We have all been into a specialty coffee cafe that we love; chill music playing in the background, the aroma of freshly ground beans, and slightly hipster vibes.
But as any cafe owner will tell you, creating a space and an atmosphere like that is a lot harder than you might think. It is not just one aspect but the result of a range of components including good interior design, skilled baristas, effective workflow, good marketing, accessible location, and the right equipment to suit your particular needs.
And so in this article we want to hone in on just one aspect of this which is choosing the right commercial espresso machine. This is obviously an incredibly important decision and possibly the single most important piece of equipment you will need for your cafe.
However, it can be a surprisingly difficult decision to make; how many group heads will you need? Should you go for manual, semi-automatic or automatic? Are volumetrics important? Does boiler size and type matter?
So we want to help you find the right commercial coffee maker to suit your needs.
Our Pick: Nuova Simonelli Appia II
Key Considerations in Choosing the Right Commercial Espresso Machine
Capacity and Number of Group Heads
One of the first decisions to make in choosing a commercial espresso machine is how many group heads you will need. Typically, commercial espresso machines are anywhere between 1-4 group heads with 2-3 being the most popular. In making this decision for your cafe or other store offering coffee, the most important consideration is the demand you will have to meet in your peak times.
So while starting out cafe owners sometimes think about the number of coffees being made per day, in some ways this is less important than demand during peak hours such as 8-9am and perhaps 12-1pm. If there is likely to be a big influx of customers then how long are you willing to make them wait?
A general rule of thumb is that a two group espresso maker can usually handle up to 125 drinks per hour and 1000 drinks per day, provided there are two baristas working. For this reason the two group machines tend to be the best choice for most cafes or coffee serving situations and often serve as well as a three group machine. In fact since starting to research this article I have noticed that almost all the specialty coffee bars and cafes I regularly visit have opted for two group machines.
However there are some situations where a smaller or larger machine might be more appropriate. For example, in a coffee cart or location where coffee is secondary such as a hipster barbers or bookstore, a single group machine might fit best in terms of both space and demand.
Similarly, in an exceptionally busy coffee shop a 3-4 group machine might make the most sense. If nothing else these larger machines tend to have better temperature stability and do allow more space for multiple baristas to work simultaneously. Another rule of thumb sometimes employed is that if you make up to 20kg of coffee per week a two group will suffice where anything above that it is worth at least strongly considering a three group.
Again part of it will depend on your specific situation. In a sit-down cafe a longer wait time is less of an issue than in an espresso bar or drive through. A final consideration is that customer perception does play into this decision. What I mean by that is that your customers will often subconsciously view a cafe with a three group machine as more professional than a single group.
Types of Commercial Espresso Machines
The next critical decision to make is which type of espresso machine to opt for. There are two main types of commercial coffee makers; automatic or volumetric espresso machines or semi-automatic espresso machines.
Automatic Espresso Machine
The main difference between these types of coffee makers is that an Automatic espresso machine automatically stops the shot after the correct amount of water has been pushed through. Automatic machines typically have a single or double shot button which you simply push and it will deliver a set amount of water through the grinds.
This can be a major advantage especially for smaller cafes where the barista is typically receiving orders, grinding, tamping, and steaming milk perhaps while trying to maintain a conversation with customers. It does just mean one less thing to think about, and provides a greater consistency, especially where barista skill levels may differ. However, the downside of these machines is that the automated process means the pulling of the shots is less personalized. Especially if you are seeking to attract customers who care deeply about specialty coffee, a semi-automatic machine might be a better fit.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine
Semi-automatic commercial espresso machines are actually very similar to automatic models with the only real difference that they allow the barista to decide when to start and stop the given shot. Many semi-automatics do also pull shots at the push of a button but will base it on time rather than shot volume like an Automatic machine does.
This makes the semi-automatic particularly advantageous for more skilled baristas as it allows them to pull longer on shorter shots more easily. The semi-automatic machine does just add an extra level of control over the extraction process that will appeal to certain customers and coffee shops. It is also worth noting that semi-automatic machines tend to be less expensive than automatic machines.
>Lever Espresso Machines
Another subcategory of semi-automatic machines is lever espresso machines. These rather hipster looking espresso makers both look amazing and add a further layer of control to the extraction process. However, these machines tend to be less common than other machines as they do require a higher skill level and can be somewhat exhausting to work for an entire 8 hour shift.
The choice between these two types of machines will be in large part determined by the skill level of your baristas, your budget to work with, the expected workflow, and the customers you are seeking to attract. Although as noted the difference between these types of machines is a lot smaller than often thought.
