Manual vs Semi-Automatic vs Automatic Coffee Machines

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Manual coffee machines and automatic coffee machines – what’s the difference? That is the question that many first-time buyers ask themselves before making a purchase.

With the abundance of coffee makers on the market, choosing one can be confusing and overwhelming. A lot of consumers know what they want out of a coffee maker, but that doesn’t mean they know how to look for it.

In this guide, we’ll talk you through the key differences between these types of coffee machines and help you decide which is right for you.

The basic functions of an espresso machine

All espresso machines essentially serve the function: making espresso.

Espresso is a concentrated form of coffee served in small, strong shots and is the base for many coffee drinks. – The Spruce Eats

They all do this by forcing hot water through tightly packed ground coffee.

While espresso machines appear to differ drastically, they share many of the same parts, allowing them to perform the same function despite their different appearances.

Manual coffee machines

Manual, or lever, espresso machines are a throwback to the early days of espresso, when baristas controlled every aspect of their work.

With a manual machine, espresso is brewed by the manual application of pressure to boiled water. Manual espresso machines are called piston or lever machines because the barista—that’s you—pumps a lever to produce the necessary 9 bars of pressure.

Popular manual coffee machines include the Italian brand La Pavoni.

Manual machines became less common in the 1940s, when newer technologies made it easier to brew coffee, used less energy, and delivered better consistency in results.

However, manual machines continue to appeal to purists who love complete control over every step of their brewing process.

Note that there is a bit of inconsistency in how the term “manual coffee machine” is used. When some people use this term, they are referring to Semi-Automatic coffee machines, which we cover below.

Pros:

  • Nostalgia
  • Look cool
  • A lot of control
  • Rewarding
  • Collectors items

Cons:

  • Hard work
  • Difficult to achieve consistent results
  • Expensive

Semi-Automatic coffee machines

With electric pumps, espresso machines automatically create a shot of espresso without the operator having to pull down a lever.

These are the most popular type of machine with home brewers and specialty coffee shops. In Australia, commercial versions of these machines are what you see in most cafes.

Popular coffee machines that fall into this category include the Breville Barista Express and Gaggia Classic.

To use a semi-automatic espresso machine, you’ll need to grind the beans and load the portafilter, tamp the coffee evenly and insert it into the portafilter. Then simply push a button and wait for the shot of espresso to dispense.

There are a few manual steps involved with the semi auto machines, but you get to control most of the process from start to finish.

In addition to choosing when the shot starts and ends, you can decide how fine or coarse your grind is as well as how much coffee to use.

Pros:

  • Affordable
  • Control over all important variables
  • Able to achieve excellent results

Cons:

  • A bit of a learning curve

Automatic coffee machines

Automatic espresso machines differ from semi-automatic machines because with the former, you don’t have to press a button to stop the water flowing through the ground coffee. With fully automatic machines, this step happens automatically, thanks to a built-in timer.

For anyone interested in the art of learning how to make espresso, this is an unnecessary upgrade, as extraction time is something you want to retain control over.

However, if you’re just looking for convenience, this can be handy. By eliminating this step, you have one less thing to remember to do, and you improve your chances of producing an evenly extracted shot every time.

Note that you’ll still have to grind and tamp the coffee yourself, but once you get the machine started, it will do the rest of the work for you.

Pros:

  • No need to worry about shot timing, pressure gauges etc
  • Retain control over most other variables
  • Can produce high quality espresso

Cons:

  • Still have to grind and tamp beans
  • Loose control over shot timer

Super-automatic coffee machines

With a single button push, a super automatic coffee machine grinds, doses, tamps the coffee beans and dispenses an espresso shot based on your pre-programmed settings.

One of the best things about a superautomatic coffee machine is its convenience and consistency, as you can just press a button to brew the same coffee time after time, every day.

Super-automatic machines will often also froth milk for drinks like lattes or cappuccinos.

Where super-automatic machines fall down, is they don’t provide as much control for the user. If your coffee tastes too bitter, too hot, too strong, or too weak, you might be out of luck.

Pros:

  • Very convenient
  • User friendly
  • No coffee knowledge required
  • Pre-programmed drinks
  • Will make the same coffee every time

Cons:

  • Can’t tweak variables if you don’t like the taste
  • Can be difficult to clean and maintain
  • Expensive

Which is best?

Do you want to control every aspect of the brewing process? Do you want to be able to pull a shot and steam milk at the same time? Do you want it all done for you?

You’ll need to answer these questions before you can choose between a manual, automatic, semi-automatic, or super-automatic espresso machine.

If you’re a casual home barista, a semi-automatic machine is probably best for you. It will give you everything you need to make great espresso drinks.

Even if you want to become a true espresso expert, a semi-automatic machine remains the best option. You’ll have precise control over every step of the process, and there’s nothing quite like pulling an espresso shot from start to finish with nothing but your own skill and practice.

If your time is limited in the morning, or if you are just not that into espresso enough to spend hours perfecting your technique, a super-automatic machine might be right for you.

The tradeoff is that it won’t give you as much control or choice over how your drink turns out, but it will still deliver a drinkable cup of coffee in less than half the time (and often with less mess).

Keep in mind that while super-automatic machines will do everything for you, they often come with higher price tags and less flexibility of use.

Finally, manual espresso machines are an option for people who want total control over the entire coffee making process. The flavours you can coax out of your coffee beans with a manual machine are amazing, but you need to be willing to put in the time and effort it takes to make exceptional coffee with one.