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Espresso machines have become much more readily available over the past few decades, thanks to the migration of specialty coffee drinks from Europe to America. But now there are so many options – many of them quite highly priced – that it can be difficult to know where to start.
If you’re thinking about taking the plunge, here’s a handy guide to choosing the perfect espresso maker for your home.
Normal drip coffee makers steep the beans in hot water for several minutes. Espresso machines use high pressure (of around 120 pounds per square inch!) to force steam through the grounds over the course of 20-30 seconds.
This super-fast extraction time results in an intense, smooth “shot” of pure coffee essence which tastes great on its own or mixed with milk for a latte or cappuccino. A freshly-pulled shot also has a layer of rich, flavorful foam on top called the “crema.”
To brew espresso, you can choose from several varieties of espresso machines. The steam extraction process can be driven by pistons (hand-operated), pumps, steam, air, or the heat of a stove top (for an espresso approximation).
You can also find them in semi-automatic and automatic that control various brew processes and even super-automatic versions that grind the coffee for you!
While automation can help minimize some of the variables involved in making espresso, more automation means less room for experimentation and customization, so it’s important to decide how much control you want before buying.
Piston-Driven units were among the first standardized versions invented over 50 years ago. Operated by hand, they rely on the barista’s skill in “pulling” a shot to force steam through the grounds at high pressure and achieve the perfect extraction.
You won’t see these much anymore except as display pieces or for light usage.
These machines, very common today, operate on the same principles as piston-driven ones, but they use a motor to drive the steam through the coffee instead of the arm-strength of a barista. Costs can range from several hundred dollars for basic home versions to several thousand for industrial ones.
These are available in several formas including semi-automatics, automatics, and super-automatics.
Semi-Automatics & Automatics
Espresso-making has several steps: grinding the coffee (should be fine, but not powdery); tamping it into a solid “puck” for brewing (evenness is important in this step); brewing; stopping the brew process (after 20-30 seconds), and emptying the puck out of the portafilter.
Semi-automatic machines take care of the brewing process but require you to grind and tamp the coffee, start the brew, and stop it when it reaches the desired state. Automatic versions stop the brew process automatically.
You also have to clean the puck of used grounds out yourself.
These are the machines that most coffee aficionados gravitate to.
Since espresso is so temperamental, this combination of automation allows the amateur barista the ability to keep some variables constant (such as pressure and temperature) while adjusting others such and grind size and weight and extraction time.
Super-automatics do it all – grinding, tamping, brewing, and even emptying the used puck into an internal waste container. Some of the premium super-automatics even froth and steam milk automatically and you can adjust the amount of air injected in the milk with a touch of a button.
But remember, all of these steps affect the flavor of your final coffee, so if you’re the kind of person who loves to tinker, you might want to find a machine that lets you have control over the process.
Also, even super-automatics need to be kept clean, so make sure you find one that’s easy to disassemble.
Gaggia 1003380 Accademia Espresso Machine available on Amazon.
A very popular model is the Gaggia Accademia. It’s a full featured, no-holds-barred type of product so be preparred to shell out some shillings.
The simplest systems, and often best suited for an office environment, are pod or capsule based systems where one simply places the pod into the machine and the machine does everything else.
No coffee grounds ever need to be cleaned up.
The trade off is a lack of control on which beans are used (as only certain ones are available), it is more expensive per shot, and extra landfill wastes created from the disposables (however, certain companies do have recycling programs).
Stovetop, Steam, and Press “Espresso” Makers
Although moka pots, steam-driven espresso machines, and press coffee makers can brew very strong coffee, they lack the intense pressure and steam extraction of true espresso, so the flavor isn’t quite the same.
If you want to make flavored specialty drinks or take something with you on the go, however, a stovetop or press system can be an easy, cheap, and portable substitute for a full-size espresso maker.
Steam machines are neither true espresso makers nor very portable, but they make a nice addition to your counter top for a quick cup in the morning.
Why are these machines so expensive? Espresso making is a very precise process.
In order to brew delicious, flavorful coffee successfully with lower temperatures and shorter extraction times (which reduce unwanted bitter compounds in the final drink), the machine has to create and maintain high pressures.
This requires a boiler system, precision heating unit, multiple thermometers (if the machine has an arm for steaming milk), and various safety features.
These are complex systems that have more in common with an entertainment center than a toaster, and they are certainly priced accordingly.
Cheap units (~$300) will get the job done – in fact, most coffee connoisseurs agree that a quality grinder makes a bigger difference to flavor than an expensive espresso machine – but more expensive examples are more precise and durable.
Some models include features like simultaneous brewing and milk steaming, but for the most part, you’re paying for what’s under the hood – quality components and careful design.
Bottom Line Recommendations
The Home Coffee Enthusiast
The coffee aficionada normally chooses an automatic or semiautomatic espresso machine as he or she normally prefers to be able to adjust nearly every variable within the brew process.
These products are best for those that “really into” the espresso making process and like to be able to change how the unit behaves given different variables such as bean variety and roast, the grind of the coffee beans, and even as so far as to account for environmental factors such as temperature and humidity.
There are several types of automatics and semi-automatics to choose from to include: Dual/Double Boiler Espresso Machines, Heat Exchanger Espresso Machines, and Single Boiler Espresso Machines. These units are available in a large wide range of price points depending on boiler type and features.
The Busy Coffee Enthusiast
The coffee lover who wants a better coffee with the convenience of having a home based unit generally chooses a super-automatic espresso machine that pretty much does everything for you.
These machines are cheaper to operate than a pod or capsule based system and give you allot more control over bean selection as a pod system is normally locked into those offered by the manufacturer or the rare third party supplier.
Alternatively, there are a few automatics/semi-automatics that also accept Pods or Capsules. Read more about Super-Automatics.
Many times, those that work in office setting want convenience and the ability to keep a break area clean. A pod or capsule based system works best for an office environment as cleanup is easy and quick.
These operate similar to Keruig or other coffee pod systems in which the user places a disposable sealed container of pre-ground espresso into the machine and presses a button and espresso flows out.
Once the beverage is complete, then the capsule is thrown away or recycled with no emptying of used grounds ever required.
Alternatively, a super-automatic can be used for an office setting with daily emptying of ground (and this would be my personal recommendation).
The Restaurant or Small Coffee Shop
Dependent on their training of staff and number of customers they are serving, restaurants looking to add espresso based drinks to expand their menus or coffee shops can have various styles of espresso machines.
For those where all or most members of the staff are expected to operate the equipment or if they are serving a high volume of customers, a commercial super-automatic espresso machine is highly recommended.
There is only one machine within this particular sphere that we would consider and that is the Quick Mill Monza. This machine is used in nearly 250 McDonalds in Italy where you can’t fake espresso.
The Quick Mill Monza Deluxe Super Automatic Espresso Machine available on Amazon
This machine also makes the perfect addition to the man cave or private club.
With a little training, restaurants and coffee shops can easily take advantage of the adjustability that are offered by an automatic or semi-automatic espresso machine and these are often just as fast a super-automatic if chosen for commercial attributes.
Also these units give a better “presentation” to the customer as the coffee is ground with a separate grinder and the barista fills and tamps the puck in the portafilter prior to placing in the machine leading to a more “handmade” feel versus the “pushing of a button.”
The Dedicated Coffee Shop
A coffee shop dedicated to gourmet coffee would be served with a “old school” spring lever machine where they control every variable of the brew process—from temperature of the boilers to the amount of time the pump is in operation.
A fully trained barista staff are needed to operate these machines and often a professional grade semi-automatic can work just as well.
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