Nowadays the Espresso machine is available in just about any style or configuration you could possibly imagine. The super-duper automatic models that do everything apart from drink the coffee for you are the fully automatic machines – they are even self-cleaning – all at the touch of a button. After reading this article you’ll have what you need to know to pick the machine that’s right for you.
Types of Espresso machines:
Assuming that you’ve selected a good espresso grinder, you’re probably wondering if you can now buy an Espresso machine. The answer is no. There are a few different types of espresso machines, and you need to learn about them first:
Best Super Automatic Espresso Machine
Super-automatic machines take all of the craft out of the project of making espresso. They grind, tamp, dose, and extract coffee. Sometimes they can even steam and pour milk automatically. It sounds seductive, doesn’t it? Imagine, your own robot barista, sans tip jar, willing to dispense macchiato after macchiato at the touch of a button, in your own home.
Super-automatic machines manufactured for home use tend to be made with cheap components and therefore break down more often. But they do allow you to make really bad drinks effortlessly.
Semiautomatic machines are where good espresso becomes possible. Consumer semiautomatic machines have portafilters that must be dosed with ground coffee and inserted into the group head. They have steam wands that require using the correct amount of milk in a steam pitcher and the correct technique.
A subcategory of the semiautomatic machine is the “prosumer” machine. An ungainly portmanteau word, prosumer in this context means that these machines have many of the virtues of the professional espresso machine:
larger copper or brass boilers, a 58-millimeter portafilter, a rotary pump, and an articulated steam wand, with a 360-degree range of motion rather than a wand that can only go back and forth. In these machines, heavy components, mostly of metal construction, have been wedded to the needs of the consumer, such as standard (110-volt) electricity and no need for a plumbed-in water connection.
These are often the most expensive espresso machines, but they are also the ones that perform best when used well, and they last the longest.
Manual Espresso Machines
Also known as lever machines, these machines use a lever for applying pressure, rather than a pump. They look cool, oh yes they do. Many a newcomer to espresso looks longingly at the lever-handled La Pavoni and sees it in his kitchen as the indelible marker of Ian Fleming–style bachelor-pad cache.
However, they can be impractical and very tricky to use. Unlike super-automatic machines, which are designed so that good drinks are impossible, it isn’t impossible to make a good drink on a manual machine—it’s just very, very difficult.
Since you are, in effect, acting as the machine’s pump, factors such as grind size, dosing, and distribution are even more critical. Most manual machines built for the consumer don’t have a three-way valve, which releases built-up pressure, so if your machine doesn’t have one, you need to wait to remove the portafilter until the machine has depressurized, or you risk being sprayed by hot, wet coffee grounds.
We do use lever machines at some Blue Bottle locations for single-origin espresso, but commercial lever machines have a spring that produces the brewing pressure on the upstroke of the lever, rather than the barista producing the brewing pressure on the downstroke, as in many home models of lever machines.
This creates a little more excitement, owing to the fact that if the portafilter isn’t seated correctly, the lever can spring upward with hundreds of pounds of force, possibly breaking jaws or causing concussions if the unfortunate and poorly trained barista happens to have his or her head where it shouldn’t be.
Nespresso Automatic Espresso Machine
Professional Espresso Machines
The professional machines we use at Blue Bottle—usually made by La Marzocco—are monsters: huge, heavy creatures of brass and stainless steel built for artfully making Espresso with speed and consistency. They draw 40 to 50 amps of power at 220 volts, and the electricity bill just to keep them running can be several hundred dollars a month.
They are usually three-group machines (three portafilters capable of pulling three Espresso at a time) and have a dedicated steam boiler and either one brew boiler or a separate, tunable brew boiler for each group.
Choosing the Best Espresso Machine
It sounds simplistic, but the single best predictor of the adequacy of an espresso machine is weight. Heavy machines usually perform better than lighter machines. Weight implies metal rather than plastic parts, copper or brass boilers rather than steel, larger group heads rather than smaller, commercial-grade rather than consumer-grade.
So when choosing a machine, you can spend countless hours on the Internet, or you can keep a simple guideline in mind: if you spend around two grand on a semiautomatic machine that weighs more than 40 pounds (18.1 kg), you probably made as good a decision as you would have after lurking around boring chatrooms for months. If you want to consider the important specs in more detail, here are some key:
Features to look for: a commercial-size 58 millimeter portafilter, a rotary pump, an articulated steam wand, a three-way valve, a copper or brass boiler with a volume greater than 12 fluid ounces (355 ml), and a boiler pressure gauge, which lets you know what your brewing temperature is and lets you see the change if you make adjustments, since temperature is proportional to pressure.
The same lever or button should turn the pump on and off; you don’t need an automatic dosage. The only automatic feature should be a sensor that cuts the power to the heating element if the boiler or reservoir runs dry.
If two grand seems like a lot of money, think of all the status symbols that sit lonely and unused day after day: the Steinway pianos, the Viking ranges, the KitchenAid mixers, the Vitamix blenders.
An espresso machine and grinder that are put to use frequently are objects that transform time and money into pleasure and deliciousness—and that, if you have the money, is nothing to be ashamed of.
Of course, you don’t have to spend $2,000 on an espresso machine to get something serviceable. There are a couple of reasonably priced (around $500) models by Rancilio and Gaggia that are heavy and simple, with larger boilers and commercial portafilters. One of those, paired with a good grinder, will work just fine.