If you’ve already started your espresso machine search, then you know that there are a ton of espresso machines out there. In fact, there are so many out on the market today that it can be difficult to determine which one is best for your particular espresso wants and needs.
Should you go for a piston-driven or a steam-driven espresso machine? What about pump-driven or air-pump-driven espresso models? Do you want your espresso machine to be manual or automatic? Semi-automatic or fully automatic? Have you heard of super-automatic, because that’s another great option too!
Espresso lovers often find themselves wanting to grind their own beans and brew their own cups of the much-beloved caffeinated beverage from the comfort of their own home. These people often enjoy knowing all about the different flavors and blends, where the beans come from, how they were harvested, and quite possibly even the Italian origins of the espresso drink itself.
Does this sound like you? If so, then you need to have an espresso machine in your kitchen pronto.
There are many questions that need to be asked before buying an espresso machine for your home. The answers will make it much easier to figure out exactly which one is right for you and your kitchen (not to mention your caffeine addiction…). With all of that at the forefront of our mind, let’s take a look at the exciting and diverse world of espresso machines, from the different types to the various features to look for.
Types of Espresso Machines
Espresso machines come in all different shapes and sizes. The various types have their own sets of features and benefits. From the fineness of the coffee grind to the pressure and heat of which the device is capable, there is an espresso machine that’s perfect for every person and every palette.
That being said, not all espresso machine models are right for every person. Some of them offer an enormous amount of control over every aspect of the process. Others make the job more efficient and convenient but at the cost of fine-tuning every little part and detail.
Of course, espresso machines vary widely in terms of cost as well. Overall, the price of any particular model will depend on a number of factors, not the least of which is the level of automation allowed for by the machine itself.
If your head is already spinning, don’t worry! We’re going to take a look at all the major kinds of espresso machines, how they work, the general cost of each type, and the things to consider for both the models themselves and their highly important component parts.
The first type of espresso machine is the manual variety. As the name implies, manual espresso machines do not come equipped with any of the automatic features or fancy bells and whistles. That said, they can be a beautiful sight to behold for the traditional at heart.
In terms of the nuts and bolts, most manual machines come with a water reservoir, a heating element (the boiler), a portafilter (the part that holds the espresso beans/coffee grounds), a steam pressure gauge, and a manual espresso extraction level. (We’ll look at each one of these in turn a little later. If you want to know the nitty-gritty now, go ahead and check out the last section below.)
Being the original type of espresso machine, some espresso lovers find the classic quality of manual operation to be incredibly appealing. In other words: they just want to do it all themselves. And who can blame them?
With manual machines, most available models allow for the absolute in control during the espresso-making process. You can determine exactly how high or low you want the temperature and steam pressure to be, set the grind and tamp yourself, and even manage the length of the espresso extraction.
If you want to be the complete master of your own domain, the best barista in your kitchen, then a manual espresso machine is definitely the way to go for you. As an added benefit, the manual models are usually also the least expensive of all espresso machines.
One note of caution: if you have not ever actually worked as a barista in a coffee shop before, then the manual models might present a bit of a learning curve, and the taste of your drinks may vary considerably as you find your way. That being said, it’s nothing you can’t handle!
The most control over every aspect of the process
Classic appeal of the “original” espresso maker
More difficult to operate
May present a steeper learning curve for some
Taste may vary due to variations in applied pressure
This Espresso Machine Is For You If…
You like having complete control over how your espresso is made.
You are a fan of more traditional design pieces in your kitchen.
You want to make espresso at home without spending a fortune.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
If you enjoy control but aren’t looking to do all of the work yourself, you might consider getting a semi-automatic espresso machine for your kitchen. With semi-automatic models, the espresso machine is at least partially run on its own with electronic measurements and pressure-reading systems. This may sound complicated, but it’s really just another way of saying, “Set it and forget it, because you won’t have to worry about it.”
Introducing some level of automation in espresso-making helps in a wide variety of ways. A pivotal measure is preventing uneven pressure on the level during the extraction process. We know that baristas possess a great deal of talent and take their job seriously, but even the most experienced will struggle to apply the exact same amount of pressure to the extraction lever each and every time.
