beans equipment order espresso links email newsletter articles about
 


 

Inside Domestic Espresso Machines

This article is designed to give the average consumer some insight into exactly what goes on inside the most common brands of domestic espresso machines; it is up-to-date as of August 2006. Before reading this article you should read http://www.coffeeco.com.au/articles/glossary.html in order to understand some of the technical terms used in this article.

ULKA pump

The stock ULKA pump found in so many machines.

Superautomatic machines are not discussed.


To begin with, the pump. 18 Bar, 15 Bar, 9 Bar...what's the difference? In reality, none. ALL the pumps used in domestic machines are vibration pumps, usually made by either Eaton or ULKA, and all of them are basically identical. As long as the machine has a pump, you can ignore the "Bar" ratings. The rating itself relates to maximum output under ideal conditions, but in reality most domestic machines have extraction pressures between 9 to 13 bar at the group.

Then comes the heating technology, and it's here where fundamental differences which profoundly affect espresso production occur.

"Thermoblock" technology means that the water is heated in a multi channel metal block with an exterior element. In the "flat" thermoblocks used in most machines the interior water volume is quite small, and stable water temperature is theoretically achieved by adjusting the flow rate of water through the block, in a similar fashion to "on demand" household hot water systems. Practically speaking, the limited water volume of most domestic espresso machine thermoblocks make them very temperature unstable, which in turn makes it extremely difficult to achieve a good espresso shot. An exception to this is the recently developed Sunbeam EM6900 machine, see http://www.coffeeco.com.au/articles/sunbeam.html  .

By using a large, stainless steel lined thermoblock and electronic temperature control in the EM6900 machine Sunbeam have been able able to overcome most of the limitations, leading to reasonable shot quality, but as yet there are no other mass market machines using the same technology. Of course, the Sunbeam thermoblock is itself a development of an earlier Krups thermoblock.

Thermoblock steaming is accomplished by using the pump to pulse small bursts of water into the superheated block, which is then supposed to flash into steam. Again in practice steam production tends to be feeble and "wet". Even the Sunbeam machine, which has a dedicated steam thermoblock and separate pump, has yet to be overcome this limitation.

Thermoblock machines in general are cheap, and will produce average espresso and reasonable milk drinks given good technique, but anyone who wants better than average should avoid them.  Another downside of aluminium thermoblocks is that they corrode, giving them a limited lifetime and introducing a fair bit of aluminium into your drink.

Aluminium Thermoblock

Inside Thermoblock

Boiler

Open Boiler

An aluminium thermoblock with exterior element.

Inside the block. "A maze of twisty channels, all alike."

A 900w stainless steel boiler as used by Krups, Saeco etc.

An inside view of a 900W stainless steel boiler

A Krups thermoblock (note plastic steam valve, a common failure point.) Sunbeam thermoblock; its debt to the Krups unit is apparent. Teflon lined aluminium boiler, made in China. The shape of the future? Big, solid, heavy brass Rancilio Silvia boiler.


Boiler machines tend to fall into definite categories:

Chinese made specials, they can be anything from low volume stainless steel (120ml or so) to 250ml teflon lined aluminium.
Gaggia, which have a proprietary aluminium boiler with 2 external heating elements and a boiler volume of 120ml;
Stainless steel with copper element, boiler volume 180ml;
Marine brass with copper element, boiler volume 300ml.

All boiler types have sufficient water volume to keep reasonable temperature stability throughout a double shot. When heated to steam temperature, the limited volumes of the smaller boilers can mean slightly less steam time and power, but all have enough for average use. In my experience the larger volume boilers have a faster "recovery time" between shots and that bit of extra steam, so that you can produce 6 cappuccinos in 5 minutes for your dinner party.

Again in my experience the Gaggia boilers tend to corrode internally. They are an aluminium upper part attached to a brass group, and the combination of dissimilar metals and hot electrically conductive water creates a galvanic battery which simply eats the aluminium. This can also happen with aluminium thermoblocks, which is why some of the more upmarket ones are now lined with stainless steel.

Finally, the larger brass boilers tend to have higher power elements than the smaller stainless steel ones, again giving better thermal stability and faster recovery.

Two Boilers

Boiler close up

Lelit's 300ml brass boiler.

The standard S/S boiler on the left, and the Silvia boiler on the right. Big, isn't it?

Inside an 18 month old Gaggia boiler. The aluminium top has corroded, the chromed brass base is in perfect condition.

This close-up shows the extent to which the metal has been eaten away.

 Aluminium Thermoblock (10+ml)

Aluminium Boiler (120ml)

Stainless Boiler (180ml)

Brass Boiler (300ml)

 Most Sunbeam Cafe Series
 Breville
 Krups 2000 & 4000 Series
Saeco, Solis & Gaggia Superautomatics

Gaggia (all local models.)

Chinese made cheap machines (often available on Ebay.)

Saeco Via Venezia
Nemox Napoletana & Junior
La Pavoni
Delonghi
Sunbeam Cafe Roma?

Lelit,Imat Mokita Series
Nemox Opera & Fenice
Rancilio Audrey, Silvia, Lucy
Solis SL70 & SL90
Spidem


The GROUP is the bit of the machine that the portafilter locks in to, where the water is pumped through a "showerscreen" on to the coffee. All of the thermoblock machines I've seen have aluminium groups with stainless steel shower screens. The smaller stainless steel boiler machines also have aluminium exterior groups and S/S screens. Gaggias have a brass group with a S/S screen, brass boiler machines have brass groups with S/S screens. Of all domestic machines, only the Rancilio Silvia has a commercial brass group and S/S screen setup.

