Espresso Machine: Operation, Maintenance, Use and How to Choose it?

With this coffee machine, we touch the essence of what lovers appreciate the most: espresso!

Iconic format, served in a small cup, black as desired and dressed in an elegant creamy cream, the espresso is the star of the bars.

In the world of coffee machines, the espresso maker is certainly the most accomplished and complex of all. The operation of this type of system, based on the principle of high-pressure percolation, allows to extract and appreciate the slightest aroma of ground grains. Automatic machine or manual coffee maker, in both cases, the “dolce vita” style coffee requires a certain level of perfection. The variants of this type of machines are numerous.

Is a compact machine enough to satisfy a demanding enthusiast, or is it better for them to choose a variable pressure model? Steam nozzle, deported filter door, stainless steel or brass, price, how to decide and make an opinion on the choices to be preferred?

PRESENTATION OF THE COFFEE MAKER “ESPRESSO”

It was in Italy, more than 130 years ago, that the first espresso machine was invented.

It is to the Italian Angelo Moriondo that we owe his invention. He was the first to develop a device capable of passing pressurized water through ground coffee to extract all the aromas.

The first models were far from the type of compact coffee maker found today.

It was truly a MACHINE! It just needed a delivery truck to move it! On the occasion of the Milan World’s Fair in 1906, Bezzera, another Italian inventor, presented his version for bars. Its machine, more compact than the first models, was revolutionary for the time. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that these devices began to flourish in bars and cafes throughout France and Italy.

The water vapour nozzle, the pressure gauges, the use of copper, brass and stainless steel made it a real asset for an establishment. Moreover, many machines sought to satisfy customers as much as to impress them with the aesthetics and design of their coffee maker! 

The clouds of steam, the smell of freshly ground coffee at the grinder, and the sound of the pump helped make the preparation of each cup a spectacle. The barista was the “scientist” of the bar, the only one able to tame the beast!

Today, the espresso machine has become commonplace. It is no longer simply reserved for professionals. Everyone can make a cup of the precious black and creamy nectar at home. The percolator is within everyone’s reach. Of course, not everyone is equal. Depending on each other’s expectations and habits, some models will perform better than others. It’s up to everyone to make up their own mind.

HOW DOES AN ESPRESSO MACHINE WORK?

It is either equipped with a reservoir or a dedicated water supply. It all depends on his level of development.

The water is put at temperature by a heating system. It is then sent under pressure through a powerful pump through the grind contained in the removable filter holder, eventually giving some precious espresso centilitres that flow from a spout, directly into the cup or cups.

The fact that the water passes through the grind at high pressure (usually between 8 and 10 bars) makes it possible to quickly extract all the aromas. Unlike many machines based on another operating principle, the resulting drinks are highly concentrated. The aromatic experience offered is very intense and the coffee produced is very black and creamy. It is also thanks to the pressure that the famous dense and creamy “crema” is formed on the surface of each cup.

This is only a summary of how it works. Depending on the sophistication of the device, each step of the preparation is the product of a very elaborate work, based on the use of complex parts, all contributing to the refinement of the desired result.

Did you know that? The word “espresso” has nothing to do with the speed of preparation. It simply comes from the Italian “esprimere” which means “pressure extraction”. Let’s not forget that we say “espresso” in Italian.

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF ESPRESSO MACHINES?

We will distinguish them according to their level of sophistication, and the settings they allow. Some can be made at the touch of a cup at the touch of a button, while others will require the pressure and temperature of the water to be adjusted.

Depending on the range of the product chosen, the price will increase accordingly, but the taste experience offered from one machine to another may really prove very different.

There are three different types of machines:

  1. The simplest espresso machines: just let it rise in temperature, load its filter door with ground coffee, and then press a button for the extraction to take place. This is a first step in the world of espresso and their price is affordable. These machines have the advantage of being easier to use, but certainly offer less precision and customization as to possible preparations.
  2. Mid-range machines: they adapt to the consumer you actually, they allow you to use professional filters, their components are more efficient, and settings can be adjusted according to your expectations. This is a step forward in the world of gourmets.
  3. Semi-professional machines: room for perfection! They have just about every option a bar machine can offer: the precision of the heating body, the ability to adjust the pressure, the use of professional filters, most even have a steam nozzle to make milk foam. Their use is more complex, but they offer more possibilities in terms of the settings and accuracy of each drink.

Several elements of these machines are essential. Overall, they will make the difference in the level of accuracy of the hardware. The devil is in the details! That’s why an enlightened amateur will have an interest in dwelling on the various options offered to him.