Any change in pressure from extraction to extraction will cause the taste to alter, sometimes considerably. The semi-automatic machines take all the guess work out of this procedure to ensure that the espresso tastes the same morning after morning and cup after cup.
In general, the semi-automatic espresso machine works great for individuals who value consistency in the taste of their espresso, but also want to keep a certain level of control over the various steps of the process. In other words, you get the best of both worlds: freedom of control and peace of mind.
Takes out some of the guesswork
More taste consistency between cups
Maintain some level of control over process
Removes some of the manual control
Can be a little pricier than manual models
This Espresso Machine Is For You If…
You enjoy some element of control in making your espresso.
You appreciate more consistency from cup to cup.
You have a bit more to spend, but don’t want to break the bank.
Fully Automatic Espresso Machines
A step beyond semi-automatic machines, the fully automatic variety makes brewing and pouring your own espresso at home in your own kitchen even easier, if you can believe it!
Automatic models will do all the work for you: grinding, tamping, brewing, and everything else. With these models, there is very little that can go wrong. You essentially get a perfect cup of espresso with every use, because there are very few variables that you actually have substantial control over.
The only drawback to this level of automation is that the added layer of technology removes another set of variables of control from the espresso-making process. With the tap of a few buttons, you can rest assured that your espresso is going to be made the same way each and every time. This means that your tastebuds will always know exactly what to expect. Hard to argue with that…
The pricing on these models ranges quite widely, and they can be rather expensive. You’ll want to consider exactly what you’re looking for in automation before deciding on which fully automatic espresso machine is the right addition to your kitchen arsenal.
Automated process from start to finish
No more grinding, tamping, or brewing
Consistency in taste from cup to cup
Very little control over the process
Can be pricey, depending on the model
This Espresso Machine Is For You If…
You don’t particularly need control over your espresso-making process.
You like technology having a place in your kitchen.
You want your espresso drinks to taste the same every time.
Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
For those that seek the absolute ultimate in kitchen convenience, there are super-automatic espresso machines. And… They. Are. Awesome.
Some manufacturers may not differentiate between fully automatic and super-automatic, but there is often a key distinction between the two. Just as the title suggests, these machines are built to make life super easy and a whole lot better at the touch of a single button (literally!), and they usually have even more additional features than the fully automatic devices.
Super-automatic espresso machines bring the ease of use that comes with updated technology to every aspect of the espresso-making process. In many cases, the press of just one button is all that it actually takes to brew the perfect cup of espresso. These models can be a true game changer when it comes to making espresso at home in your own kitchen, without having any training or barista experience at all.
Because of all this, you get precise measurements and consistent taste every single time, from start to finish. Some super-automatic machines go above and beyond by adding the milk to your drink as well, foaming up a perfectly steamy and richly frothy espresso without variation time and time again. For the most expedient and consistent espresso-making process, go with a super-automatic espresso machine.
Absolutely no work required
The ultimate in consistency and quality
Simply push one button and enjoy!
No control over manual aspects of the process
This Espresso Machine Is For You If…
You value ease of use and efficiency above all else.
You want the ultimate in convenience and modern technology.
You aren’t concerned about the cost of the machine, only with how well it works.
Features of Espresso Machines to look for
Apart from the general categories of espresso machines — manual, semi-automatic, fully automatic, and super-automatic — most models actually contain the same overall ingredients to success.
Most espresso machines come with a water reservoir, a heating element, and a portafilter, among other pieces. Let’s take a look at each of the major espresso machine pieces in detail, so that you can make an informed decision about which espresso machine model is best for you and your kitchen.
Many espresso machines come equipped with a water reservoir. This feature is essential in machines that are not connected to a main water supply, because it holds the water espresso machines take from in order to fill the boiler (or heating element).
Espresso machines that do have a water reservoir inside the system allow them to work on the go, as well as in home or work environments that do not have easy or straightforward access to plumbed, running water.
