FOCUS: Espresso Express

Thinking about adding specialty coffee service to your menu, but worried that your servers already have too much to do? Or maybe your operation doesn’t have servers. What then? How do you take advantage of the growing market for espresso and upscale coffee drinks? Have no fear. Super-automatics are here. 

Super-automatic espresso machines do everything except wash your customers’ cups. With the push of a button, these machines can grind and tamp coffee, pull a shot, heat and froth milk and dispense a drink. Lest you think an all-in-one machine has to sacrifice something—quality, capacity, reliability, speed—for convenience, think again.

Since we last wrote about these engineering marvels more than a decade ago, a lot has changed in the equipment biz, most of it brought on by the marriage of digital technology to good old-fashioned kitchen equipment. The result has been more productive and efficient equipment in a wide range of categories. Espresso makers are no exception. Digital technology expands what these machines can do, has made them more reliable and makes them incredibly simple to operate and maintain. 

The advantages include easy start-up of your specialty coffee program and minimal staff training.

Shall We Dance? 

Key questions to ask yourself and your beverage team when considering a dance partner is how and where you’d like to provide specialty coffee service and what kind of volume you anticipate generating.

First off, the segment is divided into two types of machines, one-step sensations and those that dance the two-step. Two-step machines automate the process of grinding the beans, tamping the grounds and brewing a consistent shot of espresso, but leave the preparation of drinks to a barista. The second step, essentially, is steaming the milk. 

Often, operators use these machines in high-volume venues that offer a lot of customization. Because the machine takes over the brewing process, the espresso is consistent from shot to shot, but the barista can make any variation on theme the customer wants. Coffee shops, Starbucks included, use two-step super-automatics for these reasons.

One-step machines do it all, making them an ideal choice for practically any operation that wants to offer specialty coffee but doesn’t want to invest in hiring or training baristas. Many models are even suitable for self-service applications such as employee, college and university or healthcare cafeterias and c-stores. 

Six-Shooter or Machine Gun? 

Capacity is the other variable that will help you hone in on a machine that’s right for you. Most manufacturers build one or both types of espresso machines in low-, medium- and high-volume models. Typically, you’ll see production capacity expressed in shots per hour. As a general rule of thumb, consider machines that produce 50-100 shots per hour low volume, 100-150 shots medium volume and more than 150 high volume.

Shots per hour will give you a basic idea of what a machine can do, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. If all you’re serving is espresso then that measurement works. But most specialty coffee drinks require milk of some type or other flavorings. Steaming milk takes a lot of power, and these machines, like traditional espresso machines, have to produce enough steam to deliver shots and heat/froth milk. More on that in a minute. 

A better measurement if you plan a full specialty beverage menu is drinks per hour or cups per hour. Use these, too, only as a guide. While most manufacturers will give you numbers based on a certain drink size—a 16-oz. latte, for example, or an 8-oz. cappuccino—you may sell more 20-oz. drinks than any other size, which will require a machine with more capacity.

The type of drinks you plan to sell—and the manner in which you sell them—can affect capacity as much as size. One-step machines designed to dispense flavored specialty drinks—mochas, hot chocolate, caramel macchiatos, etc.—in self-serve applications may produce as few as 50 drinks per day, not per hour, and as many as 150. 

To put all of these numbers in perspective, keep in mind that most operations other than coffee shops will sell about 40 to 50 espresso drinks a day. But a high-volume midscale restaurant could potentially sell more than 100 during dinner alone, so plan accordingly.

Getting Steamed 

Manufacturers handle the capacity issues in a few different ways. One is through sheer power. A machine with a 6,300W heating element likely will heat water faster than one with a 5,000W heater if the tanks are the same size. But power alone isn’t the only criteria you need to consider. Recovery time, in high-volume operations particularly, is critical to keep up with demand. And the size of the tank may be important, too, if your customers order lots of drinks, such as tea and caffé Americanos, that require hot water instead of milk.

