If you are shopping around for an espresso machine you might see the descriptors: “semi-automatic”, “automatic” and “super automatic” being thrown around.
Here we are going to go through:
- What these three terms mean
- How to quickly tell which category an espresso machine falls into
- Which type of espresso machine is most suited to your needs
A Table Summarizing This Article
|Type of machine||Defining feature||How to identify it?||Who is it best for?||Best manufacturer of this type of machine|
|Semi-automatic espresso machine||You control your water dose manually||The machine has one “brew” button||(Aspiring) espresso nerds who want total control over their espresso||Gaggia|
|Automatic espresso machine||Water dose is controlled for you||The machine has individual buttons for single and double espresso||Most casual espresso drinkers||Breville|
|Super-automatic espresso machine||Coffee and water are dosed for you||The machine does not have a portafilter||Busy people who value convenience above all else (including espresso quality)||Jura|
I’m now going to go into each of these types of espresso machines in a bit more detail.
Semi Automatic Espresso Machines
Semi-automatic machines require you to dose out your coffee with a portafilter and dose out your water manually for every espresso shot that you pull.
These machines generally have just three buttons:
- An “on” button to warm the machine up
- A “brew” button to start and stop the machine brewing
- A “steam” button to make the machine’s steam wand expel steam
Why Would Someone Want a Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine?
The main advantage that a semi-automatic machine has over other types of espresso machines is that it gives you unparalleled brewing control.
The volume of water that you use in your espresso can drastically change the flavor profile of your drink.
This variation in flavor and body is so significant that “espresso style” coffee can actually be categorized into three distinct drinks (ristretto, espresso and lungo) depending on the ratio of ground coffee to water used in the drink.
For more information on how the brewing ratio affects the flavor and body of your drink, you might want to check out this video.
The second reason why you might want to opt for a semi-automatic espresso machine is the modification potential.
Semi-automatic espresso machines have the simplest internal design of all espresso machines and are therefore the easiest to modify.
There are whole communities dedicated to people modifying their semi-automatic espresso machines (here, for example).
This type of community does not really exist around automatic and super-automatic espresso machines simply because they are less amenable to modifications.
Gaggia machines are the most commonly modified type of machine. If you are interested in purchasing a machine to one day modify, please see my roundup of the best Gaggia espresso machines.
Are There Any Drawbacks of a Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine?
The only slight drawback of a semi-automatic espresso machine is that they are slightly more work to use than other types of espresso machines.
While these machines allow you to control your brewing with the most precision, by the same token they also give you the most scope to mess up your brewing by using too much or too little water.
The best way to avoid messing up your brewing in this way is to purchase a small scale that measures to the nearest gram.
Weigh both your initial ground coffee dose, and your final output of brewed espresso, and work towards a ground coffee to liquid coffee ratio of between 1:1.8 and 1:2.5.
Who Are the Best Manufacturers of Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines?
Here are the best manufacturers of semi-automatic espresso machines at every price point.
Affordable – Delonghi’s Dedica Range
If you are looking for a cheap and cheerful semi-automatic machine that is reliable then I would recommend Delonghi’s Dedica range.
Mid Range – Gaggia or Rancilio
Gaggia and Rancilio both make semi-automatic espresso machines that offer excellent value while still having the quality to satisfy people who are “into” espresso.
Gaggia and Rancilio are the two most popular manufacturers for people who want to modify their machines as they offer you a relatively inexpensive foundation to build a potential world-class espresso machine.
Since these two manufacturers make excellent machines for people who know a bit about espresso but who have never owned a machine before, the feature in my roundup of the best espresso machines for beginners.
High End – Bezzera
There are a fair few manufacturers of high-end semi-automatic espresso machines because they are often the machine of choice for espresso hobbyists, a cohort of people who often don’t mind parting with big money for their machine.
If you are in this category, or just want to treat yourself, you can’t go wrong with Bezzera machines. They have earned their stellar reputation.
Automatic Espresso Machines
Automatic espresso machines require you to dose up your coffee manually with a portafilter but dose up your water automatically for you.
These machines have individual buttons for a single and double espresso, and these buttons make the machine brew with the relevant amount of water for that drink.
Most automatic machines allow you to alter the volume of water dispensed by the single and double espresso buttons. You cannot do this while you are making your espresso however, you instead need to “hard code” it into the machine prior to brewing.
They still require you to steam coffee manually with a steam wand.
You can see a photo of my automatic espresso machine, the Breville Barista Pro (Breville is called “Sage” in the UK). The red circles highlight the single and double espresso buttons on the machine.
Why Would Someone Want an Automatic Espresso Machine?
Although there is an obvious difference between automatic and semi-automatic machines (semi’s require you to dose the water in each coffee manually), this, in reality, makes very little difference to your day-to-day use of the machine.
I have owned a semi-automatic machine in the past, and I quickly found that I could dose up roughly the correct amount of water “by feel”.
This meant that it was virtually no more effort to use my semi-automatic machine than to use my automatic machine.
I think the main reason why semi-automatic machines are so popular is that many of the best value-for-money espresso machine manufacturers happen to produce automatic espresso machines.
