Intro to the Gaggia Espresso

Just in time for Christmas, book smarts had a chance to evolve into struggling home barista thanks to the arrival of a Gaggia Espresso courtesy of the Crew. Be sure to check out Colin's detailed review and comparison of the Espresso!

Now almost two weeks into espresso land with the Gaggia - psst ... those middle gs are soft like in Gigi - I thought that I'd poke my head out from under the boiler for a minute or two.

I've had a few late nights during this time, to be sure, more from immersion in study than saturation in caffeine: countless hours spent reading up on technique and the trials of other enthusiasts, which mark only the beginning of what proves to be an unending obsession. A serviceable decaf is essential during the relentless pursuit of excellence.

All of this reading confirms my own short experience with the consensus of a few truths regarding the quite capable consumer Gaggias:

* Gaggia is fast

Gaggia's small boiler heats up quickly and switches fairly easily between brew and steam temperatures. This is great for the quick morning drink and allows for an almost seamless latté production process -- so long as you are content to make only one drink and have begun to perfect the choreography of this fluid dance between brewing and frothing.

I find that the transition to steam is fast enough to allow me to brew my double first and then froth up a limited amount of milk without losing the crema. The shot may scream "I'm melting!" but the milk seems much touchier over the short term. Just remember to cool down by flushing the boiler if you are building drinks the other way around. I find it easier to avoid mishaps by pulling the shot first. The screaming from the cappuccino cup (so sue me, I only have two cup sizes) serves to remind me not to overextend the milk.

If I were crazy and willing to split my crema betwixt two cups, perhaps I could make two -- otherwise, the extra juggling would involve compromises. Alas, I have not the company and thus not the need to do so; hopefully this will change. Good coffee, if I may dare label my efforts thus, begs to be shared.

* Gaggia is finicky, but fair

This lil' black workhorse is pretty finicky when it comes to grind, owing to a 58mm filter and good pressure at the group. The oft-repeated mantra that true espresso requires a good grinder applies strongly here: a precise grind is essential. Once settled into a favourably fine grind, however, one can quickly learn to pull decent shots even with fresh pre-ground. If you're like me, your existing grinder just isn't up to the job and finding that sweet spot can take a bit more time without a decent grinder within a few miles of home. Once found, however, difficult timings settled out to a fairly predictable routine. If you thought that your obsession was bordering on unhealthy while hunting that elusive grind, well it only gets worse once you find it.

* Brew with pride

Gaggia comes with an unadulterated portafilter, whose provided double basket already holds a fair amount of coffee. Those coffee measures just wouldn't do and I soon learned to fill the basket properly, "14g" of coffee or no. Properly dosing the filter with a correct grind and tamp regimen is rewarded with the potential to pull beautiful shots, certainly better than I typically see or taste. Missing the grind, even by a little, results in a pour that is too fast and watery. She seems to be more tolerant of a slow pour, rewarding me with rich colour and sweetness for short shots that almost stalled.

I'm sure that I could do better by grinding just before extraction, but honestly Gaggia is doing pretty well with the pre-ground from a retail Ditting machine. Still, I can't help but imagine the heights I might reach with one at my beck and call.

One has the option of neutering Gaggia's businesslike handle with one of those pressurized doodads; being optional, it is quite easily ignored as an atrocity against nature. I only thought it fair to see what it could do, however, since Colin sent me one for kicks. Gaggia was less than flattered, spewing high velocity froth horizontally outward from the spouts, refusing to let this stuff enter a cup under her supervision.

I fashioned my own calming device for the spout, since removing the spout was simply undignified and gave Gaggia the air of a supersoaker. There is an additional plug pictured in the manual, though not included, which presumably is intended to perform the same function for the newer handles with their central spout.

You can throw the most horribly mismatched grind at this thing and it will slow your shot and produce something with plenty of froth that tends to be bitter. The closer your grind is to being worthy of your aspirations, the more palatable the result, the more stable the crema. Thus, if you are stuck with a mound of bad grind you can sheepishly bastardize the handle to produce something that may 'work' in milk-based beverages. It's still an abomination compared to what Gaggia is capable of, but it can be drinkable.

* The great frothing debate

Now we get to the point of my current fixation of study: frothing and the pursuit of the holy grail of latté art.

