Considering the mountains of information (from vendor web sites to review web sites), the selection of the appropriate home model espresso machine can be a daunting task which can become more of a chore than the process of extracting the espresso itself. In my inaugural article, I will provide a guided overview for the espresso machine selection process.
The first step in selecting an espresso machine is identifying the needs and wants of all parties involved - this includes not only the persons involved in the purchasing an espresso machine, but all the persons that will be utilizing the machine, as well - and, sometimes not just using it for extracting espresso.
I like to identify "needs" as "must haves" and "wants" as nice-to haves". It is very important to determine the needs and wants and to weigh them appropriately toward the espresso machine purchase. Different people can place different weights on the same need or want. For instance, the color of an espresso machine may have a higher weight for one spouse, while functionality may have a higher weight for the other.
Using my experience with my own company (1st-line Equipment), I will try to help CoffeeGeek's readers in exploring the basic needs and wants for those who are in the process of selecting an espresso machine while sorting through the mountains of online information on espresso machines.
Location, Location, Location
Where will the espresso machine be placed? The location will determine the needs and wants with relation to the physical attributes of an espresso machine.
The first important attribute is the physical space available for the new espresso machine. At least one to two inches of clearance is needed around the perimeter of the espresso machine as well as two to three inches clearance above the espresso machine so that the heat that dissipates through the cup warmer would not affect the cupboards (if any) above.
The weight of the machine is equally important as the size since the espresso machine may need to be moved for cleaning or for refilling the water reservoir.
Although not important to many buyers of espresso machines, the color can be very important to a select few in the decision making process. For some, the color of the espresso machine must match the other appliances in the culinary room (a.k.a. kitchen or dining area). In other cases, the color sometimes needs to accentuate the colors of other appliances, cabinets, or the existing ambiance. In a few cases, the color of an espresso machine must be very different as to become the focal point of the culinary room.
Ease of Use
From a very high level, some espresso machines are very simple to use and others are very difficult. Some have a short learning curve while others may have a much more difficult one. The "ease of use" is directly related to the type or category of espresso machine. Although greater detail may be reviewed in future articles, an overview of the types can be learned here: Types of Espresso Machines
Not all espresso machines will produce the same "exact" quality of espresso. Typically, the espresso machines that offer more control to the operator "can" produce a higher quality beverage than those machines that allow the user very little control. For instance, the quality of an espresso extraction can be superior in a lever machine type, than say in a super automatic machine that does everything at the push of a button. The tradeoff is that lever machines can have a greater learning curve, and the greater control allowed to the user can mean that the superior beverage quality would never be attained if all the fundamentals of espresso extraction are not followed.
Warm Up Times
The warm up time of an espresso machine is determined by the internal components utilized in the construction of an espresso machine. Specifically, aluminum and stainless steel boilers typically heat up the fastest. They also cool down the fastest by the incoming cold water - occurs when you press the coffee switch. This is one reason why aluminum (or stainless steel) boilers have very high wattages with relation to their very small capacity to retain heated water. The high wattages are needed to compensate for the fast cooling of incoming water. Typically, aluminum or stainless steel boilers take two to five minutes for full warm up. Brass or copper boilers, on the other hand, take longer to warm up:
Commercial machines with boilers larger than 2.5 liters - 15 to 35 minutes
Home and Semi-commercial machines - 5 to 15 minutes
Brass and copper boilers usually have lower wattage heating elements since the density of the copper or brass retain heat very well when incoming cold water enters the boiler.
In different parts of the world, the availability of electrical supply varies from 110 volts 60 Hertz to 240 volts 50 Hertz. It is important to select the machine that is compatible to the voltage available so as to avoid additional costs, such as outlet conversion or ordering of special parts during repair.
For the scope of this article, I will only review the structural integrity of the exterior of an espresso machine. The structural integrity of the internal components will be reviewed in a future article. The two major differences in exteriors are ABS plastic and metal. Metals include steel with enamel paint, stainless steel, and aluminum. There are advantages and disadvantages found on both types of exteriors.
Protection for elderly and children from internal heat source
Lightweight to move on countertop when cleaning
Lower shipping cost when unit needs to be repaired
Subject to cracking
Possible fading of colors
Greater expected durability
Less sway of body
Surfaces can get very hot to the touch
Subject to rust at weld points or where enamel has disappeared
Scratches are prominent
Subject to dents
Heavier to move
More important than the espresso machine purchase itself is the availability of coffee ground fresh with a uniform grind fineness, specifically for espresso. Take this to heart: coffee beans, specifically roasted for espresso, should be fresh (less than 7 days from roasting date) to yield a very flavorful espresso extraction. Next, the coffee beans should be ground very fine as close to the time of extraction. This means that a grinder next to or part of the espresso machine would offer the best results.
I feel that the grind fineness should be very uniform from one grind to another. This requirement is not only for espresso, but for other coffee brewing methods, as well. It is important to make sure that the grinder currently owned or to be purchased (separately or as part of the machine) is adequate for the espresso machine. Having a higher quality coffee grinder (usually more $$$ than one purchased in a department store) nearby will allow a greater selection of machines to purchase as some machines only work best when the requirements above are met. In situations where the coffee beans will be ground at the store, an espresso machine with a pressurized system will increase the success of the espresso extraction as the pressurization will counterbalance most flaws in the grind fineness and in the uniformity of the grind. The lowest priced grinder I can faithfully recommend starts at $129.
Overall, I feel that service levels (availability of parts and general service knowledge base) supports the foundation for the overall success of an espresso machine. Also remember that most mid-to-high end espresso machines are designed and built to last, but they fail miserably due to a lack of maintenance by the users or owners. Here's three overall important things to remember:
Use good water low in calcium and/or magnesium
De-scale/back flush, if possible (please check with the manufacturer on proper procedure as one or both of these procedures may not be possible on your machine)
Shut off the espresso machine when not in use
Espresso is a messy business! Coffee beans are ground, the grounds are measured, the measured ground coffee is placed in the filter basket and tamped, the coffee beverage is extracted from the ground coffee, and the old ground coffee is disposed of. Chances are very high that ground coffee will find its way to the floor, the counter, and the sink. Some machines, such as super automatics, are self contained whereby there is less mess. However, these machines still require the removal of the drip tray and the dump box (container which catches the spent coffee grinds), and this cleaning usually results in ground coffee getting in places where we do not want.
On thy way...
During the selection process for an espresso machine, it is important to find the right match between the needs and wants aligned with the physical characteristics and feature sets of the espresso machine. For some, there will be a perfect match, and for others, compromises may have to be made. It is important to make weigh each need and want so that as the mountains of information are sifted, focus will be placed on those machines that closest meet the needs and wants of all involved. The final result would be an appliance that is highly utilized for personal pleasure, as well as high satisfaction for others.
I hope you have found this article informative. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you have any questions - you can do so by clicking the "email author" link in the red bar near the top of this page.