Buying Guide for Home Espresso Machines
DECIDE HOW MUCH AUTOMATION YOU WANT – IS EASE OF USE OR SUPERIOR FLAVOR MORE IMPORTANT?
In terms of automation, there are four main types of espresso machines – manual or spring lever, semi-automatic, volumetric (sometimes called automatic), and super automatic (a lot of people refer to these as automatic or fully automatic). Deciding which type of automation you want will reduce the number of espresso machine choices significantly.
Lever machines take the most practice to use and the most time to make a drink, but when they are dialed in correctly and in combination with a good grinder, they make some of the best drinks out there. Due to the learning curve they are the least popular of the espresso machine types, but that doesn’t mean they are bad!
Semi-automatic machines are easier to to use and take less preparation time when compared to lever machines. This is because they have a pump that applies pressure for extraction. With a semi-automatic machine, the user activates the brew cycle, lets the shot brew, and then manually stops the brew cycle to end the shot pull. With a volumetric (or automatic) espresso machine, the user manually starts the brew cycle, but the espresso machine automatically stops when a predefined amount of liquid has been dispensed for the shot. A lot of prosumer home machine users like semi-automatic machines because they give the user more control of the shot quality. Home users that get volumetric machines prefer the ease of letting the machine control the shot volume and the consistency that it provides.
Last, but not least, are all in one super automatic espresso machines, which do everything. They have built in grinders that will grind coffee for a shot, which is automatically put into a chamber, then tamped with the right pressure. The machine then pulls the shot and automatically stops itself based on a preprogrammed setting. Most super automatic machines can also automatically steam milk. Making a latte becomes as easy as pushing a button. The drawback of super automatics is that the human element is taken out and because of this the drink quality can be less and, in some cases, significantly less than the quality of drinks made with the other machine types and an experienced home barista. We specialize in prosumer machines and only have one home level super automatic espresso machine option at this time, the Quick Mill Monza.
DO YOU NEED A SINGLE BOILER, DOUBLE BOILER OR HEAT EXCHANGER ESPRESSO MACHINE?
We have a detailed comparison between the boiler types and which would be best for your needs, but this is one of the most important factors in making your decision on your choice of your home espresso machine. We recommend watching the comparison video, but as a general rule if you do primarily espresso and rarely milk based drinks a single boiler machine will work fine for you and keep your costs lower. If you do primarily milk based drinks a heat exchange espresso machine will be a good option. If you do a combination of milk based drinks and plain espresso and want the best temperature control possible for both brewing and steaming, then a double boiler espresso machine is your best option. A double boiler is also the best option if you change your beans often, use a lot of single source and roast your own coffee. You can brew and steam at the same time with both heat exchangers and double boilers. With single boiler espresso machines you have to wait between brewing and steaming.
DO YOU WANT A WATER TANK, DIRECT CONNECT OR SWITCHABLE ESPRESSO MACHINE?
A good way of narrowing down the numerous espresso machine options is by deciding whether you want a machine with a water tank or with direct water line connect or both. Some machines are switchable so if you want a machine with a water tank, but plan to have the option to direct connect in the future, these types of machines would be a good choice for you. Water tank only machines tend to be lowest cost than direct connect machines because they cost less to make. For direct connection, more robust components are needed to handle the constant water line pressure, including rotary vane or magnetic gear pumps. Most water tank only espresso machines use vibratory pumps which cost a lot less to produce.
DECIDE HOW MUCH MONEY YOU WANT TO SPEND ON BOTH ESPRESSO MACHINE AND GRINDER
Budget is, of course, another very important consideration. At Espresso Outlet, we specialize in prosumer machines and our home machines start at around $500 and go upwards to something like the Slayer 1 group for over $9000. While there are a variety of cheaper machines below what we have to offer, we have chosen not to sell those machines. At the lower price point you’ll get a single boiler machine that can make good shots and can steam, but you will have to wait between brewing and steaming. As the price goes up, you start getting features like PID temperature control, heat exchanger boiler, non compression steam and hot water wands, copper or stainless steel boilers, thermosiphon heated group heads, insulated boilers, steam pressure gauges, brew pressure gauges, double boilers, insulated boilers, direct water line connection, rotary pumps, and even manual and computer controlled pressure profiling on the highest priced espresso machines.
