There’s nothing like making your own high quality coffee at home. That’s way coffee purists will love the best semi automatic espresso machine.
Unlike super autos, you’ll be able to control each step of the brewing process the way you want it. From the beans to the temperature your espresso is brewed, you have total control.
This means you get to enjoy the perfect shot at home anytime. No more telling the barista your preferences.
In this article, we go through the different details and features of semi-autos. And, pick out the top products that let you enjoy perfect espresso, cappuccino and latte at home.
Our Picks: Top Semi Automatic Espresso Machines to Consider
- Breville BES870XL Barista Express – Our Top Pick
- Gaggia Classic Semi-Automatic Espresso Maker – Runner Up (Tie)
- Rancilio Silvia– Runner Up (Tie)
- Delonghi EC680M DEDICA
- De’Longhi EC155 – Low Cost Budget Option
- Mr. Coffee ECMP1000 Café Barista
What is a Semi Automatic Espresso Machine?
Semi-automatic machines are the most popular type available. Part of the reason for this is they’re cheaper than super automatic units. These are what you would call the traditional espresso machines.
A good portion of these machines are automatic. These include temperature control and the pump. They also come with a boiler for heating the water and steaming milk. Additionally, you get a portafilter.
What makes this machine semi-automatic is that it gives you the ability to turn the pump on or off for extraction. You get to control when the extraction starts and finishes.
Some modern units come with programmable dosing. This means you can program how long the extraction goes. This gives you more consistent results.
Semi automatic machines force hot water through ground coffee under pressure to produce espresso. For milk-based drinks. These devices also come with a steam wand. These wands produce steam which lets you heat and froth milk to add to your drinks.
A good semi auto will cost anywhere between $250 to over $1000. A lot will depend on the type of machine you get, the number of boilers it has and its features. It’s worth noting that there are also a few cheap options that cost under $100 that make good coffee as well.
Subclasses of Semi-Automatic Machines
Semi-automatic machines can be further divided into subclasses. Among them is by their boiler classification. Three of the most common ones are the single boiler, heat exchange and double boiler.
- Single boiler: These come equipped with one boiler. They are cheaper and easier to use. They also work with a pressurized portafilter. Single boilers are great for beginners thanks to their lower cost and ease of use. The single boiler does mean it takes more time to steam milk after brewing. It also means longer wait times between cups. Majority of single boilers cost under $1,000.
- Heat Exchange machines: These allow you to simultaneously brew and steam. They cost more than the single boilers. Often they cost in the high hundreds to over $1,000. Heat exchange machines have bigger boilers. They’re also able to achieve higher temperatures. This makes them ideal for producing steam.
- Dual boilers: These are the most expensive of the three. The easily run close to and over $2,000. You’ll find some that cost less than that as well. As their name suggests, these machines have 2 boilers. One is for heating the water. Another boiler handles the steam. Since they work independently, there’s less wait time between the brewing and steaming process. This also lets you make cups back to back faster.
How Does It Work?
Semi autos require a bit more work compared to your standard coffee maker. You do need to get a bit hands on with them. And with practice, you’ll be able to make exceptionally great tasting espresso.
Here’s a quick video showing you how a Gaggia Classic semi automatic espresso machine works. It explains the different steps so you can easily follow.
Using a Semi Automatic Espresso Machine
Here are steps in making espresso using a semi auto machine.
1. Fill the water reservoir.
2. Turn the machine on and wait for it to warm up. This will take a few minutes.
3. Remove the portafilter hand from the machine.
4. Use the provided scooper to put the right amount of ground espresso into the filter basket. Then tamp the grounds to pack them in.
5. Plug in the portafilter into the group head.
6. Place a cup under the portafilter. This is where your coffee will be poured.
7. Press the brew button or switch to start the extraction process.
Automatic vs. Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
The biggest difference between semi and super automatic machines is the amount of time and work you need to put into them.
Semi autos require you to do a lot of the preparatory work. Super autos do the preparatory work for you. While semi automatic machines do make you do more, they also let you make a lot of customizations along the way.
As a result super autos are more convenient. They’re ideal if you want a great tasting cup of espresso or cappuccino with just a press of a button.
Semi automatic machines are more suited for those who like to experiment and make coffee the way they want it. It has a longer learning curve. But, when done correctly, it will give you thicker, creamier, more flavorful espresso.
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines
- These require more skill than automatic machines. You need to grind the beans, fill and tamp the portafilter and control the extraction.
- In the same manner, semi autos give you more control. Each of the steps allow you to adjust and customize to your preference. This lets you experiment until you get the exact flavor you like.
- The quality of coffee largely depends on the user. A skilled user can make better coffee than those produced by super autos.
- It can be messy. There’s scooping, tamping and cleaning after each brewing session.
- A lot of the parts are mechanical. This means little to no electronics for most. As a result, controls are often manual not push-button. But, they’re less likely to break down as well.
- Semi-autos are usually smaller than super automatic machines. They’re lighter as well. This makes them easier to fit onto your counter.
