Updated: May 19, 2022 by Owen Richardson
Some days you will wake up craving a vanilla or mocha latte and other days you will want nothing but well-brewed fresh regular coffee. It’s only human. You may have seen the espresso machine vs coffee maker debate in your effort to prepare well for such times or learn more about the two.
A lot has been said about both types of coffee machines, but there’s still more information you may not have obtained yet. It’s true that the machines have several differences, so I have looked at them in detail and will brief you a little bit about their history and function.
Join me as I walk you through that and more!
Table of Contents
Main Differences Between Espresso Machines vs Coffee Makers
The main differences between coffee makers vs espresso makers are:
- In most coffee makers gravity pulls water through the filters, whereas all espresso machines use high pressure to force water through tightly packed coffee grounds.
- Coffee makers use semi-coarse lighter roasts, whereas espresso machines favor finely-ground dark roasted coffee.
- Because of the coarser grind, coffee makers take up to 10 minutes to brew, whereas espresso machines can pull a shot in a few seconds.
- Coffee makers are generally simple and cheaper, whereas espresso makers are more expensive, feature-rich, and could cost up to tens of thousands of dollars.
- Coffee machines make light, bright beverages, whereas espresso machines are famous for brewing rich, concentrated, full-bodied coffee with crema and bold flavors.
- An average cup of coffee brewed by a coffee maker has 80-100 mg of caffeine, whereas a typical shot of espresso will have between 60-80 mg of caffeine.
The question of which is better between these two boils down to preference and budget.
Amongst us, there are those who would rather have an affordable coffee machine that’s easy to operate and/or love nothing more than an average cup of joe. If that’s you, then you will find great joy in having a coffee maker.
If what you are looking for instead is an immersive coffee brewing experience that will result in stronger coffee, rich in bold flavors, look no further than an espresso machine. Maybe you are eager to explore creative coffee recipes too or make barista-style brews. Espresso makers will serve you right and help you to quickly refine your brewing skills.
Still, there’s more to learn about these two machines that you do not want to miss out on as a coffee lover. After all, don’t we all want to be one hundred percent sure that we are settling on the right option?
I’ll start off with a brief history of both units.
Coffee Maker vs Espresso Maker Overview
Although these two machines make coffee from the same ingredient – the coffee bean – they make totally different drinks. The brewing process isn’t the same either. I break down the difference between a coffee maker and an espresso machine below in detail, but before that, here’s a bit of background information about them.
Coffee makers have a long history dating back to 575 A.D. It all started in Turkey. Coffee grounds would be put in the bottom of a basic metal pot with hot water poured over the top. It would then be left to boil for a few hours.
France followed later with the French press in the early 1700s. Other countries soon learned about the beverage and started to develop their own unique brewing methods.
Americans started to embrace coffee in the 19th century, and as the love for this brew grew, better coffee makers were developed. A lot has changed since then, but the biggest changes to the traditional coffee maker happened over the 20th century.
Fast-forwarding to today, we have more attractive and capable coffee makers. Common options include:
- Drip coffee makers
- Thermal machines
- Moka pots
- Vacuum coffee makers
- French presses
Unlike their espresso counterparts, most coffee makers use gravity as the prime mechanism for extraction, and each can make you a fresh, delicious cup of joe if you do the brewing properly. Get the roast and grind size right, to begin with, and then find the perfect coffee-to-water ratio.
Some coffee makers have dosage guides that make this too easy.
Espresso and the machine used to make it trace their origins to Italy. For decades, it was a staple drink for locals and Italian restaurants, but later on, the rest of the world got wind of it and adopted it fully.
Espresso machines make this popular beverage by forcing nearly boiling water through coffee grounds under high pressure. The resulting drink is what’s known as a “shot” of espresso. You can have it in this state or get creative and make other sweet beverages from it such as lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, or long blacks.
Some espresso machines, like the super-automatic models, are easy to operate and clean, but manual and other less-automatic models are generally tough to operate for the beginner. Some have a steep learning curve and require you to buy things like a grinder separately.
Some great options you will hardly go wrong with include:
- Breville BES870XL Barista Express ( semi-automatic)
- Breville BES880BSS Barista Touch (super-automatic)
- Breville BNV250CRO1BUC1 Vertuo (automatic)
- Gaggia RI9380/46 Classic Pro (semi-automatic)
- Breville BES878BSS Barista Pro (automatic)
Although they are designed to make the best possible coffee beverage for the user, coffee makers and espresso machines use different mechanisms for extraction.
Again, coffee makers come in many forms and use different brewing styles to create coffee.
French press and siphon brewers, for instance, use steeping methods. You will have to mix water with coffee grounds then let the mixture sit for a few minutes before serving.
Pour overs, percolators, Chemex, and the like use dripping methods. Heated water is basically dripped through coffee grounds into a cup, pot, or carafe. Some models, like the automatic drip coffee makers, only require you to load up a pod into the unit, and they will do the rest of the brewing for you.
Interestingly, there are a few coffee makers that rely on pressure from either a manual piston or steam. Moka pots and Aeropresses are perfect examples.
