Espresso Machines: Defined and Dissected

The proliferation of coffee shops on every street corner may be quite obvious to most people. Indeed, coffee shops have come a long way, now brewing different types of coffee beans into a number of coffee concoctions that people enjoy. Espresso is one of the most popular choices for people to order and savor in coffee shops, although the cost can become quite exorbitant for the frequent visitors. Espresso machines are used to produce the traditional Italian coffee drinks, often prepared by trained baristas to balance the flavor, aroma and acidity of the espresso. The popularity of the said drink may be the reason behind the presence of espresso machines not only in coffee shops but in more and more coffee lovers' homes.

Perfect espresso captures the richness of the coffee beans, preserving its robust aroma and flavor with the right acidity, bitterness and punch. Traditionally produced using lever-style espresso devices, there are now countless varieties of espresso machines that will suit every consumer's needs and budget to produce a flavorful shot of espresso. Rich, almost syrupy espresso may then be taken as is or may be used as the base for almost all coffee concoctions.

What Espresso Devices do

Espresso machines are specially designed to capture the full flavor of coffee in one shot. Freshly ground coffee is put into a metal filter basket which is then tamped or compressed to make a dense coffee puck. Pressurized water of the proper temperature is then forced into the coffee puck, and secured by a locked portafilter. Most machines available also have steam wands to steam and froth milk for espresso beverages such as lattes and cappuccinos. Although initially manufactured for commercial use, espresso machines have found their way into more and more homes, with smaller versions of the larger commercial machines.

There are different types of espresso machines that can satisfy the needs, whims and budget considerations of consumers. Let's have a look:

An Old-Fashioned Stovetop Espresso Machine

The simplest method to make espresso is to utilize a coffee pot which bears a strong resemblance to an old-fashioned coffee percolator, a stovetop model that is also known as a moka pot; they are commonly used in Spain, Portugal and Italy.

Surprisingly, stovetop espresso machines can produce an espresso with an extraction ratio (i.e. how much coffee character and essence is actually removed from the grind) similar to that of a more conventional espresso coffee machine. The stovetop pot is much like an upside down espresso machine, driving the pressurized steam from the bottom, through the ground coffee and filter, and ending up in the top chamber from where it is served. If you choose the right combination of coffee bean variety and grind, these pots can even produce a foam topping.

Manual Lever Espresso Machines

Manual lever espresso machines are the simplest form of conventional espresso machine, combining both an old-world stovetop style with the top-down approach of brewing; the result, many aficionados believe, is the ultimate espresso. Its simplicity, however, demands a level of skill on the part of the operator, who uses the manual pump to generate the pressure needed to drive the hot water and steam through the grind.

Espresso Machines With A Semi-Automatic Pump

With these models, perhaps the most common forms of traditional domestic espresso machines, the brewing process is taking on an element of automation; instead of a hand pump generating pressure, these models include an electric pump which is manually turned on/off. The challenge, however, is in experimenting to find the ideal combination of timing, bean choice, grind and tamping skill (fixing the grind) which results in the espresso of your dreams.

Automatic Pump Espresso Machines

With the enhancement of an automatic pump which controls the flow of steam and boiling water at the optimal time, espresso machine models are providing a measure of modern convenience to the art of making outstanding espresso. However, the other variables (coffee selection, grind and grind tamping), are still managed by the user; a good suggestion is to keep notes each time a variation in these elements is used, much like any experiment, so the results can be traced back to a particular formula and duplicated as often as desired.

Super-Automatic Espresso Machines

At this level, the espresso-brewing process is much more sophisticated, resulting in a greater consistency in the quality and characteristics of the espresso coffee that is produced. Typically, espresso machines in the super-automatic category provide an all-in-one espresso process, starting with the grinding of the beans, filing and tamping the grind in the filter basket, and then brewing the espresso at the right pressure and temperature; some models will even dump the waste grinds in an internal garbage container, then sit attentively waiting for the next fresh espresso request.

The only variables of note in this type of system is the quality of the chosen beans, meaning that some measure of operator-interaction has been retained, allowing the user to offer visitors an espresso that they have prepared.

Capsule/Pod Espresso Coffee Machines

Not necessarily expensive, espresso machines that utilize a pre-packaged pod or capsule combining grind and filter is a convenient way to deliver a consistent espresso experience while eliminating the grind, filter and tamping process. Espresso machines employing this process are manufactured both for domestic and commercial applications (for example, cafeteria, office, food service environments); while convenient; they may be regarded as a form of 'instant espresso' that probably doesn't garner any rave reviews.