The first thing you need to do with this machine when you pull it out of the box is prime it. It's been reported online that there is some difficulty with this, and my machines were no exception. I followed the manual instructions to the letter, but still the pump was running dry and no water would flow. So I called a Saeco professional, and they told me that, due to the nature of some two way action inside the machine, sometimes you need to "kickstart" the water flow by physically slamming the full reservoir into place. So I did it, and sure enough, the priming worked.
If you do this, use some common sense - don't do it so hard that you'll break the thing. (ed.note: it is tricky. I recently pulled one of the machines out again, and couldn't get it filled. Letting it sit for half a day (turned off), made it fill, after my frustrated attempts)
The Café Express / Via Veneto heats up very fast. This is due to the very small boiler inside, powered by a decent heating coil. In my tests, it took on average 1 minute and 29 seconds to heat up to shot ready status from cold.
The boiler is small (see internal photos). Because of this, flowrates before the boiler needs to kick on again are short - about 2 ounces, give or take a few mls. If you're pulling a normal double (3 oz) of espresso, this could pose a problem, and does in my testing. Shorts (2oz doubles) are fine in the temperature department.
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| Interior of the Saeco Via Veneto / Melitta Cafe Express, showing the small boiler, the thermostat hookups on top, the brass line to the steam wand, assorted wires and tubes. |
| Other side of the interior, showing small boiler and line from the pump to the boiler. Don't be put off by the plastic tube - this is par for the course in most home machines. The brass lines are cool. |
| Here's two of my fingers (normal sized fingers, I think :-)) to use as a comparison to see how small this boiler is. |
| Here's the bottom feed tubing. Note the t-valve, which is only used as a pressure relief by the machine when it cools down (and things contract). This is standard in most pump-based espresso machines. |
One big surprise for me was when I opened the machine up for a little sniffing around. As I cracked open the case, staring right at me was a Ulka 41W vibratory pump - the very same pump that sits inside the Rancilio Silvia! I wouldn't have guessed it because the machine "sounds" different from my Silvia in operation. With this kind of pump doing the hard work, I was even more hard pressed to understand why the machine is sold with a pressurized portafilter. Convenience, convenience, convenience, I suppose.
| Holy crap Batman! The exact same pump as the Silvia! And at $45USD for a replacement, nearly worth the entire cost of the Melitta machine! This was the best surprise of the machine for me, and it also tells me that the Melitta / Saeco doesn't need a stinkin' pressurized portafilter or crema enhancer. |
The portafilter, as previously mentioned, is a pressurized unit that also houses a crema enhancing rubber disc with the typical micro hole passage. In my opinion, this degrades every shot produced by the machine, but I will write more on this in the Shot Quality section. The operation of the portafilter is consistent - activate the pump, no water comes through the portafilter until a mechanically controlled pressure is reached in the group, then espresso flows out in a thick, consistent stream. The start of the shots look great, but the finish is poor and frothed. But you get what apparently the market demands: since pressurized, crema enhancing portafilters were designed to give you consistency to people not concerned with things like fresh beans and proper grinding, you get consistency, at least in the visual sense.
To switch to steaming, you activate the steam switch, and you should bleed off some excess water from the boiler to give a bit of headspace for more steam production. I've found this unit only makes great steam when the boiler is actively working - it quickly peters out when it is not. I will cover more details on steaming below.
An undocumented (in the Melitta manual) feature of this machine is it can deliver hot water through the steam wand. There is a pressure valve inside the machine that, when the steam wand knob is open, will redirect boiler water through the wand. This is great for preheating cups, making (small) hot chocolates, americanos, and the like. Even, ugh, tea I suppose :-). Close the wand, and soon water will come out of the brewhead. Read more about this in the steaming and frothing section below.
Recovery time on the machine is fast, but to be expected with such a small boiler.
Ahh, crema enhancers.
I have not met one that I like. But I have seen some better than others. The Melitta's crema enhancing portafilter design starts off producing a visually pleasing shot, but the end always seems so artificial. If you checked out the top photo on the previous page, you will see what I mean.
In the cup, the shot is what I would call average. Not great, not perfect, but not as bad as some other machines I've tried. The initial sip is always the best, but the shots always seem to end bitter on the tongue. I've used identical beans (and near identical grind) in a side by side with the Silvia, and the Silvia shots were deep, rich, and relatively clean finishing where the Melitta always, without exception, ended bitter.
| Brewhead with standard quality dispersion screen in place. |
| Brewhead with screen removed, showing rubber gasket that sits partially under the screen. |
We are dealing with different volumes here (14 grams for the Melitta, 16.5 grams for the Rancilio), but I also poured shorter shots with the Melitta to compensate.
