An Ex-Barista's Guide to Choosing The best Espresso Machine
You can call me whatever you want, either a coffee-lover, coffee-maniac or a simple fan of great espresso coffee. The taste of an espresso coffee is one thing in the world that I would die for and I used to queue up in the coffee shop at the corner to give a treat to my taste buds often.
But with the high prices of coffee, I decided to buy an espresso machine of my own, so that I could treat myself with the best espresso whenever I want and also surprise my guests with a great espresso coffee when they visit me. And when I started to search for the best espresso machine, which I thought was a simple task of going online, picking a brand and ordering, but it was not an easy task really.
So here I’ve come up with a complete guide on what are the factors to look out for while buying the best espresso machine for all espresso fans like me:
What is an Espresso Machine
If you think that the beans used for a normal cup of coffee and an espresso is different, you are totally wrong. The fact is that for both the same beans are used, but the only difference is the way in which coffee is brewed. This is where the magic of the espresso machine comes into play, where it just heats up the water to a certain degree of temperature of around 90-96 degrees and then allows the water to pass through a coffee puck at a certain degree of pressure to create that perfect shot of espresso.
Choosing the Best Espresso Machine
Home espresso machines are available in all kinds of sizes, price, style and different features etc. So before you go for an espresso machine, you should determine for what purpose you are going to buy the machine. If you are planning to use it daily, then you can go in for a quality machine and if you intend to use the machine only during the weekends or only at an occasional get-together at home, then you can naturally go in for a less expensive one.
In my case, I’m a big lover of the natural espresso taste than the frothy feel of a cappuccino or the chocolate in mochas, and hence I decided to go for an espresso machine that is a little bit on the expensive side, but delivers me with the best and actual flavor of espresso.
Types of Espresso Machines
During my search for the best espresso machine, I was really amazed at the different types of espresso machines that are categorized based on:
A) How the water boils and passed on to the ground coffee
B) Based on the Pump System
Espresso machines are also categorized based on the in-built pump system that pump system that creates the water pressure and passes on to the brew-head:
Steam Driven Espresso Machine
The Steam driven espresso machines are the cheapest of the lot, as the water is forced onto the coffee grinds using only the steam pressure. Unlike other piston and pump-driven espresso machines, these steam driven ones are quieter, as they don’t have many moving parts inside to generate the pressure. These espresso machines also provide a longer lifetime and also requires little or no maintenance.
But the only problem with these machines is that, they don’t produce the necessary pressure all times for creating that perfect espresso you would expect. Sometimes the high steam pressure may scald the coffee to give a bitter taste to it. Hence, it is not recommended for real espresso lovers.
Piston Driven Espresso Machine
The Piston driven espresso machine is another category of espresso machine, where the pressure is delivered by pulling a pump to generate some force to push the water through the coffee. The pump needs to be pulled manually to generate the force and this is what is generally termed as “pulling a shot” in espresso coffee-lover circles.
Since the speed of the pull determines the amount of pressure generated, it requires some practice to get the pull right. There are espresso machines that have pumps that needs to be manually pulled to generate the pressure or machines fitted with spring pistons that builds the necessary tension when the pump is pulled and releases it to produce the required pressure. Both have similar kind of results anyway. You can find these pump system machines in cafes, as they give you complete control over the pressure and also determines the quality of the espresso as well. So for home users, it is probably not the best espresso machine.
Pump Driven Espresso Machine
These are mostly found in high-end espresso machines as everything is done automatically without needed any input from the user. For home based purposes, you can blindly choose this one, as this will be the simplest way to get a quality espresso in no time.
These pump-driven machines are further categorized based on how they boil and steam water:
Single Boiler (SB): Comes with only one boiler and cannot steam water. Therefore need to add a second boiler to these machines.
Single Boiler, Dual Use Machine (SB/DU): These machines consist of only one boiler, but can steam water. The problem is that they use the same chamber for both boiling and steaming, and hence require a sufficient cooling time between each use. If you go for lower cost espresso machines, then you need to certainly need to wait between boiling and steaming.
