What are the Different Types of Espresso Machines?

Espresso is a single category of coffee, but within the category there are diverse aromas, flavors and profiles that espresso can have. Similarly, there are diverse methods among the machines that brew espresso.

Espresso machines can be grouped into several categories based on the level of effort vs. convenience, and other features further differentiate various machines. Below are the various types of machines followed by some other major differences in designs.

Lever/Manual Espresso Machines

Lever espresso machines are fully manual, as in you not only prepare the coffee grounds but also control the water. Preinfusion, water volume and water pressure are all controlled by the raising and lowering of a lever.

Most of the espresso machines first used in cafes were lever/manual models, and they still have a loyal following among some home baristas. Cafes have largely ditched these machines for more consistent and efficient models.

How To Use a Lever/Manual Espresso Machine

A lever/manual espresso machine is an entirely hands-on experience:

  1. Grind, dose and tamp the coffee grounds
  2. Load the basket and portafilter into the espresso machine
  3. Pull up on the lever to preinfuse the grounds
  4. Push down on the lever to generate pressure and pull the shot

Most home lever espresso machines also require you to manually fill the boiler with water.

Variations of Lever/Manual Espresso Machines

Lever espresso machines come with either a fully manual lever or a spring-loaded lever. With manual lever machines, pulling the lever directly controls water flow and pressure. The pull on a spring-loaded lever activates a spring, which triggers flow and pressure.

Manual levers offer complete control over every aspect of making espresso. Spring-loaded levers still offer more control than any other category of espresso machine, and they also ensure consistency with regard to water.

More modern variations use a mechanism other than a traditional lever to generate pressure. They may use a screw (e.g.Rossa HC-Hand Espresso), push (e.g. Espresso Forge) or see-saw (e.g. Uniterra Nomad). How precisely you can control pressure varies among these different mechanisms.

A significant number of manual espresso machines require no outside power except for hot water and your strength. Many of these machines are designed at least partly with portability and off-grid espresso in mind. The three modern variations noted above are all examples of portable machines.

Pros of Lever/Manual Espresso Makers

  • Complete control over all aspects of brewing espresso
  • Vintage or modern aesthetic depending on mechanism used
  • Maintenance can easily be performed on most models
  • Lower price compared to other categories machines of comparable quality
  • Literally “pull” espresso shots like baristas used to

Cons of Lever/Manual Espresso Makers

  • Reduced consistency as a result of manually controlling every brewing variable
  • Practice is required before you can consistently pull good shots
  • Temperature is prone to overheating or underheating depending on model
  • Preheating with hot water is required for all portable machines
  • Steam wands are missing on portable machines and some plug-in models
  • Time required to pull shots adds up as you make multiple beverages

What to Look For

When comparing lever/manual espresso makers, prioritize the type of lever, temperature stability and build quality. Also consider portability if that is a driving reason to purchase this category of machine.

Notable Models

Some notable lever/manual espresso makers are the Olympia Cremina, La Pavoni Europiccola and Rok EspressoGC (in addition to the others mentioned).

Semi Automatic Espresso Machines

Semi automatic espresso machines are mostly manual, but the machine controls the main water variables. You prepare the coffee grounds but only control the volume of water that’s used for brewing. The machine manages pressure and flow.

Most independent specialty coffee shops have semi automatic machines installed in their cafes, because the category still requires demonstrable skill.

How To Use a Semi Automatic Espresso Machine

Using a semi automatic espresso machine is mostly hands-on, and requires the most involvement of any category other than the lever niche:

  1. Grind, dose and tamp the coffee grounds
  2. Load the basket and portafilter into the espresso machine
  3. Press a button to start the water and begin pulling the shot
  4. Press the button again to stop the water and the shot

Variations of Semi Automatic Espresso Machines

Semi automatic espresso machines are widely available in both commercial and non-commercial models. Some of the features that differentiate commercial and home machines are the number of group heads, number of steam wands, and pressure generation method.