You’ll find three different types of machines on the market, often referred to as heat exchanger (HX), dual heater (DH) or thermal block (TB) and dual boiler (DB). 

HX units are typically smaller models with a single boiler (that heats water to steam temperature for frothing milk) that also includes a heat exchanger (to cool the water to brewing temperature). DH models have a single boiler that brings water temperature up to between 195ºF and 205ºF for brewing (ideal for espresso extraction). It also includes a thermal block—heating elements encased in metal, such as aluminum—that further heats the brew water up to steaming temperature.

In principle, however, HX machines potentially sacrifice espresso quality and consistency for the ability to steam milk, and DH machines potentially sacrifice speed and performance for more stable espresso brewing temperatures. 

One way some manufacturers handle heavy loads is by building models with two boilers (DB). One heats water to the perfect temperature for extracting shots of espresso, while the other is dedicated to the steam wand and the hot water bypass, which is used to draw hot water for tea and Americanos. Another design uses a “smart” boiler that doesn’t wait until the water in the tank falls to a certain level before refilling and then heating it. Instead, the machine senses how much water is being used for shots and steaming milk and adjusts the water level in the tank accordingly. By adding only small amounts of water to the tank at a time, the unit is able to recover quickly.

Some units also have an eco-friendly mode that saves energy when the machine isn’t in use. By putting the machine in standby mode and lowering the temp of the heating elements after a set time (determined by the operator), water will be slightly cooler but still heat quickly when taken out of standby. 

Wet Or Dry? 

One-step machines, as mentioned, dispense specialty drinks—not just shots—at the push of a button. And as you might have guessed, that means the milk is in the machine. Here, too, though, you have an option: fresh milk or powdered milk.

Fresh milk machines typically have built-in mini-refrigerators that hold about a gallon of milk. A gallon or a little more is an ideal size when it comes time to replenish the supply. It’s easier to empty a gallon of milk into a machine than pour only a portion and store the remainder. One machine is designed so you can place the fridge under the counter. Larger machines often have two tanks for two types of milk, such as regular and non-fat or soy milk. 

Some models give you the ability to froth and dispense milk foam either without steaming it or using “cool” steam so you can offer cold drinks, too. Most let users adjust the temperature of the milk, so customers can customize traditional drinks like cappuccinos and lattes hotter or cooler than normal. Fresh milk machines often use pressure to dispense the milk, and at least one model can adjust the temperature and foam consistency of milk as it’s being dispensed for layered drinks.

Machines that use powders eliminate the need for refrigeration. They typically have containers for powdered milk and one or more flavor ingredients, such as chocolate. The reason these machines have less capacity than other super-automatics is because of the greater volume of water they use to reconstitute the powdered milk. 

Both wet and dry milk machines also might feature containers that dispense flavored syrups, such as caramel or hazelnut, as drinks are being prepared and dispensed.

What To Look For 

The range of features and the sheer number of models available from the 60-plus manufacturers around the world boggles the mind. But there are some fairly standard features you need to consider as you start evaluating machines that might be right for your operation and drink program.

Steaming wands. One-step super-automatics don’t need steaming wands because the machine heats and froths the milk, but most models include one to give you or your customers the option of making beverages not programmed into the machine for customizing a drink. On a two-step machine, you need a steaming wand to heat and froth milk. For greater consistency from drink to drink, many models use temperature-sensing wands that steam the milk to a preset temperature and then shut off. Higher or lower temperatures (for customers who want “extra hot,” for example) are usually available at the touch of a button. 

Traditional steam wands are stainless or chrome-plated brass, but several models now use steam wands made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE, a clear, tough, heat-resistant plastic) for a couple of reasons. First, the material doesn’t get as hot as metal, so there’s less chance that employees will burn themselves. Second, makers say, the material is easier to clean because milk won’t burn onto it, making it more sanitary. Finally, because the plastic wand won’t burn milk, the taste of your beverages will be better and more consistent.

