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The Quick Guide To Home Espresso Machine Features
Written by: Garrett Oden
There are a lot of nick knacks, doodads, and thingamajigs when it comes to home espresso machine features. Figuring out which features are important to you can be a challenge.
But you definitely want to know what you’re buying—especially when you’re investing hundreds of dollars in new coffee gear.
Let’s walk through the most common features and discover…
- How they impact your coffee quality
- How they impact the espresso making process
- And if they’re something you should put high on the ‘wants’ list
Here we go!
The Pressurization Method
One of the first things you must consider is the primary type of espresso machine you want. There are two main types out there: steam-powered and pump-powered.
Steam-powered machines are available at low costs, but they come with sacrifices. The first espresso machines in Italy were steam-powered (and nobody liked the coffee). It wasn’t until espresso was made with pumps that it took off in Europe and around the world.
Sadly, modern steam espresso makers still suffer from inconsistent and subpar pressure. I highly suggest avoiding steam-powered espresso makers. You’ll have a very hard time pulling shots that are rich and balanced.
Pump-powered is the way to go.
- It’s fairly consistent (especially in commercial-grade machines)
- It’s much better at temperature management
- It gives you much more control over your brew
From the get-go, I would not spend hard-earned money on a steam brewer. Get a pump-powered espresso machine. Trust me.
Feature Verdict: Pump-Powered
Shot Pulling And Automation
Next, you must determine how much control you want over each shot. There are three main ways you can go here:
- Semi-Automatic - You start and stop the shot by pressing buttons or pulling levers. You have complete control over your grind setting and how long you pull the shot for.
- Automatic - You start the shot and the machine stops it after a certain amount of time. You still control the grind setting, but the machine pulls the shot for a programmed (sometimes adjustable, sometimes not) amount of time.
- Superautomatic - The machine does it all: grinds coffee, pulls shots, and steams milk. You have no control. Just pick the bean and let the machine make the coffee, whether you like it or not.
With semi-automatic machines, you can ‘dial in’ your espresso to taste balanced and delicious. You have less control with automatic, but when it comes to superautomatic, you’re not even a barista anymore since the device does literally everything for you.
Having so much control over your shot can be frustrating and daunting at times, but if you want to dive into the depths of espresso flavor, semi-automatic is the way to go.
What about pre-infusion? This feature allows you to send a small amount of water into the coffee to start the brewing process and let the grounds degas before the full pressure is applied. Generally, this leads to more balanced espresso and I’d personally prioritize this feature.
Feature Verdict: Semi-Automatic or Automatic
There are a bunch of machines without a single display other than a temperature gauge. They don’t tell you pressure. They don’t tell you how long the shot has been pulling for.
These machines are, naturally, less expensive and can be used to pull stellar shots, but it can be a bit harder without those built-in tools on display for you. Without a display (often accompanied by temperature control to the degree) you have to time the shots on your phone or a timer.
Having displays built-in is convenient, but not essential for great coffee. If it were me, I’d be willing to spend a bit more for that functionality, though if the price difference were in the hundreds of dollars, I’d happily opt out.
Feature Verdict: Unnecessary, But Helpful
Tea Water Dispenser
A lot of pump machines come with a secondary water spout. It’s often called a “tea water dispenser” for filling up mugs for teabags. These extra spouts are great for heating up mugs in a cafe, nut in a home setting, they’re really not that useful on a daily basis.
If a machine you’re looking at comes with a tea water dispenser, excellent. If not, I wouldn’t be too bummed.
Feature Verdict: Convenient, But Not Essential
The steam wand is often where you can spot a low-end machine. Low-quality steam wands often have a black plastic ending. These are often marketed as “steam wands for beginners” or “automatic wands”.
In reality, they’re just really awful steam wands.
Steamed milk should be creamy, smooth, and just the right temperature. You want a wand that can bring you that—not milk that’s super bubbly and crazy hot.
Shoot for a device with a steam wand that…
- You control manually
- Has 2-4 small steam holes (forget those single-hole wands)
- Swivels around to give you the best angle for steaming
If you want stellar steamed milk and amazing latte art, get a nice steam wand.
Feature Verdict: 2-4 Small Holes Essential
Plumbing VS Water Reservoir
Do you have an area you’ve set aside as your coffee counter with access to plumbing?
If you do, connecting your espresso machine to the water line can be very convenient. You don’t have to worry about running out of water and burning the machine because your water line feeds the machine for you.
However, most of us don’t really have that dedicated space. Most of us stick the machine wherever we can and will end up moving it eventually. In that case, a water reservoir machine makes more sense because you can move them around the kitchen over the years, they’re far less expensive, and they’re much easier to set up.
While connecting your machine to plumbing is convenient, it isn’t practical for most.
Feature Verdict: Water Reservoir Best For Most
In specialty coffee these days, the standard shot of espresso is a double shot. Most shops use 16-22g of coffee grounds to yield 30-40g grams of espresso. If this is what you’d like to make for yourself, you need to make sure the espresso machine has a large enough group head to fit portafilters that large.
Many lower-end machines have smaller portafilters (think 14-17g). For me, that’s an automatic no-go.
Larger portafilters allow you to pull bigger shots, which means potentially more caffeine. It means there’s more room to play in terms of dialing in the flavor and that you can split shots between two people or two drinks.
I’d avoid machines will smaller portafilters.
Feature Verdict: Large Portafilter Compatibility Is Best For Quality
There are other home espresso machine features out there, but these are the main ones you need to keep an eye on.
However, in the end, the espresso machine is a tool - but it’s the coffee beans that actually have the flavor. Skip on the beans and no amount of features will be able to pull a good shot. Buy freshly roasted, specialty-grade beans and even low-feature machines will pull tasty shots.
Stay stocked with quality-forward beans for espresso by subscribing to our JavaPresse Coffee Club. We send subscribers freshly roasted beans every two weeks so that they’re always brewing the freshest and the best. Want to join in?Check it out!