Few things beat the taste and complexity of a properly pulled shot of espresso, and for espresso drinkers looking to ditch the drive to the local coffee shop, investing in an espresso machine for use at home may be the perfect option. However, there are hundreds of models of espresso makers out there that range from under a hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. So, which do you choose?
To help you narrow your choice a bit, we’re going to go over the differences between the three main types of non-manual espresso machines: automatic, semi-automatic, and super-automatic espresso machines, so you can decide which is best for you and your lifestyle.
First, How Does an Espresso Machine Work?
An espresso machine, whether it’s manual, automatic, or semi-automatic, uses pressure to force hot water through a tamped puck of finely ground coffee. This puck is housed in something called a “portafilter,” which allows water to trickle through after passing through the coffee grounds. The process takes around 25 to 30 seconds depending on the grind size of the coffee and your personal taste, and the result is a deliciously creamy, highly caffeinated shot of espresso.
Originally, espresso machines were all manual, and they required the barista to use a lever to generate the pressure needed to push the water through the puck of coffee. Thankfully, modern technology lends itself to a more relaxing brewing experience with machines that create the pressure for you.
Now that you know the basics of how espresso shots are pulled, we can dive into the difference between automatic, semi-automatic, and super-automatic machines, all of which will generate the high pressure needed to make espresso and make your life a bit easier.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
As you might expect from the name, semi-automatic espresso machines will require a bit of work on your part, but only a little! To pull a shot, you’ll need to grind your coffee, load the portafilter, tamp, and hit “start.” After this point, however, this type of espresso machine will run until you shut it off.
It may seem like a simple difference, but being able to stop at 25 seconds rather than 30 or 35 can make an enormous difference in the taste of your espresso.
Automatic Espresso Machines
Automatic espresso machines do most of the work for you, hence the term, “automatic.” Although you’ll still have to grind your beans, load the portafilter, tamp the puck of coffee, and hit the “start” button, everything else will be done for you with an automatic espresso machine. Once initiated, the machine will build pressure, force the hot water through the portafilter, and shut off after around 30 seconds.
You can think of automatic espresso machines as a set-it-and-forget-it method of making espresso, as they require minimal effort from you.
Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
The third and final type of automatic espresso machine works entirely on its own. While you’ll have to add beans and water to refill it from time to time, your involvement in the shot is otherwise none! Super-automatic espresso machines grind the beans for, load the portafilter, tamp the puck, and pull and end the shot for you! Some of them even steam the milk for you if you choose to drink mixed coffee drinks like lattes or cappuccinos.
While you get the convenience and consistency from having a machine do all the work, you also lose the ability to control anything about how the espresso is made. Some may offer the ability to change the pull time or grind size a little, but it’s often not enough to make much of a difference. If you don’t like the shot a super-automatic machine pulls for you or the milk it steams for you, you probably won’t like the slight alternatives either.
Which is Right for You?
Automatic, semi-automatic, and super-automatic espresso machines are very similar, so for most espresso drinkers, the choice between them will come down to personal preference.
1. Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
A semi-automatic espresso machine gives you the most input over your espresso. Having the option to end your shot early or extend it beyond the standard 25 seconds offers a surprising amount of control. For those interested in perfecting their espresso and being able to experiment with different brewing times — especially if you also like experimenting with different grind sizes and coffees — a semi-automatic espresso maker will suit you best.
2. Automatic Espresso Machines
If you’re looking for a machine that will brew your coffee for you without you having to stand by with an eye on a timer, then an automatic machine is probably your best bet. Many of these can even be set up and programmed to turn on at a given time, so you’ll have the option to wake up to the smell of freshly brewed espresso. Given that a brew can be scheduled for a certain time, automatic espresso machines are also best suited for those who love fresh espresso but don’t have time in the morning to make it for themselves.
3. Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
A super-automatic espresso machine takes most of the power and choice away from you. You won’t be able to change much about how the shot comes out, but you do gain the convenience of not having to grind beans or do any of the real work yourself. These can also often be set on a timer, so you can go to bed knowing that a shot of espresso using freshly ground beans will be waiting for you when you wake up, and this is perfect for some people.
Lastly, you’ll need to consider the price. Automatic espresso makers do tend to be a bit more expensive than semi-automatic machines, and both pale in comparison to super-automatic machines. You’ll be paying more for the convenience that comes with machines that do more of the work for you.
The Bottom Line
We hope this guide has helped you learn the differences between semi-automatic, automatic, and super-automatic espresso machines. They’re all easier to use than manual espresso makers — which take some elbow grease to operate — but still offer you some control over your espresso. Want to perfect your espresso shot? Choose a semi-automatic model. Like working with portafilters but don’t want to time your espresso? Opt for an automatic espresso maker. And if you want a machine that will do just about everything for you, we’d recommend a super-automatic espresso machine.
Enjoy your rich, smooth shots of espresso!