Commercial Espresso Machine Buying Guide
There are four broad categories of machines, described by how they deliver the espresso:
- Manual - Hand-operated lever style - still often preferred by professional baristas in Italy and Europe.
- Semi-automatic - Requires the operator to manually stop the length of the espresso 'pour'. This can be via an electric pump or older 'hydraulic' delivery method(used on the Rancilio Lever machines).
- Automatic - Length of 'pour' is stopped by the machine. The duration is controlled by the machine's "brain" and a water metering system.
- Super-automatic - The machine does it all - grinds and packs the coffee, brews it, and ejects the grounds. In 1-step machines, frothed or heated milk is added directly into the cup. Machines where the barista froths the milk and then combines with the coffee portion are called 2-step machines.
Manual espresso machines
Sometimes called a piston machine, especially when referred to in the home market. There are only a few manufacturer's still making them, due to lower demand these days. They are much simpler to repair and are very reliable. Rancilio produces a full line of Lever machines (Classe 6 LE) in a complete range from 1 group to 4 group and with a propane kit option.
Many a serious Italian barista will insist that no other machine can produce such perfect espresso. This is because the operator has control over the infusion time - the time that the handle is left in the down position before being released - which can coax the perfect flavour out of the coffee grounds. Because of the physical labour involved, it is not the ideal machine to have in a high traffic location where junior staff or one overworked owner have to pull 300 drinks in a day. However, these machines have one great attribute, even today - if equipped with an optional propane kit, they require no electricity to run. This makes them great for fairs, on catering trucks, some cart situations, etc. In addition, their lower cost and extremely low maintenance can be a plus for low-volume locations.
Semiautomatic espresso machines
The semiautomatic is generally found more on one-group machines than on two, three or even four group machines. The reason is that the operator must both start and manually stop the pour, and the more groups at work, the more difficult it is to keep an eye on things. In addition, the semiautomatic machines do require more staff training in order to 'get the shot right'. It sounds easy enough to do, but remember that in North America the operator is as likely to be using both hands to steam milk, add syrup to a mocha and warm a scone, all at the same time. It is easy to overextract espresso shots in these circumstances. In Italy, semiautomatics are common, but then the baristas are very well trained and stay at their jobs for many years. For most, the semiautomatic does work well in single group applications and that is because when only one drink (single or double) is being made at a time it is easy to watch and control. On a few machines, the prosumer Rocket Giotto being a prime example, the manufacturer has purposely turned the on/off coffee switch into a beautiful chrome lever to accentuate the 'art and skill' of espresso making. One advantage to semi-automatic machines is there lower cost (relative to automatic machines), since they generally forego the computer board required on the automatic. Because semi-automatics rely on the older pressurestat system, temperature stability is generally not as precise as on automatic machines (if the automatics are using the computer "brain" to accurately control grouphead and boiler temperature).
Automatic espresso machines
Automatic machines deliver pre-set amounts of espresso upon activation. Almost all are electronic, using a programmable computer board to control the various functions. For the vast majority of specialty coffee bars and coffee house's these machines, available in one to four group configurations, are the machine of choice. If you have many employees and need to produce a wide range of drink configurations, these machines are preferred because they leave the operator free to steam milk, while the machine looks after the espresso shot. Automatics guarantee a more consistent product and allow more productivity from the barista's.
These days, machines can be ordered with differing options. Take steam wands for example. On the Rancilio Classe 9, no less than 3 different systems are available: the traditional manual steam wand (Clever), a semi-automatic frothing system that virtually eliminates barista training (YouSteam), and a fully automatic hands-free unit (Isteam).
Automatics are also unequalled when it comes to custom orders, because almost all the electronic machines today have five buttons per group, which allow for a short and long single, a short and long double and the all-important manual override button. The manual button (the operator controls the shot size) is very important in the hands of a good operator because it allows for the making of those custom ordered espresso drinks that good (but finicky) customers often seem to prefer. Catering to these customers is one of the big competitive advantages that independent operators have over the chains and others with fixed menus. And before we move to Superautomatics, remember also that one of the main reasons customers think a coffee bar is "good", is for the sound of the grinder running, milk being steamed, the baristas performing their artistry and even the whacking sound of grounds being dumped!
