If you want to make espresso at home but don’t have a good idea of what espresso machine you need, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the options.
After all, there are many types of espresso machines on the market. Some are incredibly cheap, while others cost thousands of dollars. But how do they differ, and which type of espresso machine is best for you?
This article cuts through that confusion to help you make an informed decision that allows you to choose a machine suited to your lifestyle, budget and preferences. Let’s begin.
What Is An Espresso Machine, And How Do They Work?
Technically, espresso is a brewing method, not a drink. However, regardless of the espresso machine you’re using, it needs to be able to create the necessary pressure to force hot water through a coffee puck of tamped finely ground coffee in the filter basket.
If it does this, the coffee will be extracted correctly and produce the familiar intense espresso flavor. Typically, you’ll need around nine bars of high pressure for a syrupy, flavorful, and concentrated espresso in around 20 to 30 seconds.
As well as offering the correct pressure and water temperature, most espresso machines have a steam wand to steam milk for espresso-based milk drinks, including latte and cappuccino.
While these are the general functions of an espresso machine, each is different, with variations and features depending on the machine. So let’s take a closer look at what to expect from different espresso machines.
Espresso Machine Types Overview
Simply categorizing espresso machines is not straightforward. For example, most semi-automatic and super-automatic machines are pump-driven, but most manual espresso machines use a lever or a piston.
Meanwhile, many entry-level semi-automatic machines have a vibration pump of thermos blocks. High-end prosumer machines have either a heat exchanger, dual boilers, or a rotary pump.
Nevertheless, there are some categories we can use to help make it clearer.
|By User Perspective||By Working Mechanism||By Features||By Boiler and Heating Technology||By Pump Type|
|Manual espresso machines||Pump-driven||Entry-level||Thermo blocks||Vibration Pump|
|Semi-automatic||Steam-driven||Domestic consumer-level||Single-boiler||Rotary Pump|
|Super-automatic||Lever machines||Prosumer-level||Heat Exchanger|
|Single-serve Pod machine||Hand-driven||Commercial||Dual Boilers|
By User Perspective
It’s easier to categorize machines from the user’s perspective. Depending on how much you are involved in the brewing process, there are four main categories:
- Manual espresso machines
- Semi-automatic espresso machines
- Super-automatic espresso machines
- Single-serve pod espresso machines
By Working Mechanisms
Different types of espresso machines use different mechanisms to generate the necessary pressure to make the drink. Here are the options:
- Pump-driven espresso machines
- Steam-driven machines
- Lever machines
By Price and Required Barista Skills
When it comes to features and price, there are:
- Budget home espresso machines
- Domestic consumer-level espresso machines
- Prosumer-level espresso machines
- Commercial espresso machines
By Boiler and Heating Technology
Some machines are much more expensive than others because of their technology. From the boiler type and heating element, there are also:
- Thermo blocks machines
- Single boiler machines
- Heat exchanger machines
- Dual-boiler machines
By Pump Type
If you do further research, especially when looking for a prosumer-level machine, you’ll find even more types of espresso machines. They are:
- Vibration Pump Machines
- Rotary Pump Machines
Hopefully, you now have a general idea of the different types of espresso machines.
However, it can be quite overwhelming, so we will examine each, including their pros and cons, to assist you in finding the best option for you.
Comparing Different Types Of Espresso Machines
When considering which espresso machine to invest in, the first thing to consider is how you’d like to make your shots.
The next section examines the main types of domestic espresso machines.
Super Automatic Espresso Machines
How Do Super-Automatic Espresso Machines Work?
Super-automatic espresso machines take care of the entire brewing process. Just add your coffee beans to the built-in grinder and press a button and it will grind the beans to the correct size, brew your coffee and steam the milk. Then, all you need to do is wait for the coffee the enter your mug.
Most automatic espresso machines are pump-driven, using a vibration pump and water. That means you can be confident the machine is equipped with the tools for the job, leaving you to concentrate on the features.
Who Are They Suitable For?
The machines are ideal for anyone with neither the time nor inclination to learn the brewing process. Also, if several people use the machine, they do not need to learn a brewing technique as the machines take care of everything. Therefore, they are probably most suited to an office or large household.
As we’ve already mentioned, you don’t need to invest much time or expertise into pulling a great shot. Also, you won’t need a separate grinder. Instead, a bean-to-cup machine is the most convenient way to enjoy espresso-based coffee drinks at home.
Some models are limited to espresso only, while some take care of the milk steaming and pour the beverage into your cup.
Semi-automatic machines are volumetric, meaning the coffee-to-water ratio and coffee and milk volumes can be programmed according to your desires. Meanwhile, you’ll have consistent drinks each time.