The final type of espresso machine sometimes utilized in a commercial setting is super-automatics. These machines literally automate every step of the extraction process from grinding, to dosing, tamping, and steaming the milk. They literally deliver a cappuccino or latte at the push of a button. However, the quality does tend to be less than with an Automatic or Semi-Automatic machine. The Super-Automatic can be a great option for locations such as work offices or retail stores where coffee is a nice added extra rather than the main event.
Type of Boiler: Heat Exchange vs Multi Boiler
The final distinction to be aware of in getting your head around commercial espresso machines is heat exchange vs multi-boiler coffee makers.
Heat Exchange Boiler
Heat exchange machines are really modified single boilers which have a single main boiler for steaming milk and then a copper pipe is coiled through the boiler to heat the water for the group heads. This means that unlike domestic single boilers, heat exchanges can brew and steam milk simultaneously.
The idea behind the heat exchange is that the copper pipe’s diameter and size ensure the perfect brewing temperature every time. The advantage is that these espresso machines tend to be more affordable, quicker to heat up, and more energy efficient. They also tend to be more compact machines.
It is often thought that heat exchange machines are best for situations such as offices or smaller cafes where demand is more steady rather than in rushes. Similarly, in very high volume situations where there is a lot of steaming milk there can be fluctuations in brewing temperatures which affects the flavour of the espresso.
By contrast multi-boilers as the name suggests have multiple boilers which separately heat the water for the steaming wand(s) and group head(s). Multiple boilers may have as few as two boilers or as many as one boiler per group head. This means that at any given time a boiler is ready for the task of either brewing or steaming milk. Like the heat exchange, multi-boilers can brew and steam simultaneously and do tend to be more temperature stable even in high volume situations.
Multi-boilers tend to be slower to warm up, more expensive, and a larger size due to the presence of multiple boilers. The general advice is that multi-boilers are the better option for high volume cafes.
However, this is somewhat misleading as it really depends on how big the respective boilers are. Boiler size can range anywhere from 1.8-22L depending on the size of the machine. The general principle is that the larger the boiler the more the power which is important especially for larger demand.
The Best Commercial Espresso Machines of 2020
While not quite as well known as La Pavoni, Nuova Simonelli are another Italian espresso machine manufacturer that have come to be associated with excellent quality. Orlando Simonelli built his first espresso machine back in 1936 and ever since this company have been crafting coffee makers that are ergonomic, well thought out, and well made. It is not a coincidence that they will pop up a number of times on this list.
This Appia II is one of their most popular models and really is a no frills espresso machine that utilizes some of Nuova Simonelli’s cutting edge technology and is just known to be a workhorse. Some of the features of this machine include their Soft Infusion system which is a form of pre-infusion, automatic dosing, raised group heads for taller mugs, cool-touch steam wands, and automatic backflushing which precludes the need to manually purge the group heads. It is also a fairly compact 2 group head machine which makes it ideal for situations where space is an issue.
It also comes with 2 cool touch steam wands although the size of the machine could make it a tight fit for two baristas side by side. It also comes with a separate hot water wand which is helpful for both serving tea and Americanos. It also comes with the option of an additional auto steam wand which automatically textures the milk and brings it to the right temperature even for those new to the world of espresso. It is a commercial espresso machine that is fast at producing drinks and easy to train new employees on. They also come with a heated cup tray above the machine as most other commercial machines.
In particular the Appia II is an ideal commercial coffee maker for small to medium sized establishments looking for quality without completely breaking the bank. It is easy to operate, makes superb coffee, and provides excellent consistency.
The Aurelia II is really the cooler (and more expensive) older brother to the Appia II. It is a fully volumetric machine with a full colour display and a reputation for excellent extraction. In fact this particular model was the official machine for the World Barista Championships between 2009 and 2014. It was developed in collaboration with top baristas and really is an espresso machine for baristas who care about their craft. It even holds the rare accolade of being the only espresso machine certified as ergonomic by the European Institute of Psychology and Ergonomics! And to be fair it is a piece of art in its own regard.
The Aurelia II also utilizes Nuova Simonelli’s advanced T3 technology which establishes new reference standards for temperature accuracy in water supply. This allows the barista to carefully control the temperature of the steam, water, and group head. It also comes with the usual Soft Infusion System for creamy espresso and optimal extraction. The Soft Infusion System also provides a forgiving buffer zone if the barista slightly under-tamps.
It also features a PID (Proportional Integral Derivative) which ensures careful precision around the water temperature in the boiler. It also comes with a reverse mirror which means the barista can watch the extraction without bending down each time.
This model similarly features LED lights which illuminate the front of the machine. It has a directly plumbed in water system which is usually preferred for commercial setups.