Portafilters and pressurized filter baskets are another point of differentiation, with (again) thermoblock machines tending to have cheap aluminium portafilters and quality boiler machines chromed brass portafilters. All this concentration on metal types may seem a bit strange, but excellent espresso production relies on thermal stability of all the components in the process. Copper and brass are best, which is why you find them in commercial machines.

This Chinese made machine has a plastic group and stainless steel showerscreen. The Rancilio Silvia group, solid brass with commercial showerscreen and water distributor. Pressurized portafilters: Krups on the left, Saeco on the right. Unpressurized portafilters: Rancilio commercial pf on left, Saeco/Solis/Imat/Nemox unpressurized on right.


Both Gaggia and Rancilio use commercial portafilters and baskets on their domestic machines, although the recent Gaggia Cubika has an aluminium portafilter. Solis and Imat have brass portafilters but non-commercial filter baskets. Saeco uses its patented pressurized portafilter, made mostly of plastic but with some brass, as does Krups on its higher end machines. The Saeco portafilter pops up on other brands of machines such as La Pavoni and Spidem, so it's a good bet that these brands are "rebadges", Saeco inside another manufacturer's body design.

All the rest (as far as I could tell) are aluminium, lightweight and cheap. There is a particular 3 lobed 53mm portafilter with pressurized baskets used by Sunbeam, Breville and Delonghi which seems to be a Chinese standard.

Pressurized portafilters and pressurized filter baskets come in many guises, but they basically have a single purpose: to allow the customer to get the appearance of acceptable crema from stale, poorly ground supermarket coffee. Rather than buy a machine with a pressurized portafilter or filter basket, I would ALWAYS recommend that you buy a decent burr grinder. See http://www.coffeeco.com.au/newsletter/september2004.html and http://www.coffeeco.com.au/newsletter/november2005.html .

Solenoid "3-way" valves are only available on high end machines, they relieve pressure in the portafilter immediately after brewing so you can pull consecutive shots. Machines with solenoid valves are always built to a higher standard, and the fact that the valve is there tells you that the manufacturer knows something about real espresso machine requirements.


Pressurized Portafilters

Unpressurized Portafilters

Brass Portafilters

Solenoid 3 way Valves

Sunbeam Cafe Series (except EM6900), 53mm

All Krups, 55mm

All Breville, 53mm

All Delonghi, 53mm

All Saeco, 53mm

All Solis, 53mm

All Gaggia, 58mm

Rancilio, 58mm

Lelit,  57mm

Nemox Opera, Fenice, 57mm

Nemox Junior, Napoletana, 53mm

Sunbeam EM6900 (58mm)

Gaggia Classic, Baby, Coffee

Rancilio Silvia

Lelit

Nemox

Saeco

Solis

Sunbeam EM6900

Gaggia Classic, Baby

Rancilio Silvia

Lelit

Nemox Opera

Krups 4000 Series

Sunbeam EM6900


Now we get down to the hard part, what do I recommend, and why?


 

 

RANCILIO SILVIA Simply the best value, most reliable domestic espresso machine in the world. Superb build quality, commercial components, fabulous espresso, great steam. MUST be paired with a good grinder for best results.

GAGGIA CLASSIC & BABY Good value machines with commercial portafilters, enough steam for 2 cappuccinos. Excellent "learners" machine for beginners. Use for 2 years, sell on Ebay before problems start.

LELIT COMBI Non-commercial portafilters but excellent 300ml brass boilers, solenoids, integral Lux grinder in the Combi. The Combi (and Nemox Opera) are probably the best value for money machines available.

SUNBEAM EM6900 Two pumps, two thermoblocks, great package deal (including training) and good espresso production. Steam still needs a bit of work. Next generation will probably outstrip all except the Silvia. Will disappoint new users unless they buy the matching grinder.

SALES & SERVICE

Rancilio Silvia      Me

laScala Butterfly     Me

Lelit  Combi      Me

Gaggia  http://www.shriro.com.au/

Krups Groupe SEB (02) 97487944

Saeco http://www.saeco.com.au/

SALES & SERVICE

Delonghi  http://www.delonghi.com.au/

Sunbeam http://www.sunbeam.com.au/

Breville     http://www.breville.com.au/

Solis  http://www.diamond-c.com.au/

Imat, Quaha, Nemox  http://www.lygonimport.com.au

 

GAGGIA COFFEE & CUBIKA Depending on price, which can be extremely variable at this end of the market, these machines can be a bargain. All Gaggia domestic machines have the same boiler and group, only the extras vary. These are the non-solenoid machines, the Coffee has a brass PF.

 

 

LASCALA BUTTERFLY Instead of spending lots of money on a built in Miele Superautomatic (which is actually a cheap plastic rebadged Saeco) why not get a decent machine and grinder combination for less money, and at least 10 times the longevity? Not to mention infinitely better espresso!

FINAL WORD

The single most important thing to think about when contemplating a domestic espresso machine is "Which grinder will I buy?" because if you are serious about making espresso based drinks at home, the grinder is the most important component. There is simply no substitute for fresh, correctly ground coffee in espresso making!