What to look for in an espresso machine
An espresso is a 30ml shot of coffee made by passing water through a compact puck of finely ground fresh coffee at high pressure. An espresso is not a short black coffee. It cannot come from a coffee pod machine and it is most definitely not a type of coffee bean or roast.
It sounds simple enough, but good espresso is hard to come by. Properly done it will have a rich foamy crema of emulsified coffee oils on top and will boast a rich and unique flavour profile depending on which beans were used to produce it. Bad espresso, on the other hand, will have little to no crema and will taste burnt, bitter or sour.
Brewing consistently good espresso requires a machine that can generate a consistent 9 bars of pressure and that does not heat water above 90 degrees. A good machine will also have a coffee basket – or portafilter – that holds around 8 grams of ground coffee, and it will take up to 30 seconds to force the water through the grounds.
Owning an espresso machine allows you to get barista-style Espresso at home. Espresso forms the base of a plethora of popular coffee drinks, from the Americano to the Flat white, so these machines are hardly one trick ponies.
The units have been on the market since the late 1800s when mass production began in Italy and today they grace kitchens around the globe. But with so many machines to choose from, finding the right one to meet your needs can be a nightmare.
To help you out, The Coffee Bazaar has put together this no-nonsense list of things to consider before splashing out on a new machine.
Electric or non-electric
At the bottom of the market there are some non-electric machines which come in hundreds of pounds cheaper than sophisticated electric units. Non-electric machines require you to add pre-heated water and then force water through your coffee grounds using pressure that is generated manually.
Some of the Non-electric machines, such as Wacaco’s ever-popular Nanopresso are designed to be portable and deliver Italian-style coffee on the go.
Other manual units such as ROK’s lever-operated gizmo are very much designed to stay in the kitchen.
Non-electric machines can be difficult to use and it can take a while to learn how best to operate them to get best results. They offer less control over water temperature and come with no steamers, which is not great if it takes a flat white or a cappuccino to get you going in the morning.
Manual or automatic
There are several extremely well regarded, if not downright iconic, electric espresso machines that retain a manual pumping system. For an example of what we’re on about – take a look at the Pavoni Professional Lusso. What a stunner!
The manual espresso pump is favoured by coffee fanatics who are looking tightly control the infusion and extraction times of their shots. There’s also very little risk the simple piston mechanism will break down so these machines tend to last forever and a day.
Most manual electric machines come with large boilers and high powered steam jets capable of frothing milk to a silken texture in seconds.
Automatic machines, like this De Longhi Dedica Style EC685M, feature electric or hydraulic pumps that force water through the coffee at a uniform pressure, no pulling required. You lose some control over the process – but still get to take the lead on bean type, grinding and tamping your coffee. The process therefore remains one of man an machine working together harmoniously.
What kind of portafilter?
Some portafilters, for example, the one on this Beem Espresso Perfect Crema Plus Espresso Machine come with two spouts, easily letting you make one or two cups on the go. Home machines are unlikely to let you go beyond a two cup maximum however.
Some machines come with a range of attachments letting you chop and change. Other times you might want to invest in new filter sets, like these super trendy bottomless naked portafilters. These have no spouts at all and give you a quasi-pornographic view of the brewing process. They also let you gauge how effective your tamping skills are. Well tamped coffee will produce a nice even pour and will taste better.
Weak frothers can take an age to heat up milk for a latte and can fail to ever generate enough steam to fill a jug of milk with enough micro-bubbles to make a good flat white. Problematically, its pretty difficult to get a good idea of how effective a frother is going to be, but a good rule of thumb is to look at the wattage of the machine. This Sage BES810BSS the Duo Temp Pro Espresso Machine packs a punch at 1,700 watts and is a fast and effective foamer.
Clearance height and cup storage
How many people have brought an espresso machine only to take it home and realize their clearance height between the portafilter and drip tray is too short for their favourite mug? Annoying right? Everyday you will need to make your coffee-shot in an espresso cup and add it into your lager mug, adding an extra element of faff to proceedings and creating washing up.
If you’re just drinking espresso it won’t be a problem – but if you are not bothered about drinking from a tiny Italian tazzina then bear the clearance height in mind when choosing your machine. This CRUX 15 Bar Espresso Filter Coffee Machine has a 9CM clearance. That should be enough for most cups and mugs although larger receptacles may need to be tilted.