What to Look for When Shopping for an Espresso Machine
Choosing a coffee machine isn’t quite as black and white as one might imagine. There are many wonderful machines on the market, and each one offers its own unique benefits. The goal is to select a machine that meets your needs, has features you will appreciate and fall within your price range. Our guide will help you choose the best espresso machines that will complement your lifestyle and bring you years of happy espresso drinking.
The first step is to choose the type of machine you want.
Pump-driven espresso machines are most popular thanks to their speed, efficiency and favorable results. With pump-driven machines, hot water is forced through the coffee grinds through an internal pump. These machines produce high bars of pressure, make foamy layers of crema and dispense the coffee directly into a cup. Look for at least 15 bars of pressure.
Pump-driven machines can be further classified into super-automatic and semi-automatic. Super-automatic makers are fully automatic so that all the user has to do is drop in the coffee beans and press the appropriate buttons. For a better brewing experience, these machines have large water reservoirs, separate heating chambers for the water and steam and automatic controls. They monitor the grinding, measuring, tamping and brewing for foolproof operation, making them suitable for coffee novices and experts.
Semi-automatic espresso machines are the balance between manual and super-automatic. Users can control the volume and length of the brewing cycle using a dial or lever. Since these machines take more precision on behalf of the user, they are more popular among coffee connoisseurs who enjoy experimenting with various grinds and tamping pressures. Semi-automatic machines carry the same types of features as their fully automatic counterparts by including burr grinders, large water tanks and digital display panels.
Steam-driven coffee makers force boiling water over coffee grounds using steam pressure. Most lower-priced machines are steam-driven. Since steam pressure is not as reliable as pump pressure, the coffee that comes from these machines isn’t as full-flavored. These machines also have further limitations such as that they can only produce about four shots at one time and need to completely cool between cycles.
With manual espresso machines the user operates a lever to press the heated water through the grounds. Because of their simplicity these machines feature wonderful retro styling. Although less popular, these machines give the user the utmost control over their coffee. Italian maker La Pavoni is the best-known maker of manual lever machines.
While it’s common that they leave the user frustrated, they can also produce the most delicious cappuccinos once the right grind, tamp and temperature is chosen. These machines are truly for coffee connoisseurs who have the time, dedication and patience to learn these machines and everything they have to offer. You will need a separate grinder to grind the beans.
Features to Look For
Bars of Pressure: Pump machines release pressure that is measured in bars. The higher the number, the more pressure is being applied to the coffee beans to extract flavor. The best espresso machines have 15 to 18 bars of pump pressure, which is far more than what is required. In fact, the best recommendation is 9 bars of pressure, so don’t go overboard spending more on a machine just because it boasts more bars of pressure.
Construction: Stainless steel is ideal because of its sturdiness, appearance and rust-resistant properties. The exterior housing, filter baskets, drip tray and tamping tool are all examples of pieces that should be made from stainless steel. Also look for brass portafilters and solenoid valves since brass is the best at stabilizing temperature. ABS plastic may not be as attractive as steel, but it does keep the cost of the appliance down and offers appropriate durability.
Usability: When shopping around, envision yourself using the machine. LED lighting, LCD display panels and digital clocks are just a few examples that can make operating the machine more enjoyable. Another usability feature to consider is how much room there is between the spout and drip tray. Will you be able to continue using the same mugs? Does the machine have a cup warmer? If so, does it work as it’s intended to? The turn knobs, dials and switches should be easy to understand as well. Some people enjoy using simple switches while others prefer having more control using old-school turn knobs.
Versatility: If you’re someone that enjoys drinking more than just espressos, choose a machine that makes a variety of drinks. The good news is that most machines are capable of making cappuccinos, gourmet coffees and hot teas. Also determine how the coffee is made. Does it use coffee pods or coffee grounds? Some people enjoy the convenience of both pods and coffee grounds, but these machines will need to have a dual filter to accept both.
How Much Should I Spend?
Like other appliances on the market, the rule of thumb is to fall somewhere in the middle of the price range. With some of the top-end machines, your money will be going toward technologically advanced features instead of a better quality machine. If intuitive features are important to you and you’re not limited on money, then by all means, these machines are worth the expense. But for those that are on a budget, you can get the same quality machine with fewer features for less.
Espresso machines range from under $100 to nearly $20,000. Most however, fall within the $100 to $1500 price range. The surprising element is that just because you purchase the lower-priced machine doesn’t mean you’ll be less happy. Many of the budget-friendly machines that have better espresso machine reviews than the higher-priced models. This comes from the fact that people expect more from the expensive models, and ironically, these are the more difficult ones to operate.
In fact, the majority of higher-priced machines are designed for coffee enthusiasts. They take great time, patience and skill to pull good-tasting shots. The goal is to narrow down your search based on the type of machine you want and the features that are most important to you, and then look at price. You’ll find that there are espresso machines for all budgets, with some of the biggest differences being that the cheaper machines don’t have burr grinders or elaborate milk frothing systems.
Accessories you will need
Tamper: Tampers pack down the coffee grounds so that water can pass through them evenly. Even if a tamper is included with the machine, many espresso machine reviews report that they replace it with a better quality one. Tampers can cost as little as $5 and as much as $50, the trick is finding one that works for you.
Frothing Pitcher: Frothing pitchers are designed to steam milk. Although bell-shaped pitchers are popular, look for those that have a pointed pouring spout. This shape will enable the steam to come out and allow you to pour microfoam on your beverages. There are a variety of sizes as well, with the 12-ounce size being ideal for small cups of espressos while the 24-ounce pitchers are best for multiple cups.
Cups and Saucers: You may think that cups and saucers are just for looks, but they can drastically change the flavor of the coffee, especially since it’s so small in size. The best choices are those that have squared-off edges, an interior bowl shape and a thick porcelain construction.