Do You Need an Espresso Machine for Your Home?

Before you acquire an Espresso Machine, find out about the different types.

Types of Espresso Coffee Maker

When I first became interested in coffee, I naively thought that espresso was simply another flavor, so that if I bought the right coffee I could make espresso. Only later did I discover so many different ways of making good espresso.

I would love to share a little of that with you.

Stovetop espresso maker

Often called a Moka Pot, these fine little coffee makers were originally made by Alfonso Bialetti in Italy in 1933 and are still in wide household use in Italy today. This espresso machine design has a distinctive 8-sided shape which of late seems to have been adopted by some other makers. I have one of these little gems in my kitchen, also given to me by my son and daughter (I am so blessed!) which is in very regular use.

Bialetti on the stovetop

These little pots now come in all shapes and sizes, but the basic principle remains the same. It consists of three basic parts.

  • The lower chamber which gets filled with water.
  • The upper chamber which takes the form of a pot, and is where the brewed coffee ends up.
  • The funnel filter which goes between the other two and is where you place the coffee.

In addition to the three, there is also an important little gasket, which seals the whole assembly, allowing the pressure to build. This process produces a very acceptable espresso strength coffee, albeit without the famed crema.

In fact, that is not quite true, as Bialetti have now brought out the 'Brikka' patented system espresso machine which apparently produces perfect crema.

Because it is small, lightweight, and can be used on any heating element, it makes a very useful little traveling coffee maker.

And now for the cherry on the top....

....Bodum have brought out the Bodum Mocca Electric Stovetop Style Espresso machine

Steam Espresso Maker

These units came about in the early 1900's and operate in a manner which is similar to that of the stovetop espresso maker. The steam builds up a pressure to about 1.5 bar, which then forces the water through the coffee.

The structure is in the style of the pump operated espresso machine. It uses the "portafilter" system, which is simply a little filter unit which holds the coffee grounds, through which the water forced. Initially they produced a fairly burnt sort of flavor. Today their output is pretty much the same as the stovetop pot.

Piston-driven Espresso Maker

In 1938, Achille Gaggia invented the piston-driven espresso maker – and all true coffee lovers say, "Take a bow Signore Gaggia!"

It is probably true to say that all subsequent forms of espresso machine are derivatives of this invention. The other important thing about the piston-driven espresso machine is that this was the first machine to produce 'crema'. Is it not ironic that initially, crema was regarded as a useless by-product, whereas today it is indicative of a well made espresso.

The downside is that a lot of muscle power is required to operate the lever – not that the exercise is a bad idea :-)

So what happens is that the lever is lifted, the water flows into the chamber, then the lever is forced downward which in turn forces the water through the coffee – et voila! - you have espresso.

Then they got clever. A spring was utilized and now instead of manually forcing the piston down, it had to be manually forced up. Then the spring took over when the lever was released, creating the pressure to make the espresso.

These machines were perfected by La Pavoni who today still make some of the best lever-operated piston-driven espresso makers. Be warned! They are not cheap – but then again, who wants cheap :o)

Gaggia, who were there right at the start, also continue to produce some top class, top quality lever driven machines.

Whatever you think of the lever-operated espresso machine there is one thing which cannot be disputed – they make the finest espresso coffee in the hands of someone who has perfected the art.

Actually I should have said two things because the other thing is that they are really fine looking pieces of equipment. So even if one only has one for its aesthetic value, it is a fine addition to the discerning kitchen.

Example of a manual espresso machine

Pump-Driven Espresso Machine

In many ways this is really not an new category, as it was a refinement of the manually powered piston-driven espresso machine by the addition of an electric pump.

This pump-driven machine was also invented by Gaggia, whose aim was no doubt to provide a consistency to what was being served by the Baristas using the manual piston machines. This has certainly become one of the most frequently found methods in the commercial coffee bars.

The Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine

The big advantage of these machines, is the ability to control and regulate the water flow through the coffee. This in turn enabled the variety of espresso drinks that we have come to know today.

The very popular and excellent Bodum Granos Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine is now available again.

Because of the pump, manufacturers were able to include direct water lines into the machine design.

The semi-automatic espresso machine requires at least a monthly cleaning and descaling. This is not necessarily an onerous task, and can be done with a mild household cleaning agent and a thorough rinse.

Automatic Espresso Machine

This class of espresso maker is almost the same as the semi-automatic – the difference being that the automatic allows for "volumetric dosing" (fancy speak for allowing only a predetermined amount of water to flow through a meter). Once this level is reached, the pump switches off and excess pressure is released through a valve.

Super Automatic Espresso Coffee Makers

More recent times have seen the introduction of the Super Automatics – I sometimes call them "Robot machines". I mean these things only need someone to press the button! The robots (I mean super automatics) grind the beans, measure how much grind to go in the filter, tamp the grind, set the correct water levels, produce just the correct amount of espresso, and then go so far as to remove the use grinds into a waste container.

These beauties are great for professional espresso houses where consistency of serving is important. The super automatic espresso machine is becoming quite popular for home use. Brands like Jura-Capresso or Saeco, even Gaggenau. Even to the extent that some quality appliance manufacturers are now introducing them into their ranges. The idea is that the espresso machines match the styling of all the other units built in to the modern kitchen.

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