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Home > Espresso Machines > Espresso Makers - A General Overview

Machinna: Comparing Different Types of Espresso Machines


Introduction

Macchina is the Italian name for an espresso machine, obviously one of the key components (and one of the 5 M's) of espresso. Choosing the kind of espresso machine that best fits your needs is crucial to cultivating your love for espresso on good terms. Otherwise, you may unwittingly settle on a machine that is either above or below your skill level or usage demands. There's nothing wrong with a healthy desire to upgrade, be we want to help you find the right first, second, or final espresso machine the first time. This Knowledge Base article is devoted to helping you understand the different technology available today. Certain types of espresso technology will be covered in more detail in separate articles. Put into the simplest terms, modern espresso machines can be divided into three groups: the electric steam, the electric piston, and the electric pump/boiler. The last kind, the electric pump/boiler, will, for the purpose of this article, be further split into three categories: semi-automatic, automatic, and super-automatic.

Electric Steam

This type is basically a miniature version of the original steam/instant espresso machines developed in the early 1900s. Here's how it works: water that has been poured into a reservoir is heated to boiling. This same pressurized water is used both to steam milk and brew the espresso. This method gets the water pressure up to about 1.5 bar (although, the preferred pressure at which espresso is brewed is about 9 bar). This produces very burnt-tasting espresso. Many folks like using an electric steam espresso machine in order to brew a coffee just a bit stronger than drip coffee. However, given the advent of the next type of machine, boiler machines are now of out of step with mainstream espresso connoisseurs. They are cheap, and you won't find them for sale at JL Hufford.

Electric Piston AKA Lever Espresso

When Gaggia introduced the first piston-driven espresso machine in 1948, it offered a great leap forward from steam espresso makers. The lever espresso machine from La Cimbali was born shortly thereafter and then further improved upon by Rancilio in 1952 with a spring-loaded lever machine. The first electric lever espresso machine (non-spring) for the home came from La Pavoni and is still based on that original design. The spring-loaded lever espresso technology is still used today in espresso bars around the world that want to hold onto that connection to the post-World War II coffee culture. They have even made their way into the home kitchen courtesy of Elektra, a brand with top-of-the-line quality, appearance, and price. Although some folks are so enamored by their aesthetic appeal that they put them up for shelf display, they are actually capable of producing a superb traditional Italian espresso: the single shot. The spring-loaded lever machine is more consistent than the non-spring La Pavoni; however, both designs are best suited for experienced espresso enthusiasts or beginners who have an endless supply of patience, and of course, a premium espresso grinder. Assuming you have begun with a properly filled and heated boiler, as well as properly ground and dosed espresso beans, the difference in brewing technique is as follows: On a non-spring-loaded machine, you begin with the lever in the down position and raise it completely to fill the grouphead and allow a small amount of espresso to trickle into your cup. Then pull the lever down with consistent pressure to deliver the rest of the shot into your cup. On a spring-loaded lever machine, the opposite occurs. With the lever in the up position, the barista pulls down completely to charge the grouphead with water, then releases it to allow the spring’s tension to control the flow of water through the espresso puck. (Technician’s note: For safety reasons, NEVER pull the lever down unless the boiler is properly filled and heated!)

     

Advantages

Disadvantages

  • Connects the owner to Italian espresso heritage and elegance in style.                
  • Offers total control over espresso extraction (except temperature).                
  • Produces excellent single shot espresso.                
  • High-quality construction and simplicity lend to long life with proper care.
  • Unforgiving. You will invest a good deal of time finding a comfort level with these machines.      
  • No pressure relief at end of shot: when dialing in espresso grinder, slowly move to finer settings.      
  • Hot exterior. Not suitable for placement where young children can reach.                
  • No water tank. Boiler must be filled manually with steam first released before opening cap.      
  • More maintenance. More sensitive to improper use or lack of regular care.

Pump Espresso Machines

Ever since La Faema debuted the E61 in 1961, pumps have dominated the espresso industry, and all further technological advancements have been on espresso machines with pumps. The pump machine has made things much easier for espresso lovers because it offers consistently pressurized delivery of water to the coffee grounds. The pump espresso machine uses a pump that pulls water from a reservoir (or existing plumbing for some models) and passes it through a heating system of some kind (this is referred to as the boiler). After the boiler heats the water to brewing temperature and the brew button is pressed, the pump activates and water gets pushed through the boiler, then through the grounds in the brewing system. This feature offers the barista complete control over the amount of water used for the brewing process, a very useful feature for baristas creating ristrettos, espressos, and cafe lungos. With proper flow of water ensured, all that is left to the prospective owner to decide on is the boiler design and machine controls that best suit usage requirements. This article will primarily cover the machine controls of the different variations of pump machines. The 3 main types of pump espresso machines are: Semi-Automatic, Automatic, Super Automatic. All of these pump espresso machines include the ability to froth your milk, though some are manual and others are assisted or automatic. Please read our Steam Wand Technology Article to decide which is best for you.

