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Updated for 2021. So, maybe you love lattes, crave cappuccinos or just really enjoy espresso. And, you’ve decided it’s time to have the ability to make your favorite whenever you want at home or in the office.
In this article, I’ll cover the basic types of machines to help you decide which is best for your situation. You will learn the pros and cons of each type. And be sure to stick around for the end of the video. I’ll give you specific suggestions in each category. My “can’t go wrong” picks of machines that have excellent reviews, proven track records and represent good values.
So the two basic types of machine are super-automatic and semi-automatic. With super-automatics, as the name suggests, the machine does most of the work for you. It’s like having a barista on your countertop. In most cases, very little skill is required to operate a super-automatic machine. With semi-automatics it’s a different story where the user will need some basic skills in order to get good results. So you can think of the difference like this: with a super-auto the machine is the barista with a semi-auto you are the barista.
One other basic difference; super-autos have a built in grinder for your coffee beans. With semi-autos you need a separate burr grinder capable of grinding for espresso. Now you do have the option of using pre-ground coffee in both machine types and Easy Serve Espresso pods on most semi-autos. But pre-ground or ESE pods really aren’t capable of producing the same quality of espresso you’d get if using fresh ground. So if going with a semi-auto and you want the capability of making excellent espresso, be sure to include a grinder as part of your purchase plan.
As for details on the machine types, I’ll start with the little or no skill required super autos. They all use a built in grinder to grind beans fresh for every cup. Inside these machines is a part called a brew group which performs the barista functions of extracting the coffee. Top of the line super-autos are often called “One-Touch” for their ability to produce milk-based espresso beverages like a latte, cappuccino and more with the press of a button, start to finish without user intervention.
Now all super-autos use a similar process for the coffee. Where they differ is how they deal with milk, level of programmability, their displays and things like capacities, cup clearance and finish materials.
Of those differences perhaps the most significant is how the machines work with milk. Lower cost models use auto-frothing steam wands for texturing milk. It’s a manual process but doesn’t require much skill. Another option for milk froth is the cappuccinatore. These use a pick-up tube and deliver frothed milk into your cup. At the top of the line are attachable milk carafes and spout integrated frothing devices fed from thermal containers or refrigerated milk supplies. Those are what you find on the “One-Touch” machines.
Moving on to semi-auto machines there’s quite a range available. From entry-level models starting under $200 up to refined hand-crafted machines built for decades of service.
As I mentioned semi-automatic machines do require some skill to operate. Now if you’re a beginner there are entry-level machines that are good for learning the ropes. But understand that semi-auto espresso is a game of controlling variables including parameters like grind size, coffee dose and brewing temperature. Fine control of those variables tends to be more difficult and less consistent when using lower cost entry-level machines.
Now most entry level machines use undersized pressurized portafilters. These are much smaller and lighter than the 58mm portafilters found on more expensive machines. And pressurized portafilters are kind of a cheat that tend to produce a lower quality espresso. On the upside, they are more forgiving of grind size so you can start your espresso journey without purchasing a grinder and use pre-ground coffee or ESE pods.
Low cost semi-autos usually use thermoblock boilers with the same boiler heating water for brewing and for steaming. That means waiting for 30 seconds to a minute or so for the machine to get up to temperature when you want to froth milk. And while they will do okay steaming with their auto frothing wands there is a huge difference in power between these entry level machines and more expensive machines with larger volume boilers. And if you interested in taking your skill to the level of pouring latte art be aware that entry level machines or any machine with an auto frothing wand is not really capable of frothing to the quality required for that.
Now as this video is intended for beginners, I’ll just spend a shot time on higher-end semi-autos. These are usually classified by boiler type and include at the low end SBDU machines which stands for single boiler dual use. These have more power than the small thermoblock boilers in entry level machines but you still have to wait in between brewing and frothing milk for the machine to get up to steaming temperature.
The next step up are HX machines. The HX stands for heat exchange boiler. With these you can brew and froth milk at the same time. In these boilers there is always steam available. Inside the boiler a heat exchange section provides cooler water for espresso brewing.
The third boiler type is DB which stands for dual boiler. On these machines there are separate boilers for producing water for brewing and steam for frothing. With that these machines can brew and steam at the same time like the heat exchange machines. Dual boilers also tend to be the most temperature stable which allows for tight control of brew water temperature.
At the start of the video I promised I’d give you my can’t go wrong picks for a the various machine types. For entry-level semi-auto check out the Saeco Poemia. It’s a low cost thermoblock boiler machine which uses pressurized filter baskets only in a reduced size and weight portafilter. You’re likely to outgrow this machine but many users love it.
For not a whole lot more there’s a lot to like about the Gaggia Classic. It comes with a commercial size and weight portafilter and both pressurized and the regular non-pressurized baskets. It’s a machine that can grow with you. You can start without a grinder using the pressurized baskets with pre-ground or pods and then move up to grinding fresh when you’re ready using the standard non-pressurized baskets. The Classic has been around for many years and is hands down the best value in single boiler dual use machines.
At the top end of entry level semi-auto is the Rancilio Silvia. It’s typically about twice the price as the Gaggia Classic. Silvia owners love their machines and the often refer to them as Miss Silvia. In comparison to the Gaggia Classic it has a larger boiler for more steaming power and a manual steaming wand capable of texturing milk for latte art. But you will want a grinder with this one as it does not include pressurized filter baskets for use with pre-ground coffee.
For super auto recommendations we can open things up a bit as they require little skill to operate.
The Gaggia Brera is my pick for best value in this category. It’s been around for years, is super simple to operate and uses the same brewing technology found in their more expensive machines. The Brera uses an auto-frothing wand for milk steaming, is low profile and has convenient front slide out access to the water reservoir and used coffee drawer.
For mid-range picks I’ve got the Gaggia Anima line. The Anima, Anima Deluxe and Anima Prestige. These machines demonstrate the different milk handling options. The base Anima uses an auto frothing wand, the Deluxe has a cappuccinatore and the prestige an attachable milk carafe for start to finish lattes and cappuccinos with a single button press. Animas tend to be a better value when compared to machines from other manufacturers with similar capabilities. They are very slim so easy on counter space and all have the clearance to handle taller cups and glasses.
If you want the absolute best, my top of the line picks are JURA super-automatics for home use. For high-volume and office use check out the JURA GIGA 6. This machine features drink selection by picture on a color display. Drinks are fully programmable down to the ability to adjust the milk foam density and temperature. It can even make two milk based drinks simultaneously.
Have any questions about espresso machines or anything coffee? Use the comments below and I’ll get you the answers. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll come back soon for more of the good stuff on everything coffee.