DO YOU WANT A VIBRATORY OR ROTARY PUMP?
Another factor that a lot of people use to narrow the number of machine options down is the type of pump the machine has – rotary or vibratory. Vibratory pumps are usually on machines that are water tank only and espresso machines that have them are lower priced than comparative machines that have rotary vane pumps. Rotary pumps are on machines that can be direct connected to a water line. The primary purpose of a rotary pump is for direct connection as they are designed to handle the constant pressure from a water line. Compared to a vibratory pump, they are usually much more robust in terms of design and tend to last quite a bit longer. They are usually also quieter than vibratory pump espresso machines. There have been blind taste tests where rotary pump machines do better than vibratory pump machines, but not super conclusive on this one.
Another type of less common espresso machine pump type is the magnetic gear pump. This type of pump is similar to the rotary vane pump, but is designed for machines that have pressure profiling. The pumps are computer controlled and can be programmed to run at certain levels of pressure and ramp up or down during a single shot extraction. This allows bell shaped pressure curves that yield a fuller, more balanced flavor during extraction.
OTHER ESPRESSO MACHINE FEATURES TO CONSIDER
Larger boilers allow you to make more drinks and have better steam pressure than smaller boilers.
Some machines have PID temperature controllers that allow you to adjust espresso machine boiler temperatures and in some cases espresso machine group head temperatures. Extraction temperatures are the most important aspect of an espresso machine that has an impact of flavor. Every individual coffee bean has a different ideal extraction temperature. Some beans extract best at lower temperatures, others extract best at higher temperatures. The ability to adjust temperature will allow you to fine tune the temperature to the ideal extraction temperature for your coffee bean of choice. It is especially nice to have a PID temperature adjustor if you change your beans often and drink a lot of plain espresso. Due to the way machines are designed, you will get the most benefit of a PID controller on a single boiler or double boiler espresso machine. On a heat exchanger, the PID adjusts the temperature of the steam boiler, but because of how a heat exchanger is designed you cannot independently and precisely control brew temperature.
Aluminum is a lower quality material as it doesn’t maintain temperature very well and it can get pitted from water over time. Bronze is the next best material. Copper and stainless steel are the best materials for espresso machines and is the material of choice in most prosumer grade espresso machines that are over $1000.
Some espresso machines have electronically heated group heads, others have thermosiphon heated E61 brew groups, others have saturated brew groups and others have a manufacturer proprietary design. As the stability and control of the brew group temperature increases, the quality of the flavor increases, as does the price of the machine. Machines at the highest price level have incredibly precise and stable temperature prior to and during extraction.
Preinfusion is where coffee grounds are prewet at a low level of pressure prior to full pressure being applied. Preinfusion provides more even extraction and therefore improves the flavor of espresso.
This is a feature on higher end espresso machines and is not very common. It is a feature that allows extraction pressure to be controlled during extraction either through manual pressure profiling or through computer controlled pressure profiling.
SHOT TIMERS, AESTHETICS, AND OTHER FACTORS
There are a variety of other factors to consider including shot timers, auto on/off functionality, shot counters, coated steel frames vs stainless steel frames, wood accents, standard vs no-burn steam wands, joysticks vs knobs, compression vs non compression valves, direct drain connection vs drip tray only, needle valves, programming features, and more, but these are usually a matter of preference and aren’t as important as the other factors discussed.
Aesthetics is an important factor but is a matter of preference. Some people like an all stainless-steel look, others prefer colors, and other prefer wood accents. It’s an important factor, but one design is not necessarily better than another one.