The Perfect Super-Automatic for the Technologically Challenged
Okay, I have to admit it. I’m a super-automatic virgin. While I’ve tinkered with them, read about them, even described them from a purely theoretical standpoint, I’ve never actually made a cup of espresso with them. Quite frankly, I’m very happy making espresso with a semi, because it’s easy. Put the portafilter in place, hit the brew button and espresso comes out, press the brew button again and the espresso stops coming out, pull my cup out from under the machine and voila! I’m done.
I’m a big fan of simple, which, of course, is the excuse I use to mask my inaptitude for the higher tech products of the world. Listen, my VCR has been blinking 12:00am for over nine years now, if that gives you any clue as to what kind of technological illiterate I am. And yes thank you, I am aware that no one even has a VCR anymore. Further testament to my lack of technical prowess.
But I am setting aside my fear of bells and whistles, gadgets and gizmos and diving into the high-tech world of the super-automatic. Which is supposed to be super easy, right? Yeah, we’ll see. Join me as I go through the machine as a true beginner. And kids, trust me when I tell you, if I’m successful, absolutely anybody can use it.
Okay, so the Gaggia Syncrony Compact Digital just arrived in my office and got plugged in. I notice the water reservoir, that sits in the back of the machine, is full. (Sure the one thing that I can do is already done for me. Figures.) But I have to admit, it does look fairly innocuous. Actually, it’s a cute little bugger. It’s a pretty, smoky silver, and from a distance, sort of looks like a mini ATM machine. Which is rather apropos I suppose, as it does dispense gold - liquid gold that is.
So I venture over for a closer look. Yikes! There’s buttons and displays and symbols. Ooo, okay, there’s the bean hopper (which holds 7.5 ounces of beans, by the way). It sits right in front of the removable reservoir, with a little silver lift off door, and empties right into the conical burr grinder. Yup, there’s the grind setting knob with 0 to 18 clearly marked. And the dose control knob right beside it, also clearly marked with a plus symbol (more coffee) at one side, a minus symbol (less coffee) at the other side, and a handful of notches in between so you can set it to the amount you like best. Let’s kick this up to high joltage, shall we. There. (And in case you’re wondering, yes there are already beans in it for me - you guessed it, the only other thing I know how to do.)
In front of the bean hopper sits the bypass doser in case you want to use pre-ground coffee instead of grinding your own beans. It takes up to 9 grams of pre-ground - enough for a single shot of espresso. And it’s a nice feature if you have regular espresso beans in the hopper and you’ve got someone who wants a quick decaf. (Of course to me decaf is the equivalent of near-beer - why bother? But that’s just me.)
Alrighty, moving on. Oh boy, how do you even turn this thing on? I start punching buttons and nothing’s happening. Man oh man, I’m in way over my head here. I am not even attempting this without the user’s manual in one hand and a tech guy in the other. I need a cigarette. I’ll be back…
…Okay, I’m back. With the manual. (I figured I’d give it a whack without a tech guy to start.) Let’s have a quick read, shall we? Hmm…
Ah the on switch is in the back right above the power cord. (Apparently I would have descaled the machine about 14 times had it been on when I was hitting the random buttons. Good thing it was off, huh?)
Okay, let’s turn this puppy on shall we? I hit the switch and it starts whirring like a fax machine, and spitting water out of the adjustable dual brewing spout on the left. (Thank goodness for the removable drip tray - with fashionable removable stainless steel grate (quick marketing blurb there) - because I sure wasn’t expecting that to happen.) Panic sets in. Oh, no! I’ve broken it, I lament to myself, and immediately begin calculating how much of my paycheck will be going to pay for it. Oops, wait, it’s okay. It’s just warming up and rinsing itself I see from the digital display. What a smart little guy this machine is.
Getting Myself into Hot Water
Well, while it’s getting itself ready, let’s bone up on some of the details, shall we? It has two stainless steel boilers - one for steaming and one for brewing. And you can switch between the two with a simple push of a button or turn of the steam knob (the little silver protrusion on the right side of the machine). I’m familiar with that - the Rapid Steam feature (see I know all this stuff in theory). The steam and hot water come out of the stainless steel steam wand on the right hand side of the machine. The steam wand swings side to side for easy access by the way. Oh! It’s Gaggia’s new and improved turbo frother steam wand I see, so even an idiot (talking about myself here folks) can make perfect froth every time. (That’s a whole other set of issues I’ll get into at a later date.) Well, that’s good to know. So let’s go see if we can figure out how to get hot water out of this thing…
I approach the little silver Satan with a cup in hand and, holding it under the steam wand, I turn the steam dial. The display screen reads "steam" and there’s a knocking - or pumping - sound but nothing’s really happening. Then some water dribbles out, and then some steam. Oh, for petessake…
Ah, right! I need to hit the hot water button - which is the button with the little water droplet on it - to switch it back and forth from steam to hot water. So I press the button, Yes! The digital display reads hot water and bingo! On cue, hot water starts coming out of the steam wand. I turn the dial off and the water stops flowing. Success! I can now use the machine as a teakettle.
