Coffee Machine Basics - Learn the lingo and sound like a Pro
Looking at the different types and functions of coffee machines can quickly have you asking more questions, rather than giving you answers. Researching the different types of machines can become overwhelming and confusing.
If this is you, and you want it laid out plain and simple, then you've come to the right place.
Keep reading as I break it down so it's more easily understandable. We'll have you sounding like a true coffee machine connoisseur in no time.
The 3 Basic Types of Coffee Machines
Coffee machines range from the quite simple to very hands-on.
Some use capsules (or coffee pods), others let you adjust water temperatures, brewing times, etc. and at the other end of the scale, there are machines that have every step of the process completely automated for you.
You may already have an idea of the type of machine you're after, but the 3 basic types of coffee machines will fall into one of these categories:
Manual coffee machines are thought of as a more traditional machine. These have been very popular for home use for years.
A manual coffee machine is perfect for anyone who enjoys a barista coffee made to your own taste, at home.
Regardless of the make or model, all manual coffee machines use the same process of creating water pressure and then forcing the water through coffee that is tightly packed in the handle.
This high pressure method extracts more coffee granules. It gives coffee a noticeably richer, fuller and stronger flavour.
Fully Automatic (and semi-Automatic) Coffee Machines
Automatic machines are the ultimate in home coffee makers. Automatic coffee machines take charge of the entire coffee-making process. They grind the beans, brew the coffee and froth the milk. Most automatic machines come with the option of making a cappuccino at the touch of a button.
Automatic machines are great when entertaining, as they make a coffee quite quickly - especially when compared to a manual machine.
Semi-automatic machines will give you a bit of choice when it comes to the length of brew time. Some also let you grind and tamp an espresso yourself.
Capsule coffee machines are becoming incredibly popular in the home. Not only are these speedy and convenient, they are smaller than Manual and Automatic coffee machines. This is an advantage in a small kitchen or where counter space is at a premium.
Capsule machines are favored by busy people or those that don't want to fuss with coffee grinds. They use capsules (also called pods) which have a pre-measured amount of coffee within it. The capsule is dropped into the machine, and you select a button to create a perfect espresso every time.
While extremely fast and easy to use, the capsules are slightly more expensive per cup than the equivalent in beans and machine quality does vary. The coffee pods are hermetically sealed in aluminium or plastic. This gives them an added advantage of staying fresh for about nine months.
Most (but not all) capsule machines come with a milk frother for an instant cappuccino or latte. Some will have a milk frother as part of the design, others come as a part of a package with a stand-alone milk frother.
One thing to bear in mind when considering which capsule machine to buy, is that you're going to be tied into using that brand's capsules. Some are interchangeable - that is, they will use a 'Nespresso compatible capsule'. Make sure you know which pods your machine can use before pulling the trigger on one.
Coffee Machines vs Coffee Makers
I've covered the 3 main types of coffee machines, but for the sake of completeness, I'm going to list some of the more common types of Coffee Makers.
Included under the heading of Coffee Makers are Percolators, Plungers, Electric Drip Machines and Moka Pots, which you've probably seen around even if you didn't know what it was called (I may be speaking for myself here).
As this article is about Coffee Machines rather than Coffee Makers, I'm not going to go into any detail about coffee makers here. I think it's easiest to include an image for each of these, and you'll get it.
How expensive are Stand-Alone Coffee Machines?
Cost of Coffee Machines
How expensive? Let's just say, think of it as an investment. Coffee machines range in price from under $100 to thousands of dollars for ones that are fully integrated into your kitchen design. The more automation that's provided by a coffee machine, the more expensive that machine is.
Out of the 3 different types, Capsule machines are the cheapest, especially those that don't come with a built-in milk frother.
Many people justify the initial outlay of a good quality coffee machine by balancing the cost against what you would spend if you were buying takeaway coffees everyday. Depending on your consumption and choice of coffee, justifying the investment this way can vary from just a couple of months to 6 months or more.
You should also consider the convenience of having a machine sitting at your disposal on your kitchen counter, meaning you don't have to venture outdoors unnecessarily. This reason alone has become a big factor in the take up of home coffee machines in 2020 and this trend is now continuing in 2021.
Milk Frothers & Steam Wands
If you like a good milky coffee that tastes like it has just been made by the local barista, then make sure you buy a machine that comes with a frother or milk steamer. Some are incorporated into the design, others are sold as a package with a coffee machine.
Each milk frother does the same basic function. The frother sends steam through the milk aerating it, which both heats the milk and significantly increases its volume. This helps cut through the sharp flavor of coffee.
Most manual and all automatic coffee machines will come with a milk frother or milk steamer. Capsule coffee machines are 50/50. Stand-alone milk frothing machines probably aren't as cheap as you think. Some milk frothers can cost as much as a low budget capsule machine which doesn't have its own frother.
With a bit of practice, a milk frother gives you the ability to replicate the cool coffee art that you see in your local café.
Cost of Beans and Coffee Pods
This can seem like a big expense and it is, to be honest. This is because you're buying not just for today, but for a week, or a month. If you're keen to try some different blends, then the outlay really starts to add up.
You need to break the cost down to how many cups you get out of each purchase. Once you do the calculations, I'm sure you'll find this is at least half the price of a regular takeaway coffee. At least!
Don't forget the Milk
If you asked me about my milk consumption when I first started using my De'Longhi capsule machine, I would have said it was no more than when making a coffee with instant coffee or a plunger. But, as I'm the one in the household buying the milk, I can tell you, my milk consumption with a milk frother could be up by as much as double the amount I was using previously.
This is something to be aware of. It's a good thing for us, milk is not an expensive add-on item.
Other Things to Consider
The Size of the Machine
The size and weight of your coffee machine will be important if you need to stow it away after each use. If this is the case, then go for a lighter model.
You need to make sure you have enough countertop space if you decide to leave it out on display.
Additional Settings and Features of Coffee Machines
If you have a choice, go for machines with higher wattage as these boil water faster. This is going to save you time every morning.
Filters for Ground Coffee
The Filter holds the coffee granules. This is made with aluminium on cheaper models, and brass on more expensive machines. A brass filter retains the heat better.
The thermoblock is the heating element that boils the water to the perfect temperature.
This is the speed at which the hot water is forced through the coffee, with between 15 and 19 bars considered optimal.
So there you have it, the basics of the different types of coffee machines.
I'm not sure if this is a man-thing or not, but in my experience many men really enjoy the process of making a coffee with a manual machine.
You may find that you start with a capsule machine, and work your way up to the more complex (and expensive machines) from there. I've actually gone the other way. I had a manual machine but it was too time consuming and messy for me personally, so I'm happy with a capsule machine.