Espresso Machines – Manual vs. Automated vs. Super Auto; It’s Complex!

When I first discovered my love for espresso coffee and began to learn how to make it at home only four types of machine technologies available that could create real espresso (I’m not including stovetop boilers, stovetops, or camp espresso devices):

  • Manual Machines, built on levers that use your hand strength to move water across a coffee-based bed or use a spring to complete the work.
  • Semi-Automatic These were machines with an internal powered pump that could force water through the coffee’s bed after activating a switch and then cease pushing water once you turned off the switch.
  • Automatic The machines that had an internal pump and also had some sort of volumetric control to regulate the quantity of water required to make the espresso coffee shot. Press one button and the machine will then activate the pump and release the pre-set amount of water before shutting off the pump in a sequence.
  • Super Auto, a new technology that was introduced to domestic espresso coffee machines in the year 2000. It has an internal grinding machine and the tamping mechanism, which takes over the entire process of making an espresso shot. At the press of an electronic button it grinds coffee, puts it into an brewing chamber, compresses it, and then steeps with a pump that provides pressure, delivering a set amount of water before shutting down. The coffee-soaked puck is removed in an internal garbage bin.

This was the norm for the majority of years (with the Super Auto coming in late). You could purchase semi-automatic machines, manual machines and automated machines dating back to the 1980s to use at home for espresso work. The Super Auto joined in 2000 in full force (though super-automatic espresso coffee machines that commercial use were first developed in the 1990s by the co-owners and owners of the Baratza milling company, Kyle Anderson).

Things have changed over the past five years however. A little more. The two categories which are first and the lastthe categories of Manual and Super Auto aren’t as they once were. There are new technology (some modified versions of old technologies) currently available that dramatically increase these categories. This is the manual category first.

Manual Espresso coffee Machines

Manual espresso machines have historically been built around the lever.

The lever is employed in two ways: either press the lever to cock an extremely strong spring inside the espresso coffee maker. Once you release the lever, the spring is released and pushes a piston that is then pushed by the water to brew across a bed of coffee.

A second type of lever is known as people are referred to as direct levers. This means that your hand is direct pushing a piston which pushes the brewing water through the coffee’s bed.

Both models are powered and use the power to regulate and heat the temperature of water in boilers. The power source is not used to run the pump. There isn’t an on/off switch for boiling water, but only an off/on switch to turn off the water heater. They’re a huge boiler that has a couple of lever arms that are attached.

In the last quarter of the decade that began the century the Handpresso manual travel espresso coffee maker was introduced to the market. Instead of levers and electro-mechanical pumps, this machine utilized a kind of bicycle pump to fill the chamber to create air pressure (all up to 6 BAR!) to make a shot espresso coffee. This was certainly manual espresso coffee maker, however it was not electrical; you required boiling water.

The bicycle pump, first edition handpresso espresso maker.

The next major tool to arrive and shake up the market was the Mypressi espresso coffee maker. It was a model that resembled a tool from the movie of 2001: Space Odyssey. It was manual in the sense that it didn’t have a pump and and no switch to turn off or on, but it utilized small nitrogen capsules of the same type that are used in whip cream dispensers to force water with high pressure across the coffee’s bed. (ed.note that I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to call this a manual device since it relies on gas capsules to create pressure).

The Handpresso is next to the tragically gone MyPressi gas powered espresso coffee maker.

There have been other gadgets to be invented since. One company even has an exclusive cap specifically for the Aeropress so that it can pour out a drink that’s very similar to espresso coffee, based on how hard you press into the Aeropress plunger.

Recently, we’ve had the Flair Espresso Machine and the Cafelat Robot both of which are both manual espresso coffee machines. Both utilize a lever system for direct pressure application to the brewing water, which is then moved across a coffee bed. However, both are completely mechanical, and do not require electricity is required. You provide the water to the machine.

The Flair espresso coffee machine.

I have I have a Flair apparatus and I’m able to assure you that it makes real espresso. It’s a lot of work and I’m unable to produce shots after shots, but it produces real espresso that is delicious and satisfying. It’s not able steam milk, but it produces an enjoyable shot of espresso! I see robot owners on Facebook constantly discussing their sleek Cafelat machines , and how they absolutely love their functionality and output.

So , it appears that the Manual category extends beyond the basic La Pavoni lever machine, or an Elektra Micro Casa a Leva (lovingly called the MCaL).

Super Automatics

Super Automatics are a relatively new category however, one that has experienced significant change since they first appeared on the market in the early 2000s.

Breville Oracle and Breville Oracle Touch are Breville Oracle and Breville Oracle Touch are considered to be Super Autos according to the current definition of the term, however they are certainly not like other super automatics in the market in the present.

They do tick most of the boxes:

  • Automatically grind coffee
  • Dosage the coffee automatically,
  • You can tamp the coffee, automatically,
  • Brew the coffeeusing a the volumetric dosage that is pre-set for water.
  • Steam and froth milk in a controlled manner and
  • With Oracle Touch, can build drinks for you nearly 100% automatically with an on-screen menu system.

The one thing the Oracle machines are distinct from the other super automatics is that they utilize traditional 58mm portafilters, and you as the user must move the portafilter out of the mill to the grouphead and then remove it to serve the coffee that has been sucked out. The rest of the machine is automated with the use of temperature-sensitive steaming and frothering of milk.

I had the opportunity to use the Oracle Touch machines when I was hired as barista for some special events in a premium kitchen retailer a year ago. It’s an impressive piece of equipment. It is a take on super automatic, and puts through tried and tested “barista level” items, such as the commercial-grade portafilter to make a shot espresso or a steam or foamed drink just as good as what you’d discover in any cafĂ©.

Overall the entire set of espresso coffee machines appears to be undergoing a shake-up to incorporate new and innovative techniques. This is exciting!

Natia is a coffee lover and loves whenever she can write about it. She’s participated in regional barista contests in the past. While she’s no longer a Barista as a profession, she admits that espresso is a part of her blood.

This article is inspired by the idea at CoffeeGeek, a community website, with the purpose is to inform, educate and entertain coffee and espresso lovers. Coffee Geek is one of the oldest specialty coffee websites, and a lot of baristas, coffee champions and roasters started their career with questions on the Coffee Geek forums.