The longest line for coffee I’ve ever seen wasn’t at a renowned coffee house or in the cafe of a Michelin starred chef. It was at a small pop-up in London, on opening day.
A young entrepreneur had been making incredible coffee for his friends and family for years, using the very best “pro-sumer” espresso machine that money could buy.
Figuring it couldn’t be that different, he spent a few months on a big social media hype campaign and then set-up shop.
Calling it a disaster is an understatement.
Busy Londoners waited up to an hour for their lunch-time coffee kick. As the staff tried desperately to cope with the pressure, they:
- Veered wildly between serving face-puckering sludge and what could generously be described as coffee-flavored water.
- Darted back and forth reloading water tanks, splashing water everywhere in their rush.
- Poured beans into the wrong grinder and made accidental blends of expensive single-estate coffees.
- Tried to calm some severely angry office workers.
- Held back tears.
- Lasted all of 6 days before closing for “refurbishment.”
Best Commercial Espresso Machine: Quick Picks
Table of Contents
- 1 Best Commercial Espresso Machine: Quick Picks
- 2 The 6 key differences between home and commercial espresso machines
- 2.1 1. Commercial machines are built for consistent performance
- 2.2 2. Commercial machines won’t burn out nearly as fast.
- 2.3 3. Commercial machines are usually plumbed in and require drainage.
- 2.4 5. Many commercial machines will have multiple heads, called groups.
- 2.5 6. In the US, commercial machines usually are certified by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF).
- 3 Super-Automatic vs Semi-Automatic vs Lever
- 4 5 key things to look for when choosing the best commercial espresso machine
- 5 6 Best Commercial Espresso Machines: Our Top Picks
The 6 key differences between home and commercial espresso machines
There are a few important differences between a home and a commercial espresso machine that our hapless hopeful didn’t think through.
These differences might seem minor, but they’re often the difference between a successful business and a cautionary tale.
1. Commercial machines are built for consistent performance
A home machine is normally all about giving you a great cup on demand. A commercial machine values itself on its ability to put out shot after shot after shot, all to the same high standard.
2. Commercial machines won’t burn out nearly as fast.
Not only will commercial machines work consistently throughout a busy day, but they’re designed to do that day after day. Home machines simply are not designed to be used as much and will wear out quickly.
3. Commercial machines are usually plumbed in and require drainage.
Commercial baristas don’t really have the time to be repeatedly emptying and cleaning drip trays or refilling water tanks.
5. Many commercial machines will have multiple heads, called groups.
These allow the machine to make more than one drink at a time, increasing productivity as measured in drinks per hour.
6. In the US, commercial machines usually are certified by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF).
This means that they will have undergone thorough and regular testing to ensure that they remain sanitary if used correctly. This helps with everything from your customers’ health to keeping the local regulatory boards happy.
Super-Automatic vs Semi-Automatic vs Lever
Ready to find the best commercial espresso machine for your business?First, you delve into their specific features. You’ll need to be familiar with the three main types of machines.
Super-automatic espresso machines
A super-automatic espresso machine does everything for you, short of reloading the grinder every now and again. They will:
- Grind the beans to the required size
- Place them into the portafilter
- Tamp them
- Apply enough water at the right temperature
- Stop when it’s done
- Empty the puck into the spent grounds container
Many of them will even then foam the milk and add it to the cup for you.
Super-automatic machines are ideal for situations where you want customers to have access to coffee but don’t have a specifically trained barista.
The lobby of a nicer hotel, for example, is a common place to see a super-automatic espresso machine, as it allows customers to serve themselves with minimal fuss.
You’ll also find them behind the counter of places serving food in a public space, like a concessions stand at a sports venue. You’ll very rarely see them in actual coffee shops.
Semi-automatic espresso machines
The workhorse of the coffee industry, semi-automatic espresso machines dominate cafes, coffee houses, and restaurants. They need a trained professional to operate, as the barista has to manually do much of the work:
- Select the grind size and amount
- Load it into the portafilter
- Tamp it
- Begin the extraction
Most are fitted with integrated steam wands that allow the barista to steam milk and make delicate microfoams for mixed drinks.
Semi-automatic machines are the right choice for most coffee shops, offering a great balance between quality and efficiency.
Lever machines give baristas direct control over almost every aspect of the espresso-making process. For example, they can decide how long to make pre-infusion. They can also choose the pressure at all stages, able to vary it throughout extraction.
