Espresso Machine Types

There are many models of espresso and cappuccino machines available for use in the home setting and in the commercial environment. When shopping for an espresso and cappuccino machine, it can become very confusing to choose among these many different makes and models that may or may not suit your needs and lifestyle. To narrow your search for the perfect espresso and cappuccino machine, the first essential step is to learn the five basic categories that almost all espresso and cappuccino machines fall into.

By learning these categories, you will be able to understand the variances and nuances between “ease of use” and “user control”. With this understanding, you should be better prepared to select the appropriate espresso and cappuccino machine that will meet your needs. If you still need further clarification, 1st-Line Equipment, LLC Is 110% committed to answering your questions with regard to your purchase of an espresso and cappuccino machine for home or commercial use.

Steam Powered Espresso Machines

Steam powered espresso machines were the first machines invented to extract espresso with steam pressure and boiling water. these machines extracted espresso by utilizing the steam pressure at 1.5 Bar in the boiler to force the water through the coffee grinds. The total extraction time was about 1 minute. These machines in the early 1900’s produced a sour, burnt taste created by the steam that was mixed in with the boiling water. The interesting thing is that most NON-pump machines sold today for under $150.00 utilize this old world technology.

Manual / Lever Espresso Machines

Circa World War II, the piston was introduced whereby the water was filtered through the coffee grinds with the aid of a manually operated piston and without the addition of steam in the water. In other words, the boiling water and steam were removed from the extraction process. The sour, burnt-tasting espresso was re-invented into a flavorful cup with the removal of steam pressure.

These manual espresso machines are categorized by the inclusion of a manually operated lever and the lack of an electric pump. Pre-empted by steam powered stovetop espresso makers, manual espresso machines were the first devices to produce espresso as we know it today.

There are two (2) types of Manual Lever Espresso Machines: Non-spring operated and spring operated. With the non-spring operated type espresso machine, the operator/barista lifts the lever from the down position to the up position to allow water into the brewhead and then firmly, with consistent pressure, forces the lever in a downward motion to make espresso. The non-spring operated manual machines are recommended for seasoned espresso enthusiasts and those that can meet the challenges in finding the appropriate amount of manual, consistent pressure to extract an espresso. In 1961, the commercial application of this espresso extraction was domesticated into a home unit called “Europiccola” manufactured by La Pavoni S.P.A. Today, both the La Pavoni Europiccola and Professional Lever models are representative of this type of non-spring operated manual espresso machine.

The spring-operated lever type manual espresso machines work the opposite way. The operator/barista, starting with the lever in the up position, presses the lever downwards against the resistance of the spring in the piston to allow water into the grouphead. Once enough espresso coffee has lined the bottom of the cup, the operator/barista allows the spring to push up the lever, making sure consistency is maintained. Today, the spring-operated lever type espresso machines Are represented in most commercial lever-type espresso machines and the Elektra home model espresso machines.

Overall, manual lever espresso machines are best suited for people (coffee bar baristas, espresso enthusiasts, and home machine hobbyists) that truly enjoy pursuing the mastering of techniques to extract espresso with maximum control over all aspects of espresso extraction (except temperature). The reason is that ease of use is considered very challenging, but attainable through a longer learning curve compared with electric pump machines listed below.

The challenges include finding the perfect grind to extract your espresso with crema and pressing or releasing the lever with consistency. An excellent burr grinder is essential for these manual machines as a coarse or inconsistent grind from an inexpensive grinder will result in a poor shot of espresso. The Spring-Operated Manual Machines are slightly easier than the Non-Spring since the spring will provide greater consistency of upward push in the lever.

The reward for utilizing a manual espresso machine is the resultant flavor extraction that is second to none. In other words, owners of these manual lever machines are usually disappointed with the flavor profiles produced by other machines.

Most home model lever machines have a boiler that also doubles as the reservoir. Since there is no separate reservoir, manual lever machines need to be powered down and the steam pressure relieved before refilling the boiler. Therefore, lever machines are not suitable for entertaining at family gatherings or other events. The La Pavoni Europiccola can produce 2-4 milk-based beverages before having to refill the boiler. The La Pavoni Professional can produce about 5-6 milk-based beverages, while the Elektra Lever espresso machines can produce up to 10. There are no limitations on commercial lever espresso machines due to the fact that a required direct water line will refill the machine’s boiler as necessary.

