Pump vs. steam espresso machine, that is one discussion that just refuses to die. I think of it as the constant argument car owners have with the whole automatic vs manual debate. In the end, the method you prefer has much more to do with the kind of experience that you seek in a coffee machine rather than the practical aspects of that.
Let’s see how each machine works so we can decide which one is better for us!
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The Steam Machine
This was the original espresso machine. Invented in 1884 by Angelo Moriondo, it was the world’s first machine that could instantly produce coffee. Of course, it is not instantaneous, but it was in those times.
The machine relies on a tank of water that has to be filled manually and constantly. It heats up the water to a close boil so steam is created in the internal chamber. This steam will then forcefully push out the hot water through the pipes. There it will pass through the coffee beans and come out of the portafilter as espresso.
This process is called percolation. It is the base of more than one method of making coffee, such as the “Machinetta“. Check out more about percolation in “Brew Guide: Percolator Coffee“.
The problems of this machine are that since it has to be heating up water all the time, one’s prone to burn oneself when touching any part of it and. And more importantly, that water reaches too high a temperature and it burns the coffee and results in a lower quality espresso.
Check out this amazing espresso machine with both pump and steam features!
The Pump Machine
The solution to the heat problem was simple. If there’s no steam to push out the water, let the Barista do it! A pump was incorporated into the machine. The barista would use it to generate force to push the water out, replacing the force created by the steam. The result is a much better coffee, with far less risk of over-extracting your coffee. Take a look at this pump espresso machine here.
Nowadays the pump is inside the machine and completely automatic. We only need to push a button and the machine does all the work by itself.
A relatively new invention. It is also possible to rely on just the palm of your hand to serve as the force that pushes the water. The AeroPress is a machine that relies on air to push water through the coffee. It functions by filling an upper chamber with air which you then press down. Effectively percolating the coffee grounds in one single push.
Objectively, the pump-driven model of the espresso machine is far more practical and better for achieving consistent quality in coffee. However, the steam machine provides a whole other level of experience.
The pump machine, even if “semi-automatic” is doing all the work for you. Alienating you from a very important step in the process. It’s already hooked up to a water source. It regulates heat automatically so all you need to do is attach the portafilter and press a button. It is the equivalent of a microwave: press the button and count the time. And that’s the semi-automatic ones! There are ones that further take control of the coffee-making process from you. They incorporate into the espresso machines other machines like the grinder and the roaster. They are truly an incredibly convenient yet terrifying piece of engineering.
The steam machine, on the other hand, has a tank that you must fill with water frequently, and it has a presence of its own that you can’t ignore. After all, if you’re not careful where you touch it, you’ll probably burn yourself.
Operating a steam machine feels like being in another era: This is, after all, how espresso was made in the early days. There are many of these old machines still around, and their bronze, shiny exterior is a sight that you don’t see anymore in coffee shops.
The pump machine is a clearly more practical choice than the steam-driven espresso machine. If you don’t like having to do a lot of work, this is the machine for you.
If you do like to get in there and learn how the machine works, then the steam machine is probably the best for you. Once you get the hang of it, making coffee with these machines is really satisfying: it’s like mastering a long lost art. Plus, they’re much cheaper.
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Thank you for reading! Thinking of opening a coffee shop and including an espresso machine inside? Check out “8 Things You Should Know Before Opening a Coffee Shop” or “Opening a Coffee Shop Checklist” for tips on starting your business venture.
We’ll brew ya later! ☕️