Coffee enthusiasts continue to argue relentlessly about whether or not any of this extra control actually leads to a better shot in the majority of cases.
What they can agree on is the extra effort makes it harder to multitask and requires considerably more skill, decreasing the overall amount of customers that can be served.
Lever machines are best suited to venues where creating a wow-factor is much more important than serving swarms of customers.
Their complexity is why you’ll normally only see lever machines in niche coffeehouses or in the bar of extremely nice hotels and restaurants.
5 key things to look for when choosing the best commercial espresso machine
There are five key things to look for when choosing the best commercial espresso machine for your needs.
1. Shots per hour
Also known as the output capacity, this simple statistic is vitality important when you’re thinking about the time scales of your business.
On the most basic level, you need to be capable of pulling at least as many shots per hour as you have items ordered.
The key point there is items, not customers. Don’t forget that a customer may well order multiple drinks!
Of course, nothing great in life is ever that simple. You have to consider that business is usually at least somewhat inconsistent and there will be rush hours and relatively dead ones. If you sell 50 shots an hour for most of the day but 90 at lunch, you need a machine that can meet that peak demand and output 90 shots.
In fact, you’d be better off overshooting and finding a machine that can do 100-plus shots.
Even if you’ve designed your own fleet of ultra-efficient barista robots–bearded, bespectacled, and clad entirely in plaid–you won’t be pulling shots perfectly every 23-30 seconds all day every day. Foaming milk, making latte art, grinding, tamping, and a small host of other little details all cut into those precious seconds.
2. The customer experience
Customer experience is a huge part of any service industry. While the product is still ultimately king (no one has ever said, “Well, the coffee was awful but at least they had nice lamps”) it’s all the little extras that will set you above your competitors.
The machine you pick can actually have a pretty big impact on how customers perceive your coffee shop.
It’s all about getting the right machine for your particular environment. You can normally break this down to two factors
Are you marketing yourself as the leading coffee experts in town? Then the theatrics of a lever espresso machine are a great way to create the impression that quality matters to you above all else.
On the other hand, lever machines also might put off a casual onlooker that just wants a quick caffeine boost after their shift.
Your espresso machine says a lot about you, make sure it’s speaking the right message.
Remember our poor, hapless friend with his coffee pop-up? His business quickly went south because he was completely unable to meet demand, leading to some seriously bad customer experiences.
People complaining about long wait times aren’t just going to be dissatisfied about their own experience, they’re going to ruin it for everyone else as well.
Make sure your chosen machine can deliver the coffee your customers want with minimal hassle.
3. Staff skill level
The baristas that you employ are just as important as the machine itself. Take an honest look at their skills and at your community in general.
Do your staff have the passion and skill needed to make an expensive pull lever machine a wise investment?
Do staff in your area tend to stay in jobs for a long time or is there high turnover? If there is, you’ll want to find a machine that strikes a good balance between ease of use and quality of product, because you may well be training new employees on a regular basis.
Do you have talented and experienced baristas on hand who will easily handle the demanding multitasking of a three-group machine?
Do they have the potential to grow and expand their skills if given the right machine? If so, be open to giving them the tools they need to shine.
There’s no such thing as the perfect espresso machine! Factors like your staff’s skill and your shop’s location will make a big difference.
4. Costs and investment
Commercial espresso machines are considerably more expensive than the ones you’d have at home. You’re paying for precision, durability and the ability to consistently deliver a never-ending stream of great coffee.
It’s only natural to take the cheapest option that still includes all the features you want. The problem is that buying a low-cost machine is often what’s called a false economy. You might save money in the short term, but over time it will work out to be more expensive and more hassle.
Cheap machines are much more likely to wear out quickly and begin to deliver poor results long before they totally fail. You’ll end up paying in both time and money for extra servicing, installation, and ultimately replacements.
A commercial espresso machine should be thought of as a key investment into your business, the one thing you should never cut corners on.
5. Group heads
We’ve already talked about the importance of finding a machine that can produce enough shots per hour to meet peak demand and how that can drastically affect the customer experience.
For small volume coffee shops, a single-head machine might be enough to meet all of your needs. Those with more customers and bigger peaks, however, will need something with a bit bigger.
This is where two- and three-group commercial espresso machines come in. You might remember that we mentioned them earlier as one of the big differences between home and commercial espresso machines.
The group number simply refers to the number of heads with separate portafilters that a machine has. A machine can pour a shot of espresso for each head it has.
