As a wholesaler and consultant, I have been asked many times about what kind of espresso machine to purchase for a cafe. At Bearded Lady Coffee Roasters we don’t sell espresso machines, but for nearly every cafe everywhere the espresso machine bears the brunt of the workload and is worthy of putting in the extra thought before deciding on one. Next to finding a great coffee roaster, your espresso machine might be the most important planning decision of your shop.
Why your espresso machine choice matters
Depending on the menu you choose and the types of drinks you choose to highlight, likely over half of the drinks sold from your coffee shop are going to be made using your espresso machine. Whether it’s espresso and steamed milk for lattes, just espresso for iced lattes or adding a shot to another drink, or just steaming milk for a chai or matcha latte, there’s no denying that the quality of your espresso machine will affect the quality of the majority of your drinks. Your skills as a barista will definitely be a factor, but you will never be able to surpass the limits of your espresso machine on skills alone- the flavor and level of extraction of your espresso shots, as well as the texture of your milk will never be able to exceed what your machine is capable of.
And it’s not just the quality! Consistency and workflow can be just as important as the quality you are able to produce. If you’re dialing in your espresso machine in the morning and it tastes great, but as soon as you’re fifteen drinks into the morning rush and your machine starts pulling shots differently, or your steam wand pressure drops significantly because your espresso machine wasn’t made for the quantity of drinks that you’re trying to produce, that’s generally considered to be less than ideal.
Semi- or Super-?
There are two main kinds of espresso machines used in the commercial setting, “semi-automatic” and “super-automatic” or “fully automatic” machines, and each have their place in the coffee industry. The trick is to decide which is a better solution for your situation, because both options have their pros and cons.
Semi-automatic machines are what most people picture when you think of an espresso machine.
The coffee is ground and dispensed into a portafilter, then tamped, before being locked into the group head on the espresso machine. The barista then presses a button on the machine that starts the pump pushing pressurized water through the bed of finely ground coffee, and if it’s a volumetric machine, the pump stops after a pre-set amount of water flows through. If it’s not a volumetric machine, the pump stops when the baristas presses the button or flips the switch again.
Semi-automatic machines offer more flexibility than a super-automatic machine, while still offering a good level of consistency and repeatability. By having a separate espresso grinder, you have a great deal of control over the grind level, as well as choosing a recipe for how much coffee you want to go in vs how much espresso you want to come out for the finished product. They’re relatively easy to maintain and, depending on how many YouTube videos you’re willing to watch, even some of the more major repairs can be successfully completed without the need for an expensive visit from a certified technician.
The downsides to semi-automatic machines are few, but important. You have to purchase a separate espresso grinder, and if you want good espresso you must spend a pretty penny to get a good one. The workflow can be more difficult and the attention to detail that is required when setting up your bar can be tedious. The amount of countertop real estate required for the machine, grinder (or grinders, if you’re offering decaf espresso or other espresso options), tamper, tamping mat, distributor/leveler, or any other toys you might choose to help you make better espresso can get overwhelming. The required training for dialing in, pulling good shots, and cleaning/maintenance can also be difficult and expensive.
Super-automatic machines truly shine as a solution for a scenario in which you have limited abilities to train yourself or others the intricacies involved in producing quality espresso. They were designed to remove as many barriers between you and your espresso drinks as possible. Once the setup is complete, you should be able to load beans in the hopper on top, push a button, and the machine gets to work for you. There’s no external grinder, no measuring your coffee dose going in or coming out, and (as long as everything is programmed correctly) no opportunity for user error.
Even the milk steaming is automated, to a certain degree, in that it stops steaming once the milk has reached the right temperature, with no need for the barista to think about it. Super-automatic machines take up less counter space than a semi-automatic setup, because the grinder is built into the machine. There’s no need to spend a bunch of money on a separate grinder, tampers, or any other tools that are helpful for a semi-automatic machine. Since the workflow for pulling shots is as simple as pushing a button, training is a breeze. Steaming milk is slightly more complicated, but still pretty easy. Cleanup is typically just as easy, usually involving dropping a cleaning tablet into a certain spot and pressing the button to run a cleaning cycle. It’s honestly scary how close a super-automatic machine is to being able to replace a barista entirely.
