More On Espresso Machines

“Which espresso machine should I buy?"

If I had a nickel for every time I've either heard that phrase or seen it in text, I'd be ... well, wealthier isn't exactly true. I'd have more money for coffee, to be certain.

In an article written for Seasoned Cooking in the Fall of 1998, I expounded on a few of the different home models of espresso and cappuccino machines available. I lightly danced around the topic of semi-commercial machines and now, because of the interests of one particular Seasoned Cooking reader, I find myself having the need to address the issue.

What exactly is a semi-commercial espresso machine?

For the purposes of this discussion, I will classify the manually operated machines that fall into the $800+ category. They would include, for example, Pasquini's "Livia 90" and the "Oscar," from Simonelli. The outstanding features of these machines include separated boiler and heat exchanger for the production of steam and brewing water, separate hot water delivery and steam delivery wands, and possibly the use of a commercially rated, rotary vane pump. What I will not consider a semi-commercial machine are those super-automatic machines that may fall in to a similar price category. Also, identifiably different is that these machines may or may not be commercial rated by an agency (such as CSA, CUL, or CE).

Semi-commercial machines have the look and feel, and often the same parts, as their single-group commercial siblings. And like their commercial counterparts, they may be even so robust as to operate 24/7, not having the need to be disconnected from their power source at the end of a day's use.

The question that fuels my writing behind this, was one of a home espresso enthusiast who desired better performance and wanted to know what he could upgrade to. Below, I explore the differences and reasons to either go with or not go for a semi-commercial machine.

Popular Manufacturers

Saeco has a good reputation. And they offer a wide assortment of different machines for different individual's needs and price-points. Starbucks and Saeco have been partners in the home espresso machine business for over ten years. (At one point, Saeco renamed a branch of their operations to "Estro" and that was sold exclusively through Starbucks)

Some other very well-respected names in the world of home espresso machines: Gaggia, Nouvo Simonelli, Pasquini as well as Capresso (the latter not being one of the more touted players but is gaining popularity). Gaggia has been around the block once or twice with regards to espresso machine history. The same is true of Pasquini and Simonelli.

From the aspect of home machines, Gaggia has been producing models similar to what they first came out with many, many years ago. Internal changes (to heating elements, materials, shapes, etc) have slowly progressed. And in general, Gaggias are trustworthy and solid machines. (They had some quality control issues earlier this decade but those have been, as far as I know, taken care of.)

On the same par of class as the Gaggia, are machines from Rancilio. As a matter of fact, it was a very close call for me, personally, when deciding what my new home machine was going to be. It was a toss-up between the Rancilio Miss Silvia and a Gaggia. In the end, I chose the Miss Silvia. (I preferred the shape of the portafiltro and the ability to swap the portafiltro in commercial machines, their use of high-rated components and quicker start-up time). Both should be researched and both are quality machines. But now, as Emril would say, "let's kick it up a notch!" Machines in the price range of 350 - 500$ are great machines. Even for an experience home espresso aficionado.

Are they worth it, though?

It really depends on what you expect to get out of the machine. They are designed to be left on 24/7, like a commercial machine. They offer two boilers for consistent steam and brewing water (do you plan on making numerous drinks per day?). And they take up a hunk of kitchen counter real estate.

I've played with the Livia. Fine machine. If I had the money, though, and I didn't rent, I'd go the extra few bucks and buy a true, one-group, commercial machine and plumb it into my home's water. Why?

That's a good question.

Typical home use, even from the true home espresso guru, doesn't demand the power and features offered by semi-commercial units. Think of it this way: while at home, how much does it cost for you to make a drink? Given that price, how soon would you pay off your machine when pitting your price against that of a local bar or cafe? Once you reach a price point, and we'll call it the "breakpoint," you will find that your pay-back goes beyond five years!

Why is five years and important number? This is where one must look _inside_ the machine and compare apples to apples. Semi-commercial machines do offer great construction and perform very much to that of the likes of their commercial cousins. But they lack one very important feature: a true commercial pump.

In the life of an espresso machine, whether a home unit or commercial, one of two things will go wrong first: either the boiler (or thermo-block) or the pump. Home machine use a vibro-reciprocating pump. That is, a wound coil producing alternating magnetic fields. This is turn is applied to a ferromagnetic plug. As the plug moves in opposing directions, it draws a vacuum and consequently draws water from the machines reservoir. This is a tried and true approach and some manufactures do indeed go all out to provide the customer with a nice and long-lasting pump.

On the other hand, commercial machines utilize a rotary vane pump. Water is displaced, again, by vacuum via the movement of a set of vanes housed in the pump's body; much like a propeller will displace water from behind its blades as it spins. These pumps, while more costly, offer longer life and better performance characteristics.

But the difference is in the hands of the operator. The up-front cost of a machine containing a commercial pump is justified via quantities of drinks made but also by over-all quality of the espresso. Again, pay-back however, is on trial. The labour of love will be the deciding factor. This returns us to comparing high-ended home machines to semi-commercials. To this author, I do not see value in the increased end-cost of the machine. The offerings of Gaggia, Rancilio, and (Swiss-manufactured) Solis are a better value to those who wish to improve their home-espresso experience and still have enough money left over for a decent grinder. (See my article on home grinders for more on that topic.)

There are individuals and families out there who can afford the cost and the pay-back of semi-commercial machines. For them, I'd say "go for it!" These are the people who consume many drinks and often don't have access to bar-quality espresso due to location or what have you. I'd argue that it is rare and that it's a rare few who need or could fully utilize the benefits of a semi-commercial machine. In the end, it does boil down to wants versus needs.