How to Choose an Espresso Machine
Here at Clive, we want to help you take the guesswork out of choosing a machine so that you can feel confident making espresso at home and have fun with it, too! Machines aren’t one-size-fits-all. You need to decide what features you want or, more importantly, which you may not need. We've got a lot for you to learn, but by the time you're done, we're certain you'll feel guided in the right direction for which type of machine is best for you — if not exactly which one! Go ahead, make yourself a cup of coffee... and dream of how much better it's going to be made on your new machine.
What we'll cover in Part 1:
• Dual Boilers
• Heat Exchangers
• Volumetric Programmability
• Flow Control
• 53mm vs 58mm
1. Manual, super-automatic, and semi-automatic espresso machines
Espresso machines can be broken down into three main types — all of which can make great coffee, but the experience is different.
Manual espresso machines
Manual machines or lever machines require you to pull the lever to build pressure to pull a shot. You’re either confused or mesmerized by them. You’ll know whether they are for you or not. They are about tradition, pure espresso, and recreating a classic Italian espresso, rich in crema.
Super-automatic espresso machines
Super-automatics espresso machines do everything for you with the touch of a button. They are for those wanting a latte by snapping their fingers. You don’t want to go into Starbucks — you don’t want to be a barista, necessarily, but you love your coffee. Super-autos can be as basic as pulling a shot and steaming milk and as fancy as creating your custom drink and recipe, choosing how frothy you want your milk. The downside is that you lose your ability to change how your shots are pulling and fine-tune for flavor. People who buy super autos typically aren’t espresso purists, so this may not matter to you as much. It’s about the convenience of café coffee without the barista-ing.
Semi-automatic espresso machines
Semi-automatics machines require the baristas to grind, tamp, and steam milk, but they work with a pump to build the pressure rather than using a lever like a fully manual. They are what we primarily carry at Clive. They are the most affordable way to achieve café-quality drinks at home. As the barista, you have to — or get to — control how your shot pulls by making adjustments to your grinder and recipe until it tastes right to you. You can find grinders and accessories that make this process easier. We’re here to help build your dream setup and teach you how to use it.
If you know you want a manual or super-auto, you can stop here because we have two options for you here at Clive.
Clive's manual espresso machine — Profitec Pro 800
Clive's super-automatic espresso machine — Breville Oracle Touch
If you’re interested in a semi-automatic espresso machine, keep reading!
2. Single boilers, dual boilers, and heat exchange espresso machines
Ultimately, you want to find something that is going to fit your needs and provide you with the routine that you want. Single boilers, heat exchangers, and dual boilers function differently from one another when making a latte, meaning your workflow will be different.
A single boiler espresso machine uses one boiler for both steaming milk and pulling a shot of espresso. This means there’s a little waiting in between pulling shots and steaming milk. Steam pressure on single boilers is usually less strong than on other machines. This means that it takes longer to steam a pitcher of milk, which can be more approachable to newer baristas. These machines are generally smaller, and typically function off an internal water reservoir.
Price point: $850 to $1800 at Clive.
Who single boiler machines are for: People who make very few milk-based drinks, are straight espresso drinkers, are on a tight budget, have space constraints, or are just looking for a beginner espresso machine would choose a single boiler.
Shop single boiler espresso machines.
Dual boiler machines have two boilers — one is dedicated to steaming milk, and the other for pulling shots. Having dedicated boilers allows baristas to pull shots and steam milk simultaneously or instantly back to back with no waiting. Dual boilers oftentimes offer more features, such as the ability to plumb to a waterline rather than using a water reservoir.
Price point: $1800 to $7900 at Clive.
Who dual boiler machines are for: If you make a lot of milk-based drinks, want a commercial feel, intend on making several drinks in a row, need to direct plumb a machine, or want some of the features that these machines often include (more on that soon), you should consider a dual boiler.
Heat exchangers fall somewhere in the middle. Like a single-boiler, they have one boiler and are usually smaller in size, but they function more closely to a dual boiler because you can still steam milk and pull shots at the same time. Two things to keep in mind with heat exchangers. First, you should run a cooling flush, running water through the group head for five to ten seconds before pulling a shot. Secondly, if you change the temperature or pressure, you’re raising or lowering it for both steaming and brewing, it cannot be done independently.
Price point: $1600 to $2200 at Clive.
Who heat exchange machines are for: Heat exchangers are a great option for people looking for something smaller that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg — but still want a fast machine with lots of steaming power.
There are a lot of similarities in internal parts, functionalities, size, price points, and features between machines in the same category. Once you decide which type of espresso machine is right for you, we’ll explore the features that can ultimately help you choose.
3. Shopping by features
One of the most talked about features of an espresso machine — a PID. PIDs display the temperature of your boilers, double as a shot timer, and often include other programmable features like auto off and on times, pre-infusion, eco modes, etc.
Water temperature affects how coffee extracts and therefore tastes. Machines with PIDs allow you to control brewing temperature to aid in coffee extraction. Temperature control is great when changing your recipe or grind size isn’t enough. If you don’t anticipate being the type of person who nerds out and wants to adjust brew temperature, PIDs may not seem necessary but are still nice to have, displaying when the machine has fully heated, working as a shot timer, low water notifications and so on. Without one, you can rely on your pressure gauge and use a timer on an espresso scale for quality control. You can make great coffee with or without a PID.
