There are quite a few things you need to keep in mind when buying a super-automatic espresso machine. This article will give an overview of what I think are the most important things you need to consider. I'll tell you what things are really important, and what is just hype made up by marketing departments.
There are quite a few things you need to keep in mind when buying a super-automatic espresso machine. This article will give an overview of what I think are the most important things you need to consider. I’ll tell you what things are really important, and what is just hype made up by marketing departments.
If you just can’t get enough, you can also check out my complete article full of reviews of super-automatic espresso machines.
Table of Contents
- Do I Need a Removable Brewing Unit?
- Water Filters and Descaling
- Where Should My Machine Go in My Kitchen?
- Advantages of Buying Online
- What Kind of Grinder Is Best? Conical Grinders Disc Grinders Is Steel or Porcelain Better? Grinders: Bottom Line
- Pumps and Pressure
- What Drinks Can I Make?
- What Kind of Coffee Should I Use?
- Recommended Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
Do I Need a Removable Brewing Unit?
The brewing unit is where the machine presses the water through the puck of ground coffee, which is how it makes espresso.
Automatic espresso machines have one of two options: a built-in brewing unit, or a removable one. Brands like Krups and Jura are generally built-in, while others are usually removable.
In the picture below, you can see a removable brewing unit from a budget-priced DeLonghi model. On the right is a built-in unit from Krups machine.
If you have a removable unit, you can rinse it by hand with running water. If you want to clean out the brewing unit from the inside, you will have to use the integrated cleaning program.
In the next picture, you can see a high-quality removable brewing unit. This one comes from a Siemens automatic espresso machine, from their EQ.6 700 series. You can also find a complete review of this machine here on Coffeeness.
This one has made a few espressos, so I’ve removed it so that I can clean it.
You can see here that quality is more important than a particular brand name. This brewing unit is mostly plastic but it is still hefty and sturdy.
What’s Better — Removable or Built-in?
Jura and Krups claim that their built-in brewing units are better because their cleaning programs do a better job than washing by hand, and they are also less work for owners.
Here’s What I Think:
There are two main advantages to buying a super-automatic espresso machine with high-quality, removable brewing units:
- They are cleaner. Nothing cleans better than running water, a sponge and your own two hands.
- If a removable unit breaks, you can just buy a new one. It’s a cinch to put in a new one by yourself.
Water Filters and Descaling
You will need to descale (decalcify) your automatic espresso machine. That’s true whether or not you use a water filter. However, if you do use a filter, you will need to descale the machine less frequently.
Water comes in different hardnesses.
The more calcium your water contains, the “harder” it is. The more calcium that is in your water, the more often you will need to descale your machine.
Water filters reduce the amount of calcium in your water. If you use a filter, you will need to descale less often.
|Level||Degree of Hardness||Millimoles of Calcium Carbonate per Liter||German Hardness (dH) Degrees||How Often Should I Decalcify?|
|1||Soft||Fewer than 1.5||Fewer than 8.4 °dH||Rarely|
|2||Medium||1.5 to 2.5||8.4 to 14 °dH||Occasionally|
|3||Hard||More than 2.5||More than 14 °dH||Often|
There are three basic levels of water hardness. If you have soft water, then a filter won’t really do anything. A filter lowers your hardness by one level, and “soft” is already the lowest level. So you should really only think about filters if you have medium or hard water.
You can find your water hardness with a test kit (often included with espresso machines), or you can also contact your water provider.
Important things to keep in mind about water filters:
- They reduce your water hardness, so you should use them with hard water. You can also just descale more frequently, if you prefer.
- Think about recurring costs. You will probably spend an average of $10 to $15 a month for water filters, depending on how much you use your machine.
Where Should My Machine Go in My Kitchen?
At first glance, this may seem like a trivial question. However, I’ve actually heard from many people who buy these machines without first thinking about where they will actually put them.
Before buying a super-automatic espresso machine, you should consider where it will go in your kitchen. It should be somewhere that makes it easy to use, maintain and clean the machine — also consider if it will be easy to refill the coffee beans and water. Ask yourself these questions:
- Where is the water tank, and how do I access it?
- Where is the bean compartment?
- Which side is the catch tray on?
- How do I remove the drip tray and catch tray?
- What are the dimensions of the machine?
- How long is the power cord?
All modern automatic espresso machines have automatic cleaning programs. You will have to deal with some more recurring costs to buy cleaner and descaler. They’re not always cheap, especially if you go with brand-name products.
If you take good care of your machine by regularly cleaning it and giving it consistent maintenance, you will drastically increase its lifespan.
Advantages of Buying Online
I used to be a big fan of buying from local stores. However, I’ve noticed that, more and more, they give me bad advice, especially in the big box stores. Generally, I’ve had much better results recently by doing my research online.
