There comes a point where you’ll want to start flexing your coffee-making muscles a little more. That’s where semi-automatic machines come in, providing you with loads more control over the brewing process from bean to cup.
Here are the best semi-automatic espresso machines we could find, which are ideal for helping you on your budding barista journey!
(My guide to brewing coffee at home contains plenty more tutorials and buying tips!)
In this article, we’re going to review the following semi-automatic espresso machines:
- Breville BES880BS Barista Touch
- De’Longhi La Specialista
- Breville Barista Express Espresso Machine BES870XL
- Delonghi EC680M DEDICA
- Breville BES840XL Infuser Espresso Machine
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Benefits of a Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine
Two things happen when you start using a semi-automatic espresso machine.
First, you get a much, much better espresso shot, as there’s more fine control over the brewing process.
Second, you’ll start developing your home barista skills, as you’ll have to go more hands-on with the whole process.
Depending on the machine you choose, you’ll need to prepare your grounds, tamp them, determine the right amount of water to use, and then provide any finishing touches you want with the steamed milk.
If that sounds intimidating and you just want a spectacular shot, then be reassured that some machines are “button-press”-friendly. You still get amazing coffee but you don’t have to do as much work.
Whatever approach you take, you get access to so many more coffee-based drinks: lattes, cappuccinos, espresso shots, Americanos and more.
All of the machines in this round-up do a great job of what really matters: making incredible coffee.
You just need to think about what you really want to get out of the experience, and how far you want to develop your skills.
Features to look for
With a few exceptions, these machines aren’t cheap. It pays to pick one that’s well built and has a reputation for durability.
The better the materials used, the longer the machine will carry on providing you with a superior coffee experience.
Easy enough to use?
Regardless of your own current skills, it’s important to check if the machine is relatively easy to use, and not needlessly fussy.
Can you clearly see all the indicator lights? Even if you’re just starting out, do you at least know what all the features are for?
This isn’t an exam, it’s supposed to be fun, satisfying, and rewarding!
In the case of each machine I’ve explained what each feature is designed to do as clearly as possible.
Use this information to determine which machine will be right for you at this stage of your own experience with making coffee.
How’s the grinding?
Some semi-automatic espresso machines come with a built-in grinder, while others don’t.
If you want to grind your own beans, I highly recommend getting a machine with a burr – rather than a blade – grinder. Alternatively you can buy one separately later down the line if you feel it’s really missing from your set-up.
Burr grinders can be a little more expensive, but they produce much more consistent coffee grounds. That just means a better cup of coffee all-round.
Got enough space?
Put simply, the bigger the water boiler your machine has, the less time you’ll have to spend refilling the thing.
I recommend buying one that’s going to be big enough to accommodate the largest gathering you’re likely to host.
Alongside capacity comes the need to check how much space you have in the kitchen.
Unlike simpler, compact coffee brewers, you’re going to need a little more space to work with here.
Check you’ll have enough space to actually add coffee to the machine, and access all sides so it’s not a chore to clean. You’ll likely have this machine for a while, and they’re worth taking care of.
How far can your budget stretch?
Semi-automatic espresso machines typically cost more than your average coffee maker.
If you have very deep pockets, the most advanced machines take care of the nitty-gritty brewing details. You still get to customise your coffee just how you want it, but the actual process of getting that coffee into your cup is much simpler.
As a general rule of thumb, the more expensive machines also tend to be made of sturdier stuff, and have the potential to provide you with years of great service.
If you scale your ambitions down a little, you’ll have to put more effort into getting the grinding and dosing just right. I’d argue though that you’re learning more in the process, so it’s a question of how much control you really want.
Whichever machine you settle on, I find it useful to actually calculate how much money you spend at Starbucks or your local cafe.
You might be surprised at how much those daily coffees really add up to over time, and you’ll make your investment back surprisingly quickly.
Plus you’ll have the satisfaction of developing your coffee skills, and knowing that you can make your perfect coffee any time you want it (and without even getting out of your pyjamas!)
Semi-Automatic Espresso Machine Reviews
Breville machines feature several times in this round-up, and that’s because the company has earned itself a solid track-record when it comes to making exceptionally good espresso machines.
The Barista Touch (or BES880BSS as it’s more formally known) is one of the most popular in the company’s range.
Although you have lots of options to play around with, it’s pretty easy to use. The touchscreen is large and simple to navigate, with options to tweak the grinding, brewing and milk options exactly as you want them.
Once you’ve found a favourite brew, you can then save it for later use. That makes the process even quicker, and I like that different people in my house can have their own preferences ready at a button push.
