There is a misconception in saying that espresso is the best way of drinking coffee. In fact, there isn’t any brew method that can be better than any others. Since its popularity increased, espresso ended up being the most popular coffee drink consumed out of home. That is why many cafes charge more for an espresso than for a coffee filter! But let’ dig deeper into the topic of this article which is “what is an espresso coffee maker?”
Before digging into this topic, I just wanted to remind you that brewing a good espresso is not easy, but I will cover it in another article!
- At the beginning…
- The different parts…
- Types of espresso coffee maker
- A general explanation of how it works
When and how has this great design been invented?
As usual in the coffee world, grind size is important: the finer, the better right? But at some point, if your grind is too fine, gravity alone is not enough to push the water through the bed of coffee. The first solution invented to solve this problem: pressure trapped steam. This was invented to accelerate the brewing process of regular strength coffee: this is how the name “espresso” was created! But if you want to make sure the area is safe, you have to keep the steam pressure low…
That’s how Achille Gaggia’s came up with his invention (patented on September 5, 1938) including a lever pulled by someone to compress a string. When the spring was released, the pressure forced the hot water through the coffee. This invention allowed the use of a much finer grind.
However, this is Angelo Moriendo of Turin (Italy), who patented the first steam pressure espresso machine on the 16 of May in 1884.
What are the main constituents of an espresso coffee maker?
I am not going into the details of each design and options available on many products… The idea here is to give you a list of the main constituent you will certainly find on your next espresso machines.
- Porta-filter (semi automatic machine only)
- Basket (semi-automatic machine only)
- Group head
- Drip tray
- Steam Wands
- Water tank
Are you lost when it comes to espresso machines?
In order to treat this topic at best, let’s talk first about the different type of getting pressure to extract the coffee from the coffee ground. Nowadays, there is three known type of getting pressure:
A good example of this type of coffee maker would be the stove top! Indeed, you can brew espresso with it. If you are looking for more information about stove-pot: check this article!
- Electrical pump (pump driven espresso machines)
The is the most common way to extract coffee, most of all espresso machine available on the market can be plugged and are designed with an electrical pump. This is what everyone calls an espresso coffee machine!
- Manually (lever espresso machine)
This kind of coffee maker is one of the oldest ways of making an espresso. Designed with a piston, it requires someone to pull a lever and apply the pressure manually on the water passing through the coffee grind. You will definitely need practice brewing a good espresso, but your efforts will be rewarded. To conclude, this type is easy to maintain and clean. One last notice, they still plug into the wall: their included boiler needs electricity.
You will even find some people who claim they can make a better coffee with a piston coffee machine than with a pump-driven one.
Now, it gets better because inside the pump-driven espresso machines category, you will find 4 subcategories of machines:
One of the main features of a semi-automatic coffee maker is the small lever (it could be a switch) on the panel which allows controlling the flow of water: you can then start and stop the brewing process whenever you want (according to the volume of coffee you want to brew). Those devices are really made for people who like to adjust their brew to their preferences, they invest time to find the perfect coffee/water ratio which suits their taste. If you want to buy this category of coffee maker, you have to make a commitment to yourself that you will spend time to brew a shot. You can find more info on our article: how to make a good espresso!
- Fully automatic
A fully automatic espresso machine has the same characteristics as a semi-automatic one, except about one thing: the volume of water used to brew is programmed by a microprocessor. It means you will be able to select modes on your machine but you won’t have any control over the volume of water used… If you are accustomed to a specific coffee/water ratio, I definitely not recommend this type of model. On the other hand, if you feel like you don’t want to watch out the volume of water you want to brew each time you make a coffee then you might want to consider the fully automatic model. This kind of model is more convenient than a semi-automatic.
It’s sometimes used in an office environment when there is a lot of people queuing for a coffee: not everyone knows how to use an espresso machine and this model will guarantee a good coffee quality for everyone. You can also find some inside restaurants or cafes without a trained barista.
- Super automatic
Also called “espresso center”, this kind of model is built-in with a coffee grinding capability. Otherwise, it has all the advantage of a fully-automatic model.
So let’s take a break. This model adjusts for you the water volume and the coffee ground volume, which means you don’t have any control over the coffee/water ratio of your brew. So if you are the kind of person who likes to get a coffee fast without having to worry about all the adjustments to get a coffee, this model is for you. Keep mind, most of this model are designed to brew one shot so if you are looking for a double shot you will have to activate the grinding process twice. Plus, the quality of coffee won’t be as good as what you can get with a semi-automatic (assuming you are willing to learn how to use your semi-auto, there is no right or wrong here, it really depends on what you want!).
It usually comes with a lot of nice features like a heating tray, a pre-warming cup features allowing to brew directly into a warm cup, and a lot more…. (Some models include a brew-unit made out of plastic, which means they are not preheated as it should be…)
One last thing, avoid using flavor ground because it impacts the grinder blades! Some restaurants use two different grinders: one for flavor grind and another one for the unflavored grind. Don’t forget to check the quality of your grinder, burr/blades grinder doesn’t give the same results!
It’s similar to a super automatic coffee machine which can froth and steam milk automatically.
So, how does an espresso coffee maker work?