Most online stores have generous return policies, but you should be sure to always check before buying a super-automatic espresso machine.
Some brick-and-mortar stores will also let you return your purchases, of course, but they may also charge you a restocking fee.
What Kind of Grinder Is Best?
Automatic espresso machines have two kinds of grinders: disc grinders and conical grinders.
The grinders are made of either hardened steel or porcelain ceramic.
Conical Coffee Grinders
These are the most common kind of grinders in automatic espresso machines because they use very little space. There are actually two parts to the grinder, one “positive” and one “negative.”
The two halves fit into one another. In contrast to a disc grinder, which uses centrifugal force to push the coffee outwards, conical grinders just use gravity to let the coffee fall through.
Disc Coffee Grinders
Disc grinders made of steel or porcelain are less common in automatic espresso machines. These disc grinders press the coffee beans between two plates sitting on top of one another. The greater the space between the two discs, the coarser the grind.
Usually, one of the concave discs is turned by an inner motor, while the other is fixed in place. The ground coffee moves outward and is pushed out of the grinder.
Is Steel or Porcelain Better?
Steel grinders can stand up better to debris or other junk that might make its way into your grinder. If you buy cheap coffee, you might occasionally find a little pebble in your bag that is more likely to break a ceramic grinder.
Some people claim that porcelain is better because it doesn’t heat up as much as steel. However, I doubt that that would really make much of a difference, at least in a machine made for home use.
It’s cheaper for manufacturers to use ceramic, though. Personally, I haven’t decided whether I like one or the other better. Both materials have their positives and negatives.
Grinders: Bottom Line
- Conical grinders are louder, but they don’t heat up as much.
- Disc grinders are much quieter, but they warm up a bit more.
Pumps and Pressure
I have often heard and read claims about how important it is for automatic espresso machines to use a specific amount of pressure. People compare whether a machine uses 12, 15 or 19 bars of pressure. In that case, the assumption is relatively simple: the more, the better, right?
I’ve been thinking more about this, though. If a barista makes an espresso using a traditional machine with a portafilter, the machine will use 9 bars of pressure. Not much more and not much less. The pressure builds up when the pump pushes the water through the packed puck of ground coffee. Therefore:
- The pressure can only get as high as the pump can push it.
- The pressure can also only get as high as the coffee can withstand.
If you have very loosely packed coffee in the portafilter, it won’t be able to build up any pressure. The same goes for automatic espresso machines. Most of them these days advertise their enormous mega pumps. However, they still can only grind coffee relatively coarsely, or at least more coarsely than a barista would with a coffee grinder. That’s because an automatic espresso machine gets jammed if the coffee is ground too finely. This also means that the ground coffee will be looser, which means that the machine won’t be able to build up as much pressure.
The important thing is to use a grind that is as fine as possible — but that’s also difficult for these machines to do well.
What Drinks Can I Make?
The advertisements for super-automatic espresso machines often get a bit carried away. They will say that a machine can do basically whatever you want it to and do it as well as a real barista. They even use silly terms like “Barista Technology.”
The reality is a bit different, though. Super-automatic espresso machines can make espresso. They do make it using relatively coarsely ground coffee, at least compared to what you would use with a traditional espresso machine. However, this also changes the structure of the espresso. It has a lighter “crema” and is less intense.
I’ve even seen some professional baristas who were truly impressed by the quality of the milk foam from some of these machines.
Therefore, your machine should be able to make a good latte macchiato. However, not a cappuccino, at least as a barista would define it. The missing ingredient here is the melding between foam and espresso. If you press the “cappuccino” button, most machines will just give you a good latte macchiato.
If you are looking to drink coffee without milk, you’ll have to depend completely on the quality of the espresso the machine makes. The americanos and “coffee” that come out of an automatic machine simply can’t compete with coffee from a French press or pour-over dripper. Therefore, you might do well to also have one of those methods in your arsenal.
What Kind of Coffee Should I Use?
That’s not an easy question to answer, and it depends a lot on your personal tastes. I would avoid anything you get from a supermarket, which is often low quality and has almost always sat around for too long.
Ideally, you’d use espresso beans that were roasted two weeks prior. It’s still fresh but has had time to release any gases.
These blends really take off when you use them with milk.
Recommended Super-Automatic Espresso Machines
You can find more tips for buying a super-automatic espresso machine at sonntagmorgen.com (page available in German only).
I wouldn’t recommend any machine that costs less than $500. They look like cheap Tupperware gadgets and you won’t be pleased with the results.
I recently tested and reviewed the Siemens EQ.6 700 and was very happy with it. It’s not only the quietest machine that I’ve ever tested, but it managed to grind very finely, which significantly improves the quality of the espresso.
I hope this little article has been helpful. Keep checking back with us here at Coffeeness. I’m always happy to hear your thoughts, questions and comments about my coffee website.