An espresso machine needs to do a few things well, and consistently. It's not, as some would have you believe, voodoo or rocket science.
The pump needs to pump hot water within a certain pressure range. The boiler needs to heat the water quickly, to a consistent temperature, and be able to provide lasting, constant pressure to drive steam. Beyond that, it needs to be constructed of quality materials such that it will last, and it's performance won't degrade over time.
The Gaggia Classic, in my opinion, does all of these things. In short, if your goal is to make home-scale quantities of espressos and steamed milk drinks, you needn't look any further, nor spend a penny more.
As far as I'm concerned, it's the equivalent of the Rancilio Silvia. It lacks the panache and cachet of the Slivia, but you can't put those things into a cup and drink them, and since I'm not a poseur, I couldn't care less.
I purchased this machine as a refurb from WLL for considerably less than retail, though if a refurb Silvia came on the market before this did, I probably would have gotten that. As I said, I think that they are equal.
With one exception.
The steaming wand (turbo wha...?) on the Gaggia is absurd. Stupid. Unusable. Why Gaggia chose to soil this fine machine with that plastic hunk of junk is beyond me. Well, actually, they're trying to make it easier for novices to make steam. Here's the problem with that. Drawing a good shot of espresso from a manual machine is far more difficult than steaming milk, and this machine is designed to rely on the user's ability to do that. The question is, why would they trust the novice user to use a manual machine to draw a good shot, but not trust them with the easier task of steaming the milk? But I digress...
My fix for that was to throw the entire steaming wand in the trash, and replace it with a wand from a Silvia. With that Silvia steaming wand (a 10 minute swap), it makes all the high pressure steam that you could want, and will run out of water in the tank before it runs out of steam.
I have been in the restaurant business for 25 years, and have had occasion to brew many thousands of shots for myself and others with all kinds of professional manual, automatic, and semi-automatic machines, using a wide range of beans. I know what a shot of espresso is, and what it takes to make one. I have traveled through northern and central Italy and have enjoyed hundreds of shots there. It is with this palate and experience that I wholeheartedly recommend the Gaggia Classic for the home espresso user.
Others have described this as a "good entry level machine". What the heck does that mean? What would the next proposed step be after 'graduating' from this machine? One more farkled? One more shiny? One with another group? One with greater pose value? I don't understand that. It makes great coffee, and is therefore the be-all and end-all of home use units. You may need a higher volume machine if you entertain a lot.
If you're a poseur and need a machine to match your kitchen decor, you may want one that's shinier or a different color, but if you are interested in consistently and reliably making good shots, look no further.
People may ask, "will this machine make good coffees for me?". The answer is "no". You have to make the good coffee, the machine is the tool that you use. Someone may go and buy an All Clad omelet pan and ask if they'll make great omelettes with it. Well, if they know how to make an omelet, then the All Clad pan will help, and look pretty fancy in the process. If they don't, then no amount of shiny, expensive cookware will do them any good.
Espresso is the same thing. Good shots require good beans, properly roasted, handled and ground. The machine has to be kept clean and maintained. It must be pre-heated, the shot must be packed correctly, and certain steps have to be followed during the brewing process. If you know these things, or have the patience and interest to learn them, you'll pull professional grade, world class shots from this machine, time in and time out. This is no different from any fully manual machine.
Things that I like about this machine in particular are:
- It has a clean, understated look. Tough industrial brushed stainless steel exterior, and the controls are basic, just what are needed, easy to understand, and rugged. It is physically smaller than the Silvia, and performs exactly the same function.
- The price was right. You have to be out of your mind to spend over $500 for a home espresso machine. What did PT Barnum say? There's a sucker born every minute? If you paid over $500 for a home espresso machine, he's talking about you.
- The working parts of this machine are top grade. Heavy all-brass group and portafilter. Beefy pump. Powerful boiler. Rugged industrial grade switches.
- The boiler design is solid. The heating coils are outside the boiler tank, so water never touches them directly, and lime scale will not build up on them and degrade their performance. It heats up very fast.
- The drip tray pulls right out for cleaning, dumping, and to allow you to put a full-sized coffee cup under the spout for Americanos and lungos.
- Water tank pulls out easily as well, for the occasional rinse and cleaning, and you can see the water tank from the front of the machine so you can easily see how much water is in it. Tank can be filled from either the top, or by pulling it out from the front, if the machine is wedged under a low cabinet.
- 3-way solenoid valve so the brew pressure is immediately released after the shot is done. You can re-load and brew the next shot immediately.
- Provided that you replace the steam wand with a decent usable one, the steaming function is all you need. I am never lacking for steam pressure.
- Allow the machine to heat up for 5 minutes with the portafilter loosely attached. Run the pump for 5 seconds or so to pre-heat everything and flush out yesterday's stale water.
- Fill the portafilter to heaping over it's top, then tamp firmly with a professional flat-bottomed tamper (throw the plastic Gaggia one included in the box in the trash).
- Look for a 20-25 second pour, and adjust grind to achieve that. Keep your tamp and coffee amount consistent.
- Buy a blind filter and a tub of Cafiza and use them to back-flush the machine every two weeks. Get a de-liming product and use it twice a year to remove lime scale from the boiler and lines.
- Of course, buy only fresh locally roasted coffee, or roast your own.
(PS)- I'm not the same John Anderson that reviewed this machine back in March. There are a lot of us with that name!)