What You Need to Know About the Cappuccino Machine
The cappuccino machine (also known as an espresso machine or coffee maker) is an equipment that forces near boiling, pressurized water through a finely ground, tamped (lightly compacted) puck of coffee and a filter to produce espresso.
Espresso has a rich flavor and thick consistency, thanks to the specific pressure, temperature, and grind quality set by the cappuccino machine. It should always have a steamer to make the microfoam (milk froth) to top your cappuccino. Espresso is used as a base for other coffee drinks like macchiato and latte.
Cappuccino Machine Automation
Using this means you rely solely on your brewing skills regarding the quality of the coffee grind, the amount of water and pressure you apply to your brew (using the lever pump), and how much time you allot for infusing the coffee into the water. If you're not quite the experienced barista, this may not be the machine for you unless you're in it for the more artistic brewing experience. However, this is the perfect portable solution for making coffee on-the-go since it's smaller and easier to carry. The outdoor variety can be used without electricity. There's also the hybrid type that uses electricity but only to heat the water.
Unlike the manual espresso machine, this traditional type doesn't require you to use force to deliver the hot water. But the success of grinding, tamping, extraction, and milk frothing will still be based on your personal brewing skills.
With automatic, the amount of water and the brewing time are determined by the cappuccino machine. Grinding, tamping and milk frothing are still manual.
Most super-automatic machines cover the whole process with the press of a button except for making microfoam. Still, some super automatic cappuccino machine models already have this process automated, too. You won't even have to throw away your used coffee grounds every single time because the super-auto has its own compartment for this. You'd only have to fill up the built-in coffee grinder and water or milk reservoirs. If you'd rather not check the water level every now and then, you can opt for an espresso maker that directly connects to a water line.
What's in a Cappuccino Machine?
The basic parts of a cappuccino machine are the grouphead, portafilter, group dispense keypad or lever, hot water dispenser, drip tray, and steam wand with steam tip. Some machines have built-in grinders and reservoirs for water and milk. Looking at a comprehensive guide on each of these components also reveals the process of making espresso:
1. Grouphead (also called brew head)
This is where the pressurized hot water comes out onto the coffee grounds. Besides automation, espresso machines are generally categorized by the number of groups on them, ranging from single or double (best for home use) up to three or four groups (for commercial use).
2. Portafilter (also called portaholder or group handle)
This holds the basket which contains your coffee grounds. When you're ready to dispense the hot water, you insert the portafilter into the grouphead.
There are many types of portafilters: pressurized, commercial, bottomless, and the pod variant. Your choice will affect the taste and quality of your espresso.
This type is typically found in a cheaper, entry-level cappuccino machine. It's easy to use even for beginners because it automatically regulates the pressure for tamping your coffee grounds. Though it promises to give you a consistent espresso quality in every brew, it does have drawbacks.
Pressurized variants are made with cheaper materials like aluminum or plastic and are smaller in size (53mm diameter). This means that they don’t hold a consistent temperature as well as the other types and they could break more often.
For more experienced baristas, a pressurized portafilter also means eliminating the benefits of expert tamping techniques that make a lot of difference on the taste of the brew and the quality of the crema (the layer of foam found on top of a shot of espresso, usually golden to dark tan in color).
This type is more expensive but better than the pressurized variant because it's made of chrome plated brass and it's larger in diameter (57-58mm). This means better heat retention, a more durable product, and stable handling thanks to the added weight. The larger diameter gives you a better brew extraction. It has a spout at the bottom where the brew drips. You can find commercial portafilters in both the home and commercial-use cappuccino machine varieties.
This is a subset of the commercial variant but it does not have spouts. An open bottom means that you can easily check for channeling, that is when water shoots through the basket without making contact with the coffee, indicating either an inconsistent grind, an inadequate dose of coffee grounds or uneven tamping. The absence of spouts from this variant also means a better brew quality since the liquid does not have to pass through any additional surfaces before filling your cup.
Pod portafilters are designed specifically for espresso pods: prepackaged capsules of ground and tamped coffee. This convenient design allows for easier insertion and removal of the pods without any mess.
Make sure that your portafilters are compatible with the brand of your cappuccino machine. Once you have achieved a little expertise on using these, you may consider modifying them for a more personalized brew.
3. Group dispense keypad or lever
This activates and controls the flow of the water through the grouphead. The keypads are buttons found in automatic and super-automatic coffee machines, providing options on time, quantity, and continuous flow. The lever type allows you manual control over the flow. A barista would more likely lean towards the lever mechanism while the automatic dispensing would be best for beginners.
4. Hot water tap/dispenser
This tube functions as its name implies and it's mainly used for a quick cup of tea or Americano, but it doesn't have exact temperature regulation so stay clear of it if you're looking for a stricter preparation process. Otherwise it's just good for rinsing cups.
5. Drip tray
Here you can find a drip pan and drain. This neatly tucks away any excess drip from the cappuccino machine.
6. Steam wand and tip
Ccoffee recipes like cappuccino or macchiato require a layer of microfoam on top. Take note that microfoam can only be made with the use of the steam wand that incorporates air and a little bit of water into milk. Steam tip designs vary depending on the number of holes they have. More pressure is needed as the number of holes increases, so take note of which tip is compatible with the pressure gauge of your coffee maker.
Buying Your Cappuccino Machine
The price range goes from a little below $100 up to $5,000 depending on the brand name and automation. A unit that costs $500 to $2,000 should be good for home use while the $3,000 and above price would likely be for a commercial-grade super-automatic.
To choose the right cappuccino machine for you, there are only 3 things to consider - your budget, brewing knowledge, and coffee quality preference.