| Rancilio Silvia - Semi Automatic Machine |
When purchasing their first serious espresso machine, people usually choose either a semi automatic or automatic model. Before I even delve into what to look for in these machines, I want to clear up some confusion that may exist over nomenclature used by consumers, vendors, and advertisers.
There are four classes of espresso machines; that is, machines that produce authentic, modern-day espresso:
- Manual Machines. These are described extensively in the next section.
- Semi Automatic Machines. These feature an automated pump, automated temperature controls for the boiler, and activation switches to engage and disengage the pump. That's what makes it "semi-automatic" - you decide when to turn the pump on and off.
- Automatic Machines. These feature a pump, automated temperature controls for the boiler, and automated (and frequently programmable) preset water volumes selected by pressing a button. That's what makes it "automatic".
- Super Automatic Machines. These machines do it all with the press of a button - grind, dose, tamp, brew, and eject the spent puck. This is about as hands off as you can get and still have espresso. This buying guide doesn't address super autos much.
There is a fifth type of machine often (mistakenly) called an espresso machine; these are the steam driven machines marketed by companies like Krups and Braun, usually found for under $100. Rather than producing authentic espresso, these machines produce a strong coffee, more akin to what a moka pot or Bialetti stovetop device brews. There's nothing wrong with these types of machines; it's just that, for the scope of this guide, we're going to be pretty much ignoring them.
In addition, there are three subclasses for each machine type. Confused? I'll try to make it clear!
There are actually many subclasses of machines in the semi automatic and automatic machine categories, but really, only three major ones.
- Single Boiler, Dual Use Machines. This is by far the most common type under $1,000. This type of machine has one boiler and two thermostats (or more) inside. One thermostat controls the water temperature for brewing coffee. The other thermostat is set at a higher temperature, to produce steam for steaming milk. The machine transitions from one thermostat to the other when you flip a switch or press a button. These machines cannot brew and steam at the same time.
- Single Boiler, Heat Exchanger Machines. These machines are more common above the $1,000 price point. A big boiler maintains water at around 240F or higher, ideal for producing steam. Brewing water makes its way to the grouphead through a coiled tube inside the boiler. As it is drawn from the reservoir, through the coiled tube, it flash heats up to (hypothetically) ideal brewing temperatures. The coiled tube is the heat exchanger. You can steam and brew at the same time on these machines.
- Dual Boiler Machines. These machines are usually quite expensive - around $2,000 on up (though a few can be found for less, like the Ascaso Steel). They feature two independent boilers (or a boiler and a thermoblock), one that maintains water at brewing temperatures, one that maintains water at steaming temperatures. You can steam and brew at the same time on these machines.
At first glance, it would appear obvious that dual boiler machines are the most desirable type of machine, whether semi automatic or automatic. However, in North America, we have the pesky problem of not having enough power on a standard 110V, 15 amp wall socket to efficiently run two boilers based on European specs. This is slowly changing, and companies like La Marzocco are making great strides in creating an efficient, powerful dual boiler machine; but until more of the European machine makers start designing these machines from the ground up for North American specifications, they will remain rare, and in some cases, troublesome.
As an aside, I remember testing two dual boiler machines that were basically retrofits of Euro-specs, and both of these models (from different companies) performed absolutely horribly on 110V power - no steam power at all and atrocious recovery times between shots (it would take the brew boiler two or more minutes to heat back up to good brewing temperatures). It was just shameful. Thankfully, these products never really came to market over here.
One more tip: If you end up spending the big bucks for a heat exchanger machine, look for one that either has an external reservoir or one that you can plumb in (connect to an external water supply) to either a water bottle system or your plumbing in your house. It makes a big difference in the machine's temperature stability, if you want to leave it on 24 hours a day.
Going the Semi Automatic Route
| Isomac Zaffiro - a Semi Automatic Machine |
Even though you're moving a lever on this machine, it's considered a semi automatic - the lever pushes an actuator button. Moving the lever back down shuts off the pump.
Far and away the most popular choice in "traditional" espresso machines for consumers is the semi automatic machine.
