If your goal is replicate the corner cafe from your own home, the semi-automatic espresso machine will be your new favorite toy. These machines are scaled down versions of what you will find at most commercial coffee shops you are familiar with.
They combine what people love about manual and fully automatic machines packed into one pretty appliance. In other words, they are easy to use, but still allow the barista a level of control over the coffee product. If you love these types of machines you are in good company because they outsell every other style of home espresso machines by far.
A semi-automatic espresso machine will eliminate much of the guesswork and lower the skill level of making a good and consistent shot of espresso. They do this by providing the right amount of pressure needed to force the water through the coffee grounds. And also, by maintaining water temperature by turning heating elements on and off, and by possibly doing other handy things like grinding the coffee beans or frothing the milk for you depending on the machine.
What a semi-automatic espresso machine won’t do is turn the pump on and off. When to stop the extraction is totally up to you by way of a simple switch or button. Semi-automatics will only make espresso shots, not the finished drink. The fun, artistry, and design of putting your cappuccino or latte together is left up to you. The machine will, however, provide the steam wand and the steam.
Aside from stove top espresso, French press contraptions, and automatic drip coffee makers, espresso machines are generally categorized by manual, semi-automatic, or automatic. Manual espresso machines give the user total control over the final product. Automatics let the machine have the control. Semi-automatic machines, as you may have guessed, operate somewhere in the middle.
Manual machines require a lot of skill, patience, and a steep learning curve to get that perfect shot of extraction (fans of this style will argue that there is no other way to get that desired perfect shot, but that is a debate for another day). Automatic or super-automatic espresso machines are high-tech machines that take out all of the guesswork, but some of the creativity and fun along with it. With automatics, you simply press a button and wait for your drink to be made.
If you want to take a step up from a regular coffee pot and are interested in learning how to make cappuccinos, americanos, and lattes with cute frothy designs floating on top, but don’t want to worry about maintaining the perfect manual pressure technique or ideal water temperature then semi-automatics are the way to go.
These types of espresso machines are generally designed for intimate coffee drinkers, that is, those who make one to three coffee drinks daily for themselves or one other person. They are not really ideal for someone who drinks a entire pot of coffee every morning or for entertaining guests, unless you don’t mind being tied up in the kitchen playing barista for awhile.
Semi-automatics are the most popular type of home espresso machines for a reason. They are fun, people love experimenting with them, and they are not too difficult to use. True, there may be some trial and error at first, but after consulting with the users manual and having a few practice sessions, it will soon become a fun and interactive experience that you will find yourself looking forward to every day.
To enjoy these machines all you need are electricity, a water source, counter space, and a good chunk of change. These are pretty hefty devices, not only in size, but in price. So if you’re looking for something to backpack or travel with, or for something cheap you can forget about in the dorm you won’t find it here.
These machines range from modest and lower priced to ornate and a few thousand dollars. These are an investment, and know that even the cheaper ones will cost around a hundred. How much your willing to spend and how many bells and whistles you want is up to you and your budget.
As far as maintenance and durability are concerned, like most things, you get what you pay for. One thing to keep in mind, is that the more working parts there are to your machine, the more something can go wrong with those parts. Manual machines, by comparison, have fewer working parts to worry about, while fully-automatics have even more. Semi’s are, like everything else about them, right in the middle. Look for warranties when you purchase your machine to help ease your mind and your investment.
If you’re still not sure if a semi-automatic espresso machine is right for you, check out this video for a brief overview.
Now, let's take a look at the 5 best machines you could get to start your journey!
It has a lot of extra goodies like a neat magnetic tamper with its own storage compartment, cleaning kit, hot water spout, steam wand and built-in burr coffee bean grinder that deliver grounds directly into the portafilter.
A pressure gauge lets you know exactly how much pressure is being used to get to the optimal espresso range. It may take a little trial and error with grinding and tampering techniques to get to this ideal sweet spot, but nothing that a couple of turns of morning practice couldn’t accomplish.
The panarello steam wand does have detractors; those who don’t like so much dense foam in their drink and/or would rather have more control over the foaming technique, but it seems to be a matter of preference.
For those that love the machine, but hate the panarello steam wand, there are some tutorials available that show how to replace the wand, but at that point one has to wonder if it’s worth the effort.
Regardless, Gaggia is a trusted brand with a lot of loyal fans. People who like simple straightforward machines without a lot of confusing buttons, knobs, and switches will appreciate the minimalist design and instruction of the Gaggia Classic.
The Mr. Coffee brand isn’t typically associated with more sophisticated espresso machines, but it’s hard to ignore the amount of positive affirmations this American product collects from coffee lovers.
Excited customers plus a modest price tag makes this espresso machine worthy of consideration. People who want to make good lattes and cappuccinos at home but don’t care about pursuing espresso purity will love this machine.
It is manual enough to make the user feel like a professional barista, but simple enough to make the whole process quick and uncomplicated. To cut manufacturing costs, a lot of this machine is made up of plastic parts which tend to decrease its durability, and coffee aficionados will be turned off by the plastic and simplified philosophy.
However, for people who are just beginning their home espresso hobby or don’t want to be bothered by a lot of fuss will appreciate everything this machine can do for them.
A15-bar pressure pump provides a lot of pressure coming down on those coffee grounds, supposedly resulting in a more rich and clean shot of espresso.
There are claims that bars of pressure are not an important characteristic to look for in a good espresso machine. But the Aicok Cappuccino and Latte Coffee Maker seems to produce a strong and consistent espresso shot that enthusiasts are looking for at a decent value.
Instructions look simple, with only a few buttons and dial options on the face of the machine that will not overwhelm the user.
This unit would be ideal for casual espresso drinkers who are not too concerned with bells and whistles and just want to make a decent latte at home without spending a fortune.
On top of the machine is a cup warmer, which is sort of neat, as you don’t have to worry about preheating your espresso cup with hot water beforehand. Rancilio claims to be the best entry level machine for those new to the espresso-at-home hobby.
However judging from some tutorials, this machine seems to be better suited for slightly more experienced home baristas, but with some practice, any difficulties should be easy to overcome.
The Breville BES870XL Barista Express Espresso Machine is what you should take a look at if you are still clueless. The built in front facing pressure gauge lets you know exactly how good your coffee grinding skills are, it is durable and produces consistently great espresso.
And it comes with a lot of extras, which are always appreciated, like a built in coffee grinder, 4 filter baskets, a milk jug, a magnetic tamper, and a cleaning kit. It’s on the pricey side, but it seems to have the most consistent good reviews pleasing both new and experienced home baristas alike.
For those wanting to expand or improve their home espresso skills and want to take a step up from automatic drip coffee, the Breville will take much of the guesswork out of making a professional shot of espresso while sacrificing little in quality.