In coffee makers and espresso machines, the heating element is basically just another word for boiler. Overall, espresso machine boilers have two primary functions: to heat the water from the reservoir or water supply and warm the drink once it’s finished brewing, just like they do in most coffee makers.
Technically speaking, the piece is actually a coiled wire, much like a light bulb filament or the heated element you have in your electric toaster that warms when turned on and connected to electricity. In a resistive heating element like the ones in espresso machines, however, they need to be more robust, so the coil has to get embedded in plaster, but the principle remains the same. Without a heating element, the machine will not be able to heat up.
The portafilter (short for portable filter) is a new concept for many people, so we’re going to spend a bit more time with it to make sure this integral facet to espresso machines makes sense to everyone.
Based on position, the portafilter (sometimes written with a dash, as porta-filter) is the final part of the espresso machine. It’s the piece that contains all the ground beans both before and during the integral extraction process.
First, hot water travels through the coffee grounds so that the espresso flavor can be extracted from the beans. Next, the liquid espresso moves down through a funnel in the portafilter’s bottom portion. Last, the drink drips into the espresso cup (called a demitasse) below, usually in a tray of some kind.
In terms of component parts, portafilters have only two primary elements: a handle and a filter basket. The basket sits inside the portafilter itself and in some ways looks like coffee filter, except that it typically consists of metal. Another household kitchen item similar to the portafilter is a pasta strainer, with the exception that the holes in a portafilter’s base are much tinier.
To put it another way, the portafilter is the “middleman” of espresso machines, even though its position is at the end. Portafilters both hold and filter out the ground espresso beans so that the flavored liquid can be extracted into the espresso cup waiting patiently at the bottom.
As you can see, portafilters play a major part in the creation of the drink in espresso machines. Without it, the espresso machine would simply not function in the way that it is intended.
Not all espresso machines come equipped with a pressure gauge, so it is important to get a solid grasp on what it is and why some models opt to leave it off.
The primary question concerns why certain espresso machine models have a gauge to read off the machine’s brew pressure while others do not. The answer is relatively simple, actually. Pressure gauges are mostly there to make you aware of the brew pressure itself, in case it needs adjustment or the pump needs to be replaced. Without the gauge, repair necessities can be determined in other ways.
Another question that comes up a lot with espresso machine pressure gauges is exactly how much pressure is the right amount to brew properly. To function as intended, espresso machines need to maintain 9 bars of pressure. If your model has a gauge, you can see this very easily. If your espresso machine model does not contain a gauge, this is likely because you have an automatic version, in which pressure readings are really not needed.
This brings us to the pump itself. Espresso machines must have some kind of robust pump to push water through the system, a force that produces the pressure needed to extract (or pull) the espresso out into the cup.
Today, many espresso machine models use electric pumps for this purpose. These take the place of older machines that originally required a pump lever that baristas had to pull down on in order to provide the pressure necessary to push out the espresso drink.
Fun fact: this is actually the origin of the phrase “pulling a shot of espresso”. Now you have something new to share when you have people over for espresso…
Espresso Extraction Lever
Now, for the final piece of the puzzle: the lever. The only machines that have levels are the ones that allow for manual control over the process. Naturally, these are the manual models. Semi-automatic, fully automatic, and super-automatic espresso machines do not come with a lever, because the espresso-making is automated by an electronic process. (Phew!)
Each time a barista pulls a shot of espresso with a manual machine, he or she must pull down on the lever itself. This, in turn, enables a spring load by bringing the piston into the cocked position. When the barista releases the lever, the spring tension presses down on the machine’s piston, pushing the water needed for the espresso on through the bed of espresso grounds.
Again, this is only the case with manual espresso machines. If you decide to get an automatic model, you don’t need to worry about the espresso extraction lever at all.
To Sum It All Up…
As you can see, espresso machines come in a wide variety of types and models, but the primary pieces that make them up remain largely the same throughout, with a few exceptions. Now, when you’re searching for the right espresso machine for your specific needs, you have all the knowledge necessary to make the right decision and become the barista of your wildest dreams.
So, what are you waiting for? Check out all the amazing espresso machine models available below and find the one that’s perfect for you and your kitchen.