As you may have noticed, there isn’t much to explore when brewing with coffee makers. Since you have to either hand-craft the brew, wait on gravity to drip the coffee, or put up with low pressure, the extraction time will be longer.
Espresso machines, no matter the type, work by forcing hot water under high pressure through tightly packed coffee grounds. Seconds later, extraction will be complete and your shot ready to serve.
Espresso machines generate their pressure via either vibratory or rotary pumps. Some units rate theirs at 15 bars, though the sweet spot is 9 bars. Pressure from manual pistons or steam is unfortunately too low (about 1 bar) to create the crema and rich bold flavors that espresso machines make.
Just like with coffee makers, you have a number of options to choose from. Some have automated everything, from grinding to brewing, but if you would like to have a bit of control over the brewing process, go for the semi-automatics. Automatic models give you more than enough control, but you would have to first hone your brewing skills in order to make the most of it.
Roast & Grind Size
Let’s not forget that these two make different beverages. Coffee beans may be the key ingredient for both, but you will have to have to use a roast and grind size that suit your specific unit. You can only make the perfect coffee or espresso if you get both aspects right.
Most coffee makers create the best beverage with lighter roasts. Acidity and nuanced flavors have been preserved in such beans, thus they are able to bring out a fruitier and brighter tang from the coffee.
Since water will be in contact with the grounds for some minutes, you have to be careful not to over-extract the flavors. One way to do that is to use coarsely ground coffee. Such grounds have a reduced surface area that ensures only the right amount of flavor is extracted within the recommended time.
Your brew’s flavor may become too bland or bitter if you make the mistake of using a medium-dark roast or the wrong grind size.
Coffee beans for espresso makers are roasted until they are very dark for a number of reasons. The first is so they can cope with the high pressure they typically have to brew under. The second is that medium-dark roasts have subtle caramel and chocolate flavors plus that desired nice, bold flavor well suited for different creative coffee recipes.
Grind size for espresso has to be fine because you need as much surface area as possible exposed to the water for optimal fast, high-pressure extraction. You can either shop for finely-ground coffee beans or prepare them at home, but I have to warn you, this is not a cakewalk.
Take time to refine your grind skills. Make sure there’s consistency in grind size. Nothing does this better than a burr grinder. It’s the best option for achieving that much-needed uniformity in grind size.
Preparing coffee beans for either machine is a delicate process, but one you can easily get right if you obtain the skills needed to do it. However, you will have to put in more effort and skill to get the consistent fine grind required to brew tasty espresso shots.
Ease of Use
This is a no-brainer. Operating one of these two machines will be a walk in the park for beginners and seasoned coffee users alike. The same cannot be said of the other one. I’ll explain.
Earlier on while telling you about mechanisms of extraction for coffee makers, you may have realized that very few steps are involved in making coffee. Once you have mixed coffee and water, inserted a pod, or placed coffee grounds, depending on the model you are using, the coffee maker does the rest of the work for you.
It’s that simple! Your only big task is to make sure you have gotten the grind size and mixture right.
Ease of use for espresso machines depends on which type you are using.
Super-automatics are the easiest to operate. It’s a touch-and-go affair; no grinding, no tamping, no other manual tasks. The most you will do is load the grounds and water and select the drink settings of your choice for the machine to execute.
The same can be said of automatic drip coffee makers; however, the experience changes when it comes to semi-automatic and automatic models. The majority lack an in-built grinder so you will have to do the grinding and tamping.
It takes time to master these two tasks and carry them out as a barista would, but once you do, coffee-making will be a breeze and, more importantly, a fun experience.
Coffee makers and super-automatic espresso machines take the crown on this front because there’s very little to do before the machine takes over and brews your desired beverage.
This is another no-brainer. You can easily guess which option is pricier between these two, but just to be clear, I’ll explain the price points.
Simplicity in function and limited features make coffee makers inexpensive. With as little as $30, you can find a decent coffee maker. You may have to buy filters from time to time, but that would be it. You will have no other expenses.
Espresso makers will set you back hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, and justifiably so. A lot of effort, skill, time and many other resources go into making one.
Super-automatic models are the most expensive. Semi-automatic and automatic units may be a bit cheaper but you will have to set aside some money for a good grinder and/or steam wand.
All will not be in vain because, in the end, you will enjoy barista-style coffee beverages and smoother brewing experiences.
Is There a Winner?
I honestly wish I could tell you a clear winner, but that would be unfair to both brewers. It would be like comparing apples and oranges and concluding oranges are the winner when the truth is that it all depends on taste and preference.
Coffee makers know how to make a sweet, delicious average cup of joe while espresso machines will pull tasty espresso shots that you can drink or use to make other coffee beverages. Both are coffee beverages, but with different tastes, flavors, and caffeine content. The decision of which machine to opt for therefore partly depends on your preferred coffee beverage.
If you are into specifics such as control over the brewing process or brewing time, then an espresso machine will serve you better. Coffee makers, on the other hand, are more affordable, simple, and pretty easy to operate and clean.
To narrow down your options, list down your interests, preferences, and budget, then pick the option that’s going to serve you better.