Articles From Whole Latte Love

Understanding the Different Espresso Machines

Posted: 08/05/03

Matching an espresso machine to your needs or style, as we like to call it, is the most important decision you can start with. If the machine does not offer the proper balance of "ease of use" to "user control" then the experience will be less then optimal. Not a good thing! Choosing the proper espresso machine is akin to a marriage for some - searching for a match made in Java Heaven. So, as match makers, we endeavor to assist you in finding the right machine. It is also important to know what is available and the differences between them.

Early Piston Style Espresso Machine

This is an elegant old world espresso machine that is a throw back to a time when espresso was first discovered. Before the invention of this style of machine it was not possible to generate the necessary pressure to extract an espresso in the manner that we enjoy today. Steam powered machines made the best coffee at the time and the introduction of the piston style enabled the barista’s to generate the 8 to 9 atmospheres of pressure necessary for a true espresso. However they still used boiled water, which would destroy much of the sensitive aromatic oils and coffee flavors. In the 1930’s this process was further refined to use water heated below boiling at around 190 to 195 degrees. This refinement coaxed the finer undertones and more full-bodied tastes from the bean as well as a superior crema, which is the hallmark of a successful extraction. These machines are considered pieces of functional art and are actually on museum display! They are pretty much the same today and are capable of producing superb espresso.

These machines are best suited for people that thoroughly enjoy the ritual of making espresso, a hobbyist or other coffee culture enthusiast. The ease of use is low and the learning curve is high. However the coffee that they are capable of extracting is on par with the best machines.

These have nice frothers, powerful enough for home use. Some come with an auto-frother to simplify the process. You will have no problem making a couple of cappuccino’s, however since they do not have a water reservoir you will find that they are not that practical for large gatherings. Cleaning and maintenance is fairly standard as compared to the semi and fully automatics. However, the exterior of the machine has either a brass, chrome or even copper finish that will show wear, tarnish and fingerprints if not immaculately cleaned. Other then that they are an exceptional showpiece!

To use a Piston machine you pull down on the machine’s handle to force the hot water through the coffee. This does require some arm strength and the consistency of the pull is critical to obtaining a good extraction or espresso.

Semi-Automatic Espersso Machines

These are electric pump machines that were first introduced by Gaggia in the 1940’s. These succeeded the Piston machine because of their comparative ease of use. The electric pump was easily able to produce the necessary pressure of 8 to 9 atmospheres without the inconsistencies inherent of the human powered piston machines. This system quickly replaced the Piston Style machine and became the method of choice for cafes, food services and the home.

These machines operate in what we call the semiautomatic mode. This means that the user starts the pump with an on/off switch and stops the pumping action when the extraction is complete. The extraction takes about 20 to 25 seconds so the user will wait for the coffee process to finish and then switch off the machine. Ease of use is good and the learning curve is average. This is the most popular style of machine for use in the home. These machines are more consistent and simpler to use then the Piston Style units and will also produce excellent coffee drinks.

Most machines use a boiler like the piston machine except that they also have a separate water reservoir. This is effective for users that require greater capacity and hot water for teas or cafe Americano’s. The boilers will all have some overheating protection device - like a thermal fuse - to protect the machine as well as the user. There are newer generation heating devices that use a thermoblock or thermocoil system instead of a boiler. The water is heated on demand as it passes through a heating tube, which can make for faster heating to brew temperature, but not necessarily to steam temperature as our tests have confirmed. Not to confuse you, but there is even a hybrid thermoblock/boiler version available. Unless you have a preference, consider the total machine capabilities - not boiler style.

Frothing on these machines varies from simple to difficult, requiring some practice to master. The machines with frothing adapters help in the aeration process, however those with more traditional steaming wands are easy to master once you know the technique. Any of the machines we sell will steam at least 14 ounces of milk, which is far more than you will normally need. Range of motion on the steam wand is also a consideration for some. However all the machines we sell are capable of using a 20oz steaming pitcher. Anything larger is not recommended, the height of the steaming pitcher starts to become an issue because it will inhibit your range of motion. Also, if you wish to steam 4 to 8 ounces of milk the low level will make it more difficult to reach with the steam wand.

