Espresso with the Gaggia Classic

Gaggia Classic

After extensive internet research, I decided to get myself a home espresso setup: A Gaggia Classic machine and an Ascaso i-Mini grinder. These are my notes on why I chose this particular gear and what I’ve learned about it, by reading the experiences of other owners and during my first few days with my own machine. Super geeky coffee talk ahead!

1. Why the Gaggia?

It’s the cheapest so-called boiler machine around if you search for a deal online (thanks for the tip Jocke!). It cost me around half of the standard Finnish price which is also half of the cheapest deal I could find on the Rancilio Silvia, another very popular, a bit more heavy-duty home machine. In Finland, the two machines are roughly the same price, but online, you can get a much better deal on the Gaggia. Long story short: Instead of a so-called “thermoblock”, you want a “boiler”, because of temperature stability (ultimately to get better coffee). The Gaggia has one (even if it’s a small one: more on that later). The general consensus seems to be that the Gaggia should be an OK little machine.

It’s cheaper than the Silvia because it has a smaller boiler made of aluminium, instead of a larger one made of brass on the Silvia.That means you won’t be able to steam as much milk on one go. The Gaggia should be good for two cappuccinos at once – after that, you’ll have to wait for more steam. Should be plenty for me. It also won’t hold the temperature as constant while pulling a shot than the Silvia, and with age, the aluminium boiler can corrode. I decided I can live with these issues to save a grinder’s worth of money – more about this in section 3. The boiler on the Gaggia is still better than an aluminium thermoblock used by most consumer machines, according to internet wisdom, and the upshot of a small aluminium boiler is that it’ll warm up faster in the morning.

2. Upgrades

The Gaggia comes with a so-called pressurized portafilter basket and “Perfect Crema Pin”. You need to toss them in the drawer and never take them out, because they’re only there to create fake crema from poorly tamped low-quality coffee, and you won’t get a decent shot with them. That’s what they said on coffee forums and that’s what I found when trying. Replace the basket with a standard 58mm filter basket (remember to take the plastic “perfect crema pin” off too). This will luckily only set you back around 10 euros. Get a “double” filter basket, as you’ll want doubles most of the time anyway and you can use it for singles too. This simple and cheap upgrade instantly improved the coffee a lot. Update 2 Jan 2013: The double filter basket sold for the Gaggia by Crema.fi doesn’t fit the Gaggia very well, because it doesn’t have a suitable ridge on it to properly engage with the spring on the portafilter to hold it in. This causes it to sometimes stick to the group head instead of coming out when you remove the portafilter, and you’ll burn your hands and get coffee everywhere when trying to remove it from the group head. The Gaggia double filter basket from EspressoServices.co.uk, for example, is better: it properly clicks in the portafilter and comes out with it when it should.

Also the original steam wand comes with a plastic “Pannarello steam tip” designed to foam milk even if you don’t know how to do it, but also preventing you from getting proper nice “microfoam”. You might want to replace the original steam wand with one from the Rancilio Silvia. That’s around 25 euros.

You’ll also need a tamper (the Gaggia comes with a plastic one), a milk frothing can and some cups, of course.

3. Caveat: Aluminium, corrosion and temperature stability

To keep your machine ship-shape, you should know that the aluminium on the Gaggia’s boiler can corrode with age, causing leaks. Additionally, you don’t really want aluminium in your coffee (its toxicity is debated). An additional complication is that espresso machines have to be descaled with an acidic compound every now and then to remove limescale introduced by tap water, and if you do that too aggressively, you’ll corrode your boiler while trying to maintain it. According to forum posts, again, the precautions you need to take with a Gaggia Classic are to

1. get a descaler that contains a so-called “buffer” substance that will prevent aluminium corrosion while descaling (for example Puly Baby)
2. don’t keep the boiler on while descaling and
3. don’t leave the stuff it in the boiler for ages (20 minutes tops, less will do)

Luckily, the fact that Helsinki tap water contains very little calcium and it’s pH is a near-neutral ~8 helps a lot, so one doesn’t have to descale that often/aggressively. Apparently, Helsinki tap water is just perfect for a Gaggia. Considering this, I can live with the aluminium boiler. Keep in mind that the machine is used even in locations with very hard water with serious limescale issues, and some users descale the machine regularly with harsh citric acid with no buffer compound. In these cases, you might get significant corrosion in just a year or two. According to what I know, this shouldn’t be a significant issue in many years with Finnish tap water and descaling with the proper stuff.

