Home Espresso Machine Buying Guide
- Water reservoir
- Portafilter handle
- Coffee valve/3-way electrovalve
- Hot water
Home espresso machines are available in a complex array of styles, features, price and technical complexity. Before you spend money on a machine, it is important to determine your needs. In the sections that follow we describe the seven different types of machines available in the marketplace and some advantages and disadvantages of each type. In the section 'Understanding the components', we provide insight on how the various components work together to create espresso and key features to look for in each component.
The first thing is to determine what you like most about the espresso experience. If you like the frothy feel of cappuccinos, flavoured and steamed milk in lattes, the chocolate in mochas - with the actual flavour of espresso being of secondary importance - then a less expensive machine may be fine. If the quality, flavour and ritual of making your espresso are paramount to you then a high quality semiautomatic, pump machine may be your best choice. A superautomatic - for reasons described below - may not be the best choice if you are a straight espresso drinker.
How often will you use the machine? Daily use demands a higher quality machine, preferably with a 3-way solenoid electrovalve. If you use the machine for say, weekend use and the occasional dinner party, a less expensive machine will fill the bill nicely.
There are seven broad categories of machines, described by how they deliver the espresso:
- Moka - usually have eight faceted sides, and roughly hourglass in shape. They are designed to make low-pressure espresso (2 bar) on a stovetop. Technically the product is not espresso because of the low pressure, but they still have a loyal following and are fun on a camping trip.
- Stovetop - similar to Moka in operation and size, but can develop slightly higher pressure. They often come with an attached steam wand. They can be tricky and finicky to operate; unless you are a devotee they are best left on the shelf.
- Steam - fill the boiler, screw the cap down and wait for one or possibly two shots of near espresso (4 - 6 bar) to be produced. The unit must cool down before refilling. A fussy entry level machine that will be quickly outgrown by most.
- Manual - often referred to as lever or piston machines, these use a piston, which is forced by a hand-operated lever, to push water through the coffee grounds. The tall boiler doubles as the water reservoir.
- Semi-automatic - the vast majority of machines fall into this category. An electric pump forces hot water through the coffee grounds at high pressure, producing luscious espresso. A balance is struck between user involvement and machine automation, making these the most popular machines.
- Automatic - few machines fall within this category. They possess the same features as semi-automatic machines, except that the shot size(s) or temperatures can be pre-programmed. Very convenient feature, but comes at a cost.
- Superautomatic - push one button to start a full cycle: grinds, tamps the coffee, brews the espresso, and ejects the grounds into the storage bin. All you have to do is fill up the water and beans. Some have cleaning, decalcification or auto-rinse cycles.
Moka is a generic name given to these eight sided, hourglass shaped 'mini percolators'. There is an upper and lower compartment that screw together with a strainer type coffee basket in the middle to hold a certain amount of coffee depending on the model (1-cup, 4-cup etc.) It is important to fill the coffee compartment completely with finely ground coffee and for this reason you may end up using more coffee than intended if you have a larger model. Add water to the lower compartment and apply heat. Water will rise through the coffee grounds and into the top compartment. Remove from heat and pour into your demitasse. Problems include the water boiling which will create a bitter cup, the low pressure is not a true espresso and there is no way to froth milk without a separate steam unit.
The Stovetop is similar to the Moka but with a valve on the side or top to control and dispense the brewed espresso. With skill, the pressure can be raised and the flow controlled, but they still must have the coffee compartment full to work properly. Tamp and grind can be an issue; too fine a grind and too hard a tamp, and you will inadvertently discover how the pressure safety valve works! After brewing the espresso and raising the heat slightly, steam for foam can be produced through the steam wand, but the steam can diminish quickly once removed from the heat source.
The electric Steam espresso machine still does not produce a true 9 bar espresso, since they operate at around 4 - 6 bar. These are the famous $49 to $99 dollar specials from the department stores. They can be quickly identified by the large round, screw top on top of the machine, which is used to fill the boiler. These are entry-level machines and once people discover true espresso, they put these in the yard/garage sale.
