Every day, more and more people are falling in love with high quality coffee.  In an effort to save money or for convenience sake, many new (and old) enthusiasts are shopping for home espresso machines.  But for the inexperienced consumer, navigating all of the terminology can be challenging, let alone figuring out which features they value the most.  Below are a few terms we thought were worth describing for those who have never shopped for the best espresso machine before.

  • Crema- The simplest description of the espresso making process is to say that hot water is forced through ground coffee beans.  This process pulls oils out of the coffee that rise to the top of the cup and form a layer that seals in both heat and aroma.  This is called crema and it is what defines real espresso.  To form it the water pressure and temperature have to be within acceptable ranges, the coffee must be properly ground and tamped, and the beans need to be fresh.
  • Tamp– ‘To tamp’ by definition means ‘to pack down tightly by successive blows or taps. What this refers to in terms of espresso is the packing of your ground coffee into the portafilter, where it is actually brewed.  It is important that the correct amount of pressure is used because if the grounds are too tight the espresso will have a burnt flavor and if they are not packed enough the coffee will be watery.  People often suggest anywhere from 15 to 30 kilograms of pressure but it is really best to just practice and ‘get a feel’ for it.  Along with the fineness of grind, your tamping will determine the flavor that your machine is able to extract from the beans.
  • Portafilter & Portafilter Basket- The portafilter is the actual location within the coffee maker where the coffee is brewed, where the water is actually forced through the beans, and where crema is manifest.  The ‘basket’ is a piece that fits inside the portafilter and actually holds the beans.  Because this is where grounds turn to dregs, it will always be the messiest part of your machine.  It is important to understand the type of portafilter and baskets your unit uses for a variety of reasons.
  • To ‘Pull a Shot’- This bit of coffee jargon is just a description of making your machine brew a shot.  Its usage comes from one of the original machine styles where a lever was pulled to draw out a shot.  When pulling a shot, there are two variables that help to determine the strength of the shot.  Size is the literally how large the shot is and length is how long the shot takes to pull, depending on the grind of the coffee.  Advanced models allow you to adjust these things with the press of a button, while users of more hands-on machines gain intimate knowledge of how to use these aspects along with tamping in order to pull their ultimate shot.

In order to actually choose which machine may be right for you, it is important to have a solid basis for comparison.  First and foremost, if you want high quality espresso with real crema it is essential that you use a pump driven machine.  These kind of machines best achieve the necessary pressure to brew authentic espresso.  Provided here will be an overview of the different types of and features available for in-home pump driven coffee machines of all price ranges to help you make an educated selection.

By cyclonebill from Copenhagen, Denmark (Espresso Uploaded by palnatoke) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Manual or Automatic machine?

The most important way to differentiate all of your prospective espresso machines is how user-involved the brewing process is.

With a manual machine the user takes most of the responsibility for the end result as they are responsible for loading and tamping their grounds into the portafilter as well as pulling the actual shot.  Manual machines take the most effort, experience, and experimentation.  With that said, as long as the unit is consistent and the user willing, manual machines can offer a high level of customization.  Generally, experienced users will be happier with these machines.  Novices often get frustrated with inconsistent initial results.  These machines are for those who want to embrace the true art of making espresso. You can also choose the stovetop coffee maker which is the traditional Italian way of making espresso.

There are further subcategories of the automatic grouping.

A semi-automatic or automatic label is given to electric machines that portion the cup for you or at least give the option to do so.  This lets the user trust the pulling of the shot to the machine once they have loaded the basket and mounted the portafilter onto the brewhead.  A ‘fully’ or ‘super’ automatic machines contain a grinder and do all of the basket loading and unloading, tamping, and brewing by themselves.  Another common identifier for this type of machine is the term ‘bean-to-cup’.  These types of machines are the most expensive and often have a multitude of settings that allow you to customize your cup.

While there are even some bean-to-cup machines available at lower prices, this is the most budget dependent aspect of your purchase.  The only other real consideration is how much time and effort you are willing to put into getting espresso up to your individual standards.

By journeys (Nuova Simonelli - Aurelia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By journeys (Nuova Simonelli – Aurelia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The boiler system

Pump driven espresso machines use different boiler designs to heat water to optimal levels for espresso brewing.  The quality of the boiler and its heating element determine how quickly the machine reaches brewing temperature.  They are also responsible for keeping the temperature stable once it has heated up.  Which metal is used in the boiler’s construction and the general engineering of manifold are important to look into.  Generally, all pump machines will reach brewing temperature in less than 5 minutes.  Very many of them will make it in just one or two minutes but some of the more economical ones will work better if they are allowed extra time beyond the machine’s indication of readiness.

