Buying Guide to Espresso Machines

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Coffee lovers rejoice! Now you can have the same great-tasting, barista-quality espresso right in the comfort of your home. Plus, when you add up over time how much you spend having your drinks prepared for you, owning your own espresso machine will save you some hard-earned cash. Whether you love mochaccinos, caramel macciatos, bold espressos or cinnamon-dashed cappuccinos, the perfect home espresso machine is waiting for you.

Expresso Machines

Which type of espresso machine is right for you: pump driven or steam driven?

The answer is simply a matter of taste. A steam-driven machine can produce a perfectly fine cup of espresso. Those who take their espresso and cappuccino more seriously may want to splurge for the pump-driven machine. Or, if you entertain, the pump will be the better choice so your guests don't have to wait for their cup.

Here are the key differences between the two types of machines:

PUMP DRIVEN STEAM DRIVEN
This is considered the higher-end, more expensive type of espresso machine. This is a moderately priced type of espresso machine.
Water is heated to the right temperature and then forced through the grinds using an internal pump. This force is more intense than in a steam machine and results in a higher-quality and better-tasting cup of espresso. Pump-driven machines consistently produce the high Bars of Pressure* necessary for full-flavored espresso. Steam-driven espresso machines work by boiling water and forcing it through espresso grinds by means of steam pressure. Because this type of machine relies solely on steam pressure to push water through a bed of grinds, the espresso is generally not as full-flavored as the espresso produced with a pump machine.
The water tank can be refilled at any time for unlimited amounts of espresso, (as opposed to the steam-driven machine, which must cool down between brewing). Pump machines do not have a carafe; therefore, you place your cup directly under the spout. A steam-driven machine can only brew one carafe (approximately four shots of espresso) at a time. It cannot be opened during the process to add more water due to the boiling hot water that is necessary to operate it; therefore, there is a lag time between brewing cycles. The machine must cool completely before it is possible to add more water and brew additional servings.
Only a pump-driven machine produces crema**.

Pump-driven machines can be further classified as:

  • Semi-Automatic machines require the user to manually control the length/volume of the espresso by using a dial or lever to start and stop the brewing process.
  • Full Automatic machines precisely grind, measure, tamp, brew and dispose of the used grids all at the touch of a button. They have specialized brewing processes that optimize flavor extraction.
  • Super Automatic machines are fully automatic machines with additional features for the ultimate espresso experience. These features may include larger reservoirs, separate heating chambers for steaming and brewing and automatic controls and indicators that monitor the various processes.

Some pump-driven machines have many desirable features, such as:

  • adjustable coffee strength options
  • greater water capacity
  • multiple cup sizes for those double espresso drinkers
  • automatic frothers
  • removable drip tray
  • warming tray

Some features that are exclusive to pump-driven espresso machines are:

*The Bars of Pressure is the measurement of steam pressure that is pushed through the grinds. Higher bars of pressure are necessary to produce full-flavor espresso. Between 15 and 18 bars of pressure are typically at the higher end of home espresso machines.

**Crema is a golden foam-like layer at the top of a freshly-brewed shot of espresso. It makes a “cap” over the espresso liquid, which helps to retain the flavors and aromas of the espresso. Crema is the hallmark of a well-prepared espresso and can only be achieved through the use of a pump-driven machine. Crema is not to be confused with cream or frothed milk that tops specialty drinks.

Other Espresso Maker/Machine Options

Type of Maker/Machine Description
Single-Serve Brewers The main benefit of a Single-Serve Brewer is convenience. No muss, no fuss, simply insert a pre-packaged insert (usually called a cup or disc) and brew your cup of coffee instantly. Single-Serve Brewers now offer many espresso flavor options.
Manual Espresso Machines Manual Espresso Machines affords more control of the espresso-making process. These machines are often referred to as “lever” machines, because they require manual use of a lever to force water through the coffee grounds.
Stovetop Espresso Pots Stovetop Espresso Pots are also referred to as “moka” pots or “macchinettas.” Unlike other espresso makers, water isn't forced through the coffee grounds, yet it is still possible to produce a satisfying cup of espresso.

Owning and operating your home espresso machine will become old hat after just a few tries. This section will help familiarize you with terminology, some procedures and the benefit of having the right accessories. Soon, you'll be a top-notch barista!

Temperature

To achieve the best-tasting shot of espresso, the temperature must be precise. Too hot and you'll have a sour-tasting cup; not hot enough and you'll have a bitter-tasting cup. Somewhere around 195 degrees is ideal. The more expensive espresso machines are able to achieve the perfect temperature, while less-expensive steam-driven machines will tend to heat water to a higher temperature.

