To make an authentic espresso, you need the right coffee maker. For home baristas, there are two choices: manual or automatic.
I started with an automatic espresso maker, but over the past few years, I've started using my manual espresso maker more and more.
Each coffee maker has pros and cons; it all comes down to your experience level.
In this guide, I'll explain the advantages and disadvantages of manual vs automatic espresso makers and help you decide which is best for you.
Manual Vs Automatic Espresso Machine: Which Is Better?
For the most part, manual espresso machines are better for baristas who want to hone their skills and take complete control of the espresso making process.
On the other hand, automatic espresso makers are best for baristas who want their coffee quickly and with little effort.
Ease of use
Challenging and takes focus and practice
Suitable for beginners
Once mastered, it can brew with different tastes and flavors
Consistent every time with little variation in flavor
20-30 seconds, but you control it
1. Ease Of Use
Manual coffee machines may look simple, but they can be quite challenging to use at first. In fact, it took me about 3 attempts to make an espresso worth drinking.
They work like a piston, with a lever you pump to generate pressure. The lever machine isn't complicated, but keeping a consistent pressure level takes practice.
You also have to grind the coffee beans using a coffee grinder and then tamp them down into an even layer before you insert them into the machine.
You will also have to heat the water separately.
A fully automatic machine is much simpler to use. You still need to grind your beans (or buy ground coffee), but a built-in pump will generate the pressure for the brew.
It maintains the correct pressure level throughout your espresso-making, giving you a more consistent coffee.
The automatic machine features a separate heating chamber with a water heater that heats water to the optimal temperature, so there's no need to boil water separately.
Many automatic and super-automatic coffee makers also have a milk frother for steamed milk.
Winner: Automatic espresso maker
Fully automatic machines make espresso making as easy as it can be. Just push a button, and you get fresh espresso in your cup.
You can even use them to froth milk and create popular coffee shop drinks at home.
2. Experience Level Needed
There is a steep learning curve with manual machines, and you need at least some experience before you use them.
They're great for giving you complete control, but lever machines can be challenging to master.
To brew using manual coffee makers, you must grind and tamp the coffee beans, build and maintain the pressure, and heat water separately.
All of this is quite a lot of work, and a lot can go wrong.
An automatic coffee machine (particularly super automatics) requires virtually no experience. You just add ground coffee and water, press a button, and voila! Fresh espresso coffee.
A semi-automatic machine is slightly different from a fully automatic one because you control the brew time. This means you must monitor and gauge when to stop brewing the espresso.
This allows you to brew the perfect shot of espresso but requires a bit more experience to get consistent results.
Winner: Automatic espresso maker
You hardly need any experience to use a fully automatic espresso maker or super automatics. Semi-automatic ones take a little more effort but are still simpler than manual machines.
If you are a beginner with limited experience, I recommend automatic or semi-auto machines.
3. Brew Quality
A manual is the best coffee machine for high-quality espresso because it gives you the most control.
You can customize the beans, the grind size, the water temperature, and even adjust the pressure using the lever machines.
This lets you brew the best espresso that is unique to you and meets your tastes.
However, while a manual coffee machine will make the best espresso, it can be difficult to achieve without great practice.
An automatic or semi-auto machine will produce great espresso every time with much greater consistency.
The main difference with automatics is that you can’t customize the coffee. The brew quality will be high every time - but the taste won't change.
Winner: Manual espresso maker
Manual espresso makers can make a higher quality espresso coffee, but it varies depending on your skill and experience.
If you’re a coffee purist, it’s worth investing the time with a manual machine to perfect the art of espresso.
4. Brew Time
You control the brew time with a manual coffee machine. It should generally take 20-40 seconds, but everybody's perfect cup of espresso is slightly different (30 seconds works best for me).
An automatic espresso maker will brew in 25-30 seconds. Many models allow you to change the brew time to adapt to coarser grinds, but it isn't standard on all models.
Unlike automatics, semi-automatic coffee makers don't have a flowmeter to stop the hot water automatically.
It will keep flowing until you manually stop it, allowing you to change the taste and flavor by deciding how long to operate the machine.
Winner: Manual espresso maker
You are in full control of the manual coffee maker, so you can decide on the brew time for your espresso beverages.
Semi-automatics give you control too, but if you want to experiment with different brew times, a manual is your best option.
5. Price Range
A manual espresso maker will cost between $100 and $2000.
The most basic devices are cheap, but manual espresso machines are considered a display or novelty piece, and some models have unique designs that push the price up.
The good news is that manual machines typically require very little maintenance because of their simplicity. They should last at least a decade with very little expensive repair work.
Popular manual espresso maker brands include Flair, Gaggia, and ROK Espresso Machine.
A residential automatic espresso maker can cost anywhere from $150-$1500.
Higher-end models will have more features and are usually made from more durable components, giving you better long-term value for money.
Popular automatic espresso maker brands include Phillips, De’Longhi, Breville, Jura, and Gaggia (I currently use a Gaggia Classic Pro).
Winner: Manual espresso maker
Manual espresso makers are simpler than automatics, and there are cheaper models available. There is less choice, so you may need to search the market for the best deals.
What Is A Manual Espresso Machine?
Espresso is a specific type of coffee made with high pressure. With a manual espresso machine, you generate the required pressure by hand.
This is done by pulling a lever that works like a piston to increase the water pressure until it reaches 9 bars.
