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The Different Categories of Espresso Machines - Common Terminology

The Different Categories of Espresso Machines - Common Terminology

Making espresso requires pushing heated water, under pressure, through a "puck" of packed (or "tamped") finely-ground coffee. There are three ways of creating this pressure, hence three types of espresso makers.

The first method of producing pressure is with steam. Today, steam is the mechanism behind the basic stovetop espresso pot, which is also called a "Moka pot." Historically, there were also several kinds of "steam-driven espresso machines," in which the pressure came from steam that was generated by heat.

The second method of generating pressure is with a pump. Espresso machines that use a pump are sometimes called "pump-driven espresso machines." However, with the exception of lever-operated espresso machines (discussed below), whenever anyone says "espresso machine" in these times, it is taken for granted that they are talking about a pump-driven espresso machine that gets plugged into the wall, and that has a pump.

The third method of producing pressure is manually. Lever-operated espresso machines, also simply called "lever espresso machines" have an internal piston that will force the heated water through the coffee puck. But the pressure behind the piston comes from the human operator that pulls a lever.

For most of us, the first thing to consider when choosing an espresso machine is your budget, and linked to that, how serious you are about the quality of the espresso that you will produce. A top-quality espresso machine could cost you more than $1,000, but the espresso it will produce will be great.

Also keep in mind that if you buy one of these topnotch espresso machines, it may take up about 2 square feet of counter-space for the espresso machine itself, for a coffee grinder (assuming that you grind your own coffee), for your coffee storage, and for other paraphernalia (minimally, a frothing pitcher and a coffee tamper). Make sure that you know where you are going to put your espresso machine before you buy it.

Making Espresso With Steam - Moka Pots

By far, the cheapest way and most space-efficient way to brew espresso is with a stovetop espresso pot (also called a "Moka pot"). Unfortunately, a stovetop Moka pot will produce relatively poor-quality espresso. High quality espresso requires a fast extraction using high pressure - over 9 bars, and should be done with hot water in the 195-200 degree range, and not with boiling water.

Because steam is used to create the pressure in a stovetop espresso pot, the pressure is usually not high enough for a good extraction, and the water is actually steam, which is much too hot. This will cause the resulting espresso brew to be bitter and a little harsh. Ironically, many second and third-generation European-Americans think that this is how espresso is supposed to taste, since their first exposure to it was in their grandmother's kitchen, using a Moka pot.

Some restaurants over-extract their espresso using a commercial espresso machine. Over-extracted espresso will have many of the same flavor characteristics as espresso prepared on the stovetop. Unfortunately, the restaurants that do this tend to do it because the restaurant staff is untrained in espresso basics, and the owner - or manager - doesn't know that good espresso should not have these characteristics.

On the positive side, an espresso pot is much smaller than a real espresso machine, and is does not take up counter space. You can store it in a cupboard, or leave it on your stove. Espresso pots are very inexpensive. You can buy them for as little as $20. The espresso pot (or Moka pot) is an excellent solution for a college-age person on a budget in a small apartment.

If you are in college, and are drinking espresso for a more intense "caffeine buzz" when you study, over-extracted espresso using boiling water (instead of hot water) will have a higher caffeine content. But in general, properly a properly extracted shot espresso will have less caffeine than a regular cup of coffee (although there is a big difference in volume).

Someone who can afford a pump-driven espresso machine, and who has the counter space to accommodate one should buy a real espresso machine. However, many of the Moka pots are quite lovely to look at. You may want to buy a few matching Moka pots in different sizes just to put on display in your kitchen or dining room as part of the decor (i.e., purely for decoration).

Pump-Driven Espresso Machines

Today, when someone says "espresso machine," they mean a pump-driven espresso machine. The pump-driven espresso machine uses an electrical pump to produce the right pressure (at least 9 bars, and as much as 15 bars) for a high-quality espresso extraction. These espresso machines also have a boiler in which the water is heated to the correct temperature.

The ideal water temperature for a good espresso extraction is in the 195-200 degree range; it is not boiling (212 degrees). Since almost all espresso machines have steam wands (for frothing and steaming milk for cappuccino and latte), they also have to produce steam.

The less expensive espresso machines will have a single boiler element, and will run that boiler at steam temperature (212 degrees). The steam is taken from the top of the boiler within the espresso machine, and the water (for the espresso extraction) is taken from the boiler itself. This water is hotter than what you would prefer (for the best espresso extraction). But these espresso machines will still make very good espresso, and will save you some money.

