If you've shopped around for an espresso machine before you're probably encountered the great super vs. semi-auto debate. You probably also know that superautos grind whole coffee beans and brew consistent shots. One thing that can be a bit of a mystery though is milk systems. With options like cappuccinotores, panarellos, and carafes there's a lot to learn when it comes to superauto milk!
One thing that is key to your decision making at the top is expectations. The first thing that can be a tough latte to swallow is temperatures. Superauto machines always struggle to produce milk at a hot enough temperature for some coffee drinkers. This has to do with the relatively narrow band of temperature that's acceptable for milk steaming, as well as the tech at play in automatic systems. This is one reason to potentially consider a panarello system, but more on that in a bit.
The other issue is microfoam quality. There is no automatic frothing system that exists that can fully recreate a professional's work. Because it takes minute adjustments to maintain a good froth and incorporate foam, superautos have a tough time nailing it. The good news is that these machines are getting closer! Examples like the Saeco Xelsis can even produce milk for latte art with a bit of practice.
Types Of Steam Systems - Panarello Wands
So with the understanding that temp and texture are tough to recreate, what are the options out there? Let's start with panarellos.
Panarellos (like the ones on the Saeco X-Small, pictured above), look quite a but like manual steam wands. The biggest difference is in material and shape. Panarellos often combine metal materials like stainless steel with plastic, making them more cost effective than fully manual steam wands. They also are designed to froth milk with less careful pitcher adjustments. Where a steam wand is simply a tube with a tip at the end to release steam, panarellos guide and restrict steam flow more carefully, and add a bit of air to the steam. This means they are less powerful and capable than a manual wand, but easier to use. Some panarellos even have built in temperature sensing to ensure that milk is frothed to the perfect temp. In action, this means that you'll physically hold a container of milk up to the wand while it does its thing. Generally you won't need to make any adjustments though, and the wand will take care of the rest. The benefits here are in more direct temperature control, while you give up some texture quality and ease of use.
Types Of Steam Systems - Cappuccinotores and Siphons
So what about cappuccinotores?
These nifty attachments fit onto panarello wands and other systems to make the frothing process fully automatic. This brings a standard panarello wand in line with other milk siphon systems that don't utilize carafes. With these systems, milk is sucked up into the machine, then heated and textured, then poured into the cup. Systems like this are incredibly easy to use, you just drop a pipe end into your milk and the machine does the rest. The biggest issue with these systems are temperature control and cleanup. Because these machines literally suck in the milk from the container, keeping them clean is key. Removing and rinsing the pipe regularly is important, as well as using a cleaning solution to get inside of the machine. Most superautos with pipe systems will have an automated cleaning procedure that you can run with some cleaner as well. A great example of a machine with a siphon system like this is the Miele CM6.
Types Of Steam Systems - Carafes
The last type of milk system we'll cover today is the carafe. Technically, carafe based systems are a subset of siphons. Generally carafes simply act as a container to easily store the milk you'll use in a siphon system. This is the case with the optional carafe that comes standard with the Miele CM6350 or as an add on to the 6150, as well as the Xelsis from Saeco. It's worth mentioning carafes though because of how much simpler they make the process. The Xelsis' hygiesteam system works with a carafe to alleviate the cleaning issues we mentioned above, and even just cutting out the step of pouring milk into a container to be siphoned from is a time saver. On some machines, like the Incanto Carafe, you actually just plug the carafe into the espresso machine instead of using a siphon. These systems are considered high end, so the biggest downside you'll face is price. Additionally, as with any siphon system, temperature can be lower than desired for some!
With new systems like Phillips' Latte GO on the horizon, superauto steaming continues to change and evolve!