Types Of Espresso Machines

Types Of Espresso Machines

There is a wide ranger of different types of espresso machines, ranging from commercial to home espresso machines to complex variations including double boiler, single boiler, steam, lever operated and so on.

This article is designed and written to help you to navigate the minefield and understand the differences between them and better decide which is best for you and will get you pulling that perfect shot.

Keep reading as we talk about and detail the different types of espresso machines.

What Is An Espresso Machine?

As clear as it can be, an espresso machine is a coffee machine that brews 2/3 of an ounce to two ounce (20ml to 60ml) shots of highly focused and concentrated coffee with hot water of 92C – 96C (195F to 205F) through a puck of coffee ground to an 80 micron to 100 micron particle size.

The result is a thick, focused and intense coffee with a rich crema on top, the humble espresso.

The espresso machine dates back to the early 1900s and has changed dramatically from the original built by Luigi Bezzara.

Despite the differences in modern machines, there are many common elements such as portafilter, steam wand, and water reservoir.

They can be piston driven, air pump driven, steam driven and regular pump driven. And can be automatic, semi-automatic or super-automatic.

An espresso can brew a wide range of espresso drinks such as a ristretto, doppio, latte’s, cortados, flat whites and all kinds of coffee drinks both with and without milk.

What Is An Espresso Machine
An Espresso Machine.

Read: Manual coffee maker

Types Of Commercial Espresso Machines And The Different Types Of Home Espresso Machines

There are various different types of home espresso machines and commercial espresso machines which can be as different as you can imagine.

Let’s get this rolling with Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines, perhaps the type you are more familiar with.

Types Of Commercial Espresso Machines
There are many types of espresso machines.

Read: Pump driven espresso machine

Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

This is most likely what you see or picture in your mind when you are thinking of a professional espresso machine that your local run of the mill coffee shop has. Semi-automatic machines drive water through the group head and then through your grounds and the portafilter by means of an automated system.

The grinding of your beans, tamping and the control of extraction time are left to you, the home barista to take responsibility for.

This is good as these are variables that you can control, and, in my opinion, some human control is required to pull the perfect shot and get a degree of variability in strength and flavor. The water pressure and the water temperature are regulated and constant, which is great as adjusting these for every shot can be rather annoying.

Due to you initially setting the water pressure and the temperature yourself when you first get the machine, it can be argued that there is a degree of complete control of these variables.

Automatic Espresso Machines

Automatic espresso machines are very similar to the above-mentioned semi-automatic machines with the difference being the fully automatic machine measures an exact volume in the shots of espresso that you pull with no need for you to halt the process.

This type of machine is one you will see in more high end coffee shops. You can tell if the coffee shop you visit has an automatic or semi-automatic by observing the barista. If he or she has no need to stop the machine, it is a fully automatic machine that is being used.

Automatic Espresso Machines
A home automatic espresso machine

Super Automatic Espresso Machines

Super Automatic espresso machines are the kind of machines that do it all at the push of a button. You will see super automatic espresso machines in gourmet coffee shops like Starbucks.

This type of espresso machine is one that does everything, absolutely everything! They grind, measure, tamp, and viola you get a perfect, consistent shot every single time.

Even your milk is frothed for you, when milk is required.

Super Automatic Espresso Machines
A Super Automatic Espresso Machine

Manual Espresso Machines

A manual espresso machine is the exclusive love for coffee purists, perfectionists and seldom used by others.

They come in two distinct types, pump and lever.

Let’s talk about those types of espresso machines.

Lever Espresso Machines

Lever based espresso machines are also known as piston driven espresso machines. The design is simple. They are designed with a piston that is used to create water pressure of 9 bar (130 PSI) or more to produce an espresso shot.

The machine is operated manually by means of pulling a lever. This type of coffee machine was manufactured by La Pavoni, and will produce, when you get the hang of it, high quality shots of espresso.

Some hard core enthusiasts will even insist the shots produced by a lever based manual espresso are the best and of the highest quality possible.

They are not 100% manual as you still need to plug it for the boiler to produce the hot water that you need. A coffee purist friend told me they can take a while, a dozen or so shots to get your manual machine set up perfectly to get that excellent shot of espresso.

You can tailor the pressure and make adjustments to the machine to get it exactly as you love it.

If you are a serious coffee lover or coffee shop owner, having one of these really makes your set-up stand out, and they are very eye catching and often invites the “what is that for?” question.

Don’t forget to get your hands on a quality tamp as a tamp is rarely attached to this type of machine. Coffee tampers are cheap enough and inexpensive to find.

Lever Espresso Machines
Eye candy!

Why Use A Manual Espresso Machine?

Firstly, they give you full control of all aspects of pulling a shot making the end product absolutely perfect. Secondly, they are also considerably cheaper than an automatic machine.

I’ll also add that they are much more portable meaning you can take it with you on easily. Compare that to a clunky large semi-automatic or fully automatic machine. You’ll never be without your beloved espresso machine.

If you own a coffee shop, like I do, you can treat your special clients to an at the table experience with the use of a trolley and a battery power set up to ensure you have power for your hot water.

Pump Based Manual Espresso Machines.

