So you’re looking to buy an espresso machine… These days, there are all kinds of machines in the market, and frankly, they all look like each other, to the point that it can be confusing.
At some point, you have to ask yourself: “What am I looking for in an espresso machine?”, and “how can I tell that one is better than the other?”. You need to know the tale-tell signs of a bad coffee machine and, at the same time, you need to know what makes a good espresso machine.
Back in the old days, when espresso machines where driven purely by steam, an analogue gauge was used to measure the pressure inside the machine’s boiler (water tank). In time, coffee experts came to the general consensus that 15 bars was the ideal pressure for pulling a shot; Any pressure below than that will result in a below average cup of coffee.
While most current machines don’t rely on steam pressure, the standards are still the same. So, a good machine will have at least 15 bars of pressure. If you happen to come across a machine that’s maybe too cheap and looks too good to be true, check to see how many bars it has; Low-quality machines can go as low as 4 bars of pressure, which will give a watered down espresso.
Steamed milk is a crucial part of the experience of owning an espresso machine. Yet, not every espresso machine can offer you this. Having a dedicated steam wand is not as easy as it sounds: It can be expensive for manufacturers, which it turns, dries up the price of the product, something that they do not want.
In this case, to keep costs low, they turn to either eliminate the feature from the machine, or giving you something that looks and sounds like a steam wand, but really isn’t. A real steam wand keeps out steam propelled by high pressure.
If you want a good steam wand, you might want to avoid these lesser imitations or alternatives. Look for any words that are not exactly “steam wand”, a commonly used name is a milk frother, something that works more by heat than by steam. This does give milk a thick texture, but it will never create foam the way a real steam wand does.
The point of automatic espresso machines is to eliminate as many variables as possible. While this is great when it comes to achieving consistent good quality in coffee, it can also narrow down your choices.
If you are the kind of person that knows exactly what they want, and don’t plan on changing that, you would most likely be alright with an espresso machine that offers few choices, like espresso, latte and not much else.
However, if you are the kind of coffee lover that likes to experiment, and would like to try your hand at making impossible-to-pronounce coffee drinks, then you will need a machine that gives you a lot of options when it comes to making coffee: water volume, strength of your coffee, the amount of foam in your milk, etc.
Beware of espresso machines that offer just a couple customizable options. This might be fine with other machines like a nespresso, for example, because that’s what it does. But a real espresso machine is expected to deliver a wide range of beverages.
Heat up time
This is to say how long the machine takes to heat up brewing water to the adequate temperature for brewing.
The whole heating aspect boils down to very hard to comprehend engineering materials – but what you really need to pay attention to is the amount of time it takes, no matter what kind of heating system your coffee maker has.
The reason that this is very important has nothing to do with patience; We are not condemning longer heat up times solely because it takes longer to make coffee (although, yes, that is annoying) but because longer heat-up times are detrimental to the health of your machine and more so to the taste of your coffee.
This is because espresso machines are mostly made of metal and the longer they’re exposed to heating elements, the more they tend to overheat even in places they’re not supposed to. This, of course, includes any and all parts that might be in contact with your coffee beans or ground coffee: It’s now a well-known fact that exposure to heated metallic surfaces lessens the quality of your coffee.
In automatic machines, waiting time should be short. Aim for anything between 3 seconds and 35 seconds. A typical high-end espresso machine heats water in under 5 seconds, totalling around 15 to 20 seconds for a shot of espresso.
Automatic means that a machine will do all the work for you, but there’s still the matter of you inputting into that machine information about how you want your coffee.
And it’s no secret that, deep down, everyone’s really meticulous about how they like their coffee.
A good user interface will enable you to customize your coffee without too much hassle. It shouldn’t be a fight between you and your machine: A good espresso machine must be easy to operate, to the point that it’s fun and pleasant to do so.
Even so, there’s plenty of coffee machines out there that are plain impossible to understand. You turn a knob here, push a button there, and you get the exact opposite you were looking for.
Our advice is pick a machine that has a very clear user interface: weird combinations of dials, knobs and buttons are hard to master. The best thing you could do is invest in a machine with a touch display.
Now that we’ve had a conversation (sort of) about automatic espresso machines, you should be feeling a little more confident in your ability to pick a good one.
Remember, it should be a machine that suits you particularly; take your time and think about it. Have fun shopping!