Last Updated on February 21, 2022 by John Moretti
The modern espresso machine is a technological marvel. Modern espresso machines come in many forms nowadays, including small hand-held devices and large commercial machines seen in coffee houses. All of the espresso machine varieties have coffee lovers everywhere wondering about the various types of espresso machines and the differences between them.
The 8 main types of espresso machines include portable espresso machines, lever espresso machines, manual espresso machines, automatic espresso machines, super-automatic espresso machines, ultra-automatic espresso machines, and commercial espresso machines. Each machine has its own unique features.
If you are interested in espresso machines, or if you want to buy an espresso machine sometime soon, you may be surprised by the sheer number of types of these machines there are available now. Let’s identify the main types of espresso machines to help you determine which is best for you and to see how these machines compare to one another.
There are several varieties of modern espresso machines, each of which has its own pros and cons. There are far too many espresso machine models to mention on this list, so we will keep it to the basic espresso machine types rather than the exact models.
Let’s explore the types of modern espresso machines readily available today, some of the pros and cons of these machines, what makes them unique, and how they compare with one another.
1. Portable Espresso Machines
A portable espresso machine is a loose term, but nonetheless, these are brewing devices that must be considered when identifying the modern machines for making espresso coffee.
These brewing devices are hand-held brewers that use air pressure and human force to generate the pressure necessary for brewing espresso. These are small chambers that have some type of pump or piston that is hand-operated to build up pressure for forcing water through finely-ground coffee beans.
This type of device holds a small amount of water in one chamber, a small amount of ground coffee in a separate and smaller chamber, and the user forces the water through the coffee manually to create espresso.
This is typically not considered to be true espresso because the resulting coffee is not brewed at high enough temperatures or pressures or in the correct amount of time to have the exact flavor, consistency, and textures profiles that are expected for true espresso.
However, the coffee that these little devices produce can be tasty and is similar to espresso in strength. Some of these devices can even produce decent crema.
Portable brewers such as the AeroPress and the Wacaco Nanopress are meant for brewing an espresso-like beverage on the go and are extremely affordable ways to get close to espresso without a conventional espresso machine.
The advantages of this type of espresso brewer are that they are inexpensive, easy to use, require very little skill, do not use much water or coffee, and therefore produce very little waste, they are easy to clean, and require almost no skill for brewing good coffee.
The downsides to these devices are that the coffee they produce is not true espresso, they can be finicky when brewing, they can be inconsistent, and they typically require the use of a specialized filter paper sold only by the device manufacturer.
2. Lever Espresso Machines
Lever espresso machines are growing in popularity these days, but the reality is that these machines use very old technology for brewing espresso.
The good news is that these machines do produce true espresso at the correct temperatures pressures and even produce excellent crema that is expected for espresso.
These machines are manually operated with a lever that is used to produce the pressure required for brewing espresso. Lever machines have become somewhat of a cult-classic brewer, and only the most hardcore espresso lovers opt for these machines.
There are versions of lever machines that are very complex and have water tanks and self-heating group heads built into them to make the brewing process easier and more consistent, and there are others that are incredibly basic for what they are and are nothing more than a lever and a small water chamber that portafilter locks into.
The more complicated lever machines are highly expensive, but they are fantastic to use. They are simple to use and offer absolute control over every tiny detail of your espresso brew. This is an advantage for those who are very particular and precise about their coffee.
The more affordable machines are very simple, but they are still very capable brewers. These machines require more effort from the user for preheating the group head and other such manual mechanisms, but they can still make excellent coffee in the right hands.
The advantages of these machines are that they are very precise and controllable for producing excellent high-quality espresso, they are not complicated to use, they can be very fun, they produce true espresso, and the un-powered machines, such as the Flair Pro 2, can be used if you do not have access to electricity while outdoors or in the event of power failure.
The drawback of lever machines is that the upper-tier versions, such as the Olympia Cremina, are outrageously expensive, and all versions of lever machines are very difficult to find. These machines also require more work for brewing as the user supplies the pressure for brewing by depressing the brewing arm.
3. Pod Espresso Machines
The first of our full electric and simple to use espresso machines on this list is the pod espresso machine. Brands such as Nespresso and Keurig are well-known internationally and are many coffee lovers’ first entrance into the world of home espresso.
These machines come in a very extensive variety that includes tiny single capsule machines that can only brew one small cup at a time and do nothing else, all the way up to very large commercial-type machines that store large amounts of pods, milk, water, and anything else that may be needed for brewing at the touch of a button.
These machines can be very expensive or very affordable, and the quality of coffee that they produce is entirely dependent on the type of coffee pods that are used in the machine.