The downsides are mostly centered around flexibility and personal preference. The machine will have limits to the amount of coffee that can be dosed in, often around 14-16 grams, and if that’s too little espresso for the drinks that you have in mind, too bad. The machine dials in its own grinder based on the timing of the shots, so it can be difficult if you’re hoping to make slight adjustments to the grinder setting throughout the day to get the best flavor possible. Most of the super-automatic machines will have two hoppers- one for regular espresso and one for decaf. If you want to be able to offer more than two options, well, tough luck. DIY repairs are almost entirely out of the picture because these machines are incredibly complex, so you had better become good friends with your local espresso tech.
The truth is that there’s no right answer that fits everyone, but there is a right answer for you and your situation.
There are several price ranges available, and as with almost everything in the universe, you get what you pay for. Be careful when choosing a lower-priced machine, because what you save on the upfront price tag may end up costing you a lot more in the long run. Before you think to yourself, “Well, I can fix anything! I’ll just get the cheapest machine I can get my hands on and cross the repair bridge when I get to it!” keep in mind that durability isn’t the only reason to choose an espresso machine.
Technological advancements in the world of espresso machines have taken a huge leap in the last few decades and while some of those advancements are costly, they can save you time, money, wrist pain, and can drastically change the quality of the cup from something that’s “pretty good” to something that wows you and your customers day in and day out. The volume of drinks that you plan to serve up to your customers every day also plays a role in your espresso machine price tag, and its importance cannot be understated.
Still important, but perhaps slightly less so, is the aesthetic of the machine you’re wanting. Gone are the days of espresso machines only looking like a giant metal box on the counter, and the looks of the machine you choose can add a lot of intrigue to the overall visual experience that your customers have when they walk in the door.
Machines from the most reputable brands like La Marzocco, Synesso, Victoria Arduino, Slayer, and Sanremo can run anywhere from $20k to $30k, while others from Unic, Astoria, Wega, and Nuova Simonelli can be found in the $5k to $10k range. I’m not interested in disparaging any brands here, because for every time you hear of someone cursing their espresso machine brand and swearing they’ll never buy from them again, you’ll hear someone else singing the praises of that very same brand.
Talk to your local maintenance company first!
Instead of choosing a brand based off of my personal experience, or anyone else’s for that matter, what I would recommend is first talking to your local coffee machine maintenance company and ask what they would recommend. Sometimes parts can be hard to come by, and sometimes a brand will actually have a terrible track record when it comes to their machines staying operational. A good espresso machine technician will know about all of that and will have invaluable input about options for a direction you should choose. Many espresso machine repair companies also sell machines from several brands, and you can do a lot of good for yourself and your business by building a relationship with them early on.
Personally, my favorite option is to find a refurbished machine from a quality brand. Sometimes you can get refurbished machines from your local espresso machine repair company, but there are also resources like coffeemachinedepotusa.com that refurbish and sell lots of espresso machines. When going with a refurb, you can get the features, durability, and style of a top-dollar machine and save thousands of dollars in the process.
Still can’t decide?
I totally get it. Your choice in an espresso machine is probably the most important equipment purchase that you will make when starting your shop, and likely the most expensive. You don’t have an unlimited budget for starting your shop, and you don’t want your money to go to waste. You have a plan for what sounds like the right choice for you, but you just need to know that you’re not making a huge mistake. That’s why I’m here!
I love to help solve problems and come up with creative and effective solutions for others, and you don’t have to do it alone. I spent ten years working behind an espresso machine in multiple kinds of coffee shops before I ever opened my own cafe. I’ve helped multiple first-time coffee shop owners make difficult decisions, whether they were starting something from the ground up, or purchasing a coffee shop after never having worked in the coffee industry before.
I can help you with choosing equipment, menu building, recipes and systems, bar layout, and as an added bonus, I have more dad jokes stored away in my brain than I know what to do with. Click on that “CONTACT” tab and let me know how I can best help you!
The decision to purchase an espresso machine is tough, but important. No machine is made for everyone, and everyone has different needs. We at Bearded Lady Coffee Roasters are passionate about making better coffee and about doing what we can to help your coffee experience be as good as it can be.
If you’re interested in trying some samples of our coffee, let us know! We can’t wait to build a relationship with you and your business.