The more expensive (and frankly, better) espresso machines will have two heating elements, and will have a "water reservoir" as well as a boiler. The heating element for the boiler produces the steam for the espresso machine. A second separate heating element takes cooler water from the water reservoir, and heats it to an ideal extraction temperature for the espresso.

In some of the best commercial espresso machines (used in restaurants and coffee shops) having multiple groupheads (a group is an espresso-brewing port), the extraction temperatures can be set differently for each group. This feature is sometimes used for custom blends and/or roasts of coffee that are ideally extracted at slightly higher or lower temperatures than the 195-200 degree range that is typically used. This allows the coffee shop or espresso bar to use one of the groups to extract espresso for the featured custom coffee blend, and the other group to be used for their house blend.

Pump-driven espresso machines are separated into three, and very recently, as many as four categories. These are: 1) the semiautomatic espresso machine; 2) the fully-automatic espresso machine; 3) the super-automatic espresso machine; and recently, 4) the ultra-automatic espresso machine. All of these are pump-driven espresso machines.

Semiautomatic Espresso Machines

The semiautomatic espresso machine will have a switch (or small lever) on the front panel to start and stop the espresso extraction. To use a semiautomatic espresso machine, load the portafilter in the group handle with ground coffee, tamp the coffee in, and lock the group handle into the grouphead. (If this terminology is unfamiliar, read an article or two in our :Commercial Espresso Machine" section of articles.)

Put an espresso cup under the portafilter, and push the switch on the front panel of your espresso machine to start the espresso extraction. When the cup is as full as you would like, push the switch again to stop the flow.

Fully Automatic Espresso Machines

The first fully automatic espresso machines go back to 1938, and were patented by Achilles Gaggia. The fully-automatic espresso machine is the same basic machine as the semiautomatic espresso machine, except that it contains a microprocessor (not the original Gaggia) that can be programmed to extract particular volumes for particular espresso drinks. (See our article "Programming Your Commercial Espresso Machine" in our "Commercial Espresso Machine" section of articles.)

Instead of a single switch to start and stop an espresso extraction, there will be multiple buttons: one per drink size. You can use one button for espresso, another for doppios, a third for ristrettos, and a fourth for Americanos. One you have programmed your fully automatic espresso machine, all you need to do is to load (and tamp) the portafilter with ground coffee, and press the button for the drink that you want.

This is much simpler, and gives you the same result every time. We highly recommend the fully automatic espresso machine if you can afford it. This is particularly true in an office environment, where many people might be using the espresso machine, and (at least) several of them do not know how to use it properly.

And in our Commercial Espresso Machine line, we generally recommend fully automatic espresso machines to coffee shops, restaurants, and espresso bars if the situation is that some of the staff that will be using the espresso machine are not professionally trained baristas. This allows the shop owner (or manager) to preprogram shot sizes so that the quality of the drinks will be uniform whether it is a new-hire or a seasoned-pro that is pushing the buttons.

Super Automatic Espresso Machines

Super-automatic espresso machines are sometimes called "espresso centers," or even "espresso & coffee centers." A super automatic espresso machine (or "espresso center") has all of the features of a fully automatic espresso machine. But in addition, it has a built-in coffee grinder.

Instead of grinding your coffee beans separately (in a separate coffee grinder) or using store-bought pre ground coffee, you put the roasted coffee beans of your choice into the hopper of the super automatic espresso machine, and then simply push the button corresponding to the coffee drink that you want.

The espresso machine does the rest. It grinds the coffee beans to the right granularity for the selected beverage, it loads and tamps the portafilter appropriately, and then it does the extraction using the right water temperature and water volume for the selected drink.

The super automatic espresso machine will generally make a wider range of drinks than a fully automatic espresso machine. In addition to doing various espresso extractions, many of the super automatic espresso machines will also make plain (American) coffee.

Super automatic espresso machines generally have lots of other nice features. For example, a heating tray (on the flat top of the espresso machine) is there to store your espresso cups (face down, for cleanliness). The espresso machine pre-warms the espresso cups for you so that you don't cool the espresso down immediately (by extracting it into an unwarmed espresso cup).