Non-commercial machines usually have a single boiler and are more likely to be steam driven (see Steam Driven). Because of these features, non-commercial machines often can’t steam milk and pull shots simultaneously. They also frequently can’t make many beverages in a row without resting to rebuild pressure.

Conversely, commercial machines are usually built so that they can make beverage after beverage, and often multiple beverages simultaneously. Their features also provide more temperature control and stability.

Pros of Semi Automatic Espresso Makers

  • Control over all aspects of preparing coffee grounds
  • Showcase skills required for pulling espresso and making latte art
  • Easier and faster to use than lever/manual machines
  • Classic aesthetic that’s recognized as the quintessential espresso machine
  • Numerous models offer various features and price points

Cons of Semi Automatic Espresso Makers

  • Practice required to properly pull espresso and steam milk
  • Time required to pull shots adds up as you make multiple beverages
  • Home machines may be unable to make multiple beverages in a row
  • Prices for high-end commercial machines can be expensive

What to Look For

If you’re considering a semi automatic espresso maker, consider its footprint, ability to make multiple beverages and build quality. Being able to simultaneously pull espresso and steam milk is also helpful in a home setting and necessary in a cafe, although machines that can do both at the same time cost more.

Notable Models

Some quality home semi automatic espresso makers include the Gaggia Classic Pro, Bezzera New Hobby Espresso Machine and ECM Casa V Espresso. Commercial grade machines include the La Marzocco Strada AV, Slayer Steam LP 2-Group and Bezzera Magica.

Automatic Espresso Machines

Automatic espresso machines take care of pulling espresso, but you still have control over steaming milk. Most of these machines come with steam wands, including home models.

Starbucks and some other coffee shop chains use automatic espresso machines rather than semi-automatic ones. Having the machine control all aspects of pulling shots ensures consistency across beverages, baristas and locations. Baristas can still demonstrate some skill by steaming and pouring milk.

How to Use an Automatic Espresso Machine

Using an automatic espresso machine is fairly easy, as you only have to take care of steaming milk (if making a cortado, cappuccino, latte, etc.):

  1. Press a button to pull the espresso shot
  2. Steam milk if needed and pour beverage

You do have to make sure beans are in the hopper. Some models offer programmable settings that you can change to alter shot extraction.

Variations of Automatic Espresso Machines

Feature variations on automatic espresso machines are largely similar to those found on semi-automatic machines. Both home and commercial models are available, varying in how many group heads, steam wands and boilers they have. Models also use different pressure generation methods.

Pros of Automatic Espresso Makers

  • Automating all aspects of preparing and pulling shots ensures consistency
  • Easier to use as steaming milk is less temperamental than pulling shots
  • Less time is required to make a single or multiple beverages
  • Showcase and experiment with latte art

Cons of Automatic Espresso Makers

  • Little or no manual control over preparing or pulling espresso
  • Cost is higher due to more complex hardware and software components
  • Repairs are more involved and likely require professional service
  • Home machines may still be unable to make many beverages in a row
  • Less intriguing aesthetic due to no traditional group head or portafilter

What to Look For

Automatic espresso makers that have programmable settings for espresso allow you to adjust extraction according to what beans are being used. Most newer models that offer this control connect to phones via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. This feature increases cost but is one that’s worth paying more for.

Other considerations mirror those of semi automatic models. Look at the footprint, ability to pull and steam simultaneously, ability to make multiple beverages, and build quality.

Notable Models

Some automatic espresso makers worth looking at are the Coffee Gator Espresso Machine, De’Longhi Espresso Machine With Advanced Cappuccino System, and Breville Barista Expresso Espresso Machine.

Super Automatic Espresso Machines

Super automatic espresso machines automate every aspect of making espresso beverages. They pull, steam and pour, requiring you to do little more than push a button for your chosen beverage. These are essentially the microwave of espresso machines.

Most cafes don’t have super automatic machines, but these can be found in other settings. Any large vending machine-like espresso maker is a super automatic.

How to Use a Super Automatic Espresso Machine

Making a beverage with a super automatic espresso machine is easier than buying beans to put in it:

  1. Press the button corresponding to your chosen beverage

The only other thing you have to do is make sure beans and milk are loaded into the machine.

