There’s plenty of different terminology that’s used to describe the different types of espresso machines. You will have heard words like a semi-automatic, double boiler, or commercial machine thrown around. But the thing that ultimately differentiates one machine from the other is how it generates the pressure for extraction.
So, let’s look at how these machines differ and which one is right for you.
Pump espresso machines
If you’re finding yourself asking, “what is a pump espresso machine?” you actually already know the answer. This is what you would consider the regular countertop espresso machine. A pump creates the pressure required for the extraction (this is an internal electric pump and shouldn’t be confused with the lever, as seen below).
As these are the most common types of espresso machines, we usually refer to them by how much of the process is automated.
With a semi-automatic machine, you’ll need to do most steps of the brewing process yourself. You’ll need to grind the beans, tamp the grounds, and then press a button to start and stop the flow of water. These are referred to as automatic at all because the machine is responsible for creating the water pressure.
There’s very little difference between semi-automatic and automatic machines. You’ll still need to grind and tamp the coffee yourself, but in this case, the machine stops the flow of water automatically after a given time.
Since the term automatic was in use, they had to develop a more expressive term for the machine that does absolutely everything for you. With most super automatics, making espresso is as simple as pressing a button. The machine will grind the beans, tamp the coffee and pull the shot by itself. Some super automatics also steam milk without the need to move the cup.
Steam driven espresso machine
Although this is considered one of the three main types, you might be surprised to learn that the coffee it makes is not true espresso.
Rather than using a pump to build pressure, they rely entirely on steam, which produces around 1.5 bars rather than the 9 required (1). Another downside is that the coffee tends to be bitter and over-extracted. One advantage of the steam-driven espresso machine (apart from the low price tag) is that it can brew up to four cups at once. These have lost popularity in recent years, but they show up more frequently in their non-electric form: the Moka pot.
Lever espresso machines
You may have also seen lever machines referred to as manual espresso makers. This can be a slightly confusing term, as many still require electricity to heat the water. The manual aspect comes when it’s time to create the pressure, which you do with either a manual lever or a spring-loaded one. While pump machines have a set and consistent pressure, a lever machine allows you to play with the variables.
Lever espresso machines are much more forgiving, because you control the espresso extraction time with your own elbow grease.The Coffee Brewers
This absolute control and option for creativity are why these machines are popular among serious coffee aficionados, despite the high price point. A not so often talked about the advantage of the lever machine is that it’s incredibly quiet compared to steam or pump machines.
The pump espresso machine is the most common, and for a good reason. It’s easy to use, creates excellent coffee, and there’s an option for almost all budgets and requirements. It’s just a matter of deciding how much of the process you want automated.
You can’t make regular coffee in an espresso machine. However, you can get something similar to drip coffee by making an Americano – a shot of espresso topped up with hot water (2).
The best grind for an espresso machine is fine. The fine grind allows the right amount of resistance to the high-pressure flow of hot water, ensuring your coffee is not under-extracted (3). Make it coarse or super-fine, and you’ll get it wrong.
You can’t make authentic espresso without a proper machine. A true espresso comes from a pressure of minimum 9 bars. So, you cannot achieve this without a machine. However, you can make similar espresso-style drinks using a Moka pot, AeroPress, or French press with the proper technique. Also, different portable espresso makers can create a required pressure for making a proper espresso.
- Espresso Machine Types. (n.d.). Retrieved April 17, 2021, from https://www.1st-line.com/customer-education/espresso-machine-types/
- An Americano: The best way to make regular coffee with espresso. (2021, March 25). Retrieved from https://amanandhisgear.com/can-you-make-regular-coffee-with-an-espresso-machine
- Kasperowicz, M. (2019, August 07). The complete guide to coffee grind size. Retrieved from https://www.drinktrade.com/blog/education/coffee-grind-size-chart
Husband, father and former journalist, I’ve combined my love of writing with my love of coffee to create this site. I love high end products, but write all my content with budget conscious coffee enthusiasts in mind. I prefer light roasts, and my normal brew is some sort of pour over, although my guilty pleasure is the occasional flat white.