I pat the top of the Compact Digital and notice that it’s passive cup warmer is working nicely - actually the left side is warmer than the right side, so my guess is that’s where the boilers sit. And with that, I smugly trot back to my desk and pick up the manual to read on. This victory over technology - albeit a small one - has spawned my curiosity and now I want to know what all the little buttons on the top are for.
Ah here we are. And, in order from left to right, they are: single cup espresso (tiny cup icon), single regular cup of coffee (medium cup icon), and large cup (big cup icon). Press these buttons twice for doubles.
The next three buttons are: the pre-ground option (coffee scoop with grinds flowing out of it icon), steam/hot water button (water drop icon) and descaling (two interlocking ovals - one black, one clear - very zen).
Now it’s important to note these are these buttons’ functions when you’re actually using the machine to make a drink. They take on whole new meanings when you’re in programming mode (more on that later). But quite frankly, I’m good with the pre-programmed factory settings, so why stir up that hornet’s nest at this point?
The Brewing Brew-ha-ha
With a heavy sigh, I realize that I can’t put off the inevitable any longer, and brace myself as I head back over to the machine to make my first cup of espresso. It is the moment of reckoning. The ultimate man - or, in this case, woman - versus machine showdown. The machine throws down the gauntlet, cunningly inviting me to begin by displaying "Select Product Ready For Use" across its screen. So I sit a demitasse cup under the spout, take a deep breath, hit the small cup button for a cup of espresso and stand back.
The digital display reads "1 Small Coffee" with a cute single cup symbol in the lower right hand side of the display, and the machine starts whirring. The word "prebrewing" appears on the screen and I notice that a little black bar* appears beside the cup icon. Ah so it’s pre-infusing the grinds I realize, noticing with pride that the whole picture is starting to come together.
And then the liquid started to flow. I could barely contain my excitement as I watched the dark brown - no wait - slightly cloudy hot water flow into my cup. What the -?? What did I do wrong? Where’s my freaking espresso?
I panic, not knowing whether to run, get a tech guy, or start punching buttons, or just give up and settle for a cup of green tea. "Get a grip," I tell myself. "Don’t do anything rash. Think about this for a moment." What was the process again? Oh that’s right, press a button. How could I possibly have screwed that up?
Then it hit me like a bolt of lightening. When I had been pressing the buttons like a crazy woman I had hit the pre-ground or by-pass button without a doubt. So I pressed that button again to remove it from the display, emptied the pond water out of my cup, and hit the small cup button again. "This better work," I silently threatened the machine.
And it did. This time I actually heard the beans grind (a sound that, looking back on it, was glaringly absent during my first attempt). Then, after grinding and pre-infusing, the rich brown elixir - yes sir that’s right, Houston we have espresso! - started to flow and then automatically stopped when it had reached its pre-programmed amount.
I pulled out my cup, complete with a beautiful layer of crema, and took a sip. Mmm. Very nice. Woo hoo! And it really was easy! Emboldened by my success, I decided to try the different sizes and was merrily brewing along, when half-way through a large cup, the machine stopped dead and the word "Ventilate" appeared on the display screen. Ventilate? What on God’s green earth does that mean, ventilate?
Okay, that’s it. I can no longer go it alone. My nerves are shot and I need help. So I go to our customer service department and, with my hands on my hips, I state in utter disgust (more at my stupidity than at the machine), "Alright I’m using the Digital and the word Ventilate appears and it stopped brewing. Why? Why? WHY? Can anyone tell me what that means?"
A dear sweet patient soul named Priscilla took off her headset, patted my hand and brought me back to my office. "It’s okay," she said soothingly, and approached the beast - reminding me of how the Horsewhisperer approached the crazy horse in the movie. She turned to me, "All this means is that you have a little air in the line. Just run the steam wand for a sec and it’ll clear right up." And sure enough, it did and I was back in business.
"Thank you so much," I gushed gratefully.
"No problem," she said with a smile and a wave of the hand. And with that she returned to the land of customer service where I knew her patience and talents were so needed and appreciated.
I made a few more drinks without incident and realized with delight I had mastered the machine. Alright, truth be told, I realized there really was nothing to it. It really was as simple as pressing a button. But, by god, isn’t that the point of technology? Not to confuse and confound us, but to make our life easier?