Variations of Super Automatic Espresso Machines

Both home and commercial super automatic espresso machines are available. Commercial models tend to be much larger than non-commercial ones.

Pros of Super Automatic Espresso Makers

  • Most convenient way to brew espresso beverages
  • Fastest way to brew espresso beverages
  • Consistency across all beverages
  • Make delicious espresso beverages out of the box

Cons of Super Automatic Espresso Machines

  • Little or no control over pulling, steaming or pouring
  • Can’t pour beverages to make latte art
  • Repairs are more involved and likely require professional service
  • Less intriguing aesthetic due to no traditional group head, portafilter or steam wand
  • Cost is high due to the complex hardware and software components

What to Look For

One of the biggest differences between these machines is whether they’re designed for commercial or non-commercial use. Commercial machines in this category generally aren’t suitable for home use, even for home baristas who have the budget for high-end equipment.

Because these machines are completely automated, the software used in them is especially important. The best software allows for customizable extraction profiles and beverages. How the software connects (i.e. Wi-Fi or Bluetooth) and what operating system its app is on (i.e. iOS or Android) should be compatible with your devices. Keep in mind that Wi-Fi might be preferable if you want to immediately start a beverage when waking up or coming home.

Cheaper machines may not have customizable settings, but instead offer several different preset beverages. Models with more beverage options should be favored.

The build quality of these machines is also important. The machines require substantial investment and can be expensive to repair. You want a machine that will last.

Notable Models

Some noteworthy super automatic espresso makers are the Philips 3200 Series Fully Automatic With LatteGo, Jura ENA 8 (no milk steaming), De’Longhi ESAM3300 Magnifica and Gaggia Cardona Prestige Super-Automatic.

Single Boiler Espresso Machines

Single boiler espresso machines have only one boiler in which water is heated. These machines can be lever/manual, semi automatic, automatic or super automatic.

Almost all single boiler machines are made for home use.

How to Use Single Boiler Espresso Machines

Having one boiler in an espresso machine doesn’t change how the machine is used. At most, you may have to fill the boiler and/or set its temperature.

Variations of Single Boiler Espresso Machines

Boilers in metal machines can vary in size, insulation and metal. Multiple metals can be used for boilers.
Size is the most important factor, for it determines how many beverages a machine can make at once. Most single boiler machines are capable of a few beverages before the boiler must be refilled, although the machines might need to repressurize between drinks.

Aluminum is inexpensive and thermoconductive, making it a popular choice on many home machines. Stainless steel can be used in conjunction with aluminum to reduce corrosion and improve durability, especially on super automatic machines.

Copper retains and conducts heat extremely well, but it’s the most expensive option and found only on the highest-end models. Brass is a much more affordable option that still performs well, and is much more common. Even if copper is used in a boiler, the endplates are made of brass because it’s better for screwing other parts into.

Pros of Single Boiler Espresso Makers

  • Cost less than double boiler espresso makers
  • Smaller footprint than double boiler makers

Cons of Single Boiler Espresso Makers

  • Less stable water temperature because brewing boiler is filled with tap water
  • Lower capacity for making drinks beverages in a row and before refilling

What to Look For

The capacity of a single boiler has the biggest impact on performance. What metal the boiler is made from has a lesser impact, but still should be checked.

Notable Models

Some aforementioned single boiler machines are the Olympia Cremina, Gaggia Classic Pro and Coffee Gator Espresso Machine. Many other quality home models have single boilers.

Double Boiler Espresso Machines

Double boiler espresso machines have two boilers. The boiler from which water is drawn to pull espresso and steam milk is filled by a secondary boiler. The dual method provides a more stable temperature and pressure.

Many commercial espresso machines have double boilers, as do some expensive home machines. These can be lever/manual, semi automatic, automatic or super automatic machines.

How to Use Double Boiler Espresso Machines

Double boiler espresso machines have no impact on how you actually pull shots or steam milk. You usually do have two temperature settings to adjust, however. Models that are connected to a water supply don’t have to be manually filled.

