If you are coffee connoisseur (or at least a budding one) by now you’ve probably heard about semi-automatic and superautomatic espresso machines. You’ve likely also heard that there are some differences between the two when it comes to operating them. However, you may have wondered, “What really makes a semi-automatic different than a superautomatic?” To clear up any lingering questions, we decided to explore these two types of machines in a little more depth, so you can see what factors make these machines unique. And of course, ultimately determine which is right for you.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
Semi-automatic machines are generally the most popular choice for consumers who are looking for a “traditional” home espresso machines. These machines feature a boiler, portafilter and a switch to activate/deactivate the pump to perform the extraction. It is this last feature that puts the “semi” in automatic, if you will. While the other features are automated, you have control over when the extraction begins and ends. There are also semi-automatic machines with programmable doses that allow you to program the extraction to stop after a certain length of time.
As we discussed above, whether you flip a switch or program in when you want the extraction to end, with a semi-auto you have control of the water flow for every shot you make. Why is this a good thing? It provides you with the opportunity to perfect your shot. For instance, if you create a good looking shot but it’s pouring slowly, you can let your pump run longer to provide more time to complete the shot. On a superautomatic you usually don’t have this option. Superautos usually have a preprogrammed time for shots that determines when to end them, which could potentially cause shots to end too soon.
Portafilters and Grinders
Another key component of using a semi-automatic machine is using a portafilter to insert the coffee into the machine. There are a couple of different styles of portafilters that can come with a machine, but the two basic types are non-pressurized or pressurized.
Non-pressurized portafilters are usually larger (58 mm) sized and made with chrome or chrome plated brass. This provides the heftiness that is necessary for temperature stability, which makes it possible to create a better shot of espresso. However, this design requires that you have a very precise grind and tamp. This can make non-pressurized portafilter harder to use, since it is more technical, but many people claim it is worth the effort since you can get a really great shot – if you have the right equipment. For this reason, we recommend that you get a good grinder (which we’ll discuss more later) if you get a semi-automatic machine.
Pressurized portafilters use either a valve or special filter basket that will not let water out of the portafilter until the right amount of pressure has been reached. This allows the portafilters to compensate for an imperfect grind or uneven tamp, which make them a good option for people that don’t have a grinder or who are using pre-ground coffee.
Finally, if you want to get into ESE pods you’re in luck, since many semi-automatics accept them. You can purchase baskets that will allow pods to fit into pressurized and non-pressurized portafilters or can even find portafilters that are designed specifically for pods.
Most semi-automatic machines do not come with a built-in grinder. We won’t say all, because there are a few that do, like the Breville Barista Express, but most do not. This means that you will either have to get a separate grinder or use ground coffee beans to dose your portafilter. If you want to be able to play around with your grind and tamp to achieve that perfect shot, you will want to get a non-pressurized portafilter and a really good grinder. In fact, it’s best to start out with a high-quality grinder that you can afford, since the grinder is more important than the machine when it comes to getting good shots. On the other hand, if you don’t want to get a grinder or have to tamp your coffee, a pressurized portafilter will be the best option for you.
There a couple of different types of boilers you can find in semi-automatic machines and, depending on which you choose, it will impact whether you can brew and steam at the same time. Generally, smaller and less expensive machines will contain a single boiler. This helps keep the machine’s footprint small, but it also means that you won’t be able to brew your coffee and steam your milk at the same time. However, mid-range or higher end semi-autos will usually have a thermocoil, heat exchanger, single boiler with a thermoblock or a dual boiler. All these options, with the exception of the thermocoil, have a bigger boiler or even two boilers allowing you to brew and steam simultaneously.
Semi-automatic machines usually come with a traditional steam wand, which requires you to “work” the milk a bit in order to get a good froth. While there is a slight learning curve to frothing milk, it isn’t as hard as it seems. In fact, some people prefer having a traditional steam wand, since it again provides them more control over how to the final product turns out. Some semi-autos do come with a panarello wand that injects air into the milk, making the frothing process easier.
Superautomatic Espresso Machines
Often known as the machines that “will do everything but fold your laundry,” superautomatic espresso machines are great for people who like the convenience of being able to make their drink of choice in just a few minutes. While it may be hard to believe, these machines do indeed do almost everything for you including grinding, tamping, brewing your coffee and even steaming the milk for your espresso shot. As a result, these machines are incredibly easy to use and will produce a consistent shot every time, with no muss or fuss.
Part of the magic of superautomatic espresso machines is that they make creating your favorite drinks a breeze. The machines all have varying levels of programmability, but some of the most common features on these machines are the ability to adjust your brew temperature, brew volume, extraction time and water hardness. Many machines also have an auto-on function, so your machine will be warmed up by the time you get up in the morning. In addition, some superautomatic espresso machines have one-touch pre-set espresso drink options, others have you manually enter your drink selection while others still let you save personalized drink selections.
Most superautomatics come with a built-in grinder, so you don’t have to worry about grinding your beans yourself. Yet this doesn’t mean you don’t have any control over the results. Many superautos will allow you to adjust the fineness and the dosage of the coffee so you can get the flavor and strength you desire. The downside of having a built-in grinder is that while you have the ability to it, there are a limited number of changes you can make. Thus, there is some advantage to having a semi-auto machine that allows you to have a separate grinder, which provides you with an infinite number of grind settings.
Another caveat is that they do not do well with super oily or dark roasts. The oil the beans produce can cause the grinder to clog over time, often doing a number on the machine. Finally, if you want to brew pre-ground coffee, some machines also feature a bypass doser. This feature provides you with the opportunity to brew something besides the beans you already have in the machine’s bean hopper, such as a decaffeinated version of espresso.
Not unlike semi-autos, there are a variety of options when it comes to what type of boiler is inside your superauto. The most common options are thermocoil heating systems (which don’t give you the ability to brew and steam at the same time), thermoblock heating systems and dual boilers (which do allow for simultaneous brewing and steaming).
Superautomatic espresso machines also offer a couple of choices when it comes to frothing milk. There are machines that use a standard steam wand to froth milk or ones that have a panarello. Some superautos make the process even easier and will automatically froth your milk in a separate carafe or even have a steam wand that will come down and froth your milk right in your own cup.
So, Which is Better?
When it comes down to purchasing a machine, some people use how much maintenance is required to decide what type of machine to get. While this is not a bad factor to keep in mind, you should be prepared to do regular maintenance on either a semi-automatic or superautomatic machine. It’s true that semi-automatic machines do require a little more maintenance, since you will have to clean the portafilters, baskets and shower screen. However, superautos need TLC too, and there are some steps like cleaning the brew group, steam valve and steam wand that are important to perform no matter what type of machine you have.
Ultimately, what is most important when picking out a machine is determining what you want to get out of your machine and what features are most important to you. Now that you know a little more about each type, hopefully you can figure out which will work best for you.
Check out our new series, Gear Guide: Finding The Right Espresso Machine For You. We created this simple buyer’s guide to help people learn what kind of machine they’re ready to take home.