Some higher-end models offer dozens of preset recipes, more parameter options, and smart app support. This offers lots of control over the precise type of drink you desire.
The quality of the coffee made by super-automatic machines has improved in recent years, and nowadays, it will be good enough for even the most discerning coffee lover.
While the coffee made by the machines is good, it’s still not as high-quality as the best coffee you can get from semi-automatic or manual machines. But, of course, that will depend on the level of your barista skills using those machines.
Another issue is you’re at the mercy of the quality of the machine, and you won’t have any scope for learning barista skills or crafting different types of beverages.
Cost is another drawback. High-end machines in this category can cost several thousand dollars. Even entry-level machines are more costly than mid-range semi-automatic machines.
Brands To Consider
If you are shopping for fully automatic coffee machines, consider the Philips, Delonghi, Jura, Miele and Gaggia. They are some of the top brands on the market. You can go to the buying guide of each, we curated our best picks for each brand.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
Semi-automatic machines are the most complex category, while the prices can cover a huge range from less than $100 to several thousand dollars. There are numerous machine variations, too, including types of pump and boiler and entry-level to prosumer-range machines.
How Do Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines Work?
Semi-automatic machines automatically heat and drive water through the grouphead, but – as the name suggests – you will have more involvement in the brewing process than fully automatic machines.
To pull an espresso shot with a conventional espresso machine, you need to measure and grind your beans, then tamp and lock the portafilter. Next, you need to control the extraction time. Mastering this technique takes knowledge and expertise, so, unlike super-automatic machines, the shot could be ruined if not done correctly.
Who Are They Suitable For?
A semi-automatic machine is your best option if you want to make the most high-quality espresso possible. Not only that, but if you enjoy improving your barista skills, experimenting, and the satisfaction of controlling the brewing process as a professional barista would, you won’t be disappointed.
If you have a good semi-automatic machine and a high-quality espresso grinder, the shot quality can match that of a beverage from a dedicated coffee outlet.
However, one semi-automatic espresso machine can be quite different from another, with entry-level, intermediate, and high-end options. As well as performance differing greatly, the costs can be hugely different. Let’s examine them in detail.
Types Of Semi-Automatic Machines
Cheapest Semi-Automatic Models – Steam-Driven Machines
Most low-cost semi-automatic machines are steam-driven. That means there’s just a single boiler and no pump. There will also not be any fancy technology.
You must add water into the boiler to create the necessary steam pressure to force water through the coffee grounds. Unfortunately, it won’t result in a great shot because the pressure is usually around 1 to 3 bars, so it’s not optimal for espresso extraction.
Another issue is you use the same water for brewing and steaming milk, so the brewing temperature is always too high for coffee. You’ll often get a carafe of coffee instead of a concentrated espresso, while the flavor will be bland and bitter.
One big advantage is machines of this nature usually cost less than $100, and you can still enjoy the satisfaction of brewing coffee at home.
Entry-Level Semi-Automatic Espresso Makers – Pump Driven, Pressurized Basket, Thermo Blocks
At a range of between $100 and $300 are pump-driven semi-automatic machines. Most won’t have a standalone boiler but use thermo blocks to heat water. They usually have a pressurized filter basket (double-walled filter basket with a small hole). These are more forgiving to the grind size, meaning you won’t need a high-quality grinder to get a good shot with crema.
You can customize the shot volume and froth milk using a Panarello wand rather than a professional pin-hole steam wand. That is fine for making bubbles for cappuccino, but it won’t be able to achieve microfoam for latte art.
Overall, these machines are far better than steam-driven machines, but you might want to upgrade in the future.
Intermediate Semi-Automatic Machines – Pump Driven, Unpressurized Baskets, Thermo Blocks Or Single Boiler
Between $400 and $1,000, you can buy good semi-automatic espresso machines that pull excellent shots. Most machines have a vibration pump and a non-pressurized filter basket in this price category. Meanwhile, they can have thermo blocks or a single boiler.
Some machines even have an integrated grinder with enough grind settings for different beans. Also, they are considerably more reliable than cheaper machines.
Some of these machines even have PID for better shot consistency. However, single-boiler machines can’t brew and steam simultaneously and don’t allow you to pull multiple shots efficiently. However, they let you hone your barista skills, and you won’t need to upgrade.
Delonghi and Breville offer many options for this type of machine.
Prosumer-Level Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines – Vibration Or Rotary Pumps, Heat Exchanger Or Dual Boiler
Prosumer machines are the espresso maker that most domestic espresso baristas dream of. These are top-end semi-automatic machines ranging from $1,000 to $5000 and are the equivalent of the fancy sports cars of the coffee world. Their price, and quality, are close to commercial machines.
