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Types of Espresso Machines: Super & Semi-Automatic, Commercial, Steam & Manual

Do you love a good cup of coffee (or several)?

Have you been thinking about breaking out of the world of drip-brew, made-by-the-pot coffee, and stepping into the world of specialty drinks like the kind you get at Starbucks and other popular coffee shops?

It can be enormously confusing if you’re new to that world. It seems like there’s a dizzying number of different types of espresso machines. And right now, you may not know the difference between super-automatic and semi-automatic espresso machines or the types of manual espresso machines available, or what makes a commercial espresso machine different from the rest.

If that’s the case, this article will surely help. In the sections that follow, we’ll bring those details into sharp focus, so you fully understand the different types of espresso machines that are available today should you decide to take the plunge. By the time you’re done reading this piece, you’ll have a pretty good idea which one is right for you.

Let’s get right to it and see what each of these machines are all about!

Super Automatic vs Semi Automatic Espresso Machines

Different Types of Espresso Machines Saeco S-TG-ST Talea Giro Super Automatic Espresso Machine - Coffee Dino

​Super Automatic Espresso Machine

Super Automatic Espresso Machine
Different Types of Espresso Machines QuickMill VETRANO 0995P Double Boiler LED Steel Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine - Coffee Dino

​​​​​Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

Of all the different types of espresso coffee makers being sold today, the super-automatics are the ones that get the lion’s share of the press and attention. They are the darlings of the industry. The A-list celebrities of the specialty coffee maker world, and with good reason... They do it all.

These are “beans to brew” systems that sport things like built-in grinders and push button controls. High-end models even come equipped with TFT (Thin Film Transistor) computer monitors built into their front face, allowing you to push buttons and navigate your way through a series of menus, find the drink you want, push a button and wait.

After you’ve loaded the beans and water, you just sit back and let the machine do all the work. In about a minute (the exact time varies from one machine to the next), you’re holding your favorite coffee creation.

Drawbacks

Of course, there are a few tradeoffs to be had.  Coffee purists will say that you lose some control by automating so much of the process. Because of that, purists will argue that the specialty drinks that super-automatic espresso machines make aren’t quite as good as semi-automatic or manual machines.

The other big tradeoff is, of course, price.  All that automation doesn’t come cheap, and these tend to be the most expensive machines on the market. Still, there’s a lot to be said for convenience, and if you don’t want to take the time to learn to be a Barista, super-automatics are the way to go.

They give you the freedom to control the major settings (usually at the push of a button or the twisting of a knob) while automating the particulars.

The Difference

What's the difference between super-automatic and semi-automatic espresso machines? We give you four reasons.

  • coffee
    Most semi-automatics don’t come with a built-in grinder, so you’ve got to grind the beans, load the grounds into the machine, and tamp them down in preparation for use.  These steps don’t take very long, but there is some work involved.
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    Semi-automatics allow you to control the pump: when to activate and shut it off. With a super-auto, you select your drink, push the button, sit back, and wait. In the semi-automatic world, you decide when to start dispensing your brew, and when to stop it.
    This is where the subtle differences in flavor creep in because your “perfect shot” may contain more (or less) water than the pre-programmed options of a super-automatic. If that’s the case, you’re out of luck if you have a super-auto. Although some water level options are available, you can’t precisely control the feature. You get what the computer is programmed to give you, and not a drop more or less.
  • coffee
    While many super-automatics feature an auto-frothing feature (in keeping with their name), on semi-automatics, a frothing wand is much more common. It takes a certain skill and finesse to use well, but many people actually prefer this, as it gives them a much higher degree of control over the finished product.
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    Then, of course, there’s the fact that pound for pound, semi-automatic espresso machines tend to cost a little less, or be more feature-rich for the same price, or be constructed of superior materials (i.e. – all metal, versus a mix of metal and plastic).
Different Types of Espresso Machines KRUPS EA8250001 Espresseria Full Automatic Espresso Machine with Built in Conical Burr Grinder - Coffee Dino

Other Automatic Espresso Machines

Note that there is some overlap between the two. Some espresso machines are called “automatic.” They’re not quite as hands-free as super-automatics, but contain more automation than the semis. The key difference here is that the water dispensing feature can be precisely controlled. 

