Any die-hard espresso fanatic knows how expensive the habit can be, especially when an espresso drink made at a popular chain will set you back nearly four dollars each day – that’s $120.00 per month! While ordering an espresso drink on the go affords a level of convenience, there are espresso makers that will do the same for you in the comfort of your own home. Unfortunately, many espresso makers on the market are overly complicated, messy, and worst of all brew bitter cups; however, some models do offer ease of use, and brew wonderfully rich espresso, perhaps even better tasting than that of your local coffeehouse.
An espresso machine has a few major requirements that must be met in order to produce espresso. First, the machine must supply brewing water that is between 191-209 degrees Fahrenheit, which is usually heated by an internal boiler. It must channel the hot water into the brew chamber, which delivers the water to coffee grounds at around nine bars of pressure by use of a pump, spring system, or lever. After the hot water is pumped through the coffee grounds, it should exit the machine via spouts in the portafilter, or an external spout on a super-automatic machine. All espresso machines include a steam wand to froth milk for drinks such as a café latte or cappuccino.
Different types of espresso machines offer various levels of control over the aspects of brewing and cleaning. Manual espresso machines, still made by La Pavoni ($575-$800) and Gaggia ($1200) have a boiler that heats the water, and at the proper temperature, the operator lifts a lever to allow the water to flow into the coffee grounds. As the water begins to drip through the coffee and into the espresso shot glass, the operator pulls down the lever plunging the rest of the water through the coffee. This machine is really for the diehard espresso drinker, because it is very difficult to get a good espresso out of this machine; perfection takes much time and much practice.
Steam driven and stove-top espresso makers use steam pressure to force water through the coffee grounds, and while inexpensive, fail to produce the same quality of espresso as a manual or electric pump driven system can offer. A DeLonghi steam-driven espresso machine can be purchased for under $40.00, but the price reflects the quality of the espresso, which is very low. Semi-automatic and automatic espresso machines use an electric water pump to push heated water through the coffee grounds during brewing. The semi-automatic machine, offered by companies such as Gaggia ($260), Nespresso ($399), and Krups ($300), allows you to turn the brew switch on and off, controlling the exact amount of liquid that ends up in the espresso glass. An automatic is slightly more expensive than the semi-automatic, and only differs in that it has internal control over the amount of water dispensed through the coffee grounds.
A super automatic is the most high-tech of espresso machines, with an electric water pump, boiler, water reservoir, and steam wand. It has an automated internal brew system, a built-in coffee grinder, and an onboard computer to control the process from start to finish. When you begin brewing, the coffee beans in the machine will be ground and placed into the internal brew system. The pump will send hot water through the system, and the espresso will come out spouts on the front of the machine. The super automatic even has an onboard waste basket where it will discard the grounds once a brew cycle is complete. Gaggia ($1200-1500), Solis ($700-900), and Saeco ($1500+) offer super automatics with removable brew systems that can be taken out and cleaned. Capresso ($1000-1400) and Jura ($1000-1400) brew systems are non-removable, but have a self cleaning option instead.
Extras to look for in a good espresso maker are a chrome-coated portafilter, a visible pressure guage so that you can monitor each cup, a built-in cup warmer, and a frothing aid or auto frothing attachment. Removable water tanks take away the chance of dumping water all over the counter, and a machine with programmable brew amounts will allow you to control just how much espresso you get with each run. Most importantly, go with a brand that is tried and trustworthy, such as Gaggia, Starbucks, or Nespresso. Also, a pre-infusion system presoaks ground coffee for two seconds before brewing which is thought to help maximize flavor extraction for the perfect espresso brew.
If convenience is your main reason for ‘ordering out’ espresso, select a machine such as the super automatic that will offer the same convenience at home. Depending on how often you drink espresso, a good machine will pay for itself in under a year, and you can save time by no longer waiting in line every morning. Because espresso is a fairly new item in the United States, purchase a brand that has good espresso experience as they will have had the most time to perfect their espresso makers. Though price is not the best indicator of quality, do not expect to get a good espresso machine on the cheap. Know your desired features, shop around to compare prices, and purchase a quality espresso maker; you may just enjoy the best espresso of your life.