Semi-automatic espresso machines are winning their place in so many kitchens these days.
And no wonder, as they come with quite a lot of perks.
If you want to enjoy them too, check out our comprehensive guide on how to pick the best semi-automatic espresso machine what would work for you. Let’s start right away!
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines ExplainedMost semi-automatic machines have similar construction and include such base components as the water pump, the heating system, the control panel, and the portafilter (1). Some also come with an integrated steam wand that allows users to froth milk and make multiple espresso-based beverages. Now, not every espresso machine can be called semi-automatic. This type gives users more control over the process. You will need to grind the beans according to your preferred coarseness, tamp the grounds, and pull the shot. With a semi-automatic model, you will be able to control the extraction time, as such machines require you to turn the water pump off when you’re done brewing. And that’s probably one of the main reasons why such espresso machines are becoming more and more popular for home use. They are suitable for different experience levels and can help beginner baristas learn more about the brewing process. As for more experienced users, semi-automatic models give them more control over their brew, guaranteeing all the needed conditions for a perfect shot of espresso.
How Are Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines Different from Other Coffee Makers?
To understand what makes semi-automatic espresso machines stand out from the crowd, we need to take a quick look at other types.
This type gives users absolute control over each shot. With a manual espresso machine, you need to heat the water to a needed temperature, grind the beans, tamp the grounds, and manually pull the shot by using the lever.
For beginners, such an approach can be challenging and might require a long learning curve. But for more experienced users, a manual espresso machine is a real treasure as it can help them achieve a perfect flavor and taste by controlling every step of the process.
These espresso machines do all the work automatically, as you have probably guessed. A super-automatic espresso maker would grind the beans, tamp the grounds, and pull a shot for you according to the programmed settings. What makes these machines great is that they typically maintain an optimal brewing temperature. Plus, they allow for a completely fuss-free brewing process (2), ideal for hasty mornings.
You are probably familiar with this type, as capsule Nespresso machines are quite popular. They don’t actually brew real espressos, but many users prefer these machines for their functionality and ease of use.
Capsule coffee makers use coffee pods and force the hot water through those to brew coffee. Such machines operate with a touch of a button and don’t require any effort on your part. However, they can’t make real espressos, even if you pick the “bold brew” option.
As the name implies, single-serve coffee makers are designed to brew a single serving of coffee. They can work with K-pods or freshly ground beans (as long as you have a reusable filter basket) and can be adjusted to fit different servings from a standard 6-oz coffee cup to a tall tumbler.
Single-serve brewers can be both semi-automatic and fully automatic. For a semi-automatic grinder, you need to grind and tamp your beans by yourself before placing a filter inside your coffee machine. Fully automatic brewers usually work with K-cups and all you need to do is to secure the K-cup in place and push the button to start brewing.
The Perks of Using a Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine
Sometimes, new users aren’t sure whether they should invest in a semi-automatic espresso machine. If you are one of them, allow me to share what advantages you might enjoy when using one of these coffee brewers:
- Ease of use. Yes, this aspect is relative, and many beginner baristas will not agree with me. But hear me out: even though some steps of the process depend solely on you, semi-automatic espresso machines are not that hard to use. If you don’t have any experience, you will need to experiment with the extraction time and grind coarseness to achieve the best flavor. But the rest is pretty straightforward.
- Functionality. Most semi-automatic espresso machines use at least 9 bars of pressure needed to extract a proper espresso. Some of them come with an integrated grinder, so if you get yourself one of the best espresso machines with a grinder, you will be able to make beverages fast and with less effort. Plus, most of them feature a built-in steam wand or a milk frother, allowing users to make more types of beverages.
- Adjustability and freedom to experiment. That’s my favorite thing about semi-automatic espresso machines. They give users the freedom to try different configurations and, consequently, different espresso flavors. The extraction time and the grind coarseness can change the way your espressos taste even if you experiment with minor variations. This gives coffee lovers an opportunity to find out what they prefer exactly. Plus, with a handy steam wand, you will be able to experiment with dozens of other beverages.
- Fast operation. A good espresso machine takes less than a minute to heat up and around 30 seconds to pull an espresso shot. Additionally, if your machine has a double boiler, you will even be able to extract coffee and steam milk at the same time, which can speed up the process greatly.
- Affordable luxury. Semi-automatic coffee machines feature the perfect balance between innovations and preserving the taste of your morning cup. With the plethora of programmed options, you can just set the timer and wake up to a beautiful aroma in the kitchen.