- You can use pre-ground coffee or pods. Additionally, you can use fresh beans as well. Some semi auto machines come with burr grinders. Many don’t. If your machine doesn’t, don’t worry. You can easily get a good bean grinder and use it separately.
- This type of espresso machine is cheaper compared to a similar quality super auto. You can get a good entry level semi auto unit under $100. Most cost anywhere from $200 to $600. Higher end units can cost over $1,000.
Automatic Espresso Machines
- They are popular because they’ve very convenient. You can make great tasting coffee by just pushing a button.
- Super autos save you time. They’re faster and require less effort on your part. In addition, you can do other things while the machine makes your coffee.
- Automatic units cost more. This is because of the all the electronics.
- The electronics do make operating it easier. They often come with LCD displays. Some even have touch screen and graphics. This lets you select your drink via push button. After that, it’s all about waiting for your shot to pour.
- Depending on what model you get, you may get some customization features. These higher end units let you set temperature, volume and other brewing parameters.
- They come with built in grinders and milk dispensing systems. These can vary in type and style. Their presence allows the machine to grind the beans and mix the milk in your coffee without your intervention.
Pros & Cons of Semi Automatic Espresso Machines
Semi-autos fall in between the manual machines and super autos.
They give you a combination of the controls that manual devices do, though not as much. And, some of the automatic features that super autos have. The latter make them more convenient to use compared to manual units.
- They’re the most popular type of espresso machine today.
- You can manually control a lot of variable. This includes the grind fineness, how compact the tamp is, brew volume and milk texture.
- In the hands of a skilled user, the make better coffee than super automatics.
- They maintain good brewing temperature. It does this by automatically controlling the heating element in the machine when it detects the boiler temperature dropping.
- They also regular pump pressure automatically. This allows for consistent pressure during extraction.
- They’re relatively affordable. Entry level units run from under $100 to under $200. Many of these make good coffee. Mid-range units are relatively affordable as well, costing around $200 to $600. The higher you go the better the performance. You also get more features. Very high end models can cost over $1000.
- There are a lot of reputable brands. This gives you more options. It also makes repair and servicing more convenient.
- They have a steeper learning curve. You’ll have to learn how to do each step to get good coffee.
- Not all models come with built-in grinders. If you want to use fresh beans you can get one with a built in grinder. Or, buy a separate burr grinder.
- High end models are expensive.
Choosing a Semi Automatic Espresso Machine: A Buyer’s Guide
1. The Boiler
We went through the difference between the major types of boilers above. In essence,
- Single boilers are the cheapest. They’re also the easiest to use. As such they’re ideal for beginners. Because you heat water and steam using the same boiler, it takes longer between brewing and steaming.
- Heat Exchangers. These machines come with a larger boiler. They also let you heat water and steam milk at the same time. As such they can produce drinks fatter. The bigger boiler also allows them to get to higher temperature faster. Additionally, higher temps also mean better tasting coffee.
- Dual boiler systems come with two boilers. They have separate boilers for brewing and steaming. This lets you do both simultaneously. These are what coffee shops use. They’re also found in many commercial espresso machines. Having two boilers means that you can make coffee faster. The downside is, they’re more expensive as well.
The portafilter is the detachable device that plugs into the machine’s group head. It is where you put the coffee grounds to tamp down.
Portafilters serve as the container where the pressure is put on. It is the final line where coffee extraction occurs. In general, commercial machines come with larger filters. This allows them to make better coffee.
These devices also come in two basic types, pressurized and non-pressurized.
- Pressurized portafilters: These prevent water from coming out of the device unless there the correct amount of pressure. As such, the portafilters makes up for an uneven tamp or poor grind. Compared to non-pressurized portafilters, these help prevent your machine form pouring a bad cup of espresso.
- Non-pressurized portafilters: These come in chrome or chrome plated brass. They are larger in size, 58 mm. The heavier material gives you better temperature stability. As a result, you’re likely to make better coffee. The downside is that it doesn’t protect you from a poor grind or uneven tamp. As such, it takes more work to get right. And, is harder to use for beginners.
3. Does it Accept Pods?
If you enjoy using coffee pods or those that offer flavored coffee, then picking a machine that allows you to insert coffee pods into the portafilter is a must.
Not all semi-automatic models offer this.
With this feature you can switch out your ground filter and insert the pod basket. This lets you use flavored coffee pods in the machine.
4. The Steam Wand
This is a necessity if you want to make milk-based drinks like cappuccino and lattes. They often come with espresso machines, though some aren’t equipped with a want.
If the machine you get doesn’t have one, an easy work around is to get a separate milk frother. These come in a variety of shapes. Some like the Aeroccino come in a jug form. These do a great job. There are cheaper handheld milk frothers as well. They require more manual work and you do need to avoid the bad ones here.
Size and design will depend a lot on your kitchen’s décor and where you want to place your machine. Espresso machines vary significantly in size. Some are slim, others are tall. If you place them under a cabinet or shelve, make sure they are short enough to do so.