Superautomatic espresso machines
Superautomatic is the name given to those machines that grind the coffee, pack it, brew the espresso shot and then eject the grounds into a built-in dump box. These machines are more expensive, but of course are nearly operator foolproof. They are gaining popularity for those locations where producing a consistent product is important despite employee turnover. This includes fast-food restaurants, bars, hotels and many other locations where espresso training is difficult or the main emphasis is on other services or products. These days, the best superautomatics can give near identical product quality and give you repeatable consistency. In fact, in many cases, quality and consistently Often, all this can be accomplished in a more compact footprint. In comparison to the traditional machines, unless strict barista training routines, maintenance, and a commitment to excellence are all in place by the operator, a superautomatic may very well turn out a superior product. Labour savings can often be substantial (one study we have seen puts the cost of labour in preparing a drink at 40% of the final cost). With this in mind, the cost of the machine can often be accounted for in a relatively short period.
Superautomatics are more complicated internally, and generally require more maintenance and service. Many of the machines have automatic cleaning cycles, decalcification cycles and self-diagnostics with printouts. Superautomatics can be ordered with one grinder and a bypass chute for ground decaf, or more commonly now, two grinders, and in their basic configuration are fitted with a steam arm. Options can include an autofrother (such as the Egro Isteam), refrigerated milk storage, customer self-service, ability to accept tokens and numerous other features. Like all espresso machines, they come with various performance abilities; it is very important to match the capability of the machine to the tasks expected of it. Although many machines look similar in size on the outside, there is a very wide range of complexity, performance and features available even within the same brand. Match the right machine to the job expected of it to avoid disappointment.
Groupheads, Boiler Size and Power
As important as the delivery method, is the ability to deliver on the tasks expected of the machine. The number of groups, boiler size and the electrical rating (generally the element power) determine the number of drinks produced per hour, amount of steam available to froth milk and hot water available An essential feature to consider in commercial machines is the number of groups. The two group is the most popular for most specialty coffee outlets. Three groups should be considered in busy locations such as airport kiosks. Four group machines are a small percentage of the market, and are found in high volume coffee chains, and very busy independent locations. We look forward to the day when the two four group machines at one coffee bar in the train station in Venice, Italy become commonplace over here! A one-group machine is sufficient for smaller restaurants, where demand may be lower and seated customers, for example, can wait a few extra minutes for their drinks to arrive.
Boiler size plays a role in the ability to deliver steam and hot water. Boiler size for one group machines can range from 1.8 to 5 litres, for two group machines from 5 to 12 litres, three group machines from 11 to 18 litres and 20 to 22 litres for most four group machines. Espresso production is the least affected by boiler size; using hot water (for tea and Americanos) is the most power consuming. Therefore, it is important to consider whether you are making a lot of doubles as opposed to singles, as well as the size of drinks. If your business is comprised of selling takeout drinks in 16 oz grande and 20 oz vente sizes, you'll need much more performance from your machine, than in a restaurant situation where the drinks will be 6 and 8 oz single cappuccinos.
The electrical draw of the machine (element rating) greatly affects the recovery power of the machine. Businesses that have a big morning or lunch rush, or that use the machines for Americanos, Crema Coffee and tea will need a higher capacity machine. As you might expect, the bigger the machine, generally the more power it draws and the quicker it can recover from a workout. However, machines can vary widely in their power and with different manufacturers. For example, older two group machines often had 2700-3900 Watt elements, and many manufacturers still use elements around 4000 watts on their 2 group machines. Rancilio's Epoca full-size 2 group machines are all equipped with 4300 Watt elements and all the Rancilio 2-group Classe 6,7,8,9 and 10 series all pack 6000 Watts giving them more power than most other three group machines! Needless to say that with their larger boilers and industry leading power, Rancilio machines are among the most powerful in the world. One-group machines are usually equipped with 110 Volt power and 1200 to 1600 watts, which limits their recovery speed.
Grouphead Temperature Stability
Ensuring that the correct number of group heads, boiler size and power are the right size for the intended job is extremely important. However, no other factor affects the quality of espresso as much as the temperature of the water that is used to brew it. It sounds simple enough, after all that's the job of the machine, right? But, as much poor-quality espresso is caused by brewing at the incorrect temperature, than by poor grinding and poor quality beans. A variation of as little as one degree from the optimum temperature of 95 C (203 F) measurably affects the quality and taste. We have seen machines that vary wildly - up to 12 degrees C (22 F) back and forth in the course of a few minutes. Whereas poor grinding and poor beans can be corrected, poor machine design cannot.
