CLICK HERE to subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive promotions and regular updates on everything coffee!
Updated for 2021
Lattes, cappuccinos, espresso, coffee and more can all be made fresh from bean to cup espresso machines. In this post, you’ll learn more about the basic espresso machine types and how to choose the one that’s best for your needs.
Imagine the luxury of making your own café-quality coffee and espresso beverages in your home or office. Whether you want the convenience of a latte at the push of a button or you're looking for a more barista-like experience, there’s a machine for you. We’ll cover the two basic machine types and things you should know when picking a machine, like terminology and basic capabilities. We’ll have some specific recommendations which are our “can’t go wrong” picks, machines that have excellent customer reviews, proven track records, and represent good values. .
After reading this, you’ll have what you need to pick a machine that’s right for you.At Whole Latte Love, we’ve been doing this for 20 years. We’re a team of experts with a passion for everything coffee. We work closely with manufacturers on product design, and you’ll get the best price with our price-match and free shipping on orders over $50. Maybe more important than all that, we’ve got your back before, during, and after you make a purchase. If you want some one-on-one advice, you can talk to our staff of friendly coffee experts by phone, chat, or email. With that said, we don’t want to keep you waiting, so let’s jump right in.
The two basic types of machines are super-automatic and semi-automatic. With super-automatics, as the name suggests, the machine does most of the work for you. It’s an on-demand barista on your countertop. In most cases, no skill is needed to operate a super-automatic machine, you won’t find an easier espresso machine to operate and brew your daily cappuccino than a super-automatic.
With semi-automatics you need some basic skills in order to get good results. You can think of the difference like this: with a super-auto, the machine is the barista, and with a semi-auto you are the barista. Both types of machines come in a wide range of capabilities and, of course, cost. A semi-automatic machine in the hands of a skilled user can make better espresso and milk froth than what you’re going to get in the majority of cafes. On the other hand, super-automatics produce café-quality results and do it fast with no user skill required.
One other basic difference: super-autos have a built-in grinder for your coffee beans. With semi-autos you’ll want a separate burr grinder capable of grinding for espresso. Now, you do have the option of using pre-ground coffee in both machine types, and Easy Serve Espresso (ESE) pods on some semi-autos. However, pre-ground coffee and ESE pods don’t produce the same quality as freshly ground beans. If you’re going with a semi-auto and you want the capability of making excellent espresso, be sure to include a quality burr grinder as part of your purchase plan.
So let’s start with the quick, easy, and convenient no-skill required super-autos. They all use a built-in grinder to grind beans fresh for every cup. You don’t need to purchase a separate grinder if you’re using a super-auto, it does all of the work for you. Inside these machines is a part called a brew group which performs the barista functions of extracting the coffee. Top of the line super-autos are often called “One-Touch” machines for their ability to produce milk-based espresso beverages like a latte, cappuccino, flat white, and more with the press of a button, start-to-finish without user intervention. One-touch machines are convenient and the easiest ways to make the best espresso beverages from the comfort of your own home.
All super-autos use a similar process for making coffee. Where they differ is how they deal with milk, level of programmability, their displays, and things like capacities, cup clearance, and finish materials. Lower cost models use auto-frothing steam wands for texturing milk. It’s a manual process but doesn’t require much skill. Another option for milk froth is the cappuccinatore, which uses a pick-up tube to deliver frothed milk into your cup.
For higher-end models, there are attachable milk carafes and spout-integrated frothing devices fed from thermal containers or refrigerated milk supplies. This is a feature that you'll find on the “One-Touch” machines. Also, look for the ability to adjust the density of the milk froth. On some machines, you have control of the froth as a dial allows you to change from a fine froth for a latte to an airier froth for a cappuccino. And there are even machines like the Gaggia Accademia which can program different froth densities for each drink.
How a machine works with milk is a major consideration. Do you want to auto-froth in a pitcher yourself? Would you prefer to pull a carafe from the fridge and push a button for a latte, or maybe you need the always-available capacity of a counter top refrigerated milk supply? Do you want the ability to adjust the froth quality? There’s even a couple of machines with both a milk carafe for easy one-touch drinks and a manual steam wand for weekend baristas who want to do some latte art.
Moving on to semi-automatic machines, there’s quite a range available. From entry-level appliances starting under $200, up to refined, hand-crafted machines built for decades of service. Semi-automatic machines do require some skill to operate. If you’re a beginner, there are entry-level espresso machines that are good for learning the ropes. But, understand that semi-auto espresso is a game of controlling variables, including parameters like grind size, coffee dose, and brewing temperature. Fine control of those variables tends to be more difficult and results are less consistent when using lower cost entry-level machines.
Most entry-level espresso appliances use undersized pressurized portafilters, which are much smaller and lighter than the 58mm commercial portafilters found on more expensive machines. Pressurized portafilters are kind of a cheat that tend to produce a lower quality espresso. On the upside, they are more forgiving of grind size, so you can start your espresso journey without purchasing a grinder and use pre-ground coffee or ESE pods.
Low cost, entry-level espresso appliances use thermoblock boilers with the same boiler heating water for brewing and for steaming. That means waiting for 30 seconds to a minute or so for the machine to get up to temperature when you want to froth milk. While they will do okay steaming with their auto frothing wands, there is a huge difference in power between these entry-level appliances and more expensive machines with larger volume boilers. If you’re interested in taking your skill to the level of pouring latte art, be aware that entry-level machines or any machine with an auto-frothing wand is not really capable of frothing to the quality required for that.
If you are at all serious about getting into quality espresso, I’d suggest bypassing entry-level espresso appliances with their plastic construction, thermoblock boilers, and lightweight pressurized basket brewing and go straight to an entry-level single boiler machine like the Gaggia Classic.
You can start without a grinder using the pressurized baskets with pre-ground coffee or ESE pods, and then move up to grinding fresh beans when you’re ready by using the standard non-pressurized baskets. The Classic Pro has been one of our favorite semi-automatic espresso machines especially for beginners since it’s release in 2019 and it shows no signs of slowing down with satisfied customers. It’s built to last and is hands down the best value in single boiler machines.
I just got this machine Christmas of 2019. I simply I love this machine. It has an extremely powerful frothing wand for its size. One thing is for sure, I feel like I’m making true espresso now. None of my previous machines had a commercial portafilter and were pressurized. Wow, it’s SO much better with this machine! Now to just upgrade my grinder Read more about review stating Excellent little machine with big performance.to the Baratza 270 and I will be setup even better.
A step up from single boilers are machines with heat exchanger boilers. With these you can brew and froth milk at the same time because steam is always available. Inside the boiler, a heat exchange section provides cooler water for espresso brewing.
For super-automatic recommendations we can open things up a bit as they require little skill to operate.The Gaggia Brera, for example, is one of our favorite super-automatic machines for the best value. It’s been around for years, it's super simple to operate, and uses the same brewing technology found in Gaggia’s more expensive machines. The Brera uses an auto-frothing wand for milk steaming, it has a low profile, and has convenient front slide-out access to the water reservoir and used coffee drawer. Like all Gaggia machines with a steam pipe, you can get an optional latte art wand. It does the auto-frothing but slide off a sleeve and it becomes a manual wand. With a little practice, you can froth to the delicate micro-foam required for latte art.
We’ve got a lot more resources if you want more information on all things coffee and espresso, espresso machines, coffeemakers, grinders, and more. Check out our in-depth guides for absolute beginners before making a purchase so that you’re confident when brewing, steaming and becoming your own pro-barista at home or in the office.