Have you ever watched the barista preparing that perfect espresso and wondered, “I wonder if it’s possible to do that at home?” Well, the good news is - it is possible.
All you’re going to need is an espresso machine. For any espresso enthusiast, everything – from making the perfect cup of espresso to the machinery that’s behind it – is fascinating.
The best part about owning your very own espresso machine is that it allows you to recreate the barista’s cuppa coffee to perfection, and since you have everything you need in the comfort of your own home, you have ample amount of time and opportunity to improve your skills of preparing a perfect cup of espresso.
For espresso enthusiasts, gone are the days when people had to pay an arm and a leg just to get all their home espresso equipment together.
Thanks to advancements in technology, modern espresso machines are considered to be far more impressive than the humble French press machine.
If you’ve ever wondered “how does an espresso machine work?” then you are at the right place.
Understanding the Espresso Machine
While modern espresso machines may come in all shapes and sizes, there are a few features that are essential and common to an espresso machine.
All of them force hot water through a bed of finely ground coffee beans, also known as a puck for all those espresso aficionados out there. This is done while the machine puts intense pressure on the coffee beans that brings out that flavorful taste.
The entire process is completed in a matter of seconds - 30 seconds to be exact, and you have yourself a shot of extremely potent and delicious espresso with that coveted crema topping, that makes life worth it.
But those who want to brew that perfect cup of espresso know the importance of having a complete understanding of how the espresso machine works.
The Water Source
Needless to say, every espresso machine requires water to prepare that perfect cup of espresso.
Home espresso machines have been designed for water to enter in two ways, either via the plumbed connection for a more consistent flow, or a built-in reservoir. The water source determines how the espresso machine is used.
For example, those that have been designed to prepare espressos in small quantities usually come with a built-in reservoir for storing the water, while large commercial machines that can prepare many espressos on a daily basis require a steady water supply, which also saves a lot of time since the espresso machine doesn’t have to keep on being refilled whenever the water finishes.
One of the advantages of using espresso machines that come with a built-in water reservoir is that the user can easily inspect the quality of water being used and not just use whatever is coming out of the tap.
However, it should be noted that modern water filtration pitchers ensure that the water meets the quality standards of the SCAA.
To make sure you get a clean supply of water in larger home espresso machines or commercial machines, they are usually connected to the home’s softening and filtration system to ensure the water being used by the espresso machine is always clean.
Apart from these two main options, there are also hybrid espresso machines that also offer the ability to use the direct plumb method or a reservoir to get water, with the latter being the preferred option for all those folks who do not want to have to make new plumbing connections or use normal tap water.
But, both of the options of getting water in an espresso machine comes with their share of advantages and disadvantages.
For instance, one of the disadvantages of using the espresso machine with a water reservoir is that it requires constant cleaning, while with the plumbed-in option, you will require to call a professional plumber since light plumbing is going to be required to get the machine up and running.
With the plumbed-in version, you may also require making additional modifications to the countertop to accommodate the new plumbing lines.
The pump is considered to be the heart of the espresso machine, and for good reason. The pressure that’s created by the pump helps to push the water through the finely ground coffee grains that are packed tightly in a compartment.
Every espresso machine needs around 9 bars of pressure, which is around 130 psi to do the job.
That being said, some of the first espresso machines to ever hit the market used pistons that were attached to levers, which needed to be operated manually by the baristas. But modern technology has done away with the need to manually operate the espresso machine.
Espresso machines today use electric pumps that can also be divided into two categories; mainly, the rotary vein pump and the vibratory pump.
The vibratory pump, also known as the vibe pump is a compact electromagnetic pump that works on a magnetic coil and a piston. The electric current travels through the magnetic coil which causes the magnet to move the piston, which pushes the water through the espresso machine.
The rotary pump, on the other hand, is a mechanical device that uses a motor to spin the disc which has been offset into a large, round chamber.
This spinning disc is segmented into various segments and as it spins the veins that separate the sections press against the wall of the outer chamber, creating a tremendous amount of pressure.
Again, both types of pumping mechanisms that are used in modern espresso machines come with their fair share of advantages and disadvantages.
The rotary pump is the larger of the two options and as a result, takes up more place, while the vibratory pump is a lot louder. The latter also has a short lifespan and eventually gives way in time due to wear and tear.
As the name implies, the boiler brings heat to the coffee beans. That’s because the water used in the espresso machine doesn’t just have to be pressurized, but also needs to be heated as well.
