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On choosing an espresso machine

August 31, 2013

Espresso is coffee intensified. To put the drink in perspective: a few ounces of creamy nectar are extracted from a brewed mug’s worth of grounds. Furthermore, this happens under the same atmospheric pressure you’d experience if you dove to 300 feet below sea level. Its preparation demands fresh, carefully roasted coffee and gear made to exacting specifications. You should expect an unrivaled sensory explosion in the cup as the richly deserved reward for your efforts.





Speaking of effort, while making espresso at home is a pleasure, it may also lead to frustration from time to time. This is one reason why comparatively hassle-free capsule-based espresso machines are so popular. Still, take heart: with a little attention and practice you can certainly go far beyond the likes of CBTL and Nespresso.





As you prepare to invest in an espresso machine, we encourage you to read our grinder buying guide alongside this one. Simply put, you should plan to spend 25-50% of your espresso-related budget on a quality grinder—the best you can afford—if you want to get the most out of your espresso machine purchase. As surprising or counterintuitive as it might seem at first, the grinder is that important.





Turning to the machines, here we separate them into three main categories differentiated by level of automation:



  1. Manual (e.g.  moka pots, the Mypressi Twist, and levers)
  2. Semi-automatic/automatic (e.g. single boiler, heat exchanger, or double boiler)
  3. Super-automatic


The chart and discussion below touch on a number of factors that might influence your purchasing decisions: budget, ease of use, speed, temperature stability, and build quality.





Above all, increasing your espresso-related budget will buy you the promise of consistently excellent espresso. You might occasionally stumble into your own personal espresso nirvana on even the humblest set-up, but can you do it twice in a row? That said, a word of caution: generally speaking, the fancier the espresso machine, the more demanding it can be. This includes: bulk (i.e. weight, counter profile), electricity consumption, and plumbing requirements. As always, please feel free to contact us if you have any questions while doing your research.   
















































Machine type



Ease of use



Price range



Pros



Cons



Moka pot



Average



$10+



▪ Uncomplicated



▪ Lower brew pressure



Mypressi Twist



Challenging



$120+



▪ Portable



▪ Can’t steam milk



▪ Can’t fly with cartridges



Lever



Very challenging



$700+



▪ Manual control



▪ Learning curve



Single boiler



Challenging



$299+



▪ Good value



▪ Slow to make multiple drinks



Heat exchanger



Challenging



$1500+



▪ Temp. stability



▪ Need for cooling flush



▪ Electricity consumption



Double boiler



Challenging



$1800+



▪ Temp. stability



▪ Dedicated steam boiler



▪ Price



Super-automatic



Easy



$649+



▪ Convenience



▪ User has less control over brew variables






1) Manual espresso machines





- The moka pot



Moka pots don’t brew under sufficient pressure to produce “true espresso,” despite what you might have heard from your Italian relatives. However, for hearty, full-bodied coffee on the cheap ($10+) that stands a chance of satisfying your espresso-related cravings, these ubiquitous stovetop brewers are hard to beat. You should expect to pay more for stainless steel models. The moka pot can be easily found on many online mass retailers' sites as well as in grocery or kitchenware stores. Once you have purchased your moka pot, read our brew guide to help you make your first cup.





- The Mypressi Twist



There are a few options in this category, but we feel the best right now is Mypressi’s Twist, a solid-but-portable device that uses commonly available nitrous oxide or carbon dioxide gas cartridges to extract correctly. Add hot water and ground coffee, and you’re in business at home or work—even during a power outage! Fair warning: the Twist doesn’t steam milk.







Europiccola La Pavoni Lever Espresso Machine- Lever espresso machines



Seeking a more substantial device for that hands-on espresso experience? Look no further. Lever espresso machines allow you to be the pump, controlling pre-infusion and extraction by varying the speed and force with which you manipulate the lever. There’s a learning curve, as you might expect, but the potential rewards are great. Note: the Europiccola model (at $739) can’t steam milk and pull shots simultaneously, unlike the Professional model (at $959), which can.













 



2) Semi-automatic/automatic espresso machines





In contrast with lever espresso machines, semi-automatics & automatics regulate pump pressure and boiler temperature for you. Semi-automatics are still somewhat hands-on, though, in the sense that you decide when to engage and disengage the pump; in contrast, shot volumes are pre-set with automatic machines.





While many would agree that espresso and steamed milk go together like hand in glove, doing both well is difficult. Let’s briefly discuss the three most common semi-automatic/automatic espresso machine designs, all of which rise to the challenge in different ways.

                 



Gaggia New Baby-  Single boiler/dual use (SBDU)



This type of machine is the least expensive, with prices typically starting from $299, like the Gaggia New Baby on the left. Since one boiler must meet both your brewing and steaming needs, you should expect to wait a bit as it transitions from brew to steam temperature (and vice versa). Consequently, an SBDU machine is not the best choice for those who anticipate needing to prepare multiple milk-based espresso drinks quickly.





                 



-  Heat exchanger (HX)



The next price step up, from $1500, is where you’ll find the heat exchangers. These machines also have single boilers, but the water in them is kept under pressure at a higher-than-usual temperature. The higher pressure gives you steam power to spare and the ability to simultaneously steam milk and pull espresso shots. If you do double up, make sure you perform a brief initial cooling flush before pulling shots. Common HX selling points are brew groups such as the E61 with superior temperature stability and an overall higher build quality.





                 



-  Double boiler (DB)



As the name suggests, DB machines feature separate boilers (one for brewing and one for steaming) with independent temperature controls.  In addition to the resulting ease of use, what one pays more for in this class—from $1800 on up—is, again, temperature stability and control along with truly commercial-class build quality.









3) Super-automatic espresso machines





Perfect for home or office users who want no-fuss espresso drinks at the touch of a button, super-automatics do it all for you, from grinding to brewing. Functionality (like milk steaming) and programming options vary widely between models. Convenience comes at a price, of course, and not just literally; for example, drink quality—while consistent—has less potential for greatness due to the user’s reduced ability to adjust brew variables.










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