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The Gaggia Classic has a long lineage and I’ve seen it evolve from the original Gaggia Coffee that was the premier machine in Italy. It did not do well in this market because it was comparatively very expensive and required some serious insider knowledge. The US market was used to the mass produce "toys" of the time; they were deemed "exotic".
The department stores bought these cheap plastic imposters, but the American public didn’t know espresso from a soda. Thus our first foray to the world of Italian coffee was a bitter failure. We didn’t grow up with coffee bars every 100 feet or an espresso machine in nearly every household. I remember my dad drinking burnt percolator coffee each morning, everyone did. Let’s face it, we were clueless. However, we are not tasteless. When Joe Dimaggio started pushing those Mr. Coffee drip coffee makers it was more then a gimmick. It was better tasting coffee and the percolator died practically overnight. Notice that Joe was Italian.
First and foremost I found that Gaggia did not skimp on the mechanics. The Classic was designed to satisfy those that know how to make coffee a.k.a. The Ritual. The basis for a proper espresso is the brewing environment. Gaggia kept the commercial group and portafilter handle, although expensive compared to most of their competition; it was an area they obviously were not prepared to compromise. The portafilter is constructed of forged chrome plated brass - a solid pound mind you. In fact, it will fit into Gaggia’s top of the line commercial machine. The handle itself is plastic that screws to the filter holder. History has shown that it is prone to breaking (cost about $20) - probably caused from users smacking the handle against the sink or plain and simple heavy usage. The filter baskets meet commercial requirements at 58 mm and are made of industry standard stainless steel.
I’ve only known garbage disposers destroy them and believe me - they don’t go quietly. The group is also a forged chrome plated brass and it is massive. I can’t say for sure, but I would be surprised if this was not right off the commercial assembly line - with only a redesign to match up to the boiler. Gaggia decided to include a fancy sounding technical part called the 3-way solenoid valve. Very few home machines will have this feature that is normally only found on the commercial equipment. So what is the big deal? Most people don’t care, but the coffee geeks out there will appreciate it.
To be succinct, it relieves the pressure from the brewing process. Remember the pressure is around 9 bars which is enough to give you then bends if you were that far underwater. The relief of this pressure is instantaneous and gives a satisfying whoosh when the pump is turned off. A big side benefit is that the water used in brewing is sucked out and directed to the drip tray. Coffee grounds go from soupy mess to a nearly dry puck that comes out nicely when you knock the portafilter against the sink - I recommend a knox box however. The next benefit is that you won’t be compelled to do the forbidden - rinse out the soupy coffee residue with tap water. The result is you have just destroyed the temperature stability of the portafilter. If you plan on preparing another shot of espresso you will have to lock it in the group and wait a few minutes for it to come back up to temperature (a blank shot will speed things up and is discussed later). The 3-way solenoid valve is one of those features that doesn’t really make the coffee better but enhances the handling of the machine.
Lets continue to look under the hood with a little history first. Most espresso machines these days owe their existence to Achille Gaggia who in 1938 patented the first electric motor pump system for an espresso machine. The pump is the heart of the process that allowed for a consistent brew pressure of about 8 to 9 bar. This invention solved that consistent pressure problem that the piston (manual) espresso machines were bad at. Not that they were bad by design, in fact in the right hands some will say they pistons make the best espresso. The problem was finding those "right hands". The pump became the hands and the process was greatly simplified, so much so that it was a true revolution compared to the hundreds of years the Italians have been perfecting the brewing process.
