Choosing a Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine - Part 1
Choosing a semi-automatic espresso machine can be hard. With prices ranging from $100 to many thousands of dollars it can be difficult to know what matters. Read on for some helpful tips and info on picking out a new espresso machine!
You may be tempted by machines that offer espresso and milk steaming for around the hundred dollar mark. While it's understandable to want to save on a machine, price is actually a good indicator of quality in the espresso machine market. A very inexpensive machine can be a great way decide if you like the taste of espresso, but it isn't likely to last or produce quality beverages.
We find the sweet spot for first time buyers to be in the $500-$1000 range. There are numerous machines in this price range that offer quality and consistency alongside reliability. Above $1,000 you're mostly paying for more advanced features that give you finer control over your brewing. You may also be looking at more generational machines with components that can last decades.
While a well researched first time user could certainly get their money's worth out of a high end machine, that $500-$100 range is a good thing to shoot for. Especially because you will need a grinder capable of espresso grinding to go with your machine!
Espresso is brewed by pumping water through a puck of finely ground coffee at 9 BAR. This is achieved with powerful pumps that are generally either vibratory or rotary. Lower end machines often don't have pumps capable of pushing water through at 9 BAR of pressure, so they use pressurized portafilter baskets to make up the difference. These portafilter baskets create additional pressure, but they don't always offer the purest flavor from the grounds.
If you're just starting our with espresso you may want to practice with pressurized filters, as they are more forgiving of a grind or tamp that's not quite right. However, most espresso drinkers like to quickly move to unpressurized espresso brewing. For that reason, we recommend ensuring your espresso machine will be able to brew with an unpressurized filter.
On the higher end, pump type comes down to reliability and how long it'll last. An expensive Izzo or Rocket Espresso machine will have a high quality pump that should work for decades. On top of this, they are usually designed so that its easy to work on and replace the pump, whereas less expensive machines might not offer this.
Perhaps the most important part of a semi-auto espresso machine is the boiler and heating element. All other things being equal, this is the thing you'll notice the biggest difference in in terms of usability. The obvious thing to consider here is boiler material. A sturdy stainless steel boiler in the Izzo espresso machines offered on SCG will last decades without a hint of leaking. However, this isn't necessarily a must have element of your first espresso machine. One thing you should consider carefully is how the heating element works, and how this effects heat up time.
A traditional single boiler design can take many minutes to warm up, which often means you'll want to turn the machine on well before brewing, or leave it on (always check your manual before leaving your machine on for long periods. Many aren't designed for this). On the flipside, the thermocoil heating element in a Breville Bambino or Barista Pro can heat up in seconds. This is also important for milk steaming, as you'll need a lot of heat to steam a whole pitcher of milk. Stronger, faster heating elements help you to complete this process quicker.
Again, on the higher end, you can purchase machines with multiple boilers. These kinds of machines allow you to steam milk and brew at the same time, as each process pulls from a different boiler. While this is extremely convenient and worth it for power users, it's absolutely not a thing you should get hung up on with your first purchase.
Next week we'll dig into more of the nuances with picking out a semi-auto espresso machine, such as PID controllers, control mechanisms, interfaces, and more.