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.
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.
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!
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!