In addition to physical size, do consider the capacity of the components as well. If your machine has a built-in grinder, check the size of the hopper. Other components to consider are the reservoir capacity and the size of the tray.
6. Do You Want a Built-in Grinder?
Whether or not you want a grinder built into your machine determines the product you get. If you plan on only using pre-ground coffee, then there’s no need for a coffee grinder.
If you want to be able to use fresh ground espresso, you’ll need to decide between a built-in or separate bean grinder. A built-in unit is more convenient. But, buying a separate one lets you choose one exact to your needs. This lets you choose its capacity, number of grind settings and how fine or coarse it can go.
7. Water Filter
Water filters are an extra addition in the reservoir. Having them allows you to enjoy better espresso and coffee drinks. An additional benefit of water filters is that it purifies the water so there’s less impurities that go into the machine’s components during brewing.
This prolongs the life of the machine. And, it reduces the amount of cleaning and maintenance you need to do.
Many modern semi automatic machines now come with programmable features. This lets you set a lot of the functions via the control panel. It also lets you save your preferences. This lets you make more consistent drinks.
The cost of your semi automatic can vary quite a bit. Cheap units can go for under $100.
Most good semi autos run between $250 and $600. The higher the price, the better the build and components. Often you also get more features along with a more durable boiler and portafilter.
High end units, including those using heat exchange systems and dual boilers easily cost over $1,000. Many of these also come with programmable features.
Best Semi Automatic Espresso Machine Reviews
The device is easy to use once you get the hang of it. It is likewise simple to maintain and clean. Plus, it looks good as well. That’s always a plus.
The Breville Barista Express comes with a built-in grinder and half-pound capacity bean hopper. The knob on the left side of the control panel lets you adjust how fine you want to the beans to be ground.
The unit makes great tasting espresso fast. It comes in a sturdy stainless steel construction that looks good as well. The knobs may look intimidating but they’re well worth experimenting with. This lets you learn the ins and outs of the machine.
It lets you control temperature, cup size and doses. The heat exchange boiler also lets you simultaneously extract coffee and froth milk.
Overall, this is a great value for money espresso maker. It is more affordable than many similar models and makes much better espresso as well.
As you’d expect, you’ll need to learn to use the Breville Barista Express to get the best out of it. It isn’t as quick and simple to learn as an automatic machine where the device does everything for you.
It is a simple to use, compact device that makes good coffee and milk-based drinks. This lets you enjoy espresso as well as cappuccinos whenever you want.
The unit measures about 7 inches wide and 8 inches deep. It stands 10 inches tall and weighs 7 pounds. This makes it small and light enough to easily move and position in your kitchen. It also comes with a removable water tank that holds a liter of water.
With the machine, you get a portafilter along with 2 filters. One for single shots. Another for double shots. Controls are straightforward and simple. Just turn the selector knob to one of 4 choices:
- Brew espresso
- Steam milk
The unit uses a single boiler that does both the brewing as well as the steaming. This, along with its built in milk frothing wand lets you make milk-based coffee drinks.
As you’d expect, it won’t give you the same high quality espresso that the Breville Barista Express or other $500 to $1000 semi automatic machines will. It doesn’t have enough power to supply that kind of temperature or consistency. But, it makes good coffee drinks at a low cost. This makes it very practical.
This device makes better coffee and offers more features. Plus, its one touch system makes things more convenient.
The unit is simple to use and affordable. These are some of its best features. It comes with pre-set programming. This lets you push a button to make espresso, cappuccino and lattes.
We like that everything is easy with the device. The unit uses 15 bars of pressure. And, you get single and double shot filters along with your portafiter.
The unit also has an automatic milk dispensing system. It comes with a milk container that’s removable. This lets you store it in the fridge for next use.
- Just fill the container with milk and slide it into the front of the device.
- From there, point the tube into your cup.
- Finally, adjust the knob on the milk dispenser to select the type of drink you’re making.
The rest is up to the machine. It automatically froths the milk and fills it into the cup with your coffee.
This lets you enjoy espresso as well as milk-based drinks all with a press of a button.
This is a great choice if you want something offers good value for your money. It yields excellent espresso and frothed milk. As with the Breville Barista Express, there’s a learning curve involved. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll never go back to the coffee shop.
The design of the stainless steel exterior is simple. There aren’t too many bells and whistles that come with this semi automatic espresso machine.
We like that it is very sturdy and durable. This, along with its performance make it a great choice for coffee lovers. You not only get great tasting coffee. But know it will last a long time.
The accessories are likewise made with high quality as well. These include the portabfilter and metal tamp tool.
The Gaggia Classic lets you use both coffee pods as well as pre-ground coffee. The lack of a built-in grinder and ability to use beans is what puts it a notch below the Breville Barista Express.
The swiveling steam want to the right of the unit lets you froth milk for macchiatos and lattes. It also comes with a huge 72 ounce water reservoir that’s removable.
Overall, we like the Gaggia Classic’s performance and durability. It reaches very high temperatures allowing you to get great tasting espresso with rich, foamy crema.