Fully Automatics

Fully Automatic machines extract in the same manner as the semiautomatics with the exception that they are a one touch system. This means the user will start the extraction by activating a touch pad switch. The machine will then continue to extract until a predetermined volume of espresso has been satisfied and then it will stop on its own. This is very helpful for when the user has other tasks to perform. The ease of use is very good and the learning curve is medium. Fully automatic machines are preferred in cafes and restaurants but are also available for the home. The selection available for home use is very limited and are based on modified semiautomatic modes. These machines do not offer better coffee quality and for the automation that they offer in a home environment consider the overall price to performance aspects before deciding.

Frothing and nearly all other commentary on the semi-automatics can be applied to the fully-automatics; see those comments above.

Super Automatics

These machines are simply that - super automatics. They perform the entire ritual for the user in a fraction of the time. They contain water reservoirs and integrated coffee grinders. This is push button technology at it’s best. Press the brew button and it will grind the right amount of beans, tamp the ground beans, extract a predetermined amount of coffee and then it will dispose of the puck (left over coffee) into an internal dump box. Some models will even help the user maintain the machine. The popularity of this style of machine is the fastest growing in the market. This machine presents some substantial advantages to all others that we discussed.

Special features found on the super-automatics can be really uesful and add considerable flexibility. Some will give you the ability to change the coffee strength by controlling the amount of coffee used in each extraction. This can be used to make weaker or stronger espresso, double espressos and the highly popular crema coffee. The crema coffee is a regular coffee only made in the pressure brewed style - fuller bodied and a whole lot tastier. You can make these on demand with freshly ground beans - a cup-of-Joe doesn’t get any better then this!

Some machines will even provide a bypass doser. This feature allows the user to bypass the whole bean coffee grinder with pre-ground coffee. The most common use is decaf for those guests that can’t drink the good stuff or perhaps you don’t feel like caffeinating yourself in the evening. This prevents the desire to dump the beans out of the hopper and gives more practical value to the machine for some buyers. The coffee quality offered by these machines are excellent and exceed that produced by most users here in the US. This is not to say that you can not make it better yourself, it is just very unlikely that the average user has the knowledge to make a better product. This is particularly true in regards to consistency - the ability to make a great extraction one after another. I speak from substantial experience with all varieties of users.

Frothing is very simple. They all have frothing adapters which as I described earlier, help in the aeration of the milk to produce a thick froth. They are unique in that they do not use boilers for heating of the water for brewing or steaming. They use a thermoblock technology that heats the water as it passes through a tube encased in an aluminum block - hence the name thermoblock! They react very quickly and are capable of steaming continuously. The pump goes into a slow pulsing action that sends droplets of water from the reservoir into the superheated thermoblock where it is flashed steamed. This is a very effective system that works great for hot water dispensing as well.

Maintenance and cleaning of the Super Automatics is on the lowest end of the scale for comparison purposes. These are no-tools required systems - some are self -cleaning and for those of you who want to visually inspect the brewing components you can remove the entire brew group on some models.

The Super Automatics will go further than simply making an espresso automatically. They take the used grounds and place them into an internal dump box, when this is full the machine will tell you. The machine will also indicate when it is out of water. Some models have their own cleaning cycles, decalcification cycles and auto-rinse cycles.

A concern for some users is that the super-automatics take away the control that you get with the other styles. This is true to an extent. What you lose is the ability to control the brew pressure manually like you do with the piston style (only). This is not necessarily a bad thing - most users could not put up with this human error prone procedure. Another concern is that you cannot control the tamp pressure. This is also true, but what you want is consistency of tamp pressure. Therefore, you should change the fineness of the grind to suite the tamp.

As you would expect, all the grinders have a wide range of settings. In fact they all use very strong conical burr grinders with gear reduction systems. This makes the grinder a strength of the machine and not something to excuse away.

To learn more about Super Automatics see our page dedicated to explaining them is fuller detail - What is a Super Automatic.

Now that you have a solid understanding of the different styles of machines go back to our exclusive Article Archive to gain more knowledge or get another customers opinion in our Review Section!