Semi automatics are available in all the three subclasses listed above, and as mentioned at the top of this page, automate a lot of things for you while still giving you ultimate control over how your shot of espresso will progress.
Because you decide when to activate the pump and when to turn it off, you control the total water flow for every shot you make. Why is this important? There may be cases where you build a shot and notice it's pouring very slowly but looking very good. With an automatic machine, the machine decides when to end your shot - and it may end the shot too soon. On the semi auto, you can just let the pump run longer before you hit the switch to stop things.
My preference is definitely for semi automatics. My main espresso machine, a Frankenstein'ed La Marzocco Linea, is actually the EE version (automatic), but Lineas have always had semi-auto controls on the machines as a secondary system, just in case the automatic controls go south. When you look at my Linea, the automatic control panel looks showroom new; the semi-auto switches are so worn from use, the beveled icons on them are almost worn away.
Semi automatics do all the things you want the machine to do. They maintain a good brewing temperature by automatically turning on the heating element inside whenever the machine detects a certain drop in the boiler temperature. In days of old, the barista would have to decide when to engage and disengage the boiler heater - those days are long gone, thankfully.
Semi automatics also regulate and maintain the pump pressure, which means consistent pressure on the bed of coffee. Manual machines require you (or a spring) to push water through the coffee, and that can lead to a wide variety of results in the cup.
Semi automatics also maintain the temperatures for steaming and other important safety concerns within the machine. I mentioned above that there's usually a third thermometer in most machines, and that's a safety thermometer. If for some reason the main thermometer malfunctions, a safety thermometer is also reading temperatures; if the temperature passes a certain limit (usually 255F or higher), it will kill all power to the boiler.
There's one feature I have yet to see in semi automatics that I would really like - the ability to program an auto-on and auto-off time. You see this functionality in a lot of "digital" super automatics and even one or two automatics, but I have yet to see it in a semi automatic. Such a feature would allow you to wake up in the morning to a freshly turned on machine, ready to go and pull a shot on.
Going the Automatic Route
| Bodum Granos - an Automatic Machine |
An automatic, but with a twist - it still uses a knob for the steam function.
I'm not against automatics per se, because in actuality, almost all automatics have some form of "semi-auto" controls built into them. Some are obvious (like my La Marzocco Linea with its huge honkin' flip switch), some are more obscure. The Vibiemme Domobar Super, an automatic we took a look at a while back, has a "semi-auto" function because one of the panel buttons simply turns on the pump until you press it again to turn it off.
However, I'm wary of the electronics involved in automatic machines; it's just one more thing that could possibly break down. Not to say that they do, but I think subconsciously I have more faith in a mechanical switch than I do in an electronic circuit for brewing my espresso.
Okay, enough bashing of automatics. How about some praise? Or even a better explanation of how they work?
As stated way up top on this page, automatics are called so because they automate the delivery of water for you. You press a button and the machine delivers a predetermined volume of water, more or less the same amount every time. (If you grind finer or pack more coffee into the basket, the overall extraction will be less.) So you load up your portafilter with coffee, tamp it, lock it into your machine, press a button, and for all purposes, you can walk away at this point. The machine will stop brewing once its internal volumeter hits the preprogrammed amount.
These machines typically feature four brewing buttons or switches: one shot short, two shots short, one shot normal (long), two shots normal (long). A fifth button, usually found to the right of the four preprogrammed switches, is the aforementioned "on till you press me again to turn off" semi-auto button.
On most of these machines (though not all), you can program in any volume you want for each of the brewing buttons. If you want, you can set the far left button (usually single shot short) to push 10 ounces through the coffee if that's your desire.
Automatic is a convenience and "consistency" feature much better suited for many commercial environments; in the home, I think it just adds unnecessary cost to the machine. But I'm not saying it's bad, per se.
