FAQs - Choosing an Italian Coffee Machine

Paul here again. As my own home barista journey continues I am always learning from online guides, friends, colleagues and even from my customers. There is so much to learn when it comes to Italian coffee machines.

Sometimes I learn from others and sometimes experience leads me down a new road. I always question what I read and I run my own experiments to test out theories. I guess that’s the ex-scientist in me. I can’t help myself.

With my coffee machine FAQs you will be able to rocket all the way from pod novice to knowledgeable home barista. My FAQs will really help you to choose the best Italian coffee machine for your home.

It's surprisingly easy to use a manual coffee machine, and many home baristas are self-taught. You can find all that you need to get started on my Learning Hub ...and if you are a Melbourne coffee machine customer you get Free Training with me, 1 on 1.

I have run hundreds of these training sessions and have no problem taking anyone from "pod novice" to home barista. I have even trained up my 10 year old son, and he really enjoys making an espresso for his Dad and a latte for his Mum on the weekends! 

To find out how you can make great coffee at home with a manual Italian coffee machine please start with my Training Page then move onto my Understanding Espresso guide and my Home Barista Workflows

If you have read my Buying Guide you will already know that I’m a big fan of Aus Spec heat exchanger coffee machines with E61 groups.

Heat exchanger coffee machines give you the true home barista experience by allowing you to brew coffee and steam milk at the same time. With an E61 group you get an coffee machine with high thermal stability as well as gentle pressure build up to gently squeeze the precious oils from the ground coffee. 

In addition, most E61 heat exchanger machines have large boilers which means that you can get a large volume of steam for milk texturing in even the largest of jugs. Most HX coffee machines I sell can make coffee all day long just like any commercial coffee machine, shot after shot after shot. Even a professional barista will be hard pressed to outpace any of my E61 heat exchanger coffee machines.

Keep in mind that many cafes use heat exchanger machines. They’re bigger than home machines but the technology is the same. All heat exchanger espresso machines are simple to maintain as they have old school simplicity with just one boiler and one heating element to look after.

I’m often asked for a dual boiler machine and I always ask “why do you want one?” It’s often because of the perception that dual boiler coffee machines are better than heat exchanger coffee machines. The truth is that they’re not better. An Aus Spec heat exchanger coffee machine can brew just as effectively as any dual boiler coffee machine, with advantages of lower upfront cost, lower maintenance costs and usually a more compact body as well.

To learn more about manual coffee machine types including single boiler, heat exchanger and dual boiler coffee machines please visit my Buying Guide

How much do I need to spend? Let me change the question to "How much would I need to spend to get an Italian coffee machine I could honestly enjoy every single day?" The answer is around $1.5k.

Ready for a surprise? Spending more that $1.5k won't get a better coffee into my cup. So, why spend more?

The reason for spending more is about quality of the coffee machine. A higher quality coffee machine will last longer, cost you less to maintain and have higher re-sale value. Quality gear is also something you will be proud to own and something that you will really enjoy. There's something magical about making amazing coffee in your own home with a premium coffee machine. The home barista experience is just that - an experience. It’s not just about the “drink.” Quality is the key reason to choose a high end Italian espresso machine.

So if I change the question from “how much do I need to spend?” to “how much would I like to spend?” my answer is just below $3k for a high end heat exchanger Italian coffee machine.

The upfront cost may seem high but there is an excellent business case for a domestic Italian espresso machine. If you replace coffee shop coffees with your own home coffees the typical payback period for your home espresso gear is 6-12 months, with savings of up to $50k over 10 years. You can read more about this and see the calculations in my Business Case for Italian Coffee Machines Blog 

Italian Spec coffee machines are factory set to deliver brew water near 96 deg C to suit dark roast Coffee Robusta beans. Aus Spec coffee machines are set near 93 deg C to suit brighter, lighter and fruiter Coffee Arabica beans.

With single boiler or dual boiler machines this isn’t a problem as temperature can be controlled directly using a digital controller (PID).

When it comes to heat exchanger coffee machines it is a completely different story. With Italian E61 heat exchanger machines at factory settings the water in the E61 group superheats to well over 100 deg C when the machine sits idle. This means that a cooling flush is needed before pulling a shot. A cooling flush isn’t just an extra step. The need for a cooling flush means that the thermal stability of these machines is terrible. Of course, thermal stability is critical to consistently brilliant espresso.

In Italy where they use dark roasted Coffee Robusta beans and enjoy bitter sweet espresso this seems to do the job. In Australia most of our beans are Coffee Arabica, the fruitier and brighter coffee bean varietal. Our roasts are also lighter. As mentioned above, the ideal brew temperature for these beans is around 93 deg C.

If you are looking for an Italian heat exchanger coffee machine make sure that you find one that has been factory modified to deliver brew water near 93 deg C. The modification isn't as simple as just reducing the boiler pressure. The theromosyphon also needs to be modified as well to keep the brew temperature stable. These machines are referred to as Aus Spec.

Before committing to an HX Italian espresso machine ask your retailer if the machine is Aus Spec. If the retailer doesn't know what this means then let the warning bells ring. The second question to ask is "what brew temperature is the machine set to?" Again, the retailer should know. 