Coffee-bean hoppers. Smaller machines typically have one hopper, but larger machines have two: one for regular espresso and another for decaf. A few models have three, but even small machines often have either a small storage bin or a chute (often called a bypass doser) to introduce an additional selection of ground coffee (decaf or some other blend) into the brew chamber. 

Coffee grinders. Most, if not all, manufacturers incorporate burr grinders into their espresso machines. Burr grinders crush coffee beans into more a uniform and consistent size than blade grinders and won’t generate the static electricity that makes blade grinders so messy. Better, more expensive machines use conical grinders instead of spherical or flat grinders. In the latter, the motor pushes a rotating plate with burrs against a flat stationary plate. The former uses a cone shaped piece with burrs that fits into and rotates against a cup also lined with burrs. 

Most burr grinders are fashioned from stainless, but more expensive machines will feature grinders with ceramic burrs. The ceramic material is harder than stainless, so it stays sharp indefinitely and doesn’t absorb heat like metal. That lower absorbency prevents oily, ground coffee from gumming up the grinder and ultimately contributes to a higher-quality espresso.

Brew group. The “group” is the heart of the machine in which grounds are deposited and tamped and espresso is brewed and dispensed. A couple of things to look for here are solid construction, heat transfer and adjustability. Low-end machines may use plastic for the brewing chamber, but higher-end machines use either a combination of stainless and aluminum (especially in HX machines where fast heat transfer is important) or all stainless (in DB models where brew water temps are more stable). The brew or dispensing head should give you some room to maneuver larger cups underneath it. Double-check the range of motion of the brew head—a manufacturer may claim that their unit accommodates 20-oz. cups, but you’ll want to make sure the cups you use will actually fit. 

Programmability. Virtually all super-automatics are programmable, giving you control over brew temperature, the amount of brew water used for each shot, timing for shot extraction, steamed milk temperature and drink recipes. Smaller machines are likely to have more limited capability as well as memory for drinks, but even low-end, low-volume machines usually will let you program basic operation and eight specialty drinks. Make sure the machine you choose lets you adjust the parameters you want to control. 

Touch-screen controls. Advances in digital technology are most noticeable on control boards, especially for large, one-step machines. Touch screens have enabled manufacturers to put simple directions with icons or even videos at employees’ and/or customers’ fingertips. Self-diagnostics also warn you when it’s time to replenish coffee, milk or syrup and indicate problems, service needs and step-by step instructions. 

Milk purge/auto rinse. Most one-step machines automatically purge the milk lines after a drink is dispensed, but several two-step models offer a single button employees can press to purge the steam wand after each use. Some machines have an auto-rinse function that rinses the lines at set intervals throughout the day. 

Automatic cleaning cycle. One-step machines in particular need to be cleaned at least daily, and most models feature an auto-cleaning cycle. Control panels typically alert you when the machine should be cleaned and walk you through step-by-step instructions. In most cases, you simply load a chemical pellet or liquid into the machine, push a button and wait a few minutes. 

Service and warranty. As always, the extent of a manufacturer’s service network as well as its warranty on parts and labor should play a part in your purchase decision. Some machines now can be linked to a manufacturer’s communications network so service centers can monitor their performance and service needs.

None of this comes cheap, of course. Super-automatics run from about $5,000 on the low end to about $20,000 or more on the upper end. But depending on your volume and the type of drinks you add to your menu, ROI on these machines is often as little as a year.

Espresso Machine Specialists



Bravo Systems Int’l.



Concordia Beverage Systems

Ennio Espresso, Inc. (UNIC)


Franke Coffee Systems Americas


Grindmaster Cecilware (GMCW)

Karma Inc.

La Marzocco

La San Marco


Michaelo Espresso

Nuova Simonelli USA

Pasquini Espresso Co.

Rancilio Group North America Inc./Ali Group

Rosito Bisani Imports

Saeco U.S.A.

Schaerer/SupraMatic Inc.

Wega USA

WMF Americas Group


03 26 2024 EVERSTEEL (1200 x 800 px)

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