What to Look For
I struggled with where to go with this section, and I figured the best way to go is to just give you a list of things that you might otherwise not consider the first time you're shopping for a semi automatic or automatic espresso brewer. Please bear in mind this is mostly opinion, albeit opinion based on using literally dozens and dozens of consumer espresso machines over the years.
| Zaffiro Lights |
These lights may be big, and they seem bright in this photo, but that's the studio lights doing the work. There's barely any noticeable difference in this machine's lights when they are on or off, under normal kitchen lighting - a real usability problem.
Usability is a huge thing to me, and I've found that on some espresso machines, it's an afterthought by the engineers and designers. As just one example: easy to see indicator lights are a must, but many machines on the market today have lights you can barely make out when viewed under a kitchen's typical fluorescent or halogen lighting system. Fortunately, more and more machines are solving this problem - and even older machines are getting overhauls to put in better lights or upgrade to bright LEDs.
This is just one example of usability. I want to leave it up to you to visualise, when checking out machines, the usability factors. What should you be looking for?
- Have a look at the portafilter handle, how it sits in the machine, how far over it has to go to lock, whether you have to hold a clasp in place or not to keep the filter basket from falling out, etc.
- Check out how much clearance there is between the spouts and drip tray. Will it fit the types of cups you want to brew into?
- Look at the cup warming tray and decide if it's actually usable or just some fancy aesthetic.
- Look at the position of the switches and whether they seem easy to read and understand intuitively.
These are just a few things to get you started really thinking about long term use when you're scoping out a machine online. I'd also suggest asking questions in our forums and in the comment boxes on consumer reviews - find someone who wrote a good, objective review and ask them for their opinion on the usability of the machine. Look beyond the bells and whistles and try to imagine actually using the machine day in, day out, and whether it would be a joy or a frustration.
| Ascaso Steel Tray |
The tray is plastic with a steel front (almost all the machine is metal - this is the main plastic portion). It's plastic by design, featuring vertical vanes to prevent sloshing. Good design, good choice of materials.
| Rancilio Switches |
There's something to be said for the satisfying "clack" and tactile feedback of a good mechanical switch. If only the Silvia's indicator lights were brighter - time to move to LEDs, Rancilio!
I'm a big fan of good, solid materials used in the construction of an espresso machine, not only in the boiler and internal parts, but in the exterior as well. In most cases, metal (any metal, really) is better than plastic. Metal drip trays, easy to access bolts for disassembling a machine, nice finish touches like good grippy rubber feet, things like that all make a machine better.
The thing is, there's always exceptions to this rule: I just wrote that a metal drip tray is desirable? How does that jive with my commentary for the Ascaso Steel, an automatic espresso machine that has a steel and plastic one piece drip tray?
I praised that particular feature in a first look on CoffeeGeek because it combined good materials with good usability: the drip tray features channels or walls, made out of plastic that help prevent sloshing when emptying it when full. This design that would have been too costly to do in all steel - plastic suited it just fine.
So take any comments I make about "all metal construction = good" with a grain of salt - it's not always as black and white as it may seem. That said, steel... metals. Their use gives me reassurance that the machine will last a long time. I look at the new La Marzocco GS3, and feel sad that the huge side panels on that stellar machine are made out of plastic. Maybe it's false reassurance, but durable metals are one of the things I value in a major investment - in both the aesthetics and the essentials.
This isn't to say that plastic is all that bad, and here's some final thoughts on materials used in machines: metals are easier to scratch; plastic is easier to crack and even melt (though I haven't heard of any cases of a plastic body melting). Metals also generally mean more weight - and more weight in an espresso machine is almost always a good thing.
Switches and Buttons
Call me an oldskool snob, but I always prefer mechanical switches over electrical buttons. There's just something to be said for the satisfying "clack" of flipping the Rancilio Silvia's brew switch. There's also something to be said for the immensely gratifying feel of lifting the tiny lever on a machine equipped with an E61grouphead.
While I have rarely heard about problems with electronic switches (ie, buttons that electronically switch on an actuator or establish a circuit link) for brewing, it is one more thing that can break down on a machine. Heck, mechanical switches can too, but in most cases, replacing a broken switch will be a lot cheaper than replacing an entire circuit board and machine electronics.
