Most of us love coffee and espresso, but few of us realize the amount of engineering that goes into the machines that make it for us. When I first started making shots in my home, I was absolutely blown away at the different types of espresso machine options there were to consider.
These aren’t just stylistic differences either. The way an espresso machine is engineered is one of the major factors that goes into how the actual espresso shots taste.
Now let me make one thing clear. Not all of the attributes types on this list are mutually exclusive. For example, you can have a double boiler machine that’s also a direct connect machine, etc. However, breaking it down this fashion is probably the easiest way to understand all of the major differences you need to consider.
So without further ado, let’s check out all the different types of espresso machines that are out there…
Table of Contents
- Single Boiler
- Heat Exchangers
- Double Boiler
- Pour Over/Reservoir
- Direct Connect
- Super Automatic
- Manual Lever Machines
- Steam Pressure Espresso Machines
- Pump Driven Espresso Machines
- Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
- Fully Automatic Espresso Machines
- Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
- Ultra-Automatic Espresso Machines
- Lever Espresso Machines
A single boiler espresso machine is just like it sounds. It has a single water boiler that’s used for both steaming with the wand and the actual extraction of the beans through the portafilter. Since steaming takes place at a much higher temperature than brewing, it means that you cannot pull shots in as quick succession as a machine with more than one boiler.
Consider this scenario: You just pulled a shot and now want to steam your milk. You now need to wait a small amount of time for the water in the boiler to come up to steam temperature. In the reverse, you also have to wait for the water to cool down a little bit before extraction if you decide to steam your milk first. If you extract the beans at too high of a temperature, it will have a negative impact on the flavor.
It’s not all bad, though. Single boiler machines are designed to be compact and efficient. They’re ideal for the home because of their small footprint and lower prices. Unless you’re an extremely busy cafe or restaurant, the amount of time you’ll have to wait between steaming and extracting isn’t a big deal whatsoever. But if you’ve got a line of customers out the door, these short wait times can add up and get people frustrated quickly.
Not a good thing when people haven’t had their coffee yet!
Espresso machines with heat exchangers also have single boilers, but they operate a bit differently. The first thing to know is that the boiler holds the water at a high heat so that it’s ready to steam whenever you need it. However, this doesn’t mean that it brews the coffee at that temperature.
When you brew through a heat exchanger, there is a separate tube located within the boiler that feeds the portafilter of the espresso machine. This tube cools the water down to the appropriate brewing temperature of around 195 degrees before it ever reaches the ground beans in the portafilter.
Quick tip: It’s ideal that you flush the temperature inside of the tube before extracting because any residual water in the tube will heat up if it just sits there.
The downside of a heat exchanger is that the user doesn’t have total control of the water that’s used for brewing. You can only change the temperature of the brewing water by modifying the water temperature that’s used for steaming.
These machines are a little bit better for lower-volume commercial operations than a single boiler. However, a double boiler is still ideal because you get the most control and the quickest output.
One of the most popular examples of a high-end machine with a heat exchanger is the Nuova Simonelli Oscar ii. It’s an example of a machine that can be used in a small commercial setting, but also in a home.
Now that you understand how a single boiler and a heat exchanger works, a double boiler should be really easy to understand. Just like the name sounds, these espresso machines have two water boilers: one that’s used for the steam wand and the other that’s used for extracting the shots. This allows the barista to control the two temperatures independently and really dial in on the temperature they want to brew at.
Believe it or not, even slight changes in the water temperature can make a huge difference in the taste of the espresso. It can seriously be the difference between loving espresso and wincing when you taste it. The precise temperature control is also about consistency. If you want to deliver the same results in every cup, you can’t have variations in temperature.
But it’s not all about the flavor. The double boiler system also means that you can brew and steam much faster. There’s no need to do a cooling flush or wait for the boiler to return to an appropriate temperature for brewing. You can be in a constant cycle of brewing and steaming without missing a beat.
This is why most high-end and high-traffic coffee shops will only use double boiler machines.
