Semi-automatic espresso machines are just that—semi-automatic. Some of the steps are automated, but many are not. This allows the user to put their personal stamp on the final product but without doing some of the tedious steps that are involved in making an espresso on the stove top. Here’s a look at some of the features that make a semi-automatic espresso machine such a great pickup for the ultimate espresso lover:
Prior to the introduction of pre-measured self-contained ground coffee filter rings, fresh coffee grounds were measured out in scoopfuls and placed into the metal percolator basket. This process enabled small amounts of coffee grounds to leak into the fresh coffee. Additionally, the process left wet grounds in the percolator basket, which were very tedious to clean. The benefit of the Max Pax coffee filter rings was two-fold: First, because the amount of coffee contained in the rings was pre-measured, it negated the need to measure each scoop and then place it in the metal percolator basket. Second, the filter paper was strong enough to hold all the coffee grounds within the sealed paper. After use, the coffee filter ring could be easily removed from the basket and discarded. This saved the consumer from the tedious task of cleaning out the remaining wet coffee grounds from the percolator basket.
In France, in about 1710, the Infusion brewing process was introduced. This involved submersing the ground coffee, usually enclosed in a linen bag, in hot water and letting it steep or "infuse" until the desired strength brew was achieved. Nevertheless, throughout the 19th and even the early 20th centuries, it was considered adequate to add ground coffee to hot water in a pot or pan, boil it until it smelled right, and pour the brew into a cup.
Some machines use a single boiler kept at steaming temperature, but water for brewing is passed through a heat exchanger, taking some heat from the steam without rising to the same temperature. Although the water for brewing remains at a lower range than that required for steaming milk, it is still too hot for proper coffee extraction without first cooling; thus this type of machine requires a cooling flush of 4–6 seconds prior to the first espresso pull. Once the machine is dialed into the proper temperature, as many shots can be pulled as required without refreshing. However, if the user leaves the machine idle again for some period, the flushing process will need to be repeated. The HX variety is found in many mid-range machines and many users install thermometers to assist them is dialing in correct temperatures. There is some controversy as to the temperature stability of the brewing water, since it is indirectly converted from steaming temperature to brewing temperature, rather than kept at a brewing temperature.
A refinement of the piston machine is the pump-driven machine, which was introduced in the Faema E61 in 1961, and has become the most popular design in commercial espresso bars. Instead of using manual force, a motor-driven pump provides the force necessary for espresso brewing. Espresso machines are made to accept water directly from a cold water line supply, common in commercial installations, or from a separate tank that must be filled with water by hand. The latter is more common with lower-volume commercial installations and domestic espresso machines. Due to the required high pumping pressure and precision flow control needed, the particular type of electric pumps typically used are known as solenoid-piston pumps. These pumps are classified as a positive displacement type (general category) of pump.
A good grinder: An even grind is essential for drinkable espresso. In fact, if you’re trying to save money, most experts recommend cheaping out on your espresso machine rather than your grinder. Since we wanted to make sure our machines had the best chance of making great espresso, we started with a $600 grinder recommended to us by Seattle Coffee Gear.
For many of us, the daily grind can't begin until we've had that first cup of piping hot coffee—so the right brewer is at the top of the list. The most basic coffee makers make at least a decent cup, but a little more money buys conveniences such as programmability, a thermal carafe to keep coffee hot longer, settings that let you adjust brew strength, and more.