Espresso Machine Buying Guide

espresso-machine-buying-guideShopping for a home appliance is never easy. Buying an espresso machine can be downright intimidating. This Espresso Machine Buying Guide was written with you in mind to help you narrow down the choices and get the best machine to meet your needs.

The whole experience almost reminds me of the dating scene. You know how we tend to be attracted to the outward appearance of someone. But as we get to know him or her, we’ve realized there is a lot more than what meets the eyes.

There are several factors that we take into account in buying any appliance such as style, features and functionality, ease of use, price, the brand reputation, service, and what others are saying about the product. The same formula still works in the context of purchasing an espresso machine but with more complexity. Let’s get started, shall we?

Style and Design Elements

When I think of style, I think in terms of shape, color, casing material, size and dimensions. Espresso machines come in all shapes, sizes and made from stainless steel and plastic. One machine might be characterized as “handsome” vs. another as “gorgeous” from an aesthetic point of view. But then again, the beauty is in the eyes of beholder.

If your kitchen is full of stainless steel appliances in modern minimalism style, then finding an espresso machine with similar design elements might be a good way to start.

Style doesn’t stop at the appearance. The machine should be built to last. You don’t want to buy a flimsy box that looks fantastic but will break apart in three months, do you?

The next thing you need to keep in mind is the size and dimensions. Think about the available space in your kitchen and on the counter. It’s more than likely that an espresso machine will be perched on the counter as a “permanent” fixture. Therefore it demands quite a bit real estate on your counter. If you live in a small apartment on Park Avenue in New York City, you know how precious space can get.

Don’t forget the clearance between the kitchen cabinet and the counter as the height may dictate what type of an espresso machine you may buy.

Types of Espresso Machines

Here comes the sophistication and complication. There are three main types of espresso machines defined by the degree of automation in making an espresso. They are semi-automatic, automatic, and super automatic.

Semi-Automatic

A semi-automatic machine deploys an automated pump to deliver water and pressure instead of the brute force by one’s arm. The grinding of coffee, tamping and extracting are still manual.

This is the most commonly used machine type in both commercial espresso bars and homes. The pump delivers very consistent pressure from shot to shot and the consistency is a key contributing factor in each extraction.

The reason of its popularity is that it offers the barista or user the ability to fine tune different variables to perfect a shot such as the particle size of the ground, the tamping pressure, the brew time and pressure. The flip side is that it takes longer and more nuanced techniques to make the espresso from good to divine.

Automatic

In addition to the automation of the water pump, an automatic espresso machine also provides you with controlled and measured brew volume. What it means in plain English is that the machine is programmed to brew a shot of 2 fl. oz. as one cup or twice as much for two cups. Of course, the speed of delivery and timing add another layer to the outcome.

Super Automatic

This type of machine takes the automation to the extreme from start to finish. We are talking about grinding the coffee beans, tamping and extracting all done by an ingenious machine. What’s left for you to do is to fill the bean hopper with fresh coffee beans and refill the water reservoir if not plumbed to a water line. Some even automate the frothing and dispensing part of the job.

These machines are built for precision, speed and convenience. You can truly get an espresso on demand day and night.

Like all things in life, sometimes too many good things may not be necessarily good. The super-automatic espresso maker takes a great deal of the fun away from the user’s hands. If you’d like to control the process, forget about it once for all. Moreover, it can cost a fortune to get one.

Manual

It would be a remiss if I don’t mention the manual type. After all, this was how it all got started that can be traced back to 1945 when Achille Gaggia, the founder of Gaggia, developed the machine. The machine was driven by a lever operated by a real human to pressurize hot water which soaks the coffee and produces the espresso. It’s definitely very primitive and raw comparing to the modern day design features. But you are 100% in control and you have nobody to blame but yourself for a lousy shot.

Drive Mechanism

An espresso machine can be driven by steam, pump or a piston.

A steam-driven unit is driven by pressurizing water to generate steam and the steam is forced through the grounds to extract espressos. This type of design can be found in low-end home espresso machines.

A pump-driven machine employs a pump to generate pressure necessary for brewing shots. This is contrasted to the manual force in the piston-driven type (refer to Manual for more details).

Features

Boiler and Heat Exchanger

The espresso machines run the whole gamut of features and functionality. For example, is it a single-boiler for single use or dual use? What’s the big deal about a double-boiler and heat exchanger? The jargon aside, it all boils down to how the brew water and steam are boiled.

A single boiler can be used to boil water for brew only or to boil water to steam milk sequentially. A double boiler design requires two boilers, one for brew water and the other for heating water to steaming temperature simultaneously to save time.

A heat exchanger functions as a “transformer” to convert the steam temperature to brew temperature in a single boiler machine.

