Espresso Machine Types

There are many espresso machine types, cappuccino types, and espresso makers available for use in the home setting and in the commercial environment. When shopping for an espresso machine and espresso maker, 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 ideal espresso and cappuccino machine and espresso maker, the first essential step is to learn the five basic categories that almost all espresso machines and cappuccino machines fall into.

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

Steam Powered Espresso Machines

The first types of espresso machines are steam power espresso machines for extracting 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 with a total extraction time of one minute. These machines in the early 1900s produced a sour, burnt taste from 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 filters 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 disappear the extraction process. The sour, burnt-tasting espresso was re-invented into a flavorful cup with the removal of steam pressure.

The categories for these manual espresso machines come about by the inclusion of a manually operated lever and the lack of an electric pump. By pre-empting 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 and spring. With the non-spring 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 manual espresso machines are for espresso enthusiasts with plenty of experience 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 manual espresso machine.

The spring 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 lines the bottom of the cup, the operator/barista allows the spring to push up the lever, making sure consistency maintains. Today, the spring 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 suitable 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 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 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 do not enjoy the flavor profiles from other machines.

Most home model lever machines have a boiler that also doubles as the reservoir. Since there is no separate reservoir, power down manual lever machines and relieve the steam pressure before refilling the boiler. Therefore, lever espresso 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 direct water line will refill the machine’s boiler as necessary.

Manual home model lever espresso machines are also not suitable in environments with children or others who can hurt themselves from the hot brass boilers. Be careful when utilizing the spring operated lever machines by not accidentally releasing the lever, 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 that have a wait time to get up to steaming temperature.

Cleaning and maintenance usually include cleaning and descaling once a month, and the plate finishes become clean with a soft, cotton and damp cloth. Cleaning agents are not suitable as they do not remove the clear finish above the plate finish. Finishes typically include chrome, brass and copper.

Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

Shortly after the advent of the manual lever espresso machine, Gaggia came up with an electric pump machine. 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 engages the pump and disengages the pump once the extraction occurred. This machine type whereby the operator controls the amount of water that flows is the term “semi-automatic.” Although this new technology is favorable, the serious espresso enthusiast is loyal to the piston type machines and the resultant taste production.

Another advantage of the semi-automatic espresso machine is the ability to allow more or less water to flow through the coffee grinds. With the piston styles machines, this is difficult as only so much water can be engorge inside the piston at one time. The ability to pump more or less water into the grinds allows 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 is possible. Direct water lines and reservoirs that help the operator have a separate control to refill the boiler with additional water and without powering down the machine. This water supply allows for an increased capacity during periods of higher demand.

On commercial semi-automatic espresso machines, the design allows immediate steam availability. This works 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 pumps through the heat exchanger, it will heat by the heat transfer from the hot water and steam already in the boiler. The first commercial semi-automatic espresso machines had boilers for the operator to manually refill them with water. Without refilling them, damage would occur to the heating element in the boiler. Most of today’s commercial semi-automatic espresso machines simplify 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-automatic espresso 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. Thermostats control these rangers. A switch engages the thermostats that the user controls. Opposite from the piston style machines whereby steam is readily available, home models have a wait period when alternating from espresso making to steam mode and back. However, these wait times decrease when alternating between modes with certain techniques.

There also are 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 inside the boiler. The only advance made on commercial machines, but not home is the automatic water refill. The majority of home models have manual refillable boilers by the user through the use of the coffee switch.

Overall, semi-automatic espresso machines are best 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. Apply mild detergents on plastic bodied machines, and a damp, cotton cloth with detergents is good for metal bodied machines.

Fully-Automatic (Electronic) Espresso Machines

All the commentary for the semi-automatic espresso machines (commercial and home) are the same for the fully-automatic espresso machines– except for volumetric dosing from back in the late 1970’s. In other words, the fully-automatic espresso machines measure the amount of water that passes through the coffee grinds. Once the preset amount is reachable, the machine will automatically shut off the water.

The pre-set amount of water forcing through the coffee is usually programmable by the user on commercial machines. In addition, most fully-automatic espresso 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 espresso machine to maintain greater consistencies in the espresso product served. Full auto home machines are for a greater consistency and greater ease of use among 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 allows for many controllable factors by the machines.

These machines are known as super-automatics.

These automatic machines with single or dual pumps grind whole coffee beans using a built in grinder with hard 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.

Enhancing features 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 super-automatic espresso machines also allow for the use of automatic milk frothers whereby the milk draws from a container and automatically deposits into your cup.

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 espreso 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: Adjust with respect to the amount of ground coffee that doses 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 fully-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 for the placement of pre-ground coffee 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 for depositing. This is a great feature to have when consumers want decaf instead of regular espresso. (Especially in the evening).
  • Pump pulsation: When the steam mode engages on a super-auto, the heating elements engage 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 disengaging, 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-automatic espresso 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-automatic espresso machines 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 high training cost.

As you can see, the super-automatic 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-automatic espresso 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.

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