Note that there’s an aluminium part in the group head too, the screen holding plate, so don’t use too aggressive substances when backflushing – that’s the other cleaning process you need to do every now and then in addition to descaling. Be sure to get the proper product for each job! A descaler is an acidic treatment, a backflushing compound is basically detergent. You can change the aluminium holding plate to a brass holding plate, which will not only last longer, but also enhance the temperature stability of the machine. That will offset the relative instability of the aluminium boiler, because the group will hold warmth. This is relatively easy to do when replacing the gasket, which you should do every few years anyway. According to one commenter, this upgrade significantly improves the machine.

4. Non-Gaggia-specific points

You need a grinder, because you need your coffee fresh and you need to fine-tune your grind for your coffee, your machine and your air humidity. They say grinder quality is even more important for coffee quality than the machine. I picked up an Ascaso i-Mini because it’s got good reviews and it looks nice, plus I had a gift certificate from my lovely friends for Kaffecentralen who sell it. You need freshly roasted quality coffee, preferably from your friendly local roastery or a great coffee shop that sells quality micro-roastery coffees. That’s the most important bit!

5. Resources

Also more important than gear is knowledge and practice. Luckily for newbies like me, the web is full of coffee info. Listed here are some of the ones I’ve found most useful. After a few days of playing around with the Gaggia and dialing in the grinder, I’m getting better and better shots, but there’s still some way to go to a really really good espresso. Guess I need to drink more coffee. Update 2 Jan 2013: Grinder is now dialed in and I’ve found the right tamping pressure. Very pleased with the results – top notch coffee!

24 thoughts on “Espresso with the Gaggia Classic

  1. Hi there,

    Thanks for the review and the whole info.
    Just to confirm since I am new in Finland and thus EU: Ordering online from http://www.italiankitchenaids.com (which is not in Finland) did not cause any problems related to customs and etc?I mean you were not required to pay additional costs because it was shipped from Italy, right?

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  2. Hi! That’s right, you don’t have to pay any customs fees or taxes when ordering from other EU countries. The shipping cost was around 10 euros if I remember right. It did take them a couple of days to send it and Fedex held it in their sorting facility for a few days in this end so it took almost two weeks to arrive at my door, but the price was very good. After a couple of weeks getting the grind and the tamp right the espresso I’m getting now is top notch!

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  3. The machine is much cheaper when ordered from amazon.co.uk. It is sold for 160 pounds which is about 180 EUR. If you have a friend in the UK they can order an amazon.co.uk warehouse deal for 115 pounds. A euro plug adapter is just 3 EUR. This is the cheapest way to get the Gaggia afaik.

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  4. I have had the Classic for many years. Lately I haven’t used it much, since it seems to “leak” around the bayonette. Do you know if there’s a gasket that would need replacement?

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  5. You mean the grouphead (where the portafilter attaches to) or the steam wand? If it’s the grouphead, you should change the grouphead gasket. You should be able to get the spare from espressoservices.co.uk and change it yourself with these instructions: http://www.bluebox.com.au/jcrayon/gaggia/ You may want to change the shower plate holder to a brass one while you’re at it, since you’ll be removing it anyway. If it’s the steam wand that’s leaking, I don’t know really. Mine has leaked slightly ever since the machine was new, and other owners have this as well, but it hasn’t really bothered me.

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  6. I was wondering which specific basket you were referring to when you wrote:
    “The one from EspressoServices.co.uk, for example, is better: it properly clicks in the portafilter.”

    Thanks in advance!
    Christopher

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  7. I have found that the Gaggia Classic is an excellent machine for modifications. I added a small computer to give me good control of initial temperature, temperature throughout brew and pump power. Ie, temperature profiling, pressure/flow profiling and pre-infusion.