Three factors affect the temperature of the water flowing through the espresso grounds. Only the first can be easily controlled by the service technician or a knowledgeable barista. Boiler pressure and boiler temperature are directly related, so by adjusting the pressurestat (or possibly a thermocouple), the technician can adjust the boiler pressure/water temperature. This will in turn, affect the temperature of the water in the heat exchanger (or exchangers in multi-group machines) which is the fresh water that sits encased in a separate chamber in the boiler, waiting to be pumped out through the group head.
Many Rancilio machines, including the popular Classe 7,9 and 10 machines use an advanced boiler management system which incorporates a highly accurate Huba pressure sensing device with an unprecendented accuracy of .03%. This translates into an impressive 1.0 degree brewhead temperature stability, matching many dual boiler machines, but at a lower cost.
Normally, stable grouphead temperature is a desired feature. However, the ability to vary grouphead temperature during a brew (called temperature profiling) is gaining traction amongst roasters and specialty coffee shops. Just like searing a steak to lock in the juices, and then turning down the heat to finish cooking, coffee is a food and different brew temperatures can affect the finished taste. For instance, darker roasts can benefit from a lower brew temperature and lighter roasts can benefit from a higher brew temperature. The new Rancilio Classe 9 Xcelsius has the ability to set each group to a unique temperature. In addition, groupheads can be set to increase the temperature, or decrease the temperature during the brew. With this system, each coffee roast can be experimented with to achieve its perfect flavour profile!
Lower powered one-group machines (such as the popular Rancilio Epoca S1 Tank) will be able to deliver a good number of espressos (70) per hour, and steam enough milk for four restaurant sized cappuccinos at any one time. The Rancilio Epoca one group is also ideal for a lower volume reastaurant or office location, and can provide excellent service where 10 - 20 drinks per day are averaged. This does not have to be spread out during the day, but can be accomplished during a brief morning rush for example.
A full-sized one-group machine, plumbed -in and with a rotary pump such as the Rancilio Epoca S-1, E-1 should be considered the minimum for smaller restaurant applications, where the number of drinks in a day may range up to 50 drinks per day.
The two group machine is the size that will be considered by most operators, both for its power, the fact that it can brew up to four single drinks at once ( six with the Rancilio exclusive triple portafilter handle), and then flexibility and speed that comes with having two steam wands. Power can be very impressive and can range up to an industry leading 6000 Watts (on Rancilio Classe 8 and Classe 10 machines for example), making them more powerful than many competitor's three-group machines. A powerful two group machine such as the Rancilio Classe 8 or Classe 10 will satisfy all but the very busiest specialty coffee bars, and should be chosen when 75 to 300 drinks per day are made. The powerful two groups will easily handle much more volume than that, but sometimes a three group is the wiser choice - not just for power (in the case of the Classe 8 and 10 they are the same wattage) - but for the flexibility and working room that the third group brings. The 3 groups do have the advantage of more reserve power since the boilers are now larger, bumping up to 16 liters from 11 for the 2 groups. The third group also allows for three double drinks, or two doubles and a single to be made at once - a big timesaver during a rush! As mentioned earlier, larger machines have better temperature stability when worked very hard, which is critical to good espresso extraction. A smaller machine that is operated at 'near capacity' will have more temperature variation than the larger machine operating on 'cruise control'.
Another advantage of larger machines is that there is more room for a second barista to step in and help. On two group machines it is very difficult for a secondary barista to help out, on three group machines it becomes possible and on four group machines two people can work together provided that dual grinders are used. Another factor in this equation is that if the Rancilio exclusive i-steam auto frothing system is fitted to either the Classe 8 or Class 10 machines - it is like having a second barista helping since one barista can now froth two pitchers of milk at the same time - a huge time-saving economy.
One last point about size - size can matter. It has been our experience as owners of specialty coffee bars and servicing countless others - that the size of machine can actually affect your sales and espresso drink program success. You are likely to be busier with a two group machine than a one group machine and so on simply because customers perceive your business to be more "professional" than the one down the street with the smaller machine. This is called " counter presence" and it used to work for Starbucks, where four group machines were installed as a matter of course. Who was not impressed with the 'power' and the 'presence' that a four-foot wide machines have.