Heat Exchanger (HX): Even though it uses a single boiler, it keeps the chamber at the required steaming temperature at all times and thus ensuring that both steaming and boiling of water can be switched quickly. Water gets enough heat from the steam to reach the necessary boiling temperature. It also requires some cooling period, but is the best espresso machine for a medium budget range.
Dual Boiler (DU): As the name suggests, uses two boilers for steaming and boiling water. Hence, you don’t need to have any cooling period, but are often expensive and in larger sizes, as they come with two boilers.
Another thing that you need to determine is the level of automation you need in your espresso machine, and based on this machines may fall under the following categories:
Yes, it is completely manual, as you need to do all the grinding, heat the water to the proper temperature and control the pressure with the correct pull on the pump etc.,
These are highly recommended for use in cafes, as they give you complete control of every aspect of the espresso making process. But only skilled personnel can use it to produce the perfect espresso. It’s really not the best espresso machine for home users, and it is also expensive.
This is likely the best espresso machine for home users. The pumping system is automatic, which might give you a sigh of relief, as you need to make the pull to create the perfect pressure. But still you need to manually grind and tamp the coffee and also need to turn the pump manually ON/OFF while brewing. These are less complicated than the manual espresso machines and are easy to operate as the pump generates consistent pressure for ideal brewing. Can be a bit noisy and requires skill to grind the coffee beans to the perfect coarseness and tamping pressure to create that ultimate espresso on would dream of.
These are machines which go one-step ahead of semi-automatic machines, as the water level being forced through to the coffee is measured and the pump gets automatically switched off when the necessary water is poured on to the coffee.
But still you need to grind the coffee and fill the brew head with the coffee and also need to turn it on. Also, come with pre-programmed brewing styles for you to choose from and is more convenient than the semi-automatic espresso machines.
The most convenient of the lot is the Super Automatic espresso machines. Almost all the aspects involved in the process of producing an espresso are completely automated right from grinding, tamping, boiling the water, controlling the pump pressure, controlling the amount of water that needs to get passed through and automatically turning it off and also finally cleaning the brew head when the process is completed.
Ideal for people who want to go for a delicious shot of espresso at the touch of a button. You can also find espresso machines that come with automatic milk frothing and dispensing to produce cappuccinos Americanos and macchiato.
What to look for when buying the Best Espresso Machine
Determine whether you need an espresso machine with a built-in grinder or a machine that uses only ground coffee. To get the natural taste of an espresso, it is always better to have a machine with a built-in coffee grinder. Also, the process of adding coffee into the espresso machine’s basket should be easy for anyone to add it with not much difficulty.
Next step one need to look for is the water source for the espresso machine. Some machines come with capabilities to hold up to 8-10 cups of espresso, and some have provisions to be connected to a water source or to your refrigerator.
For Home based espresso machines, it is better to buy a versatile espresso machine, that can prepare not only espresso but also cappuccinos, Americanos and macchiato, as everyone will have a different taste. So if you need a versatile espresso machine, then you need to go for the high-end automatic espresso machine that can froth milk in a perfect way.
If you are planning to use the espresso machine frequently, then you need to definitely opt for a high-end espresso machine, as they can withstand all the pressure and overheating of the machine, when operated all day, whereas low-budget machines won’t be able to handle such usage and hence may break down easily. One more factor to look for in an espresso machine is the no. of shots of espresso the machine can handle in a single sitting, if you opt for a machine without a built-in grinder.
I think I’ve provided as much detail I can about the features, types and what you need to look for when looking to buy the best espresso machine. So now you need to determine the type of espresso machine you want, the budget that you can afford and whether you are in for convenience or control.
I would suggest to go with the low-budget models for beginners, and once you gain enough experience and skills to create the ultimate espresso, you can switch over to the high-end espresso machines. If you are always busy and prefer instant espressos at the touch of a button, then you could opt for a super-automatic model, or a semi-automatic will be an ideal choice.
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