Things that don't matter much
| Crema Enhancers |
These come in two flavours - either built into the portafilter (really bad) or in the filter basket, as seen here on the right (not so bad, because you can replace it, like with the traditional basket on the left).
| Froth Aiders |
These devices help perpetuate the myth that frothing milk is hard. It's not - there's an initial steep learning curve that drops off to nothing after a few tries - it will become second nature. Some froth aiders can be removed, allowing you to steam normally.
| All or Nothing Steam |
All or nothing steam buttons (as opposed to steam knobs) don't give you the kind of control you need to get the best microfoam.
There's a lot of things written on the splashy boxes that espresso machines come in and on many vendor websites that, to be brutally honest, don't mean a thing in actual use. Here's a short primer on marketing fluff, some of which you can safely ignore, and some of which you should make note of so as to avoid certain products.
If you're serious about espresso, you should avoid any espresso machine that features anything called a "crema enhancer" or a "crema aiding" device. I say this with a caveat - one of CoffeeGeek's Editors' Choice Awards for Espresso is a machine that features crema-enhancing filter baskets: the Solis Crema SL-70. It garnered this award partially because easy to obtain non pressurized filter baskets are available, and with those baskets, that machine brews a great shot and steams milk remarkably well.
Avoid crema enhancers like the plague. They damage espresso.
The umpteen BAR Myth
You'll find a lot of lower priced espresso machines bragging about 15, 16, 18 BARs!!! of pressure on their packaging and on the websites of many online vendors. This doesn't really matter squat. Pretty much every machine available today over $200 has a vibratory pump inside that is more than adequate for the task of producing 9 bar of pressure in the machine's grouphead. Even these 16 and 18 bar machines have restrictor valves (or overflow valves) that reduce the pressure in the grouphead to what is generally considered best for producing espresso: 9 bar.
Frothing milk to a nice microfoam may seem difficult at first, but it's a skill that almost anyone can pick up. If I was able to teach my Dad how to properly steam and froth milk in literally two tries, you definitely can do it. Froth aiders also deny you the ability to maximize the sweetness in heated and frothed milk. Because they essentially introduce heat into the foamed part for the entire duration (or in some designs, flash heat milk from 40F to 140F fractions of an ounce at a time), they kill off most of the sugar transitions that traditional, "normal" frothing allows you to control.
So here's a quick tip - much more suited for our Milk Guide or Espresso Guide (coming at some point), but I'll share it with you here. Whenever you're frothing and steaming milk, stop introducing air into the milk by the time the steaming pitcher reaches about your skin temperature - about 95F maximum. At that point, sink the steaming wand deep into the milk and continue heating the liquid. The result will be milk froth that tastes like you added sugar to it.
Buttons for Steam
You'll find some machines that feature (!!??) a button for steaming instead of a traditional knob. I'm not talking about a switch or button to put a machine into steaming mode; I'm talking about a button that activates steam.
This is in the category of not a good thing at all. Mechanical knobs allow you to control how much or how little steam you introduce into your milk pitcher. It's an integral part of making good quality microfoam. Button-activated steaming is an all-or-nothing steam option - full force, or nothing at all. Knobs allow you to finesse - 25% of the steam power, 50%, 75%... heck, if you're really good with your touch, 82.5% of available steam power!
And the rest...
This page could go on and on for 10,000 words or more. But I need to save something for the Espresso Guide we eventually plan to publish on this website!
Seriously though, I'm sure I haven't answered all your questions or told you everything there is to know about semi automatic and automatic espresso machines, and that's by design. I wanted to give you some things to think about, maybe a bit outside the box, to get you started. If you have more questions, make use of our community - there's hundreds and hundreds of helpful, experienced folks in our forums who will be able to answer just about any question you may still have.
What I hope this page has done is given you a bit of a starting block in understanding these machines better, and how to read between the lines a bit when reading the wealth of information out there, on vendor websites, in reviews on CoffeeGeek, and even on the marketing materials and boxes these machines come in.