Your espresso machine’s group head is part of what makes an espresso machine function. And it can determine whether your drink has a great taste.
That revelation made me realize that I should write this post.
I’ll explain what group heads are for espresso machines and compare the different options available.
Here in an overview:
Let’s dive in.
- A group head is responsible for brewing espresso.
- There are electrically heated, conventional, lever, E61, & saturated group heads.
- Saturated group heads work best for commercial machines.
- Electrically heated & conventional group heads are more affordable.
What Is a Group Head?
An espresso group head is a component of an espresso machine responsible for brewing espresso. It sits on the front of the device. The group head contains a heating element that heats the water to the optimal temperature for brewing espresso.
It also has a portafilter holder, where you’d insert the portafilter. The portafilter is a metal cup with a handle holding the filter basket containing the ground coffee.
How a Group Head Works
When brewing espresso, insert the portafilter into the group head and lock it in place. The machine then pumps hot water through the coffee grounds in the filter basket. The pressure of the water forces the water through the coffee, extracting the flavor and caffeine.
The water then flows out of the bottom of the portafilter and into a cup.
Types of Group Heads
Here’s a comparison of all the main group head types:
|Temperature control||Precise||Less precise||Less precise||Precise||Precise|
|Ease of use||Easy||Easy||Easy||Easy||Easy|
The following sections will compare all the different group head types more in-depth. I’ll also talk about whom each group head type is best for and each head’s pros and cons.
Read further to learn more.
1. E61 Group Head
E61 group heads are a type of group head known for their precise temperature control and consistent performance. E61 group heads retain heat better and longer than other group heads because they use a thermosyphon system.
A thermosyphon system is a closed-loop system that uses the natural convection of hot water to circulate water through the group head. This helps to keep the water in the group head at a consistent temperature, even when the machine is not brewing espresso.
E61 group heads are best for home espresso enthusiasts looking for a precise and consistent group head to produce high-quality espresso. They are also a good option for those wanting a group head that will last many years.
Examples of machines with E61 group heads include the Quick Mill Vetrano 2B Evo, Rocket Espresso Appartamento, and Izzo Vivi PID.
E61 Group Head Pros & Cons
- Precise temperature control: Use a thermosyphon system to maintain a consistent water temperature.
- Long heat retention: The thermosyphon system helps them to retain heat for a long time, which means that they can be used to make multiple espresso shots without having to wait for the water to heat up again.
- Durable: Made from high-quality materials & are built to last.
- More expensive: More expensive than other types of group heads.
- Can be difficult to find: Not as common as other types of group heads.
- Not as energy-efficient: Not as energy-efficient as some other types of group heads, such as PID-controlled group heads.
E61 group heads were a go-to for espresso enthusiasts. But have become outdated since saturated group heads became more popular.
2. Electrically Heated Group Head
Electrically heated group heads heated by an electric element such as a Proportional Integral Derivative (PID) or thermostat. These elements allow for precise temperature control.
A thermostat is a device that turns on and off the heating element to maintain a specific temperature. A PID controller is a more advanced device that uses feedback to hold a specific temperature.
This makes them a good option for home espresso machines, as they can produce consistent espresso shots. Electrically heated group heads are also relatively affordable and easy to use. Making them a popular choice for entry-level espresso machines.
Electrically heated group heads are a good option for home espresso enthusiasts looking for a precise and consistent group head that is easy to use and maintain. They are also a good option for those on a budget, as they are relatively affordable.
Examples of machines with electrically heated group heads include the Profitec Pro 300 and Bezzera BZ10.
Electrically Heated Group Head Pros & Cons
Advantages of using electrically heated group heads include:
- Easy to use: No complex controls to worry about.
- Affordable: Typically more affordable than other types of group heads, such as saturated group heads.
- Not as durable: This is because they have more moving parts that can wear out over time.
- May not produce as flavorful espresso: This is because they do not have as much thermal mass, which can help to extract more flavor from the coffee grounds.
These types of group heads work better for entry-level and some mid-range machines where price is important. They’re excellent for beginner home baristas because of their consistency and lack of complex controls.
3. Saturated Group Head
A saturated group head is immersed in the espresso machine’s boiler. This allows for precise temperature control and consistent performance.
Saturated group heads are best for home espresso enthusiasts looking for the best possible experience. They are also a good option for professional baristas in a commercial setting who need a reliable and consistent group head.
Examples of machines with saturated group heads include the La Marzocco GB/5 and Rancilio Silvia.
Saturated Group Head Pros & Cons
- Precise temperature control: Water heats directly in the boiler, which ensures that the water is always at the correct temperature for brewing espresso.
- Consistent espresso shots: Water always sits at the correct temperature; which leads to less variation from shot to shot.
- Durable: They can withstand years of use without breaking down.
- More expensive: More expensive than other types of group heads.
- This is because they are more complex to manufacture.
- Can be difficult to find: Saturated group heads are not as common as other types of group heads.
- Not as energy-efficient: Since the water heats directly in the boiler, which wastes energy.
