Maintained by Michal Young. Please send corrections, additional information, and comments to email@example.com. While I attempt to keep this information as accurate as possible, it is unlikely to be perfect; I ask your patience and help in improving it.
A "semi-commercial" or "semi-professional" espresso machine is a machine for use in a home, office, or small restaurant. Its general characteristics are:
I use the terms "semi-commercial" and "commercial" in what I believe to be their most widely accepted meanings, but beware: Some distributors use the term "semi-commercial" or even "small commercial" for machines that I call home machines, and some use the term "small commercial" for machines I call semi-commercial.
The critical feature which separates semi-commercial machines from good single-boiler home machines like the Rancilio Audrey and Baby Gaggia is the heat exchanger. The difference is more important for steamed milk drinks than for straight shots of espresso. When you make a capuccino with a single-boiler home machine, you must either wait for the boiler to heat up after brewing the espresso, or wait for it to cool down after steaming the milk (generally the latter is better, since milk stays hot longer than espresso stays fresh). With a semi-commercial machine, you can steam milk and brew espresso with no delay, even simultaneously. This is especially useful for entertaining, when you need to make several coffees in a short period of time.
A semi-commercial machine is distinguished from a full commercial machine primarily by the pump. A semi-commercial machine typically (always, as far as I know) has a vibratory pump. A full commercial machine has a rotary vane pump, which is much larger, more powerful, and (of course) more expensive. Small commercial machines will also typically have a larger boiler and will be plumbed to the water line, although it is possible to find commercial machines that draw from a reservoir (typically for use in an espresso cart) and some semi-commercial home machines can be plumbed to the water lines. Semi-commercial machines typically cost between $1000 and $2000, while the smallest full-commercial, semi-automatic machines start around $3000.
Some semi-commercial machines stress "automatic everything," which may be useful in an office environment in which the machine is apt to be used without supervision by complete idiots. The term used for these is generally "fully automatic." While "fully automatic" is not a precise term, and is used inconsistently in product literature, it generally implies
In addition, some fully automatic machines provide
All of these features are suited to an environment in which coffee will be made by people who have no idea what they are doing. As we have learned from Dilbert, offices are full of people who have no idea what they are doing in general, and it seems logical to presume that they are equally lost when it comes to making coffee. For home use, however, a semi-automatic machine is usually more appropriate.
In a semi-automatic machine, the amount of water used for brewing an espresso is determined by the user, who starts and stops the water flow. The user also doses and disposes of coffee grounds, and steams milk in a pitcher using a steam wand. A semi-automatic machine may still have many automatic features, and in particular it should automatically refill the boiler using water from a reservoir. (Some semi-commercial machines are directly connected to a water supply, but this is less common.) Semi-automatic machines are well-suited to home use. A user who is enthusiastic enough about coffee to buy a semi-commercial machine is presumably willing also to learn to use and maintain it. It is no more difficult to use a semi-commercial machine than to use a typical good home machine. In fact, because the semi-commercial machine is self-priming and includes a pressure release valve, and because steaming and brewing are independent, it is a good deal easier to use proficiently than a home machine that lacks these features.
If you are looking for a semi-commercial espresso machine for use at home or in an office, you will find less reference material available online than for either home machines or commercial machines. Here you will find a bit of information and some links that I gathered while researching my own purchase of a semi-commercial espresso machine, and some provided by readers of this page (hint, hint). I would like to include links and descriptions of additional machines in this category; please contact me if you have information that could be included, or if you have any corrections, comments, or suggestions for improving this information.
This is the machine I own, and I am very happy with it. I started researching semi-commercial machines when my Baby Gaggia was in for repairs at Home Espresso Repair of Seattle, WA; they did a great job and my fully repaired Baby is now destined to be the machine in my office. Figuring that an espresso repair-person would know as much as anyone about the quality of construction of various machines, I asked what she recommended. Her recommendation of the Pasquini Livia 90 was confirmed by a small handful of Pasquini owners who responded to a query that I placed on the coffee newsgroups, one of whom also tipped me off to a very good price on the Livia 90 at Zabars in New York. The price ($800 + $80 shipping; you won't find it at that price today) was so much better than alternatives that, with some trepidation, I ordered the machine sight-unseen from Zabars. I have not regretted it. This is a very fine machine.
This is a machine that has received very favorable reviews. ECM also makes some other semi-commercial machines (Giotto II, Boticelli, Boticelli II), but I have not seen them advertised or heard from people who own them.
Salvatore is an Italian living and making espresso machines in Santa Barbara, California. He makes both semi-automatic and fully automatic machines, and they can be plumbed in if you like. Prices run a little higher than some of the larger commercial manufacturers, but I've received a few very positive reports from customers. Also they make some very stylishly designed machines, if you care about that sort of thing.
Less expensive than the typical semi-commercial machine, and likely the lowest cost true semi-commercial machine available. The body construction is mostly plastic rather than metal. At last check, this is the semi-commercial machine that Zabars is currently selling (they used to sell Pasquini Livia 90 and later ECM Giotto).
I don't know much of anything about these. Anyone?
Strictly speaking, these are Brugnetti machines; Europa is the U.S. importer. Last I checked, prices were $1200 for semi-automatic and $1600 for fully automatic. They lack a hot water dispenser for making tea, but feature a pressure gauge.
I believe Starbucks either carries or used to carry a semi-commercial machine from Brasilia. I don't know much about it; the espresso repair person I spoke to knew the Brasilia machines but preferred the Pasquini.
If you own a semi-commercial, semi-automatic espresso machine, please send me any information you have. I believe there are a lot of coffee enthusiasts who, like me (and you?) are ready to make the investment in a machine of this caliber, and who need more information to help them choose wisely.
Many people have sent me corrections and additions to the information here. Thank you! I'm sorry that I haven't kept good enough records to thank all of you.