THE HEATER BLOCK

Several types of systems are used to heat water. Depending on their complexity, they will give more or less precision to your espresso machine.

The Thermoblock

This is the option for entry-level models. It rises very quickly in temperature and is preset. It is a metal block in which a circuit meanders. It transmits heat to the water that passes through it.

Simple and effective, it doesn’t necessarily allow you to adjust the temperature according to what you expect. It is often expected for a certain temperature. It also tends to cause temperature variations. However, it remains a good way to enjoy a homemade espresso quickly.

The Boiler

This is already an option that offers more precision and thermal stability. The water is put at temperature at the very heart of the boiler. The materials that make it up and its design allow for relatively precise adjustments, guaranteeing a better result.

It takes a little longer than a thermoblock to rise in temperature. On the other hand, it allows better control of the extraction, adjusting the operation according to the coffee used and the expected result.

The Thermosiphon, or Heat Exchanger

This device is much more complex than the previous ones. Its design guarantees repeated use, without harming the taste experience. It keeps the water at a constant temperature, while allowing steam to be used at will. A boiler full of water is passed through the water pipe, which charges heat as it passes.

With formidable precision, it equips high-end coffee makers. Depending on the quality of your coffee and its roasting, you can adjust your machine to perfection for a tasting full of aromas.

The Double Boiler

One is dedicated to the production of steam, while the other is intended for the temperature of the water.

Equipped with this mechanism, the steam nozzle of your espresso maker will allow you to make milk foams at will. On the other hand, you will have to master your machine to adjust each block correctly. It is possible to choose to turn on only one boiler at a time.

Accurate and reliable, this device will give you the opportunity to enjoy a perfect espresso with each cup.

The Water Pump

The pump is of paramount importance in an espresso machine. It will allow us to achieve the pressure necessary to carry out the extraction properly. Having to be both powerful and reliable, it is important to focus on this essential component.

Let’s not forget that the pressure required to develop an espresso worthy of the name is included in 8 and 10 bars.

The Vibration Pump

Its operation is based on a back-and-forth movement of a piston inside a room. Pressure is relatively gradual. This is one of the points for which it is appreciated by some consumers. This gradual rise gives a small pre-brew before the pressure comes to extract all the aromas. It mainly equips domestic machines, designed to start the preparation of one or two cups at a time. Unlike other models, it can handle an intensive operation very well.

One of its weak points is the noise it generates. Be careful, everything remains relative, the noise is bearable, but the machines it equips are not among the quietest on the market.

Regarding pre-brewing: this process allows the grind to be “wet” before starting an extraction. This step allows you to prepare the grind as well as possible and to draw all the aromas during the extraction process that follows.

The Rotating Pump

The pressure it produces is immediate. The rotation is done by setting in motion a winged wheel, powered by an electromagnetic motor. At the same time silent and enduring, this pump allows intensive use. The multi-block preparation machines are equipped with them, as well as the appliances found in bars.

Their longevity and efficiency make them a perfect option for semi-professional machines. Silent, they generate only a slight hiss when activated. Be careful not to set them in motion while the water circuit is defused, this could prove fatal.

Whichever option you choose, these elements are designed to provide the pressure needed to extract an espresso (between 8 and 10 bars). The most advanced machines can adjust a number of parameters, including water pressure. This setting will apply to both the heating system and the pump. Demanding enthusiasts will therefore have to be interested in these elements, to ensure that they have the possibility of adjusting their settings according to the ground coffee they intend to use.

Some models of coffee makers have very high pressures, up to 20 bars. However, they do not necessarily give a better result. So beware of numbers, “the best is the enemy of the good”

The Filter

This may be a detail at first glance, given that it is thought to be standard and perfectly suited to the machine. However, when you look at it, you realize that not all machines are housed in the same sign. Because the filter is removable and interchangeable, many espresso machines are equipped with several models in order to adapt their use to the chosen ground coffee.

Don’t forget that the filter will determine your machine’s ability to retain ground coffee, as well as to take advantage of water pressure. So it is interesting to look at that.

Some devices are equipped with several filters:

  • A filter for a cup usually containing a minimum of 7g of grinding.
  • A filter for two cups, designed to receive 13g
  • A filter for the use of ESE pods.

Similarly, the design of these elements is important. Some have more holes inside than outside, increasing water pressure. However, they do not guarantee a better result. On the contrary, they are often put in reinforcement on machines often giving an average result.

The “ideal” filter, according to the experts, has as many holes inside as well as outside. These must all be carefully distributed, allowing a regular and well-homogeneous passage of water over the entire surface. This is the ideal option for those who consume freshly ground coffee beans. The extraction of aromas is much more efficient and complete.

