Updated: Apr 6
There are two main categories and one pseudo category of home espresso appliances (or machines) - superautomatics or bean to cup, semi automatics, and the pseudo category- pod appliances.
Superautomatics grind, tamp and produce the espresso shot and often even dispense milk based espresso drinks like lattes and cappuccinos at the press of a single button.
Semi automatics are so called because a user is expected to grind the coffee (or use pre-ground coffee), tamp it into a portafilter applying proper pressure and then press a button or pull a lever on the semi automatic espresso machine to extract the shot.
Pod appliances have gained in popularity in recent years due to their attractive price points and ease of use. The quality of the beverage they dispense leaves a lot to be desired compared to a traditional espresso though.
Your espresso decision tree can be classified as the automatics vs the semi automatics, based on your preferences or needs. The industry currently has three budget categories to offer for each type:
1. The automatics
2. The semi automatics
1a) Pod appliances (~$200)
The largest selling pod appliances and pods come from the instant coffee multinational giant Nestle Group, traded with the brand name Nespresso. Nespresso originally contracted DeLonghi and Krups to manufacture the Nespresso pod appliances and they continue to be the top sellers but several other domestic appliance manufacturers such as KitchenAid, Breville and many more also manufacture Nespresso compatible pod appliances. a similar appliance is also manufactured by the American Kuerig Dr Pepper corporation, and the pods are called k-cups. It is globally not as popular as Nespresso.
To read more about features and types of Nespresso appliances read this WireCutter review:
1b) Entry level and high end Superautomatic espresso machines (~$750 and above)
Super automatic espresso machines feature an inbuilt grinder and a specially designed component, not found in semi automatics, called a brewgroup. they grind, tamp and produce the espresso shot at the press of a single button. Compared to prosumer level semi automatic machines they do not use as much of chrome & steel in their construction and use advanced grade plastic bodies instead. They are not as heavy as some of the prosumer semi automatics but definitely not as portable as a typical home appliance.
Higher end models of superautomatics are even capable of heating, steaming, frothing the milk and adding it to espresso shot to deliver popular milk based espresso beverages such as lattes and cappuccinos.
Almost all of them feature extensive electronics and many come with coloured touch screen control panels. Some notable brands here are DeLonghi, Saeco, Gaggia, (Saeco & Gaggia are now owned by the Philips group), Jura & WMF etc.
Some manufacturers such as Siemens, Whirlpool etc also make built-in superautomatic espresso machines designed to be installed in kitchen shelves/ cabinets.
Starbucks corporation now uses a customised design of superautomatic machines across all its locations to standardise the quality of its coffee drinks. Although its not possible to purchase the machine by end consumers, a unit of it is said to cost about $15,000 - $17,000.
2. Semi automatic espresso machines (The real deal)
Preparing an espresso shot involves passing water heated to aprrox. 95 deg C through a puck of ground coffee weighing between 14–18gm at a pressure between 8–12 bars in such a manner that a 60ml shot should take between 25–30 seconds. That’s all there is to it.
Between these variable parameters of temperature, volume and pressure there are hundreds of different semi automatic espresso machines, doing the same task ever so differently and resulting in a myriad of often confusing feature sets.
2a) Entry level appliance grade semi automatic espresso makers (~$200)
The first sub category within semi automatics is appliance grade, made using cheaper components, a lot of plastic parts and having a relatively shorter life span. Such appliances typically have low power consumption & weight, a small footprint, a thermoblock as a heating element and a small vibratory pump to create the requisite pressure.
They also feature a panarello type steam wand, which makes it easier to produce steamed milk, with a decent amount of foam but the trade off is speed and it’s generally not the same quality as a true professional grade steam wand. If lattes and cappuccinos and latte art are important to you, pay attention to this specific feature while choosing your espresso appliance or machine.
These appliances are typically supplied with a pressurised portafilter basket which makes its easier to use it with pre-ground coffee which is often not ground fine enough to produce a proper espresso shot. They typically retail around the $200 mark, sold through appliance stores and retail chains and the entry level standard for thousands of home espresso enthusiasts.
There are a large number of familiar global home appliance brands as well as country specific brands who manufacturer these kind of home espresso appliances. Notable ones are Krups & DeLonghi.
Although the better ones are Italian in origin it is possible that your country has good quality domestic manfucturers of such appliances. China is emerging as a player in manufacturing several good quality, low cost espresso appliance brands. One notable Australian manufacturer in this category has the widest range possible in terms of features, even making some good prosumer level machines, called Breville (or Sage in UK).
2b) Entry level prosumer espresso machines (~$500)
This category is of proper machine grade products (as opposed to an appliance), predominantly from commercial grade espresso machine manufacturers in Italy, designed specifically for home users.
These machines are built much more resiliently than home appliances and feature a lot of steel, very little or no plastics and professional grade components. They can weigh upto 5–10 kgs and are less portable than typical home appliances.
They feature a single boiler (with a heating element inside), better quality vibratory pumps, heavy duty switchgear, minimal electronics, and are sometimes referred to as SBDU (single boiler dual use) machines. They are built to last for decades of typical domestic volume of use. They typically see very few design changes or newer models over the years as compared to home appliance category. Your purchase is likely to stay current for five, even ten years at times!
Most of these machines come with a professional grade 58mm sized non pressurised portafilter basket, which necessitates the use of a good quality burr grinder to achieve optimum tasting results. Many also feature a professional steam wand. As an option some of them come with an additional pressurised and even a pod portafilter adaptor kit and panarello steam adaptors to make the transition easier for new home users. Kind of like the use of removable trainer wheels for first time bicycle users.
The most popular machines in this category are from two Italian commercial grade espresso machine manufacturers of repute - the Gaggia Classic from Gaggia and the Sylvia from Rancilio. Both manufacturers also offer matching semi professional grade burr grinders suitable for use with these machines. Other notable manufacturers in this category are aforementioned Breville, Ascaso, Bezerra, Lelit, ECM etc.
2c) High end prosumer grade semi automatic espresso machines (~$1000 and above)
This category of machines are targeted at serious home coffee buffs and require a fair level of expertise to operate and produce excellent quality shots of espresso and espresso based milk drinks. They typically feature high grade components, high polished chrome steel, E61 grouphead based heat exchanger design or dual boilers, heavy duty portafilters, rotary pumps, industrial grade electronics and are often hand assembled. Most have advanced brewing features such as pre-infusion, brew temperature control & flow profiling. They typically feature multi-hole professional steam wand as well as hot water dispenser wands.
Many of these machines sport a classic look, feature multiple analog pressure gauges, have discrete or minimal electronic displays (for PID controllers) and feature larger steel or copper/brass boilers. They can weigh as much as 20–30kg and consume 1500 to 2000w of power. Some of them come with option of plumbing directly into your home water supply line, eliminating the need of built-in water tanks and drip trays.
Notable manufacturers of this category of home use prosumer grade espresso machines are Lelit, Nuova Simonelli, Rocket, ECM, Profitec & La Marzocco etc.