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What Is an Espresso Machine & How Does It Work

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An espresso machine is a device that brews concentrated coffee (espresso). It works by forcing hot water through coffee grounds at a high pressure. Keep reading to learn more about parts, different types of machines, and more.

I’ve spent hours researching everything about espresso machines to bring you this guide. That way, you’ll know what an espresso machine is and how it works.

Here’s what I’ll cover:

Read on and learn more.

Key Takeaways

  • Espresso machines brew concentrated coffee by blasting water through coffee grounds.
  • Unlike coffee makers, they use more coffee to produce stronger drinks.
  • Semi-automatic, manual, automatic, & super-automatic machines are different types of makers.
  • Angelo Moriondo from Turin, Italy invented the first espresso machine in 1884.

What Is an Espresso Machine?

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What Is an Espresso Machine & How Does It Work 6

An espresso machine is a machine that brews espresso, a concentrated coffee drink. It does this by forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee beans at high pressure.

You’ve heard of coffee makers and espresso machines. Are there any differences?

Yes. Keep reading to learn more.

Coffee Maker vs. Espresso Machine

A coffee maker and an espresso machine are machines that brew coffee. But they do so in different ways. A coffee maker uses hot water to brew coffee grounds. An espresso machine uses hot water forced through finely ground coffee beans at high pressure.

Here is a table summarizing the key differences between coffee makers and espresso machines:

FeatureCoffee MakerEspresso Machine
Type of coffee brewedDrip coffeeEspresso
Brewing methodHot water passes over coffee groundsHot water forced through coffee grounds at high pressure
Strength of coffeeWeakerStronger
Ease of useEasier to useMore difficult to use
VersatilityIced coffee, coffee & concentrated coffeeEspresso-based drinks

If you are looking for a simple way to make a cup of coffee, then a coffee maker is a good option. They’re inexpensive and easy to use.

If you’re looking for a more concentrated cup of coffee with a richer flavor, then an espresso machine is a better choice. They are more expensive and difficult to use, but they can produce better-tasting drinks.

Now that we know what an espresso machine is, how does it work?

How Does an Espresso Machine Work?

An espresso machine works by forcing hot water through finely-ground coffee beans at high pressure. This creates a concentrated coffee beverage called espresso.

Here are the basic steps involved in how an espresso machine works:

  1. Place grinds in a portafilter: A metal cup that fits into the group head of the espresso machine.
    1. Don’t forget to tamp grinds.
  2. Insert portafilter into the group head.
  3. Heat water between 195 & 205 °F.
  4. Hot water blasts through the coffee grounds at a pressure of between 9 bars.
  5. The espresso flows into a cup.

The amount of time it takes to extract the espresso will vary depending on the type of espresso machine you are using and the grind size of the coffee beans. A good rule of thumb is to extract the espresso for 20–30 seconds [1].

The quality of the espresso will also depend on the quality of the coffee beans, the grind size, and the temperature and pressure of the water.

Espresso machines go in-depth, though. There’s no “singular” espresso machine. There are semi-automatic, manual, automatic, and super-automatic machines. Let’s check out the differences.

How Do Different Espresso Machine Types Work

Here are the different types of espresso machines:

Ease of useLowMediumHighVery high
ControlHighMediumLowVery low
CostLowMediumHighVery high
ConsistencyLowMediumHighVery high

There are also stovetop coffee makers and capsule espresso machines. The former produces more of a concentrated coffee and doesn’t use much pressure (1 bar) like espresso machines. Capsule makers use capsules to brew espresso.

Since this post mostly covers traditional espresso machines, I won’t cover either machine type in this piece.

Instead, I’ll explain how different types of traditional espresso makers work throughout the following sections.

1. Manual Espresso Machine

A manual espresso machine is an espresso machine that requires the user to manually grind the coffee beans, tamp them into the portafilter, and then manually pull the shot of espresso.

This device type gives home baristas the most control over their drinks, but sacrifices automation and consistency other devices offer.

2. Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine

A semi-automatic espresso machine is a type of espresso machine that requires the user to grind the coffee beans and tamp them into the portafilter. It then requires them to manually pull espresso shots.