Piston / Lever / Manual
These downsized versions of their commercial brothers are romantic favourites for coffee enthusiasts and 'purists' alike. If you enjoy a little extra work and the ritual of making espresso by hand, these machines are fine. They tend to be expensive, warm up time is slow (because the amount of water in the combined boiler/ reservoir is larger), and since they often have an all brass, or chrome finish - show more wear, tarnish and fingerprints. But they look superb on the counter and can produce an excellent espresso for those who enjoy the ritual! If the machine has a single heating element it may not produce as powerful a steam as those with a dual element system will. Consistency of the pull on the lever is important to obtaining a good extraction. A boiler pressure gauge, if available, is helpful while learning.
The most popular type of machine for the home, the semiautomatic is an excellent choice for the majority of users. These all have a water reservoir (some can be plumbed in), vibration pump, boiler (or thermo block), and group head with a removable portafilter (handle assembly). All have a device for steaming milk. The user fills the coffee basket with properly ground espresso, tamps it (applies pressure), inserts the portafilter handle and presses the brew switch to start the extraction process. In 18 to 30 seconds, the switch is turned off. Depending on whether the single or double basket was chosen, a single (1 - 1 1/2 oz) or double shot (2 - 3 oz) of espresso can be produced. Of course, by letting the pump run longer, a long espresso or Crema Coffee can also be produced.
The home automatic espresso machine has all the features of the Semiautomatic plus the ability to deliver a pre-programmed single and double shot (in effect turning the pump off by itself). There are few automatic home machines on the market which have programmable features such as shot sizes, pre-infusion, and/or temperatures. One of the nice features about an automatic machine is the increased consistency of the shots that it provides.
Superautomatic is the name given to those machines that - with the press of a button - grind the coffee, move it into the brewing chamber, pack it, brew the espresso shot and then eject the grounds into a built-in dump box. These espresso machines are more expensive, but of course are nearly operator foolproof. While they may seem to be the obvious answer, they have minor drawbacks, which must be considered. Generally speaking, superautomatics give you more consistency, but may have a slightly lower overall espresso quality. If you drink short espresso's exclusively this may be a factor in your purchase decision, but if you, like many of us, drink cappuccinos, lattes and mocha's - the difference is barely noticeable. Superautomatic espresso machines are more complicated internally, and may require a little more maintenance and service down the road. They can be as reliable as a regular style machine provided the owner provides regular preventative maintenance that the manufacturer suggests. If you tend to overlook these things it is a good idea to get a machine that has cleaning cycle and decalcification cycle reminders and self-diagnostics - all of our machines with digital displays have this. If you are the type who remembers these kinds of details, a non-digital machine may be just fine.
Although many machines look similar in size on the outside, there is a wide range of performance and features.One major difference is whether the machine has a single or double boiler system (or thermoblock). Some home units have a single boiler or thermoblock assembly and just like the semi-automatic machines need an extra 45 seconds or so to heat up to steam temperature and another three or four minutes to cool back down before coffee making . This mandatory cool-down period can be an inconvenience if you are having a dinner party and need to make multiple drinks and are using your standard 20 oz. sized steaming pitcher. Single-boiler machines will not allow coffee making until the "overheat/not ready" message or light "disappears". You can "beat" the system quite easily though, by purging the steam out manually (turn the steam knob on and run out about 1 or 2 ounces). By doing this you can make more coffee usually within 30 seconds.
As stated previously, superautomatics, by virtue of their design, have to deliver their boiler/thermoblock water a short distance through unheated parts. For this reason, straight short espresso shots tend to be a few degrees cooler than those made on traditional machines. Certain machines allow the water temperature to be increased, which alleviates this problem to a degree.
For a more extensive discussion on selecting a superautomatic espresso machine, check out the Espressotec Superautomatic Espresso Machine Buying Guide.
- Water Reservoir
- Portafilter handle
- Brew Valve/3-way Electrovalve
- Hot water
It may sound obvious but quality espresso machines use quality components. As with many other products, with espresso machines you generally get what you pay for. That is why the department stores have failed miserably at trying to cash in on the espresso coffee revolution. Home appliance makers are partly to blame for this, in their zeal to bring lo-cost espresso machines on the market, calling just about anything that forces water through coffee grounds an 'espresso machine'. Unfortunately, bad experiences with these lo-cost espresso machines have put many people off the true pleasure of enjoying a properly prepared espresso at home. All of the espresso machines that we carry are proven performers from manufacturers who take their espresso business very seriously. The individual components that they use vary, but they are all designed to achieve the same purpose - a robust, well designed espresso maker with sturdy components that will do their job day in and day out. We will take a look at some of these components, what they do, and the features to look for.
