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Reasonable coffee, not so straightforward to use
on 29 November 2013
We bought this (a bit in haste) to replace our Francis Francis X1 that finally bit the dust after 8 years of daily use (see my review of the X1). My impression of the Gaggia is therefore inevitably coloured by the experience of the X1, which is maybe an unfair comparison, as the X1 is more than twice the price of the Carezza and a much more "manual" machine, which depends more on the operator's skill than on the technology of the machine (the Carezza is the opposite).
In use, the Carezza can make a pretty decent espresso or cappuccino, but not, in my opinion, as good as you get with the X1. I think this is due to the fact that the Carezza gives you very little control. To consider the espresso first, you can vary the amount of coffee you put in the holder, and how long you pump the water through, but the design of the holder (a bit of technological wizardry from Phillips, who seem to own Gaggia, that puts the grounds under pressure - but there's no way to control the pressure) means that you can't tamp the coffee down, so you lose control of that variable. The espresso from the Carezza seems to me more bitter than that from the X1 (using the same beans and grind), as if the water temperature is too high. The Carezza also uses the system of running some water into the grounds and letting it sit there briefly before continuing the water flow, which some other machines also use, and this might slightly over-brew things, in combination with the pressurised coffee holder (just a theory).
Foaming the milk for cappuccino is also a bit sub-optimal. The steam control knob is marked as if you can vary the flow of steam, but in practice it is an on or off affair. The end result is very foamy and expands the volume of the milk enormously, incorporating a lot of air. The first few times I did this I found the milk overflowing the jug before it had become sufficiently hot to use; a larger jug solves the problem, but the end result is a mix of froth and flat milk (as per big-chain coffee shops) rather than the velvety smooth, gently foamy milk that would be best.
There are a few practical things about the machine that I don't really like, as well. First, that pressurised coffee holder. There's a note included in the packaging that warns you against removing the holder (e.g. if you want to refill it to make a couple more espressos) before a warning light stops flashing - as it is under pressure there is a risk of being splattered with hot grounds if you do. This is not a problem with simpler machines. Also, you can remove the coffee basket for emptying and cleaning, but I'm not sure how you're supposed to clean the rest of the holder. Finally, having made your coffee, rather than the dry, compacted grounds you get (after making cappuccino at least) in most other machines, you have a wet sludge that is harder to dispose of.
My other dislike is the rinse function, which aims to get the machine primed and up to optimum temperature for brewing before you start making coffee. To use this (and it is set to come on automatically, although to be fair, you can disable it) means when you turn the machine on you need to put a mug or other receptacle under the outlet, before you put the coffee holder on, and as the machine warms up it runs about 150 ml of hot water through. This seems to be meant to both warm up the machine and clean it out, but to me it seems like a bit of a nuisance and I'm not sure of the value of the cleaning - I can't see it reducing the descaling required, for example.
One last dislike is that the temperature gauge turns off when you turn off the machine (or when it also turns itself off, as a power-saving measure, if you leave it a few minutes without using it); this is unlike the one in the Francis Francis machines, which shows you when the machine is still hot even when the power is turned off.
This all probably sounds a bit more negative than it should be, so now for some positives. Using this you'll certainly be able to make yourself a better cappuccino than you can buy in the big 3 coffee chains. I'd recommend using a fairly lightly-roasted, not too rich, coffee, though: using dark-roast (as usually sold for espresso) or Java or Sumatra beans will probably produce a brew that is far too bitter. The water tank is very easily accessible for filling (from the front of the machine). It's also quite a nice-looking machine, and fairly compact, and good value at around the £200 mark. I think my main issue with it is that you could do better with some other machines that let you have more control over what you're doing, and would deliver better coffee and be a bit simpler to use.