Espresso machines: the basics

I have always loved the smell and taste of coffee. Espresso, on the other hand, was an acquired taste. I didn’t hate it when it was accompanied with milk, but I had a hard time comprehending how anyone could enjoy such a bitter/sour brew on its own. It just didn’t taste good to me! I realize now that those early espressos may not, in fact, have been “good” espressos. The more I’ve learned about espresso, the more interested I was in trying to make it at home, but I was in for some surprises when I started researching.

You can get a world-class brewed coffee at home for relatively little money. An AeroPress is $30. A manual pourover device (like the Hario V60 or the Chemex) is only $20-40. Even if you get a fancy gooseneck hot water kettle, your complete setup can still conceivably be under $100-150 for some of the best coffee you can get anywhere (assuming you have great beans and a good grinder). Espresso, on the other hand, is a much more expensive hobby. I had a budget of $300 when I initially started shopping for an espresso machine, thinking that would be enough to get a great quality machine. Four hours of research later, my budget had more than doubled and I was also dreaming of a new grinder. It’s the danger of looking up stuff on the internet!

I ended up buying a used Gaggia for a fraction of the cost, and I enjoyed using it until I decided I was serious enough about this to invest in better equipment. I still don’t have what would be considered a top-of-the-line machine; there are plenty of espresso elitists out there that would criticize my machine’s thermoblock and lack of E61 grouphead, but I think it was the best choice for me, and I plan to get many years of use out of it!

I’m not going to tell you what espresso machine is “best,” since there are many answers to that question depending on your needs and budget. I will, however, go over the main topics you will want to consider when purchasing an espresso machine.

Machine styles:

Single-serve

These are the most convenient option for those that don’t want to fuss with grinding, tamping, etc. Utilizes pods/capsules, which will inherently be a little (or a lot) stale in flavor compared to freshly ground beans.

Super-automatics

These will grind, tamp, and brew for you, so that all you need to do is push a button. What you gain in convenience, you will lack in quality of flavor and crema, compared to when you have more control over the variables like in a semi-auto.

Semi-automatics

These machines will require you to have a great quality grinder, a tamper, and knowledge of things like channeling and how temperature affects the brew. This is something that takes practice – it is MUCH more work vs. just pushing a button for your morning coffee. However, the flavor of the espresso can be much better than on a super-auto or single-serve.

Prosumer

These machines take semi-automatics to the next level by bringing in features typically found on professional espresso machines, like being able to plumb in directly into the water supply, larger boilers, E61 groupheads (which are more stable in temperature), and no-burn steam wands. These are typically easier to use than semi-auto machines because of the tools available to the user.

Try taking this QUIZ from Whole Latte Love to determine what style of machine suits you best. I left out talking about manual lever machines since I know nothing about them!

Oddly enough, these categories are not linear in terms of price. There are single-serve machines that cost more (and less) than semi-auto machines. There are super-automatics that cost more (and less) than prosumer machines. There are semi-automatics that cost more (and less!) than super-autos. It all depends on brand and features.

Semi-auto (and prosumer) machine categories:

Let’s say you’ve narrowed things down to a semi-auto machine. Your next choice will be to choose between an SBDU, HX, or DB.

SBDU (Single boiler, dual use)

These are the most affordable and most popular option for home espresso enthusiasts. There is one boiler to heat water, and that boiler will provide the water for both brewing the espresso (around 200 degrees F) and for the steam wand (around 255 degrees F). Because the temperature difference is so large, you will need to wait a couple of minutes between doing one act followed by the other to wait for the boiler to cool down or heat up, as it is not capable of brewing and steaming simultaneously. This is a little irritating when making one latte, but it’s REALLY annoying when making back-to-back lattes for you and a friend. In my experience, the procedure goes something like this:

Steam the milk. Wait 2 minutes for boiler to cool and hope the milk doesn’t separate.

Pull shot, then assemble the first latte.

Wait another minute or two for the boiler to come back up to espresso temperature, pull another shot.

Wait 2 minutes to get the boiler back to steam temperature. In the meantime, your crema is disintegrating and your friend is either letting her latte get cold to wait for yours to be done, or she’s halfway done already.

Steam the milk, assemble your 2nd drink, and finally sit down to enjoy… 10 minutes or so after beginning the process!

Now, if you don’t make milk drinks and only do espresso, a SBDU could be a decent option for you. Besides the steaming limitations, the main drawback I find with most SBDUs is the lack of temperature stability and control, which can result in bitter and sour shots. A SBDU machine that has a PID controller (which shows and helps regulate temperature) would be an improvement. You can add PIDs to some machines, but the additional cost of doing so can add up to the same as buying a machine with one already installed from the factory.

HX (Heat Exchanger)

Despite having read many many pages regarding how heat exchangers work, I admit I really can’t explain it. However, I can say that they have one boiler, but still have the ability to steam and brew at the same time, often with REALLY powerful steam capability. The main thing to remember with HX machines is that once the machine is pre-heated, you will need to do a cooling flush to get the temperature down from steam temperature to brew temperature. If the machine sits idle for a while, you will need to do a cooling flush again to pull another shot, as the water in the boiler will creep back up to steam temperature over time. I’ve heard this referred to as the “water dance,” and while it sounds fussy, HX fans insist it’s not a big deal once you get used to the routine.

DB (Double boiler)

As the name implies, these machines have two boilers, one for brewing and one for steaming. Since each boiler will heat the water to the required temperature for its task, there is no need to wait between brewing and steaming; you can pull shots and steam milk at the same time if you like. These tend to be the most expensive option, as well as the easiest to use.

Thermoblock

Machines with thermoblocks aren’t technically double boiler machines, but they function similarly since the thermoblock takes care of the steaming part. You have the ability to brew and steam at the same time with these machines. The steaming power, compared to DB and HX machines, is weaker and slower, but is still good enough to steam milk into a decent microfoam. However, if you have latte-art competition dreams, you really will need a more powerful steamer.

Head swimming yet? If you STILL want an espresso machine after reading all of this, you are serious indeed! 😉 For most people, all of this fussy business with semi-automatic espresso machines is way too much effort, especially on weekday mornings before work. I was one of those people for a long time, and I was content with my pourover coffee setups. But, I enjoy a challenge, and I eventually decided that my desire to learn more about the world of espresso was too strong to ignore. I’m still learning, and despite all the time and effort (or perhaps BECAUSE of all the time and effort?), it is a delicious journey!

3 Replies to “Espresso machines: the basics”

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  2. […] Espresso Machines: The Basics. Coffee Cantata. […]

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