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the first look - gaggia classic
Gaggia Classic First Look
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: January 11, 2003
First Look rating: 9.0
feedback: (12) comments | read | write
Gaggia Label

The Gaggia comes in a flashy, full color box that highlights various parts of the machine. I liked and didn't like the packaging: I liked the side photos that showed the consumer what a pump was, how the controls were laid out, and a variety of drinks that could be built. I didn't like the photo of milk frothing (the bubbles were huge - think soap bubbles you blow through a stick!), and the machine pictured on the front of the box is not the same machine inside, cosmetically, at least. Gaggia, if this is going to hit retailer shelves again, needs to update the main product shot. It's not something I'd be upset about - what's missing is the Gaggia oldskool logo (which I personally think is kind of ugly), but who knows - joe average consumer might get miffed.

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Gaggia needs to hire a better food prep photog. That foam is scary. Click it!

The machine is packed very well. A few machines I've received recently could stand to be better packed, but the Gaggia isn't one of them - the form foam skeleton around the machine keeps it stable and secure, and the portafilter is completely separate from the machine - it's on the lid portion of the styro.

Taking the machine out, you see the what's in the box - double and single filters, portafilter, tamper (yep, the same cheap plastic one every machine from $150 to $2000 and more seems to ship with), portafilter, manual, and a little rubber disk. What's the rubber disk for? If I didn't know from previous research, I would have guessed it was a blind filter for doing some machine backflushing (you can "backflush" a 3-way solenoid equipped espresso machine by putting in a solid filter (no holes), turning on the pump, and building up pressure in the grouphead / portafilter. When you kill the brew switch, all that pressurized water wooshes down the instant pressure release through the solenoid. This flushes your grouphead, cleaning the machine). But the black disk is Gaggia's crema enhancer. A word of advice: put it in the back of your loose-items kitchen drawer and forget about it.

The Classic is often compared to the Rancilio Silvia, a machine that is in the same price range and has many equivalent features. We'll be doing a FR and DR on the Silvia soon (I'm not writing it; someone else is), and we may also do a head to head down the road against these two machines. But for now, I will rely on my memories of using a Silvia - I owned one for two years. Out of the box, I noticed things that were sometimes better, sometimes not so better than the Silvia:

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Reservoir lid on the Classic
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Removing the lid shows a whide pour chute, that goes inside the machine down to the reservoir
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Drip tray depth is substantial, but I can't figure out the sub "splash guard" that can easily be removed.
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Reservoir can be removed, if you take the portafilter off and remove the solenoid pipe.
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Grouphead and portafilter are chromed brass, but there's an aluminum boiler above it all.
  • Housing - Both the Silvia and Classic have a metal body, but I have to say I like the brushed nickel on the Gaggia Classic better. The Silvia's housing is thicker and more durable though.

  • Cup Area - The Classic's cup are is smaller than the Silvia's. Not by much, but one or two less cup spaces.

  • Drip Tray and Pan - Silvia wins here hands down - the Gaggia's drip tray cover is metal, but the pan itself is plastic. It is fairly deep. The Silvia's drip pan is solid metal, but shallower than the Classic's version. I measured the Gaggia drip pan to hold a whopping 685ml. For a solenoid equipped machine, a deep drip pan is a must.

  • Water Reservoir - this one's a tough call - the Silvia's reservoir holds more (if memory serves), but the Gaggia's reservoir is very easy to see visually (water remaining) and easy to fill. I'll give the nod to the Gaggia.

  • Portafilter - the Gaggia's portafilter is heavier than the Silvia's (more metal), but the Silvia PF is more "pro-like" in that it has proper, removable spouts, has a nice rounded handle that seems dense (thick), and feels good in the hand. The Gaggia's PF has a boxy, cheap feeling handle, and built in double spouts. Both have retention springs, and both use 58mm filter baskets. However, the Gaggia doesn't like some of my aftermarket filters, whereas the Silvia can use almost all of them.

  • Grouphead - though both are good, I'm guessing early on Silvia will win in this regard - why? The Gaggia Classic uses an aluminum block boiler, where the Silvia uses a brass one. Why is this important? Brass will transmit more retention heat to the grouphead than a alum one will. Grouphead heat is very important to the quality of a good espresso shot.

  • Misc items - On visual inspection (remember, I haven't used the machine at this point), there are other little things that differentiate the two competing machines. One is the steam knob - on the Silvia, it is front mounted, and the same dense plastic used in the portafilter handle. The Gaggia's is side mounted, and feels like cheaper plastic, and has some flex. I like the plug option on the Gaggia - it can disengage from the body, much like the three prong plug on a computer, The Silvia's is more like commercial machines - hard, comes from under the body, and sometimes hard to "shape" around corners and curves. The switches - again, I like the Silvia's use of more commercial-style switches than Gaggia's consumer-style version. But I like the simple layout of the Gaggia's controls. And frothing wand - the Silvia has a no nonsense, traditional steaming wand. The Gaggia has their gimmick-device, called a turbofroth. Fortunately, you can remove the outer tube and have a single hole, steam wand that is a bit short, but should do the job.