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  8. Thanks! Quite satisfied. Slightly concerned about the long-term durability of the aluminium bits. And even though the coffee is better than most cafés, it’ll never be as good as the very best of them, because of temperature instability (small aluminium boiler, water temperature is not constant in the 25-30s. it takes to pull a shot). This is still an entry-level setup, despite the cost of around 600 Euros. Espresso at home is expensive, there’s no getting around that.

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  9. Hi!

    Thanks very much for great advice. I am using this Gaggia since a couple of weeks along with a basic Bodum Bistro grinder and my shots actually make much better latte’s than these I can get in coffee shop that I’m working for, using their worn out and unflushed Fraccino machines. The funny part is that I’m using pressurized basket at the moment! But in spite of well-tasting shots, I’m upgrading to a standard basket, cause this “perfect crema” thing gets clogged up all the time and I dont even have idea how to bring it back to work. Plus I hate it for the fact I can’t really diagnose anything like pouring time or tamping cause, since standard commercial portafilter behaves a bit different.

    Would you mind to clarify this two questions for me?

    1. “don’t leave the stuff it in the boiler for ages (20 minutes tops, less will do)” – what does it mean? Especially what do you mean, 20 min tops?
    2. How do you descale your Gaggia and how do you backflush it? I read everything on the shop’s website carefuly and from what I read, Puly Cleaner baby is the same time for backflushing and descaling – but how ? I didn’t read manual, my parcel is still on the way.

    Cheers from London!

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  10. Hi Luke!

    Glad that the post was useful. Check out the Seattle Coffee Gear video on backflushing vs. descaling here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ov8yoTpnpkY Also, here’s a video on descaling: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSXC3zuHbNU and here’s one on backflushing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cPIzKBY3pU

    Basically, backflushing is cleaning the grouphead and the three-way valve by changing the portafilter basket to a “blind basket” (with no holes), applying detergent (Puly Caff, Cafiza or simila) and turning the pump on for a few seconds. Because you have the blind basket in, no water comes out of the grouphead, instead the water is “backflushed” into the grouphead and the three-way valve and when you turn the pump off the soapy water exits to the drip tray. Do this a few times, remove the soap from the basket, and do it a few times more with no soap to clean the soap out. You should do this once a month or a few times a month.

    Descaling, on the other hand, is using an acidic solution to remove limescale from the inside of the boiler. You mix the descaler with water, pour the water into the tank, turn the machine on and run the pump for a few seconds so that the boiler is filled with the descaler, then you turn off the machine and let it sit, max. 20min, not more. Then you turn the machine and the pump back on and run the rest of the descaler through the machine, followed by a few tanks of clean water to clean it out. This you need to do once every month or a few months.

    You need to do both and you need different chemicals for each. Puly Baby Cleaner is a descaler, so don’t backflush with it.

    Hope that helps!

    Tuukka

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  11. It’s great. I forgot to tell you I know backflushing from commercial Fraccino machines but they are of very different, more automatic construction. We use this sort of soap: http://www.selectcateringsolutions.com/images/images_big/Quartz.jpg

    I will buy some detergent later, I missed the fact they had Puly Caff in this shop, because I found description of Puly Baby tiny bit misguiding (One sachet descales and cleans one machine.” and they suggested those sachets are for domestic machines and all the rest of stuff is for commercials (plus come in bigger containers)

    It’s a-ok. Thanks A LOT for making all the stuff clear for me! And for the prompt response too. I appreciate it very much!

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  12. Gaggia has the worst customer support I’ve ever dealt with for any product I’ve ever bought.I would suggest buying any other brand but this brand.customer service does not have the common courtesy to return emails or deal with complaints.my machine completely broke down twice. The first time they replaced almost every interior components in a second time all those components failed once again so how they deal with it this time by not returning emails.this is a sad excuse of a consumer products company

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  13. Hi Jan,

    Last item on that page, “Gaggia Double Filter basket Price £3.95 (exc. VAT) Gaggia Italia non pressurised Standard Double Filter Basket14g – use 58mm Tamper”. I’ll update the link.

    Have fun,
    Tuukka

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  14. Thanks for a tremendously useful post! Based on your post, I selected Gaggia Classic as our espresso machine and it was the right call.

    Gaggia have modified the Classic slightly as of 2015. The boiler is not only 3 times larger, it is steel which naturally makes using it safer and cleaning it much less of a hassle.

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