The machine automates the process of heating the water and forcing it through the coffee grounds. Offering control over most aspects of espresso making and consistency/automation over others.

This type of machine is fantastic for anyone wanting control over most of their brewing without sacrificing pressure and temperature inconsistencies.

3. Automatic Espresso Machine

Automatic espresso machines require the user to grind the coffee beans and tamp them into the portafilter, but the machine does the rest of the work. Such as brewing the espresso and steaming the milk. 

They typically have a built-in grinder. The user does not need to grind the coffee beans separately. It’s a great pick for anyone wanting to automate most aspects of espresso making.

4. Super-Automatic (Or Fully-Automatic) Espresso Machine

Super-automatic espresso machines do everything automatically, including grinding the beans, tamping, brewing, and steaming the milk.

Super-automatic espresso machines make espresso making as easy and convenient as possible.

They do this by automating many of the steps involved in making espresso, such as grinding the coffee beans, tamping the coffee grounds, and extracting the espresso. Perfect for anyone who wants espresso with a consistent taste and doesn’t want to waste time on manual input.

Let’s learn about how espresso machines became what they are.

Espresso Machine History

Here are some of the most important milestones in the history of the espresso machine:

  • 1885: Angelo Moriondo patented the first espresso machine [2].
  • 1901: Luigi Bezzera patents an improved espresso machine that uses a pump to create higher pressure.
  • 1938: Achille Gaggia invents a machine that uses a lever to create higher pressure.
  • 1961: Ernesto Valente introduces the Faema E61 espresso machine.
  • 1989: Acorto creates the first super-automatic espresso machine.
  • 2000s: The popularity of espresso machines increases, & they become increasingly common in homes & coffee shops.

The first espresso machine surfaced in 1884 by Angelo Moriondo, an Italian inventor from Turin. Moriondo’s machine used steam to force hot water through finely-ground coffee beans, creating a concentrated coffee beverage that he called “espresso.”

In 1901, Luigi Bezzera, another Italian inventor, patented an improved espresso machine that used a pump to create higher pressure, resulting in a more consistent and flavorful espresso. 

Bezzera’s machine was a commercial success, and considered to be the first true espresso machine.

In the years since Bezzera’s invention, there have been many advances in espresso machine technology. In the 1930s, Achille Gaggia invented a machine that used a lever to create higher pressure, resulting in a more crema-rich espresso.

In the 1960s, Ernesto Valente introduced the E61 espresso machine. A machine that uses the E61 group head, which many machines use to this day.

But what parts are inside these machines? Let’s see.

Espresso Machine Parts & Functions

Here are common parts in most espresso machines:

Group HeadDelivers hot water to the coffee grounds.
Water BoilerHeats the water to the desired temperature.
PumpPressurizes the water & forces it through the coffee grounds.
Water SourceProvides the water for the boiler.
Steam WandSteams milk

1. Group Head

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A group head is a part of an espresso machine that is responsible for extracting the espresso from the coffee grounds. It’s located on the front of the machine and is where you’d insert the portafilter.

The group head has a number of important components, including:

  • Boiler: Where the water heats to the correct temperature for espresso extraction.
  • Showerhead: Part of the group head that distributes the water evenly over the coffee grounds.
  • Thermostat: Controls the temperature of the water in the boiler.
  • Solenoid valve: Controls the flow of water from the boiler to the showerhead.

There are different types of group heads, including the following:

FeatureElectrically HeatedConventionalLeverE61Saturated
Temperature controlPreciseLess preciseLess precisePrecisePrecise
Ease of useEasyEasyEasyEasyEasy

The E61 is the most common type of group head on espresso machines. Many lower-end models may use electrically heated or conventional variations. Manual espresso machines will use lever group heads.

And many commercial espresso machines will use saturated group heads. They have the best temperature consistency and offer the most control over your machine’s temperature.

2. Boiler

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What Is an Espresso Machine & How Does It Work 8

A boiler in an espresso machine is a tank that heats water to the desired temperature for brewing espresso. The boiler is typically made of stainless steel or brass and heated by an electric element.

