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Manual vs Automatic Espresso Machine: Which One is Right For You?

Buying an expensive espresso machine is intimidating, especially with so many different types to choose between.

Manual, automatic, semi-automatic, super-automatic…What does it all mean, and which is the one for you? Keep reading to find out.

The rules of espresso making

Interestingly, there is no strict definition of what constitutes an espresso. Though I’m sure, any Italian will insist otherwise.

But there are a few generally agreed-upon guidelines.

Espresso is a concentrated shot of coffee with a dense layer of foam on its surface, known as the crema.

You make it by forcing high-pressure hot water, usually at least 9 bars, through a tightly packed basket of finely ground coffee. Notice that using “espresso beans” is by no means required.

An espresso machine is any instrument that makes an espresso by that definition, so there’s such tremendous variety. It’s also why the Moka pot and Aeropress aren’t technically espresso makers. Yes, they make concentrated coffee shots, but neither generate nearly enough pressure nor yield the prized crema.

The best home espresso maker depends on your needs, but we’ve rounded up some top espresso machines and automatic espresso machines to suit all tastes.

What do we mean by a manual espresso maker?

So we’ve clarified that making espresso requires high pressure (1). With a manual espresso maker, you generate that pressure by hand. Manual machines are also known as piston or lever machines because the barista pumps a lever to produce the necessary 9 bars.

Along with pressure, the user is in charge of every other aspect of the shot when using a manual espresso machine. You grind the coffee, weigh out the correct dose, pack and tamp the filter basket, pump the lever, and apply the proper pressure for the right amount of time to pull the shot.

See how lever machines work in our video review below.

If you think that sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. So why would anyone want a manual espresso maker?

If you’re looking for a simple, elegant solution for offering quality drinks, then a lever machine definitely makes espresso an enjoyable experience, not to mention a wonderful talking point.

For one, most baristas agree they make the best espresso (2). It will take practice to dial in every variable, and you can expect to make some terrible espresso in the process. But once you’ve mastered your recipe, that tight control over every aspect is what allows you to pull the perfect shot.

Additionally, manual machines often have a steampunk aesthetic that makes an incredible showpiece for your kitchen.

What counts as an automatic espresso machine?

Defining an automatic espresso maker is tricky because there are several types, but the characteristic common to all is a built-in mechanical pump. You don’t need to generate pressure by hand.

Super-automatic espresso machines does everything for you, like having a robot barista. It grinds, doses, and tamps the beans. It pulls the shot. Often, it even froths the milk for your latte. And it does it all at the push of a button. Automatic machines have programmable settings but don’t offer as much user control.

Fully-automatic espresso machines as similar, but the user might have a few more tasks. You may need to grind, dose, or tamp the beans yourself before ceding a fully-automatic machine’s control.

Semi-automatic espresso machines are a happy medium and our personal favorite. As with the fully-automatic option, you grind the beans, weigh the correct dose, and tamp with a semi-automatic. But in this case, you’re also in charge of the shot timing. This additional control means you can perfect your espresso should you choose a semi-automatic machine.

For more information, we’ve have a detailed article about automatic vs semi-automatic espresso machines.

Manual espresso machine vs Automatic espresso maker - An Illustrated Table
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Final Thoughts

If you’re a true espresso geek who loves the idea of pulling shot after shot, tweaking each variable in search of perfection, by all means, get a manual machine. There’s no doubt they produce incredible espresso.

For the rest of us, a semi-automatic machine provides an outstanding balance between convenience and control.

FAQs

Whether super-automatic machines are worth your money depends on your preferences. Super-automatics are reliable and easy to use. But, bear in mind that behind that super-convenience lies a lot of maintenance work.

Espresso machines are expensive because making a proper espresso requires precision in both temperature and pressure, requiring high-quality parts to achieve.

The best coffee beans for espresso again comes down to personal preference. To our taste, that’s a medium or dark roast with rich flavors and low acidity.

  1. Nosowitz, D. (2012, June 12). FYI: What Is Espresso? Retrieved from https://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2012-06/fyi-what-espresso/
  2. The fall & rise of the lever espresso machine. (2018, January 4). Retrieved from https://caffeinemag.com/the-fall-rise-of-the-lever-espresso-machine/
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I love trail running, rock climbing, coffee, food, and my tiny dog — and writing about all of them. I start every morning with a fresh Americano from my home espresso machine, or I don’t start it at all.

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