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Demystifying the Different Types of Espresso Machines

Posted By: Aabree Coffee
Posted At: Nov 28, 2011 at 10:19 AM
Related Categories: Espresso Machine Guides

Finding your espresso soul mate is no easy feat. If a machine does not walk that fine line between offering convenience and optimal user control, you’ll undoubtedly find it to be a bad match. We’d like to offer our assistance to help you avoid any missteps. As you personal matchmakers, we’re going to give you a rundown of what’s available, compare and contrast the different types of machines, and send you on your way to a match made in Java Heaven.

Super-Automatics: Fast, Easy, Consistent
If these bad boys capes, you’d probably mistake them for Superman.  Super-automatic s can perform the entire espresso brewing ritual with just the push of a button. And, they’re the fastest machines on the market; we’re pretty sure they’d give a speeding bullet a run for its money!

Super-automatic espresso machines come with integrated coffee grinders and water reservoirs—they’ll take care of you from beginning to end. All you have to do is press the brew button to kick things into gear; the machine will grind the right amount of beans, apply the perfect tamp, extract your coffee, then toss the leftover puck into an internal disposal unit.

These are the easiest espresso machines to use, which may explain their growing popularity; hands down, super-automatics are the fastest growing segment of the market. Being user-friendly doesn’t mean the super-automatic is a slouch when it comes to taste. On the contrary, it is known for delivering consistent coffee, whose quality exceeds that of the java produced by the average person.

Depending on your preferences, some super-automatics will give you the ability to control the strength of your brew by dictating the amount of coffee used in each extraction. You can use this feature to make crema, double shots, as well as made-to-order espresso.  Select super-automatic models even offer enhanced flexibility by providing a bypass doser. This nifty feature will allow you to skip the grinder in favor of using pre-ground coffee. This is key for the occasional decaf drinkers; helping to avoid the temptation of dumping the beans out of the hopper.

All super-automatics come with frothing adapters, which help aerate the milk—producing a thick froth. Instead of boilers, these espresso machines use thermablock technology, heating up water as it moves through a tube enclosed in an aluminum block. This is a very effective system that allows for continuous steaming and is great for hot water dispensing.

For those who dislike the cleanup that invariably comes with brewing a shot of espresso, the super-automatic comes bearing good news. These are the among the most low-maintenance machines on the market. Some models are self-cleaning, with automated decalcification and auto-rinse cycles, while others are no-tools-required systems. If you’re the type that likes to check under the hood, the entire brew group can be removed on some super-automatics. These machines will also alert you if it is out of water and when the internal dump box is full. 

While users lose ability to manipulate brew pressure manually with a super-automatic, this will, in turn, help eliminate human error. Another tidbit to keep in mind, you cannot control the tamp pressure with these automated machines. However, the super-automatic will deliver a consistent tamp, each and every time.

Semi-Automatics: Most Popular Machines for Home Use
With a semi-automatic, you’ll be able to participate in the brewing process—firing things up with an on/off switch and stopping the pump when you’ve got your desired extraction. There’s an average learning curve, you should be able to have things figured out relatively quickly.

A separate water reservoir is standard with most semi-automatics, giving users easy access to hot water for teas or café Americano. Some semis use a boiler to heat up water, while others come equipped with thermoblock systems. Unless you’ve got a preference, consider the machine, not the boiler style when making your decision.
All of our semi-automatics will steam at least 14 oz of milk, which should be more than adequate for normal use. Machines with frothing adapters will make the aeration process much easier, however those featuring steam wands are a cinch to use once you’ve mastered the technique.

There are a few things you should look out for when choosing a semi-automatic, one of which is the steam wand’s range of motion—a tall steaming pitcher may prove to be a challenge for some models.  Also it may be difficult for the steam wand to reach low levels of milk (4-8 oz).

The Fully-Automatic: A Super-Semi Hybrid
These guys extract and froth in the same manner their semi-automatic counterparts; however, they also offer the convenience of a one-touch system. Once you’ve started the process with a touch-pad switch, the fully-automatic will extract until it has met a preset volume of espresso. Since these machines will stop on their own, you will have the freedom to attend to other tasks without having to watch over the extraction process.

Fully-automatics are great for cafes and restaurants, but the selection available for home use is limited and usually based on modified semi-automatic models. You should compare and contrast the overall price and performance of a fully-automatic to that of a semi-automatic when making a buying decision.

The Piston: The Godfather
This is the device that gave us espresso, as we know it. The piston is a classic, old-world espresso machine—considered to be functional art, some models have even been known to make appearances as museum displays!

These machines are usually reserved for people who truly take delight in the ritual of making espresso. There’s a high learning curved associated with pistons, but they are just as capable of extracting a great shot as their high-tech offspring. To make a beverage, pull down on the piston’s handle to force hot water through the coffee. Be prepared to put some elbow grease into it, as consistent pressure is necessary to produce a good extraction.

Some pistons come with auto-frothers, while others do not, regardless you should have no problem making a cappuccino. But, since these guys don’t come with a water reservoir, you may have trouble keeping with drink orders at a large social gathering.

Before you take the piston home, make sure you’re prepared for its cleaning and maintenance needs. These machines usually come with copper, chrome, or brass finishes—which will show every bump, scratch, and fingerprint mark if not meticulously cleaned. But then again, they make breath-taking showpieces!

By now, you should have a pretty good idea of the type of machine that will best meet your needs. If you need more information, check out our Buyer’s Help Center, where you can compare different espresso machines, coffee makers, and grinders before making a buying decision.
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