You’ll often see different types of boilers used in espresso machines, including:

  • Single boiler: A boiler used to heat water or steam; it can’t heat both simultaneously.
    • These boilers result in cheaper machines.
    • Best for home use.
  • Dual boiler: Has 2 boilers, one for brewing espresso & one for steaming milk.
    • This allows the machine to maintain the correct temperature for each function, resulting in better espresso & milk froth.
    • Best for commercial & home use.
  • Thermoblock: A single boiler made of a metal block with a heating element inside.
    • The water heats as it passes through the block.
    • Thermoblock boilers are less expensive than other types of boilers, but they can’t maintain the same level of temperature consistency.
    • Best for home use.

The type of boiler used in an espresso machine will affect the quality of the espresso and milk froth produced.

Single boiler machines are the least expensive, but they may not produce the best results. Dual boiler machines are more expensive, but they offer the best performance. Thermoblock machines are a good middle ground between price and performance.

There are also heat exchangers, which are a tube inside single or double boilers that’ll heat steam and water. This type of water heater is also best for home use.

3. Pump

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An espresso machine pump is responsible for forcing hot water through the coffee grounds. Extracting the flavor and oils that make espresso delicious.

There are 2 main types of pumps used in espresso machines:

  • Rotary pumps: Lasts up to 15 years & can produce better-tasting espresso, yet costs more [3].
  • Vibratory pumps: Don’t produce as high of a pressure as rotary pumps, but they are still sufficient for espresso extraction.
    • These pumps also cost less & aren’t found in commercial or direct-line espresso makers.

Size, cost, functionality, and other design choices differentiate both pumps. Primarily prosumer and commercial machines will use rotary pumps. Machines for entry-level and intermediate baristas will use vibratory pumps.

4. Water Source

An espresso machine’s water source is the container or location where the water comes from.

You’ll find a couple types of water sources for espresso machines that include:

  • Reservoir: Typically located at the back of the machine & holds a certain amount of water.
    • When the water level in the reservoir gets low, the machine will automatically shut off.
  • Direct plumb: This type of water source connects directly to your home’s water supply.
    • This means that you will never have to refill the reservoir, but it also means that the water quality is not as controllable as with a reservoir.

The type of water source you choose will depend on your needs and preferences. If you make espresso occasionally, then a reservoir may suffice. If you make espresso frequently, then get a direct plumb.

5. Steam Wand or Chamber

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What Is an Espresso Machine & How Does It Work 10

A steam wand is a tool attached to an espresso machine and used to heat and froth milk for use in various espresso drinks. The steam wand connects to the heating vessel. Some vessels will heat the wand and water at the same time (e.g., dual boilers).

Single boilers and thermoblock heaters won’t.

When the user puts the valve in the steam position, steam from the heating vessel releases out of the wand and into the milk. The pressurized steam warms and adds texture to the milk, allowing the creation of cappuccinos and lattes.

Now that you know all the most common parts, learn how to shop for the best espresso maker.

How to Buy the Best Espresso Machine

Consider the following factors when shopping for an espresso machine:

PressureDetermines the quality of the espresso.
Number of Group HeadsHumber of espresso shots that one can make simultaneously.
Water CapacityImportant if you plan on making multiple espresso drinks in a row.
FeaturesSpecific features that the machine has, such as a built-in grinder, steam wand, or PID control.
Drinks It Can MakeTypes of espresso drinks the machine can make.
WattageImportant if concerned about energy consumption.
Maintenance & Ease Of UseHow easy the machine is to maintain & use.
WarrantyTime the manufacturer’s warranty covers the machine.
BrandsSome brands are more reliable than others.

The following sections will explain why each factor is critical to consider. I’ll also explain what you should remember when considering each section.

Dive on in to learn more.

1. Pressure

The ideal pressure for espresso is 9 bars. This pressure allows the water to extract the flavor and oils from the coffee grounds evenly, resulting in a rich and flavorful espresso.

Almost all espresso makers will stick to brewing at 9 bars of pressure.

The espresso becomes weak and watery if the water pressure is too low. The espresso turns bitter and over-extracted if the water pressure is too high.