This means you don’t have to manually activate/deactivate the pump, but still retain precise control over the output.  The chief drawback here, though, is that you’re not gaining much in the way of automation, and you’re using fragile electronics which will invariably break down to get it. 

They occupy a relatively small, niche space in the industry, and for most purposes should be considered in the same basic class as semi-automatics, but that’s why there’s some overlap.

Deciding Factor: Control vs Convenience

Ultimately then, when comparing semi-automatic vs super automatic espresso machines, it comes down to how much you value precise control vs. how much you value convenience.  Semi-automatics are currently the most popular machines on the market today, offering the best blend of price and performance, but there’s a lot to be said for the sleek, sexy super-automatics.


Commercial Espresso Machines

Different Types of Espresso Machines Faema Enova A Commercial Espresso Machine - Coffee Dino

Before we start talking about the different types of commercial espresso machines available, it’s important to bring one thing into focus.  Some of the larger and more robust types of home espresso machines are fine for office use. 

You don’t necessarily need to spend the extra money to get a commercial grade device for a small office, although if your office is filled with power coffee drinkers, it may be worth considering. In most cases, however, you can save money by investing in a high-end machine optimized for home use unless selling coffee is a big part of your business.

Types of Commercial Espresso Machines

As far as types of professional espresso machines are concerned, you find the same choices that you have in the consumer market:  Manual, Semi-automatic, a small “gray area” category of automatics, and super-automatics. At this point, you may be wondering what the heck all the fuss is about.

Consumer vs Commercial Machines

While it’s true that there is some overlap between consumer and commercial machines, a commercial grade machine usually has the following differences:

  • hand-o-right
    Size – Commercial Espresso machines are typically much larger than their smaller, consumer-oriented cousins
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    Volume – This comes about chiefly as a result of the larger size of these machines.  They’re simply built for high traffic business use, so they’re designed to churn out a lot of shots and drinks over the course of a given day.  If you tried to brew several hundred cups of your favorite drink from your little home unit, it wouldn’t last very long, but commercial machines are designed to take it!
  • hand-o-right
    Dedicated water line – You very occasionally find a high-end home machine that’s designed to be hooked into your home’s water system, but it’s exceedingly rare.  It’s standard fare for a commercial machine, though.
  • hand-o-right
    ​NSF Certification – All good commercial-grade machines are certified by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), for use in coffee houses, restaurants, and other businesses that serve food and drink.  Consumer-oriented units are not required to meet this certification.

Deciding Factor: Machine Usage

There are a few other differences, but the above mentioned are the big ones. In general, a commercial grade machine is more rugged and robust. It’s built to last and to be a workhorse. Most machines designed for home use are engineered with casual use in mind and would simply fall apart if they tried to keep pace with what a commercial machine can do.

So, when deciding between a consumer and a commercial grade machine, consider how many people will be using the machine, how often it will be used, and how the machine will be maintained. 


Steam Espresso Machines

Of the different types of espresso machines on the market today, the lowly steam machines have been pushed to a dim corner of the market, and probably sell the least these days. Purists don’t like them because it’s hard to get a quality shot, and even if you have an extremely tight budget, you can get a low-end semi-automatic or manual that will produce much better results.

Different Types of Espresso Machines Bialetti 6-Cup Stovetop Espresso Maker Moka Pot - Coffee Dino

Moka Pot

Different Types of Espresso Machines KRUPS Steam Espresso Machine - Coffee Dino

Steam Espresso Machine

Types of Steam Espresso Machines

  • coffee
    The Moka Pot, which is a stove-top appliance that works like an old percolator. The stove heats, steam flows upward, passing through the grounds, and eventually drops back down, passing through the grounds and infusing the water with coffee-flavored goodness.

