Semi Automatic Espresso Machines

One of the most sold types of espresso machines is the semiautomatic espresso machine. This is the perfect choice for espresso enthusiast who aims to learn and experiment with coffee.

There is also the inexpensive semiautomatic, which is the choice of those on a tight budget. But at the other end of the spectrum, the espresso hobbyist, who will buy expensive equipment, in order to have a better control over brewing process.

In this article we will go over the components of a semiautomatic espresso machine, and we’ll review a few great espresso machines in each price category.

espresso from semiautomatic espresso machine

What Is a Semiautomatic Espresso Machine?

A semi-automatic espresso machine is kitchen appliance that automate only some aspects of the espresso brewing process. They require more involvement from the barista, and require some skills and knowledge about the extraction process.

Semiautomatic espresso machines are the choice of coffee aficionados because they are very reliable compared to automatic machines, and they provide perfect control over the brewing variables.

Sometimes semiautomatics are called manual espresso machines, but that is a misnomer. The semiautomatic controls the following variables:

  • pressure – 9 bars,
  • brew temperature – around 200°F.
  • steam temperature, for milk beverages – around 260°F

The barista will still have to perform a variety of operations such as:

  • grinding the coffee,
  • measuring the dose,
  • tamping in the portafilter,
  • locking the portafilter in the machine,
  • Starting and stopping the brewing process at the right moment.

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 the fanciest machines, even if we don’t need the features. Just in case…

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, two of the classic choices for the mid range, are many times completely out of the budget range of a rookie. The beginner tries to squeeze the budget to a minimum, because they don’t want to commit too many resources.

However, this approach might not be the best; many will give up too soon because poor equipment will only accentuate the lack of experience.

From a price perspective, we can distinguish:

  • the cheap semiautomatic espresso machines – price range $100 to $350
  • the mid-range semiautomatics, – price range $350 to $1000 
  • and the prosumer espresso machines – $1000 – 3500

As a note, the prosumer machines are often commercial espresso machines, and their reliability and features just make them more appealing for the prosumer. 

What Features Do We Need for a Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine?

We are not going to get into too much details about all the espresso machine components, we have an article where we talk about them in detail. But we will briefly explain why you need a certain part or a feature, and how does it translate into espresso brewing for you as a barista. 

Steam Wand – Milk Frothing

If you prepare a lot of milky beverages, the steam wand is important. Look for the range of motion of the wand, rotation – vs complete range of motion. The type of the steam wand tip is also important. Commercial style steam wand give you more control over the type of textured milk you get, but it’s harder to control as a beginner. 

Drip Tray

The drip tray is often forgotten, but some drip trays are so shallow that barely hold any liquid, and on top of that even emptying is always a risk spilling. 

The Pump

Don’t worry too much about it, unless you know you will pull extremely long shots. Not that I recommend it, but who knows, to each their own. 

The Water Reservoir

The water tank, is one of those things that is only noticed when you have to refill it. Access through the front, top, or the back? Do you keep your machine under the cabinets? Is the tank large enough to not be a chore to refill it? 

The Brew Group

The best semiautomatic machine brew group is the E61. They also are more expensive, given the amount of expensive material that goes into manufacturing one. E61 group heads are more temperature stable by circulating heated water from a thermosyphon system. They are really great if you pull multiple espresso shots back to back, but be prepared to wait 15 minutes to have the machine ready to pull the first shot of espresso.

Filter Baskets and Portafilter

Look for chrome-plated brass portafilters, and the wider ones are better, so go for 58 mm portafilters. Brass has the best temperature conductivity, and is reasonably durable, and will last you a long time. Semi-automatic machines are typically delivered with a single shot basket and a double shot basket. 

how to tamp espresso like a pro
Gaggia 58mm portafilter just before pulling an espresso shot.

Naked portafilters are an option for those who like to perfect their technique and recipe. They are very sensitive to mistakes, so not a good choice if you are not a perfectionist, or you are a complete newbie.

The pressurized baskets are used for pre-ground coffee, but they do not produce great espresso. Just acceptable.

High-End Features

The point is: with high-end semi automatics you have a lot of extra features and controls. These features 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:

lelit espresso machine with pid 1
Lelit Anna showing 94°C on the PID
  • An over-pressure valve to limit the pressure during extraction to 9 bars of pressure.
  • Temperature Control
    For those who look for espresso excellence, temperature control is critical. A machine equipped with a PID is the proper way to go.
  • Dual Boiler
    Decent espresso machines use two heating blocks, one for espresso brewing and one for milk steaming. The high end machines use a double boiler, with separate temperature control. This will allow you to pull shots and steam milk at the same time. A cheaper, but decent alternative is to use a boiler for the espresso brewing, and a thermoblock unit for the steaming function.
  • Pressure gauge
    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.
  • Pre-infusion
    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.
  • Shot timer
    Shot timer, so you don’t have to use a separate timer, or time your shot by counting.
  • Built-in coffee grinder
    It is very rare, but some domestic machines come with a built-in grinder. I personally like them a a separate unit.

Features vs Reliability

What are we looking for in a great 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 makes 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. On the other hand, Silvia has a big brass boiler, and it is a big chunk of metal that is just resilient.

If you look for 100% reliability and years of use and abuse, the Rancilio Silvia, or Gaggia Classic are the perfect choice. 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.

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 means 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 Semiautomatic Espresso Machines

  • Semi Automatic Espresso Machines

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