I'm often asked about heat up time. Traditional HX and DB Italian espresso machines have an E61 group (the Star Trek looking thingy out front). The boilers in these machines heat right up in about 5 minutes, but allow 20 minutes for the E61 group to heat up to thermal equilibrium before pulling your shot. If you are in a rush you get a great espresso after 10 minutes by running water through the group to heat it more quickly.   

Never give up an E61 group on an Italian coffee machine to save a few minutes during heat up. The E61 is legendary for good reasons including thermal stability and gentle pressure ramp up during brewing.  

The best solution - a power point controller to switch the machine on in the morning.

Here are my thoughts on pre-wetting and pre-infusion when it comes to manual Italian coffee machines.

Pre-wetting (gravity fed water dribble)

  • Consensus seems to be that pre-wetting is of negligible benefit and my own experience leads me to the same conclusion. This means that you should skip pre-wetting.

Pre-infusion (mains pressure fed water stream)

  • For Italian coffee machines with standard groups the benefit of mains pressure pre-infusion is significant because it prepares the coffee puck for the high initial pressure hit that a standard group delivers.

  • For Italian coffee machines with E61 groups the benefit of pre-infusion is negligible because E61 groups are designed for passive pre-infusion followed by gentle pressure build up. Passive pre-infusion is effectively engineered in to every E61 group.

So what does all this mean?

Firstly, forget all about pre-wetting. Secondly, mains pressure pre-infusion is useful for manual coffee machines with standard groups but the benefit is negligible for coffee machines with E61 groups. The E61 is legendary for good reason. So my advice is to get an Italian coffee machine with an E61 group and forget all about pre-wetting and pre-infusion. Just pull the lever and let the E61 group work it’s magic.

Full commercial steam pressure is nice to have but certainly not necessary. It's easy to make great milky coffees at home with any quality Italian espresso machine and all machines that I sell are capable of great steaming.

If steaming like a barista is important to you take a look at the Profitec Pro 700 coffee machine. This one has true commercial steam pressure along with valve control for pressure adjustment on-the-run. To learn about high pressure milk steaming please take a look at my Milk Workflow

Italian coffee machines come with a choice of either vibration or rotary pumps. Traditionally rotary pumps had the advantage of being quieter but some of the new coffee machines have closed the noise gap with some clever engineering to eliminate the "vibe rattle."

Coffee machines with vibration pumps have a slight advantage when it comes to espresso extraction due to a more gentle pressure ramp up. This means that espresso extraction starts with a gentle wetting of the coffee puck, followed by slow pressure ramping up to full extraction pressure. Rotary pumps ramp up to full pressure quickly which means that the coffee puck is hit harder and faster, increasing the risk of channeling and uneven extraction.

Of course, if you want to plumb in your coffee machine your will need to choose a machine with a rotary pump.

Pressure profiling and flow profiling coffee machines are able to control either water pressure or water flow to enable a controlled “push” onto the coffee puck. There are automatic (electronic) and manual (paddle or lever) options for this capability.

Some manufacturers and retailers claim that profiling changes the results in the cup, but true coffee aficionados, including myself, are unable to notice any difference. One thing is for certain. Unless you have an amazing palate you won’t notice any difference in the cup either. The only tangible benefit of profiling is the ability to control a gentle push onto the coffee puck during the initial stage of extraction.

However, pressure profiling capability is unnecessary for Italian coffee machines with E61 groups as the E61 groups have gentle pressure build up engineered in to their design. The E61 group is legendary for good reason. My advice is to skip pressure profiling and flow profiling and choose an Italian coffee machine with an E61 group. Keep it simple and enjoy great coffee from a traditional Italian machine.

With an effective workflow you will be able to get perfect extractions on any Italian coffee machine without pressure profiling or flow profiling. This is what I do day in, day out, and you will be able to do this as well with a little Home Barista Training

A PID (electronic temperature controller) isn't necessary for stable brew temperature on a heat exchanger (HX) Italian espresso machine. Any HX espresso machine with a well engineered thermosyphon (water reticulation system) can be stable with either PID or with pressure stat control.

When PIDs first arrived on the scene for HX Italian coffee machines many manufacturers crudely replaced the pressure stats. In engineering terms these machines were a failure as without a thermosyphon modification water in the HX tube would super-heat. This mean't that before pulling a shot you need to flush the super-heated water through the group head. Obviously, the PID on these machines was ineffective for setting of brew temperature control on these Italian espresso machines machines. 

This is all different with PID HX coffee machines that have been engineered for a PID from the ground up. With these Italian espresso machines you can get fantastic thermal stability as well as effective brew temperature control from PID adjustments.

Most people will set and forget, but espresso aficionados will love the ability to play with brew temperature. If you want a more chocolatey, bitter-sweet espresso you can set the temperature up into the high 90s. If you want something brighter and more acidic you can set the temperature down in the low 90s. Awesome! 

Unlike highly complex appliance coffee machines, manual Italian coffee machines are beautifully simple to use and very easy to maintain. There are just a few simple things that you need to do to keep your machine clean and healthy.

To find out how to maintain a manual Italian coffee machine see my espresso machine Maintenance Guide