Some of the super automatic espresso machines also have a chute into which you can pour ground coffee. This allows you to bypass the internal coffee grinder in the espresso machine. This is very useful if someone in your household or at your dinner party wants a decaffeinated or pre-flavored espresso or coffee drink.

You can make most of the espresso and coffee drinks using the whole beans in the hopper, and the internal coffee grinder. But you can immediately switch over to the chute to make a decaffeinated (or a pre-flavored) coffee or espresso drink to accommodate for yours friends who prefer this.

Some general advice is to not use flavored coffee beans in your super automatic espresso machine. This is because they will impart there various flavors (vanilla, chocolate, hazelnut, etc.) to the grinder blades, and will alter impart their flavors to all future coffee that is ground by your espresso machine. Instead, we recommend that you purchase flavored coffees pre ground, or that you grind them yourself using a separate coffee grinder. Choose a super automatic espresso machine having a bypass chute if you are going to do this.

In fact, we recommend to our professional customers (restaurants, coffee shops, and espresso bars) that they have two commercial coffee grinders: one for unflavored coffee blends, and the other for flavored coffees. This is exactly why we make this recommendation, and it is why our commercial espresso machine packages include two commercial coffee grinders.

There is one thing that the super automatic espresso machines do not do automatically. This is to froth and steam milk (and these are different) for cappuccino and latte, respectively. When making cappuccino or latte, you will still need to froth or steam the milk using the frothing wand on the espresso machine, and pour it into the extracted espresso to finish the drink yourself.

Ultra Automatic Espresso Machines

The ultra automatic espresso machine is a super automatic espresso machine that will also froth and steam milk automatically. This is a relatively new feature for espresso machines in the Home & Office category, but it is a feature that has been around in very large commercial espresso machines (mostly for use in cafeterias and vending areas, where there is no barista present) for some time now.

The commercial espresso machines that do this sell for as much as $30,000, and they keep the milk refrigerated. (We do not sell to the cafeteria sector of the market.) Not surprisingly, the home espresso machines that do this run in the $2,000 to $3,000 range. The premier brand of ultra automatic espresso machines is Saeco, and we sell several models.

When you have an ultra automatic espresso machine, you load roasted coffee beans into the hopper, and put milk into the milk reservoir. The espresso machine makes all of the beverages automatically, including cappuccino and latte. (They do not do "latte art" yet, but wait a few years...)

Lever Espresso Machines

Lever operated espresso machines (also called "lever espresso machines" or "piston espresso machines" or "piston-driven espresso machines") have an internal piston that is pushed against the water to create extraction pressure by a human who pulls a lever. This is an old-world tradition, and requires some practice to do it correctly.

The original producer of lever espresso machines is La Pavoni, and they are still the premier producer of lever espresso machines, which we sell. Each La Pavoni lever espresso machine comes with a training video to teach you how to pull a shot correctly. This will take a little practice (perhaps you will waste your first pound of coffee learning the technique) before you produce high-quality pulls.

But once you have mastered the technique in the style of the old-world barista, you will be able to consistently pull excellent shots. In fact there are many purists who feel that they can pull a better shot than can be produced by a pump. In essence, they do a "custom pull" to extract espresso exactly how they like it, since they can vary and "tailor" the pressure throughout the pull so that the resulting espresso is smoother - like a ristretto.

While the lever espresso machines require some learning and a little bit of strength (but not that much) to use properly, they are silent, easy to maintain, and have few parts. Most of these are also stunningly beautiful machines, which will add to the decor of your kitchen, bar, or dining room. (See our La Pavoni line of lever espresso machines to get the feel for their artistic beauty.)

Note that the lever espresso machines still plug into the wall, since they have electric boilers. It is also important to fill the boiler of the lever espresso machine to the correct level, or the espresso machine will not operate correctly. If you purchase a lever espresso machine, make sure to read the booklet and watch the video before trying to use it.

In the modern world, we have become accustomed to "turn key" equipment. We expect to be able to take something out of the box, and use it immediately and intuitively with no instruction or training. The lever espresso machine is an old-world technology that produces marvelous espresso. But you need a little learning and patience first.

Not only will you be very happy with the espresso that your lever espresso machine makes, but lever espresso machines are also truly beautiful to look at, and will add flair to any home decor. They are sure to be conversation starters.

...written by your friends at The Coffee Brewers