- Plenty of features to experiment with. The majority of semi-automatic coffee machines allow you to brew not only espresso shots but also make a lot of different beverages. They often feature a stem wand or can work with flavored coffee beans to get you hazelnut or vanilla coffee. If you are an at-home barista, a semi-automatic coffee machine will be a perfect device for honing your skills and make up your signature drinks.
What Beverages Can You Make with a Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine?If you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a top-rated semi-automatic espresso machine and use it for one beverage only, I’ve got good news for you. If you get yourself a model with an integrated steam wand (and most of them do come with it), you will be able to enjoy a bit more, including:
- Ristretto. If you appreciate the boldness of espressos, you are going to love ristretto. This beverage uses the same amount of grounds as espresso but half the amount of water. The result is super strong, super rich, and a bit intense. It’s not everyone’s “cup of tea”, but if you enjoy strong beverages, you might want to try brewing a shot of ristretto with your new espresso machine.
- Cappuccino. Now, cappuccino may vary slightly depending on where it’s prepared, but for the most part, this beverage is an espresso + steamed milk + foamed milk (3). The ratio is usually one-third of espresso, one-third steamed milk, and one-third foam (dense and silky rather than airy).
- Latte. Similar to the previous beverage, latte requires more steamed milk and typically has a thinner layer of foam (4). The most common “recipe” involves one-third espresso, two-thirds steamed milk, and a foam topping (less than half of an inch, usually). Lattes taste creamy and not as strong. That’s why many coffee lovers use latte as a base for flavored beverages (cinnamon, caramel, vanilla, hazelnut, and so on).
- Flat White. Think of it as cappuccino’s brother. Flat White uses less milk and a double shot of espresso, which makes it taste stronger. The typical ratio is 1 part espresso and 3 parts steamed milk, with a thin layer of micro foam on top.
- Americano. Ideal for those who love espressos but want to enjoy their coffee for longer than 30 seconds, Americanos are bold, rich, but slightly diluted. To make an Americano, you need to brew a shot of espresso and add an equal amount of hot water to it. If you pour carefully, you might even preserve the espresso’s crema.
- Lungo. To brew yourself a cup of lungo, you need to pull your regular espresso using double the amount of water for extraction. This might take you more time (typically up to a minute). The beverage might taste a bit bitter, which many coffee enthusiasts like.
- Macchiato. If you want to add a touch of creaminess to your espresso but still wish to feel its rich body and aroma, a macchiato would be ideal. All you have to do is brew a shot of espresso and add 1-2 teaspoons of steamed milk to it.
- Mocha. This beverage is perfect for everyone who has a sweet tooth. To make a mocha using your semi-automatic espresso machine, you need to pull a shot of espresso, add chocolate syrup or powder, and top that off with around 2-3 oz. of steamed milk. Traditionally, mocha is served with added milk foam or whipped cream.
How to Pick the Best Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine: Buyer’s Guide
One of the most efficient ways to shop for a new semi-automatic espresso machine is by doing your research beforehand. Consider the most important aspects, and you will easily narrow down the list of options to the most suitable ones:
- Size. Clearly, this aspect will depend on your counter space. Luckily, semi-automatic brewers come in different sizes, and there’s a suitable model for any kitchen. Keep in mind that smaller machines would have smaller water tanks, which means frequent refills. Also, consider the height of your desired coffee maker. Many of them emit steam when brewing (and even more when frothing milk), so you might not be able to use one of them under wooden cabinets.
- Bars of pressure. For proper espressos, you need at least 9 bars of pressure. However, there are many models on the market that allow for up to 15 bars.
- Grinder. Now, this isn’t a necessity, but some models come with an integrated grinder. The best part is that most of them use burr grinders, which are much more functional when it comes to espressos. However, such models are more expensive. If you decide to buy a grinder separately, try to steer away from blade ones. Yes, they are much cheaper, but it’s hard to achieve a uniform coarseness with such type. Plus, they don’t really allow for coarseness adjustments. A good burr grinder will allow you to pick an appropriate coarseness for espressos, plus it will make consistently uniform grounds.
- Steam wand. A steam wand is a must if you love lattes or cappuccinos. Most of them are controlled manually (if we’re talking about semi-automatic espresso machines) and can guarantee great results once you get the hang of it. A good range of motion and swiveling would be ideal, as such a design would allow for precise frothing. And finally, pay attention to the steam holes. There should be at least 2 of them (but 3 or 4 are more preferable).
- Price. Good espresso machines under $200 can brew a decent beverage, but they usually have limited functionality, and the espresso quality is not ideal (according to the standards). Therefore, you might want to invest in something slightly more expensive. For home use and great results, anything between $500 and $1,000 would suffice. That’s the category semi-automatic espresso machines typically fall into. Anything higher than $1,000 would probably be either fully automatic or commercial-use.
