Posted by Bethany Warren on 12th Mar 2014
How to Buy an Espresso Machine
a long-term, stable relationship
easy on the eyes wouldn't hurt
and long walks on the moonlit beach
An espresso machine should be (almost) all those things. Maybe lacking in the romantic gestures area. Choosing an espresso machine can feel as daunting as finding a good date. Or maybe like an arranged marriage, commitment-wise.
When you set out to choose an espresso machine, ask yourself a few questions: is this for home or commercial use? What's important to you in a machine's performance and design? What level of automation is appropriate for your use? (warning: I'll use a bit of technical terminology here)
If you're looking for a serious home machine, look past the department store brands and right to the lighter professional models. The problem with most home machines is boiler capability- they simply can't get enough power to get the right pressure needed to brew espresso and steam milk. Some lighter single grouphead commercial machines can use regular household 110 electrical outlets and still maintain the correct pressure in the boiler.
(the "grouphead" is the brewing mechanism that delivers pressurized water to the coffee. One thing to consider is how many of these brewing heads you want/need. Home = 1. Most cafes = 2. Super-busy-crazy-lines-out-the-door-all-the-time = 3.)
Commercially, the options are seemingly endless. A good place to start is a machine's level of automation. Do you prefer a more or a less manual approach to brewing, and how much do you want it to do for you? Here's a look at the major automation levels in espresso machines.
- Manual/lever- these are the original. The barista engages the grouphead by pulling down on a levered piston that works the pressure through the coffee. This is where we get the term "pulling espresso", and it's a beautiful thing. You'd need one more grouphead than you think, as the group typically needs a break to build the pressure back up between shots. The barista needs to bounce between groups to make a line of drinks.
- Semi-automatic- uses a button to work the pump. The barista pushes the button and the water starts to flow instantly. Push the button again and the water stops.
- Automatic- these have programmable buttons that are set to dispense a specified volume of water through the grouphead. It stops after that volume is reached, and most have several buttons per group so you can program different sizes or profiles.
- Superautomatic- these do it all- grind, dose, tamp, brew, and steam
The more manual end of the spectrum requires the barista to have knowledge of the science of extraction, what to look for, how to properly adjust the grinder, etc. Both semiautomatic, automatic, and manual espresso machines require skill and understanding, and if your people are well-trained and well-managed, can give very consistent results. There are pros and cons to all of these, and the items in that list would change position based on what's important to you and what your setting is like, so I don't want to get into that here. But you can contact us if you'd like to talk about it!
Other things to look for:
- availability of parts for the brand you like: is there a local service technician that can get to you fast if you need it? Most machines are made in Europe in small production runs. Choosing a well-known brand will ensure you can get what you need quickly.
- ergonomics- will baristas be comfortable using it for hours at a time? Your placement of the machine is a large factor in this, too.
- control- if you want to program the temperature and pressure profile at each group, opt for a PID control at each one (PID controls are hard to quickly explain and are very math-y. Let's just say they are a way to very specifically close the margin of error on a controlled process affected by outside forces. Like a thermostat controlling the temperature in your house with sensors that turn on and off your a/c and heating to reduce going over and under your desired temperature to a set margin of error)
- environmental impact/operations cost- there are models that allow you to turn off individual groupheads and are ready for brewing again very quickly after you turn them back on, saving substantial energy (the Astoria Plus4You does all of these things, by the way: ergonomics, much lower carbon footprint, on-board water softener, and individually PID-controlled groupheads.)
- dough- how much do you want to put up? Espresso machines are expensive pieces of equipment- lots of moving parts, lots of durable metals, lots of engineering. If the price scares you, try leasing! Think of it like buying a car, and choose carefully so you get your money's worth.
A good espresso machine, properly cared for and maintained, will last a long time (like a car, or a solid relationship). If you're running a coffee bar, this is the main piece of equipment you need to produce your main product, so don't skimp! This is definitely not the place to cut corners.
PS- does your espresso machine have a name, like you might name a guitar or car?