First off, this is a 3 month review on this machine:
So after coming to the realization that I can't keep going on with spending countless dollars at my favorite coffeeshops, I decided to do a little research into the world of home espresso. Of course, once convincing myself that buying a 2000 la valentina/mazzer combo wouldnt be the best way to counteract my aching money woes, coffeegeek showed me the hamilton beach option. Now at first, i was far from sold, but i had seen an ability for this machine to make a good cup of espresso. Granted, it was PID'd, and many factors had to be spot on, but being an experimental person by nature i decided that this would be a great way to see if i too could get something great from something so affordable.
Now first off, if you plan on just turning this on, putting random beans in and expecting great coffee, this is not the machine for you. There are a lot of variables i found that affect this machine severely. Currently i am using a modified starbucks barista (rebranded solis grinder), a proper stainless steel 58mm tamper, fresh beans no more than 7 days old, and brita filtered water. This setup, and 3 months of fooling around with consistency, i have managed to get a great cup of coffee for less than 100 bucks invested (side note: the barista grinder was given to me for free!)
My main happiness with this machine is truly from the portafilter. Because it has no crema-enhancing features, you are only getting what you create, no pretend foam crema, therefore no loser denial here. However, the steam wand is frustrating. I won't say useless, because if you are making macchiato's, it would work amazing....you just need about a 10 ounce pitcher max. This issue is due to the short steam arm on the machine. Also, even if there was a longer steam arm, it would probably just prompt people to think they could steam more milk, which is a far off dream since the boiler size is inadequate for a large amount of milk steaming. Lucky for me this hasn't been a problem, as i tend to stick to straight espresso and macchiatos, but it is something you may want to keep in mind if you're a latte person.
Another must for this machine is a proper warm up time. Even though you can turn on the machine and have the temperature light shut off in approximately 4-5 min., this will result in a failed attempt. I normally let it fully warm up for about 15-20 min, with the portafilter hot to the touch. Then while grinding beans and pulling a blank shot, i can usually get it to engage in the temp. cycle again. That way by the time the temp switch shuts off, i can hit the brew switch and voila!
while experimenting with different grind settings, as i stated earlier, the modified barista does the trick. However, before it was modified i could get little to no crema, although the coffee wasn't bitter or acidic. After my modification, during the shot, the cream is about 75% of the shot, and after 2 min, about 1/3. I've been able to get a dark reddish colouring, and occasionally some really good looking tiger striping. but it's only been 3 months, and since i normally have a double shot before work, i can't really experiment for hours on end, withouth dying of caffeine overdose, haha!
I have seen a PID'd machine that had some good looking espresso shots, but we shall see about that. For now i'm quite happy with my results to date.
A couple of techniques ive used is to hit the steam switch partway through the shot. Because of the wide temperature band on this machine, it definitely takes a lot of shots to learn how to get much better consistencey, and once starting the shot, it likes to drop off. the steam switch helps a lot with keeping the boiler from getting too lazy. Also, you can attempt some temperature surfing with this machine, i've mainly attempted letting it get too hot, and then bringing it back down. But for the most part, timing your grinds with the temp cycle on this machine has been the best way to get consistency at it's best.
the negative features of this machine is the stated 15 bars of pressure. I don't have a pressure guage on my portafilter, but if their claim is true, reducing this would probably give me a better espresso, but it is negligable for this price range.
Another criticism is the drip tray. I use Bodum Pavina 2 ounce glasses, but this is about the max size you could get underneath the portafilter, If it was a little taller, this would be much better. The drip tray is also pretty cheap looking, consisting of plastic with stainless steel 'esque coloring.
Overall, it's been a great way to practice at home because if you can get something great from a machine like this using proper technique, beans, and grind, i can't wait till the time comes when i can afford a beautiful, plumbed in, rotary pump, E61, etc, etc......sigh, someday.
I would definitely buy this machine again based on my results. This machine will give you more than adequate coffee, but it will definitely give you terrible coffee if you half ass it. I expect the machine to last a year, so i will hopefully be doing a follow up on it when the time comes.