Two-group vs three-group espresso machines
Two-group espresso machines are a common and versatile choice. They allow baristas to work on multiple items at the same time, especially when they come fitted with dual steam wands.
Three-group espresso machines are for high-volume coffee shops and staff that have experience in multitasking. In theory, adding an extra head allows your baristas to have even more drinks on the go at once.
Buying a three-group machine isn’t just going to offer a 50% upgrade on productivity, though. A single, skilled barista easily can manage two groups by themselves, but there isn’t much productivity gain by adding a third group when shots take under 30 seconds to pull. They’ll just be rotating which group is inactive. Adding a second barista and having systems in place can make the most of this third group.
You should be willing to invest time, training, and an organized workflow if you’re thinking about going for a three-group machine.
6 Best Commercial Espresso Machines: Our Top Picks
Now that you’ve got all the facts, let’s take a look at some actual machines!
Gaggia Anima Prestige
Who is this model for? Hotels looking for a great option in both rooms and the lobby. Cigar lounges and social clubs.
Gaggia Anima Prestige With true one-touch brewing and myriad options for full customization, this impressively compact and slick-looking super-automatic espresso machine is deserving of its best-in-class status.
This compact super-automatic espresso is sleek and easy to use. Its big strength is the sheer range of features it offers. Auto milk-frothing makes it simple to whip up a cappuccino or latte.
Five different grind and dose settings will help you make espresso just the way you like it. And just in case everything wasn’t already convenient enough, it comes with a great auto-cleaning function.
Read more in our Gaggia Anima Prestige review.
La Pavoni Bar-T
Who is this model for? Specialty coffee shops, restaurants, and hotels that have visible bars and a desire to wow customers.
La Pavoni is known for their stunning range of lever espresso machines, but they also make semi-automatic machines as well. The highly durable brass core is coated with brilliant chrome; it’s an iconic look that would add a touch of Milanese class to any coffee shop.
The Bar T is specially designed to maintain thermal stability, ensuring that only water at the perfect temperature ever touches the beans. Its anti-vacuum valve stops milk getting sucked up inside the frothing wand too, so no chance of clogs and no need to flush it after every use.
Nuova Simonelli Appia 2
Who is this model for? Busy higher-end coffee shops and higher-end restaurants.
The Appia 2 took an already successful product and added a whole host of small improvements. Dual steam wands with turbocream (yes, that’s a real thing), raised group heads, and volumetric dosing are all very attractive.
It’s the soft infuser that really sells the Appia 2, as it can help make up for mistakes in tamping. In a commercial environment, that kind of consistency is key.
Nuova Simonelli Aurelia 2
Who is this model for? Specialty coffee shops and truly exceptional restaurants.
Nuova Simonelli Aurelia 2 Aurelia combines beauty, durability, functionality, ergonomics, and versatility all in one machine. Not to mention with its thermally compensated soft-infusion design, it delivers great-tasting espresso shot after shot.
The Appia 2 but bigger and better, but the Aurelia is the flagship model that’s popular in high-end coffee shops around the world.
The Aurelia 2 is renowned for its exceptional copper boilers and ability to maintain a stable temperature under even the most demanding of conditions.
La Spaziale Vivaldi 2
Who is this model for? Quieter coffee shops. Restaurants that just want to serve great coffee.
La Spaziale Vivaldi II A compact, high-performance La Spaziale espresso machine that fits into a small kitchen space and yet delivers excellent espresso. Once on your counter you will see that good things DO come in small packages!
A single-headed machine with lots of features. The double boiler lets baristas to use the steam wand at the same time as pulling the shot, allowing them to prepare mixed drinks far faster than the standard single-boiler, single-head machine.
The four-holed steam wand is perfect for making silky smooth microfoam, while the temperature control pad lets you choose a temp between 195°F-205°F. As it uses rotary pumps, it’s also pretty quiet.
Elektra Microcasa Semiautomatica (Lever)
Who is this model for? The lack of plumbing options and single head make this best for a small coffee shop or somewhere that needs a visual centerpiece.
Elektra Microcasa Semiautomatica Elektra lever espresso machines for the home are special design objects. The gleaming copper and brass on this model is striking, and their performance in making quality espresso equals their beauty.
This stunning espresso machine is a real centerpiece. Its elegant, distinctive design is all about vertical space.
Its copper boiler keeps water at an incredibly steady temperature, and the vibratory pump is powerful enough to extract a truly great espresso.
Armed with this info, you’re ready to find the best commercial espresso machine for your business.