Consider this a warning; once you start brewing your perfect cup of coffee at home, you’ll never be able to return to regular coffee again. If you know, you know! People who love coffee are passionate about their craft; for them, brewing the perfect cup is almost as satisfying as the result. And because what constitutes the best coffee is highly personal, semi-automatic coffee machines are the preferred choice of many self-proclaimed coffee aficionados.
Well, with so many semi-automatic coffee machines on the market, how do you choose the right one? This beginner’s guide to the best semi-automatic coffee machine will help you narrow your options.
Beginning Your Machine Journey: What is a Semi-Automatic Coffee Machine?
Before we start digging into what separates a good semi-automatic coffee machine from a great one, let’s cover the basics of the different types of coffee machines and why a semi-automatic machine is the best choice for coffee keeners looking to hone their skills.
There are four categories of espresso machines: manual, semi-automatic, automatic, and super-automatic. The mechanics of pulling an espresso shot are very similar across all the various types of coffee machines. The boiler generates steam, which then collects in the group head before the pressurized water is forced through the espresso puck and filtered out through the portafilter, pouring a perfect espresso shot into your cup. What changes between the different types of espresso machines is how much of the brewing process the brewer is responsible for managing.
Manual coffee machines are the original way to brew espresso, and some die-hard traditionalists still favour them. Without any modern technology, the brewer is responsible for every aspect of the brewing process, from grinding and tamping to operating the lever. This method requires patience, practice, and focus and is probably outside the scope of a beginner (or even for most experienced espresso brewer)
Semi-automatic, automatic, and super-automatic coffee machines incorporate various features that make the coffee brewing process a little less cumbersome. A super-automatic coffee machine does it all at the push of a button: it grinds, tamps, and pulls the shot. However, coffee enthusiasts will often say that what you are gaining in simplicity, you are losing control. Super-automatic coffee machines have few – if any options for customization.
Automatic coffee machines give brewers a little more control over their coffee. While the machine still manages the water pressure and pour length, brewers grind, measure, and tamp their espresso.
Many people consider semi-automatic coffee machines as combining the best of manual and automatic coffee machines and are a favourite of both coffee beginners and coffee experts. With a semi-automatic machine, you, the brewer, are responsible for grinding your beans, dosing, tamping, and timing your pour. This process gives you nearly as much control and flexibility over your pour as a manual machine but without the hassle of pumping a lever to push water through the espresso puck.
What to Look for in The Best Semi-Automatic Coffee Machine
Now that you understand a little more about the different types of coffee machines, let’s look at some of the features you’ll want to explore to help you get the best semi-automatic coffee machine for your at-home coffee brewing.
Single Versus Double Boiler
Semi-automatic coffee machines are available with either single or dual boilers. Remember, the boiler is responsible for creating the steam that brews your coffee, but it’s also responsible for producing steam for the stream wand if you want to heat milk. A single-boiler semi-automatic espresso machine can produce enough steam to operate one of these functions at a time; if you need to warm milk, you will have to wait for the boiler to reheat.
Alternatively, you can invest in a double boiler semi-automatic espresso machine, which can heat milk and pull your shot simultaneously. The best semi-automatic espresso machine for you will depend on your beverage preferences (and budget).
Fresh-ground coffee beans are a must for any coffee enthusiast; you can’t pour great coffee with a stale coffee grind, no matter what coffee machine you use. But this one is tricky because even some of the best semi-automatic coffee machines suffer from inferior built-in grinders.
If you are going to buy a semi-automatic coffee machine with a built-in grinder, look for one with a burr grinder versus one with a blade grinder which often produces uneven grind and burnt beans.
The portafilter is an often underestimated yet crucial aspect of a great semi-automatic coffee machine. The portafilter resembles a small spoon-sized basket that holds the coffee grind in the machine’s head for brewing.
There are two types of portafilters: pressurized and non-pressurized. Pressurized portafilters contain two walls and can be more forgiving, especially for beginners. The coffee first collects in a holding area before being forced through a small hole into your cup, resulting in the perfect espresso crema regardless of ground coarseness.
Non-pressurized portafilters have only one wall, and many experts will argue they offer better extraction control than pressurized portafilters. However, they are much more sensitive to ground size as the coffee is brewed directly into the cup; too fine or too coarse, and you’re not going to get a proper pour.
Once you’ve examined the basics, you can start to explore some of the extras you might want to have in your semi-automatic coffee machine. For example, some semi-automatic coffee machines will allow you to program customizable settings for temperature, steaming, timing, and brewing. Other higher-end semi-automatic coffee machines might also include pre-set functions for cappuccinos, lattes, and single or double shots.
Now that you have a better idea of the types of coffee machines available and their various features, you’re ready to start hunting for the best semi-automatic coffee machine for your lifestyle, needs, and budget.