What’s a Super-Automatic?
The super-automatic revolution took the espresso machine market by storm in the late nineties... Well that's not exactly true. Rather than a storm, it was more like a sprinkle. Over the past few years, however, interest in super-automatic espresso machines has evolved into a full-blown deluge. This phenomenon has led coffee machine manufacturers to race to make new and fully-feature packed models with additions ranging from temperature selection, to cup size, to customized drink programs, to talking instructions!
Yet, it may not be clear to folks just getting into the espresso scene what a super-automatic is, or what distinguishes it from mere automatics, semi-automatics, or manuals. For the remainder of this article, we'll focus on the essential features of a super-automatic.
Automatic Espresso Machines
What's a super man? It's a man with lots of special powers. Similarly, a super-automatic espresso machine is an automatic espresso machine with lots of special features. One of the necessary conditions is apparent. A super automatic machine is also an automatic machine.
An automatic machine is one which will brew an exact amount of espresso at the push of a button. This amount is determined by either time or water amount. So, for instance, button A is pressed and one and one half ounces of water are dispensed through the grounds. Button B is pressed, and two and one half ounces are dispensed, etc. Necessarily, an automatic espresso machine is able to start and quit dispensing a pre-set water amount with the push of exactly one button.
This single push was a great improvement upon the so-called semi-automatic espresso machines which would be able to begin brewing at the push of a button, but did not quit after a preset time or amount of water.
So, "automatics" brew the right espresso drink at the push of one button. But then, what more is left in order for something to qualify as a super-automatic, no buttons? Well, maybe in the future machines will be able to read our minds or recognize our vocal algorithms, but not yet. There are other features that make an automatic a super-automatic.
First off, super-automatic espresso machines can take beans, not just the ground coffee powder. Of course it is no surprise, then, that the super-automatic also grinds the beans. Now, some machines have a bypass funnel, or bypass doser, which allows you to put ground espresso into an entry, bypassing the beans which the machine usually grinds. At any rate, it is clear now that super-automatic machines are ones which will grind your beans for you at the push of a button. Also necessary for a machine being a super-automatic is that it is possible that just by pushing this button which grinds the beans, the entire brew cycle will follow; no additional buttons need to be pressed.
A super-automatic machine must also tamp the espresso prior to water's passing through it. It's not as difficult a mechanism as one might think, if you remember that many folks who hand-tamp their espresso wind up applying too much pressure. The point is, it is not a terribly great amount of pressure that needs to be applied to the grounds in tamping, but a super-automatic does this itself. This happens after the grounds are received from the bean hopper.
What we mean by “brew head” is the assembly which delivers coffee from the brew group into the cup. A “brew group” is the unit that passes water through the espresso grounds. In machines with porta-filters, a slotted metal basket, which is attached to a handle assembly, holds the coffee grounds and fits into the brew group. The handle assembly which holds this basket has a spout at the bottom of it which delivers the brewed coffee into a mug. In the case of a super-automatic, on the other hand, there is no porta-filter; rather, the ground beans are dumped into a chamber which has hot water run through it. A hose delivers the brewed coffee from this chamber to a head on the unit, and out a spout, into a mug.
For a machine to be a super-automatic, therefore, a necessary condition is that the brew head need not be removed each time a new espresso is brewed. Compare this to traditional porta-filter machines which require that the porta-filter is removed, the used grounds dumped, then refilled for another shot.
Speaking of used grounds, If I don't dump them from the porta-filter into a knock box, what happens in the super-automatic? In the case of a super-automatic, just as the grinding and tamping and brewing process is automatic, so too is the disposal of the grounds. Used grounds, which are now firmly packed with moisture into the consistency of a crumbly cookie, are emptied into a receptacle bin for easy removal. In the case of Capresso machines, a plastic knife slices the cookie in half prior to dumping, so that the dump box will not fill as quickly with unwieldy cookies. Remember, all of the conditions above are satisfied by the pressing of one button.
And everything else
So far as JL Hufford is concerned, that's it for a strict definition of a super-automatic espresso machine. However, there are many non-essential attributes which are commonly associated with these machines as well.
First, some super-automatics have a purge cycle which is a period during which hot water is purged from the machine after the steam wand is used. This is necessary to pull water from the boiler that is still at the water steaming temp. Water used for brewing is brought up to a different (lower) temperature. So, the purging allows fresh water to go into the boiler to be heated up to brewing temperature only. Super-automatics without this feature usually are without it because of two heating elements, as opposed to one. In the case of dual heating elements, there is one heating element whose thermostat makes sure that the water it heats is one temperature for brewing, and another element whose thermostat makes sure that the water it heats is another temperature for steaming. Single element machines that don't require purging are also available.
Second, given that the entire espresso-making process is automated, it is likely that your super-automatic will have some of the following variable drink features: temperature control (usually one of two or three options), a second bean hopper (usually an extra one for decaf), water quantity control (an often programmable feature for determining how much water will be passed through the coffee grounds), a doubler button (which usually doubles both the water quantity and the coffee amount quantity or only the water quantity), a coffee amount control (an often programmable feature which determines how much ground coffee will be used in the espresso drink), a steam amount control (a sometimes programmable feature which is usually time-based, used to control for how long steam comes out of the wand), a cup warmer (an option hardly as effective as rinsing your mug with steamed water), auto-on, auto-off, constant on (on 24 hours without needing to be shut off), and programmable drinks (i.e. single espresso shot, double shot, cup of Americano, and-in the case of units that have auto-frothers whose dispensers are located in or near the brew head-cappucino, latte, and macchiato).
Next, it is possible to hook some super-automatics up to an automatic refill device which allows for direct plumbing in to a local water delivery pipe. In addition, some units have knock-out areas for adding a drain hose for expelling water into a bucket or even a local carriage drain.
Also, most super-automatics have a rinse cycle which gets the grounds and excess water out of the hoses and brew group. In addition, many super-automatics will indicate when it's time to rinse the machine, and many will automatically rinse it under given circumstances (turn on, turn off, after a certain time increment, etc.).
Rinsing a super-automatic is very important, but there are other essential steps in proper super-automatic maintenance. First, many super automatics have a water filter, usually some variation on the traditional charcoal cotton assembly, which is responsible for removing elements which could harm both the machine and the taste of the coffee. These filters need to be changed periodically. In machines with an automatic change filter indicator, after a certain number of cycles, the machine indicates that it is time to change the filter.
Next, super-automatics require periodic cleanings, both to remove debris from the water hoses and to remove debris from the milk delivery system. Many units now have built-in friendly automatic cleaning indicators, which serve as reminders for when it is time to clean the machine. This cleaning is usually done with tablets that dissolve in the water and course through the necessary hoses and apertures. Other units require a separate cleaning for the automatic milk frother. This is usually done with hot water and soap, but there are also cappuccino cleaners available in liquid form.
Finally, super-automatics, like all coffee machines, have need for descaling, even if you are using a water filter automatic descale indicator, which will let you know when it's time to descale.
Well, that's a pretty thorough brief, so far as briefs go. There are other additions to super-automatics, like swivel bases and slide-out tray bases. And, some can even be connected to the Internet in order to download recipes. No doubt, just like the Internet, by the time I quit typing, there will be much to update regarding these revolutionary devices. In the meantime, we'll keep researching, and you keep asking us questions!