In addition to the ideal pressure, it is also critical to consider the consistency of the water pressure. The water pressure should be stable throughout the extraction process to produce a consistent shot of espresso.

Some espresso machines have a built-in pressure gauge that allows you to monitor the water pressure. A helpful tool in ensuring that the water pressure is correct.

2. Number of Group Heads

The number of group heads on an espresso machine is the number of coffee drinks brewable simultaneously.

A single group head machine can make 1 espresso at a time, while a double group head machine can make 2 espressos. A triple or quadruple group head machine can make more drinks.

The number of group heads needed will depend on your needs and usage. 

A single group head will suffice if you’re a home barista who makes espresso for yourself or a few friends. However, if you are a coffee shop owner or run a high-volume café, you’ll need a machine with multiple group heads.

Here’s a table that shows how many group heads you’ll need:

# of Group Heads1 Group2 Groups3 Groups4 Groups
Cups per Day Served<5050–300300–600>600

3. Water Capacity

If you plan on making multiple cups of espresso in a row, or if you have a large household, you will need an espresso maker with a larger water reservoir.

Here are some water reservoir capacities for different types of espresso makers:

Commercial espresso machines will benefit more from direct water connections. Since team members won’t need to refill the machines frequently. A process that could prove devastating for business during rushes.

Your best water reservoir capacity will depend on your needs and preferences. Consider how many cups of espresso you typically drink, your household size, and whether the espresso maker is for home or commercial use.

4. Features

Consider one of these features when shopping for an espresso maker:

PID temperature controlMaintains consistent water temperature for better extraction
Built-in burr grinderGrinds beans fresh for each shot for maximum flavor
Pre-infusionSoaks the coffee grounds before extraction for a more even extraction
Three-way solenoid valveReleases pressure after extraction to prevent bitterness
Thermoblock heating systemHeats water quickly for fast espresso making
Steam wandCreates foamed milk for lattes & cappuccinos
Dual boilerSeparate boilers for brewing & steaming for better temperature control
Automatic milk frotherFroths milk automatically for lattes & cappuccinos

Most espresso machines will have steam wands. Higher-end devices ($1,000+) will include PID, pre-infusion, dual boilers, and automatic milk frothing. However, you’ll find automatic milk frothers mostly on super-automatic espresso makers and some capsule machines.

Fully-automatic espresso makers also often include built-in burr grinders. These help reduce the time you spend on grinding. You also don’t need to invest in a separate grinder. However, you won’t have as consistent of grinds as dedicated grinders.

5. Drinks It Can Make & Flavor

Almost all espresso machines can make the following drinks:

AmericanoRed EyeEspresso shots
Black EyeMochaIrish Coffee
CappuccinoMacchiatoLazy Eye
LatteFlat WhiteDoppio

Espresso machines with milk frothers can brew all the milk-based drinks (e.g., latte). Otherwise, all espresso makers are capable of making Americanos, Ristretto, Lungo, Doppio. You’ll need a separate coffee maker to make Black- and Red Eye drinks. They require coffee and espresso.

6. Wattage

The more power an espresso machine requires, the faster it can heat the water and brew a cup of coffee.

Wattage is a measure of the electrical power consumption of an appliance. In the case of espresso machines, wattage indicates the amount of electricity needed to heat the water and brew.

Machines with more wattage will also require more electricity, adding more costs to your electricity bill.

Here are the energy-efficient espresso machines we offer.

7. Maintenance & Ease of Use

Regular maintenance is essential to prevent your espresso machine from breaking down. This upkeep includes cleaning the brew group, descaling the device, and replacing worn parts.

If you want to spend less time on maintenance, you’ll want to choose a machine with features that make it easy to clean and maintain.

Easy-to-use machines mean having clear instructions, intuitive controls, and a design that is easy to clean. If you’re not a coffee expert, you’ll want to choose a machine that is easy to learn how to use.

Here are some features that would make maintenance easier:

  • Removable brew group: Part of the machine that makes contact with the coffee grounds; it’s important to clean it regularly.
  • Self-cleaning cycle: Automatically cleans the machine’s brew group & other parts.
  • Water filter: Can help to prevent limescale buildup, which can damage your machine.