Here’s how manual machines work:
- Ground coffee is loaded into a portafilter.
- Hot water is added to the brewing chamber.
- The manual machine lever is pulled up, drawing the hot water into the brewing chamber to saturate the grounds.
- The lever is then lowered, creating pressure in the brewing chamber.
- As the pressure rises, the hot water is forced through the coffee grounds, past a filter, and into your coffee cup underneath.
- Once all the water is forced through, the process is done. It should only take about 30 seconds.
The manual machine dates back to the early 20th Century when manual machines were the only option.
In fact, it was only in the 1940s that technological advances made having automatic coffee machines at home practical.
Manual machines are the traditional way to make espresso.
They give you complete control over every aspect of the brewing, from grind size and water temperature to brew time and pressure applied.
The downside is that you'll need to do everything yourself.
However, with a bit of experience and practice, they let you brew unique coffee you can’t get anywhere else.
Benefits & Drawbacks
Who Should Buy A Manual Espresso Maker?
A manual espresso machine is best for:
Manual coffee machines also take more time to brew coffee, so I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone with a fast-paced routine or rushed mornings.
Alternatives To Manual Espresso Makers
Manual machines are not particularly popular for home brewers, but there are many other popular manual coffee brewing methods. These include:
These manual coffee brewers give you control over your brewing but take far less skill than a manual espresso machine.
They’re a great alternative to manual espresso machines for those who don’t have as much coffee experience.
What Is An Automatic Espresso Machine?
An automatic espresso machine brews coffee similarly to a manual. The only difference is that it generates the high pressure automatically.
This automation gives the user greater convenience and allows you to brew espresso beverages at the press of a button.
There are lots of espresso machines, but they all have a built-in mechanical pump to build and maintain the right pressure.
This means it creates a delicious, satisfying, and consistent espresso each time.
There are 3 different types of automatic espresso machines. Let’s take a look at the important aspects of each:
Super-automatic machines are basically a one-stop shop for espresso.
These super automatic machines can do everything for you at the push of a button, with programmable settings and a timer.
I often describe them as espresso AI because they can do EVERYTHING. One of my favorite super-automatic espresso machines is the Jura WE6.
Unlike standard automatic machines, super-automatic espresso machines can grind and tamp the beans.
Most models will also froth milk for a latte, flat white, macchiato, or cappuccinos, and come with a separate tool for latte art.
They are all singing, all dancing, and all brewing - giving you fresh espresso at the touch of a button.
Who Should Buy A Super-Automatic Espresso Maker?
A super-automatic coffee machine is best for those who:
An automatic coffee machine has a mechanical pump that generates the pressure needed for espresso.
Unlike super-automatic espresso machines, you need to grind and tamp the beans yourself, but once that's done, it will pull the espresso shot for you. One of my favorite automatic espresso machine is the Breville Barista Touch.
Many automatic machines also have a milk frother that allows you to steam milk. This isn't a standard feature, but it's useful for those who enjoy espresso-based coffees or milk-based drinks.
Automatic machines control the brewing process and create a consistent espresso shot. These are the most popular style of automatic coffee machines.
Who Should Buy An Automatic Espresso Maker?
Automatic espresso machines are best for those who:
Semi-automatic espresso machines offer a hybrid between an automatic machine and a manual espresso machine.
They are often regarded as the ‘sweet spot’ between manual vs automatic, and it’s my preferred type of espresso machine. My current favorite is the Delonghi EC155 machine.
Semi-automatic machines still use a built-in pump to create pressure like other automatic machines. The key difference is that there’s no flowmeter to shut off the brew cycle.
This means you are responsible for the shot timing, and you get to control how long you pull the shot. This lets you customize the strength of the brew.
Many semi-automatic machines can be set to fully automatic, and many models have an attachment that allows you to steam milk.
Who Should Buy A Semi-Automatic Espresso Maker?
Semi-automatic coffee machines work well in commercial or domestic settings. They’re best for:
Related Manual and Automatic Espresso Machine Questions
Are super-automatic machines worth it?
Super-automatic machines can’t be beaten for convenience and are worth it for those who want effortless espresso drinks. They have a wide range of settings and a built-in milk frother, so you can use them to steam milk, create delicious milky espresso drinks, and create latte art.
Why are espresso machines so expensive?
Espresso machines are expensive because they need specific, high-value components, including the parts needed to create the pressure level. There’s also less competition than there is with standard coffee makers, so the prices are less competitive.
What are the best coffee beans for espresso?
Specific espresso beans (made from Arabica beans) are best for espresso. These work best with the short extraction process and provide a bold, delicious balance of flavor.
How long do automatic coffee machines last?
With proper maintenance, automatic coffee machines should last at least 5 years, and some high-end models can last over 10 years.
How long do manual espresso machines last?
A manual espresso machine should last at least 8-10 years, and some will last a lifetime.
Is Starbucks' espresso machine automatic?
Yes, Starbucks has its own range of fully automatic coffee machines called the Mastrena espresso machine. The Swiss-made machines can brew coffee and steam milk in seconds and have automatic features that give more convenience to baristas.
What Type Of Espresso Machine Should You Buy?
Each type of espresso machine gives you a different level of control. The right choice of espresso maker for you comes down to how much you control you want and your experience level.
I recommend semi-automatic espresso machines for most home brewers because they offer a good balance of simplicity and control, but hopefully, this guide has helped you decide which is best for you.