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Espresso Machine Buying Guide



How to Choose the Best Espresso Machine for Your Home or Office

So, you want to purchase a real espresso machine and prepare authentic espresso, cappuccino and latte's right in your home or office. This is certainly a great idea if you love good coffee, and with some guidance you should be able to choose the best espresso machine to meet your individual needs, desires and budget. With a good machine, some quality espresso coffee, a little practice and some patience, you can soon be filling your cup with pure delight that rivals (or exceeds!) drinks from the finest cafes. And, the beauty of owning and mastering your own espresso machine is that you can brew anytime you want, the way you like it, and at a fraction of the cost/cup versus going out to a restaurant or cafe. Most of the espresso machines we carry also include a steam wand to froth milk so you can prepare cappuccino and latte drinks as well.

There are five (5) general types of espresso machines described below, the first step in your process should be to narrow down which type of machine is best for you. This will depend on multiple factors including:

  1. Desired ease of operation, including steps required to brew, effort required to optimize your espresso shots, additional equipment that may be needed (such as a coffee grinder), and cleaning/maintenance requirements.

  2. Your preference either towards simplicity, or hi-tech sophistication with lots of features and automatic functions.

  3. The amount of counter space you're willing to allocate to an espresso machine. Some machines are very small and compact, while others (especially super-automatic machines) can be quite large.

  4. And last but not least, your budget $$$. Please know, you don't need to spend a fortune to enjoy authentic, delicious espresso, cappuccino and latte drinks at home. More important is the quality of the espresso beans and coffee grinder (to ensure proper fineness & grind consistency). With that said, it's also important to know that you can't brew true espresso with the commonly found, cheap department store "espresso" machines (steam powered, no brewing pump), we discuss this more below.

Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

Semi-automatic espresso machines are the most common type, featuring an electric brewing pump which is manually turned on and off by the user. These machines are relatively simple to operate, but (along with lever style machines) do require the most manual intervention.

Typical Brewing Steps Using Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines:

  1. Verify there is water in the reservoir, turn on the power, and wait until the machine is warmed up (typically just a few minutes);

  2. Remove portafilter handle (which holds the metal filter basket);

  3. Scoop a measured amount of ground espresso into the filter basket and tamp (press) down;

  4. Reinstall portafilter, place brew pitcher (or cup) under the portafilter and press the brew switch;

  5. Once the desired brew volume is achieved, turn off the brew switch;

  6. Repeat if desired.

The above process is pretty straight forward and with a little practice you can create rich, authentic espresso as good or better than any coffee house. Some experimentation is required to achieve a perfect espresso; however, the primary variables are mostly limited to espresso bean quality, grind fineness and tamp pressure.

Key points to consider regarding Semi-Auto Espresso Machines:

  • Relatively easy to use, but do require more manual intervention and can be a bit messy (but worth it!).

  • With some practice and good quality coffee, can produce authentic espresso with a thick crema.

  • Offers the most brewing flexibility, you can use any espresso coffee you wish, and vary the grind fineness, ground coffee volume and tamp pressure to achieve your personally desired results. Also, many semi-auto machines can accept both pre-ground espresso and ESE style paper espresso pods.

  • Most semi-auto machines are relatively simple mechanically, and often have no circuit boards or complicated internal mechanisms.

  • Usually require little counter space, some newer models are very compact in size.

  • Price varies from just under $100 for a good entry level machine on up. One important thing to keep in mind though, even our lowest priced entry level pump machines have the ability to produce an excellent, authentic espresso. Usually as price goes up, you find more rugged construction, higher style and possibly more features.

  • One key difference between semi-automatic models is whether they use a "Pressurized" or "Non-Pressurized, Commercial" style of portafilter.
    • "Pressurized" portafilters simply have some type of device built-in which restricts flow during brewing and helps to generate a good result with crema, even when the coffee used may not have been ground fine enough. This makes the machine a bit more flexible and user friendly, as you don't need to invest in a higher-end coffee grinder and can use most pre-ground espresso effectively. This type of machine is best if you just want a quick, good espresso and don't have much interest in experimenting or investing in a good grinder.

    • "Non-Pressurized, Commercial" portafilters are a straight-through design with only a perforated metal filter basket and no restrictive device. In this case your brewing results are much more dependant on how you prepare the ground coffee (grind fineness & tamp), as this is what will create the needed restriction to build the proper pressure for extraction. So for example, if the coffee is ground to coarse the water will quickly flow through with little extraction. This type of machine requires a little more practice, and a very fine grind of coffee, but the results can be amazing!

Super-Automatic Espresso Machines

Super-automatic espresso makers are sophisticated machines that go from bean to cup at the touch of a button. They utilize a built-in coffee grinder and brewing mechanisms that automatically grind the coffee, fill and tamp the filter basket, brew a pre-determined volume of espresso then dump the used coffee grounds into an internal waste container. Each cycle typically takes a couple of minutes to complete; at which time it can easily be repeated to brew another shot. These machines can also froth milk for preparing cappuccino or latte using either a steam wand or automatic milk frothing system depending on the model.

Typical Brewing Steps Using Super-Automatic Espresso Machines:

  1. Verify there is water in the reservoir and coffee beans in the grinder, turn on the power, and wait until the machine is warmed up (typically just a few minutes);

  2. Place a brew pitcher (or cup) under the brewing head;

  3. Press a pre-programmed brew button; the machine will then grind the coffee, fill the filter basket with ground coffee and tamp it down, brew a measured volume of espresso, and then dump the used coffee grounds into an internal waste container;

  4. That's usually it! Now you can brew another shot if you wish.

Key points to consider regarding Super-Automatic Espresso Machines:

  • Very easy to use, no practice or skill required, simply fill up the water and coffee beans then press a button.