A pour over/reservoir machine is what most people are familiar with when they think of a coffee or espresso maker.
But don’t confuse a pour over espresso machine with a pour-over coffee maker. They are two totally different things.
A pour over coffee involves taking hot water and pouring it directly over beans that are placed in a filter above a cup or coffee carafe. You’ll commonly see this method done at your local coffee shops and it’s also been adopted by Starbucks as of late.
But when you’re talking about espresso machines, a pour-over / reservoir machine refers to the fact that it has a reservoir which you pour the water into before brewing. Ideally, this should be water that’s properly filtered/softened to maintain the life of your machine. These types of machines are ideal for home users who don’t want to mess with their plumbing or run water directly to their espresso machine.
A direct connect espresso machine (also sometimes referred to as plumb-in espresso machines) allows the user to hook up directly to a waterline. This means that you have access to a constant stream of water, just like the kitchen sink! There’s no need to constantly refill the tank or monitor how much water is left.
For a high-volume operation that serves lots of espresso, this is a must-have. Some more advanced home users will also opt for a direct connect, but it is generally considered the exception rather than the rule.
It’s important to know that these machines aren’t designed to take the tap water as is. In order to properly maintain a direct-connect machine, you need to have a water softener installed. If you don’t do this, two bad things will happen:
For one, the espresso might taste a bit off to some people because of the calcium and other minerals in the tap water. But more importantly, using straight tap water in your machine will cause scale build up over time. This can damage or even completely ruin the machine – which is a real shame because direct connect machines aren’t cheap!
Some direct connect machines also have the ability to convert to a pour-over machine. Most people wouldn’t ever need something like this, but if you’re someone that owns a food truck or a catering business, you won’t be able to operate with a plumbed machine unless it has this ability.
You can often buy different versions of the same machine with plumbed and non-plumbed configurations. An example would be the La Spaziale S1 Vivaldi II because it comes in a standard and mini version.
These machines also referred to as “automatic” from time to time have a very specific attribute that makes them fantastic for a wide range commercial applications. They take the complicated process of making espresso and turn it into something that’s simple, consistent and repeatable over and over again. All this while still giving you the flexibility to modify the shot according to your liking.
A volumetric machine will measure the amount of water being dispensed into the group and then stop when the pre-programmed threshold is reached. This water threshold is programmed by the user so you can change the program until you find exactly what you want.
So long as you have your grinder dialed-in correctly, you’ll be able to brew espresso that tastes consistent shot after shot once you find the right settings on a volumetric machine.
A semi automatic espresso machine starts the brewing process with the push of a button, but doesn’t have the same programmatic function as a volumetric machine does. This means that the user needs to have a little more experience to use it properly, but on the flipside, it allows for more customization on a shot by shot basis.
Unlike a lever machine (more information below) all the user has to do to start the extraction is push a single button. No need to use any elbow grease.
If you want to change the amount of water you’re using, you don’t have to re-program the machine as you do on a volumetric. Simply stop the pump by pressing the appropriate button when you want to cease the water flow.
A super automatic (also referred to as one word “superautomatic”) is an espresso machine that literally does it all. Every part of the espresso brewing process you can think of, besides for putting beans and water into the machine, can be done at the push of a single button. Generally speaking, here’s how it works over a broad spectrum of machines…
- The user selects the size or drink they want and presses the respective button (single, double or even specialty drinks).
- The machine then grinds the beans, steams the milk (some machines) and extracts the coffee.
- The user gets to stand there in awe is a barista-quality drink is prepared right before their eyes.
But do note that there are two types of super automatic machines: 1 step and 2 step.
A 1 step machine does everything I just described above including the milk steaming portion. On the other hand, a 2 step machine doesn’t handle the milk portion. Usually, people will opt to get a separate milk pitcher to do the steaming on the side. This is ideal if you want to be able to cater to people with dairy allergies or other dietary needs. It provides you with options!
