Previously posted on September 2010, on the now defunct webstylemag (broken link).
Photo credit jimmyg
When looking into buying an espresso machine it’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed with choice, and it can be hard to know where to start. In this guide I’ll point out some of things you need to know when choosing the right machine for brewing espresso at home or in an office environment.
The first thing you need to do is decide how much you want to spend. This will then inform which bracket of machines you should be looking at. Also, it’s important to note that spending a lot of money on an espresso machine will not get you very far if you don’t have a reasonable grinder to tweak the grind of your coffee for your shiny new machine. One solution to this is to accept that you’ll get ground coffee for the first few months of owning your machine and then get a better grinder when you can afford it.
This is the route I’ve taken and it worked out well because I ended up with a better grinder having been able to save up for it and research it properly. It’s not uncommon to spend at least £300 GBP to get a really good quality burr grinder.
Note all prices quoted are based on prices of products available in the UK at the time of writing.
The Anatomy of an Espresso Machine
Before we dive into different machine technologies, let’s take a look at the anatomy of a typical espresso machine.
First, you have the portafilter (or group handle) for brewing espresso, which fits into the grouphead. Usually you’ll have one grouphead on a home machine while in cafes it’s common to see 2, 3 and 4 groupheads.
The portafilter is the part with the handle on one end and the basket on the other containing the coffee. This plugs into the grouphead. When brewing, hot water from the grouphead pushes through the coffee in the portafilter and then pours out of its spouts into your cup.
Next you have the steam wand. This provides steam controlled via a tap for heating milk. It’s used to make micro-foam for milk drinks. It’s also ace for hot chocolate!
Lastly you have a hot water tap. On some machines this function is shared with the steam wand. On more expensive machines it’s a dedicated tap. This simply provides hot water in order to make Americanos and can be used for tea too if you want!
Manual, Semi-automatic or Automatic?
Machines come in four types; manual, semi-auto, auto and super-auto. Let’s take a look at the differences of each one.
A manual machine is typically a lever operated machine where you manually control the pumping of the water through the coffee. Some are spring assisted but you get the idea. Whilst these machines look cool it takes a lot of patience to get good results especially with machines that don’t have a spring that does the work for you.
This kind of machine is probably the most common and a good choice all-around. Semi-autos allow you to control the pump so you can switch it off when you decide it’s time to stop. This is handy as it allows fine control over the whole process and is especially good for when you are experimenting with different coffees and grinder settings. Unless you are setting up a cafe or providing a machine for a large office where a machine with auto modes would probably be useful, this is the type of machine to go for.
An auto machine is one which provides preset volumes for single and double espressos etc. This feature is a necessity in commercial machines where you are likely to be cranking coffees out with everything dialled in. In high end machines you’ll find they often have semi-auto style controls in addition to the presets.
There’s a fourth type of machine called “super-automatic” which does the whole coffee-making process including grinding, tamping, brewing and milk-frothing. As this requires no user interaction (which removes all the fun imho) I haven’t included that type of machine as part of the guide.
Espresso Machine Price Brackets
So once you’ve got the money you’ll be looking at machines in one of the following 3 brackets, which are really divided by the type of technology used.
Single Boiler machines use the same boiler for brewing and the provision of steam. This compromise means that you have to wait to get steam after brewing and also if you’ve just used the steamer you can’t jump straight back to brewing because you’ll need to clear the steam first. These machine are a good starting point if you’re not sure you’ll really get into coffee. The downside of such machines is that it’s fairly easy to outgrow them if you start to really geek out over coffee. The main issue is that single boiler machines generally lack precise temperature controls. This means the temperature of the water at the grouphead will vary slightly every time you brew your coffee. This will mean you won’t have enough control to get the best out of “fussy” coffees where a few degrees of temperature difference will radically change the flavours extracted from the coffee. That said, you’ll find that there are plenty of coffee’s available where you’ll get perfectly reasonable results.
- Can provide really good results
- Great for modding to add digital temperature controls
- No precise temperature controls
- Can’t brew espresso and use the steamer simultaneously
- Fine for home but wouldn’t be suitable for use in the workplace
unless it would see limited use
A good example of the higher end of this bracket would be something like the Rancilio Silvia, which is a semi-auto machine. It’s a good choice because it’s tough, and the portafilter is the same as one you’ll find on a pro Rancilio machine. They’re also popular candidates for modding; there’s a number of places you can get kits to add digital temperature controls to these models or even hack together your own using an arduino board.
This next level retains the single boiler approach but adds a heat exchanger. The way this works is that water for the brewing process is heated via pipework within the boiler. This way you can brew and then immediately use the steamer and vice versa, adding a lot more flexibility. The majority of the machines you will see at this price bracket will be semi-automatic machines.
Flexibility brings an increase in price. As you start to look at machines in this range it is more likely that you’ll also start to find machines that have digital thermostat switching. This means you can control the temperatures of brewing much more closely. All of this control means it becomes more possible to control more of the variables that will affect the extraction process.
- Much better control over the extraction process.
- Flexibility of being able to switch between brewing and steaming
- Would be suited for use in an office
- More expensive (obviously!)
Dual boilers do away with the heat exchanger and replace it with two dedicated boilers. These kinds of machines are almost certainly out of reach for most home baristas. Though there are some machines available at the lower end of the range, such as the Expobar Leva Dual Boiler which at time of writing is available for (~£969
from Bella Barista.
The idea behind dual boiler machines is that having a dedicated boiler for brewing and a dedicated boiler for steaming provides an even greater level of control. In addition to dual boilers, you also start to see automatics with features such as programmable volumes when you get into this price bracket. Programmable volumes allow you to dial in the exact volume of water to be dispensed for single and double espressos etc.
- Can’t get more control over brewing variables than this
- Time to open a coffee shop!
- More expensive (ya rly!)
- More difficult to maintain
- Physically larger so you’ll need more space
For me this machine is coffee machine equivalent of the Wayne’s World guitar – One day you will be mine!
Before Diving In
Before you dive in and make a purchase, be sure to spend some time researching the models you're interested in. There are plenty of coffee forums around which will be chock full of user’s opinions of the machines they’ve bought and are using on a daily basis. This kind of practical information can be really useful in making an informed decision, rather than just going on specs alone.