This popularity means that automatic espresso machines have now become “the norm” in people’s homes so more manufacturers will likely follow suit and make these types of machines to meet consumers’ expectations.
Are There Any Drawbacks of an Automatic Espresso Machine?
You sacrifice some brewing control with an automatic espresso machine compared to a semi-automatic machine because of this inability to control water dose during brewing.
There are no other intrinsic drawbacks of an automatic espresso machine vs a semi-automatic machine.
However, the majority of the really high-end domestic espresso machines are semi-automatic rather than automatic.
This is because domestic espresso machines were traditionally semi-automatic, so the old-school Italian manufacturers still exclusively make semi-automatic machines (we all know how much Italians hate breaking with tradition).
These manufacturers, like Bezzera and Rocket Espresso, tend to focus on creating machines that make the best possible espresso above all other considerations.
Manufacturers of automatic espresso machines, such as Breville and Delonghi, create machines with the simplicity of use and value for money in mind, as well as espresso quality.
Who Are the Best Manufacturers of Automatic Espresso Machines?
The best manufacturer of automatic espresso machines is Breville.
The other large-scale manufacturer of automatic espresso machines is Delonghi.
I think that Breville wipes the floor with Delonghi as far as automatic espresso machines are concerned, you can find an in-depth comparison of these two manufacturers in my article on Breville vs Delonghi.
In my roundup of the best Breville espresso machines you’ll find that I’m particularly fond of the following machines:
Breville Bambino: This is the best affordable automatic espresso machine for those of you on a budget. You can find out how this stacks up against other inexpensive automatic espresso machines in my comparison of Breville Bambino vs Breville Bambino Plus
Breville Barista Pro: This is the best automatic espresso machine on the market, in my opinion. You can find out more about it in my Breville Barista Pro review.
Super Automatic Espresso Machines
Super-automatic espresso machines, also known as “bean to cup” machines – especially in the UK, are espresso machines that grind, dose and brew your espresso for you.
All you need to do is to fill the machine up with whole coffee beans and water and press a button corresponding to the type of coffee that you want.
The vast majority of super-automatic espresso machines also have automatic milk steaming systems. This means that you can make milk-based espresso drinks like cappuccino and flat white at the touch of a button.
The easiest way to tell if an espresso machine is super-automatic is if it does not have a portafilter.
You can see an example of a super-automatic espresso machine, the Jura E8, below:
Why Would Someone Want A Super-Automatic Espresso Machine?
The main reason why people buy super-automatic espresso machines is because of their unparalleled convenience.
No other type of espresso machine allows you to make espresso just by pressing a button.
To make an espresso with a super-automatic you do not need any practice or skill in dose control and tamping.
You can just set the machine according to whatever brewing guidelines you think are best and start making coffee.
Super-automatic espresso machines are often used in office settings because of this ease of use. Someone can just make themselves the coffee that they want without needing any prior instruction.
The lack of cleanup required after making your espresso with a super-automatic machine also makes them a popular choice for offices (and for people who just don’t like cleaning up spilt coffee and grounds).
Are There Any Drawbacks of a Super Automatic Espresso Machine?
Super-automatic espresso machines tend to produce inferior espresso to automatic and semi-automatic espresso machines.
This is because super automatic’s internal brewing units cannot tamp your ground coffee.
This means that there are large gaps between the individual coffee grounds. Your brewing water can therefore pass through the ground coffee faster than it could with a properly tamped espresso puck.
This lack of contact time between ground coffee and water creates an under-extracted espresso which is generally a bit too sharp in flavor.
You can improve the quality of espresso that comes out of a super-automatic by brewing with more water than you otherwise would with a more manual machine.
This additional water lengthens the contact time between ground coffee and water (two shots of water take twice as long to pass through a bed of ground coffee than one shot of water), thus leading to more thorough extraction and a better-balanced espresso.
Super-automatic machines also tend to be more expensive than semi-automatic and automatic machines, with a fairly crumby super-automatic costing the same as a high-quality automatic or semi-automatic machine.
Who is the Best Manufacturer of Super Automatic Espresso Machines?
Jura makes the best super-automatic espresso machines.
This manufacturer does the best job of mitigating the inherent limitations of super-automatic espresso brewing.
They do this through their patented “Pulse Extraction Process” which brews your espresso with a small amount of water at a time to lengthen the overall brewing time.
You can find out more about Jura super-automatic machines by reading my roundup of the best Jura machines and my review of the Jura E8, which I believe to be the best value-for-money super-automatic espresso machine out there.
You can find out how the Jura E8 stacks up against other Jura machines in my comparison of the Jura E8 vs S8.
A Quick Note About Manual Espresso Machines
As well as the three types of espresso machines described above, you can also get full manual espresso machines.
These are machines where you manually control the brewing pressure and temperature as well as the coffee and water dose.
These manual machines are less popular than semi-automatic/automatic/super-automatic machines, and there is such a wide variety of designs for them that I won’t go into detail about them here.
If you want to find out more about these types of machines then please see my roundup of the best manual espresso machines.