Things to Look for in a Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine - Part 1
We’re continuing our series on good good things to look for when perusing new coffee gear with semi-automatic espresso machines! We’re breaking this one into two parts, with part 1 covering the outside of the machine and part 2 looking at what’s on the inside.
We’re starting with the outside of the machine this time because we want to stress some misconceptions about case design. Namely, while you will get more life out of a machine with metal casing, for your very first machine we don’t think you should worry too much about case material. The outer casing of the machine doesn’t really factor into espresso quality, and while less expensive machine don’t tend to last as long as more solidly built options, you have to start somewhere. By all means, if you have the budget to get started on a prosumer option like the Rocket Espresso Appartamento it’s an incredible machine. With that said, don’t let the plastic case on a less expensive machine like the Solis Perfetta scare you away. It’s the inside that really matters here.
Next, it’s worth really considering if an all-in-one machine is right for you. Machines that combine a grinder and machine can be great to learn on, but it’s important to keep in mind that you can’t really upgrade them independently once you’re ready for something a little more. With that said, it can be the perfect option so long as you’re prepared to stick with that machine or upgrade your full setup in a few years.
Other external features to note are controls, steaming system, group head, and gauges. There’s a lot to dig into here, but we’ll start with controls.
Control systems on semi-autos range from push buttons, to levers, to paddles, and more. When you’re looking at your first espresso machine we recommend getting an understanding of what the controls do more than how they’re presented. Prosumer machines with levers and paddles will give you direct, mechanical control over the brewing process, where a button based interface might include a few different types of presses and holds to control water flow. Generally as long as you understand how the system works, any control method is fine for your first machine.
Your steaming system is also important, and we recommend one that you can get hot water from if possible. Additionally, a true, non-panarello steam wand will give you more control over foam production. We don’t feel that a smart steaming system is a necessity for your first machine, but if you absolutely do not want to learn how to steam for yourself it can be a nice option.
Groupheads and Gauges
Group heads on espresso machines are very important. These are the parts of the machine that your portafilter locks into for brewing. Simple groups simply push water through, which is probably fine for your first machine. However, it’s worth understanding the range here. Saturated groups sit in water cycling from the boiler, helping them stay heated. E61 group heads are also heated from boiler heat. Both of these styles provide better temperature consistency during brewing. These are also typically found on higher end machines, so don’t worry too much about ensuring that you have a heated group in your first machine.
Next, let’s talk about pressure gauges. Many new users see pressure gauges as key to learning how to manage pressure in their brewing process. While we think they are certainly cool and worth having as you grow and learn about espresso, they can be detrimental to your basic understanding of espresso brewing.
You see, pressure is absolutely key to brewing espresso, but we’ve seen many new users assume something is wrong with their machine because the gauge doesn’t behave as they’d expect during dialing in. The fact of the matter is that you can end up with a good shot whether your pressure gauge falls into the “sweet spot” for espresso. Instead of chasing a specific gauge position, it’s much more important to follow the flavor. The way that you account for this is by adjusting your grind and tamp, that’s it. If you’re struggling to get a good shot the odds are that it’s an issue with your grinder not grinding fine enough, not a malfunctioning pump. If you keep this in mind a pressure gauge can be an interesting additional tool to learn about how your shot pulling is working.
Putting it All Together
With all of this in mind, we feel the best thing you can do when purchasing your first machine is to make sure you understand what you’re looking at. Preference plays a big role here, but if you don’t understand the basics about what makes these machines tick it’s hard to know what you prefer!