They use heat exchangers or dual boilers so you can brew coffee and steam milk simultaneously. Machines with the latter are more expensive than the former. However, either offers far stronger steam power and reliability than cheaper machines.
Most prosumer machines have PID to precisely control the brewing and steaming temperature. They also usually have an E61 group head for more stable water temperature and automatic preinfusion.
Some have vibration pumps, which are smaller, cheaper, and louder than others which have rotary pumps. They are more expensive but are more durable and quieter. If you want a direct connect espresso machine, rotary pumps let you plumb directly from a water line for greater convenience. You don’t need to refill the water tank. Check this comparison of rotary pumps vs vibration pumps for more information.
Check out the Rocket Espresso’s machine, you can find some of the most popular prosumer machines on the market.
Manual Espresso Machines
This category includes a relatively diverse mix of espresso machines.
In the past, all espresso machines were manual. The term pulling a shot’ comes from pulling a lever on espresso machines.
Instead of using an electrical pump, manual machines generate pressure by pulling the lever. Some high-end prosumer machines are manual, including the classy and elegant La Pavoni. Meanwhile, others combine modern technology with the traditional, including the Profitec Pro 800, Bezzera Strega, and Olympia Cremina. Simple manual espresso machines like the Flair start at around $200, while others cost almost $1,000.
Overall, they are comparatively affordable, portable, and don’t need an electricity source to use.
Manual machines offer full control over the pressure throughout the extraction. Also, brewing espresso in traditional, iconic ways is highly satisfying. Also, lever shots tend to be sweeter with a fuller body. Meanwhile, even cheaper models, like the Flair, can make excellent shots.
The most obvious disadvantage is inconvenience. Manual machines aren’t efficient if you want coffee as quickly as possible. You also have to pull the lever and control the brewing process, which is labor-intensive and requires barista skills.
Fully manual lever machines like the Flair also don’t heat water, and you can’t steam milk either. So these machines are far more suitable for espresso purists. Also, if you like milk-based espresso beverages, you’ll need a standalone milk frother.
Pod-Based Espresso Machines
These are the most convenient machines for many and are often the first type of machine people choose at the start of their espresso-brewing journey.
How Do They Work?
Just place a pod into the machine and press a button. Pressurized hot water will then be injected into the grounds to create a rich beverage with dense crema. The whole process will take less than a minute.
Most machines create 19 bars of pressure and allow you to select lungo or espresso.
Who Are They Suitable For?
They are best for coffee enthusiasts who want high-quality beverages quickly and conveniently without needing to master any barista skills. They are also less costly than many alternatives.
Undoubtedly, Nespresso machines are best if you’re looking for a pod espresso machine. Lavazza and Illy also have pod machines, but they are restricted to their coffee pods.
The machines are incredibly quick at making good coffee. Moreover, you can’t easily get it wrong – you’ll have consistent, high-quality beverages regardless of your skill level.
Many third-party pods are available for the Nespresso OriginalLine machines, but the VertuoLine pods use a patented barcode recognition system, so you can only use Nespresso pods.
Another drawback is that the grounds are not as fresh as those you use from fresh beans. You are also limited to the espresso blends provided by the roasters. Nespresso pods usually hold less than 6g of grounds, too, so you won’t get the same robust beverage offered by double shots using 20g of grounds.
Finally, even though the machines are affordable, the pods will cost more than bags of coffee beans over the long run. They lead to more waste too.
Commercial Espresso Machines
Commercial machines are built for coffee shops that turn over a high volume of beverages. They have lots of professional components, including capacity and reliability. Some have two or more group heads so that more than one barista can prepare multiple drinks simultaneously during busy times.
They can be semi-automatic or automatic volumetric espresso machines, which can be customized in detail. This means you can make dozens of beverages efficiently and consistently. Prosumer-level machines will suffice if you run a small coffee shop with fewer customers per hour, as they’re best suited to busy establishments.
Some may think the professional espresso machines you see in the cafes must be the best option if you have the budget. However, that’s not true for home brewing. A professional espresso machine takes longer to prewarm and takes up much more space in the kitchen than is convenient for many.
Even the most addicted coffee drinkers can only consume a few shots daily while keeping a commercial espresso machine on all day consumes more energy.
While the possibility of making espresso at home is enticing for many, as this article has demonstrated, choosing the best espresso machine for your situation is not always easy, with many variables to consider.
Some of these are cost, your barista skills, the type of coffee you prefer, the size of your kitchen, and the number of beverages you like to make at once.
Thankfully, with a little research, you can narrow your options until you have a general idea of the type of machine you want. Then, you can research individual manufacturers and models until you arrive at the perfect machine for your needs.