Nowadays, most new espresso machines come equipped with a built-in steam mechanism.  Since it takes a higher temperature to create steam than to brew espresso, there is almost always some delay between brewing your shot and then being able to froth milk.  Some systems are designed to reduce this time with some rapid heating engineering but there are also models with two boilers to completely nullify lag time.  Of course, that speed comes at a price.  For those who entertain, it will be of great relevance how well the unit will switch between the two aspects of making milky drinks.

For units with only one boiler, there is a pretty useful trick to cool the boiler from steam temperature back down to brewing temperature.  All you need to do is place a cup under the steam wand and use the hot water feature.  This will make the machine eject the last of the steam and by the time you have hot water coming from the wand, the machine will be ready to brew again.  This can cut a 10 or 15 minute wait down to a 30 second one.

What is a brewhead

The’ brewhead’ or ‘group’ is the portion of the coffee machine that is responsible for forcing the pressurized water through the coffee grounds.  The portafilter attaches (or remains attached for fully automatic models) to this and from it the water is pushed through the grounds.

On fully automatic models, this entire unit is housed inside the machine and the grinder drops the grounds directly in the portafilter.  The machine automatically tamps the grounds and then brews.  When the grounds have been used, they are dispensed in a separate container that usually holds a few batches and is easily removed for emptying.  These models generally offer a wide variety of customization options such as coffee strength and amount.   Almost all will also have some sort of bypass available if you have separate, already-ground beans you would like to use (for entertaining decaf drinking guests perhaps).

With semi automatic or manual models, the basket is filled by the user.  There are specifically designed tamping tools that work quite well as you have the right size.  Commercially used espresso machines generally use 58mm portafilters and this size is available on some home models as well but you will be able to find more at around 52mm.  Many semi auto units also make use of ‘pressurized’ baskets.  This type of basket limits some of your ability to craft your espresso for specific flavor because it reduces the affects of grind fineness and tamping precision.  But that also makes it easier for the less experienced to get consistent results.  If you would prefer to use traditional baskets, they are readily available from different sources.

The engineering involved in the brewhead is the aspect of each individual machine that determines the quality of coffee produced.  Better brewgroups are able to extract more of the oils from the beans, resulting in more crema and fuller aroma.

Alternative Brewing Options

In our fast paced world, everyone considers convenience as one of the top priorities for items used every day.  In light of this, coffee makers have found two clever ways of marketing prepackaged, easy-to-use espresso.  Both offer consistent decency if not spectacular results and either can actually create espresso with crema.

Easy Serve Espresso or E.S.E. for short, are pods that come in one serving size and automatic espresso machines often come with an extra portafilter basket specifically for the pods.  They are generally single shot servings and one of the biggest advantages is that they contain all of the used grounds similar to the way a tea bag does, making cleanup a doodle.

Even more recently, capsule machines have gained some momentum.  You must continue to buy capsules from the manufacturer but the results are extremely consistent, if not customizable.  As of right now, there are only two prominent brands producing capsule machines, illy and Nespresso.  Typically, capsule machines lack options for brewing ground beans and are thus one dimensional.  The common complaint users have about the capsule system is difficulty recycling (or reusing) the capsules and composting the grounds.   But they are ideal for very busy coffee drinkers and new brewers looking for ease and more quality than pods.

Is your machine easy to use?

Every regularly used appliance should be easy to use and while that is not always the case, in this industry, companies really compete hard on that level.  With that being said, it is still very important to read all information that comes with your machine.  This cannot be stressed enough.  Some controls are very intuitive but manuals often give important tips or unique maintenance information.

Automatic espresso makers come with varying numbers of buttons or knobs for adjustment.  Some use indicator lights and others have display screens.  Some have front loading water containers to make things easier and others have all sorts of indicators for when containers need to be filled or changed.  Coffee can be a real mess, so many of the features added to espresso machines have something to do with disposal of grounds or some other maintenance task.  This is often the determining factor for users deciding between similarly priced units.

Upkeeping can increase your machine’s lifespan

An espresso machine can be a big investment if you are after the highest quality or lots of features.  Therefore tending after it is a very important part of making sure you milk every penny.  Many of the automatic models feature some sort of self cleaning or a descaling program and these can add months or even years to the life of your appliance.   When cleaning manually it is important to know which cleaners are compatible with which machines because some will corrode internals if they are used with the wrong metals.

