Super Automatic Espresso Machines
Even if you’re gung-ho about lattes and other espresso drinks, making the decision to purchase an espresso machine can be tough. One of the most common fears about the buying process is that you’ll throw a ton of money into your espresso obsession, be infatuated for two weeks, and then have an expensive piece of decoration on your countertop. Let a super automatic alleviate those fears! These machines make brewing espresso so easy that you can’t help but make a latte nearly every time you walk by.
After hearing so much about the "art and science" of espresso making, a lot of our customers have also wondered if espresso quality is compromised when the typical brewing routine is taken out of human hands. There are two different parts to answering this question. First off, the espresso that is made by super automatic machines is good; in fact it’s very good. The main difference you’ll notice between it and the product of a semi automatic machine is in the texture and mouthfeel. Super automatics cannot exactly replicate the heaviness that comes from a true pour. Obviously, the more control you have over various elements like the grind settings and tamp pressure, the higher the potential for growth. If you are passionate about gaining more control over your espresso pour and delving in to the "art and science" of the process, these machines may not be your "perfect match". Let’s face it: manual work isn’t for everyone. It can be said as well that with more control, there is more room for human error. Where the super automatic machines reduce control, they also increase ease and consistency. Super autos are also unmatched if you’re trying to keep your kitchen clean. The grinder is built in, so there are not any loose grounds hanging around your counter. After brewing, the grounds are immediately ejected into an internal receptacle, so there’s no need to clean them out right away either. The bottom line is that if you’re not into the whole "art and science" thing, and you want enjoyable espresso based drinks quickly and easily without spending all of your money at Starbucks, a super automatic is your "perfect match".
Now we’re going to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. We’ve covered what these machines do in theory (and some of what they do in practice), so now it’s time to discuss how these machines work and what’s involved in using and maintaining them.
Before using a super automatic for the first time, water will need to be pulled through the boiler. This is very similar to the priming process used on semi-automatic espresso machines as well. After filling the water reservoir, you simply need to open the steam wand and pull water through the machine. This ensures that the machine is ready for all subsequent use.
"These machines make brewing espresso so easy that you can’t help but make a latte nearly every time you walk by."
When you’re ready for your morning cup of coffee, all you need to do is turn the machine on and let it warm up. This warm up time allows the machine to reach proper brewing temperature. Once the machine is heated, the machine will indicate it through either the use of a ready light, or via a message that will appear on a display screen. (You can also read more about display screens in What is a Super Automatic?) Warming the machine can take anywhere from one to two minutes with a super automatic, but letting it heat for a few extra minutes will make the first extraction of the day that much better. To eliminate some of this extra heat-up time, many manufacturers have started adding rinse or "test" cycles that run hot water through the machine when it is turned on. This helps to warm all of the brewing components and provides higher temperature consistency and stability from your first shot of the day to your last.
The Brewing Process
Types of Input
Super automatics are like every other coffee producing machine in that they require coffee and water to create the final product. The key element to brewing great espresso with a super auto is using the finest ingredients available.
The internal grinders on super automatic machines make it easy to reap the benefits of freshly ground coffee every time you brew. Using whole beans is necessary with standard super automatics, so you’ll want to make sure you have easy access to them. However, some machines also feature a bypass doser, which allows you to use pre-ground coffee like Illy Fine Grind. This feature works very well, but it is not recommended to only use the bypass doser on a super automatic. A more in depth discussion of bypass dosers can be found in our article titled What is a Super Automatic?
When you’re using whole beans, you want to make sure that they have a moderate to low oil content. Very oily beans have a tendency to stick together, preventing them from falling smoothly into the grinding burrs and possibly blocking them. When you’re first starting, it can be difficult to know what beans are oilier than others, so we’ve made sure to carry several coffees that will work beautifully with super automatics. The Super Automatic Coffee Sampler we have put together is a great starting place. If you’re buying beans elsewhere, you can generally tell if beans are particularly oily by sight or if they leave a residue on your hands.
Using filtered water is one of the best things that you can do for your machine. Filtering water improves the overall flavor of the coffee as well as preventing chemicals and minerals often found in tap water from remaining in the machine and shortening its life span. When brewing with unfiltered tap and well water, you do run the risk of accumulating calcium and other mineral deposits in the machine because this water tends to be hard. High quality charcoal water filters work very well to remove these impurities and some manufacturers have included this type of filtration system in their super automatic machines. These built-in filters sit in the reservoir and pull water through to filter it before it ever reaches the internal portions of the machine.
Many people have reverse osmosis, or deionization, systems in their homes as well. Using deionized water is not recommended because it can gradually cause pitting in the metal boiler over time. Distilled water can produce very similar results. In addition, both distilled and deionized water lack the undamaging minerals that encourage a more full-bodied espresso flavor. You can alleviate these problems by adding a cup of regular tap water to the deionized or distilled water if it is necessary for you to use them.
After depositing coffee and water into the machine, you’re ready to begin brewing. To initialize the brewing process, you simply choose the volume of liquid you’d like to dispense and the machine will grind, tamp (compress), and brew the espresso directly into your cup and eject the used coffee grounds into an internal dump box. On the front of all the super automatic machines there are either buttons or dials that allow you to adjust the amount of water you would like for the machine to dispense. The dials are usually stepped for liquid volume from small to large. These options are preprogrammed by the manufacturer and are not alterable. Other machines feature buttons that are set to dispense certain amounts of water, however these can be reprogrammed to the amount of liquid you desire. These programming options allow you to replicate a specific extraction anytime you’d like, causing a recent upswing in the popularity of café crema. Café crema can be made by pulling 6 to 8oz of water though espresso grounds and, because of the espresso brewing process, extracting the coffee flavor using pressure. This creates an extremely palatable cup of coffee, whose flavor and texture far outweigh that of drip coffee.