The major feature of pod espresso machines is that they have no equality regarding convenience and ease of use. There are no other espresso machines that are as simple to use and none that are even nearly as convenient.
These machines are operated by simply placing pre-packed pods of ground espresso coffee into the machine, filling the machine’s water reservoir, and pressing one button. It really is as simple as that.
Pod espresso machines can even be used to make espresso-based drinks with pods that have milk powders and sugars in them for creating pod versions of cappuccinos and lattes. These machines feel futuristic and are the perfect option for espresso lovers with very limited time for home espresso.
There are industrial versions of these machines that are typically used in offices or in buffet-style restaurants, but these can be used at home as well if you have the budget for it.
The advantages of pod espresso machines are that they are very easy to use and convenient, they provide a wide variety of ground coffee pods from all over the world that are easily accessible, they are reliable, consistent, and require almost no cleaning or maintenance.
The downsides are that these machines do not always make the best coffee, especially if you accidentally buy inferior coffee pods, and they can be very expensive for the quality of coffee that they produce.
4. Manual Espresso Machines
Manual espresso machines are the machines that most people are familiar with today. These machines can be found in homes and in cafes, and they are the most affordable version of professional espresso machines.
Manual espresso machines are not lever machines, as some people may say, but rather these are machines that require the user to control the brewing of espresso manually regarding brew time, brew ratio, the amount of water use, and the temperature of the brew.
These machines have pumps or steam mechanisms to manage their own brew pressure, but everything else is up to the user, as opposed to more automatic-type espresso machines.
Manual espresso machines come in many shapes, sizes, and price points and are generally the most versatile machines for making espresso and espresso-based drinks.
These machines can be small, domestic countertop espresso machines with one group head and a small steam wand, or manual machines can be very large commercial machines that have multiple group heads, a continuous water supply, and high-pressure steam wands.
Regardless of the type of machine, all manual machines work in the same way. The user must grind the coffee beans, wait for the machine to heat up, load the coffee into the portafilter basket, tamp the grinds down, lock the portafilter into the group head, and brew the coffee according to time and brew ratio.
These machines have built-in steam wands for steaming and texturing milk for espresso-based drinks such as lattes, flat whites, and macchiatos, but even this must be manually done by the barista.
There are no shortcuts with manual espresso machines.
This type of machine requires skill and experience to use, and there is a learning curve for using one. This is why most people opt for easier-to-use machines. However, these machines can make excellent espresso and espresso-based drinks if you take the time to learn how, and they are far more versatile and consistent than any other espresso machine.
Having all of the important aspects of the brew in the hands of a skilled barista means the espresso will be good every time.
The cons of using a machine like this are that they are challenging to use, they are messy, they require frequent maintenance, and they the cheaper versions do not always last very well.
5. Automatic Espresso Machines
The next type of espresso machine on this list is somewhat similar to the manual espresso machine, and there is only one significant difference between them.
Automatic espresso machines brew espresso according to pre-programmed timers and stop pulling espresso at the end of the timer that you program before the brew. This removes one of the precision aspects that are very difficult to get right manually.
The modern automatic espresso machine is available in many forms and many price brackets, so you can choose how much automation you want, what you want the machine to do, how you prefer your espresso made, and how much you want to pay for the machine.
Machines of this type are more expensive than standard manual machines, but there are some affordable varieties if you look around enough.
The only automatic aspect of this type of machine is the espresso shot timer, but the timer can be set to however long you prefer, and modern automatic machines are often equipped with nice-to-have features such as built-in bean grinders and digital touch screens.
Nevertheless, these machines still allow the barista to control almost all aspects o the brew, they are versatile, and they can be used to make any type of espresso drink that you can think of. All other aspects of the machine are manual, so do not buy an automatic espresso machine expecting it to do everything for you, even though it says automatic on the box.
The drawbacks of this type of machine are that there is more to go wrong with the machine, and cheaper automatic machines tend to run into problems early on in their lifespan. These machines can also be very expensive, so be sure that you find the right one for you and your budget that is equipped with everything you are looking for in a home espresso machine.
6. Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
The next step up in espresso automation is provided by super-automatic espresso machines. These machines feature some more automatic features than standard automatic machines do, and they are typically more well-equipped machines as well and are outright more expensive.
Super-automatic espresso machines share many of the same features as standard automatic machines, but they improve the automation and take on more of the espresso-brewing load so that the user can be less involved in the process.
Modern machines of this type are typically able to grind coffee beans directly into your portafilter, some models even automatically tamp the ground coffee in the filter, and they can self-brew shots of espresso.
All of the grinding and brewing is pre-controlled by your desired settings for grind size, amount of coffee used, brew times, and the more high-end models will even weigh your espresso liquid output according to predetermined mass limits that the user can program in.
