I usually can't go more than two or three days without getting this kind of email message:
"Hi Mark. I am an espresso newbie with a limited budget. All these $300, $400, $700, $1000 machines scare me off. Is there any good machine available for under $200?"
For the longest time, I had no answer to this question. That is until the Gaggia Carezza hit the scene. Originally selling for $249, then $229, it can now be found under $200 online, (this has since gone back up to $229 as of October, 2003). This machine is still brand new to market - ours has a serial number of 000972 part of the first thousand! :) Now it's up to me and a special CoffeeGeek Reviewer, Doug Wiebe, to find out if this machine is up to snuff.
Out of the Box
Gaggia (and it's parent company, Saeco) have gone all out on this machine, hoping that it would be seen on major department store shelves. Frankly it should, based on this initial evaluation, but we'll get to that in a minute. The box is one of those shiny bright modern looking appliance boxes that grabs the eye with some good quality photos. It's a much better marketing box than the Gaggia Classic. Even the cappuccino on the box cover doesn't look too bad.
The machine is packed well, with styro braces top and bottom that isolate the machine well. Accessories and portafilters are in a box wedged between the grouphead and drip tray.
Our mantra here is all about RTFM, Read the Frickin' Manual my friends, and so we did. As far as manuals go, this one's pretty good. It even shows a breakdown of the grouphead dispersion screen and mounting plates. The priming instructions are a bit confusing and probably should be revised though - they advise turning the machine on, letting it heat up (with an empty boiler!), then turn the steam and coffee brewing switches on, open the steam wand valve, and wait for a cup of water to pour out.
| Carezza with all included accessories. There was no crema disk inside - good news! |
I would recommend priming it this way: fill the reservoir. Turn the machine on. Open the steam wand knob, placing a steam pitcher under the wand. Turn the brew switch (lowest switch) on, wait for the boiler to fill. Wait for the steam wand to be half filled. Then you're good to go.
Of course, since the heating elements are on the OUTSIDE of the boiler (Gaggias are unique this way), it's not like you're damaging heating coils by running a boiler dry, but still... convention is convention.
The manual gives some good advice (avoid blade grinders), and some not so good advice (all lighter (eg no surface oil) coffee is dry and without flavour - the darker the better???). One big mistake in the manual is talk about the "perfect crema" disk that Gaggia makes and puts in the box with most of their machines. The problem is, it's not included with Carezzas. But it's not a problem after all - the disk is useless, and should be discarded anyway. So while the manual talks about it, don't go looking for it in the box. If you do find one in a later model Carezza, toss it out.
Overall, the manual is a good beginner read, and does contain some very useful and valuable info for the espresso newbie. There's also a dearth of the typical "translation" mistakes - there's a few, but not enough so that you'd notice it or get confused by what they are trying to instruct on.
The machine comes complete with a measuring scoop (all espresso machines generally do), a plastic tamper (yay! Feggedaboutit - buy a decent $30 "pro" tamper, 58mm size), single and double baskets, manual, and Gaggia's big whopping' portafilter. One note about said portafilter. It's not the same identical one to the pictures you see on the box. On the box, the handle is a nice rounded affair that looks fairly comfortable in the hand.
| Carezza grouphead - lots of brass, chrome, and a removable dispersion screen. |
| Gaggia's stock portafilter, with the built in spouts. |
The actual portafilter it comes with is the Gaggia monster sold with all their other machines - heaps of brass (a very good thing for temperature stability), built in dual spouts (no "pro" spouts that can be unscrewed and changed for single), and that user-unfriendly, small person-hating square plastic lightweight handle that is huge and uncomfortable. Gaggia: change your portafilter handle! Everything else (including the built in dual holes) is fine - but the handle sucks!
I noticed the grouphead is well built, lots of brass, and a true bonus on a sub $200 machine: 58mm size (commercial) and you can unscrew the dispersion screen for total cleaning control! Way to go Gaggia!
There is no area for cup warming, one of the sacrifices for a machine in this price range, but I can live with it if the machine has hot water on demand... and according to the manual, it does!
The reservoir is very visible from the front of the machine, a total plus in my book. After testing umpteen machines lately where the water level must be guessed, this is a plus. You can also fill from the top or the side, or remove it completely to fill at the sink - another plus considering this machine is fairly tall. It fits under most cupboards with ease, but at 15 inches tall you ain't gonna be filling the boiler from the lid up top if it's under a typical kitchen cupboard.
The steam knob is also up top, which was an unusual place for me, but I think one would get used to it fast.
Visually, I think the machine looks nice. It's all plastic outside (natch at this price range), but that's okay. I may object to plastic exteriors on $800 machines; but I won't to sub $200 machines. I like the fact that Gaggia addresses a common newbie question (but one newbies are rare to ask for fear of embarrassment): how far do you crank the portafilter. Gaggia makes it easy by putting two markers on the front of the machine: one that shows the angle you insert the PF, one that shows how far you turn it. The Gaggia PF has a line on the black handle that you line up. Easy as pie.
| Carezza's switches are inexpensive plastic, but work good. |
The switches are nice, and while inexpensive, they are probably the best "inexpensive" switches I've seen on a machine. They are big, reasonably well marked and have a solid feel to them. The order they are in screws me up a bit though: normally machines would have switches in the order of: on/off; brew switch; steam switch (some machines with hot water ability would have them as on/off; brew; hot water; steam). The Carezza mixes up the order: On/Off; Steam Switch; Brew Switch. I hope I don't get these confused as I use the machine.