Design choices that would make machines easier to use include:

  • Intuitive controls: Easy to understand controls.
  • Removable drip tray: Makes it easy to empty the drip tray & prevents it from overflowing.
  • A steam wand that’s easy to clean: The steam wand froths milk; it’s critical to clean regularly.

The best espresso machine for you will depend on your individual needs and preferences. However, if you’re looking for a machine that is easy to maintain and use, you should consider the factors mentioned above.

8. Warranty

A warranty is a guarantee from the manufacturer that the product is free from defects in materials and workmanship for a specified period of time. In the case of an espresso machine, the warranty will typically cover the machine itself, as well as any parts or accessories that are included with the purchase.

A warranty can protect you from financial loss if the machine breaks down within the warranty period. The length of the warranty will vary depending on the manufacturer and the price of the machine. In general, more expensive machines should have longer warranties.

But I haven’t noticed that trend. I did see that manual machines have much longer warranties than their electric counterparts.

Here are some of the things to look for in an espresso machine warranty:

  • Length of the warranty: Longer is better, but it’s also important to ensure the warranty isn’t voided by certain conditions.
    • Such as improper use or neglect.
  • What the warranty covers: Should cover all parts of the machine, including the pump, boiler, & electronics.
  • Who’s responsible for shipping costs: If the machine needs repairing under warranty, you should find out who is responsible for paying for shipping.
  • How to make a warranty claim: Should clearly state how to make a warranty claim & documentation required.

In addition to the warranty, you should also consider the reputation of the manufacturer and the customer service policies. A good manufacturer will stand behind their products and offer a reliable warranty.

9. Brands That Make Espresso Machines

There are many espresso maker brands on the market, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Some know brands for their high quality and durability, while others for their ease of use or their innovative features.

Here are some of the factors to consider when choosing an espresso maker brand:

  • Price: Espresso makers can range in price from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.
  • Quality: Look for brands that have a reputation for making high-quality machines.
  • Features: Consider what features are important to you, such as a built-in grinder, a steam wand, or a PID controller.
  • Ease of use: Look for machines with automatic features that take the guesswork out of making espresso.
  • Warranty: Look for a brand that offers a long warranty period.

Here are examples of brands that manufacture espresso machines:

Once you’ve considered these factors, narrow down your choices and find the best espresso maker brand for your needs.

Since you now have an espresso machine, let’s learn how to use it.

How to Use an Espresso Machine

Here are the basic steps involved in using an espresso machine:

  1. Prepare the coffee beans: Grind the beans or buy them pre-ground.
    1. If you grind the beans yourself, use a burr grinder to get a consistent grind.
  2. Fill the portafilter: Fill the portafilter with ground coffee, tamping it down firmly.
    1. The amount of coffee & the tamping pressure will affect the taste of the espresso.
  3. Insert the portafilter into the group head: The part of the espresso machine where the hot water pulses through the coffee grounds.
  4. Turn on the espresso machine & wait for it to heat up: The water should heat to between 195 & 205 °F.
  5. Extract the espresso: Once the water is hot, pull the shot of espresso.
    1. The extraction time should fall between 25 & 30 seconds.

That’s all.

FAQs for Espresso Machines

The following sections will answer frequently asked questions about espresso machines.

Who Invested the First Espresso Machine?

Angelo Moriondo, an Italian entrepreneur from Turin, is credited with inventing the first espresso machine in 1884. He patented his invention in 1885.

What Is a Prosumer Espresso Machine?

A prosumer espresso machine is designed for home use, but has features and capabilities that are found in commercial machines. Such features include pre-infusion or commercial-grade components (e.g., piping).


Espresso machines are devices used to make espresso by spraying hot water through finely-ground coffee grounds. The way the machine works depends on the machine type. And you’ll need to consider many factors when shopping for an espresso maker.

Need help finding the best espresso machine? Check out our recommendations.

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Tim Lee is, as you might have guessed the founder of He is a former barista and a professional web publisher. He has now combined his knowledge and expertise in both subjects to create
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