For clarity a pump driven machine can be an automatic or manual machine depending on the pump being electric or manually operated.

Electric pump machines are either rotary or vibration pump. A manual pump requires the user to pump on a lever several times to build up enough pressure for the shot to be pulled.

This type is older and less consistent in the pressure than a manual lever piston based system and needs more maintenance. They are also more difficult to find these days.

How Do Espresso Machines Work?

So, let’s dig deeper into how the various espresso machine work, let’s get below the hood, lets get started with…

Steam Powered Espresso Machines

Invented in 1884 by Italian Angelo Moriondo, literally the inventor of the steam powered espresso machine and the first coffee machine to use pressure to brew a cup of coffee.

These electric steam driven espresso machines are still used all over the world today, although rare. They lack complexity and their functionality is very simple.

In a sealed airtight water tank, water is taken to the boiling point and steam is produced, which produces the pressure required to force the water into a reservoir and finally into the coffee in a way that is not too dissimilar to a moka pot.

The main drawback is the lack of pressure with only 1 bar to 1.5 bar of pressure, which is well short of the 9 bar of pressure required to produce a great shot.

Steam Powered Espresso Machines
The classic Steam Powered Espresso Machine

Types of Steam Espresso Machines

There are different types of steam espresso machines. As I mentioned, the good old and trusted moka pot is one of them. The water heats up from the bottom chamber and up and over the coffee grounds and into the upper chamber, the result of which is a strong and almost espresso like coffee.

It is not quite an espresso, but most certainly, what is produced is more than good enough for a homemade latte.

There is the new steam espresso machine which looks very much like a mini version of a drip coffee machine but has the advantage of making a much better quality cup of coffee. It is still not much better than the original steam powered espresso machine due to the inherent problem of a lack of pressure being produced.

Still, despite their faults you will be able to make a reasonably good coffee for using in your latte’s and cortados but not a straight-up espresso shot.

Pump Driven Espresso Machines

Espresso machines got better in the 1960s with the advent of pump driven espresso machines. These function via an electric pump that drives preheated water to a brewing chamber and then onto and through a bed of finely ground coffee grounds via the grouphead and into your coffee cup via the portafilter.

Thanks to the electric pump it is much easier to achieve a higher water pressure and to achieve this on a consistent basis.

The result of this is a predictable quality of shot and repeatable time and time again.

Lever Driven Espresso Machines

We touched on this earlier, Let’s go into more detail.

A lever driven espresso machine requires the barista to have the physical strength to pull a shot. Thankfully, not a lot of strength is required.

Modern lever machines fall into two main categories, spring-loaded and manual.

A manual espresso machine is easily recognisable due to the horizontal position of the lever when it is not in use. When the lever is pushed upwards, the brewing chamber opens up and the hot water saturates your grounds, giving you, the barista, full control over how long the hot water stays in the pre-infusion stage for. You can also control the flow rate and the pressure when you pull down the lever.

With spring-driven manual espresso machines, the lever is vertical when the spring is in its relaxed position. When you pull down on the leaver the piston moves up and opens the chamber for the hot water to flow into.

As the tension is released from the spring, the piston pushes the hot water down and extracts your shot of espresso.

Manual espresso machines allow you to have a longer pre-infusion if your beans require more time to extract the flavor and a distinct pressure, the result of which is an espresso that is perfect and allows for more creativity on the part of the barista.

Lever machines are a lot slower at producing a shot of espresso and are not ideal when you need to make a lot of them and quickly. They are not really ideal for use in a coffee shop, unless you plan on having a few of them or as an option alongside an automatic machine.

One way of looking at this kind of machine is to think of them as training tools that will train you and help you to understand the variables associated with brewing a great shot of espresso and how they affect your shot.

What Coffee Drinks Can You Make With An Espresso Machine?

There is no limitation to what coffee drinks you can make with an espresso machine other than a French press, drip coffee, pour over coffee, siphon coffee as these are all different brewing techniques.

All the espresso-based drinks like a ristretto, doppio, an espresso shot itself, a cortado, Americano, Affogato, latte, flat white and many others are all possible with an espresso machine.

Basically, all the main coffee drinks can be made and enjoyed.

Final Thoughts, Frappé-Ing it All Up, Types Of Espresso Machines

There are many different types of espresso machines that will get you making great espresso shots. By far the best are lever based, semi-automatic and fully automatic machines. 

I have a strong preference for lever based manual espresso machines and have them both at home and in my coffee shop. By far as a training tool the manual lever is the best you can get. I put all my staff through the steps of understanding the use of that and pulling perfect shots with it so they know an have a better knowledge of the brewing process. 

After that they can move on the automatic ones. 

Coffee is love, it's more than love — it's a passion of mine. I've had the luck to have travelled and enjoyed the most exotic of coffee's and unique flavors, brewing methods and techniques of making the perfect coffee from Thai hill tribe coffee to Indonesian volcanic coffee, Malaysian coffee that comes in a tea bag and the array of flavors in Vietnam, from Vanilla to Orange to Coconut to Avocado to even salt coffee and the famous egg coffee. The best part of my coffee adventures is getting to mix with the locals over a nice brew and learning how they make it! I'm cited and referenced on Google Scholar for the topic of coffee.

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