Super automatic machines do give you the capability to alter the fineness of the grind. This change modifies the flowing speed of the espresso pour, which in turn affects the flavor characteristics of the shot. Brewing temperature has a similar impact on the final product, so several machines offer temperature adjustments. Many manufacturers also allow you to adjust the coffee dosage, or the physical amount of coffee that goes into each shot. This adjustment can dramatically change the strength, or weakness, of the espresso.
In the beginning of this guide, we mentioned that you lose some control over the brewing process when you use a super automatic machine, but so far we’ve only discussed what control you do have. The control you have with a super automatic is fairly limited in comparison to a semi automatic machine and grinder. For instance, the maximum number of grind settings you have with one of our super autos is 18, but with the Mazzer Mini grinder, you literally have infinite settings for grind fineness. You also lack control over tamp pressure with a super automatic, however that can be to your benefit. This pressure, which is a variable element when brewing with a semi automatic, remains constant with a super, making it easier to dial in on a precise grind.
Adding frothed and steamed milk to espresso is what creates those oh-so-yummy cappuccinos and lattes. Super automatics have Thermobloc and Thermocoil technology to heat water for brewing and steaming. Rather than using a large capacity boiler and needing to heat all of the water contained in it, Thermblocs and Thermocoils pull through small amounts of water and heat them rapidly. This allows for continuous steaming because there is no depletion of heated water until the reservoir is empty. Frothing and steaming milk requires output at a much higher temperature than brewing, so in many cases, the machine will need to heat up to this point after brewing. Dual heating elements or the Rapid Steam feature found on some machines can alleviate this wait. Without these options, super automatics can take anywhere from 30 seconds to a little over a minute to reach steaming temperature.
Pannarello wands are very commonly found as the frothing system on super automatic machines. This wand circulates air by use of a unique sleeve over the underlying steam wand, so you don’t have to "work" the milk. "Working" the milk normally requires angling the frothing pitcher and manually moving it around. Eliminating the need to do this makes frothing with the Panarello wand very easy. Auto frothers that will remove milk from an external container, froth it, and drop it into your cup are very common as well. You can also find a few machines that feature a two-position steam wand. These wands clearly delineate between frothing and steaming by requiring that you change the position of the wand to change the function it performs.
These steam wands and attachments have their own learning curves associated with them, and the type of milk you use can also affect how easy it is to froth. Skim milk is the easiest to froth, but it produces a light and airy froth. Although it does require a little more effort, 2% and whole milk will yield the creamiest, densest froth possible. Take a look at our In Depth Look at Frothing Milk if you’d like to learn more.
After frothing your milk, you will need to let the machine cool back down to brewing temperature if you’d like to brew again. Releasing steam and hot water from the wand when the machine is cooling down helps to expedite this process, as well as cleaning out any milk that may be inside the wand. This cool down is avoided, of course, if the machine has dual heating elements or the rapid steam feature we discussed earlier.
The maintenance of super automatics is relatively simple because, for the most part, they will alert you when something needs to be done. They do this through the use of either indicator lights or display screens that show a message to tell you what the problem may be. Any super automatic machine that we sell will notify you when you are out of beans or water and when the internal dump box needs to be emptied. Many will also inform you when the machine needs to be decalcified.
If the machine has a removable brew group, it will signal when this unit is missing or has not been reinserted properly. The brew group is where the entire brewing process takes place and, therefore, needs to be cleaned fairly regularly to remove any coffee oils and residues. Removable brew groups should be taken out of the machine, thoroughly rinsed, and left to air dry a few times a week depending on the frequency of use. Machines that do not have a removable brew group have internal rinse cycles that keep oils from building up internally.
Underneath the spouts that dispense espresso, there is a drip tray that catches any drips that may occur. After brewing, the bypass valve (not to be confused with the bypass doser) discharges additional water into the drip tray, so it may need to be emptied more often than you’d expect. This tray can also be used to capture water when you purge the frothing wand. It is necessary to keep the frothing wand clean, so before you begin steaming your milk you will want to quickly open and close the steam knob to expel any water that may have condensed. Opening the steam valve again after you’re done frothing has a twofold benefit; it cleans out any milk that may be inside the wand and helps to cool the machine back to brewing temperature. To keep any milk from hardening on the outside of the wand, you will also want to use a damp cloth to clean it off after steaming.
The machine will also need to be descaled, or decalcified, every two to three months using a descaling solution. As mentioned before, this is something that the super automatics generally alert you to when it needs to be done. The machine will tell you when to descale based upon the number of cups that have been brewed, so if you’re using the machine more frequently than the average, it will notify you more quickly. If you have hard water, decalcification should be performed more frequently as well. You can learn more about decalcifying and why it is important in our Why Decalcify article.
Overall, super automatic espresso machines are very easy to operate and maintain. All super automatics function under the same principles and produce very comparable espresso, so determining which features will most benefit you is the key to choosing among them. A detailed explanation of the features available can be found in our What is a Super Automatic? article. If you’re still not sure that super automatics are what you’re looking for, peruse some of the other links below to find your perfect match.
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