If you're thinking of buying an espresso machine, here's what you should consider.
An automatic espresso machine
Automatic and automatic-manual espresso machines (also known as “super automatic”) automatically grind the coffee, tamp it, and extract the espresso shot. You fill the bean hopper or add pre-ground coffee, add water to a reservoir and press a button or two. Some models contain an automated milk frothing and dispensing device.
Good points about these machines are:
- You can choose from a wide variety of beans or pre-ground coffee.
- Digital displays and indicators make using them easy.
- You don’t need to fuss about with portafilters and filter baskets or separate grinders.
- You don’t have the “control” over the extraction process (and sometimes the frothing process) that you do with a manual or semi-automatic model and this may result in a less satisfactory taste.
- They can be more expensive than semi-automatic and manual machines.
Semi-automatic and manual espresso machines work along similar lines: you pack the coffee into the filter basket, which sits in the portafilter. You then twist the portafilter into the machine. The only significant difference is that manual machines require you to judge the amount of water that flows through the filter basket whereas semi-autos cut off the flow once a pre-set amount is poured.
Good points about these machines are:
- You can choose from a wide variety of ground coffee.
- You can easily change the strength of your espresso by adjusting the amount of ground coffee and water used.
- Semi-autos and manuals take time to master.
- Portafilters and filter baskets can be fiddly to use and clean; some portafilters require some effort to twist into place.
Capsule machines use hermetically sealed pods of coffee. You drop a capsule in the top, pull a lever and push a switch. The machine pierces the capsule and forces hot water through to make an espresso.
Good points about capsule machines are:
- They’re convenient to use and easy to clean.
- The sealed capsules can keep the coffee fresh for up to nine months.
- These machines use proprietary systems such as Caffitaly or Nespresso. So they tie you to using certain brands of capsule.
- Capsules cost more than ground coffee and result in extra packaging waste.
- You have less control over the strength of your espresso.
Hand-pump machines work on the same principle as manual machines except you use a pump action to push the water through the ground coffee.
Pump or steam?
Several types of machine claim to make espresso-based coffee, but only one really can – the pump type. Pump machines operate at higher pressure than steam machines and employ a thermostat to control the water temperature. The pump both makes the coffee and froths the milk.
Pump machines typically have large, removable water tanks that let you make 10 or more small (demitasse) cups consecutively without having to refill the tank. You can also froth milk for other drinks without making coffee first, as you must with steam machines.
Thermoblock or boiler?
A thermoblock is a metal block through which water passes (and is heated) on the way to the pump. It only holds a little water, so it's supposed to keep a constant water temperature that's not too hot. A boiler, on the other hand, contains a larger body of water. It works in the same way as your hot water tank at home.
- Clear and simple controls: Digital displays are generally easier to understand than indicator lights, especially when you’re programming the machine.
- Grinder: An adjustable grinder lets you adjust the grind to suit the bean and machine. Tip: Check that the grinder mechanism’s safely inaccessible, or that the grinder automatically shuts off when the hopper lid is removed.
- Variable coffee strength (automatic machines): A machine with several coffee-strength settings or a continuous range of settings lets you adjust the intensity of the coffee to your taste.
- Footprint: A big espresso machine is fine if you have plenty of bench space in your kitchen, but you may want one that takes up less space.
- Cup warmer: This can help keep your cups at a constant temperature, which helps the taste of the coffee and keeps the milk frothy.
- Froth enhancer: Some machines come with a froth enhancer on the milk-frothing wand. This is intended to make frothing easier, but often it produces large bubbles instead of the fine foam suitable for latte and cappuccino. Removing the enhancer often makes it easier to produce fine velvety foam.
- Water container: This should be big, accessible and transparent (so you can easily check the water level).
- Drip tray: Go for big and easy-to-drain.
- Exterior: A groove-less exterior will be easier to keep clean. Stainless-steel and matte finishes look stylish but show up fingerprints and grime.
- Tamper: A tamper turns the loose coffee into a firm, evenly distributed pellet in the filter basket. A good tamper allows you to pack the coffee down evenly. Tampers fixed to the machine are poor substitutes for solid-metal hand-held tampers.
- Ask the salesperson if there's a demonstration model. Get them to make an espresso so you can check the quality before you buy.
- Check the milk-frothing mechanism to make sure you can create good-quality creamy froth without large bubbles.
- Make sure the controls are easy to operate. A digital display is better than indicator lights.
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