hand pump to force hot water through the coffee grounds.They are an inventive and mobile solution, really providing a strong shot of coffee rather than espresso, but fun to use and easy to clean.
Steam driven. These are not really espresso machines, but are low cost (around $100) machines marketed by companies who want to be in the espresso market. These machines really deliver what is more a strong coffee rather than an authentic espresso shot. Still, a viable alternative for one who is not discerning.
4. The Grind
This is more important than you might think. Espresso machines need exactly the correct consistency of grind, or you could get a less than perfect shot.
For those who are set on buying a super-automatic espresso machine, this won’t be a factor. But for the rest, it’s an important consideration. The fact is, you cannot extract a great shot of espresso unless you have a grinder that is of good quality and delivers a consistent, even grind.
Of course you can always buy a good quality ground espresso such as illy or Lavazza. Both are fine products that work well in all espresso machines. As an aside, if you are a new espresso enthusiast, buy either one of these and get a good feel for the evenness and consistency of the grounds. This is what you will want if you explore grinding your own beans.
But if you are set on having the freshness of your own freshly ground espresso coffee, you have a few choices.
Steel blade grinder. Highly not recommended. While these are inexpensive and easy to use, they do not produce the quality of grounds necessary to make a great shot of espresso. I’ve tried, and getting the consistency necessary is near to impossible. A blade grinder will produce grounds with hidden clumps and large particles, and can heat up the beans in the process. All of these factors will diminish the quality of the espresso.
Conical burr grinder. These grinders use two revolving steel burrs between which the coffee beans are crushed while rotating relatively slowly and with minimal frictional heating. Most conical burr grinders offer a wide range of settings, so you can use them for coffee brewing and French press extraction as well as espresso making. A conical burr grinder will also preserve the maximum amount of aroma from the beans. This is the type of grinder you will want to find. We have some information on a handheld conical burr grinder here, and a traditional electrical burr grinder here.
5. How it looks and feels
Part of the joy of being an espresso enthusiast is delighting in the mindfulness of design that many espresso machine manufacturers apply. Italian espresso machine designers are renowned for the streamlined beauty of their offerings. Even in the less expensive super-automatic machines, you’ll find a quality to the materials used and a well planned, user friendly design. If you are going to spend money on an espresso machine, you will want to look for a machine that feels good to the touch, that has a solidity and strength of build, and well-appointed displays. There is also no reason why the machine should not be user friendly in all ways, and in the best cases, clever in the layout of the components. You are investing some money for your machine, so it should also be one that you will be proud to have sitting on your counter.
There are a lot of small details that will vary from machine to machine. The panarello (steaming wand for frothing milk for cappuccinos and machiattos) can be hard plastic or stainless steel, and some prefer one to the other. Some don’t have one at all, and so in that case you can invest in a milk frothing device if you like cappuccino and machiatto. The way that the machine delivers the steam for frothing can also be a consideration.
So there you have it. If you consider the five factors presented here while you are conducting your shopping, you should be able to find the exact right espresso machine to suit your needs. I hope this article has been helpful to you. Here on the website, we’ve chosen proven winners in the automatic, semi-automatic and super-automatic classes of espresso machines and reviewed them, so I hope you’ll take a look!