Buying a semi automatic espresso machine is the best way to go for an espresso enthusiast who wants to learn and experiment with coffee. Yes, decent semiautomatics are not very expensive, but so are decent super automatics. The semi automatic espresso machines are more reliable, and they give you a bit more flexibility with brewing. This translates in a greater control over your shot.
With the semi-automatics you have to do the dosing and tamping. You also need to start and stop the extraction by activating a button. All other nice features of a fully automatic machine can be included in a semi, but obviously for a price.
Automatic vs Semi Automatic
I am not saying you should go the semiautomatic way. If you are an espresso lover who looks for convenience, and consistency, buying a machine that does everything for you makes the most sense. You don’t have to worry about grinding the right size, tamping with the right amount of pressure, and pulling the shot for the right amount of time. The machine takes all these decisions for you, and you only have to put beans in the hopper, and fill the water tank. At the touch of a button you have your espresso delivered without worrying about measuring the beans, the pull time, etc…
If you get a semiautomatic espresso machine, you will have total control over your shot. Sure, even the best of us can occasionally pull a bad shot, so you are not going to have the 99% consistency of an automatic machine. You will have the option to tweak tamping pressure, which is not possible with an automatic machine. You decide how long you will pull the shot. You operate the on-off button that activates the pump. Why do you need to change the shot’s pulling time? Maybe the shot is flowing too slowly, but it looks great. Or maybe you want to experiment with different pulling times. Coffee beans are not the same, for the same beans quantity they taste differently. For the same quantity, the shot blonds differently for various beans.
Best budget Semi Automatic Espresso Machine
Many times Gaggia Classic is compared to Rancilio Silvia, and this is great for coffee lovers with a low budget. That means you can spend half of the money and get comparable results. It is a very reliable machine; people use it for years without any problems. However, the most important thing is that this machine can brew great espresso. Many espresso lovers will modify their Gaggia Classic, installing an electronic PID for perfect temperature control, but the Classic is great even without it. This machine has one of the best quality/price ratios on the market. It is most often chosen as the first espresso machine by many beginner baristas.
Gaggia with Bottomless Portafilter
How to Choose a Semiautomatic Espresso Machine
Usually, the most important factor is the budget. If the budget wasn't an issue, we would probably all buy a professional machine like the “La Nuova Era Cuadra”. Oh, La Nuova Era Quadra is not intended for the domestic user, it is meant for commercial use. Who cares though, if your budget allows it. In reality, for many espresso beginners, even the mid range looks too expensive. For the rookie, espresso brewing is still unknown territory. Rancilio Silvia and Gaggia Classic are many times completely out of the budget range of a rookie. Many times the beginner home barista will squeeze the budget to a minimum, because they don't want to commit too many resources. Many will give up soon, because poor equipment will only accentuate the lack of experience. If you have the budget, go big, you'll never regret it. If the budget is tight, choose wisely. A cheap machine will end up getting replaced anyway.
Features vs Reliability
What are we looking for in a semiautomatic espresso machine? Many people say reliability, others, including myself, choose features. Are they mutually exclusive? Not necessarily, but I hate to say, the more features your machine has, the more chances to break there are. That doesn't mean you have to avoid nice machines like the Breville BES870XL, and buy the Rancilio Silvia. Breville make great espresso machines, and the units from the BES line have some great features. These features will help you control the brewing down to the finest details. If you look for 100% reliability and years of use and abuse, the Rancilio Silvia and Gaggia Classic are the definite go. But I’m pretty sure you’ll get bored of it, and you’ll change it after a couple of years anyway. I have a friend who got his Gaggia Classic, and he said he’ll never need the bells and whistles of a Breville BES. He loved the morning coffee ritual, and he didn’t feel the need to experiment, and tweak. He maintained this for quite a while, until he got the chance to test a Breville BES920XL. He got to play with the various controls of the machine, and see what a high end semiautomatic looked like. Next week he bought his own Breville BES, (he got the BES870XL).
High End Features
The point is: with high-end semi automatics you have a lot of extra features and controls and these only help you get the best espresso shot. Here are some great features to look for when you are buying the best espresso machine, and you are not on a tight budget:
- An over-pressure valve to limit the pressure during extraction to 9 bar.
