Thermoblocks & Standard Portafilters
If you’re looking to be able to steam milk and produce espresso at the same time but don’t want to drop a whole lot more money on a machine than a dual-temp machine, an option would be a machine with a thermoblock in it. Thermoblocks superheat tiny amounts of water so that your boiler can stay comfortably in the 200° range, perfect for brewing coffee, while also superheating small amounts for steam for heating and texturing milk. Thermoblocks are handy because as the end user you can start extracting your espresso, start steaming your milk, and have both ready and fresh at roughly the same time. Thermoblock steam however isn’t as high pressure as the steam coming off a dedicated boiler, so the milk bubble structure isn’t nearly as fine as that off a professional machine. If a dealbreaker is the ability to pour latte art, a thermoblock machine isn’t for you. Machines that are nice enough to have thermoblocks also typically have accurate enough pumps that the home barista is able to use a standard portafilter rather than a pressurized one.
Standard portafilters rely on consistent and well packed grounds of coffee for the bed resistance to allow for proper flow rate, so they have a steeper learning curve than non pressurized ones, but for the true espresso fiend who craves the rich and velvety full body of a proper café espresso there’s no substitute for the quality. As an end user, you can see if a machine has the ability to make coffee with a standard portafilter because it will have a pump pressure gauge on the machine. The Breville Infuser is a marvelous machine for the average quality-focussed user, and if you’re looking for something that uses professional level parts and has a handful more bells and whistles, The Crossland CC1 packs a lot of features into a small box.
Heat Exchangers and Dual Boilers
To have a machine that can steam milk and make espresso at the same time and can also achieve the high pressure steam needed to create latte art an espresso machine needs either a heat exchanger or multiple boilers. A heat exchanger uses some tubing that runs through the steam boiler in an espresso machine to rapidly heat water from room temperature to water ideal for brewing. Dual boiler machines have dedicated boilers for specifically espresso and steaming milk. Heat exchangers are a little more economical a buildout, but suffer from imprecise brewing temperatures.
Machines with heat exchangers or dual boilers use the same kind of architecture as professional machines, so even with their smaller footprint, they’re excellent in a situation where one needs to crank out a series of drinks or many people all are looking to make espresso drinks in a quick series, so potentially they’re something that might be a good idea for a household with a lot of coffee drinkers or for a small office where café runs have gotten out of hand. The Nuova Simonelli Oscar II is an excellently priced little heat exchanger machine, and the Breville Dual Boiler is frankly an astonishing bargain for a dual boiler machine.
Durability, fixability, and aesthetics
Once you reach the feature level of a dual boiler pump-driven machine, you’re looking at pretty much an identical style machine to a professional level machine, but there are some factors that can still go into a home espresso setup. First, every budding home barista should go into buying an espresso machine knowing that their espresso machine will break. It is not a question of “if” it will break, but “when”. Espresso machines by their nature exist under pressure and stress, so at some point something will go wrong. Generally speaking the pricier the machine the longer it will last, though this isn’t always a hard and fast rule. Machines that use professional parts are not only going to last longer, but will also be easier to fix, either by yourself if you’re handy with a wrench, or by an experienced espresso tech.
Cheaper machines typically have proprietary architecture that can only be fixed by mailing it into a service center, if they can be fixed at all. Also of course what materials the machine is built out of is going to dictate how it looks and feels in your kitchen. Brushed stainless steel construction is much nicer looking and durable then plastic housing, but is also substantially more expensive. In addition fancier machines might have quieter and more reliable rotary vane pumps rather than noisy vibratory pumps.
The gold standard for home espresso is La Marzocco’s GS3 and Linea Mini, built with pro parts that are technician friendly, incredibly reliable electronics, full stainless steel construction, a whisper quiet rotary vane pump, and if purchased, La Marzocco will match you with a local coffee expert to come to your house and train you in the machine’s use. They also cost about as much as a reliable used car, but if you purchase lattes every day at the local super fancy coffee shop and would switch to using one of these, the machines would effectively pay for themselves after about 5 to 10 years (depending on what kind of coffee you’re brewing and how picky you are about milk choices).