You can also make fine adjustments to the temperature and texture of the milk, before the machine creates a micro foam of it. This will be particularly beneficial to you if you want to make very rich, very smooth lattes.
Getting the brewing temperature of the espresso just right is vital though if you want to get a truly barista-quality cup of coffee. The Barista Touch uses something called Digital Temperature Control to deliver water through the espresso at a carefully calibrated temperature. The end result is the best possible extraction you could get from that coffee.
Before you get to that point, of course, you need to actually grind your beans. To help with this the Touch draws on its conical burr grinder which ensures an evenly-brewed cup of coffee.
How much coffee can you get from it before a refill though?
The water tank in the Touch maxes out at 67oz. I think that’s good for around eight average cups before you’ll have to top it up. As for the bean hopper you’ll be able to store around half a pound of beans at any given time.
- The milk wand purges itself after each brew so you don’t get any gunk building up.
- Produces consistently good, full-bodied espresso shots.
- An automatic milk frother takes the pain out of one of the fiddlier parts of home coffee-brewing.
- Only takes around three minutes to get the first cup of coffee out of the Touch each morning.
- Looks great and is pretty easy to keep sparkling clean.
- A single boiler means you can’t pull shots and steam the milk at the same time.
- Water reservoir is situated at the rear, which can make it a little tricky to remove and refill.
- A little trial and error is required to get your drink personalised just how you want it.
- Big cups don’t fit under the spout very easily, and you may need to transfer the shot from a smaller cup.
The Barista Express does away with a touchscreen to put you squarely in control of proceedings. This is a great option if you really want maximum control – and responsibility – for the end result!
Again, the Express makes use of a conical burr grinder to help you get a really smooth and rich brew from the machine. You control how much actually goes in using a manual dial at the top of the machine, so you’ll need to experiment a little bit to get things right.
Before the brew actually happens the Express infuses the grind with water at a low pressure. This means the ground coffee is soaked evenly, before it expands to make a rich extraction.
The same temperature control technology of the Barista Touch is also found in the Barista Express. As the coffee is brewed, the heat is adapted to deal with fluctuations. The result? A perfectly balanced cup of coffee.
You can tweak the settings to make either a single or double shot. If you want a faster start to the morning you can amp up with a two shot brew, but wind things down a bit as the day wears on.
You’ll need to go a little more hands-on with the steam wand though. If you want to get that super-smooth micro-foam effect (and perhaps dabble in a little light latte art), you’ll need to spend a fair bit of time practising. Still, that’s half the fun of these things I reckon!
- A high quality machine that will likely provide you with years of service.
- Comes with everything you need right out of the box.
- A fantastic milk frother once you’ve mastered it.
- A clear pressure gauge is a big help in getting your shot just right.
- Can be used as a hot water dispenser if you want to make other drinks like hot chocolate or tea.
- You need to clean all elements regularly for it to keep working to a high standard.
- The frothing cup is a little on the small side, and you may want to pick up a larger one.
- The top and bottom parts of the machine are made of plastic, which detracts from the otherwise elegant design.
- Water tank filter costs can mount up over time, although you can bypass this by using water that’s been filtered by other means.
Delonghi’s EC680M Dedica machine is a much more compact unit than the other machines I’ve reviewed so far. It’s only about 6 inches wide!
That’ll be a big plus if you really struggle for spare countertop space, but don’t want to compromise on your coffee.
The coffee brewed by the EC680M tastes really good. 9 bar pressure is recommended as a minimum for espresso making, and at 15 bar the DEDICA more than delivers on that front.
It also includes technology Delonghi calls Flow Stop. This delivers either one or two shots – and not a drop more – which means the coffee you brew remains consistent in flavour and strength.
There’s no grinder included with this machine though. You’ll have to either buy a separate bean grinder, or use pre-ground coffee instead. Whatever route you take, the machine comes with a multi-size filter which makes it quite easy to set a single or double shot.
Something else to keep in mind is that the milk frother is a completely manual affair.
Make sure you’re ready to work on your foaming skills if you decide to buy this machine. If you are up for the challenge though, you’ll be able to get your milky brews exactly how you want them.
One of the unexpected advantages this machine has over the previous coffee makers in this round-up is its ability to accommodate very tall cups.
The drip tray comes out easily to make a little extra space, although you’ll need to make sure the machine has finished completely if you want to avoid a real mess!
- A super-compact machine that can be accommodated even in tiny kitchens.
- Extremely easy to use, although you will need to spend some time mastering the wand.
- Heats up incredibly quickly, and is ready to brew after around 30-40 seconds of waiting.