An electronic PID is probably one of the best features because it regulates the brewing temperature very precisely. That means no over-extracted shots anymore.
- Another nice feature is a pressure gauge that allows you to see what the pressure is during pulling the shot. This is great, because you can easily troubleshoot your extraction times, and tamping pressure.
- The most advanced machines have dual boiler, so that you don’t need to wait between steaming milk and pulling shots.
- Pre infusion is a feature that allows the grinds to slowly saturate with water. This in turn will prevent channeling, and will ensure an even extraction.
- The volumetric control allows you to finely tune the shot’s strength. Not everybody loves Americano, and by pulling a little bit longer you extract a bit more caffeine in your cup.
Materials and Reliability
The materials used and the calibration of the components are very important for your espresso brewer. The pumps are usually 15 bar, so there are virtually no differences between pumps. The boiler is very important, big boilers are generally better because they can hold more hot water. The material the boiler is made from is also important. Brass is one of the best, because of its thermal conductivity, lower than aluminum, but higher than steel. The more metal the machine contains the sturdier it is, and produces less vibration and noise while brewing. Less vibration mean a longer machine life. The brew head is also very important, because a bad group head can alter the brewing temperature, and this will ruin every shot you pull.
Best value Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine
If I were to recommend a semiautomatic for a beginner with modest budget, that machine would be the Rancilio Silvia. It is a brewer without many features, and espresso lovers choose it for its incredible reliability, and for the commercial grade components. The casing is brushed stainless steel looks amazing, and it fits in any modern kitchen. The large, brass boiler allows brewing espressos head to head without waiting between the shots. The brass group head ensures the right thermal transfer during brewing, and a long lifespan. There still is a learning curve for the newbie, but with a little patience even the most inexperienced barista can learn to pull great shots with Silvia.
Best High End Semiautomatic Espresso Machine
A great high-end semi automatic is the Breville BES920XL. The BES920 has a lot of options to adjust your espresso shot to perfection.
My favorite features of the BES920XL are:
- A dual boiler, so you can pull shots and steam milk at the same time.
- The digital PID controls the water temperature with high precision. More than that, you can fine tune that temperature for “those special beans”.
- The pre-infusion function helps with gradual blooming of the grinds, preventing channeling and ensuring a complete extraction.
Other great features include:
- Overpressure valve to ensure the perfect pressure during extraction.
- Auto-start function will ensure that the machine preheats at the desired time in the morning, so you don't have to wait on it.
For the beginner barista, there are a couple of features to help them improve their skills.
- The shot clock will help timing the shot instead of the visual inspection, or volumetric approximation.
- The pressure gauge measures the pressure during pulling, so you have the chance to see if your tamping/grinding size ratio is correct. Too much tamping and the shot will pull too slowly. Too coarse the grind and the shot will be too weak, and there will be no crema.
Great Entry Coffee Grinder
For good results you still need a decent grinder. Beginner home baristas sometimes think that the grinder is not such a big deal, and if you have a good brewer it’s going to be enough. That is not true. You need a grinder that provides a uniform grind, and at least 4-5 espresso grind sizes. Without this, your espresso shot will a bitter, lifeless concoction. The uniform grind ensures that grounds are extracted uniformly, and you don't have silt in your shot. You also need to be able to change the grind size when you change the beans. Some beans are easier to saturate with water, so the extraction will be faster. Some saturate slower, so you need to adjust the grind size to compensate for this. Check this post about grinders, for a detailed explanation.
Low Budget Machine
I really didn't want to include this section, but a reader insisted a few days ago to point him to a cheap espresso machine. He wanted to start making coffee at home, and his budget was 200$. That meant he only had around 100$ for the espresso machine, because he also needed a decent grinder. So I recommended him the De'Longhi EC155, which the best seller in the semi-automatic section on Amazon. The machine is absolutely fantastic for the price, and you can get a decent espresso with it. The 15 bar espresso pump is more than adequate to ensure the necessary pressure during brew. The filter holder can be used with your own coffee, or you can use E.S.E. pods for convenience.