It’s also important to note that some of these machines are way more high-tech than others. There are very basic super automatic machines that will just brew up a classic cup of espresso and nothing else. On the other hand, there are others that have highly diverse menus of different drinks that users can choose from.
Companies like McDonald’s will often use these types of machines at their McCafe locations. This allows them to create a wide variety of different coffee-based beverages without training baristas.
Manual Lever Machines
Lever espresso machines are probably the coolest looking ones on the list, but they’re also the hardest ones to use. These machines reflect the traditional way espresso was made and the term “pulling a shot” derives from the action of pulling a lever on one of these machines. To properly use these machines requires lots of practice and knowledge about espresso. It’s not as simple as loading up your portafilter and pressing a button.
Here’s a basic overview about how most of these machines work (there are a few different mechanisms, but this is the most common ones from brands like Elektra)…
- When the lever is pulled, it begins what’s referred to as “pre-infusion”.
- During this step, the coffee inside of the portafilter gets exposed to the water from the boiler.
- When the lever is released, water is pumped more strongly through the portafilter which is when you start to see the coffee going into the cup.
One interesting thing about the lever machine is that they don’t make nearly as much noise as the other machines on this list. This is because they don’t have a motor or a pump forcing the water through the portafilter.
These types of machines are recommended for home enthusiasts who love the look or who really want to have total control over the extraction process. Some specialized cafes will use them as part of their aesthetic, but it’s probably not worth it from a business perspective unless you have trained baristas.
The acronym PID stands for Proportional Integral Derivative. It’s a mechanism that has lots of different commercial uses from robotic arms to disk drives. In the case of an espresso machine, it has one simple function: to regulate the temperature.
Without a PID, the heating mechanism inside an espresso machines works much like the air conditioner inside your house. Once your house reaches a too high of a temperature, the AC kicks back on and starts to cool it off again. This can create water temperatures that are inconsistent and unstable – not ideal for making consistent espresso especially if the temperature outside of the machine is unstable.
A PID regularly monitors the water and makes sure that it doesn’t go too hot or too cold. It kicks the heating mechanism on much more frequently to keep the water temperature stable.
Above Image Credits: MajestyCoffee.com
Steam Pressure Espresso Machines
The basic stovetop espresso pot uses steam to create pressure on the water and coffee. Historically, there have been different types of steam-based espresso machines, but in modern times, only one is common.
The Moka Pot
The Moka Pot is the cheapest way to brew coffee and also doesn’t take up a lot of space on the stove. However, it does tend to produce poor-quality espresso since it doesn’t build too high a pressure. High-quality espresso uses high pressure – over 9 bars – with fast extraction with water within a temperature range of 195-200° Fahrenheit. If you use boiling water, as you do in steam pots, the pressure isn’t good enough for smooth extraction. Since it is actually steam, it is too hot already. This can create a coffee mix that is a little harsh and bitter.
A lot of people actually prefer this taste, though, so it depends on your preferences. Many second and third generation European-Americans grew up with the Moka Pot coffee in their grandmother’s kitchen, so they like the harsh taste of the coffee. Many restaurants even replicate the flavor characteristics of stovetop coffee by over-extracting their espresso in their commercial machines. However, they may not always do this on purpose. Sometimes, the staff might be untrained, or the manager might be unaware of how to make the coffee.
One advantage of the steam-based espresso pot is that it is much smaller than big espresso machines and doesn’t take a lot of counter space. You can easily leave it on your stove or pop it in the cupboard. These coffee pots are also relatively inexpensive and are a great solution for a college student on a budget in a cramped apartment who just wants a home espresso machine.
For people who need the caffeine buzz (aka college students), it should be noted that over-extracted espresso in boiling water does indeed have a higher caffeine content as well; thus making it the perfect solution for caffeine cravers. Many Moka Pots are also quite aesthetically pleasing and come in all sorts of sizes and colors. It also makes a pretty decent shot of espresso, so you won’t have any worries if all you want in the morning is a burst of caffeine to get you through those initial hours.