*Now here’s a neat little feature. That little black bar gets taller and taller as the coffee brews. When it reaches the top of the cup icon, your coffee is done - so it has a little "brewing progress" indicator, which is pretty cool. Of course the machine shuts off automatically when it’s done brewing anyway, so you don’t have to worry about your cup overflowing - and don’t worry I tested that theory to make sure it worked.
On the Inside
By this point, I’d pretty much emptied the reservoir and the bean hopper, so I figured it was time to relieve the dump box of its used grinds. So where are the pucks? I know there’s an internal dump box, but how do I get to it? I start tugging on the front of the machine, gently at first, and a bit more aggressively as nothing happens.
Ah, there we go. The whole front panel swings open from the left side and the drip tray and drop box slide off as one unit. The dump box then pops out of the entire assembly for dumping. (Oh, and as further evidence as to how smart this little machine is, it will even tell you when to empty the dump box on the display screen. I just didn’t have the patience to wait for it. My curiosity got the better of me.)
Wow, look at how cute these pucks are. They’re about the size of a poker chip in diameter and about a half inch thick. And completely dry. Apparently the Compact Digital really depressurizes itself nicely, huh?
Well while the machine is open, there’s the brew group, which pops right out. Ooow! Important safety tip: turn the machine off and let it cool down before you remove it - using the thumb release lever. To clean it, use the included brew group brush, or simply rinse it and let it dry before you put it back. To clean the screens, just use the included brew group key to remove the screens. And just so as you know, this maintenance only takes about 5 minutes - or one unusually long commercial break during your favorite TV show.
And Now, Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Programming
Okay, so I now know how to make hot water and steam, a good cup of coffee or espresso, and even how to clean the machine. There’s only one thing left. Yup, you guessed it programming. But that’s supposed to be easy, and I was feeling - dare I say it - confident, so I decided to give it a go.
First I decided I wanted to change the preset cup sizes. So, true to form, I walk up and start punching buttons. Now, you can’t blame me, because on the control panel there’s a little round button that says OK and next to it is the word "Menu." So wouldn’t ya think? Well, come to find out that takes you through the menu of all the programmable features - except the drink sizes.
Just a quick aside while we’re on the subject. You can program a ton of things on the Digital Compact - everything from automatic shutoff, the temperature of your coffee, the time, the timer, your water hardness for the water filter system, and even what language you want your Digital to talk to you in. (I say have some fun and program it in German and let your significant other try to figure out how to get it back to English.)
It’s really easy to program all these features too. Just hit the Menu button and use the up and down scroll keys (which you’ll find on the small cup and medium cup buttons). When you find the feature you want to program, hit the menu or "OK" key again and scroll through your options under that feature. When you find the option you want hit OK again and badda-bing! it’s programmed. When you’re all done, make sure you hit the ESC button (which is on the large cup button). This will take you back into brewing mode. The machine will self test and then be ready to go using all your new settings. Oh, and here’s a helpful hint: If you get messing around with the buttons and screw up your settings, just scroll back to "Factory Settings" and scroll to "Yes," hit "OK" and then ESC and the Digital will automatically reset itself to the same settings it had before you started experimenting. (The equivalent of wiping the slate clean.)
All that being said, back to my drink size dilemma. I was at a loss (and you know, heaven forbid I try to find it in the manual). Well, my office mate watched me struggle and sputter, quietly laughing to herself. Then, when she realized the machine and my sanity were both in serious jeopardy, she stepped in.
"Give up yet?" she asked with a smile.
"Yes," I blustered.
"Watch," she goes. "It’s really easy." And with that, proceeded to show me just how easy it was using the espresso - or small cup - size.
"Pick the cup of the coffee that you want to change the volume on. Press and HOLD that button all the way through the entire process - grinding, tamping, pre-infusing and dispensing. When you have the amount of coffee you want for that size dispensed, then let go of the button. From that point on, the amount you just selected is the new volume for that cup size."
"Wow, that is easy," I agreed, realizing of course that I never would have figured that out on my own. To make sure I could do it too, I practiced on the large cup size, and am happy to report I got it on the first try, thanks to my wonderful coach.
I Am a Technological Super-Hero
As I sit back down at my desk to drink my cup of coffee, I am completely pumped. And I’m not talking that spastic, whirry feeling you get from having too much caffeine at one time (my assignment had "forced" me to consume over 6 cups of coffee within a couple of hours). I am talking pure pride and satisfaction that comes from mastering something you thought you’d never be able to do (again, yes I realize it was stupid easy - but this was a big step for me so a little sympathy please). In fact, I’m so stoked, I think I’m going to take on my blinking VCR tonight.
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