Saturated group heads last longer than their counterparts, but are more complex to make. Resulting in much higher-cost machines. Because of these prices, mostly businesses or espresso hobbyists could afford machines with this group head.
4. Lever Group Head
A lever heats lever group heads. The lever controls the flow of hot water to the group head, and the barista can use it to adjust the extraction time and pressure manually.
There are two types of lever group heads:
- Manual piston lever group heads: These lever group heads have a piston operated by the barista.
- Spring piston lever group heads: These have a spring-loaded piston.
- When pulling the lever down, the spring compresses.
- When releasing the lever, the spring expands & pushes the piston up, increasing the pressure & hot water flow to the group head.
The main difference between manual piston and spring piston lever group heads is the amount of control the barista has over the extraction process.
With a manual piston lever group head, the barista has complete control over the pressure and flow of hot water. With a spring piston lever group head, the barista has less control over the extraction process. The spring will automatically push the piston up after a certain time.
Examples of machines with lever group heads include the Robot by Cafelat and Profitec Pro 800.
Lever Group Head Pros & Cons
- Easy to maintain: They have fewer moving parts than other types of group heads.
- Can produce flavorful espresso: Allows for precise control over the extraction process.
- Durable: Made with high-quality materials & withstand wear & tear well.
- Not as precise: Not as precise as other types of group heads when it comes to temperature control.
- Can be difficult to use: Require more skill & experience to use than other types of group heads.
- More expensive: Typically more expensive than other types of group heads.
Lever group heads are better for anyone who wants total control over brewing their espresso. It also works best for anyone who doesn’t mind potentially sacrificing consistency.
5. Conventional Group Head
Conventional group heads use a 3-way solenoid valve to relieve excess pressure after brewing. This is good because it prevents the build-up of pressure, which can damage the group head and the espresso machine.
Conventional group heads are a good option for home espresso enthusiasts looking for an affordable, easy-to-use group head. They are also a good option for those not concerned with having the most precise temperature control.
An example of the best espresso machine with conventional group heads includes the Nuova Simonelli Musica.
Conventional Group Head Pros & Cons
- Easy to maintain: They do not have any complex parts.
- Affordable: More affordable than other types of group heads, such as saturated group heads.
- Not ideal for thermal stability: Doesn’t maintain heat as well as other group heads.
- Can be difficult to find: Not as common as other types of group heads, such as saturated group heads.
These group heads aren’t common and don’t have the best thermal stability. However, they’re typically more affordable than machines with, for instance, saturated group heads.
Ideal Group Head Temperature for Espresso
The ideal group head temperature for espresso is between 195 and 205 °F . This temperature range allows the coffee to be extracted evenly, without extracting too much or too little.
The ideal temperature may vary depending on the type of coffee beans you are using, the grind size, and your personal preferences.
How to Choose the Right Group Head for Your Espresso Machine
Here are some of the factors to consider when shopping for a group head:
- Number of group heads: This will determine how many espresso shots pull(able) at the same time.
- If you’re a home barista who makes espresso for yourself or a few friends, one group head will suffice.
- If running a café, you will need multiple group heads to keep up with demand.
- Temperature stability: Should maintain a consistent temperature throughout the brewing process.
- Pressure: Should generate the correct amount of pressure for brewing espresso (9 bars) .
- Materials: Espresso group heads are typically made of metal, such as brass or stainless steel.
- Stainless steel is more durable than brass, but it can also be more expensive.
- Features: Some espresso group heads have additional features, such as a pre-infusion cycle or a PID controller.
- A pre-infusion cycle helps to evenly distribute the water before the main extraction begins.
- A PID controller helps to maintain a consistent temperature throughout the brewing process.
Ensure you consider the above, in addition to the type of group head you’ll need, before buying.
Group Head Maintenance
Here are some tips for group head maintenance:
- Back flush regularly: The process of forcing water through the group head in the opposite direction of brewing.
- This helps to remove coffee oils & other residues that can build up over time & clog the group head.
- Back flush at least once a day; more often if you are using your machine frequently.
- Clean the shower screen: The shower screen is a thin metal plate that sits between the group head & portafilter.
- It helps to distribute water evenly over the coffee grounds.
- Clean the shower screen with a descaling solution or vinegar & water solution every week or two.
- Inspect the gasket: The gasket is a rubber ring that seals the group head to the portafilter. It helps to prevent water from leaking out of the group head.
- Inspect the gasket regularly for signs of wear or damage.
- Replace the gasket if torn or leaking.
- Lubricate the group head: The group head contains a number of moving parts that can benefit from lubrication.
- Use a food-grade lubricant to lubricate the group head every few months.
- Descale the group head: Over time, calcium & other minerals can build up in the group head & restrict water flow.
- Descale the group head every few months to remove this buildup.
By following these tips, you can help to keep your group head in good condition and ensure that your espresso machine performs at its best.
Saturated group heads work best for businesses and espresso enthusiasts who care about taste and consistency. E61s are outdated but still great for long-lasting machines. Conventionals balance the pros and cons of the above.
And levers are great for anyone using manual espresso makers.
Need help finding an espresso machine? Check out our picks.