Pump Driven Espresso Machines
Espresso machines have a pump installed to help brew coffee at the right temperatures. It is sometimes taken for granted that when people talk about an espresso machine, they’re referring to a machine that is plugged into a wall. However, that isn’t always the case.
Espresso machines have become synonymous with pump-driven espresso machines in the last few years. These pump-driven espresso machines produce the right pressure from 9 bars to 15 bars. They have an electric pump that can help baristas pump out high-quality espressos. The machines have a single boiler attachment in which the water is heated to the perfect temperature for ideal extraction. It usually hits the 195-200° Fahrenheit range, not boiling at 212° Fahrenheit, which results in good espresso.
These coffee makers also have options to produce steam since espresso machines need steam wands for steaming milk and frothing for lattes and cappuccinos. If you opt for more affordable models, they will have one boiler element that will turn the water to steam. The espresso machine is designed to take steam from the top of the boiler while the water is taken from the boiler itself so that the temperatures are correct.
This water from the boiler is usually a little hotter than you would normally prefer for espresso extraction. These espresso machines will still make excellent coffee and will be more affordable, too. However, if you can afford the better, more expensive espresso machines with two heating elements, you should invest in them. They have water reservoirs and boilers so that you can make coffee at the right temperature. The boiler’s heating element produces steam for use in lattes and cappuccinos. The second heating element heats the cooler water in the water tank to the right temperature.
Some coffee shops and restaurants have commercial espresso machines that have multiple group heads. The extraction temperatures are set differently for each group so that they can be used for different purposes. This feature is used for roasts or custom blends of coffee that needs to be extracted at different temperatures – ones other than the typical set temperature. Espresso bars and coffee shops use one of the groups to extract a custom blend that they are known for, while the other group is usually used for their house blends.
There are many types of espresso machines with electric pumps that are available in the market for the purpose of making espressos. They all have varying features and result in different types of coffee. They also come at drastically different price points, which is why it is important to learn more about them so that you can get the right one.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
Semi-automatic espresso machines have a small lever or switch which can be used to turn the espresso extraction option on or off. To get good coffee from this espresso machine, you have to load the porta-filter with a ground filter. After tamping the coffee in, proceed to lock the group handle into the group head. Place your favorite mug under the porta-filter and push the switch or lever on the front panel. This will start the extraction process, and the coffee will begin to pour into the mug.
Fully Automatic Espresso Machines
Fully automatic espresso machines were first patented by an Italian called Achilles Gaggia in 1938. They are the same basic machine as the semi-automatic kinds but contain a microprocessor. This can be programmed to extract any particular volume for special espresso drinks that need specific amounts of coffee.
They have multiple buttons instead of just one switch to turn on and turn off the espresso extraction process. Each button is designed for a different drink size. For example, you can use different buttons for espressos, doppios, ristrettos, and Americanos. For this, you need to program the machine and then load and tamp the porta-filter with your choice of ground coffee. You will get fresh coffee at the press of a button, which is simple and gives you consistent results.
If you can afford it, this type of espresso machine is truly the best thing to have. It is great for office environments where a lot of people will be using the espresso machine. Even if a lot of people don’t know how to use the coffee machine, they will still be able to get great coffee pretty easily. These machines provide ease of use and create perfect shots without much effort.
For commercial espresso use, the automatic machine is one of the best espresso machines to get. This is especially useful for bars, restaurants, and coffee shops that may not have fully trained baristas. Managers can also preprogram the sizes of the shots so that the quality and quantity of the coffee is uniform.
Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
The common names for super-automatic espresso machines include espresso centers or espresso and coffee centers. Espresso centers have all the features you find in fully-automatic machines but with some additional features. They have built-in coffee grinders that use the roasted coffee beans of your choice rather than the weaker, store-bought, pre-ground coffee. Also, instead of using the time-consuming way of grinding the beans separately, the machine does all the work for you.
With a simple push of a button, you can choose the coffee drink size that you want, and the machine will do the rest. It grinds the coffee beans to the correct granularity for your preferred beverage option, tamps and loads the porta-filter, and then extracts the coffee at the right water volume and temperature.