The lights on the machine indicating on status and ready status are pretty small. They don't show up at all under florescent light, and barely show up under incandescent light. In a dark room, you sort of see them lit up. Also, you can see the lights better if you look straight on at them - from above (the usual position you're in when operating it on a counter), they are dimmed considerably.
At 15lbs, the Carezza isn't very heavy, but considering the body is entirely plastic, most of this weight does go into the "innards", so that's a good thing. The interior parts probably weigh similar to the Solis SL70 (which has an almost all metal outer body).
Time to plug this baby in, prime it, and get going!
Following my own instructions for priming the machine (mentioned above), I got the Carezza good to go. Because of the big watt draw (almost 1400) and the tiny boiler (around 100ml), this machine showed a green light in record time, about a minute and a half.
I gave the machine about 10 minutes to heat up fully. I also ran a full reservoir of water through the machine in stages to "flush" it out sufficiently and get some of the newness out. Then I was really ready to go.
As mentioned above, I don't like the feel of the Gaggia portafilter in my hands - it's square and big. I've got big hands. If I'm complaining, I wonder what small hands will feel like. But still, it's a minor complaint. I'm not driving a car and I don't have to have my hand on the PF for more than a few seconds.
I do like the amount of chromed brass in the PF, and I like the 58mm baskets - you get a full industrial shot quality here. Solis, to compare this Gaggia to another machine, makes you trade off - their filters are 53mm,and hold substantially less coffee per double shot.
Using the Mazzer Mini grinder, I tweaked the normal ristretto grind I normally give my Pasquini Livia a bit coarser (not much) for the first try on the Gaggia. I shouldn't have bothered - the resulting shot was a very decent looking 2.5 oz double in about 27 seconds. For my second try, I went back to my "Livia Ristretto" setting on the Mazzer and locked and loaded again.
This time I got a bit of a strain from the Gaggia, but it pumped out about 0.75 ounces in about 28 seconds. By contrast, the Livia will give me about 1.25 ounces in the same time. The Gaggia shot looked good though, but I didn't drink it.
I should point out that this machine doesn't have a 3 way solenoid pressure release valve, so I had to wait up to a minute between shots to safely remove the portafilter. Even then, I got a tiny bit of 'whoosh' from the machine and a bit of a mess of grounds on the grouphead and on the drip tray. No biggie: to put a 3 way solenoid on a $199 machine would be almost a miracle.
One more tiny tweak on the Mazzer (going a bit coarser), and I was good to go for the third shot. Third time's the charm, my Dad always said to me. And it was - I was rewarded with a very good looking shot: a double ristretto pulled in about 26 seconds (about 1.35 oz total volume). So I drank it. Mmmmmmmmmm! This machine has potential!
I wasted the rest of my day's test session doing about a half pound of beans. It seemed to me early on that this machine's performance was on par with the Gaggia Classic, except for the instant pressure release. I also liked the hot water feature (and it's easier to use than the Classic's 2 button press method), but don't expect more than 3 ounces of reasonably hot water. Gaggia's manual recommends putting the machine in steam mode before dishing out hot water, so the initial stuff is even hotter; but I don't recommend that - water flashing to steam and splattering all over the place from the built up pressure is not my idea of safe espresso machine driving. Do it at your own risk :)
First Few Days with the Gaggia Carezza
Colour me impressed (again!) in the first few days with this machine. Steaming performance was okay (though I don't like Gaggia's Turbo Frother), and I love any machine that delivers hot water. I found lots of things to like in my early days testing of the machine.
Okay, so there were also some things I didn't like. Let me get them out of the way:
Pump Can be Noisy: This is a weird pump. When dishing out hot water or filling or repriming the boiler after steaming (which you should always do - the boiler is near empty from steaming), it's really loud, and there's a lot of machine vibration - enough to actually make the lid on top vibrate open a tad. But as soon as pressure builds up when doing a shot, it gets a lot quieter. I've seen this in a few other machines as well.
| This drip tray is WAY too shallow - where it mounts? That's all empty space inside the body - it could have been used. |
| the cover plate's holes are too small, water plugs them up. |
Drip Tray Needs a Redesign Gaggia dropped the ball on the drip tray. I've seen at least two problems with it that have annoyed me a bit, and helped make messes. First, it's way too shallow. If it holds more than 100ml, I'd be surprised. Gaggia has a lot of wasted space below the drip tray area from what I could see - but to change it would require changing the plastic mould of the Carezza to allow for a deeper drip tray area. My second issue is the drip tray cover - the holes in the steel top are small enough that water droplets can form a seal on most of them, which in turn can force water to run off the top into the nooks and crannies, or in my case, onto the counter. There's a reason why drip tray pans have bigger holes or grid lines - water can't plug those up. It can on the tiny holes on the Carezza's drip tray.
