As you may know, this machine comes standard with a pressurized portafilter. Even so, and against popular opinion, I've been able to make some very nice espressi, machiatti, and capuccini - better than many that I've got from coffeehouses. I'll be buying (or getting as a gift?) the non-pressurized portafilter soon so I'll be updating in a few months.
THE GOOD STUFF:
I've got no complaints about the brewing function of this machine. It's easy to use and warms very quickly - I usually let it warm until the brew not-ready light (yes, the "not-ready" light) goes out indicating that its time to brew, pump about 2 oz through the portafilter, and let heat for another 5 minutes while I grind my beans. Yeah, with the Zassenhaus, it takes most of that 5 min to measure the beans into the hopper, grind, bump the stray grinds into the box and get ready to load the basket. (Don't buy the crappola dished out by some that a Zassenhaus can't grind espresso - perhaps some can't but my 10-yr old unit can make DUST cranked fully CCW). My favorite bean so far is the La Colombe Nizza - a northern style that's a bit darker-roasted than Paradise's (which is awesome with a few dark Sumatra beans thrown in!). I've found that even though the pressurized portafilter makes things quite easy, the grind and tamp do still contribute to the quality of the shot. I find that a fairly tight tamp increases the pressure buildup before release of the pressure "valve" and I get shots that I find more pleasing.
Frothing is where my major complaints come in. I do NOT froth prior to brewing as Saeco recommends. Instead I froth after the shot is complete and I do it without the pannarello attachment - just the plain black plastic wand (yes, it works but is finicky). I find that the lower limit on the steam range is set far to low which means that the boiler is almost completely depleated before the heater kicks in to begin superheating again. This may be a peculiarity of my machine but it exists and is a pain nonetheless. This depletion takes a mere 20 seconds and leaves you standing with a half-frothed pitcher of milk for about 15 seconds while the pressures builds back up again. This really stinks because it leaves the milk sitting around at about 80-90 degrees where little volume can be added and when the steam kicks back in, quickly hits 150-160 and you've got a pitcher of hot milk with a bit of crappy bubbly stuff sitting on top.
THE SAVING WORKAROUND:
But all is not lost! I did discover a great workaround.
- after pulling the shot, flip on the steam switch
- open the steam valve slightly to clear out the water in the line
- close the valve
- let it heat for about 20 seconds (this could well be different on another machine)
- DON'T LET THE STEAM NOT-READY LIGHT GO OUT - this shuts off the heater in the boiler!
- before the light can go out place the tip of the wand in the milk
- open the steam valve and begin frothing (I think you need to surf the tip a little farther into the milk than with a proper tip - bring it up too far and you get dishsoap bubbles).
- once the milk temp hits 150-160, shut of the valve, flip off the switch and build that cappuccino
The reason this works so well is that before the boiler can reach the max temp limit and switch off the heater element, the valve is opened, bleeding off pressure and temperature and this keeps the temp in the "heater-on" zone. In this way, the heater is continually heating the boiler while simultaneously, the steam is being used to froth. The temp stays just below the shutoff temp and if you time it right and the balance between bleed-off and heat is just right, you can froth all day if you choose! By keeping the tip of the plastic wand a few mm below the top of the milk and a few mm away from the side of the pitcher, I've been able to achieve fantastic dense microfoam - probably not world-class but very nice indeed.
THE EXTRA BIT
One thing that I've also found particularly useful, though it may sound like sacrilege to some, is to keep my pitcher in the freezer at all times. I add milk and return it to the freezer about 20 minutes prior to frothing. This begins to freeze the milk partially but most is still liquid. The frozen bits keep the overall temp of the milk below 40 degrees for about 10 secs. Since I like whole-fat milk, this is helpful because I get a good bit of air into the milk before it hits the "dead zone" of above 40 degrees. Then between 100 and 155 I can get plenty of the volume and density I like.
Yes, the portafilter feels like a cheap plastic toy particularly beside even the least expensive Gaggias. Yes the plastic portion of it retains coffee if not cleaned and flushed very well. You can solve some of this with $25 by getting the standard portafilter from Saeco-USA. Yes, the pannarello attachment doesn't work well. And yes the steaming capacity was a pain before I found my method. But, on the whole I think this is a good machine. Since I consistently make better espressi, macchiatti, and cappuccini than most Starbucks I've been to and equal to some of the better coffee houses, I think I've acheived success.