Grinding

You can choose an espresso machine that internally does the grinding for you, grind your own beans (for instance, with a blade or burr grinder), or opt for pre-made single portion packs of espresso that are ready to brew quick and easy, with no prep work or clean up.

Frothing

Many espresso machines come with a steam wand that will help you achieve that frothy texture that makes cappuccinos so deliciously decadent. This process can also be done manually. There are many milk frothing accessories available on the market.

Water Filtration

This handy, built-in feature is available on some home espresso machines. It helps to ensure a great tasting cup of espresso. Once the filter is placed in the machine, it removes impurities from the water. (Filters do need to be replaced, so be sure to consult your user manual regarding the specifics of your home espresso machine.)

Glossary of Espresso-Making Terms

The art of making the perfect cup of espresso comes with its own language. Here's a quick guide to some common terms you'll come across:

Espresso Term Definition
Crema Crema is a golden foam-like layer at the top of a freshly-brewed shot of espresso. It makes a “cap” over the espresso liquid, which helps to retain the flavors and aromas of the espresso. Crema is the hallmark of a well-prepared espresso and can only be achieved through the use of a pump-driven machine. Crema is not to be confused with cream or frothed milk that tops specialty drinks.
Bars of Pressure Bars of Pressure is the measurement of steam pressure that is pushed through the grinds. Higher bars of pressure are necessary to produce full-flavor espresso. Between 15 and 18 bars of pressure are typically at the higher end of home espresso machines.
Boiler The boiler heats the water inside the machine to the precise temperature for the perfect cup of espresso.
CC Many espresso machines are made in Europe and use European standards of measurement. Boiler sizes are sometimes expressed in cc, which is the same as ml or milliliter. 100 cc is 3.38 US fluid ounces.
Carafe A carafe is a removable receptacle in which brewed espresso will be collected. (Pump-driven machines dispense brewed espresso directly into demitasse cups.)
Demitasse Cups These smaller-sized coffee cups are necessary when brewing with a pump machine. Since pump-driven machines don't use a carafe, you'll be brewing right into the cups. One shot of espresso fits perfectly into a demitasse cup.
Drip Tray The drip tray sits under the brewing mechanism to catch any spills while your espresso brews. Drip trays usually can be removed from the machine to empty out and clean. Extraction The extraction process forces hot water into the boiler and through the coffee grounds to “extract” a combination of flavors and oils that produce the ideal shot of espresso.
Filter Basket The filter basket holds coffee grounds. It has a series of small holes at the bottom, which allow the brewed espresso to filter through to the cup (or carafe, depending on the type of machine you purchase). Some espresso machines have more than one filter basket.
Froth Froth is created when milk is heated by using the machine's steaming wand. Through a combination of air, heat and speed the milk produces a foamy-like texture that can be poured and will float atop the espresso beneath.
Frothing Pitcher Required for making cappuccino, the frothing pitcher holds milk while it's being steamed. Frothing pitchers should be placed in the freezer before using. Cold milk makes for the best froth, as does using skim or low fat milk. You can also steam soy milk; however, frothing soy milk does not always achieve the same frothed texture as regular milk. Plus, having a frothing pitcher wastes less because you can store unused frothed or steamed milk in the refrigerator after you are finished preparing that nice cup of cappuccino.
Grinder The grinder finely chops coffee beans to brew-ready grounds.
Hopper The hopper holds the coffee beans inside the grinder.
Housing This is the main body and shell of an espresso machine. The “housing” holds all the internal components and supports the main exterior parts. It's usually made of plastic or metals, such as iron, brass, steel or aluminum.
Pull Pulling refers to the action one takes to produce a shot of espresso. In manual operations, there is an actual “pull” of a lever. In automatic machines, this process occurs internally. Piston The piston forces high-pressured water through the coffee grounds. It's usually activated by lever or spring.
Pod A pod is a self-contained, pre-ground, pre-pressed puck of ground coffee. They are usually inside a perforated paper filter, and in many cases are sold individually wrapped to maintain freshness.
Portafilter On some higher-end consumer espresso machines, a 3-way valving system exists to immediately remove pressure from the portafilter once your espresso shot is completed. This system allows for quick successive brews, without any worry of excessive pressure that remains inside a portafilter that can spray hot, wet grounds should you remove the portafilter too soon after brewing a shot of espresso.
Pressure Relief System (aka 3-way solenoid) The part of the espresso machine that holds the coffee grounds.
Spout The spout is where brewed espresso will pour out into a cup (or carafe, depending on which type of machine you purchase). Many espresso machines come with two spouts.
Steam Wand A steam wand is a visible, external pipe found on most espresso machines that is used to froth and steam milk as well as heat espresso cups. The steam wand is controlled by a steam knob that opens and closes the steam valve inside the machine. On some machines, this steam wand may also provide hot water. Some machines may also enable you to heat water with this steam wand.
Tamping Tamping is the act of pressing and compacting a bed of loose, finely ground espresso in preparation for brewing. Different machines require different tamping methods. Steam powered espresso requires a leveling tamp, whereas a piston lever, a spring lever and pump-driven machines requires a more compacting action. Some machines require a heavy tamping action (using 25 or more pounds of pressure) while others require a lighter tamping action (less than 15 pounds of pressure). On some machines you'll have to tamp the espresso yourself.
Thermoblock In some espresso machines, the heating system is shaped similar to that of a car radiator: A series of heated metal coils or channels which water must pass through and become progressively hotter as it reaches the boiler.
Thermostats On most single-boiler espresso machines, the temperature of the boiler is controlled via a temperature measuring device called a thermostat. The thermostat (usually) is electrically, mechanically, or electronically controlled, and can activate and deactivate a heating element depending on what temperature it measures.