Even before any full-scale cleaning you decide to do, there are certain tasks that need to be performed every time you use the machine.  For instance, you should always run water through the brew head before and after brewing to reduce buildup.  You should also always clean frothing wands directly after use because milk with dry on them quickly and eventually they will lack heat.

There are many routine tasks you will need to perform in order to use your machine, such as filling water containers or emptying drip trays.  If you’d like to have to worry about them less, you can compare capacities between machines.  But generally speaking, you should accept that you will need to care for the machine and instead focus on the quality of coffee.

With consistent use, your machine is inevitably going to have an issue, no matter the quality.  It is in your best interests to take a good look at the warranty information for your potential candidates. Eventually though, the warranty will run out.  At that point, it will be very important to you that your model has parts that are easy to find.  When purchasing, look for models that already have some longevity to ensure there are accessible replacements.  There are some models that have been going strong for ten years or more. Different companies have different policies when it comes to making parts for discontinued models so there is another point to research.

Features & Accessories

Espresso manufacturers are constantly developing new perks to separate their products from those of their competitors.  While some are common to very many brands, others are relatively exclusive to particular ones.  Here we will outline a few features that may or may not be the tipping point for your purchase decision.

Steam Wand

Steam wands allow you to steam and froth milk for drinks and are therefore essential for those who prefer cappuccinos or lattes.  This is the most common add-on you will find on espresso machines.  In fact, nearly all automatic models produced today have some version of one.  They come in varying quality, typically reflective of the price range.  They also double as hot water dispensers.

cappuccino

In order to use one effectively, technique is required.  We suggest studying and trying out different strategies for frothing if you are a novice.  Very often, new home espresso brewers get frustrated with their frother before they properly know how to use it.  They can be very effective depending on the type.  But cultivating skill with one takes practice.

Cup Wamer

Some models offer a surface on top that is supposed to heat your cups for you.  In our experience, many of these fail to truly get your cups hot but will keep them warm if you get your cups hot first.  Most of this lot use passive heat, just utilizing the extra heat generated by the boiler.  Some versions however, have their own dedicated heating elements and really heat up.  Be careful with these, because they can get very hot and therefore may not be the best for families with adventurous younger members.

Water Filter

Coffee makers are rather complex appliances that may need varying levels of maintenance depending on the care taken by the owner, among other factors.  One important recommendation we have for all owners of espresso machines, especially more expensive ones, is to make sure that your water is filtered before it runs through the machine.  Some actually come with filtration systems already included.  But for those that do not, there are several different kinds available.  You must only figure out which are compatible with your machine.

Water filters are such important parts of espresso systems for two big reasons.  First and foremost, ‘hard’ water will wreck the inside of your espresso machine.  Lime deposits on the inside of your boiler will keep it from getting as hot as perfect coffee needs it to be.  Yes, there are descaling solutions and some espresso machines come equipped with descaling programs but descaling a machine can often be a huge hassle.  Anyone can see how it is easier to take care of things on the front end than to wait for them to go wrong and need fixing.  The second reason this accessory is important is more obvious.  The best coffee comes from the cleanest water, plain and simple.

Grinder

As stated here, the grind of the beans is very important to the flavors and aromas that end up in your cup. Many insist that you should have a grinder that is better than your espresso machine. The best type of grinder for serious home-brewing is a conical burr grinder and these themselves come in different grades. Remember, bean-to-cup models have these included and is actually one of the most important pieces to find quality in. Some fully automatic models that are designed to be compact may have rather small chambers for holding beans and it is never really good for a grinder to run without beans in it so be certain to have it stocked whenever using.

The fineness of the grind is nearly always adjustable and easy to do. Metal-bladed grinders can often leave your beans tasting a litter burnt. Ceramic is a good example of another material that changes the flavor of your espresso less.

‘Long’ Coffee/Americano

As our appetite for coffee steadily increases, larger portions are more often warranted.  ‘Long’ coffees are much larger than shots of espresso but are made without milk.  Manual machines will take some skill to pull this off and you will likely need one of the pricier ones to make it worth the trouble.  A few fully automatics will do this for you at the press of a button.  Some of these may actually produce terribly as they just run extra water through the same grounds but others have more unique approaches.  If you are the type who prefers ‘Americanos’ for your morning drink, it may really benefit you to look into the models offering this option.

Finally…

We hope that reading the buying guide, you can find your best espresso machine. Feel free to comment on the below if you have any questions and we will try our best to answer.