I've recently been in conversation with a shop owner about transitioning from using a semi-automatic espresso machine to a fully-automatic one. For the lay-barista, a semi-automatic machine basically means that the machine has a pump on the inside that pushes water through it. Believe it or not, in the olden days of yor, espresso machines had big levers that pushed water through them and, subsequently, into your espresso cup. Nowadays, most machines are automated in some way. A fully-automatic machine does everything besides shine your shoes. The coffee is put into a hopper on top and the machine grinds the beans, doses the right amount, presses the grounds down evenly, and pushes hot water through said grounds.
On the surface it may seem as if the fully-automatic machine would be the most highly sought-after type by baristas, but baristas are a hipster bunch and the automatic is way too "in" to be cool. This is one of the few areas in which I totally agree with the hipsters (in case you were wondering). I cannot stomach the thought of using a "super-automatic" to serve real customers and, while I agree that electronics really clutter up the retro feel of an espresso machine, I have a few other reasons as well.
What if you went to your favorite bar with your buddies on a Friday night looking to have a good time. Well, maybe to hit on Jonny's hot friend, but you can't say that out loud because he's already made it clear that she is off-limits and, while you respect Jonny, you're planning on hitting on her after a few drinks and blaming the alcohol. The point being that you're at a bar. So you coolly stride over to the counter and order an Appletini (don't judge). Then the bartender turns toward a large machine, puts a glass under a spout at the bottom, presses a button, and a thick green liquid oozes into your glass. The bartender then turns to you and says, "that will be five dollars, please." If you felt a turn in your stomach just now, I can explain why. Number one, when I order my Appletini at a bar, I expect the bartender to take the time and energy necessary to convince me that they are performing a magical ritual to summon my drink into existence. Two, there is something about an automatic drink-making machine that says to me, "you just paid five dollars for an extended stay on the toilet in about three hours." These same principles are at work, believe it or not, every time somebody serves you or me from an automatic machine at an espresso bar.
The reason that a similar feeling of dread doesn't come over us when our barista employs the same "insert cup, press button" strategy of drink making is also two-fold. First, the shops that use these machines don't typically design them so customers can see how the drink is being made. Secondly (and probably more importantly), most people don't have any conception of how good it could and should be. Most of our collective experience with coffee revolves around grandma and grandpa's canned coffee or a chain store's version of a latte made of 80 percent sugar, 10 percent bad coffee, and 10 percent mystery ingredient. The fact of the matter is that there are coffee shops that not only have great coffee but employ baristas that create drink magic and make five dollars seem like a great deal. Bottom line: I don't like fully-automatic espresso machines and do yourself a favor: the next time you have to have a Caramel Macchiato, spend a little time finding a great shop that doesn't make you pay five dollars for a trip to the restroom.