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When looking around for espresso machines, things can get very confusing because there are so many types and features. Here you can find the main types of espresso makers and what the different terms mean so you can make a more informed choice.
There are four main types of espresso machine: 1) Lever. 2) Manual. 3) Automatic. 4) Super automatic. For most people an automatic espresso maker is the best balance between price and ease of use. Super automatic espresso makers are capable of brewing many different drinks with the single push of a button.
There are a few key differences between all those types of espresso makers. Below you can find out the exact differences. At the bottom I’ll also go into certain features espresso machines can have that are not necessarily only for one type of machine but are still good to be aware of.
Types of espresso machine for home use
The world of espresso machines can be a bit confusing. Let’s go over the four main types and see what options there are and what is best for your situation.
1. Lever Espresso Maker
The first type of espresso maker is the lever press. This type doesn’t use an electric pump to create the pressure that pushes the water through the coffee bed but the movement of the lever does. Your muscles and weight create the pressure by pushing down a piston that slides through the filter basket.
Some of the lever machines are just the filter basket and the lever mechanism. Those work well and are by far the most affordable way to make espresso at home. However, you’ll need a separate kettle to boil water. If you’re looking to start making espresso at home but don’t want to spend a lot of money (yet), this is a good way to get started.
These lever machines are not great to make many cups a day because it is a bit more involved which can get tedious. However, for a few cups a day, it’s fine. One thing to keep in mind is that these simple lever machines don’t have a steam wand to make milk foam so if you want cappuccino or other milk drinks you’ll have to use a separate milk frother.
The more expensive and bigger lever machines have built in boilers. These are usually quite high end machines that are beautifully made and make great espresso. Using your own muscles to make espresso does take a bit more effort and for most people it’s more effort than they’re willing to go through but on the other hand it makes you really feel you’re making the espresso yourself. The lever machines with a boiler built in will have steam wands to make milk foam.
The La Pavoni Europiccola is a popular and very good lever espresso maker. Check it out below.
Manual espresso machines have boilers and pumps to create pressure but you have to turn the pressure on and off by yourself. The pump is controlled by a button and if you leave the button switched on, the pump will keep running until the boiler is empty.
Getting the right ratio of coffee grounds to water is very important to getting good espresso. That means you’ll have to keep an eye on how much liquid is in your cup and turn off the switch when you’ve reached the correct amount.
That means you’ll have to use a set of coffee scales to get it right. This is something most people that just want a cup of espresso are not willing to go through. Of course you can eyeball it but then your espresso will be quite inconsistent. A shot of espresso is about 28 ml. It’s quite hard to see the difference between 23 and 33 ml by eye but that kind of difference has a big impact on taste.
For the people that are really into making espresso and want to control as much as possible, a manual espresso maker is the best option. Manual machines are similar to what you’ll see in a coffee shop. That means there is more control which means potentially a better tasting espresso but you’ll also need to have more skills and knowledge to get very good espresso.
Most manual espresso makers don’t have a grinder built in which means you’ll likely have to invest in a good grinder or use pre-ground coffee. Again, people for whom making espresso is a hobby don’t want the built in grinders anyways because they want to choose a separate one they like best. Again there is more control.
All manual machines have a steam wand so you can steam milk to make latte or espresso.
However, don’t think that it’s necessarily cheaper to buy a manual espresso maker over an automatic one. Because you’ll need a separate grinder and a set of scales, you’ll end up spending just as much as you would for a good automatic machine. It’s a matter of preference.
An automatic espresso machine starts and stops the pump at the right moment so you get exactly the correct amount for single or double espresso every time. You can choose if you want a single or double and on more advanced machines you can choose the coffee strength you would like.
Automatic machines come in different stages of ‘automatic’. The simplest models only automate the amount of liquid that comes out. Using the right amount of liquid and coffee grounds is one of the key things to get right to brew good espresso. On an automatic espresso machine, the amount of coffee grounds you put in the basket is still up to you but the amount of liquid used is done by the machine.
The automatic starting and stopping of the pump (and sometimes the automatic pre-infusion), is the key difference between a manual and automatic espresso machine. Because the amount of liquid is so important, it is important to get it right. With a manual machine you would do this by putting a coffee scale under your cup. That isn’t necessary with an automatic machine.
Automatic machines come in a wide range of prices and they all have different features. So while in basis an automatic espresso machine just puts the correct amount of liquid in your cup, the more expensive machines have way more features that make your life easier. If you want to know what kind of features are possible you can scroll down.
