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Coffee Machines Explained

Updated on May 3, 2011

The overriding truth when buying coffee machines is not to go too cheap. You will never pay a little amount of money and end up with a great machine – it’s just never going to happen. So when choosing your machine, make sure you know what features make a good one. Do not compromise on these to save a few dollars - it is a false economy.

If you are about to buy your first coffee machine and have been doing a little research then you are probably overwhelmed by the choices available and all the terms that are referred to in the product descriptions. This is where this article is here to help – by explaining it all a bit more simply.

So what is an espresso?

Let's start with trying to understand what we want our machine to make. An espresso is a shot of coffee that comes from forcing approximately 1.5 ounces of not quite boiling water through tightly packed, finely ground coffee. You should be aiming to only extract the best parts of the coffee. A machine that can manage all of that at once is hard to find.

If you have been taken by the thought of a cheap machine, you will likely get an espresso made with ‘some’ pressure using ‘boiling’ or ‘significantly less than boiling’ water. This will probably look the part but taste strong and bitter and results from inferior quality components.

What you need to look for instead to achieve the criteria necessary for a good espresso is a ‘pump driven/semi automatic’ or ‘manual, lever operated’ machine.

A Pump Machine

The basics of a pump machine are that the electric pump pulls water from the water tank and moves it to the boiler. There it is heated to the ideal temperature of about 190°F. It is then forced through the coffee grounds which are packed tightly in the filter basket at pressures of between 9 and 15 bar depending on machine. Pressures of at least this level are needed to emulsify the oils. They also dissolve the gases which creates the ‘crema’. Most machines have two heating units – one for the water that makes the coffee and the other to make the steam used in frothing.

Semi automatic pump models do all of the above but you have to have prepared the ground coffee first. This means tamping it carefully and correctly in the brewing holder before brewing.  The cheaper end of this range of machines cost between $300 and $450. These are lightweight models usually with an aluminium boiler and plastic outer casing. More expensive machines costing upwards of $450 have a boiler made from brass, heavy filter holders and outer casings made from metal. These models are what you need it you are looking for a machine that will have daily use. You can also expect to pay more if you need your machine to make coffee at the same time as frothing the milk as it will need a double boiler unless you go for a unit where the boiler size is over 2 litres.

Super automatic pump models do that bit more. They grind the beans and prepare the coffee with you only having to press a single button. They are also super quick, taking only about 30 seconds to deliver that great shot of espresso. The top end of this range can also produce milk based drinks for you automatically.

A Manual, Lever Operated Machine

The lever operated machine adds some style to the whole coffee making process. They use a piston that is activated by the manual lever to draw water from the reservoir into the boiler when raised and to push the water through the filter when lowered. This type of machine is much quieter but takes a bit of getting used to to master properly. It is, however, the only machine that gives the operator full control over the quality of the espresso they make.  All products in this range are typically well made and long lasting.

Pod or Capsule Machines

For coffee lovers who want a quick and easy way to make café style quality drinks at home but without all the hassle of grinding and tamping, pod or capsule espresso machines are the way to go. Also known as single serve machines, these use pre-ground, pre-sealed coffee capsules to produce fool proof results. These machines still froth milk enabling users to make any kind of coffee drink they like. The only thing to watch out for is to find a machine that takes pods containing 8 grams of ground coffee rather than 6. Some of the semi-automatic machines can be used with pods now also for those days when you are in more of a rush than usual.


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    • kathygirl22 profile image

      kathygirl22 8 years ago

      Wow! Detailed Hub! Thanks for all the information!

    • Mark Jenner profile image

      Mark Jenner 8 years ago

      Interesting to see the different types - something you normally take for granted! Great article