Some other observations exclusive to the Gaggia - there's a plastic covering on the top drip tray which you should remove - it's there to protect the shiny metal. The solenoid's release tube has to be removed if you want to remove the water reservoir - it's not hard to do though. All you need to do is pull it straight down, and it pops out. Put it back in place before you use the machine again.

The drip tray also has a plastic flat insert that is only millimeters below the top metal grate - I'm not sure the purpose of that, but I took it out - it's not necessary for the operation of the machine, and with it gone, you can see the volume of water in the drip pan much easier.

The brushed nickel housing is nice to look at, and resists fingerprints. The machine has nice angles, but definitely looks like a home, consumer machine, albeit an upscale one. The weight of the machine is what I'd call nice - not very heavy, but not a toy weight either.

Next up for me was setting the machine up, reading the manual, and getting the machine ready to go.

First Use

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As always, the mantra around these offices is RTFM, or Read the Flickin' Manual. So many problems can be solved if you just do this - you wouldn't believe how close the answers to many questions are! :). What's an extra bonus is the 'worth it's weight in gold' bonus Guide to Gaggia that Whole Latte Love includes with the machine.

The Gaggia Classic's own product manual is well written, slightly sparse, but full of good info. I did find I had to read it a couple of times to "get" certain quirks about the Classic. But the WLL Guide to Gaggia is a must read, and in fact, it's my opinion this is a document even worth paying for. It covers every aspect that would otherwise intimidate the espresso newbie, including a primer on what espresso is, how to get a perfect shot, how to foam and froth, and even how to maintain and care for the machines. There's trouble shooting tips, detailed diagrams of all the machines in the Gaggia lineup, and even talk about accessories and some espresso drinks and recipes to get you going. This booklet was excellent, and it's something that adds value to your purchase - it's almost as if Whole Latte Love is trying to put me out of a job here! (and hey, who's the guy who pushes "espresso is part art, part science" anyway, damnit!).

So once I got myself prepped with the product manual and Whole Latte Love's Guide to Gaggia, I set the machine up to run. The reservoir was removed and rinsed, and fresh water was added. The machine was plugged in, and I opened up the steam wand and hit the brew switch. And I noticed that water... was coming out... of both the steam wand and grouphead. Okay… back to the manual. Hrmm, to get hot water, you have to activate BOTH the steam switch and brew switch, while opening the steam wand. I tried that - and it worked - this time, water only came out of the steam wand. But this was a bit weird. Waitasec, didn't I read about this in the manual and guide?

So before pulling a shot, I learned the first "quirk" of the machine. Not necessarily bad, but a quirk - to get hot water from the machine you have to activate both the steam switch and the brew switch. It's not so bad on the Classic - the switches are flush against each other. But it was something that isn't 100% apparent from the manual until you re read it a few times. Fortunately, Whole Latte Love's own guide covers this clearly.

With the machine set up and primed manually, I waited to see how long it would get the boiler up to pressure. It's not long at all - the massive wattage this machine draws gets the boiler up to brewing temperatures in about one and a half minutes. Getting the rest of the machine up to operating temperature would take a bit more time. This is normal for machines with a lot of brass.

For my first grind, I tried one that was slightly coarser than the one I use for my Pasquini Livia. The first shot was a wash - I tuned the grind too coarse. I adjusted the Mazzer Mini and tried again. My second shot was much nicer, with a good flow, albeit still a bit too fast.

The third shot, with a slightly adjusted grind (very, very slight), a firmer tamp and more grounds was really nice - nice enough in the look to try drinking. The shot was okay, but I sensed some new-ness in it, new fluid taste, whatever. So my next mission was to flush a lot of water through the machine - I flushed two reservoir volumes' worth through it over about 15 minutes. Then I used the same grind again, pulled a shot, and was rewarded with a good looking double ristretto shot from the Classic. It tasted good too (I was using a home roast for this initial testing), though I did sense a bit of sourness in the shot, a sign that maybe the grouphead temperatures weren't quite right.

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Solenoid's exit pipe extends to the drip tray and can be removed. Click to enlarge.

The solenoid, I should point out, does its job well - the portafilter can be removed as soon as the shot completes. The tube isn't perfectly lined up with the cut out hole in the drip tray cover, but it still clears the edges enough that it doesn't splash all over the top of the tray.

