When it comes to comparing and evaluating espresso machines, there are three broader categories: semi-automatic, fully-automatic, and super-automatic. The first two types are pretty much impossible to distinguish from each other. They give the user more control because they do not automate the entire process. In contrast, super-automated machines are suitable for people who do not care much about the nitty gritty of espresso preparation.
If you are a coffee connoisseur you will certainly be interested to know the difference between the three types in a bit more depth.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
These machines are the most popular choice amongst average consumers. They include an automated pump, automated temperature controls for the boiler, and a manual switch to activate/deactivate the pump that performs the coffee extraction. This last feature is the reason these units are considered semi-automatic.
There are variations of the semi-automatic machines that allow you to program the exact doses after which the extraction process should stop. Whether you choose to flip a switch or use a programmable setting, you are in control of when the extraction should end.
Regulating water flow can be crucial to a smooth shot of espresso if you know what you are doing. Be careful because you can perfect the espresso shot just as much as ruin it. But, then again, this is how we learn.
Portafilters and Grinders
Semi-automatics always come with a portafilter. There is no other way to insert the grounded coffee into the machine. The two most common types are non-pressurized and pressurized.
Non-pressurized portafilters are generally considered harder to use because they require you to have a very precise grind and tamp. If you are experienced, or willing to learn, this tool can help you get a really good shot of espresso. Having a superior grinder at your disposal is an absolute necessity should you choose to play around with a non-pressurized portafilter.
Pressurized portafilters are a better fit for people who choose to use pre-ground coffee. Because these tools are pressurized, they do not allow any water drip out before the necessary pressure has been achieved. In order to do so, these portafilters usually use a filter basket or a valve.
The majority (90% or so) of semi-automatic espresso machines do not include a built-in grinder. Breville Barista Express is one of the very few exceptions, and this is one of the reasons why it is at the top of our list.
Frothing & Steaming
Semi-automatic machines are as flexible when it comes to boilers. It all depends on how deep your pockets are. Smaller, less heavy and inexpensive machines are equipped with single boilers that will not allow you to brew and froth at the same time. Higher priced semi-autos offer heat exchanged and dual boilers. So, the ball is in your court. And by the court I mean, checkbook.
Traditional steam wands are standard for most semi-automatics and do require you to learn a thing or two about frothing. Panarellos are also available on some semi-autos, but I do not find them to make a big difference.
Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
Convenient and quick, these units are suitable for people who are not interested in spending too much time perfecting a shot of espresso. With the press of a button these machines will grind, dose, tamp, brew and produce your caffeine drink within a minute. I guess it would be nice if they can bring it to you as well, while you are enjoying a good read and a chocolate croissant.
In general, super-automatics allow you to program and adjust features such as brew temperature, brew volume, extraction time and water hardness. The rule usually is, the more expensive the machine, the more programmable it is. The higher-end units have auto warm-up technologies that make sure the machine is ready to go at a certain time of the day (when you wake up, for example).
In addition, there are programmable settings for one-touch espresso drinks. This is quite convenient because once you adjust your machine for the perfect shot, you can have it every morning with the push of one button.
Most super-autos feature a built-in grinder. The good thing is that it can be quite convenient and speed up the espresso making process. In addition, newer machines allow you to control the finesse with which the beans are ground. This is cool because it offers some room to play around with the overall taste and strength of the brew.
I am yet to see a machine with a grinder that has a wide range of adjustable options. To be perfectly honest, I prefer a semi-automatic with a separate grinder. This way the number of changes to the grind is infinite.
Also, even the more expensive super-automatic machines tend to clog over time when you use very oily beans or dark roast.
Frothing & Steaming
Super-auto espresso machines come with one of three types of boilers: thermocoil heating system, thermoblock heating system or a dual boiler. The former one is usually found on the more inexpensive units and it does not offer to brew and steam at the same time. The latter two systems allow simultaneous brewing, even though thermoblock seems to considerably slow things down on both fronts.
When it comes to frothing, you have a choice of a standard wand or a panarello. If you do not like to partake in this process, you can always get a machine that automates the frothing process in a separate carafe.
Fully Automatic Espresso Machines
This type of espresso maker is very similar to the semi-autos. In terms of functionality, the only difference is that fully automatic machines offer one-touch brewing process.
To the extent that quality is concerned, semi-autos and fully autos are the same. Quality and pricing may differ from one brand and manufacturer to another. So, inherently, fully automatics can be just as good. It is just kind of a petty not to be able to control the volume of water that is being pushed through the coffee grinds.
Cleaning Your Home Espresso Machine
Clean equipment plays a major role in achieving a tasty shot of espresso.
It hurts me when I think how many people disregard cleaning and maintaining their machines. Then a month after purchasing, begin to complain on forums and review websites about the decreasing quality of their brew. It is not the wood, it is the carpenter!
If you are pulling two or more shots of espresso every day, I suggest you develop a cleaning routine. Much like fixing your bed every morning, cleaning your espresso machine should become a habit. This way you will spend less energy thinking about it.
Here is a list of cleaning items you can use for the various parts of your machine:
Cafiza or Purocaff – great for cleaning anything with metal and brass, including the portafilter and grouphead.
Oxyclean is good for cleaning all steel parts like the dispersion screen and the filter baskets.
Grindz by Urnex is a fantastic grinder cleaner that comes in the form of tablets. You can also use a vacuum as part of cleaning the grinder.
How often should you clean?
Daily – use warm water to gently rinse the grouphead and portafilter. If you are using a separate grinder, make sure you clean it daily. Do not forget to wipe the doser as well. Especially if you enjoy super oily coffee beans.
Weekly – if the espresso machines have a 3-way solenoid valve, make sure you flash it once every week or two. The documentation that comes with the unit should indicate if there is such a valve. The backflush is done with a “blind filter” that costs around $5 and is reusable. This is basically a filter basket with no holes.
Monthly – learn how to take apart the grouphead’s dispersion screen so you can soak all of its steel in a bath of boiling water and Oxyclean solution. Next, you can soak your portafilter in a mix of boiling water and Purocaff solution. I also recommend scrubbing all parts of the unit that is in any way involved in the espresso brewing process.
Annually – once or twice a year (depends on usage) you have to descale the machine. All manufacturers offer instructions on how to do this, and it is a must if you want to prolong the life of your espresso maker. Also, you might want to keep an eye on your grinder’s burrs and replace them if necessary.
Anthony is a professional barista in the city of Chicago. He has written for many online publications on various topics related to coffee.