Exploring the options for a home espresso machine can be a bit daunting. One of the most confusing things you must decide is what type of espresso machine you’d like when it comes to how hands-on you want to be.
The three main types - Semi-Automatic, Automatic, and Superautomatic - all offer a different set of benefits, but they can be hard to differentiate when you’re new to the espresso space.
I don’t know who named these machine types, but they didn’t do you any favors - they just made it more confusing by using “automatic” in every single name.
Don’t you worry. I’m going to break down the differences between these espresso machine types so you can easily decide which one is right for your lifestyle and preferences.
But first, let’s start from the beginning to create some context.
Espresso In The Beginning
The first espresso machines were not automatic. They required a barista to manually pull down a lever to generate pressure and pull the shot. You can still find these machines around, but they’re not too common since they take a lot of effort and can be quite tiring.
But things changed in the 1940’s when an Italian inventor changed the world of espresso forever. His new machine was user-friendly, not exhausting, and ushered in a new era of espresso.
These days, we call it the semi-automatic espresso machine.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
Semi-automatic machines were different than manual lever machines. Instead of having to pull down a lever to activate the piston, an electric pump was used instead. Now, all you needed to do was press a button to pull the shot.
This eliminated the strength and endurance needed to be a good barista, which enabled espresso to boom around the world.
However, it’s not fully-automatic. You still have to grind the coffee, load the portafilter, tamp, and start the shot with the press of a button.
Though there’s still a handful of steps, they give you a high level of control over the shot. You get to determine the grind size, you decide when the shot starts and stops, and you choose how little or much coffee to use.
With semi-automatic espresso machines, you’re the boss.
Semi-automatic machines are the most common espresso machine type in specialty coffee shops and the homes of enthusiasts.
- Complete control over brewing variables
- Ability to grow and refine your skills
- More user-friendly than manual machines, but there’s a learning curve
For some people, this level of control can be a bit too daunting. That’s where automatic espresso machines come in.
Automatic Espresso Machines
Realistically, automatic espresso machines are very similar to semi-automatic ones. You grind the coffee, tamp the coffee, and press a button.
Here’s the main difference:
You don’t have to press the coffee again to stop the flow of water. The machine uses an internal timer to cut off the shot after a certain amount of time - usually 25-30 seconds.
This is handy because it allows you to step away and know you won’t return to espresso all over the floor. It also takes away the pressure of cutting off the shot at the perfect time.
However, it also means you lose some control over how long the shot pulls for. While almost all coffee shops pull shots in 25-30 seconds, that 5-second range can mean big differences in flavor. With automatic machines, you can explore how your coffee will taste in that range because the machine controls the time, not you.
- Control over most variables
- Consistently timed
- You can step away once the shot starts
- No control over the shot timing
For some, this time automation doesn’t quite do the trick and it still seems too complicated. If that’s you, let’s move onto superautomatic espresso machines.
Superautomatic Espresso Machines
Superautomatic machines are a more modern invention. They’re designed to be all-inclusive.
- They grind the coffee for you
- They set up the portafilter and tamp for you
- They pull the shot for you
- They even steam the milk for you
It’s hard to beat a superautomatic machine in terms of convenience. You can rely on it to pull the same shot just about every time. The only thing is, if you don’t like how the shot tastes, there’s very little you can do about it.
If the machine allows you to make grind size adjustments, they’re usually very limited. If it gives you the power to change the shot timing, you’re usually limited to about a 5-second range there (adequate, but not really empowering).
And these machines definitely don’t let you steam your own milk to create latte art. No matter how they’re advertised, they’ll never produce steamed milk as creamy or smooth as you can get with manual steaming.
Superautomatic machines are commonly found in non-specialty cafes, convenience stores, and the homes of casual coffee lovers who don’t mind dropping some extra money for the convenience.
- Convenient and hands-off
- Very consistent
- Little to no control over any variables
- Usually require professional cleaning
Which Is Right For You?
All three of these espresso machine types have their place in the world, but they’re not all right for your particular lifestyle or circumstances.
Let’s look at some values and goals to see which type matches up with you.
Do you want easy, consistent espresso made without much tinkering? Sounds like a superautomatic machine will satisfy.
Are you interested in exploring the depths of espresso brewing and flavor? A semi-automatic will give you the freedom to play with the variables and explore your own way.
Do you want some control over your espresso without having to be super focused every morning? An automatic machine sounds like a good middle-ground.
Do you want to learn to steam your own milk and create latte art? Gotta go with semi-automatic or automatic here.
Are you on a tighter budget? Don’t both with superautomatics!
Do you want anyone in your family to be able to use the machine easily? The user-friendliness of superautomatic machines sounds like something your family may appreciate.
Personally, I suggest you seriously consider semi-automatic and automatic machines They take some getting used to, but learning to brew great espresso is a very rewarding (yet, sometimes frustrating) process.
You’ll have control over your coffee, you’ll be able to learn milk steaming and latte art, and drinking shots you’ve made by your own skill is fun and exciting.
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