Are you in the mood for a café crème or a cappuccino? There's no end to the delicious drinks you can brew with your home espresso machine. Here are just a few simple recipes you can try:

Espresso Drink How to Prepare
CAPPUCCINO The ratio is:
  • 1/3 espresso (about one shot)
  • 1/3 steamed milk
  • 1/3 frothed milk.

If you like your espresso strong, make it a double shot.

CAFÉ CRÉME An espresso-type beverage brewed at a similar manner to normal espresso. However, where espresso is brewed at a pace delivering roughly 1.5 ounces over 25 seconds, (or three ounces for a double in 25 seconds), café crème is brewed at a faster pace—as much as 5 ounces or more in 25 to 30 seconds. This is achieved by altering the grind of the coffee to allow for more flow through in the cup. Under no load, a properly running pump-driven espresso machine should deliver between 2.5 to 3.5 ounces every 10 seconds. By altering the coarseness of your grind, you alter the flow rate of your brewed beverage.
CAFFE LATTE (aka latte) A beverage that is based on espresso (or moka coffee) combined with steamed milk. The ratio of both is up to you depending on how many shots of espresso you choose to begin with. Fill the rest of your mug with steamed milk. Unlike a cappuccino, there is only a dollop of foam spooned out and laid across the top of a latte. Keep this in mind when you're steaming your milk!
CAFFE MOCHA (aka mocha) This beverage mixes chocolate syrup or powder with espresso and then is later combined with steamed milk for a decadent espresso drink.

To prepare:

  • Prior to making your espresso, pour 2-3 tablespoons of chocolate syrup or powder into the bottom of your mug.
  • Make one shot of espresso and then mix this into the chocolate powder or syrup.
  • The hot espresso will melt and mix well with the chocolate powder or syrup.
  • Steam your milk and pour it into your chocolate espresso concoction.

For best results, never use chocolate milk to steam with, as the sugars will crystallize and stick to the wand.

CAFFE AMERICANO A fancy name for a simple drink. This beverage is made by making one shot of espresso and mixing it with boiling water. This dilutes the espresso, and should taste less bitter than drinking a shot by itself.
RISTRETTO Literally, this means a “restricted” shot. Most double espresso shots are 2.5 to 3 ounces using 14 or more grams of grinds. A ristretto uses the same volume (or dose) of grinds, but the operator pours only about 1.5 ounces (or less) of espresso within the normal brewing time of 25 to 30 seconds. A ristretto is a richer beverage in terms of intensity, but it is also much harder to brew properly. There is a fine balance you need to find between stalling the espresso machine and making a perfect ristretto.
Here’s a helpful tip:

Keep demitasse cups warm. A cold cup will only extract the heat from the espresso, creating a cold shot that doesn't taste very good.

Want less kick?

For decaf espresso, a bypass doser is necessary to ensure the different flavors of espresso do not get mixed.

Since all home espresso machines have different operation procedures, settings and directions, please keep your user manual handy for reference.

Caring for your home espresso machine is a pretty simple process. Here are a few quick tips to remember:

  • Empty the drip tray and clean out the coffee grind basket. On some models these parts might be dishwasher safe, so refer to your user manual.
  • The outside of the machine can be wiped down with a damp sponge as needed.
  • If your machine has a water filter, be sure to change it when needed.
  • Occasionally, you may need to replace the frothing attachment if soaking it in apple vinegar does not take the residue away.

There are many products that you can purchase separately that will add to your espresso-making enjoyment. Here are just a few suggestions:

  • carafes
  • cleaning solutions
  • cleaning solutions
  • coffee
  • coffee grinders
  • coffee roasters
  • decalcifying tablets
  • demitasse/cappuccino cups
  • filters
  • frothing pitchers
  • water filters