Semi-Automatic

The semi-automatic pump machine is one of the most popular home espresso machines available. It is called semi-automatic because you must both initiate and cease the brewing process by pressing the coffee delivery switch. Semi-automatic espresso machines begin at the entry-level variety starting at about $99 and extend into the thousands for higher-powered and high capacity equipment. The vast majority of espresso connoisseurs hover around mid-to-high-end semi-auto machines. Entry-level semi-autos, brands you tend to find in department stores, have smaller and less stable heating systems and tend to include brewing systems that compensate for users who brew with E.S.E. pods or pre-ground coffee. They deliver a consistent cup with a layer of crema, but it will not be as rich and pronounced as espresso the mid-to-high end units can create. The most popular mid-range semi-autos are the Rancilio Silvia and the Ascaso Steel UNO Professional. They are a starting point where espresso machines are built from (in part or in whole) commercial components, beginning with the brewing system. It is at this level and above where you can create espresso that knocks the socks off of the espresso you find at most cafes (including that ubiquitous one that shall remain unnamed). If you are shopping for a better espresso machine, one of the primary indicators you should look for is the presence of a 3-Way Solenoid Valve. This valve controls the flow of water from the boiler to the brew group and allows for backflushing, a crucial step of proper maintenance. These higher quality machines do require the use of a suitable espresso grinder to produce drinkable-to-amazing espresso, so you must factor this purchase into your budget. To better understand the type of espresso grinder required, please read our Espresso Grinder Knowledge Base. Overall, if you are looking to have maximum control over the espresso brewing process without having to go back in time to the lever machines, a mid-to-high end semi-automatic espresso machine will deliver a consistent quality cup with a little practice, a good grinder, and fresh coffee beans.

Automatic

The automatic pump machine is very similar to the semi-automatic, with the following distinction: it can be programmed to turn off the pump and stop the brewing process when your desired amount of espresso has been brewed. Mind you, this feature almost entirely is found on espresso machines beginning at around $1,000 because they already come with more capability for frothing and/or higher volume espresso brewing. Automatic espresso machines typically include at least 2 programmable drink buttons as well as the option to operate the machine in the same manner as a semi-auto. Automatic machines are typically found in local espresso cafes but have recently become a must-have for home espresso enthusiasts due to the other high-end brewing technology that already comes standard.

Super Automatic

The super automatic pump machine, perfected by Jura-Capresso, Saeco, and DeLonghi, takes convenience to new heights as all come with built-in adjustable coffee grinders and the automatic espresso brewing. Even the most entry-level super auto requires only fresh water and coffee beans: simply press a button and it will grind the coffee, tamp, brew and clean itself automatically. The entire purpose of the super automatic is to take you, the operator out of the equation. Wildly popular in homes thanks to the user-friendly technology, super automatic coffee centers brew ristretto, espressos, cafe lungo, cappuccino, latte, macchiatto, and the famous Swiss Crema coffee. Before delving further into this technology, we are compelled to mention that while the vast majority of super automatic owners love the espresso, cappuccinos, lattes and other drinks these machines produce (which easily rival the quality found in major coffee chains), the espresso enthusiasts in pursuit of the perfect shot should stick to the automatic and semi-auto equipment. This has to do with the trade-off of precise control over every factor for the convenience of a consistent drink every time. All Super Automatic espresso machines (or coffee centers) include a water tank, pump, a boiler, integrated grinder and brewing system, and one or more milk frothing systems. All Super Automatics, regardless of price, offer at least the basic communication indicators: unit heating, ready to brew or steam, low water, boiler descale required. Higher end super automatics include communication enhancements of either a digital LCD interface or interactive touch panel controls. They also feature technology such as dual boilers for instant steam, coffee strength programming, multiple drink types and size programming, temperature adjustment, automatic milk frothing systems including fully automatic One Touch Cappuccino, fully automated maintenance cycles, energy-saving standby modes, water filtration, and even an option to brew from pre-ground coffee (great for occasional decaf drinks). The Super Automatic coffee centers we sell currently are all designed for household use but have also been popular in small offices. If you are looking to install a super automatic machine in your cafe, coffee shop, or high volume office break room, keep in mind that these units start at around $6,000 with an average price of about $12,000. These units are good investments for high volume shops where the payroll cost of a highly trained staff using traditional equipment would far exceed the cost of a One Touch Super Automatic requiring minimal training.

Advantages

Disadvantages

  • Zero skill required to make espresso. Anyone can use this machine.
  • Ability to fine-tune the machine is limited to ensure longer life.
  • Less mess because spent coffee grounds are ejected into a removable box.
  • Very popular for brewing single servings of crema coffee -- never brew and waste most of a full pot of drip coffee again!
  • Just enough user control (grinder adjustment, coffee strength) to accommodate individual taste preferences.
  • Consistent results: assuming fresh coffee beans, expect nearly identical drinks every time.
  • Simple to maintain. Most units feature automated cleaning and descaling cycles.
  • Prefers medium-dark espresso roasts. The very dark, oily beans will gum up the works rather quickly.
  • Hard to create latte art if you are into that style of drink.
  • Units with automatic frothing systems (except Saeco Xelsis) tend to dispense milk about 10 degrees cooler than some prefer (mind you, still hot enough to burn).
  • Outer body of many models made of plastic. (While it is durable ABS plastic, this design is a turn-off to some).