Espresso machines have been around since 1884, and over the past century and a half, the original design has become more elaborate and versatile. After deciding that an independent espresso machine is the right kind of coffee maker for you (not one built into a drip coffee machine), it may be daunting to now decide on which type of espresso machine is best for your home. Espresso machines will differ in complexity, capacity, and versatility, so you’re guaranteed to find the right machine that fits your budget and types of coffee you want to make on a regular basis.
Steam Driven Espresso Machines
Steam driven espresso machines are the most basic type, and they are incredibly similar to the first ever espresso machine design. They will be the most budget friendly and also the simplest to use, but don’t set your hopes too high when it comes to performance; they are designed for making straight espresso shots and that’s all since they have a very simple brewing process. Steam pressure is also not the most ideal way to make an espresso, but it does work.
Stovetop Espresso Machines
Stovetop espresso machines are the truly rustic model. They are the oldest design and most basic, but they are still preferred by many people for their ease of use and reliability. They don’t have many working parts and are very easy to keep clean as well. The heat from a stovetop element boils water in an airtight chamber (the water tank), creating steam in the process. This steam creates pressure which forces the hot water up through the water reservoir and the coffee grounds. The water takes on the flavor of the grounds as it passes through, becoming coffee, and winds up in a separate chamber ready for drinking.
Electric Steam Espresso Machines
Electric steam espresso machines work very similarly to stovetop models except they use electricity and a heating element rather than a stovetop burner. This is the more popular version of steam espresso makers by far. All types of steam espresso makers will require a fair amount of effort on your part. You’ll have to buy ground coffee (or coffee beans and grind them yourself), tamp them, and measure out the appropriate amount of water and grounds to make your coffee. You may end up feeling like a low-level barista in your own kitchen, but this method does allow you to perfect the strength of your espresso according to your preferences.
One downside of steam espresso machines is that they do not have the capability of reaching the same pressure as other types. The ideal pressure for a shot of espresso is 9 bars of pressure, but steam machines can only reach around 1-1.5 bars. One other problem with this type of espresso machine is that the water is extremely hot as it meets the coffee grounds since it is the same water used to create the steam. The temperature can result in over-extracted grounds and a bitter flavor, especially since the water is in contact with the grounds for a longer period of time thanks to the low pressure. You will not be able to froth milk with this type of machine, but a good espresso is still achievable.
If you decide that a steam espresso machine is the way to go, the Moka pot is one of the best choices on the market as it comes in an electric and stovetop model.
Lever Driven Espresso Machines
Lever machines are fairly popular and sophisticated espresso machines. They still require some input from you to function and are still mostly manual espresso machines, but they are more versatile than steam machines and are better designed for great tasting espresso with less risk of over-extraction. It is not uncommon to see these lever driven espresso coffee machines in coffee shops; they may not be used, but they add a lot of character to the shop.
Many lever espresso machines will contain a frothing wand as well to make a latte or cappuccino with a great espresso base. Specialty coffees are incredibly popular and these espresso machines are a great way to make them at home. The barista has total control over the duration of extraction which offers a lot of opportunity for creativity and experimentation, but consistency can also be a problem with these machines.
Spring Piston Lever Espresso Machines
Spring piston lever machines are the more automated form of lever espresso machines and are therefore a bit easier to use. These machines have an internal spring that help relieve the amount of work a barista has to do to create pressure in the machine. The barista ‘pulls a shot’ which compresses the spring, and the release of that compression forces water through the coffee grounds. In this model, the spring automates the pressure, but the barista still has full control of the extraction time, volume of water, and more to create the perfect cup of espresso.
Direct Lever Espresso Machines
Direct lever espresso machines are the more manual version of lever espresso machines. Rather than a spring mechanism, all of the pressure inside the machine is a result of the manual pull on the lever. This offers even more flexibility in the way a quality espresso is made, but it also means a lack of consistency.
If a lever espresso machine sounds like your cup of espresso, we recommend purchasing one from the original manufacturer, La Pavoni, an Italian company. Lever machines are pretty forgiving, so even if you have some buildup on your portafilter or your tamping didn’t go exactly to plan, you can still produce a high-end espresso.
Pump Driven Espresso Machines
Pump driven espresso machines are exceptional as home espresso machines and commercial espresso machines. They use an electric pump and preheated water for espresso making. They are programmable, with timers, and incredibly versatile, but they will be at the highest end of the price range for espresso machines in general. There are a lot of moving parts in pump driven machines, but they are capable of steaming milk for special coffee drinks and automating the espresso making process. There are three main types of pump driven espresso machines with varying degrees of automation: you can choose between semi automatic, automatic, and super automatic machines. There’s a reason these types of espresso makers are considered the best espresso machines; let’s get into it.
Semi Automatic Espresso Machines
Semi automatic espresso machines are the most common type found in coffee shops. The barista still has control over the tamper, extraction time, and grinding process, but the machine automatically drives water through the grouphead and the water pressure and temperature will always be regulated by the machine. This blend of human and machine control is one of the best ways to achieve consistent but still adjustable cups of coffee and espresso.
Automatic Espresso Machines
Automatic espresso machines are also commonly used in coffee shops. They do not differ very much from semi automatic machines, so there is still the opportunity for individual control of each shot of espresso. The most significant difference is that an automatic machine will stop water flow automatically, whereas the semi automatic machine will not and so puts that responsibility on the barista. The automatic machine is the best way to ensure an exact measurement of water in each espresso to maintain consistency.
Super Automatic Espresso Machines
Super automatic espresso machines are the main ones used in homes and offices due to their ease of use and versatility. Super automatic machines are exactly like they sound; they do absolutely everything for you. Grinding, measuring, filling, and tamping are all responsibilities that the machine takes care of. These machines are incredibly consistent and reliable, but you are still able to make adjustments on most models for grind size and extraction timing.
Single Boiler vs. Double Boiler
Single vs double boiler is a very important distinction to make when it comes to pump driven espresso machines. The best machines will have a double boiler, as this allows the water used in the actual espresso and the boiling water used to make steam to be separated. This ensures you will never over-extract or burn the coffee grounds and ruin your espresso. Some midpoints between a single boiler and double boiler include a heat exchanger and thermoblock; they both provide a way to heat water to two different temperatures without the sophistication of a true double boiler system.