    Unfortunately, while you can make a decent cup of coffee this way, it’s a relatively poor way to produce espresso, which requires far greater pressure than you can realistically get from a humble Moka Pot. It does have one (minor) advantage in that it’s decidedly low-tech, so even if the quality isn’t great, if the power goes out, you can still enjoy an approximation of your favorite drink!
  • coffee
    Then there’s the Steam Espresso Machine, which looks a bit like a miniaturized version of the drip coffee maker you probably have in your house. These are a little better, but not much, and have the distinction of being the first generation of “semi-automatic” espresso making machines. They still suffer from same disadvantages that their non-electric counterparts do, but the quality tends to be somewhat better.

Deciding Factor: Cost vs Quality

If these types of machines can be said to have one compelling advantage, it would be cost. They are incredibly inexpensive, but this is definitely a case of getting what you pay for. You just can’t get the same kind of reliability and quality out of a steam machine compared to anything else mentioned in this article.


Manual Espresso Machines

Of all the types of home espresso machines, the manual probably gets the least press attention these days.  The convenience of the semi and super-automatics is just too compelling, and because of that, these have come to dominate the market, relating the different purely manual models to niche status, used by coffee purists and almost nobody else.used by coffee purists and almost nobody else.

Having said that, manual espresso machines do offer some compelling advantages for the right user.

Different Types of Espresso Machines Microcasa a Leva Espresso Machine Piston Lever - Coffee Dino

Manual Espresso Machines Benefits

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    First, they give you perfect control over every aspect of your output, because of course, there’s no automation at all.  You’ve got to grind the beans, hand tamp them, heat the water, get your pressure right, then pour.  It’s time intensive, but if you want the best results possible, and you know how to use them, they’ll produce drinks that are sublime.
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    ​Second, they don’t tend to cost as much.  A top end manual isn’t going to come close to being as expensive as a top end super-automatic unless it’s made out of some exotic material.  It’s the technology that inflates the price on the machines that offer more automation, and you’re not getting any of that, so you’re also not paying the “technology premium.”
  • plus
    Third (and fourth), they tend to be smaller, meaning they’re a lot more portable.  If you’re going on an extended trip or vacation, you don’t have to live without your beloved espresso machine.  Most models are small enough to take with you, and in fact, a few are even optimized for this very purpose.
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    Also, being purely manual devices, you don’t have to worry about being denied your favorite drink if the power goes out. No electricity needed!

Types of Manual Espresso Machines

There are only two different types of manual espresso machines: Piston-Lever and Direct-Lever.

In the Piston-Lever, you’ll have gauges and dials that tell you what the pressure is, and when you get to at least 9 bars of pressure, you’re ready to release. With a Direct-Lever, you are the pump, and by manually pumping the lever, you build up the pressure. 

Of all the different types of espresso machines made, the Direct-Lever manual requires the most experience and finesse to use well, because it’s not as straightforward as “one pump = one bar of pressure.”  Every machine is different, so you’ve got to really know yours well, and be a good barista in your own right to create a consistently good shot with these.

Deciding Factor: Time and Skill

Manual espresso makers have a totally different aesthetic, too. They have a decidedly Old World look and feel, and some people take the time and trouble to learn to use them well for this reason alone.

For most people, the extra time it takes to brew your favorite coffee concoctions with a manual just isn’t worth it. We live in a fast-paced, high-tech world, and the vast majority of the market just doesn’t want to wait.

Different Types of Espresso Machines La Pavoni Espresso Machine Direct Lever - Coffee Dino

Different Types of Espresso Machines Conclusion

Final Thoughts? Different Types of Espresso Machines

If you started reading this piece with the question “what are the different types of espresso machines?” at the forefront of your mind, our hope is that you not only have a clear understanding of the differences but also have a good idea whether or not you want to take the plunge and dive into this world of fantastic coffee flavors.

Don’t worry; you won’t have to say goodbye to “regular” coffee because these machines can make an excellent Cup of Joe.  On the other hand, with so many different amazing flavors and possibilities at your fingertips, no matter which type of espresso machine you purchase, you may embrace this new flavor frontier and never look back.

Either way, happy hunting, and here’s to you enjoying a world-class cup of caffeinated magic, any time you want, from the comfort of home!

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