However, there is also something called a ‘super automatic’ espresso maker. What that exactly means you can find below. But, many automatic machines, especially the more expensive/advanced ones take some features from the super automatic and add them to the normal automatic machine. So there are many espresso machines that are not super automatic but have more features than the basic automatic.
A great example of a good and complete automatic espresso maker is the Breville Barista Express (Amazon)
4. Super Automatic
The most user friendly and at the same time most complicated espresso machine is the super-automatic type. A super automatic espresso machine grinds coffee, fills the basket, tamps the grounds and brews your espresso with the press of a single button.
Often these are very large and expensive machines that not only make espresso but can also make all kinds of espresso based drinks with the push of a button. While you’ll have to steam your own milk with the other types of machines named above, a super automatic does everything for you. You just put your cup in the right place and push the button and you can have a cappuccino, latte, espresso, ristretto and often many more drinks without having to lift a finger.
The only thing you have to do is make sure there are enough beans, water and milk in the machine and clean out the refuse tray in time.
The modern versions of these espresso makers feature touchscreens of varying sizes to make life even easier. Some even have the option to control it with an app on your phone so as long as the machine is turned on and there is a cup in place, you don’t even have to walk up to it to make a drink. Choose which drink you want on your phone and by the time you made it to the machine, your drink is waiting for you.
You can understand that these super automatic espresso makers are quite complicated. Not complicated to use but on the inside there is a lot going on. That means that not only the price you pay is higher but you can also expect more maintenance costs if something goes wrong.
The Jura Giga 6 is an example of what a super automatic espresso machine can be. Check it out on Amazon.
Espresso Machine Features
Besides the different types, espresso machines can have a lot of different features. You could turn all these features into different types of espresso machine but that would make things very messy. However, being aware of the different possible features is a good idea to make the right decision for you.
Some of the features are more important than others and not all features are found on all types of espresso machines named above.
All types of coffee are better if made with freshly ground beans. Espresso is no exception to this rule. However, you’ll need a good grinder to get the most out of your beans.
Many espresso machines have a grinder built in. Sometimes it’s just a separate grinder built into the same box while in other machines it also automatically fills the filter basket. Either way, the built in grinder helps you improve the taste of your espresso.
Lever machines never have a grinder built in and most manual machines don’t either. Those machines are usually used by enthusiasts who want to pick their own grinder and don’t want to pay for something they don’t want anyways. And most built-in grinders are not really up to espresso nerd’s standards so they wouldn’t buy a machine that has one.
Espresso nerds are not a small group but compared to the amount of people that just want’s a cup of coffee it’s a very small percentage. Most people don’t want an extra appliance cluttering up their kitchen though so they prefer the built in grinder.
Many (but not all) automatic espresso makers have a grinder built in. In the simple automatic machines you’ll have to catch the grounds yourself and fill/tamp the basket by hand. Super automatic machines always have a grinder built in.
Pretty much every espresso maker with a boiler (which is all except some lever machines), will have a steam wand. This steam wand is used to steam milk to make cappuccino and other milk drinks. Pretty much every espresso machine has a steam wand but if you have any interest in making milk drinks, double check if the model you want to buy has one.
If a machine you have your eye on doesn’t have a steam wand, it might have an automatic frother.
Automatic milk frother
If your machine has a boiler but no steam wand, there is a large chance that you have a machine that froths the milk for you. Sometimes this is an external bottle while on other machines it’s inside of the machine. Either way, if your machine has a milk frother included, it’s controlled by the machine so you don’t have to do anything yourself. It’ll steam the milk depending on which drink you selected.
That means the automatic milk frothers are pretty much exclusively the territory of the super automatic machines although some more advanced automatic espresso makers also have this feature.
Steaming milk correctly isn’t actually all that easy. For most people that aren’t (aspiring) baristas the automatic milk frother will have better results. You won’t be able to do any latte art but there aren’t all that many people that do this at home anyways.
Here we’re getting into the more technical stuff. Espresso machines have boilers. It’s basically the same as an electric kettle but inside an espresso machine.
This is where the water to brew your coffee comes from so why do some espresso machines have two of them? This is usually reserved to the really expensive models so there must be some good reason to do this? Or is it only to make the machines more expensive?
There are some benefits to having a double boiler although if paying extra for a machine that has it is up to you and your needs. Brewing espresso and steaming milk actually happens optimally at different temperatures. So in a single boiler machine, you brew the espresso, change the temperature if possible and then steam the milk or vice versa. On a double boiler machine you can do it at the same time.