So can Gaggia froth well or not, with that small boiler? She sure can, just keep your quantities within reason. Surfing doesn't seem to be as much a problem, an effect of the fast boiler, but there are some serious limits to how much milk you can process owing as much to the incredibly short steam wand as technical considerations.

The wand is just too short to use successfully with a standard pitcher, especially when you listen to reason and ditch that turbofrother. Well, ditch the bottom half of it ... you'll likely need to leave the top portion of the frothing device attached simply to retain a serviceable wand depth. Be warned, however, that you must be careful when cleaning this composite piece of plastic: soak it well before attempting to unscrew the plastic parts during cleaning. Otherwise, you may be shocked to see the screw cap split into several pieces when stretched over solidified milk.

I gave the turbofrother a decent go, producing much better results that my Krups was ever capable of, but the resulting coarse foam is too hard to control. I was ready to start learning the patient art of microfroth and for this the air-injection mechanism of the frothing aid was a hindrance.

Others have managed to work well with the bare wand in a small 10-12oz pitcher, but I find that this leaves my newbie frothing skills in grave jeopardy of accidentally bubbling my milk during the whirlpool phase (the induced crater drops below the reach of the wand). Alas, the reported compatibility of the Silvia steam wand with other Gaggias does not translate to the Espresso, so we're stuck with stubby.

Several users have reported good results using the upper portion of the plastic attachment, since it provides a single point of high velocity steam suitable for swirling milk, not to mention sufficient reach to manage a small pitcher or with great care even a suitably full 20 ouncer. It presumably extends the steaming life of the boiler as well, requiring more time to exhaust its supply. This is what I'm doing at the moment, armed with a 10oz pitcher and 4 to 5oz of milk; I find that homogenized milk (3.25%) froths easily enough with the Gaggia and provides a smoother, more fluid texture than 2%. As mentioned, I find it most practical to pull my double immediately prior to frothing up my ice-cold milk. The Gaggia is more than up to the job, heating and frothing quite quickly.

Within a few days, I was preparing some pretty tasty milk but my timing and consistency are still off, rendering attempts at actual latté art rather pathetic -- a series of silken failures. I'm getting to the ballpark of the milk requirements, but know that this skill will take a lot of practice. I still tend to overfroth a bit, especially with the homo milk; you really aren't supposed to inject much air into the milk and it shows in my results. It would seem that the very short time required to froth this small quantity of milk is well within the capabilities of the Gaggia, suggesting that larger amounts would remain practical with sufficient skill.

Summing Up

All in all, I've been very impressed with the Gaggia Espresso, which is quite capable of producing respectable drinks next to more expensive machines. While more suited for brewing the occasional beverage than serving up friends at a party, the compromise of a small aluminum boiler seems to give her an edge for small jobs, particularly for those short on time. She may be less attractive or sturdy than her steel-finished brethren and prone to some additional maintenance, but simply produces an excellent product for an entry-level machine: allowing newbs and pros alike to achieve a memorable espresso experience.

To pick one point of issue with the machine, from the lofty perspective that the Gaggia Espresso is already so very capable, would be to question the length of the steam wand. Designed to be long enough with the plastic turbofrother attached, Gaggia has thankfully made this crutch removable as they did for the pressurized filter insert. However, removing the frothing device to achieve what Gaggia is truly capable of results in an overly short and awkwardly bent wand that is difficult to manage. Those with a Classic, Baby, or possibly the Carezza will rejoice in that several owners have fitted Silvia steam wands to their Gaggias without much trouble. The Espresso is apparently not so lucky, and would benefit from a longer steaming arm and the ability to attach alternate steam tips. That's being pretty picky for a low cost machine that delivers so much, but this very capability seems to demand fixing this one vexing flaw.

The Gaggia Espresso scoffs at you until you achieve the correct grind, demanding that you perfect the finer points of espresso preparation. She dares you to improve your technique and promises to respond with even better results when you do. The most frequent advice that I see given to aspiring enthusiasts, looking to buy their first equipment, is that they must not skimp on the grinder. Let me join the mob on this one. Gaggia supports a real application of the espresso learning curve, turning book smarts into hands on experience, while affording the novice the ability to discover just how far they are willing to take this obsession -- without sacrificing their bank account.

I'm quite proud to feature her in my kitchen.

Dave lives in Ottawa, Ontario, the Nations capital for you folks wanting to be in the know. He has been a regular to the coffeecrew for over a year now and is enjoying the 'perks' of coffeecrew membership!

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