Gaggia uses a 55-watt vibration pump, sometimes called a reciprocating pump. Picture a single cylinder piston engine. As the motor rotates it pulls water into the cylinder and then pushes it out with valves that open and close to keep the water moving in one direction. This type of pump can be loud because it does "vibrate" and the motor mounts will make the difference in the annoyance factor. The sound is not as grating as a blender or a baby crying and more like someone humming loudly – about 60 to 70 decibels for most espresso machines. The motor strength is the highest that we have seen for any home machine and the repair record for Gaggia’s shows few repairs for motor failure. This speaks loudly for Gaggia in part because they have been around so long and customers are more apt to fix them then toss them as compared to mainstream department store disposables. The heating elements are very unique. Instead of submerging them directly into the water, they ingeniously designed for 2 heating elements and embedded into the external sides of the boiler. Making the whole boiler a heater. The obvious benefits are much greater surface area to heat the water and for you chemists this means lower watt density - which means fewer propensities to create scale or calcium buildup. If you don’t know about scale buildup take heed, it is the number one reason for machine failure. The heating elements draw 1,370 watts of power - the competition varies from 800 to 1,080 which is significant. For comparison; the highend pro-sumer models (professional machines for the consumer) like the ECM Giotto and the Expobar Office Pulsar run 1,300 and 1,428 watts respectively. So between the pump and the heating elements this machine should have the horsepower to "bring it". But does it?
I decided to do a quick comparison of the Classic to the prosumer machines because specs tell only part of the story and can mask out less empirical data like quality of espresso and steam delivery. For that purpose other home machines that have less developed brewing components, pressurized portafilter handles and thermo-bloc boiler were not considered for this comparison. The test group is the Expo Bar Pulsar, ECM Giotto and the Pasquini Livia 90 - very rugged pro-sumer machines that some would say is unfair to compare to a lowly home unit. But who said anything about fair? If you are considering the Gaggia Classic this quickie review should answer some questions on what you could be compromising.
The extraction temperature was measured at the pour spouts after for a series of 3 shots. The Gaggia exhibited an 8-degree delta from 182 to 190 degrees (all temperatures are in fahrenheit), which is amongst the best for its price point compatriots. However, the Goliaths showed greater temperature stability and a higher temperature. The pro-sumers with their commercial heat exchanger stay within 0 to 2 degrees over the course of 3 extractions and at a temperature range between 190 to 198.
The Classic performed superbly in brewing however. If you toss the first shot, the espresso was excellent, full of crema and the pour was beautiful to watch. Obviously there was some heat loss to the brew group and portafilter handle. The temperature ready light turned on in only 65 seconds which is not nearly enough time to heat all that brass. I recommend you wait 6 minutes and run a blank shot before making your first shot.
It will help preheat the group; activate the pump with the portafilter in place but without the coffee. If you run the blank into your cup it will be preheated as well. This procedure will eliminate the first shot blues.
Like the big boys, the Classic is very sensitive to the quality, consistency and fineness of the coffee grind. So having a quality burr grinder is important. However, the Classic has what is called a perfect crema device that helps to reduce the sensitively by ensuring you are at least obtaining a proper pressure in the group for brewing. It is not quite “prefect” but it expands the usage of this machine to novices on the way to becoming more skilled. In the end, I opt not to use it and hope that owners wean themselves off of it.
Our steaming tests were performed with water instead of milk. Sounds strange but there are some very good reasons for this. When testing steaming capabilities we look at dilution in addition to frothing ability and time. This is an indication of steam “dryness” and milk expands as it is heated and would give a false reading. When steaming with a single boiler system there is a wait time to get the boiler from brewing to steaming temperature. The Classic was able to produce what we call useable steam in 35 seconds. You could wait for the steam ready light but this test is about speed. So, the 35 seconds was a judgement call based on trial and error and used for this test. The pro-sumer group being heat exchanger systems had no wait time, but 35 seconds is still very respectable.
The Classic proved to be considerably slower with 8 ounces taking 96 seconds to 160 degrees vs. 26 to 48 seconds for the test group. The dilution for the Classic was about a half ounce more at 9.5 ounces after steaming 8 ounces of milk for a total of 1.5 ounces of water dilution. Yes, steaming will add more water then you imagined. For 12 ounces of milk the Classic started to slow down which is a direct relation to it’s much smaller boiler. It took 2 min and 40 second compared to 43 seconds for the Livia and just over a minute for the Giotto. The resulting dilution was 15 ounces or 3 ounces of water vs. between 1 to 2 ounces for the test group.
