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What are Automatic Espresso Machines, Pump-Driven Espresso Machines, and Lever Espresso Machines?

What are Automatic Espresso Machines, Pump-Driven Espresso Machines, and Lever Espresso Machines?

An "espresso center" or "espresso & coffee center" has a built-in coffee grinder, and is (usually) preprogrammed to make all kinds of drinks automatically, starting with freshly grinding the right amount of coffee beans. The "espresso center" is just another word for the so-called "super automatic espresso machine."

The super automatic espresso machine contains a pump-driven espresso machine at its core. An espresso center (super automatic espresso machine) is an idiot-proof "does all" espresso machine that is perfect in a situation where several people might be using use the espresso machine. And it is particularly a good choice if not all of those people want to take the trouble to learn how to make espresso and use the espresso machine correctly (e.g., in an office environment). An espresso center (or super automatic espresso machine) also takes more counter space than a plain-old "espresso machine" (meaning an espresso machine without an internal coffee grinder).

By contrast, when we simply refer to an "automatic espresso machine," we are talking about a programmable espresso machine that does not (implicitly) contain an internal coffee grinder. It uses ground coffee, and not whole coffee beans.

The automatic espresso machine (also called a "fully automatic espresso machine") has a microprocessor that is preprogrammed to automatically start and stop the flow of heated water to make any of several coffee drinks. Of course, at the heart of the automatic espresso machine is a pump driven espresso machine.

But unlike the fully automatic espresso machine (or just "automatic espresso machine), if you operate the flow of water in the espresso machine by pushing a switch to both start and stop the flow of water, then the machine is said to be a "semiautomatic espresso machine." And of course, just like the super automatic espresso machine and the fully automatic espresso machine, a semiautomatic espresso machine is also a pump-driven espresso machine.

Unlike normal coffee, espresso is made by forcing heated water through a dense "puck" of coffee grounds using pressure. Any pump-driven espresso machine (including the super automatic espresso machine, the fully automatic espresso machine, and the semiautomatic espresso machine) uses a pump to create the pressure. When someone simply refers to a "pump driven espresso machine" or to just an "espresso machine," they are generally not taking about an espresso machine with all of the whistles and bells (like a super automatic espresso machine).

If they are talking about an espresso machine having more features than a plain "pump-driven espresso machine," they probably would explicitly use the term "super automatic espresso machine," or perhaps just "espresso center." Remember, a plain no-frills pump-driven espresso machine is a semiautomatic espresso machine. Add a microprocessor, and the espresso machine becomes an "automatic espresso machine" (synonymous with "fully automatic espresso machine). And integrate the automatic espresso machine with a coffee grinder, and it becomes an "espresso center," also called a "super automatic espresso machine."

By the way, the "puck" of coffee grounds is made by putting ground coffee into the filter basket (called a "portafilter" in espresso machines) and tamping it down using a coffee tamper. In an espresso center (super automatic espresso machine), this will be done for you automatically.

Or you can buy "coffee pods" which are prepackaged pucks that make less of a mess. You simply put the packaged pod into the machine, make the espresso, and then remove and discard the pod. Some machines will only take coffee pods, and some will only take coffee grounds. There are a few espresso machines that will take both.

You have to read the specifications of the espresso machine to see whether is accommodates pods before you buy it. Do not buy pods unless you know that your espresso machine will accommodate them. And do not put coffee grounds into an espresso machine that is made for pod-only use. The advantage of using pods is that they have been pre measured, and they make less of a mess.

Portafilters (which hold the coffee pods or coffee grounds) are made in two different sizes to hold either a single dose (for espresso) or a double dose (for a doppio, or for two espressos). The double-dose portafilters come with two output nozzles. You can either put a single cup under the pair of nozzles to get a doppio (a "double espresso") or you can put a pair of espresso cups down to get two espressos.

Many espresso machines come with both sizes of portafilter. The double nozzle is used to make two cups of espresso at once. This can be seen in many of the pictures of espresso machines on this web site.

A lever espresso machine is a little different. It is a throwback to the past, and it is what many professionals still use in Europe, although less so than in the past. With a lever espresso machine, the operator (or "barista") provides the pressure to do the extraction. By pulling a lever on the espresso machine, the barista forces an internal piston to provide the right amount of pressure using his own strength.

The disadvantage to using a lever espresso machine - at the very beginning - is that it will take a dozen or more tries to learn how to pull correctly for a good cup of espresso. Expect to waste half-a-pound of coffee learning the technique when you first buy a lever espresso machine. The advantage to a lever espresso machine is that once you learn how to pull correctly, you can "custom pull" to get exactly the espresso taste you want. Many professional baristas and home espresso snobs prefer the lever espresso machine because it can make better espresso. But you have to learn the technique.

All of the espresso machines described have a "boiler" to heat the water to the correct temperature prior to doing the espresso extraction. All of these espresso machines also have a "steam wand" (usually on the side - next to the portafilter). The steam wand is used to heat or froth milk for cappuccino or latte.

If you intend to use the steam wand to make cappuccino or latte, you will need one or more frothing pitchers. These are small pitchers into which you put the milk to immerse the steam wand in it. Once the milk is heated or frothed, it is poured from the frothing pitcher into the espresso to make whatever drink you are making (usually, cappuccino or latte).

So when choosing the espresso machine that is right for you, you need to balance the cost, the ease-of-use, the counter space you can afford, and the appearance of the espresso machine in accordance with what best fits your home or office environment.

To sum it up, the "espresso center" (super automatic espresso machine) is a turnkey system that can do whatever you want. Among espresso snobs, the lever espresso machines arguably produce something better because of the ability to "custom pull" at your own rate. While the snobbism can be fun in the right circles, and lever espresso machines are beautiful to look at and will certainly be conversation starters, the super automatic espresso machines produce excellent results for all - including novices and amateurs - just by pushing the right buttons. The plain old espresso machine will save space, and probably money, unless you are also buying a coffee grinder, in which case you might want to reconsider.

If you like freshly ground coffee (which is definitely better), you will have to buy a separate coffee grinder - unless you buy an espresso center (super automatic espresso machine), which contains a coffee grinder. When you buy a coffee grinder, keep in mind that you should grind the coffee fresh (immediately prior to use), and get the size of coffee grinder that is right for your needs. In general, heavier coffee grinders are better, and will last longer. This is because they can put out the most torque at the lowest RPM, which is essential for grinding the coffee beans without burning them, and without putting a strain on the motor. So look at the weight of the coffee grinder. In general, a heavier coffee grinder is a better coffee grinder.

In your espresso machine (or espresso center) you also want to look at the boiler capacity in light of how many cups you want to be able to make without refilling the espresso machine. In a restaurant, you will need to have a very large boiler just for steaming capacity. (Commercial espresso machines are made to be connected directly to the building's plumbing, so they will stay full.) In an office, you may also want a fairly large capacity boiler in an espresso machine.

Finally, before choosing an espresso machine, you need to figure out where you are going to locate it on your counter top. Check the dimensions of the espresso machines that you are interested in to make sure that the espresso machine that you choose will fit.

...written by your friends at The Coffee Brewers