Learn how brewing temperature affects coffee extraction in our article: How to Brew Dark, Medium, and Light Roasted Coffees.
Machines with volumetric programmability offer an extra level of convenience to semi-automatic machines. They can be programmed to stop shots automatically once they have dispensed a specific water volume. Volumetric programming automates part of the process but still gives you all the control with the push of a button.
Pre-infusion refers to the process of saturating the entire puck of coffee with water before introducing a full 9 bar of pressure to your shot. This can help prepare the coffee in a way that reduces channeling or uneven extraction while the espresso is pulling. Pre-infusion can be a good thing for new baristas as it can help minimize user errors. However, when you’re just getting started and learning how to make coffee at home, we always advise baristas to simplify as much as possible before adding to the variables that can affect how a shot of espresso pulls. Machines with timed pre-infusion are great — the more constant variables you have, the better.
Learn more about pre-infusion and how it works: What is Pre-Infusion.
Flow control is a device and paddle that attaches to the top of the E61 group head that restricts and releases water flow as you move its paddle back and forth to help aid in coffee extraction. Playing with water flow rate and pressure, which are connected, can be a fun tool to experiment with once you get your footing and feel comfortable with the basics. Changing the pressure and flow of water can accentuate different flavor profiles and be fun for those really wanting to nerd out on straight espresso. Unless you’ve had experience with flow control or have done your research thoroughly and are ready to experiment, go through bags of coffee, and drink a lot of espresso as you taste the difference in each shot, flow control can be something you experiment with down the line.
We're just going to come out and say it — it’s 100% okay for you to choose an espresso machine based on how it looks. Some people are drawn toward the more commercial-looking machines, while others choose based on color, chrome, group head type, levers vs. knobs, and buttons vs. paddles. It’s hard to know which you may prefer until you get your hands on it yourself. Some think it’s easier to operate machines that have joysticks, and others prefer knobs that spin open and close. Some like the manual feel of lifting a brew lever to start and stop a shot, and others are okay with pressing a button. Ultimately, you just need something that can keep up with your lifestyle and fit your space, budget, and aesthetic.
4. Last things to consider
A few last things to consider or at least be made aware of: group head type and size, pump types, and consideration to other necessities in your overall budget.
Group Head Type
There are a few different group head types and sizes and lots of differing opinions on what’s best. Saturated, semi-saturated, and E61.
Semi-saturated group heads are separated from the boiler by a heat exchange mechanism that directs water flow around the group head. Temperatures may be less stable, but they are easier to repair. The LUCCA A53, Profitec Pro 300, and Rancilio Silvia are all examples of a machine with a semi-saturated group head.
E61 group heads are easily recognizable, as the portafilter sits outside of the machine and is connected to a brew lever that operates it. E61 group heads cycle water around the group as a shot pulls to maintain incredible temperature stability. They also can be connected to flow control devices and are easy to maintain. The ECM Synchronika, Profitec Pro 700, and Lelit Bianca are all examples of E61 group heads.
Each type has its pros and cons and has ways around any temperature concerns and repairability. It’s nice to know what you’re getting, but it may not be at the top of your list of wants in a machine — and that’s okay and probably for the best. Unless you’re just into the looks of one, that is also A-OK.
Don't get hung up on portafilter size. 58mm is the standard commercial size but many Breville machines are 54mm, and La Spaziale are 53mm. It’s important to know what you’re buying so you can get the right size accessories, but the portafilter size isn’t a reason to choose or stray from a machine, necessarily. You can pull great shots with both, as long as you have the right tools, such as a great grinder and accessories.
There are two types of pumps: vibratory and rotary. Each of them function differently to do the same thing.
Vibratory pumps vibrate to move water through the machine. They last about 5-10 years depending on use. They are a little louder by nature but pulling a shot of espresso takes about 30 seconds, so it’s up to you how important that is...
Rotary pumps use a large motor to rotate a gear-like mechanism that generates pressure. They are more expensive, increasing the overall cost of the machine, and in the off chance they go bad, you’re looking at a little more spendy fix.
Shopping by pump type isn't very common and not something to get hung up on. If you'd like to learn more, check out How to Choose an Espresso Machine by Pump Type.
Lastly, and most importantly, honestly. Save room in your budget for two of the most important parts of your success with home espresso: a great grinder and a scale.
You don’t need to save a specific amount or percent of your budget on a grinder, but you will not get great-tasting and consistent results with pre-ground coffee or a bad grinder. It’s better to get a less expensive machine with a better grinder than a more expensive machine with a horrible grinder. Keep an eye out for our guide on how to choose a grinder, but please, please, please take this advice seriously. Most of our tech calls stem from bad grinders and old coffee.
Don't believe us? Read "Do I Really Need a Coffee Grinder?"
Finally, get an espresso scale. You need to measure how much coffee you're putting into your machine and how much you’re getting out. A tenth of a gram makes a difference in how your shot pulls. It’s impossible to eyeball and get it right and taste great.
Save room in your overall budget for accessories that will make the coffee taste worth the investment in a home setup. Do you have a better sense of what you need? What questions do you have? Leave them below or reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org