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The switch lights work in a specific way - when the light on the brewing switch is on, the machine is ready to brew. When it goes off, the boiler is cycling. Ditto for getting steam - if you flip the steam switch, the brew switch light goes out and only comes back on when the boiler is up to the proper temps.

I ended up running about 8 litres of water through the machine on my first day, and brewing about a dozen shots (much of the water was just flushing out the machine) and by the end of the day I was happy with the shot performance of the Gaggia Classic. I haven't run any temperature tests on the machine yet, but the one very minor complaint I may have about the shot quality is that it could stand to be a degree or two (Celsius) hotter to eliminate all traces of sourness I was experiencing. But I wasn't sure yet if this was attributed to the beans I was using or the machine. That evaluation will have to wait for the full Detailed Review.

I would wait a few days to see how the steam performance and hot water delivery was with the machine.

First Few Days with the Gaggia Classic

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As the days rolled on in my initial Gaggia Classic evaluation, I started to get comfortable with a few things about that machine that initially caused me problems.

One was hot water. I like americanos, (the drink and my Yankee friends :)) and I usually have one or two each morning (the drink, NOT my Yankee friends). As such, a machine that delivers hot water in order to make an Americano is a big plus for me, and automatically raises their rating on the ten point scale by one full point (so hypothetically, a machine could score an 11).

The Gaggia handles hot water delivery like no other machine I've tried (though the Gaggia Baby does it the same way): where some machines are so simple that they are designed to deliver hot water as soon as you turn the steam knob (Solis SL-90, for example, complete with pump activation), the Gaggia demands that you activate both the steam switch and brew switch, while twisting the steam knob. It's none too difficult, even for the dexterously challenged, because the steam and brew switches are flush against each other. It's just a matter of training yourself to hit both of them.

This raises another usability quirk - by activating the steam switch, you automatically cut off any water flow to the grouphead. This is a good and bad thing - good in that you won't accidentally brew a steam shot (which tastes blech), but bad in that you cannot do my patented "cheat" to get a machine to brew and steam as fast as possible (the cheat is this - just before you want to brew your shot for a cappuccino, you put the machine into steam mode by flipping the switch - the boiler starts working, and you brew your shot - the water won't be too hot just yet, but is heating up all that cold water coming into the boiler. Once the shot is done, you're on the fast track to getting the machine up to steaming temps, which are about 35F or 20C above boiling). Since the cheat is definitely not covered by the product manual or thought up by the Italian designers of this machine, I can excuse them for this design quirk.

And still speaking of hot water delivery, the Gaggia is good for maybe 3 or 4 ounces before it loses "steam", mainly due to the small aluminum boiler. Still, it cycles wicked fast, so that's not a huge detriment. But this machine is not a hot water for tea machine - expecting 10, 12 or more ounces of hot water is too much for this beastie to deliver. (who the hell drinks tea anyway?).

I haven't had a chance yet to test the grouphead temperatures, but my informal (read: try burning your hand, Mark!) tests say it doesn't get particularly hot. I'll run a battery of Fluke tests on the Classic's grouphead for the DR.

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Hrmm, there's the (in)famous aluminum boiler with the outer heating coils.

As mentioned from my first day with the machine, I did find a touch of sourness to the shots. I attribute this to shots that are too cold. The Gaggia's performance early on was delivering shots edging on sour, but I did find if I pulled at shot at the top of a boiler cycle (known as "temperature surfing"), I could eliminate the sour notes.

It's WAY too early to make a judgment call on this yet though - it could very well be the machine needs a break in period. Wait for the DR before you quote me on the barely-sour shot output.

Steam performance... where do I begin. First, I have almost no respect for froth aiding devices, especially on a $400 machine. On a $150 machine, a $200 machine, I can see the use - the folks dropping dime on that price point need all the help they can get (oh oh, here comes the hate mail). But on a $400 machine?

So I tried Gaggia's "patented" Turbo Frother®©. Okay, it doesn't do too bad a job, but I know I can do heaps better. I wasn't impressed with the amount of foam it produced - it was the chiffon style that any true espresso aficionado will turn their nose up at. I discovered if I finessed the Turbo Frother a bit, and played with my placement of the wand and assembly, I could almost mimic the performance of a traditional wand! (but I think that requires even more of a seasoned and practiced hand than a normal traditional wand).

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I was happy to see the outer Turbo Frother assembly could be removed, showing you a naked, single hole wand. But therein lies another problem - it's fairly short, and the top of the Turbo Froth assembly is attached to the wand, and is a bit of a pain to clean if you submerge it in milk.

I was even happier to see the Gaggia was a good steamer once I had the gimmick off the wand. It won't win any speed contests, and it does seem to have trouble with volumes higher than 7 ounces, but for up to 7 ounces (enough milk for two cappas), the performance was very good, with enough turbulence and movement in the pitcher to create good quality microfoam (microfoam is used to create latte art, and in my opinion, microfoam, the pourable foam, is the only type of foam that should be added to a shot of espresso).

