Espresso drinks are an everyday staple for many people, but most still aren’t making them at home. Why not?! Local cafes are great for meeting friends or hanging out with a good book, but do you really want to head all the way to your favorite coffee shop just to pick up a drink and leave? If making this daily trek is wearing on you (or your wallet!) then it might be time to consider buying an espresso machine for your home.
With the right espresso machine, you’ll be able to make all your favorite coffee shop classics without ever leaving your kitchen. Just imagine enjoying your morning caffeine fix without ever changing out of pajamas, getting in your car, or swiping your debit card. Sold yet? Let’s talk about different types of espresso machines!
Espresso Machines, Tools, and More
When it comes to preparing your own tasty espresso at home, there are several ways to go about it. A quick web search will turn up thousands of different types of espresso machines, so it can get a little confusing. Here we’ve compiled an overview of the three main types of espresso machines that you’re likely to encounter.
1. Steam-Driven, Stovetop Espresso Makers
If you enjoy making your coffee through the aeropress, french press, or chemex, you’ll love using a stovetop espresso maker. Stovetop espresso makers, commonly called moka pots, are steam-driven compartmentalized devices in which water is heated to a boil in the bottom of a pot so that the steam rises through a separate layer of ground beans to brew espresso.
Moka pots are pretty popular because they’re easy, affordable, and versatile. They don’t take up much room and don’t require anything more than your stovetop. However, these stovetop espresso makers do tend produce lower-quality espresso because the boiling water actually exceeds the normal recommended temperature. Most baristas do try to keep their water somewhere between 195°F and 205°F. This is actually about 15 degrees cooler than water’s boiling point but, in all honesty, most casual coffee drinkers will never notice the difference in espressos made with water at different temperatures. We still recommend giving a stovetop espresso maker a chance because, like we always say, drinking coffee is about finding what you like.
2. Lever Espresso Machines
Lever espresso machines are manual, lever-operated devices with an internal piston that forces heated water through tightly packed ground coffee. These aren’t extremely popular, though, because the pressure that drives the piston must be generated by the hands of the human operator in charge of pulling the lever. This is a traditional, “old-world” method and can be a bit difficult to master. However, once you’ve established your technique and gotten a bit of practice, there’s a good chance that you’ll be making some outstanding espresso shots. Many coffee purists swear by their lever espresso machines because they believe that the espresso they create by hand with such a device is better than anything produced by a steam-operated or electrically-pumped competitor.
Lever espresso machines do have an electrical component. The device contains electric boilers so it must be plugged into the wall. Again, these devices are can be a little tricky but when used correctly there is no denying the finished product.
3. Pump-Driven Espresso Machines
The last type of espresso maker you really need to know is the pump-driven espresso machine. These are probably the most common household espresso machines. They require a wall plug and rely on an electrical pump to create the pressure that separates espresso from other types of coffee. These machines also have an electric water boiler that helps ensure that the brewing process will not be hampered by water outside the desired temperature range.
One interesting thing about pump-driven espresso machines is that most of them do actually come with attached steam wands. While the espresso itself is not brewed using boiling water, some of the water is brought to a boil for the sake of using this wand to steam or froth milk. That means that more sophisticated pump-driven espresso machines will actually have two separate water boiling compartments, but this is not always the case.
You may have noticed that many commercial pump-driven espresso machines come with multiple brewing ports, called groupheads. In such machines, the water’s extraction temperatures can often be set to different temperatures within each grouphead to enable some variance in the final brew.
Because pump-driven espresso machines are so popular, they are usually defined as being one of four categories: semi-automatic espresso machines, fully-automatic espresso machines, super-automatic espresso machines, and ultra-automatic espresso machines. Notice a theme? All pump-driven espresso machines are automatic but there are some key differences between them. Let’s take a deeper look at what makes each of these unique.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines: Semi-automatic espresso machines will either have a switch or level on the front panel of the device to control the espresso extraction process.
Fully-Automatic Espresso Machines: Fully-automatic espresso machines are similar to semi-automatic devices with the exception of a microprocessor that sets the exact volume for a particular drink rather than relying on the operator’s dexterity. This creates a more consistent experience and takes a bit of the guesswork out of espresso brewing.
Super-Automatic Espresso Machines: Super-automatic espresso machines have all the great features you’ll find with a fully-automatic espresso machine, but they also include a built-in coffee grinder. With these machines, drinks can be made to order with freshly-ground beans that are pressed to the exact specifications that a given drink may call for. Additionally, super-automatic espresso machines also regulate air pressure and water temperature.