Super-automatic machines also make a larger variety of drinks than fully-automatic espresso machines. The machine is equipped to make great plain American coffee, as well as a mixture of various espresso extractions. These machines also have a lot of nice features. For example, the flat top of the espresso machine may come with a heating tray where you can store your espresso cups. The machine will pre-warm the cut so that the coffee doesn’t cool down after pouring it.
Other machines also have chutes that you can pour already ground coffee in, which can allow you to bypass the internal coffee grinder of the machine. This is great in case someone wants decaffeinated or pre-flavored coffee drinks or espressos. You can get really great coffee and put the machine to good use by using whole beans through the coffee grinder.
Experts suggest that flavored coffee beans should never be used in the machine since they can leave the flavor on the grinder blades, affecting all coffee blends in the future. Instead, pre-flavored coffee should be bought in the form of coffee grounds or grinding should be done separately beforehand. If you plan on doing this, use a bypass chute machine instead. For commercial use, it is recommended that two separate coffee grinders are used for unflavored and flavored coffee blends.
The only thing that super-automatic espresso machines don’t do by themselves is steam and froth the milk for lattes and cappuccinos. You will still need to steam and froth the milk with the frothing wand and then pour it into the coffee cup to mix with the espresso extraction.
Ultra-Automatic Espresso Machines
Ultra-automatic espresso machines are known for simplifying the brewing process to almost nothing. They have all the features of a super-automatic espresso machine with one addition; they also froth and steam the milk automatically. This is a relatively new model of coffee machines for office and home use but has been part of large commercial espresso machines in vending areas and cafeterias for ages.
They have mechanisms to keep the milk refrigerated and come in all sorts of price ranges for home, office, and commercial use. All you need to do is to put the roasted coffee beans of your choice into the hopper and the milk in the cool milk reservoir. The espresso machine will make all the drinks you need automatically with pump machines, including lattes and cappuccinos. The only thing these machines don’t do is latte art, but even that will probably be around in a few years.
Lever Espresso Machines
Lever-based espresso machines are commonly known as piston-driven, lever, or piston espresso machines. They are designed with an internal piston that pushes against the water to create extraction pressure on the water. The pressure is exerted manually by a human pulling the lever, which is why they are known as manual espresso machines.
These are old-world, traditional coffee machines that need some practice to accomplish properly. They were originally produced by La Pavoni, who released a line of premier products with their very own training videos. Although it takes a little practice, this kind of espresso machine produces extremely high-quality pulls. After primarying the technique of pushing the coffee through the hot water, you will notice that you can now pull excellent espresso shots that many will become addicted to.
There are plenty of coffee lovers who believe that the shot produced by this type of coffee machine is better than the ones pumped out by other espresso machine variants. Many coffee purists have custom pulls to extract the espresso. By varying and tailoring the pressure with which they pull the coffee in the manual machines, they can get the coffee to exactly how they like it. Basically, it allows you to make the perfect espresso. Many are able to create really smooth coffees like ristrettos with the help of these machines.
The lever machines still need to be plugged into the wall because they have electric boilers. You will also need to fill the boiler to the right levels, or you will find that the coffee machine won’t operate correctly.
Despite the learning curve and the strength needed to utilize these coffee machines, they have few parts, are easy to maintain, and operate silently. Many of them are designed as really beautiful machines that give your bar, dining room or kitchen an extra pop of color.
The first thing you need to consider when you are buying your very own espresso machine is the budget. You also have to consider how serious you are about the quality of espresso that you want to produce. A higher-quality espresso machine can cost upwards of a thousand dollars, but the coffee it makes will also be worth it.
The last thing to keep in mind is that if you spend more money on a topnotch espresso machine, it can also take up a lot of space on the counter for the machine itself, the coffee grinder, coffee storage and other attachments like coffee tampers and frothing pitchers. The best thing to do is to research all your options and consider it seriously before buying the espresso machine you have your heart set on.