There are a number of ways to make espresso. The cheapest methods usually are called espresso machines, but technically do not make espresso as they use steam to produce coffee. These are most of the machines that cost less than a hundred dollars. From there you can go in several directions.
There are superautomatics – you put in coffee and it does it all for you including grinding the beans. These tend to be very expensive and even the ones that run many thousands of dollars cannot produce very good espresso compared to much cheaper equipment used by a barista who has read a little about making coffee.
There are easy serve machines like pod machines and these are a big step up from superautomatics, but the pods are very expensive relative to non pod coffee and while they aren’t bad they also will never reach the heights of a good barista (but they are much better than a bad one).
SBDU – Single boiler units have a pump and first you brew the coffee and then you flip a switch to heat the water to the right temperature for steaming. On average they run from $100-$1000.
HX – heat exchangers – this is probably my favorite category. They are more expensive than SBDU (most seem to run $1000-5000), but on average are far better built and the limitation is no longer the machine, but instead the barista. The design is clever and allows the barista to steam and produce espresso at the same time
DB – double boilers – these tend to be the most expensive machines. They have a boiler for the espresso and one for steam allowing you to have each at the ideal temperature for their intended purpose at the same time. Some experts think these are a step up from HX machines and some do not. I fall into the latter camp and think of them as parallel, but again it is a matter of taste and priorities. At first a DB is certainly easier to use. These usually run from around $2,000-$10,000!
Lever machines – these are where espresso really got going. Instead of a pump you use a lever to push the water through the coffee. There are two classes of these – those with a spring and those where you push through – the manual lever.
There are, of course, exceptiions to these rules such as the new Silvano, CC1, etc, all of which sound like great ideas and clever compromises. Hmm, I wonder who could write a blog entry explaining the idea behind a machine like the Silvano? (Perhaps someone who bought one recently – hint hint).