Variations of Double Boiler Espresso Machines

Double boilers can vary in capacity and metal, just as single boilers do.

Pros of Double Boiler Espresso Makers

  • Greater temperature stability because one boiler fills the other
  • Greater capacity because of larger boilers and possible connected water supply

Cons of Double Boiler Espresso Makers

  • More expensive than single boiler espresso makers

What to Look For

The best double boiler espresso machines have separate temperature settings for each boiler, and you should determine whether you want a model that connects to a water supply. Capacity and metal are less important.

Notable Models

Some notable home double boiler espresso makers are the Lelit Bianca, Slayer Single Group and La Marzocco Linea Mini.

While not a double boiler, consumers often debate between the Rocket Appartamento and the La Marzocco Linea Mini due to their similar size. There are many differences though, see all the details in our comparison between the Appartamento and Linea Mini.

If you can’t find one of those models, another good choice is the El Rocio Zarre V2 Espresso Machine.

Heat Exchange Espresso Machines

Heat exchange espresso machines have a boiler that maintains a stable temperature, but water is brought through a heat exchange before it goes to the group head. The heat exchange flash-heats the water up to a set brewing temperature and pressure.

Because brewing temperature and pressure are generated by the heat exchange, the boiler’s temperature and pressure don’t directly impact extraction. This allows the machines to brew more precisely than steam driven ones.

How to Use Heat Exchange Espresso Machines

Aside from setting the desired brew temperature and/or pressure, a heat exchange doesn’t impact how espresso shots are pulled.

Variations of Heat Exchange Espresso Machines

Most heat exchange espresso machines are single boiler models. Some have a separate water system for steaming milk.

Pros of Heat Exchange Espresso Makers

  • Different temperatures for pulling espresso and steaming milk
  • Higher pressures for fully extracting espresso

Cons of Heat Exchange Espresso Makers

  • Prices are higher due to the heat exchange element
  • Can’t precisely control temperature without PID (see below)

What to Look For

The most helpful feature on heat exchange espresso makers is a PID switch (see below). The temperature range for brewing espresso should also be checked.

Notable Models

Some more impressive models that have heat exchange boilers are the Bezzera Magica, Rocket Appartamento and Elektra Microcasa Semiautomatica.

Pump Driven Espresso Machines

Pump driven espresso machines are the same as heat exchange machines, except the focus is on the pump rather than the heat exchanger.

How to Use Pump Driven Espresso Machines

Pumps have no impact on how you actually pull espresso or steam milk.

Variations of Pump Driven Espresso Machines

Both vibration pumps and rotary pumps are used in espresso machines, but the former is much more common than the latter. Rotary pumps are almost exclusively found in commercial machines.

Some baristas prefer vibration pumps over rotary pumps, because vibration pumps build up pressure a little slower. This provides a short period of low-pressure preinfusion when pulling shots.

Pros of Pump Driven Espresso Makers

  • Different temperatures for pulling espresso and steaming milk
  • Higher pressures for fully extracting espresso
  • Slow pressure buildup allows more preinfusion on some models

Cons of Heat Exchange Espresso Makers

  • Prices are higher due to the heat exchange element
  • Can’t precisely control temperature without PID (see below)

What to Look For

You should expect a vibration pump if getting a home or even mid-range pump driven espresso machine.

Notable Models

Many quality home espresso machines are pump driven. The De’Longhi ECP3420, De’Longhi La Specialista, Gaggia Classic Pro and Breville Barista Pro are merely a few examples. A number of other models noted above are also pump driven.

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Breville BES878BSS Barista Pro Espresso Machine, Brushed Stainless Steel
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Steam Driven Espresso Machines

Steam driven espresso machines heat water until its evaporation creates pressure. This method is in contrast to heat exchange and pump driven machines.

There is a limit to how much pressure home espresso machines can build up, and steam driven machines operate at lower pressures than pump driven ones. While the brew is espresso-like coffee, it lacks the depth, flavor and composition of true espresso that’s generated at higher pressures.