You thought it was finished, right? Well, it’s not…. Because inside the semi-automatic and fully automatic categories, there are different types of designs available. Mainly, we will talk about the boiling process and nowadays we can count 3 subcategories of designs:
- Single Boilers ( price equal or less than 1000 dollars: it includes most of the “at home” espresso machine)
- The boiler is half filled.
- The machine warms up and stabilizes the temperature between the boiler and the group head. (Temperature range: 198F (92 C) and 204F (95 C)). Note: If a temperature P.I.D (Proportional Integral Derivative Controller: it constantly calculates an error and adjust the temperature accordingly), then you can adjust the temperature in your machine.
- Only after the shot is finished, you can switch to steaming mode. At this point, the temperature has to be increased (around 255F = 123C) inside the boiler to reach steam pressure for frosting milk. Once you finished steaming, you can switch off the steaming temperature allowing it to cool off.
Problem: The next shot (if you prepare it just after steaming), will be more complex to execute as the variation of temperature from the last steaming will impact the water temperature.
- Heat Exchanger Machines (price between 1000 and 2000 dollars)
- Cold water from the water source is pumped into the boiler.
- The water boiler temperature increase to reach about 255F (around 123C)
- Steam and water come from the hot water tap. When a shot is pulled: brewing water goes directly from the water source to the brew group. (Temperature: 198F to 205F). The water is flash heated through the tube inside the steam boiler directly connected to the cold water. After the brewing cycle, water remains in the tube: it will increase the steam temperature that’s why a cooling flush is required. To finish, a P.I.D is installed inside the steam boiler to control the temperature.
One advantage of not using a water tank is to get fresh water which assures a better quality for our coffee!
- Dual Boiler machines (price higher or equal to 2000 dollars)
- Pump water filled the 2 boilers (Brew boiler and Steam boiler)
- Water in the steam boiler is heated to the steam temperature
- Water in the brew boiler is heated to the brew temperature.
Generally, the temperature in each boiler can be independently adjusted. After a shot is pulled, the temperature of the brew boiler remains stable, ready for another shot to be pulled right away.
You might face some recovering time (depending on the machine) after milk steaming, but most of the time you will be able to start a new milk steaming frost right after the last one.
Tips to buy what you need!
- What kind of coffee drinker are you?
What I mean by this question is: are you the type of coffee drinker who is going to weigh and grind his coffee beans before each brew or you prefer to buy ground coffee and use it right after Are you willing to spend time to brew a nice cup of coffee or do you prefer something fast but still OK?
Pod coffee machine is optimized to simplify the user experience but it’s going to be costly: capsules are not cheap. Plus, you don’t get to choose your beans. In fact, it can be worse since you have high chances to be obliged to buy a certain type of pods which means if they increase the price, well…
Moreover, your ground coffee will not be fresh…. And to conclude, you don’t have control of your coffee/water ratio as well so you can’t adjust it… I am not a big fan of this kind of units but it’s up to you: if you like the coffee you drink with it: that’s what matters!
One of my friends had a joke about this: “When you feel like you need a Ph.D. to use any common products, this is usually a sign of bad design” and he is definitely right. A good product is an intuitive product which means you don’t need an instruction manual to use it!
Also, try to check all the light indicators on your machine: are they easy to spot? Do you understand what they mean easily? Are the symbols/indicators (if there is any) intuitive as well?
Check (if you can) what kind of mug or cup you can use with your future espresso coffee machine. (Watch out the height!)
Is it easy to lock/unlock the portafilter inside the group head? How far over does it have to go to lock? (You might use it every day, it’s important to check it!) Does it lock correctly? (Meaning is everything perfectly sealed to brew a nice cup of coffee?)
Try picturing yourself using your next coffee maker, everyday…
- Type of boiler
As we have seen in the next session, Heat exchange model or double boiler can be expensive but you don’t get the same quality of espresso as well. If you decide to buy a model under 1000 euros, which is perfectly OK, you might end up with a single boiler unit. I will give you the general rule to follow according to the type of boilers you get:
- Single boilers
Most of the time, you drink plain espresso with limited numbers of milk-based drink. Example: 90 % espresso with 10% based milk drink. This design is made for you!
- Heat exchanger
Its good model if you drink primarily milk-based drink while consuming the same beans over and over.
- Dual boilers
Well, those designs are the best but the most expensive one: you can switch between milk-based drink and espresso without problems!
The ideal pressure to brew an espresso is 9 bars. Which means you can ignore all product in the market with ads claiming 15bars, 16 or 18 bars. Those models come with overflow valves that assure a 9 bars pressure in the group head….
It may seem obvious but you don’t want to buy a coffee machine which is just a pain in the ass to clean… Look at the drip tray volume capacity (if there is one), you don’t want to empty it every day, It will be really annoying to do so!
- Crema Enhancers
Try to avoid any models with a crema enhancer, they damage espresso. It’s a general rule, and as usual with general rules, you will find some exceptions but still if you can find another model….
- Water Filter
Some models include a water filter and it could be a good thing knowing that the quality of the water will influence the taste of your coffee!
- Water Tank capacity
Check the water tank capacity of the model you are interested in, you don’t want to refill your water tank every 3 shots!
There is a lot of other options you can find on an espresso coffee machine and the goal of this article was to give you a good overview and tips about espresso coffee machine in general so I will stop here. I really hope you enjoyed reading this article and if you feel like giving your point of view below, be my guest!
Do you want to know more about coffee makers?