These machines are less controllable by the user than automatic versions, but they are still very capable espresso machines that can be very versatile.. all milk steaming is still done by hand, but almost everything else can be taken care of by the machine.
As will all domestic espresso machines, there are several versions of super-automatic espresso machines available on the market at varying price points and degrees of quality.
With this type of machine, what you pay for is what you get. The more you spend on the machine, the more features it will have, the better quality it will be, which is important for a machine that does all of your espresso brewing for you. Cheap versions of these machines are known for pulling sub-par shots of espresso, which means that expensive versions are the only real options for real coffee lovers.
These machines can be finicky, and there is a lot that can go wrong with them, so there is some maintenance that comes along with owning one. Super-automatic machines can be expensive, and they are typically quite large, but the price is generally worthwhile if you can afford it.
These machines are ideal for those who love espresso but do not enjoy brewing it, who would rather set the machine to brew and let it go, but who also want to prepare a variety of espresso and milk drinks by hand.
7. Ultra-Automatic Espresso Machines
The final level of home espresso drink automation is the ultra-automatic espresso machine. These machines are relatively modern, and there are not as many available as other types of machines, and they are significantly more expensive than other espresso machines.
There are varying degrees of automation offered by ultra-automatic espresso machines based on the quality and price bracket of the machine, but the general idea is that these machines can make entire espresso drinks automatically with as little user intervention as possible.
Ultra-automatic espresso machines can grind, tamp, brew, and steam milk to specified levels before pouring said steamed milk into your cup of espresso, all with the touch of one button.
This type of machine is the true one-touch espresso machine, and all the user is required to do is load beans, water, and milk into the machine. After selecting drink parameters, either user-specified or those from the pre-programmed list of options, the user must only press one button, and the machine will brew and prepare an entire espresso-based drink on its own.
These machines are even self-cleaning, which means that it is very little for the user to do at all! There is no easier way to brew fresh espresso drinks than an ultra-automatic espresso machine.
This type of espresso machine is very expensive and is equipped with all of the ultra-modern features that no other espresso machines have. Touch screens, pod capabilities, various drink capabilities, temperature and pressure control, brew time control, brew mass control, and even smartphone apps for controlling the machine are all standard features on ultra-automatic machines.
Using this machine removes all human interaction from the process of brewing espresso, which makes it incredibly simple and easy to do, but this does remove some of the elements that can make espresso truly special. There are many components that may fail on these machines, so be ready for some expensive maintenance, but for the coffee lover who does not want to brew coffee, this is the ideal espresso machine.
8. Commercial Espresso Machines
The last basic type of espresso machine that we will feature here is the commercial espresso machine. These are the type of espresso machine that you will find in a café or coffee shop that is specialized for producing very large numbers of coffee drinks, having multiple people working on the same machine simultaneously, and is typically equipped with the best mechanics for producing excellent espresso.
There is something special about commercial espresso machines that smaller or domestic machines simply cannot match. These machines have higher pump and steam pressures, hold heat better, are very well made, have high pressure steaming capabilities, brew espresso quickly, and are a dream to use.
These machines tend to be entirely mechanical. They do not have any built-in screens, grinders, automation, or special features that other smaller machines do, which may seem like a step-down, but the level that these machines function at means that they produce better espresso and espresso-based drinks than any other type of espresso machine.
The fact that everything in the machines is entirely mechanical means that a barista is required to operate the machine and prepare the drinks, a good grinder is needed to grind the coffee beans, and several other pieces of equipment such as tampers and milk pitchers are good to have in order to make the most of the machine’s capabilities.
Using this type of machine is very challenging and requires far more skill than any other type of espresso machine, which is why coffee shops employ specialized people for the job and is why these machines are not typically found in homes.
The difficulties of using a machine of this type, the skills required to make the drinks well, and the massive price tag that comes along with a machine like this are the drawbacks of commercial machines, but they are also the strengths.
The fact that the machine is so hard to use and the drinks must be made with skill is what makes the coffee from these machines so special, and they can simply not be recreated using any other variety of espresso machine.
The above list covers the eight basic forms of espresso machines, from the simplest espresso brewing devices to the most complicated and most expensive machines.
There are other categories of espresso machines that are more based on features rather than the type of machines, such as single and dual boiler machines, heat-exchange machines, pump pressure machines, and steam pressure machines, but these are all sub-types of the main types of espresso machines that we have covered already.
There are so many espresso machine varieties out there, but the perfect model for you is dependent on your budget, what you want the machine to do for you, and how involved in the espresso brewing process you want to be.
Take the time to learn about each type of machine and decide which suits you best, and you will never be disappointed with your espresso again!