Espresso machines are more complex appliances than your average coffee maker, so shopping for one can be a little more daunting. With so many features to consider, cost variables, and even technology differences, there’s a lot to think about before making a choice. We’re here to help you choose the best espresso machine for you by covering every aspect of espresso machines you’ll need to know before buying. Even if you’ve never used this type of coffee machine in the past, you’ll be an expert shopper by the end of this article.
How Does an Espresso Machine Work?
Before you can choose a home espresso machine, it’s important that you understand how they work. Since part of your decisions will center around the components that make the espresso maker function, a basic understanding of what they do can only help.
An espresso machine uses pistons, steam, or pumps to force hot water through a “puck” of coffee beans. The high pressure inside espresso machines, as well as the small water-to-coffee ratio, give espresso its signature kick of caffeine and thick consistency.
An espresso machine has five main components: a water source, the pump, the boiler, the steam chamber or steam wand, and the group head that holds the portafilter and nozzles/valves for the water to flow through. Other features that your espresso machine may possess include a milk frother, coffee bean grinder, water filter, and tamper.
Features to Consider Before Buying an Espresso Machine
Type of Espresso Machine
When choosing an espresso machine, there are multiple options with varying levels of autonomous functionality or manual effort required. While stovetop espresso machines do exist, we’ve left them off this list for two reasons: one, they require boiled water that gives a burnt taste to the coffee, and second, they don’t deliver the same kind of pressure as an espresso machine, so most people describe the result as a strong coffee rather than a shot of espresso.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
Semi-automatic espresso machines are the most basic pump-driven models. Some functions are automatic, such as the pump, but you’ll be responsible for most of the brewing process including grinding and compressing the coffee beans, measuring your water, and controlling the brew time. Coffee aficionados prefer this machine since they can more easily customize their brew, but it isn’t a top choice for beginners since brewing espresso is much more complicated and labour-intensive.
Automatic Espresso Machines
Automatic espresso machines are a middle ground between automatic and manual operations. They add a few automatic functions on top of the semi-automatic machines such as volume and brew time but leave the rest to you. These machines have an additional part in the group head called a flowmeter that turns off the pump when the right amount of water has passed through.
Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
Super-automatic espresso machines do it all for you, from temperature control to brew time to brew volume. All models can grind and tamp down your coffee beans for you, and some even include automatic milk frothing for more complicated brews like cappuccinos. The only manual work involved with these super-automatic machines is to add your coffee beans to the hopper and empty out the container housing used beans once in a while. Plus, you’ll still be responsible for thoroughly cleaning the various components of the espresso maker.
Manual Espresso Machines
Manual espresso machines use a lever rather than a pump system. These machines require you to do all the heavy lifting, including applying pressure to force water through your beans. Even experienced espresso drinkers will encounter a number of failures when starting out with this espresso machine since the learning curve is incredibly steep. To use a manual espresso machine properly, you’ll also need a high-quality grinder and fresh whole bean coffee, otherwise, your espresso-making journey will be over before it starts as you’ll never pull a good shot.
Your ideal price point determines a number of features on your new espresso machine. The fully automatic options will be the most expensive, but manual machines require additional pieces of equipment for grinding your beans and getting the right water temperature. You’ll also need to consider the cost of beans, milk, and energy usage with your specific model. Most entry-level models require manual help to make a cup of coffee, so you’ll need to balance your budget with your skill level. The largest price range you can expect when shopping is as little as $100 for the most basic model to more than one or two thousand for the super-automatic options. Commercial espresso machines can run into the tens of thousands. Top brands that offer quality espresso makers in a variety of price points include Breville, Delonghi, and Gaggia.
One of the most important concerns when choosing an espresso machine is the variety of drinks you enjoy. For example, you might need a heat exchanger machine or a dual boiler machine if you make large milk drinks. For Americanos or straight espresso shots, a single boiler machine is perfect. Not all machines can make two cups of espresso at once, so you’ll need to consider your family size and morning routine when thinking about the types of espresso drinks you’ll be making. You should also consider a pod espresso machine like Nespresso or Keurig since these allow you to easily switch between espresso flavors and coffee types with little mess.
A key consideration you should be thinking about before hitting that purchase button is your clearance space below your cupboards and available counter space. Some espresso and Nespresso machines are quite large, so you’ll need ample space available. Height is also a consideration since hoppers and some reservoirs load from the top with lids that will need clearance to open up.
Whether you use a super-automatic machine with a built-in grinder or have a less automatic model and an external grinder, your grinder is an essential component of your espresso-making process. The main features to consider are the available grind sizes and grind type (conical vs. flat). The grind size of your beans can affect whether you make the best coffee you’ve ever had or a shot that’s headed down the drain after a single sip. Some grinders have a dozen options while some just have three, so you’ll need to evaluate your own preferences when making this decision. A burr grinder is usually the best option for making espresso since you’ll want custom-ground coffee for personalized flavour, and you’ll need a high-quality coffee grinder to extract the right flavours from your beans. If in doubt, ask your local coffee shop what type of grinder they use so you can use the same type and achieve familiar results.
For many espresso drinks, a little bit of crema and frothed milk go a long way. While you can certainly do it yourself with an extra tool, an espresso maker with a built-in milk frother makes the process that much smoother. The tool should be stainless steel for easy cleaning though as they can quickly grow harmful bacteria if not cleaned properly. Some machines will add the frothed milk for you, but you may need to play barista and do it yourself when making fancier espresso drinks like lattes. If you don’t have a frother on your espresso machine, you can steam milk yourself using a standalone frother.