The heat up times to steam ready were very good with the Gaggia. Mind you, you have to bleed off a fair amount of water (common in most machines), and I found my best performance came when I tricked the machine into keeping the boiler heater on. How do you do this? You start steaming while the boiler lamp is still off - this way, you're always removing heat from the boiler, tricking the thermostat into staying on longer. This in turn continually produces more steam. When the thermostat turns the boiler element off, you're losing heat and steam producing ability until it switches on again.

I did enjoy the noise levels of the Gaggia as well. It certainly isn't quiet, nor is it as quiet as a Solis SL-70 (probably the quietest consumer semi-automatic espresso machine on the market today), but the Classic is definitely quieter than my noisy Pasquini Livia. I would say the Gaggia is quiet enough as to not be a disruption to a sleeping partner, and you can carry on a conversation, albeit at slightly higher volume. You still can't carry on a phone convo though (the Solis SL-70 is the only consumer machine I've tested that lets you do that).

And lastly, I gave the Gaggia a speed run, of sorts, on its fourth day of testing. Jeanette's twin brothers were over for dinner, and I made four drinks after the meal: 1 americano, one hot chocolate, and two cappuccinos. My game plan was to pull two normal singles, quickly adjust the grind, pull a double ristretto, then get hot water into the Americano (with the double ristretto). Then get steam up.

The three shots (two real singles and a double ristretto) took me less than 70 seconds total. Getting 4 ounces of piping hot water was a challenge, needing a boiler cycle first, call it another 40 seconds. Then the ramp up to steam, which took about a minute. We're up to 2 minutes and 50 seconds now. I steamed the cappa milk first, 7 ounces worth, in about a minute. Then I let the boiler recover a bit as I poured some okay latte art (call it 30 seconds). Lastly, I tried to steam about 6 ounces of milk (not froth - steam), but the Gaggia was resisting - due to the lack of boiler water, it took about 85 seconds. Then I hit the brew switch, activating the pump, and I sloshed another 4 or 5 ounces of hot water into a cup to add to my steamed milk (which in turn got some Mocafe Mexican Hot Chocolate powder mix). Some quick stirs, wipes and such later, and I was done - in about 7 minutes.

Not a speed demon by any stretch, but not too bad either - the same drink building on other machines could take as short as 3 minutes or so (on a heat exchanger machine), and as long as 10 minutes or longer (the Elektra Nivola is one that would take that long). And don't forget, this kind of marathon prep session (albeit a 10K marathon) gets better with practice and technique - I simply haven't had enough time on the Gaggia yet to really know the machine's operation quirks and delivery, and I know I could probably shave a minute to 90 seconds off my time with some practice.

Wrap Up

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So, after years of talking about the Gaggia Classic and only a few hours' use on it in that time, I now have one "in the house" as it were to beat the crap out of if I want :) (those who know me from alt.coffee will get that insider joke).

Seriously though, it's all good. Okay, not awesome and earth shattering, but so far I've been very pleased by the performance of the Gaggia overall. The thing I can't seem to shake is this - while there are some things on the machine that beat the Silvia (namely the deeper drip tray, the nice brushed nickel housing, the visible water reservoir), I can't shake the fact that if I were buying today, I'd still go to the Silvia. Mind you, that's me and my wants and quirks... for others, the Silvia can be way too demanding a machine. It seemed so much easier to get okay or better shots from the Gaggia, at least early on. But I haven't had a super great shot from it yet, nor have I had a "god shot" yet. Maybe that will come in the following months when I give the Gaggia a day by day by day hardcore testing, for an entire month.

As always, it is my solemn duty to inform you this is a FIRST LOOK only, and as such, anything and everything I write about is subject to change... maybe even the colour of the machine! (just kidding. Unless I paint it, of course!). If you want the CoffeeGeek Patented and TradeMarked "Definitive Word"®©™ on this machine, you'll have to wait for the Detailed Review, which should show up in the new year.

But for now, I'm confident in recommending the Gaggia as one of three or four machines at the $400 price point. The machine hasn't let me down yet - but neither has it blown my socks off. I'm willing to give this veteran every possible chance to do so down the road.

Once again, I'd like to point out that CoffeeGeek was supplied the $399 Gaggia Classic by the fine folks at Whole Latte Love. If you buy from them (and why shouldn't you? They sponsor this site and give you nifty things to read and complain about!), you'll also get a bonus package with the machine that includes a steaming pitcher, descaler liquid, a thermometer and two cans of Illy espresso coffee, along with their exclusive Guide to Gaggia Machines. Shop there! Damnit!

First Look rating: 9.0
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: January 11, 2003
feedback: (12) comments | read | write
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