Ultra-Automatic Espresso Machines: Ultra-automatic espresso machines are like super-automatic espresso machines on steroids. Containing all the same features and functions, ultra-automatic machines are unique because they also have the ability to froth and steam milk automatically. This machine will do essentially anything you ask short of transforming into a human barista.
The downside to pump-driven espresso machines is that you lose the individuality of your drink the more you standardize and automate its creation. However, that may be exactly what you’re looking for and if that’s the case then we recommend investing in one of these premium espresso machines.
Where To Begin
Before we can even start considering which type of machine best suits your needs, you need to consider a couple of practical things like how much space can you dedicate to your machine and whether your machine can live close enough to be plugged into your favorite outlet. You’ll also want to think about how often you’ll use it, what it looks like to clean, and whether you’re going to need a milk frothing attachment.
First of all, let’s decide whether you’re ready to take on an espresso machine that will require electrical power. It may be ultra convenient, but these machines generally take up more space, require a place near an outlet, and can be a bit difficult to clean. The great thing about so many of these machines is that they take the guesswork out of making drinks. They’re fast, they’re convenient, and they’re consistent. However, some of these machines do have a lot of moving parts. The more complex your machine, the more high-maintenance it’s likely to be. The real question is whether you’re ready for that kind of commitment. Keep that in mind if you’re considering a pump-driven machine - especially one that includes an attached milk frothing wand or prepares a variety of different drinks.
Pro-Tip: Choose a pump-driven espresso machine if your main goal is save yourself a trip to the local cafe and you don’t have an objection to setting up the machine as a permanent kitchen fixture. Many of them are super stylish, after all, and the fast, convenient drinks are a great way to enhance your hosting capabilities.
Secondly, let’s think about what types of drinks you’re planning to make. If you’re just looking for a quick and tasty shot of espresso here and there, then you might want to stick with a stovetop espresso maker. This is a simple, no frills way to make delicious coffee anytime you want in just a few short minutes. The downside here is that if want to make lattes, cappuccinos, of the like, you’re going to need to find a way to steam or froth your milk.
Pro-Tip: Don’t be discouraged about getting a moka pot simply because it doesn’t include its own milk frother. Perhaps consider heating milk in on the stovetop in a separate dish as your moka pot is heating and, if you like, you can even buy a hand-held frother to help add some additional foaminess or texture to top of your drink.
Lastly, let’s consider just how personal you’d like each cup to be. If you want to play around and experiment with different drinks then consider either a lever espresso machine or a stovetop option. Each of these will let you dictate the exact water-to-bean ratio you use and, if you’re buying whole beans and grinding them yourself, you can also dictate the consistency of the beans you use. As we said above the more adamant coffee enthusiasts may prefer the lever espresso machine but it does require access to some electrical power. Additionally, neither option is going to include a milk steamer or frother, but we’ve already described above how you can get around that and make delicious espresso drinks anyway.
Pro-Tip: The real difference maker here for most people will be the fact that the lever machines do require a power source. If you aren’t looking to go that route, a stovetop espresso maker is the right choice for you.
So Which Should You Choose?
All in all, choosing an espresso machine really comes down to deciding how you’ll use it and how the machine fits into your life. Stovetop espresso makers are simple, convenient, easy to store, quick to clean, and don’t require a power source. However, they don’t provide any way to heat or froth your milk. Lever espresso machines offer a lot of flexibility and let you virtually customize each shot you pull. Their downside is that they require a power source and a little bit of elbow grease. Pump-driven espresso machines are great if you’re looking for something to deliver a tasty, reliable cup without requiring much work on your part. On the flip side, they may require more of your counter space than you’d like to give up and some models can be a bear to clean.
Here’s What Really Matters
There’s really no one-size-fits-all answer, which is why there are so many great options on the market. At the end of the day, it’s about making coffee that you enjoy regardless of how you do it. That all starts with choosing fresh, high-quality, flavorful beans. No matter what sort of espresso machine you may use, we always recommend our Knockbox Espresso Roast.
We don’t only suggest this blend because it’s our product but rather because we know the care and attention to detail that goes into making each batch. Our Knockbox Espresso has been reformulated to bring together the bold flavors of our Guatemalan Antigua, Brazilian, and Colombian coffees to pack a unique punch that will leave a lasting impression on even the pickiest of espresso lovers. Remember, making coffee is all about discovering what you like and that all begins with the ingredients. Don’t settle for anything less than choice, organic coffee beans.