- Boiler. When it comes to semi-automatic espresso machines, you have two options: single and dual boiler. The former uses one heater for the brewing process and to power the steam wand. The latter, as you have probably guessed, has two separate boilers for these two processes. The main perk of using a double-boiler system is that you can brew espressos and steam milk simultaneously. This can save you some time if you’re in a rush or need to make a few cappuccinos at once. With a single boiler, you will have to pull your espresso first and then steam the milk (and wait for the steam wand to heat up properly). So, if you are a solo user, a single boiler would suffice. However, for a family of coffee lovers, a dual-boiler system would be more suitable (if you plan to make more than just espressos).
- Build quality. This is when you need to pay attention to the materials. Some of the best Italian espresso machines typically use high-grade steel or brass. However, you can find many high-quality models among other manufacturers. Just make sure you stay away from brewers that have way too many plastic parts. Those aren’t likely to be very durable.
- Ease of use. Generally, most semi-automatic espresso machines are relatively easy to use, but many of them require a slight learning curve. Naturally, some may take you longer to get used to, especially if those models involve endless tinkering with the settings. That’s an important aspect to consider if you are new to the world of espresso machines. To save yourself from frustration, you can check other users’ reviews to get a general idea of how much experience your desired brewer requires. You can even learn about any potential complications you might face when learning.
- Water tank. Each espresso machine has its water capacity. Smaller models require more frequent refills and might not be ideal for avid coffee drinkers or large families of coffee lovers. Keep in mind that some espresso machines are compatible with plumbing kits, which means they can be connected to your home water supply. This little trick can save you some time on the refills, but remember that using tap water for espressos isn’t ideal. It can be very harsh in some regions and might alter the taste of your beverages. Additionally, harsh water can lead to calcium build-up inside the machine and affect its performance (and lifespan).
- Maintenance. Automatic descaling is always a huge plus, so keep your eye open for that. Some models also come with removable parts for easier cleaning (and some of those parts might even be dishwasher safe). Again, reading the reviews can help you understand how demanding your desired espresso machine will be in terms of maintenance.
- Pump pressure. Most coffee experts agree that the golden standard for brewing espresso is 8 or 9 bars of pressure, so aim for these numbers. Some coffee machines can reach up to 15 bars, but more pressure won’t always result in a better-tasting cup.
- Materials and design. If you need a durable coffee maker, it’s more advisable to go for devices made of steel and metal. However, an all-metal construction can also feel heavy and bulky, which makes transportation difficult. You can go for the combo of metal and plastic parts or choose aluminum alloys instead of steel if you need to reduce weight.
Do I need any specific coffee beans to make a good espresso?
You can always use specialty coffee blends if you want to experiment with the flavor, but keep in mind that not all of them work great for fast extraction. Generally, a 100% Arabica blend with a medium or dark roast or a 70/30 mix of Arabica and Robusta beans are considered a great choice for espresso machines.
How long does it take a semi-automatic coffee machine to heat up?
The main thing you need to wait for in this case is the boiler. Heating the water can take 5-10 minutes, and warming up the portafilter and cups can add a couple of minutes more.
How can I brew espresso with a thick foam cap?
Use freshly ground beans: they contain maximum carbon dioxide, which is responsible for foaming. Also, you might want to use two paper filters instead of one to create a thicker membrane that will also aid in foam formation.
Should I choose a 15-bar pump for espresso?
The typical pressure for espresso is 8-9 bars. However, some cutting-edge espresso machines feature a 15-bar pump, so you can choose them if you aim for top quality.
- Karim Nice (May 17, 2001). How Espresso Machines Work. Retrieved from https://home.howstuffworks.com/espresso-machine3.htm
- Jeffrey Van Camp (July 21, 2019). Are Super Automatic Espresso Machines Worth It? Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/automatic-espresso-machines/
- Lindsey Goodwin (September 28, 2019). History of the Cappuccino. Retrieved from https://www.thespruceeats.com/history-of-the-cappuccino-765833
- Myo Quinn (June 22, 2020). How to Make a Classic Latte at Home. Retrieved from https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/food-recipes/cooking/a32896369/how-to-make-a-latte/
My name is Yurii Brown. I am a passionate coffee geek and, concurrently, a certified coffee specialist.
I’ve been learning about coffee for a long time, testing various devices and practicing in home coffee brewing. I like to share my experience and insights with fellow coffee lovers so that my readers could enjoy the real taste of quality-brewed beverages.