Water Reservoir or Tank

Most of the espresso machines come with a water tank of a certain size. Some allow you to plumb the machine to the water line directly to save you the hassle for refilling the tank. The tank size varies from machine to machine. The bigger the size, the less often you may refill. Depending on where the water reservoir is located in the machine, you may have different ways/access to it such as from the top, the rear or the side.

Types of Coffee Used

Two types of coffee are used in espresso machines which are coffee grounds and E.S.E. pods (Easy Serving Espresso). With ground coffee, you have the liberty to choose the type of beans, roast and the grind size.  And of course, the freshness in the ground coffee. The ESE pods offers convenience, speed and easy cleaning but without much room for customization.

Brewing and Steaming

How easy to brew a shot and to steam some milk for a latte is an important factor to bear in mind. No matter how fancy the machine is, if it’s so difficult to operate, it would defeat the entire purpose of owning it.

Display Panel

How many buttons and knobs are there in a machine? What are used for? Can you adjust the brewing pressure and time in the Display? How the steam wand is controlled? By a dial or a lever? Make sure you find answers to questions like these and more.

Accessories

Some machines come with accessories such as different sizes of portafilter baskets, a recipe book, etc. What else do you need to buy in order to make the best use of the machine?

Major Brands on the Market

European brands are a dominant force with their rich history and design sophistication such as Gaggia, DeLonghi and Rancilio, Italy, Krups, Germany and Nespresso, Switzerland.

As the Australian maker of juicers and other small appliance, Breville has released a series of espresso machines rich in features but more reasonable in price to compete with the Italian and other European counterparts.

Of course, there are plenty of American brands such as Bunn, Mr. Espresso and Mr. Coffee offering more affordable ranges of espresso machines servicing a different segment of the market.

Questions You Should Ask Yourself

Now it’s a good segway into the questions you need to ask yourself.

Why Do You Need an Espresso Machine?

Are you thinking about getting a machine to stop going to Starbucks on your way to work to save some time and money? Or the espresso brewed by an inexperienced hand just doesn’t cut it for your experienced taste and appreciation? Perhaps you’ve got your money worth in an entry level model and are ready to jump in to upgrade to a more advanced machine. The need for an aspiring home barista vs. that by an espresso aficionado is very different and so are the must-have features and budget.

How Often Would You Use It?

Do you live on espressos on a daily basis or would like to serve espressos or lattes to your house guests after a party occasionally? The purpose and the frequency of use determine how much you should invest in a machine and the quantity of shots produced. Of course, the durability is a key factor if you would be pulling shot after shot all the time.

What Features Are Must-Have vs. Nice-To-Have?

As mentioned earlier, there are different types to consider from manual, semi-automatic, automatic to super-automatic. Each step up on the automation may entail the price increase. If you just want to have a decent espresso without much effort AND have the disposable income to spare, then a super-automatic machine may be the way to go.

On the other hand, if the definition of fun is to be able to tinker with the grind, tamping pressure, brew time and pressure, then a semi-automatic type would be a winner.

What about a cup warming tray? Is it really that critical to you? Can you warm up a cup in a micro-wave if that feature saves you a few dollars?

Brand Loyalty and Reputation

Do you have an affinity for a certain brand? Or you don’t care who manufactures it and where it’s produced as long as it serves the purpose of extracting perfect shots?

Another consideration in knowing the brand reputation is that a well-made espresso machine will likely last for a few years. You want to make sure the manufacturer will still be around when you need it serviced, and will honor their terms in the warranty.

What About Care and Cleaning?

Every machine requires routine cleaning and maintenance after every use and from time to time. Can you do all these at home? What types of cleaning tools and supplies needed? Do you need to send the machine to the manufacturer for descaling? If so, who is responsible for the cost and shipping fee? Trust me, the time and money will all add up and can make a big difference in your wallet.

How Much Would You Be Willing to Spend?

The pricing differential in espresso machines is more pronounced than many other small appliances. It ranges from under $50 to as much as $5,000 or more. You can practically find an espresso maker in every price range from under $50, $100, $500, $1000 and so on. Price tends to be the first and the last criteria in many consumers’ buying decision. We all want to get the maximum value out of our hard-earned money, but the question is what’s worth paying for.

The wise thing to do is to match your needs with the features and models at the appropriate price point. You don’t need to spend a few thousand dollars if you are just a casual user. Conversely, you don’t want to waste the money buying a cheapie model knowing that you will be upgrading to a better one in three months.

What Customers Are Saying?

Customer ratings are a good starting point for you to learn the pros and cons of an espresso machine. You don’t have to take each review as gospel as circumstances are different from one user to another. Some of the issues may not be due to the product design or features but more operator’s error. However, if there is a common thread by multiple customers, you should take it into account in your decision-making.

Final Thoughts

I hope this guide has provided some directions in your search for a perfect espresso machine. Feel free to peruse around on this site to read product reviews, glance through the comparison table with all the machines reviewed to date, look for machines by price, or check out why one model is better than the other in the comparison posts.

Good luck!

Lei

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