Steaming milk is part of the process but the frothing ability is the other. Why? Because the quality of the froth has so much to do with the texture and ultimate satisfaction of the drinking experience. My last trip to Milan (Italy) I spent considerable time walking from coffee bar to coffee bar and I rarely had to walk more then 100 feet. I experienced a large variation in what I perceive quality to be. I have much more to tell about this and will in a future article’s, but suffice it to say – the Gaggia Classic has no problem reproducing what I experienced. The storied “micro-froth” that is all the rage in the US right now is more easily achieved with the prosumer machines in our test. The turbo-frother device of the Classic makes a relatively thick froth with little knowledge. The working of the milk during the frothing process is so important and there is little room for error on machines that have tradition steaming wands.
The Classic minimizes the error for a very good froth. For a great froth some customers and our own tech Guru Todd, have found that removing the turbo frother device does the trick. In essence, steaming like a one of our pro-sumer machines. It is more difficult for a novice to achieve good results and requires trial, error and a lot of milk. But, the Gaggia will allow you to try it. The steam wand on the Classic is 3.75” long which is the same as the Pasquini Liva 90, but shorter than the comparison group with the Giotto being 5” and the ExpoBar 5.75”. The angle of the wand in another factor that is more difficult to take into account but in the final analysis the Classic can handle at maximum a 20-oz steaming pitcher. With that size steaming pitcher the wand will reach down far enough so that you can effectively work the milk. The container will need to be filled at least halfway. We further recommend that you try to steam no more then 12 oz of milk with the Classic due to the boiler size. This capacity is puny compared to the rest of the test group so it does have limits if you choose to entertain more then 4 quests with a traditional cappuccino. A traditional cappuccino is will require about 3 ounces of milk including the froth. Keep in mind that if your making American style lattes you may require 8 or more ounces of milk for each drink.
The beauty of this machine is almost an after thought compared to the details that go into evaluating the beast side. It is as always in the eye of the beholder and the beholder in this case is me, but I also take into account what I heard from other sources. I will relate the nickel-plated surface of the Classic as it compares to stainless steel – the hottest kitchen appliance finish on the market for several years now. The stainless steel look reeks of adjectives like highend, professional and hi-tech. By contrast, the nickel finish is very similar but when I see it on the Classic I think elegant and beautiful in the same sentence. The brushed nickel finish is probably my favorite; it comes off as more muted and less harsh then the brushed stainless counterpart. The polished version of the Classic is almost indistinguishable from polished stainless steel and appears to be more mirror like. The housing is constructed of a single sheet of carbon steel held together with industrial spot welds. It is so thick and the welds so strong that UPS has never damaged a single machine to my knowledge – no small feet I might add.
The control buttons are centrally placed, oversized and easy to read. Gaggia decided to stay away from electronic buttons or smallish push buttons and went to old reliable mechanical rocker switches. A great idea that lends itself to the overall design of durability. There are no weak links in the machine design and this itself is beauty. The water reservoir can be filled from the top or removed out the front. The pour over design is better then most because there you are given a greater margin of error - as in; less likely to flood the internal electronics. I can’t say that this is a notable problem for any machines that we sell, but electronics and water never mix. Just ask my son Jesse who left his Mom’s new digital camera in the rain. Actually, the biggest water pouring problem I’ve seen lately is when people mistake the bean hopper on their superautomatic espresso machines for the water tank. A real catch 22, you need caffeine to wake up, but you need water to.
In the end, the Classic is not a prosumer killer, but at one half to one third the price you will obtain results that can challenge the coffee bars of Milan. It will be a machine that is both reliable and not hit the pocket book too hard now or through repairs in the future. If you choose to move up to one of the prosumer machines in the future you will have a huge head start on how to operate one. I call that a win, win, win.