Serious cuppa joe

Years ago—too many to count—I worked at a technology company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a stone’s throw from MIT in Central Square.

My colleagues and I often made our way to Harvard Square for lunch or drinks after work.

We also frequented a cafe named Coffee Connection, and it was there that I really gained an appreciation for good coffee. They had numerous varieties of beans and roasts from all over the world, and you could order any of them in drip brew, French press, espresso, latte, or cappuccino.

Coffee Connection was a locally owned business, and there were one or two other locations in Massachusetts, if memory serves. Eventually the company was snapped up by Starbucks. I’ve spent more than a few dollars at their cafes over the years, as well.

At $3 or $4 a cup, you can imagine how a regular Starbucks habit could add up to some serious coin over a year’s time. I crunched the numbers and decided that buying a espresso/cappuccino machine for home use would pay for itself. That was years ago, and I’ve since worn out three or four machines at home.

Brewing a superior cup of coffee, I’ve found, requires not only quality coffee beans, but good equipment, as well.

Choosing a machine

My weapon of choice these days is the Gaggia Anima Deluxe, an automatic espresso/cappuccino machine. Gaggia is an Italian company based in Milan, and still manufactures most of its equipment in Italy, although this machine was manufactured in Romania.

We’ll talk mostly about the Gaggia machine here, and touch a bit on coffee beans, as well. This is a technology blog, after all, and most modern home espresso machines are serious technological devices.

Prior to the Gaggia, I owned another automatic espresso machine—the ESAM3300—from DeLonghi, another Italian company. That machine served me faithfully for six or seven years and thousands of cups of espresso and cappuccino until it recently developed a leak. I looked into having the machine repaired, but the hassle of shipping it to the closest authorized repair shop in Connecticut, combined with an indeterminate (likely expensive) repair cost, convinced me to buy a new machine.

I did a fair amount of online research and had focused in on two or three machines in my price range. The Gaggia machine was not one of them, but quite by accident, I stumbled on an eBay auction for “a brand new” Gaggia with a price that approached 50% of manufacturer’s list, including free shipping.

That sent me off to research the Gaggia machine, looking at online reviews and prices from other vendors. Everything was pretty positive, so I did some research on the seller, who had an extensive 100% feedback rating on eBay. I sent him a few questions about the provenance of the unit he was selling, which he promptly answered.

All was good, so I pulled the trigger. The cost was $500 (although original list price was over $1000). Since this is last year’s model, it is now available on Amazon for $749.

Learning curve

I have to say after about six weeks, the Gaggia is performing like a champ and is the best machine I’ve owned. It makes really good espresso and cappuccino (with a quirky but cool milk steamer attachment).

When you buy such a machine, you discover that there’s a bit of a learning curve, and you must read the instructions a few times to commit its operation to memory.

The Gaggia manual is dense, and the illustrations are small and barely adequate. But it’s passable.

There are a few things to consider when owning an automatic espresso machine: day-to-day operation and ongoing maintenance.

Day-to-day operation is pretty straightforward after you learn the procedures.

Maintenance is multi-step and multi-level. There are a lot of moving parts and embedded systems, and they all must receive periodic maintenance.

I talk about both operation and maintenance later in this post.

In terms of other capabilities, the Gaggia can dispense hot water for tea. It can also be used with ground coffee for that occasional decaf espresso or cappuccino. And if someone gets a yen for hot chocolate, the milk frother can dispense plenty of steamed milk for the purpose.

Morning cuppa

People who know me know it’s best to wait until I’ve had my morning cup of coffee before attempting to converse with me.

As soon as I wake up, I’m heading toward the machine and preparing for my morning jolt—a vente cappuccino.

The Gaggia makes rather small shots of espresso, and it takes two double-shots to fill about half of my coffee mug. The other half is reserved for the steamed milk.

The Gaggia grinds enough beans for each double-shot and automatically dispenses the coffee through the front-facing spout. The spout height is adjustable (a nice feature), so I can fit my full-sized coffee mug beneath it.

After two double-shots are dispensed, I need to fire up the milk steamer. This is a separate nozzle to the left of the coffee spout. Attached to the nozzle is a rubber tube, the open end of which goes into a second cup that I’ve added the milk to.

A push of a button starts the pump and sucks the milk up into a steamer, then dispenses the steamed, foamy milk from the nozzle into my coffee cup. When the cup is nearly empty, I press another button to stop the steamer. I repeat the process with a cup of clean water to clean the steamer, completing what is a bit of a convoluted procedure, to be sure.

Add a bit of cinnamon on the steamed milk at the top of my cappuccino, and I’m about to experience coffee nirvana.

 Maintenance requirements

The Gaggia renders coffee through a relatively simple process, but there’s a lot going on inside this not-so-simple machine. There are tubes, pumps, a heater, filters, a used coffee receptacle, a catch basin, and a brew-group unit, all of which require routine maintenance.

Because water calcifies, coffee beans are oily, and the machine generates waste matter after each cup, you really must adhere to prescribed maintenance schedules if you’re going to own an automatic machine.

Otherwise, the machine is going to eventually perform badly, and probably break down.

There are multiple maintenance routines, all of which must be completed on schedule to keep the unit operating properly.

  • Daily, I need to run clean water through the milk steaming assembly.
  • Weekly, I need to remove, empty and clean the used coffee and catch basins, as well as the brew-group assembly. Let everything dry, then reassemble the machine.
  • Monthly, I need to remove and sanitize the milk steaming assembly, remove all coffee beans and wipe down the coffee compartments, degrease the water basin and water filter, and lubricate the brew-group assembly. (Gaggia sells supplies of degreasing tablets and a food-grade lubricant for this purpose, both available on Amazon for about $20 total.)
  • Quarterly (approximately), I need to descale the water lines. Gaggia sells a descaling liquid for this purpose, also available from Amazon. The electronic display on the machine indicates when descaling is necessary. I just performed this operation for the first time, and it’s really pretty straightforward.

So, regular routine maintenance is required, but it should keep the machine functioning properly for years to come. Factoring in all costs, I should be at break-even by next year.

About the coffee

There’s a concept in computer programming called GIGO—garbage-in, garbage-out. If you feed a program bad data, its output is going to be useless.

This is true of coffee, as well. I used to be a sucker for coffee on sale at my local grocery store, which periodically offers Starbucks, Peet’s, Newman’s Own, and several other brands on sale.

The problem is that the shelf life of roasted whole bean coffee, even though it’s in ostensibly vacuum-sealed packaging is not that long—two or three weeks, maybe a bit longer.

When it’s on sale, coffee usually isn’t that fresh. I’ve had passable coffee and stale coffee, but I’ve never had truly fresh coffee that I purchased on sale.

Lately, I’ve been buying small-lot roasted coffee beans online from GoCoffeeGo, which is a clearinghouse for boutique roasters in the U.S. The coffee is more expensive, but it’s typically way more fresh and is delivered to my door within two days after ordering.

Plus, I can try beans in light, medium, and dark roasts from every conceivable coffee-growing region in the world. And all the roasters I’ve tried so far are Fair Trade certified.

In conclusion

So, is all this expense, all this work and all this obsessing worth it, to get an exceptional cup of coffee? To me, there’s no question. If you’re going to consume a lot of something, shouldn’t it be of good quality and provide some joy?

The Gaggia machine has so far delivered. I’m putting in fresh coffee beans, and it’s putting out great coffee.

Joyous, indeed.

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