No Cup Warmer Tray Okay, call me a purist - I expect this on an espresso machine. I guess most sub $200 machines don't have this feature, so Gaggia didn't want to be left out :)
Some Neutral Things
There's also some things I was neutral on. Considering the price of this unit, I was able to let certain things slide or accept things. But they became neutral.
Switch Order: I flummoxed myself a few times because the steam switch is actually in the middle and the brew switch is on the bottom of the switch stack. One should get used to it.
Wand Leakage The steam wand leaks from time to time, especially when coming up to steam pressure. It can't be positioned over the drip tray, so more counter spills. Still, it leaks considerably less than some other $200 (and more expensive) machines I've tried.
Small Patented Gaggia Boiler Size: Other companies do traditional boilers with inner heating coils, but Gaggia keeps doing the aluminum, outer heat coil, 100cc boiler dance. Yes, it heats up fast. But it has no lasting power. A bigger boiler provides this. However, this is a neutral point for me on this machine: other machines in this price range would be envious of the gigantic 100ml boiler the Carezza has: your typical Krups, Saeco or DeLonghi machine has either thermoblocks with 10ml capacity in the "boiler" or 80ml steel boilers.
Steam Knob Position: Okay, I only used this machine for about five days, but I still haven't gotten used to the steam knob being on top, pointing to the stars.
Lights Hard to see at any angle except straight on.
The Good Stuff
Hey, there's lots of this! Given the price range, I was almost raving happy about some things:
Portafilter: Yes, I don't like the plastic handle and its shape. But kudos to Gaggia for putting the same PF they put in their $400 machines into this Carezza. All that brass makes a difference in temperature stability.
Buttons: Plasticy feeling for sure, but big, easy to use, and a nice overall operating feel to them. Good job!
Reservoir Perks: The reservoir is easy to see, and easy to fill. That's a bonus in my book. It holds about 40 ounces, and looks good in the machine's design. Also you can fill it three ways: from the top, with it partially out of the machine, or removed completely (fill at the sink). Seeing the remaining water is great - I'm getting tired of machines that make you guess the water level.
Hot Water Delivery: Any machine with this built in automatically scores a full extra point from me in my ratings. The Carezza actually does it better than its more expensive cousins, the Gaggia Classic or Coffee: Just one button (brew) with the steam knob open does the trick. A choke / pressure valve automatically directs water to the steam wand when it's open. When it is closed, pressure builds up, and the valve opens, redirecting water to the grouphead. All single boiler machines should be designed this way.
Fast "to Steam Ready" Time: 50 seconds ready to steam is fast, lighting fast for some machines. But keep the boiler active - the Carezza can lose steam power quick because of the small boiler.
58 MM!!: 58mm commercial sized baskets? Ka ching!
Good Pump: The classic has the same pump and performance found in machines costing a grand or more. It's not very quiet (proper shock absorbing mounting would help this), but it delivers.
A Few Little Touches: I like how the machine has the little painted indicators to line up the portafilter. I like the visible water levels, and I like the overall design of the body - I think this machine looks good for a plastic espresso machine. Paint job on my silver model was okay, and the machine doesn't jump around too much when tightening the PF into place (still, you need a second hand on the top of the machine to steady it
I didn't cover steaming much here because besides some timing and testings, I didn't spend a lot of time finessing it. I'll leave that part up to Doug Wiebe who will be doing most of the full blown evaluation of this product.
I will say this: I think I may have found a great machine to recommend to that under $200 crowd. It's early days yet, and I don't know how the Gaggia will perform long term, but in five days of testing and about 10 lbs of coffee knocked through it, I got more and more impressed with the machine (keeping in mind its price) as I moved along.
The machine has lots going for it: good grouphead, good dispersion screen, good portafilter, 58mm baskets, a pump that's up for the job, hot water on demand, and a very visible water level. I listed three negatives and several neutrals, but with the exception of the way too shallow drip tray, it's all things I could live with if I was someone new to espresso and wanted a great performing machine.
However, here's the disclaimer: As I like to point out, this is a FIRST LOOK only, based on five days' testing. Anything and everything I write is subject to change - heck maybe I'm even lying about the colour of the machine. This is not a full review, and is not meant to be interpreted as such. This gives my initial impressions of the machine. I may hate it in two months, who knows! ;)
Once again, we'd like to thank the very excellent folks at Aabree Coffee for putting this nice little machine in our greedy, grubby, never clean hands. I don't wash behind my ears much either. I'm a slob. But I digress. Aabree Coffee sells the Gaggia Carezza for $199 as of this writing (subject to change), with no sales taxes and free ground shipping in the lower 48. It's quite a deal. If you didn't get a shiny new espresso machine for Christmas, you should really consider this one, and Aabree Coffee as your source - they are big supporters of CoffeeGeek, and their efforts, along with all our advertisers and product suppliers, make it possible for me to bring articles like the above to you.