Manual home model lever machines are also not suitable in environments with children or others who may be injured from the hot brass boilers that are exposed. Care must also be taken when utilizing the spring operated lever machines as to not let the lever be accidentally released, allowing the lever to spring upward and cause injury in the facial area or eye sockets.

Due to the design of the single boiler on home model lever espresso machines, steam pressure is readily available for frothing milk. This is an advantage to the electric pump home espresso machine types listed below that have a wait time to get up to steaming temperature.

Cleaning and maintenance usually include cleaning and descaling once a month, and the plated finishes cleaned with a soft, cotton and damp cloth. Cleaning agents are not recommended as to not remove the clear coated finish placed above the plated finish. Finishes typically include chrome, brass and copper.

Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

Shortly after the advent of the manual lever espresso machine, an electric pump machine was invented by Gaggia. The electric pump machines gained popularity quite rapidly over the piston type due to the comparative ease of use. Specifically the electric pump removed the inconsistent pressure that was being applied on the lever by the baristas of that era.

A switch was used to engage the pump and to disengage the pump once the extraction was completed. This machine type whereby the operator controls the amount of water that flows was called semi-automatic. Although this new technology became quite popular, the serious espresso enthusiast remained loyal to the piston type machines and the resultant tastes that were being produced.

Another advantage of the semi-automatic espresso machine was the ability to allow more or less water to flow through the coffee grinds. With the piston styles machines, this was more difficult as only so much water can be engorged inside the piston at one time. The ability to pump more or less water into the grinds allowed for a greater variety of espresso beverages we consume today. Namely the cafe crema, espresso ristretto, espresso lungo, etc.

With the advent of the electric pump, the possibility of refilling the boiler became a possibility. Direct water lines and reservoirs were quickly introduced whereby the operator had a separate control to refill the boiler with additional water and without powering down the machine. This unlimited water supply allowed for an increased capacity during periods of higher demand.

On commercial semi-automatic machines, the design allowed immediate steam availability. This was accomplished by maintaining a single boiler (with hot water and steam) and a heat exchanger (coiled tubing in the boiler originating at the pump, ending at the grouphead). As cold water is pumped through the heat exchanger, it would be heated by the heat transfer from the hot water and steam already in the boiler. The first commercial semi-automatic espresso machines had boilers that required the operator to manually refill them with water. If they were not refilled, damage would occur to the heating element in the boiler. Most of today’s commercial semi-auto machines have automated the task of refilling the boiler with the inclusion of a motherboard inside the machine and a water level sensor placed inside the boiler.

However, on home model semi-auto machines, the smaller size for the kitchen counter would not allow for the larger boiler that can contain a heat exchanger. Therefore, home model semi-auto machines were designed in the 1970’s with a single boiler that operated at two temp. ranges- One for espresso extraction and one for steaming. These ranges were and are controlled by thermostats. The thermostats are engaged by a switch that the user controls. Opposite from the piston style machines whereby steam was readily available, home models have a wait period when alternating from espresso making to steam mode and back. However, these wait times can be lessened when alternating between modes with certain techniques.

There also have been advances in technology to reduce wait times- these include advances in boiler design (smaller boilers known as thermoblocks) and the inclusion of secondary heating elements placed inside the boiler. The only advance made on commercial machines, but not home is the automatic water refill. The majority of home models have boilers that need to be refilled manually by the user through the use of the coffee switch.

Overall, semi-auto machines are best suited for people that wish to produce a quality cup of espresso, while maintaining much control over the end result with greater consistency than a manual lever machine. Cleaning and maintenance include cleaning and descaling on a monthly basis. Mild detergents can be used on plastic bodied machines, and a damp, cotton cloth with detergents is recommended for metal bodied machines.

Fully-Automatic / Electronic Espresso Machines

All the commentary for the semi-auto machines (commercial and home) are the same for the full auto machines- except for volumetric dosing which was introduced in the late 1970’s. In other words, the full auto machines will measure the amount of water that passes through the coffee grinds. Once the preset amount is reached, the machine will automatically shut off the water.

The pre-set amount of water to be forced through the coffee is usually programmable by the user on commercial machines. In addition, most full auto machines allow the operator to utilize the machine as a semi-auto, whereby the operator can control the amount of water to be pumped.