The Extraction Groups

This is the element in contact with ground coffee. It is on the latter that the removable filter door is attached.

Far from being innocuous, this element can also make the difference in the quality of the espresso you will prepare. Its material, its position, its level of finishes will be important for a consistent and reliable result.

For example, on an entry-level model, the part will be stainless steel and directly glued to the heater block. Of course, this material is easy to maintain, but it is a heat driver. In other words, it could expose the grind to a high temperature before it even launched the machine. In this case, the aromatic properties of coffee could be altered.

To overcome this problem, many slightly more elaborate machines are equipped with brass groups. Their thermal conduction is much less important. An espresso machine that is equipped with it is generally more accomplished, and is better able to respect the organoleptic properties of a good coffee.

For the most demanding consumers, the deported group is the most logical solution. Its design avoids contact between this room and the heater block. In fact, ground coffee may not come into contact with a heat source that could damage it.

The Steam Nozzle

It is this famous nozzle that makes creamy milk foams, necessary for the preparation of cappuccinos. Fans of “latte art” know her well. It works thanks to the steam produced by the machine’s heating system. This infuses very hot air into the milk to make it frothy.

The entry-level machines will have an ABS (plastic) version, often limited in motion, which will give an approximate result, far from what the cappuccino pro expects.

The more elaborate models are made of stainless steel, have several holes at the end of the nozzle and can be oriented as we see fit. The pressure produced then offers a truly convincing result, both airy and dense, of excellent hold.

Some models conduct heat, while others, usually equipping higher-end machines, are called “cool touch” because they stay really cold. This type of nozzle has the advantage of not cooking milk over time, making cleaning easier and ensuring impeccable hygiene.

The Customizable Options

If you are of the opinion to buy a machine that is equipped with it, it is because you are ready to enter the court of the greats of the espresso!

A machine with a manometer and precision mechanisms requires that all the subtleties of adjustment be understood. It will be necessary to know precisely what we are doing so as not to sabotage a good freshly ground coffee.

Unlike a relatively simple machine, a high-end espresso machine will allow you to adjust both the pressure and the temperature, to optimize your extractions. You will need to understand the influence each of these factors can have on each cup you prepare.

Which Espresso Machine to Choose?

It will all depend on your level of expertise in the field, your expectations and the price you are willing to invest. The degree of accuracy, the amount of cups you drink per day, the type of coffee you consume will count to make an informed choice.

The Important Points in Choosing Your Coffee Maker

It is by defining these different points that you will know where to go. You’re going to have to ask yourself the right questions:

  • Do you eat ground coffee or ready-to-use pods?
  • How many cups will be prepared per day? How many consumers will use the machine?
  • Are you a discerning amateur or a modest consumer?
  • Are you ready to invest in a machine that will allow you to set any parameters, or do you simply prefer to press a button and then consume (remember that it is difficult to improvise barista!)?

By answering each of these questions you will be able to see more clearly and make a clear opinion.

For example, in a workplace where several employees will each have to ask the coffee maker several times a day, prefer a machine equipped with a rotating pump and a high-performance boiler. This will avoid waiting between each cup, without disturbing the occupants of the premises with a noise too “present”.

On the other hand, if you only drink one or two cups in the morning, pressed by time, opt instead for a system equipped with a thermoblock, much faster than a boiler to rise in temperature.

If, on the contrary, you make your coffee breaks a ritual moment during which you quietly enjoy each sip to appreciate all the aromas that a vintage has to offer you, a semi-professional machine will satisfy you for sure. Of course, the budget issue will condition your purchase, but gourmets know how much a high-end espresso coffee maker can make a difference. “When you love, you don’t count!”

All these questions have to be balanced to find the answer to your expectations.

Keep in mind that whatever equipment is chosen, it will need to be properly maintained to last over time.

USE – Full Instructions for the Espresso Coffee Maker

It is not enough to have the best machine to taste an espresso “Dolce vita Italian” way, but it is necessary to know how to use it.

What Coffee should be used with an Espresso Machine?

For the preparation of an espresso, it is imperative that the grind is fine (thicker than flour, close to fine salt for example). This type of machine produces significant pressure, for only a few seconds, the coffee beans must be ground to perfection to release all their aromas.

Purists will prefer to grind their own grains. In this case, the use of a flat grinder will be de rigueur. It will give a very fine grind, perfect for extraction in the rules of the art. The advantage of a good mill with a timer is that it will deliver the perfect dose for your preparation.