First, lets look at the water reservoir. To us the size is not important. Since water goes "flat" in just a few days, it may actually be an advantage to have a smaller tank that is filled more often. Some people prefer to remove the reservoir often to dump the older water, and ease of removal for them is more important than size. Fresh, oxygenated water makes good espresso - stale water detracts from the flavour. If you use your machine only occasionally or on weekends, consider changing the water before you start and then run a half cup through the boiler to freshen it up.
Home espresso machines use a vibrating piston pump to force water into the boiler and then through the coffee grounds under pressure. The actual pressure that the pump develops is completely irrelevant, since only 8 - 10 bar is required to do the job. In truth, a too high pump pressure requires a finer grind of coffee to slow down the extraction process and there is a greater danger of overextraction. The output pressure of the pump in 'bars' has no bearing on its actual performance, but higher pump wattage can improve overall performance. In addition, some machines have brew pressure valves to provide a more constant brew pressure for added consistency. A more important factor is to choose a reputable espresso machine manufacturer who uses higher quality materials (including the pump), which will all last longer.
Boiler Design/Heating Element
The material that the boiler is made of is less important to us than its 'mass' (weight and thickness) and design. A thorough discussion about the importance of Group Head Temperature Stability in the Commercial Espresso Machine section emphasizes the critical importance of proper temperature on good espresso extraction. This is one of the major failing in many cheaper and less well constructed machines on the market. A similar comparison can be made with a frying pan. No amount of style, technology and advertising promises can replace a good, thick bottom base on a frying pan for temperature stability and even cooking. It's the same for the boiler and group assembly on an espresso machine. A boiler made from thin stainless steel will fluctuate much more in temperature as the element cycles on and off, than the heavy marine grade brass boilers that the Rancilio home line use.
Gaggia uses a system where two elements are embedded on each side of the thick exterior of the boiler. They do not touch the water and this dual element system improves the stability of the boiler water temperature. Both systems by these manufacturers have been in use for 20 years without design changes and are solid in their durability and performance.
A boiler is nearly always used in home espresso machines to brew the espresso. Ninety percent of home espresso machines use this same boiler to produce the steam for frothing milk (called a single boiler system). This is accomplished by raising the temperature (and pressure) in the boiler when you press the steam button; it usually takes about 45 - 75 seconds to build up pressure. Some machines (especially on the automatic and superautomatic machines) build in a separate boiler/thermoblock for the steam function. Thermoblocks heat the water as it passes through a tube encased in an aluminum block with a built-in element. The pump, using a pulsing action, pushes drops of water into the thermoblock where it is quickly turned to steam. The water in the boiler stays at a constant temperature for espresso and steam is created quickly by the thermoblock. Thermoblocks are capable of steaming continuously making them ideal for big jobs. Superautomatic machines usually use boiler/ thermoblock technology.
The portafilter handle, filter handle or group handle as it is variously called, is ideally made of forged brass to give it durability. Aluminum construction on less expensive machines often fail over time. A heavy grouphandle also retains more heat. This helps maintain the finished temperature of espresso, and the delicate flavour and crema as the espresso flows into the cup. The best grouphandles are those that are used in commercial machines. Companies that make commercial machines (such as Rancilio, Rocket and Gaggia) use these very same portafilters in their home machines. The filter baskets (coffee baskets) used in these commercial handles are capable of holding at least 7 grams and 14 grams of coffee (single & double respectively). These commercial baskets will also actually hold a little more than their rated capacity and this is important for the decaf espresso drinker since it is often necessary to load the basket up to get a quality espresso. A heavy portafilter handle also just feels solid and contributes greatly to the feel of quality about a machine.
