Coffee Machine Buying Guide
Which Type of Espresso Machine? Super Automatic versus pod versus Semi Automatic
The first thing to decide when buying an espresso machine for home or office is whether to buy a super automatic, a pod machine or a semi automatic. A super automatic will grind the coffee, extract the espresso and even froth the milk with the touch of a button. Popular brands include Saeco, Jura, Melitta, Miele and De Longhi. A semi automatic is the type used by baristas in coffee shops. When using a semi automatic, the barista must grind the coffee using a separate coffee grinder then prepare the portafilter with the freshly ground coffee, extract the espresso using the semi automatic espresso machine and finally texture the milk with the espresso machine. The super automatic is relatively easy to use but here's the catch:
If the semi automatic espresso machine and coffee grinder combination is used by someone who has undertaken some basic coffee training (for example Jetblack's Home Barista Group Course) the resultant coffee will be superior to the beverage prepared by the super automatic coffee machine.
The reason coffee tastes better from a semi automatic machine is that the brew pressure is higher than that used on a super auto (9BAR versus 2 or 3). The higher brew pressure results in a richer, fuller extraction of coffee flavours.
Think about it this way: If the super automatic coffee machines made coffee as good as semi automatic machines, coffee shops wouldn't need to hire baristas and wouldn't need those shiny Italian semi automatic espresso machines! So choose super automatic for convenience. Choose Semi Automatic if the quality of the coffee is the most important requirement.
Pod machines are easy to use and produce a consistent result. A pod is filled with pre ground coffee. A pod machine is then used to force hot water through the pod to extract the espresso. However, the coffee they produce has muted flavours and aromas because the coffee has gone stale. For this reason, if you are after a no-fuss coffee solution, we recommend a super auto whole bean machine over a pod machine. But if you're after cafe quality coffee at home, you need a compact version of the same machine your cafe uses - the type of machines that we specialise in!
How important is a Coffee Grinder?
If we had to choose between either having a coffee grinder or having an espresso machine but not both, we would choose the coffee grinder! With a coffee grinder we could still enjoy freshly brewed coffee (plunger, pour-over, stove top, aeropress etc). But with an espresso machine and no grinder, we would be forced to use pre-ground coffee which is unavoidably stale. There would be a lack of crema and the flavour would be flat and dull. Sound familiar? Perhaps you've had this type of coffee at cafe's that pre-grind their coffee and then leave it in their coffee grinder dosers to go stale. Here is something you need to understand about coffee:
Ground coffee is stale within minutes! You can't make great espresso at home - or anywhere for that matter - without a good quality burr coffee grinder.
If you don't already have a good quality burr coffee grinder, have a look at the Coffee Grinder Buying Guide
Single Boiler, Heat Exchanger (HX) or Dual Boiler (DB)?
An espresso machine has two main functions: 1. To create Espresso and 2. To steam milk. Heat exchanger and twin boiler machines can extract espresso and steam milk simultaneously. A single boiler machine can do one or the other and then must be switched to the other function - which usually takes about a minute. Generally a single boiler machine is less expensive than a DB or HX machine.
Will a Single Boiler machine suffice?
If the machine is only required to make one or two coffees at a time or only ever black coffees a single boiler machine will be more than adequate. However, to make several milk coffees, a single boiler machine will take longer to complete the task than a HX or DB. So if time is of the essence, and/or making 4+ milk coffees in one go happens often, then a DB or HX may be the better investment.
If you think a single boiler is the machine for you, have a look at some our most popular single boilers including: Lelit PL41TEMD, Rancilio Silvia, Lelit PL42EMI.
Choosing between HX and DB
Heat exchanger and dual boiler machines are both able to make espresso and steam milk simultaneously. The choice of heat exchanger versus dual boiler usually comes down to personal preference. Some prefer heat exchanger machines because the water used for brewing does not make direct contact with the boiler element and does not sit in the boiler for an extended amount of time. Others prefer the twin boiler configuration because the temperature of the brew water can be controlled and they generally heat up faster.
Volumetric or Manual?
A volumetric machine will deliver a pre-programmed volume of water through the coffee grounds. With the touch of a button, the machine will start brewing and then stop automatically when enough espresso has been brewed. To brew an espresso on a manual machine the barista must start the brewing process and stop it when enough espresso has been brewed. In practice, this is a reasonably simple process and machines without volumetrics are cheaper and more reliable.
Vibration or Rotary pump?
To make real espresso, a machine must provide hot water under high pressure. This pressure is almost always delivered by a pump (sometimes it's not - see Lever machines below). The pump can be a vibration (vibe) pump, or a rotary pump. Vibration pumps are used in the majority of domestic machnes. They are compact and relatively inexpensive which is reflected in the size and price of the machine. They deliver water at a relatively low flowrate which is forgiving of less than perfect technique and/or coffee freshness. For these reasons, a vibration pump is a good "fit" for a domestic espresso machine - as long as the plan is not to plumb the machine into mains water. A rotary pump is a better choice for plumbing a machine into mains water.
Our top selling "no compromise" vibe pump machine is the Profitec Pro 500.
Once upon a time, espresso machines didn't have electric pumps. Recently, there has been a resurgence of "pump-free" machines which use a lever to compress a spring which then forces the water through the coffee. These Lever machines provide a level of control and immersion in the process that is beyond that achieved with a more conventional pump machine.
Our pick for a Lever machine? They don't get much better than the Profitec Pro 800.
This is where there really is a choice to make. The answer will depend on your preferences, bench space available, decor to some extent and budget. Browse our shop as a starting point. But then talk to one of our Espresso Machine experts for great advice with no obligation - contact us now.