  • All of the super-auto models we carry can produce a good espresso (assuming use of quality espresso beans); however, we have never tested one that could brew an espresso as thick and creamy as a good semi-auto machine. This should not necessarily be a deterrent though, the results can still be as good or better than most cafe's especially if you plan to mix it with steamed milk for cappuccino or latte.

  • In general, super-auto machines have less brewing flexibility but this depends on how many features/adjustments the particular model offers such as the ability to adjust the grinder fineness, brew volume, water temperature, etc. Also, many models can only use whole espresso beans, while some are able to use pre-ground espresso as well (bypass doser).

  • Super-automatic machines are inherently more complicated internally than semi-auto machines, since they have to automatically transport ground coffee, tamp, etc. And, virtually all super-auto machines rely on one ore more computer boards.

  • Usually require more counter space than semi-auto machines, some models can be quite large although these days fairly compact models are also available.

  • Prices range from just under $400 for an entry level machine on up. Typically as price goes up, you find more features and adjustments (bells & whistles); however, don't necessarily expect the quality of espresso to vary much between models.

Manual Lever Espresso Machines

Manual espresso machines offer old world style and craftsmanship with the capability to brew exquisite espresso; however, they do require the highest degree of skill to master and are only recommended for the hands-on espresso purist who is willing to invest some time and experiment. Pulling a perfect espresso shot from a lever espresso machine is a truly rewarding experience. You actually become part of the brewing process; with practice and determination eventually mastering your technique similar to learning a musical instrument.

Typical Brewing Steps Using Manual Lever Espresso Machines:

  1. Verify there is water in the reservoir, turn on the power, and wait until the machine is warmed up. These machines heat all of the water inside the boiler at once to build pressure, so this can take a while (typically about 10-15 minutes);

  2. Remove portafilter handle (which holds the metal filter basket);

  3. Scoop a measured amount of ground espresso into the filter basket and tamp (press) down;

  4. Reinstall portafilter, place brew pitcher (or cup) under the portafilter;

  5. Raise the brew handle and then press it down slowly to force hot water through your ground coffee.

  6. You can load fresh ground coffee and repeat as long as there is still water in the boiler. But, once the water runs out you need to power down and wait for the machine to cool off before opening the boiler and refilling (since it is pressurized when hot).

The above process is relatively straight forward, but it can take quite a bit of practice and experimentation to achieve the perfect espresso shot. Brewing variables include espresso bean quality, grind fineness, tamp pressure and manipulation of the brew lever (rate and timing).

Key points to consider regarding Manual Espresso Machines:

  • Very cool, old-world style machines!

  • Most complicated to use effectively, requires research, practice and patience. But, when the stars align just right the results can be amazing!

  • As far as we know, all lever machines currently available can only accept fine ground espresso (not ESE espresso pods); however, keep in mind most folks that go this route are not primarily concerned with convenience and wish to grind their own espresso anyway.

  • Manual lever espresso machines are relatively simple mechanically, and often built using old-world techniques, quality and beauty.

  • Usually require little counter space.

  • Price varies from just under $800 on up. These are expensive machines, but they can last for generations with proper care and maintenance.

Capsule Espresso Machines

Capsule espresso machines are the ultimate in convenience and ideally suited for offices, restaurants and other food service operations as well as in the home. Simply insert a capsule which is pre-filled with ground coffee into the machine and press a button to produce a rich, thick authentic espresso. Most of the capsule espresso machines we carry are also equipped with a steam wand or automatic milk frothing system for preparing cappuccino and latte drinks, but please check the model as a few are designed to brew espresso only.

Typical Brewing Steps Using Capsule Espresso Machines:

  1. Verify there is water in the reservoir, turn on the power, and wait until the machine is warmed up (typically just a few minutes);

  2. Place a brew pitcher (or cup) under the brewing head;

  3. Insert an espresso capsule and press a pre-programmed brew button; most models will automatically stop once the correct espresso volume is achieved;

  4. Repeat if desired.

Key points to consider regarding Capsule Espresso Machines:

  • Very easy to use, no practice or skill required, simply fill up the water, insert a capsule, then press a button.

  • All of the capsules machines we carry can produce an excellent espresso (assuming use of quality espresso capsules), with a large variety of Italian brands and blends available. However, please keep in mind each machine can only use the specific type (size/shape) of capsule it was designed for, so it's good advice to first verify availability of brands and blends you prefer before making a final choice of machine.

  • The internal complexity of most capsules machines lies somewhere between semi-auto and super-auto models; most have a computer board and some mechanisms to transport the capsule.

  • Counter space required varies allot between models, some are extremely compact, while others are quite large.

  • Prices range from just under $200 on up.

Steam Powered Espresso Makers

The temptation to buy a low cost steam powered espresso machine like those typically found in department stores should be disregarded, as they are unlikely to create the proper temperature and brewing pressure required to prepare an authentic espresso. Rather, the results are closer to an overly strong, often slightly burnt, drip coffee. At Espresso Zone we don't advocate, or carry this type of steam powered espresso machine but rather carry some entry level pump-driven semi-auto espresso machines that can produce a true espresso while still being economical.

Learn How to Choose the Best Espresso Machine for Your Home or Office - Our free guide walks you through the processs!