Overall this is a powerful machine for those willing to pay a bit more. It is a high quality machine which is best suited to medium to large establishments who desire to create a reputation for excellent coffee. We highly recommend the Aurelia II.
This Italian espresso company has been in business since 1905 and it shows in the reliability of their machines. This is one of their more popular models that has become the mainstay for many a coffee shop over the years. It is just a simple espresso machine that excels at what it attempts to do; namely make excellent espresso. It is easy to use and great for both beginner and more advanced baristas.
Some of its key features and advantages include the excellent quality of its brass-chrome group heads, easy access for repairs when they are needed, and radiator hydraulic systems for both group heads which basically amounts to consistent water circulation which aids thermal stability.
Separate solenoids allow multiple baristas to work at the same time. The Bar T 2V just has generally all round good specs with a well-tested reputation for durability and reliability. It also comes with a water softener which is key for the quality and consistency of espresso. It has 4 cup size selections.
This would be a solid option for medium sized coffee shops or restaurants wanting to add coffee to their repertoire. Although I must confess that personally the look of the machine doesn’t do it for me in comparison to the more streamlined Nuova Simonelli models.
The Aurelia Wave T3 really forms the flagship of the Nuova Simonelli commercial range. It is basically a bigger, better, and more advanced edition of the Aurelia II. And it just looks stunning! This is a carefully engineered commercial espresso machine with great care taken in almost each design decision.
At the heart of this coffee maker sits the T3 technology with advanced temperature control and the Pulse Jet technology which allows an impressive level of customisation on the three stages of each extraction; pre-infusion, infusion, and post-infusion. This technology was developed alongside university research and in collaboration with some of the world’s top baristas. This really is a coffee machine for the tech lover and for the barista or cafe owner who is looking to create a name for excellent espresso.
It also comes with a high resolution touchscreen display which allows the user to modify a range of brewing parameters. It is also, to my awareness, the first professional espresso machine to have a remote control interface which allows extraction profiles, cleaning cycles, and usage to be shared across various machines. It also comes with new smart water technology which allows the user to attain precise water quality control. It also comes with automatic backflushing of group heads which helps workflow and really seems a no-brainer in a commercial set up. It also has all the expected Nuova Simonelli features such as two cool touch steaming wands, reverse mirrors, and tall cup clearance
This really is a cutting edge commercial espresso machine for the cafe or coffee shop that is serious about good coffee. The mixture of three group heads and advanced customisation make it an ideal (if pricey!) choice for the medium to large cafe.
This beautiful and highly instagramable commercial espresso machine is the only lever machine on our list. As such it really is the commercial coffee maker for the cafe that is committed to specialty coffee. Although this looks like a manual espresso machine, no commercial settings really use fully manual machines for the simple reason that it would be a nightmare for baristas. To make a single coffee on a manual espresso machine like the flair is novel and hipster, to make a hundred an hour using the pressure of your arms is a killer.
So instead the pressure for extraction comes not from the barista’s arms but instead from a spring piston in the machine. However, regardless of this the advantage of the lever machines is increased control over the pulling of each individual shot. This makes it a great option for a cafe or coffee shop that already has a well trained team of barista’s looking to showcase their skills. It comes with two steam wands as well as a hot water tap for teas and Americanos.
In addition, this model features an anti-vacuum to prevent the need to purge the steam wand, thermal stability, high quality chromed brass groups, and four different power settings for saving energy. Again this size of commercial coffee machine could easily deal with the large demand that might be expected from a medium to large coffee shop.
This sleek looking machine is the ideal solution for either an office or coffee cart setting where the need for good coffee is paired with a fairly low demand. This particular model by Nuova Simonelli was first introduced in 2008 and has had a fairly popular following ever since. Perhaps the greatest strength of this machine is its simplicity. It really is just all about making excellent espresso.
Two programmable buttons allow you to set the volume of a single or double shot. The steam wand is also of a superb quality (the same quality as the one used at the Barista’s World Championship!) and on a 360 rotating ball joint so it can be easily put at any angle. This will whip up silky microfoam in no time at all!
Among its features are the usual that we have come to expect from Nuova Simonelli; their soft infusion system, reverse mirror, a push and pull steam lever, and programmable volumetric dosing. This is a great option for those looking to add coffee to a pre-existing store or a fairly low demand setting. Its compact size (for a commercial espresso machine) also makes it a good option for situations such as coffee carts of more transportable set ups.
The Oscar II is really all the grunt of a commercial espresso machine with a miniature footprint.
The final espresso machine on this list is somewhat unique as being the only Super-Automatic coffee maker. Basically that means that the extraction process is completely automated from bean to cup. It comes with an inbuilt grinder and literally does everything from grinding the beans, to tamping, to steaming the milk at the push of a button. The biggest advantage of this setup is that it requires zero barista expertise and so is a no hassle way to add coffee to your office or restaurant.
