An espresso machine is used to produce a traditional Italian espresso, a concentrated coffee drink served in small portions (shots). The first machine for making espresso was built and patented by Angelo Moriondo, who demonstrated a working example at the Turin General Exposition of 1884. He patented his invention that year as a: ‘New steam machinery for the economic and instantaneous confection of coffee beverage.’ In 1901, Luigi Bezzera of Milan patented improvements to the machine; four years later, the patent was bought by Desiderio Pavoni who founded the ‘La Pavoni’ company and began to produce the machine commercially (one a day) in a small Milanese workshop.
Since then, numerous machine designs have been created to produce espresso. Varying the fineness of the grind, tamping strength, or the pressure of the water when it is forced through the grinds will affect the taste of the espresso. Some baristas pull espresso shots directly into a pre-heated demitasse cup or shot glass, to maintain a higher temperature of the espresso. An espresso machine may also have a steam wand which is used to steam and froth liquids, to include milk, for beverages such as the cappuccino and latte.
Espresso machines can be driven by steam, pistons, or pumps. A steam-driven unit operates by forcing water through the coffee by using steam or steam pressure. The first espresso machines were steam types, produced when a common boiler was piped to four group heads so that multiple types of coffee could be made at the same time. This design is still used today in low-cost consumer machines, as it does not need to contain moving parts.
The piston, or lever, driven machine was developed in Italy in 1945 by Achille Gaggia, founder of espresso machine manufacturer Gaggia. The design generically uses a lever, pumped by the operator, to pressurize hot water and send it through the coffee grinds. The act of producing a shot of espresso is colloquially termed ‘pulling a shot,’ because these lever-style espresso machines required pulling a long handle to dispense the beverage. There are two types of lever machines; manual piston and spring piston design. With the manual piston, the operator directly pushes the water through the grounds. In the spring piston design, the operator works to tension a spring, which then delivers the pressure for the espresso (usually 8 to 10 bar; 116 to 145 psi).
A refinement of the piston machine is the pump-driven machine, which was introduced in the Faema E61 in 1961, and has become the most popular design in commercial espresso bars. Instead of using manual force, a motor-driven pump provides the force necessary for espresso brewing. Commercial or some high-end home machines are often attached directly to the plumbing of the site; lower-end home machines have built-in water reservoirs.
Four variants exist in pump-driven machines, depending on how brew water and steam are boiled; in discussion these are generally known by acronyms: Single Boiler (SB), Single Boiler, Dual Use (SB/DU), eat Exchanger (HX), and Dual Boiler (DB). SB machines can brew only, and not steam (they are relatively uncommon, with steam wands being a simple and valued addition). SB/DU units use a single chamber both to heat water to brewing temperature and to boil water for steaming milk. Since the temperature for brewing is less than the temperature for creating steam the machine requires time to make the transition from one mode to the other. HX machines use a single boiler kept at steaming temperature, but water for brewing is passed through a heat exchanger, taking some heat from the steam without rising to the same temperature. This is found in many mid-range machines. There is some controversy as to the temperature stability of the brewing water, since it is indirectly converted from steaming temperature to brewing temperature, rather than kept at a brewing temperature.
Finally, in some espresso machines for commercial or home use, water for brewing is heated in a separate chamber, which requires two separate boilers. This is found primarily in higher-end machines, though it is also found in some mid-range machines, overlapping with HX. The term ‘Dual Boiler’ is used narrowly for machines with two separate boilers, and more broadly for what are more properly called ‘Dual Heater’ (DH) machines, featuring a boiler for brewing and a separate thermoblock (TB) for heating brew water to steaming temperature – opposite to HX machines, where the boiler is at steaming temperature and is cooled to brewing temperature. In principle, TB machines yield stabler brew temperatures at the expense of steaming performance and speed, while HX machines yield better steaming at the expense of stable brew temperature. True DB machines provide stable brew temperatures and fast steaming, but are larger and more expensive.
In recent years air-pump driven espresso machines have emerged. These machines use compressed air to force the hot water through the coffee grounds. The hot water is typically added from a kettle. The compressed air comes from either a hand-pump, N20 or CO2 cartridges or an electric compressor. One of the advantages of the air-pump driven machines is that they are much smaller and lighter than electric machines. They are often handheld and portable. The first air-pump driven machine was the AeroPress, which was invented by Alan Adler, an American inventor, and introduced in 2005. Handpresso Wild, invented by Nielsen Innovation SARL, a French innovation house, was introduced in 2007. In 2009 California-based Espressi Inc introduced the first gas-cartridge powered espresso maker called the mypressi TWIST.
Machines that have pumps, sensors, valves, and grinders to automate the brewing process are generally referred to as ‘automatic.’ ‘Semi-automatic’ use a pump rather than manual force to deliver water. The remaining brew pressure in the basket is released via a three-way valve. Automatic machines also automate the brewed volume (hence indirectly brew time). They do this by adding an in-line flowmeter to the grouphead: when the programmed amount of water has passed through the meter, the pump turns off. Grinding and tamping are still manual. ‘Super-automatic’ machines automatically grind the coffee, tamp it, and extract the espresso shot. The operator only has to fill the bean hopper and, if the machine is not connected to a water line, add water to a reservoir. Some models contain an automated milk frothing and dispensing device. Super-automatic machines take away the ability to manually tamp and grind the coffee, which may affect the quality of the espresso.
Commercial establishments generally use semi-automatic machines with several group heads. These are much larger than consumer models and able to produce espresso shots more quickly. Many commercial machines can function in an automatic mode. Manual or semi-automatic machines offer more control of shot quality. Because when to cut the shot (brew time) is a critical variable, which is often adjusted shot-by-shot, semi-automatic machines are often preferred over automatics. Manual machines are more popular in Europe, where it is more common to drink straight espresso.
Moka pots, also known as stove top espresso makers, are similar to espresso machines in that they brew under pressure and the resulting brew shares some similarities, but in other respects differ. As such, their characterization as ‘espresso’ machines is at times contentious, but due to their use of pressure and steam for brewing, comparable to all espresso prior to the 1948 Gaggia, they are accepted within broader uses of the term, but distinguished from standard modern espresso machines. Moka pots differ from espresso machines in that they brew under substantially lower pressure – 1.5 bars (21 psi) rather than 9 bars (130 psi) – and use hotter water – a mix of boiling water and steam at above 100°C (212°F), rather than 92–96°C (197.6–204.8°F) of espresso machines, similar to early steam brewing machines.
The bottom chamber contains the water. The middle chamber is a filter-basket and sits within the bottom chamber holding the ground coffee. The top chamber, with a metal filter, screws onto the bottom chamber. When the pot is heated on a stove, the pressure from the steam in the bottom chamber forces the water through a tube into the filter-basket, through the ground coffee, the metal filter, and it then funnels into the top chamber where the coffee is then ready to serve. They are commonly found in Italy, Spain and Portugal. They are also known as a ‘macchinetta,’ Italian for ‘little machine.’