Indeed, you should know that an espresso is prepared from a minimum of 7g of grinding. In addition, it is important to distribute and pack the load properly in the filter so that there is no “channeling” effect. Understand that no faults should appear in the grind load. It would make it easier for water to pass through, without taking with it the essences and oils containing the flavours of the coffee. To avoid these inconveniences, the use of a “tamper” is very effective. It is an object with a handle and a disk the size of the filter. You can pack your grind and distribute it to perfection.

How do I use an Espresso Machine?

The first step will be to let your machine reach the ideal temperature for proper preparation. On electronically managed models, a simple light will give you the go-ahead to start. For a semi-professional model, the gauge will tell you that the pressure and temperature are at the right level.

You will then have to load the ground coffee filter. Be sure to fill it with the right dose, and feel free to pack with your Tamper. The removable filter holder will then be attached to the machine, and then you’ll just have to start the extraction.

Most machines are equipped with an automatic stop, ensuring the right dosage for an espresso of a few centilitres. If this is not the case, be careful, overflow accidents are often unfortunate…

After preparing each cup, do not hesitate to pass the filter under water to rid it of the grind that could remain attached to the inside. A cloth cleaning will ensure a flawless result. This avoids polluting the taste of the cup that will be prepared afterwards.

If the coffee does not flow, or the flow is very reduced (drip), then the grind is too fine. It will take a larger grind or try to press slightly less when tamping. Conversely, if the flow is too fast, try to use a thinner grind, more able to match the expected preparation.

Be aware that, in general, on this type of espresso machine, the extraction is done in about 25 seconds. More time can be a sign of an inappropriate grind or an overly insistent tamping.

How do I Maintain and Clean an Espresso Coffee Maker?

Some devices are equipped with a backflush circuit. This system is designed to channel excess pressure during operation, but it also maintains the water system by ridding it of the deposits that accumulate there.

Given the pressure these machines produce, it is essential to ensure regular maintenance. The water often contains limestone, it gradually causes a deposit of tartar throughout the system. Similarly, accumulated oils and coffee deposits can quickly affect the performance of your device if it is not properly cleaned.

In general, an espresso machine worthy of the name is provided with a blind filter on delivery. It is a completely blocked filter, which serves to rid the circuit of any impurities it could contain by using an alternative circuit to the water, without going through the service nozzle. Simply place it on the filter holder and then start the machine. The hot water will flow, until it reaches the tank whose contents will be evacuated once the operation is complete.

For the rest of the machine and its components, it should be cleaned regularly, ideally after each use. For filters or filter holders, simply rinse and wash them with soapy water and sponge.

Also consider regularly cleaning the water tank. On most models, it is removable. It should therefore be washed with a sponge and washing-up liquid regularly. Too often, users simply make sure it’s full, but rarely is clean. However, water quality is paramount for the preparation of a good espresso, as for any other type of coffee format for that matter.

Common Problems and Solutions of Espresso Machines

The problems that most often appear on espresso machines are often related to the presence of limestone in the water system. Whether it’s the tank, or some other part of the device, you think the machine is “clogging up.”

The best way to avoid this failure is to maintain the circuit properly. There are anti-cash solutions available for sale in the form of diluted powder packets. A regularly used de-catcher prevents unwanted build-up.

For the rest, the possible malfunctions related to the mechanics of the device, let your machine see an appliance repairer. It will be able to detect the possible failure and change the defective part. Don’t go into a dismantling that could be complicated. Of course, many do-it-yourselfers feel able to put their noses in a “simple coffee maker”, but for an espresso machine, given the complexity of the circuit and the pressure it develops, let a professional do it.

CONCLUSION: Our Opinion on Espresso Machines

Of all the coffee makers, this is the most sophisticated type of machine. Although entry and mid-range models are relatively simple to use, keep in mind that semi-professional models require a certain level of mastery.

Similarly, the simplest devices are compact, while larger percolators are much more cumbersome. Make sure such a machine finds its place in your kitchen.

Depending on who you eat coffee, keep in mind that your purchase should be based on your mode of consumption. There is no point in having a very complex device if you only have a few minutes in the morning before you go to work. Your morning espresso shouldn’t turn into a showdown with a cloud of steam, worthy of an Orient Express-style locomotive!

Buy a sophisticated machine only if you’re sure you have the patience to learn how it works and understand any adjustment. In any case, choosing the best espresso machine for home uses will allow you to enjoy your favorite drink in the best conditions, taking advantage of the slightest grain.

And don’t forget that there’s nothing to stop you from evolving your equipment over time. Starting with a simple access model, you will gradually grasp the importance of all the criteria related to the preparation of a good espresso.

Good tasting to all.