- Amazing coffee considering the investment.
- User manual contains a handful of recipes so there’s no excuse not to push yourself!
- I’ve not experienced this myself but some owners have reported problems with the machine leaking over time.
- Although quiet, the machine vibrates quite a lot during the brewing process, which you may find annoying.
- When the machine needs to be descaled, you have to run it through the cycle before brewing again.
- The plastic tamper provided with the DEDICA is a little flimsy and you may feel the need to buy one separately.
At the other end of the spectrum lies De’Longhi’s La Specialists Espresso Machine.
This packs in everything lacking in the DEDICA, including a built-in grinder which monitors the fineness of the grinds throughout the process. That means you get the right amount of coffee each time, and you can be sure that it’s been ground evenly.
If you’re not confident at tamping your coffee with just the right amount of pressure, there’s a lever to the left of the machine which helps you apply the correct amount. There’s also less mess to clean up as a result.
The frothing wand has a couple of settings which are designed for either lattes or cappuccinos.
I think it’s neat that you can start off with these automatic settings while you’re getting used to the machine. Once you’ve observed the process a few times though, you can take over and froth manually.
The Specialista also has two separate tanks. One’s for the water and one’s for the milk, which means you don’t have to wait to steam your milk. This also means that the milk is steamed at the correct temperature.
The water tank can also be used as a hot water dispenser (useful for things like Americanos). If you’re making non-coffee drinks like tea, you also don’t have to worry about any coffee flavour getting mixed in.
Overall I think the Specialista is a great “hand-holding” machine. You get really good coffee from the moment you’ve set it up, but you can take more control as your confidence grows.
- Self-tamping feature will be really helpful for newcomers in particular.
- You can froth your milk and brew your espresso at the same time.
- De’longhi’s YouTube channel is fantastic for getting new owners up to speed.
- Accessories have a real weight to them and they feel very durable.
- A really beautiful-looking espresso machine.
- No water softening filter included, so you’ll need to pick one up. This is particularly important if you live in a hard water area.
- Takes around six minutes to go from putting beans in the grinder to getting a cup.
- Requires regular cleaning to stay in top working condition.
- One of the bigger learning curves of the machines I’ve reviewed.
Breville’s Infuser is another very popular espresso machine.
The main difference between this machine and the other Breville makers is that it doesn’t have a built-in grinder.
If you already have a separate grinder that you’re really happy with then this won’t be a problem. Otherwise you’ll need to either pick one up or be content with using pre-ground coffee.
Despite the absence of a grinder, you’re still getting all the other benefits of buying a Breville espresso machine.
Micro-foam milk texturing is present and correct, you have the easy option of a single or double shot, and that espresso is brewed using the company’s fancy temperature monitoring technology.
In other words, it still makes outstanding espresso coffee. As a bonus, with the Infuser you have more manual control over how much espresso is brewed – you’re not just stuck with standard one or two-shot presets.
Personally – and looking at the machines overall – I prefer the Barista Touch or the Express. If controlling the size of your shot is the most important factor though, then the Infuser is a really good option.
(Take a look at our Breville Infuser review if you’d like to learn more about this machine in detail.)
- Provides fine control over the amount of coffee you can pour.
- Hot water dispenser makes it very easy to produce non-milk coffee drinks.
- Provides lots of learning opportunities – a plus or a minus, depending on how you feel about that!
- Pressure gauge really helps to manage the whole process, and help you get more out of the machine.
- Requires a dedicated, high-quality grinder for best results, and it’ll take you some time to get the quantities just right.
- Oily beans in particular have a tendency to clog the machine up.
- After general use the drip tray fills more quickly than other machines.
- Some owners find the foaming wand to be a little wanting. It really depends on how much fine control you need.
There are actually two machines that I consider my top picks for anyone looking for a semi-automatic espresso machine: the Breville Barista Touch and the Breville Barista Express.
They differ in function, but crucially they both make exceptionally good coffee. They also feature a built-in burr grinder which ensures the coffee is as fresh as it can be from bean to cup.
The Barista Touch lets you customise every aspect of the brew just how you want it, but handles the heavy-lifting after that. If you’re not fussed about manually controlling the actual brew – and don’t mind paying a premium – it’s an excellent choice. Click here to find out more and read owner reviews.
The Barista Express, on the other hand, puts you firmly at the controls. It’s a great option if you want more manual control over the whole process, and you’ve also got one eye on your budget at the same time. Click here for more details on this very popular machine.
Which machine did you pick in the end? I’d love to hear how you’ve been getting on with it in the comments!