Brew Valve/3-way Electrovalve
There are two main methods for 'holding' the water in the boiler until the pump is turned on to brew espresso. The simplest method is a spring valve, often called a brew valve. For light duty home service, these are acceptable. They do tend to drip over time and then need to be replaced. While a small cost, the problem is that on many machines they are an integral part of the boiler and can be difficult to repair if the boiler is pitted. Gaggia machines that use a coffee valve use a unique system where the entire valve unit is replaced as a unit, saving time and money.
A superior method for heavier duty use is the 3-way backpressure relief solenoid valve (also called a drip free system or dry puck feature). These are exactly the same valves that are used on commercial machines, and with simple maintenance such as backflushing, should last a lifetime in home use. The 'backpressure relief' refers to the fact that besides acting as a powerful on/off coffee valve, when brewing stops they allow the water in the 'coffee puck' to drain backwards out into the drip tray below through a drain line. Thus, when you dump the 'puck' it is dry and not at all messy.
The Steam switch is used to raise the temperature of the boiler enough to produce steam. This usually takes about 30 to 45 seconds. On machines with larger boilers like the Rancilio Silvia, it will be the longer duration since there is more water to heat, with the advantage being more steaming power. Machines that use a thermoblock system can often take less time to build up a 'head of steam' (such as Philips Saeco or Jura superautomatics). Machines with frothing adapters (turbo frothers, pannarello frothers, cappuccinatore systems) simplify the aeration process (no up and down motion required), however machines with regular steam wands are easy to master once you know the basic technique.
Pump espresso machines can also deliver modest amounts of hot water for long espressos and Americanos. Some machines have a specific hot water switch which turns on the pump. By then turning on the steam valve, near boiling water is delivered out of the wand instead of steam. Machines that do not have this feature can also deliver hot water simply by leaving the portafilter handle with used coffee puck still in and turning the coffee switch on while opening the steam valve - hot water will now come out the steam valve.
Most single boiler home espresso machines have both a coffee and a steam temperature thermostat. For overheat protection many machines use a thermal fuse, which must be replaced by a service technician in the rare event that it is 'tripped'. Other machines, such as Rancilio use a resetable safety thermostat, which like a circuit breaker can be reset by the handy homeowner.
Very high-end home machines (Rocket Giotto/Cellini, Nuova Simonelli Oscar) using the heat exchanger system use an adjustable pressurestat, which besides being extremely reliable, allow for infinite pressure and temperature adjustment. The overpressure safety system on these machines is usually a spring-type safety valve.
The correct grind is essential for a fresh, flavourful espresso. Fresh properly ground coffee is one of the secrets of making great espresso (and any good coffee for that matter). A quality espresso grinder is an excellent investment, improving the results of everyone's espresso. Achieving the fine, consistent grind required involves a solid, quality machine using burr or conical grinding disks that produce the correct grind, without heating and destroying the flavour in the bean. The burrs or cones must be of tempered steel or ceramic to stay sharp and the motor should be hefty. Weight is a good indicator of motor strength and overall construction. The bigger and stronger the motor the lower the speed it is able to operate at, providing a better grind, and quieter operation. Espresso grinders that use conical cutters provide superior results as do burr grinders with 50mm diameter and larger burrs. A doser is provided on many grinders, which allows for the dispensing of a 'pre-measured' (dose) of coffee into the portafilter, improving the consistency. Doserless models, such as the new Rancilio Rocky are excellent for low-volume use since no grinds are left in the doser chamber. Each shot is ground to order and dispensed as needed.
Low cost blade grinders cannot provide the consistent grind required for good espresso. Other light duty home coffee grinders, with small diameter burrs while producing a passable espresso grind, will dull very quickly and frustrate the user. Grocery store coffee grinders are almost always out of adjustment; the blades are not designed for espresso (even though they have an 'espresso' position), and worst of all, if flavoured coffee is available, your espresso blend will pick up those flavours as they are ground.
A built-in grinder is also an excellent way to improve the quality and efficiency of you espresso setup. If the grinder has an auto-dosing feature, this is even better (example: Breville Barista Express). This system approaches the convenience of the superautomatic machine, with the added benefit of considerably less complication and cost. And, as discussed under superautomatics, will produce a very hot espresso for the espresso connoisseur.