So here’s the thing: I’m a “Mac guy” – I’ll pay more for something that will not frustrate me and looks good, even if it means trading off a bit of power/customizability at a similar price point. So it’s not surprising that after seriously looking at things like the Solis SL 70 / 90, the Saeco Aroma and yes, even the Silvia, I decided to go for Gaggia. That I happened to luck into a great deal on an espresso & grinder (Isomac Pro) combo made the decision easier.
First a bit about that decision (skip to the next paragraph if you just want to know about the machine): In the process of buying my first machine, I realized that everything under $1000 (probably even $2K, lol) is going to involve trade-offs, so the key was knowing what I wanted out of it, allowing me to decide which trade-offs to make. For me, it came down to ease of use & consistency (sorry Silvia), looks (sorry Solis) and commercial-sized PF that was at least capable of making more flavourful espresso (sorry Saeco) – I like lattes, for sure, but also like a straight shot. I realize a lot of people at this price point would buy a Silvia, but here’s the thing: I want to make my espresso & lattes as quickly as possible in the morning – no elaborate temperature surfing or watching a PID (especially before I’ve had my coffee!), no sink shots – especially since I’m making for both myself and my spouse (who wants to learn to use the machine). Also, our kitchen isn’t huge. And, I’m messy enough so the supposed dribbling problems with lower machines ruled those out too.
So on to the machine itself: Out of the box, it consistently made Starbucks shots – they required sugar, but they were drinkable, especially when you overtamped. But they were 15ish second shots (with my grinder at the lowest setting). So it was off to the internet, where I learned from a few Gaggia users that the machines are really grind sensitive, requiring a finer grind than a lot of entry-level machines (not surprising really, if you consider the trend in Italy cafes, as I understand it, is a finer grind with a lighter tamp). So, after modifying my Isomac grinder (how-to in my grinder review), and dialing it down 12 stops below the factory preset, I was up to the 25 second shot, and into the land of espresso that could be sipped sans sugar – not as flavourful as the best I had in Italy, but certainly surpassing most places in town (I eventually went down 14 stops on the grinder with a lighter tamp – it’s not quite flour but a little finer than castor sugar. NOTE: If you are modifying grinder, make sure to ensure blades don’t touch and run a short burst (away from your face, without beans, to extra sure)). So far, what's worked best here is filling the portafilter from doserless while stirring with shishkabob stick (I don't bother with the yogurt funnel), then leveling, and then a 20-30 lb NSEW (and centre) tamp.
After the grinder mods, the shots were still not 100 percent consistent – some were great, some bitter – and I suspected the culprit was temperature. Sure enough, I got consistent results once I did a cooling flush of about 4 seconds before brewing (length varies machine to machine, I’ve read, and truthfully, I’m still experimenting, but 4-6 seconds had given me consistently smooth shots). Lately, I've been doing a flush, then waiting a bit, then pouring -- the results have been the best yet...maybe it has something to do with allowing the parts to cool just a tiny bit after they've been flushed with slightly overtemp water? Who knows...it's working, again and again, and I'll just experiment with length of flush / wait times till I get the most flavour (it's nice being only a week in and already worrying about fine-tuning flavour, not quality of crema or bitterness). BTW, to dial it in, I just followed the really helpful general guidelines on home-barista -- must read for any noobs.
To be clear, I’m no where near godshots, but far beyond Starbucks (I know, that should be a given) and equal to the milk drinks I’ve tasted most anywhere, and getting closer to the extra caramelly espresso of the best Italian cafes in Toronto (not Italy!) Oh, and I should mention, this has all been done with the cat toy tamper (I’ve yet to buy a proper tamper b/c I can’t decide between a flat and curved one).
The last of the positives: this machine definitely got spousal approval sitting on the counter – it was not too “guy” (i.e. industrial); I love how easy it is to fill reservoir, and don’t mind the “smaller” (1.5 L) size because it keeps the water fresh; I was worried about the drip tray, but find it’s fantastic (you can either lift the grate and wipe, or pull the whole thing out to dump in the sink; with only two buttons (plus on/off) it is super easy to use; steam power is more than sufficient for my needs and knob is well positioned; no prob heating it up quick (or even cheating it by running through the wand/Pf if I’m in a real rush).
I’m only a week in, but I’m worried if I’ll ever get close to “god shot” territory – but I supposed that will take practice, experimentation with beans and a bit of old-fashioned luck (will let you know in the 3-month followup).
What you’ve read about the steam wand is true – it’s really not that great. Although I need to practice steaming more, the bubbles are a currently a bit hard and big. The short-term solution has been using a small steamer jug and just dispatching with that stupid nozzle altogether. Long-term, probably a new wand is in order. No problem warming the milk (hit the steam button, wait 30 seconds, and you’re good), but just not the microfoam of my dreams.
The other negative, at least for those with lesser grinders, is that this machine most definitely requires a fine grind. But, as is often repeated here, buy a good grinder first and put the remainder to the machine (I really see the wisdom of that now…if I cheaped out on the grinder, I’d have made a great machine all but useless).
For some, the position of the on-off switch at the back is a negative…I’m not as worried about that: I’d rather have the on-off switch right near the place where the power actually comes in, rather than wired up to the front – one less thing that can go wrong.
The boiler seems to run a little bit hot, but it’s consistently hot and easily remedied by a cooling shot first (which has the added benefit of ensuring the internals are nice and hot).
I'm quite happy with the machine, and glad I spent the bit extra on Stainless steel -- it may not make it last any longer (then again it may), but it will certainly allow me to look at it every morning and not be fed up with "cheap" plastic. Also, I think the switches on the Class seem more sturdy than lower models of the Baby.