Double boiler espresso makers also tend to have much better temperature stability and are usually capable of brewing cups of espresso in quicker succession.
If you’re very serious about your espresso and want to brew faster, a double boiler is a good feature. For most people it’s not a necessity. It’ll just take a longer to make a cappuccino and brew multiple cups.
Since we’re talking about temperature stability, the PID should be mentioned. Older machines have something like a pressurestat. This is a little device that sits on the boiler and measures the pressure. From that pressure the temperature is calculated. If the pressure becomes too low the heating element is turned on. This wasn’t very accurate and allowed for pretty wide swings in water temperature.
So that would lead to the brew temperature being different every time with a different tasting espresso as a result.
If you are buying a new espresso machine, get one with a PID controller. PID is short for Proportional Integral Derivative. Sounds fancy but it’s basically a digital thermostat that measures the temperature and also controls the heating element. This type of controller is much more accurate and keeps the boiler within +-1 degree of the target temperature where the pressurestat allows for temperature swings of up to 10 degrees.
The PID controller also allows you to actually control the temperature easily where a pressurestat is something mechanical that can’t be adjusted with the push of a button. A PID controlled machine is better in most ways. In an automatic machine it is going to produce more consistent tasting espresso. In a manual machine a PID is going to enable to produce better espresso if the operator can take advantage of it.
Most of the high-end super automatic espresso machines come with touchscreens nowadays. While on most other types of espresso machines touchscreens wouldn’t be all that useful because there isn’t much to adjust that wouldn’t be easier with a simple button, super automatic espresso makers are made much easier by adding one.
Because the modern super automatic machines have the option to make many different drinks and have quite a bit of adjustability as well, the touchscreen makes things much easier. Simply touching the drink you want in your cup on the screen is much easier that turning three buttons to maybe select what you want and then discovering you set one setting wrong so you don’t actually get what you want.
If a machine doesn’t have the option to make many different drinks and/or adjust a lot of factors, a touchscreen is just a gimmick. But on complicated machines it’s a definite plus.
The only real drawback is that it’s another thing that can break. It also looks modern. That can be a pro or a con. Some people prefer the more classic look while others love the possibilities and looks new technology bring.
Some super automatic espresso makers have the option to be controlled by a phone app. You install the app on your phone, pair the app to your machine and from then on you can simply brew any drink you want with your phone.
How useful is that? It’s nice to have although it’s not necessary. Espresso machines do have to heat up for a little bit so that means starting the process on your phone helps you skip that waiting part. However, from standby, that heating time is usually not all that long.
Don’t forget, even though the machine is app controlled, your cup is not. Someone will still have to remember to put an empty, clean cup in the machine. Of course if you get into the habit of always having a clean cup in the right place, this is not a problem.
Recommended Espresso Equipment
Besides an espresso machine, there are a few other tools that can make your espresso better. Here are my favorites:
- Espresso Machine: The Breville Barista Express (Amazon) is the sweet spot in price and quality for most casual home baristas. It comes with a built in grinder and most tools you need to brew espresso.
- Tamper: A nice tamper helps you tamp your grounds in the filter for the best result. Any correctly sized tamper can do the job but a nice heavy one just feels so much better in your hand than a plastic model. This Luxhaus one (Amazon) has a nice trick up it’s sleeve to make tamping very consistent.
- Beans: Good espresso starts with good beans. Using fresh beans is a big improvement over pre-ground coffee.
- Scales: Getting consistently good espresso means you have to know how much grounds is going into the machine and how much is coming out and how long this takes. A coffee scale is going to make your espresso much more consistent and also makes adjustments a lot easier. The Apexstone coffee scale (Amazon) is cheap and doesn’t look too sleek but is just as accurate as more expensive scales. The TimeMore scales (Amazon) look and feel a lot nicer but cost a bit more.
- Grinder: To make the best of your fresh beans, a good grinder is necessary. Espresso requires a good grinder to get the best results. The Baratza Sette 30 (Amazon) is a good espresso grinder that can also be used for other brewing methods and while not cheap, is good value for money. If you prefer hand grinders, the 1ZPresso JX-PRO is one of the best options (Amazon)
- Distribution tool: After grinding you can get some clumps in the coffee grounds. Those clumps should be broken up so the water can extract all the coffee grounds equally. Distribution tools are very simple things but this one (Amazon) is beautifully made and will look good in your kitchen.