Do you treat your espresso machine like a magic black box? Add water, press button, await glorious caffeinated goodness?

What if I told you it’s to your advantage to know how your espresso machine works? It’ll help you troubleshoot problems, shop wisely in the future, and might even improve your espresso!

So keep reading as we pry open the black box and find out what’s really going on in there.

How does an automatic espresso machine work

What defines an automatic espresso machine?

If you’ve ever shopped for an automatic espresso machine, you’ve probably found yourself confused by terminology like automatic, fully automatic, super-automatic, and semi-automatic.

There are slight differences between each of these types of espresso machines, but they all have one thing in common. They all use a motorized pump to generate pressure to pull an espresso.

That’s what distinguishes them from manual machines where the barista needs to pressurize the machine by hand.

Follow the water

The easiest way to understand your espresso machine’s working is to follow the water path after you add it to the reservoir. Its first stop is the pump.

There are two main types of pumps. A vibratory pump relies on electric current to move a piston and force water through. A rotary pump uses a motor to spin a disk to generate the pressure. Each has pros and cons.

Vibratory pumps are smaller and less expensive. They’re more common in home espresso machines. Rotary pumps are quieter, last longer, and produce more consistent pressure. They’re often found in commercial espresso machines.

To the boiler!

Once the water is pressurized, it’s held in the boiler. In there, a heating element gets it to the correct temperature for espresso, around 200 ℉ (1). Most espresso machines have a feedback system using a temperature probe that keeps the water at the right temperature until you’re ready to pull an espresso.

The grouphead: where the magic happens.

The grouphead is where the hot pressurized water meets the tamped grounds in the filter basket and produces the espresso’s sweet elixir. For a great espresso, you need an excellent grouphead:

Great espresso machines remove themselves from the equation by delivering water to coffee at a predictable pressure and temperature.

So, good pressure and high temperature are KING. But that’s not all.

In a semi-automatic machine, you’re responsible for the timing of this stage. You start and stop the extraction. This stage is automated in a fully automatic or super-automatic espresso machine—a flow meter gauges when to stop the shot.

A side trip to the steam wand

If you prefer lattes or cappuccinos, your espresso machine probably has a steam wand.

The water used for pulling an espresso shot isn’t hot enough to be steam, so the steam wand complicates things.

There are two leading solutions. In a single boiler machine, the boiler has two thermostats, one for steaming and one for brewing.

That means you can’t froth milk and pull espresso at the same time.

For impatient drinkers, more expensive dual boiler machines have separate boilers for brewing and milk frothing.

Final Thoughts

I hope that was entertaining and informative. Go forth with this knowledge. Use it to make smart buying decisions and brew better espresso. Or just impress your friends with your wisdom at the next brunch.


Espresso machines are expensive because they need precision to deliver stable and reliable temperature and pressure. Also, the span of cost for espresso machines is pretty broad. So, there’s a machine for everyone’s pocket.

The difference between a manual vs automatic espresso machine is that the former uses a motorized pump to generate pressure while the latter requires it to be done by hand. Clearly, an automatic machine is more convenient, which is why this is the most usual choice for home or office coffee machine.

With a semi-automatic espresso machine, the barista is in charge of shot timing. Compared to a semi automatic, a fully automatic machine uses a flow meter to automatically stop the shot. Super-automatic espresso machines do most of the work for you, including grinding, tamping, dosing, and even milk frothing.


  1. Easthope, A. (2015, April 8). Brew Temperature and its Effects on Espresso. Retrieved from


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