Almost all steam driven espresso machines are intended for home use.

How to Use Steam Driven Espresso Machines

Steam driven espresso machines must be given time to build up sufficient pressure. They also frequently need time to rebuild pressure when making multiple drinks.

Variations

Many different models of espresso makers can use steam pressure. Stovetop models usually rely on this method, as do some budget traditional espresso makers. Most of these models also require the boiler to be manually filled.

Pros of Steam Driven Espresso Makers

  • Lowest prices of any espresso makers
  • Cheap to replace if they eventually wear out
  • Often last many years due to non-complicated design
  • Easy to clean and descale

Cons of Steam Driven Espresso Makers

  • Low steam pressure doesn’t extract true “espresso”
  • Time is required to rebuild pressure after making a beverage
  • Temperatures vary as steam is drawn from the boiler

What to Look For

All steam driven espresso makers will essentially brew strong, espresso-like coffee. Look for a model that will brew how much coffee you need at once, and something that you like the look of.

Notable Models

Some popular steam driven espresso machines are the Capresso Steam Pro, Bella Personal Espresso Maker, Krups XP 1020, Mr. Coffee 4-Cup Steam Espresso System and De’Lognhi EC5 Steam-Driven.

PID Espresso Machines

PID espresso machines have a specific proportional integral derivative controller (PID) that manages brewing temperature.

Standard thermostats only have one heating setting that is turned on/off when water reaches the ends of an allowed range. This keeps the water near a target temperature, but the range that the water can be will vary by several degrees at least.

In contrast, PID switches have algorithms that adjust the amount of heat as water nears the desired brewing temperature. Thus, they are able to maintain a much more consistent brew temperature. You can choose this brew temperature via a control module.

How to Use PID Espresso Machines

PID switches don’t change how you pull espresso shots, but they will have one or two boiler temperatures that you can set. The control module is usually located on the exterior of the machine so it’s easy to reach.

Variations of PID Espresso Machines

PID switches are most commonly found on double boiler espresso makers, although a few single boiler models might have them. They aren’t needed on heat exchange machines.

Pros of PID Espresso Makers

  • Precise control over espresso brew temperature
  • Excellent temperature stability even when brewing multiple beverages

Cons of PID Espresso Makers

  • Cost increased by somewhat complex part

What to Look For

If you want an espresso machine with a PID, look for a model that comes with the switch installed. Although switches can be retrofitted onto machines, doing so requires knowledge of electrical parts.

Notable Models

A few examples of PID espresso makers are the ECM Classika PID, La Marzocco Linea Mini, Lelit Bianca and Ascaso Steel PID.

Ascaso Steel PID Programmable Espresso Machine w/Volumetric Controls, Dual Thermoblock, 120V (DUAL, POLISHED)
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Stovetop Espresso Machines

Stovetop espresso machines are specifically designed for use on a stove or hotplate. All of these are steam driven espresso makers, and therefore make espresso-like coffee.

How to Use Stovetop Espresso Machines

Allowing for minor differences between machines, most stovetop espresso machines work as follows:

  1. Add water into the heated chamber
  2. Add grounds into the brew chamber
  3. Heat until water finishes brewing

Variations of Stovetop Espresso Machines

While all stovetop espresso machines function essentially the same way, there is a large variety of sizes, designs and looks.

Pros of Stovetop Espresso Makers

  • Lowest cost of all espresso machines
  • Quality machines can last for years
  • Easy to use without any learning curve
  • Only maintenance required is descaling

Cons of Stovetop Espresso Makers

  • Less extraction creates muted flavors
  • No steam wand for frothing
  • Don’t actually “pull” espresso shots

What to Look For

When choosing a stovetop espresso maker, choose one that makes about as much coffee as you use in a single brew. You can also consider aesthetics.

Notable Models

The most famous stovetop espresso maker is the Bialetti Moka Pot, which has sold millions of units and comes in multiple sizes. The De’Longhi EMK6 Alicia has its own electric heater but brews the same way. The Grosche Milano is another quality model, although there are many others.

Last update on 2022-05-17 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API