What is an Espresso Machine?

Michael Pollick

An espresso machine is a specialized piece of coffee-making equipment used to create a very strong Italian coffee drink called espresso. A commercial espresso machine displayed in a coffee shop is often very ornate, with several large compartments and an elaborate plumbing scheme. Ironically, the espresso machine is often the largest piece of equipment in a coffee bar, but the actual espresso drink is served in the smallest cup, called a demitasse.

Espresso is a highly-concentrated coffee beverage, that is extremely thick in consistency.
Espresso is a highly-concentrated coffee beverage, that is extremely thick in consistency.

A professional espresso machine may be hooked up directly to the shop's water supply or a reservoir of hot water may be created through carefully adjusted heating elements. The water used for making espresso should be held just below the boiling point(212 degrees F or 100 degrees C). Boiling hot water will only create coffee soup, not a delicious beverage.

Espresso is traditionally served in small, demitasse-style cups.
Espresso is traditionally served in small, demitasse-style cups.

The barista (professional coffee maker) will use a 'burr grinder' to turn roasted coffee beans into the ideal grounds for espresso. The grinder and bean storage unit may also be located on the espresso machine itself. Once the barista has enough ground coffee beans for a single serving of espresso, the process moves to a small mesh basket with a handle. The ground coffee is placed in this basket and the barista uses a 'tamper' to compress it to a proper density.

Many people enjoy espressos as an alternative to coffee.
Many people enjoy espressos as an alternative to coffee.

The packed mesh basket will then be locked into position under the hot water supply line of the espresso machine. Traditional espresso machine technology employs a mechanical pump which the barista depresses to dispense the hot water. Modern espresso machines often replace this pump with automatic pistons which force water through the basket. The hot water should take 25-30 seconds to flow completely through the basket of packed coffee. A trained barista can develop a feel for the proper timing of an 'espresso shot'.

The hot water strips away most of the essential oils and flavors of the ground coffee beans as it passes through the basket and into the demitasse. The result is a very concentrated form of hot coffee--surprisingly, containing only half the caffeine of brewed coffee. The speed of the water flowing through the espresso machine does not allow all of the caffeine to be released. Espresso is usually enjoyed black, but steamed milk may be added to create cappuccinos or other specialty drinks. One of the things a barista looks for in a good espresso shot is the formation of a golden brown layer called the crema. If he or she sees this layer of concentrated coffee oils form a pool on the surface of the espresso, he or she knows that the espresso machine is working perfectly.

A home espresso machine may not be quite as elaborate as its professional cousin, but many coffee enthusiasts enjoy making espresso and other specialized beverages themselves. Flavored syrups can be purchased at coffee shops or grocery stores, and practically any brand of roasted coffee beans can be ground to espresso size in minutes. For best espresso results, the beans should only be ground just before adding them to the mesh basket for brewing. Gourmet roast coffee beans have a shelf life similar to bread, so only purchase what you'll need for a few days. When it comes to espresso, the darker and richer the bean the better.

There are many small, single shot espresso machines available for people to purchase for their home kitchens.
There are many small, single shot espresso machines available for people to purchase for their home kitchens.

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Discussion Comments


I love my home espresso machine. I save so much money on coffee. Here is a tip that will save you a fortune on sweetener for your coffee drinks...make your own syrups. The recipe is so simple you will wonder why you paid $6-$7 for a bottle of syrup ever again.

My fiancée used to be a barista working an espresso machine at my local coffee shop (coffee is the way to my heart). She would make her own syrup all the time. Heat two cups of water to just off boil, remove from heat and add four cups of sugar, add one teaspoon to one tablespoon of your favorite extract, and voila...you have flavored syrup.


@cougars- It really depends on your budget. If you have boatloads of cash burning a hole in your pocket, you might want to look into a nice super automatic espresso machine that grinds, tamps, brews, and shuts off your machine with the press of a single button. If you are like me (like a good coffee, but don't mind taking five minutes to make it), you should find a good semi-automatic espresso machine for under a couple hundred dollars. Even at $200 dollars, that is the equivalent of 40 coffees at your local chain.

The best machines use a powered pump. You can find decent semiautomatic pump espresso machines, which create pressure at up to 15 bars to draw a good espresso, for less than $200. The more expensive ones can cost an arm and a leg, maybe even a kidney or two if you are looking at commercial models.

If you want a cheap machine, you can find steam powered machines and combo (coffee/espresso) machines for less than $50. Be warned though, that these machines will not draw an espresso with a good crema, and they are often made of plastic and cheaper materials. I had one that broke just out of warranty. If you can spend the money, I would recommend buying a pump machine for your first espresso maker.


How do I choose the best home espresso maker? How good are the pod espresso machines? Should I look for a machine that uses steam or a mechanical pump to brew the espresso? There are so many on the market, and I do not know if the reviews are reliable because it seems like people who mostly advocate for one brand over the other. Help...confused, but do not want to keep emptying my wallet at the local coffee chain.

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