In a newly-established commercial environment, the recommendation is to equip the business with a fully automatic machine to maintain greater consistencies in the espresso product served. Full auto home machines are recommended where a greater consistency and greater ease of use is desired amongst a group of users. Same cleaning schedule and regimen from the semi-auto machines apply.

Super-Automatic Espresso Machines

Up to this point, ALL of the above machines require the operator (whether a barista, enthusiast, or home hobbyist) to control the factors to master an espresso extraction. However in the last 10-15 years, a new class of machines have been introduced whereby many factors are controlled by the machine.

These machines are known as super-automatics.

These automated machines with single or dual pumps grind whole coffee beans using a built in grinder with hardened steel conical burrs. They measure the appropriate amount of coffee grinds, tamp (compact) the grinds into a puck in the extraction chamber, measure the water, dispense the espresso and eject the extracted grinds into a dump container, removable for easy cleaning. Most super autos have some type of indicator (whether light or digital display) to warn the user of low water, out of beans, or full dump box. This automation and features are found in the most basic and least expensive super auto machines.

Enhanced features found mostly on higher end super-automatics include self-cleaning systems and automatic self-frothing devices. Self-cleaning systems range from removable brew groups to internal rinsing cycles to automated descaling cycles. The higher end machine also allow for the use of automatic milk frothers whereby the milk is drawn from a container and automatically deposited into your cup, frothed.

Although super-automatic espresso machines provide the greatest ease of use with “push-a-button” technology, many espresso enthusiasts shy away from these machines due to the loss of control of the fundamentals. Although this is true for the most basic super-automatic machines, the mid-range and higher end super autos allow for greater flexibility with the following varying features:

  • Grinder adjustment: An adjustment can be made to the grind fineness. All other parameters being equal, a finer grind will usually result in a stronger extraction. A coarser grind will result in a weaker cup.
  • Dosage of ground coffee: An adjustment can be made with respect to the amount of ground coffee that is dosed into the extraction chamber. All other parameters being equal, the greater amount of coffee, the stronger the extraction. Less grinds will result in a weaker cup.
  • Tamping pressure: Currently, there are no super autos that allow varying degrees of tamping pressure.
  • Dosage of water: Super autos perform like full auto machines. They dose the water. However, on super autos the volume of water is programmable by a dial or push button.
  • Bypass doser: This feature allows the use of pre-ground coffee to be placed into the brewing chamber. The whole beans in the bean hopper will not be ground or used. Typically there is a limitation of one or two scoops that can be deposited. This is a great feature to have when decaf is desired over caffeinated espresso. (Especially in the evening).
  • Pump pulsation: When the steam mode is engages on a super auto, the heating elements are engages to bring the boiler to a higher temperature. The pump also will pulsate, sending water into the boiler. This ensures the boiler does not run out of water while the present water is converted into steam. In essence, steaming capacity is endless.
  • Insta-steam/Rapid steam: This allows the user to reach steaming temp. within 15-20 seconds of pressing the steam button. When disengaged, there is no time to wait to retract back to coffee temperature. This is due to the fact that insta-steam/rapid steam mode have a separate boiler or thermoblock devoted for steaming.

In large volume espresso bars and commercial establishments, super-auto machines are usually the ideal espresso machine type. They can automatically pull an espresso shot and steam milk into the same cup without the operator moving the cup. Some also make different beverages at the touch of a button. Usually these super-automatics are for high volume espresso serving establishments and have a high price tag around $12,000. They are ideal where high turnover of employees is great and require production of beverages is very high. This is due to lower consistency and increased training cost.

As you can see, the super auto espresso machines do allow some control over the espresso extraction. The results are desirable for consistency and very high ease of use. These super-automatics are highly desirable when a significant other (wife, husband,  girlfriend etc.) places a high priority in cleanliness. The reason being is that these machines contain most of the grind within the unit.

As far as espresso extraction, you get more crema when using “Vienna Roasted” or espresso roasted coffee beans. Very oily beans (usually French Roast) can be undesirable since it can gum the burr grinder. Also, super autos typically produce lots of light colored crema. If you who prefer dark speckled crema, another type of machine would be more preferable.

One of the positive outcomes of the super-auto machines is the ease of producing cafe crema coffee. Very popular in France, this coffee uses the same espresso extraction process. The only difference is a much greater amount of water passes through the coffee grinds. The resulting beverage is a cup of coffee with a nice layer of crema on top. This is certainly different than drip coffee which doesn’t use any pressure.