Bitter is so subjective, so I'll try to bring a bit more clarity - I cannot call these "bad shots" because I've had far worse. The bitterness is the kind that makes you pull a face, but not much of a face, if that makes any sense.
And bitter in some cases can be good. Take cappuccinos for example. Because milk is so strong in affecting the taste of a cappuccino, a little bitterness in a shot can be a good thing, because it fights with the milk's natural sweetness to bring out a complex finish to every mouthful. I actually think that a typical cappuccino produced on the Melitta is a hair better than the typical cappuccino on the Rancilio Silvia for this very reason. I will discuss this more in the frothing section.
And for the last words on the Melitta's shot quality - a word on convenience. As I mentioned above in the Operation section, inventions like crema enhancers were built because the general public doesn't want to concern themselves with ultra fresh roasted coffee, grind adjustments, and grinding just before your shot. At least thats what the manufacturers think. So various manufacturers come up with devices like crema enhancers, pressurized portafilters (look ma, no tamping!) and froth aiders. In this reviewer's opinion, all these devices may make it easier to brew a shot, but they don't produce better shots. They produce what I call "espresso eye-candy", or visually good looking shots.
The crema enhancing aspect of the Via Veneto degrades the shot, and if you are concerned with this, seek out the non-pressurized, standard portafilter for this machine. Make sure your beans are fresh, grind only before brewing, and adjust your grind and tamp as necessary, and you'll get killer, crema filled shots you'll be happy with. The machine is definitely powerful enough, and for short shots, hot enough.
Steaming, Frothing, Hot Water
The Melitta / Saeco unit ships with Saeco's patented Panarello frothing aid. You can also order their "Cappucinatore" attachment that fully automates the act of frothing milk.
The Panarello is a two part device that includes an inner tube with a channel-narrowing exit hole and an outer part that draws air through a pinhole at the top to facilitate frothing. I own several versions of this device - the plastic one that shipped with the Melitta, and a chrome version that came with another machine. I can say the chrome version works much better than the plastic one. I think with temperature changes and the viscosity of milk, the plastic version's pinhole clogs up under most uses, rendering the frothing ability useless. The chrome one seems to do a better job.
That said, it's a frothing aid, and you don't need it. Especially since without the aid, this machine is definitely capable of producing the holy grail of frothing: microfoam. Frothing is easy with a bit of practice. The one thing I recommend is keep the inner tube part, and keep it attached to the steam wand, which is too short without this tube. The inner tube actually produces a better steam jet than without, but make sure you tighten the top knurled plastic cap or it will shoot off your steaming wand.
Because of this machine's small boiler size, you need to keep the boiler heating element active while steaming. I have found that if you let the machine go to "ready" for steaming, (ie the lamp comes on), you will get a progressively weaker steam until the boiler starts working again.. Here's the trick to getting great steam from this machine.
First activate the steam switch, bleed off some top water in the boiler, (do this by opening the steam valve / knob), then wait for the machine to be "ready" (ie, the light goes on). Then open the knob, steaming into the drip tray. Watch as it weakens Eventually the boiler light will go off again, indicating the heating element is again active. Almost immediately, the steam pressure builds up. At this stage, I start steaming, hoping that light won't come back on :-)
Using this method, I've been able to produce some great microfoam, and it takes about 40 seconds to steam about 6.5 ounces of milk, enough for two cappas, and get a LOT of foam build up.
There is also one undocumented trick to this machine. When in normal brew operation (ie, steam switch is off), if you activate the pump switch and open the steaming knob, hot water will come out of the wand. Close the knob, and a pressure release valve will redirect the boiler water to the brewhead - ta da - hot water dispensing! Use it to make americanos, hot chocolate, tea, etc.
There are a few limitations to take into consideration - the small boiler size means you will not get a consistent temperature stream through the wand. Take a note of the side column that details flow rates and temperatures. The way I've found around this is to barely open the steam valve. This way, boiler water still comes through the steam tube instead of the brewhead, but at such a low flowrate, the water temps can remain consistent as the hot boiler water is being replaced with cold reservoir water and heated up. Note, you should try to do this hot water dispensing only when the heating element in the boiler is active (signified by the pump switch light being off).