For some coffee drinkers, all espresso machines are the same: they make espresso. But for the more discerning coffee lover, this isn’t the case, particularly those who brew their own coffee at home.
In fact, there are a few types of espresso makers, each producing varying qualities of espresso. One of the biggest differences between espresso machines is whether or not it is pump-driven, as espresso is made by pushing hot water through ground coffee.
There are three main types of espresso machine: lever-driven, steam-driven and pump-driven. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on steam-driven and pump-driven machines, as they are the most common types found on the market today.
Firstly – what makes a good espresso?
How you make your espresso has a significant impact on the quality of your brew, especially the type of espresso machine you use. One of the ways to measure your espresso’s quality is through the crema produced – you should aim to get crema that is foamy and golden.
But do note that some coffee beans contain less oil, which results in less crema. Taste-wise, a well-pulled espresso will have the perfect combination of bitterness, sweetness and acidity.
While part of this depends on the person making the coffee and their level of expertise, having a machine that can achieve the right balance of three key components – water temperature, water pressure and extraction time – is important.
So, how do non-pump and pump espresso machines measure up?
1. Water Temperature
The temperature of the water you use should be heated to about 90-96°Celsius (195-205°Fahrenheit). Brewing espresso at a higher temperature will result in a more bitter and burnt-tasting coffee, while lower temperatures will lead to a more sour taste.
In a non-pump espresso machine – namely, one that uses steam pressure, such as a Moka Pot – water is boiled in a sealed tank, and the resulting steam pushes the water through the ground coffee to make the espresso. As the water has been boiled to create the steam needed, it is at a higher temperature than recommended, which often results in a bitter and acidic brew.
Pump espresso machines, on the other hand, can either be equipped to allow you to control the water temperature or is set to stick to the standard range in temperature, which is below boiling point.
2. Water Pressure
The general consensus among experts is that you’ll need to blast hot water through your packed coffee grounds using at least 9 bars of pressure, or nine times the weight of the pressure at sea level. That’s a whole lot of pressure!
However, most non-pump espresso machines are only able to reach 1-1.5 bars of pressure, rather than the 9 bars of pressure required to extract an authentic espresso. If you’re not particular about the quality of your espresso shot, non-pump machines can make a passable espresso, but it won’t get that full-bodied taste you’re used to getting at cafes with commercial-grade machines.
As for pump espresso machines, reaching 9 bars of pressure or more is what they are made for, thanks to the powerful electric pump housed inside. In fact, some baristas suggest that for the best espresso, you’ll need to use 15 bars.
3. Extraction Time
The suggested optimal time to extract espresso is 20-30 seconds, provided that the water temperature and pressure are as suggested above. However, this may vary based on factors such as grind size, freshness, roast and flavour profile of the coffee beans used, which means you may have to play around with the components to get the taste you want.
Under-extracted coffee tends to taste more acidic, while over-extracting makes it taste bitter. If you’re using dark roast beans, bear in mind that they are more soluble, so use a coarser grind and a shorter extraction time compared to light roast beans. A finer grind means a longer extraction time.
Your ability to control the extraction time depends on the level of automation in your espresso machine. Semi-automatic machines will allow you some degree of control and customisability, while automatic or superautomatic machines take most of the work out of your hands.
Price is one of the many factors taken into consideration when scouting the market for an espresso machine. While there may be the perception that the higher range models make better coffee, it’s not always the case. There are affordable models that can produce excellent espresso, so do shop around before choosing a model to buy.
Generally, steam-driven non-pump machines are cheaper, but if you’re willing to add on a bit more money, you can get a perfectly good pump espresso machine. Think of it as an investment – if you’re a heavy coffee drinker who can’t live without espresso, the machine will quickly recover the cost.
Electric steam-driven or pump-driven machines for home brewing are designed to be compact, easy to use and can come with pre-programmed settings, so if you want a cappuccino or a long black, all you need to do is select it from the menu. But if you’re more of a hands-on coffee maestro, you may want to opt for a semi-automatic machine.
Ready to start exploring? Shop for your perfect machine now.