There is a difference between handcrafted espresso and espresso made with an automatic machine. Although automatic machines can extract quickly and efficiently, they are the kiss o death to truly great espresso. The very best espresso will always be done by hand by a knowledgeable barista…
Around 2009, Starbucks swapped out their hand pull machines for automatic machines. These same types of machines are in the McDonalds that serve espresso drinks. Most of the coffee huts still use hand pull machines (the automatic machines are not cheap). I don’t know of any quality sit-down coffee house that uses the automatic machines. As a consumer, the easiest way to tell what you’re getting is to look at the top of the espresso machine: an automatic espresso machine will have coffee beans on the top of it.
Here are the pluses of the automatic machines: they are an all-in-one machine, which grinds the beans, doses the shot and pulls the shot. It is easy for these machines to do either a single shot, or a double or a triple. Basically the barista pushes a button and “magic” happens inside the machine. The best upside of the automatic machines is there are typically no terrible shots. A well maintained automatic machine will usually do far better than a bad barista.
Here are the pluses to handcrafted espresso: a real person grinds the beans, doses and packs the portafilter and extracts the espresso. A good barista watches every shot and is always asking what can be done to maximize the quality of the shot. Many adjustments are made during any shift. A little more here, a little longer there, etc. In the hands of a bad barista, a hand pull machine may pull bad shots (sour, bitter, burnt), but in the hands of a well trained barista, the hand pull machine will extract the best espresso possible given the beans on hand.
If we made a graph, the automatic machine would have shots in the fair to middle range, while hand pull shots would have a much greater range between possibly very nasty to exceptionally marvelous. See, it depends on the quality of the barista. If you own 700 coffeehouses, you probably want to take the barista out of the equation. But an informed barista at a quality shop will outshine the automatic every time.