All espresso machines use a built-in boiler to do the job. This is without a doubt, going to bring about many questions, such as, what are the types of boilers used in espresso machines and how is the pressure and temperature in the machine stabilized?
Modern-day espresso machines use electric heating elements to boil the water and bring it to a certain temperature.
It is important to note that the larger the boiler is the more cups it can produce. But, larger espresso machines also require a larger boiler and more energy and time for heating the water.
Even the slightest mistake in temperature can lead to a cup of espresso that tastes dreadful. To avoid that from happening, modern espresso machines use temperature control mechanisms that have been built into the machine and ensure that the temperature is always accurate.
When it comes to temperature control, brands have introduced their own devices and mechanisms for better temperature stability. That being said, in most common espresso machines a pressure stat is used to set the temperature.
But, the main problem with this simplistic mechanism is that they offer little control on the temperature of the water, which means, the user has no control over the temperature of the water, which makes it difficult to recreate the same delicious flavor with this espresso machine.
This is where a PID or digital temperature control comes in, which provides more control and exact temperature. Both the digital temperature control and the PID allows users to alter the temperature of the espresso machine, which can be done in small increments and allows the machine to maintain that temperature.
So, what is PID, anyway?
The one feature you will find in most modern espresso machines is a PID, which is short for Proportional Integral Derivative controller.
The PID is a computer that controls the heating element in the espresso machine that helps keep the water at a consistent temperature. This is achieved by the PID using an algorithm to turn the heating element on and off at a preprogrammed cycle, which keeps the temperature of the water at a consistent level.
The digital temperature control which is found in most modern espresso machines is another crucial component, but the PID just offers more control and information that is displayed on the panel as compared to the digital temperature control.
Another major advantage that the PID has to offer is that users are allowed to adjust the algorithm of the PID to tweak the temperature of the heating filament.
Of course, both come with their pros and cons. While the PID is less durable, the digital temperature control is costlier.
The Steam Wand
To get the milk hot and textured requires steam and a lot of it. This is where the function of the steam wand kicks in.
Different espresso machines use different methods of steaming, from a heat exchanger to a single or dual boiler.Out of all three of these options, the latter offers a higher level of temperature control and consistency.
It is also the costliest of the three options and is mostly found more on the high-end espresso machines that are available in the market today.
The Group Head
The group head is the final destination for the water in the espresso machine. They are made of three distinctive parts, which are; the portafilter, the lock-in mechanism, the pump activation mechanism and the pathway for the water to reach the portafilter from the boiler.
Group heads can also be further divided into three main types, depending on the brand of espresso machine you have invested in, which are mainly, the semi saturated group head, the saturated group head and the E61 group head.
One of the advantages of the E61 group head is that it is sturdy and well-built for better heat retention, and it is easier to repair as compared to the other options. But, it takes longer to heat and requires manual controls, which is not great for beginners.
Saturated group heads are mostly found in high-end espresso machines and commercial machines because they are durable and long-lasting, but come with higher costs and require installation and maintenance by qualified technicians.
The semi saturated group head offers less temperature stability, but gets you the same level of durability as the larger saturated group head, at a fraction of the price.
The semi saturated group head is also computer-controlled and easy to maintain, which makes them a great option for those who are getting their first espresso machine for their home.
Types of Espresso Machines
There are also various types of espresso machines that you need to know of before you can make a decision on the best option for your needs.
The following are the three types of espresso machines that you can invest in to make a delicious cup of espresso in the comfort of your home.
- Manual Espresso Machine - As the name implies, this has to be operated manually and get complicated for first-time espresso machine users.
- Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine - This is a great option for those who have an idea of how to work an espresso machine and are just looking to taste an espresso at home.
- Fully Automatic Espresso Machine - This has been built for the espresso enthusiasts who want to recreate the delicious taste of an espresso from the hands of a barista, without getting their hands dirty or having to pull on many levers. The automatic function takes care of the entire process of preparing an espresso from start to finish, so you have little to worry about.
Open up any espresso machine and you will find yourself staring at a maze of wires and electric circuits, which could leave you asking the question, ‘How does an espresso machine work?”. If you’ve been asking yourself that question, then you are certainly not alone.
Almost every espresso enthusiast finds espresso machines absolutely fascinating and wants to know everything about this marvel of modern technology.
Rather than having to go through all of those copper tubes, wiring and complex hardware yourself, the aforementioned information should give you a good idea of the inner workings of the espresso machine.
CafeLast.com is your source for the highest quality espresso machines and coffee equipments online. Browse our range of brands and products today!