Jura is a swiss company that has been particularly focusing on Super-Automatics for some time now and so have come to be well regarded in the field. The machine comes with a full colour thin film transistor display screen which is intuitive and easy to use. Both descaling and rinsing are automatically programmed into the machine which also makes maintenance a breeze.
In terms of customisation the Z9 comes with five levels of coffee strength adjustments as well as three water temperature levels. It also has one touch (hence the name) brewing for latte, macchiato, espresso, ristretto, cappuccino, and cafe crema. Again, the strength of this machine is its usability and zero skill requirements, but the downside is that it can’t really compare to a commercial espresso machine manned by a trained barista.
This really represents the future of Super Automatic espresso machines with an elegant look, an impressive array of possible customisations, and an intuitive use.
Other Considerations for Purchasing a Commercial Espresso Machine
Now that you have a birds eye view of some of the best commercial coffee machines you come to the hard part which is knowing which coffee maker will work best with your particular situation. Here are a few considerations to help you out.
Barista Skill Level
One of the most important considerations in picking the right machine for your scenario is what is the current skill level of your baristas? Do you already have a team of highly skilled baristas or are you looking at training up waiters and shop assistants? And if the latter then are you willing to pay the money and take the effort to train baristas to a high skill level?
This will be a major consideration in deciding which type of commercial espresso machine to go for. If you have a fairly low skill level then an automatic machine such as the Appia II may be the ideal choice. But even with an automatic machine you will still need to train up baristas, especially if you do want the coffee to be consistent and to draw customers back.
For more skilled teams of baristas, semi-automatics or more expensive models are not a bad option as they will allow you to better showcase your skills and hopefully outdo other nearby coffee shops.
Another sometimes overlooked aspect of serving coffee is the choice of grinder. It is no use having a two group machine that can pump out 125 drinks per hour if you have paired that with a grinder that can only handle 50 drinks per hour. To do so will bottleneck your workflow and increase the wait time on your customers. As with espresso machines it is important to realize the difference between a domestic and a commercial setting. While home grinders may have excellent burrs or be good grinders they will almost never be suitable for commercial settings.
So make sure you pair your commercial coffee machine with an adequate commercial grinder like the Mazzer Robur.
One of the trickiest things to figure out is how much money to invest in your commercial espresso maker. Especially if you are a start up you are likely already putting a lot of money into rent, renovations, staff, advertising, and other necessary equipment. As such it can be tempting to skimp a little on your coffee machine and grinder.
Ultimately the money you are willing to invest in your coffee machine will depend on your particular situation. Are you a specialty coffee cafe aiming to reach the specialty coffee cult? If so, investing in a top-of-the-range machine is a non-negotiable. However, if you are already existing as a store and just want to add coffee then a smaller or more inexpensive machine may make more sense. However, as with everything else in life you get what you pay for. So if you do opt for a cheaper machine then realise that life expectancy will likely be shorter and maintenance may be more.
Water: Pour Over vs Direct Connect
There are basically two different ways that commercial espresso machines can be filled with water. The first is pour over which basically consists of large water reservoirs that baristas refill throughout the day. This works well in smaller contexts where demands are fairly low and there is the time to do this. Similarly in places such as coffee carts where plumb in water is not possible.
However, in most scenarios direct connect is preferable and just far simpler. Direct connect means that the water is plumbed in and delivered automatically to the machine. This can be an additional cost but does just make life simpler and really is the norm for most commercial settings. Let’s be honest, a barista is busy enough throughout the day without having to fill up the machine repeatedly.
Finally, the size and type of commercial coffee machine you opt for will depend on how many baristas you envisage working the machine at one time. Especially if you are expecting a high demand and that often two baristas will be working the machine at once then a three group machine is worth at least considering just for space reasons.
Similarly, because the barista will be behind the machine for hours even small considerations such as push/pull steam levers can make life far more comfortable as opposed to twist knobs. Find a machine that will make life as simple and comfortable for your baristas as possible. They will thank you!
So what is the best commercial espresso machine? Well it depends on what you are trying to achieve with your store or cafe and what your demand will be.
We believe that any of the above machines could work really well in different situations.
For smaller contexts or restaurants wanting to add coffee to their repertoire we recommend the Appia II by Nuova Simonelli as a great option. It is an excellent model that utilizes some of Simonelli’s cutting edge technology, is easy to use for brewing and training, and looks the part.
Good luck on your cafe or coffee journey! If you are looking for further advice on starting a coffee shop then we recommend the book What I Know About Starting Coffee Shops by Colin Harmon.
If you have any questions then comment below!