The sad state of home espresso machines is a topic we’ve tried to avoid for long stretches. After our last depressing installment in 2009, we’ve been blissfully ignorant — ratcheting up the solid-but-rarely-outstanding shot pulls on our relatively decent home espresso setup of a Gaggia G106 Factory manual lever machine and a Mazzer Mini grinder.

Dead soldier: a Ryton piston gives way to a tested pair of piston gaskets after 10 years of useThat is until May, when disaster struck. After 10 years of abuse — where I tuned the coffee grind to the limits of what my “one-armed bandit” could handle before it choked — the central piston finally gave out with one fateful pull. Feeling the physical resistance of its lever vanish in one quick slip, I knew right away it was more than just the final, releasing grasp of an dying gasket.

Upon disassembly and inspection, part of the otherwise-durable Ryton plastic molding that holds the piston gaskets in place had clearly broken away. It’s no surprise that Gaggia discontinued this part and now only produces a brass version. While replacement parts are easy to look up, my replacement piston was put on back-order from Italy until who-knows-when.

The Saeco Challenge

Now I like my Hario V60 or Chemex as much as the next guy. But a steady and exclusive diet of coffee masquerading as tea — i.e., tasting primarily of berries and flower gardens and lawn clippings — is most unsatisfying. Sure, I had the perfect excuse to have more espresso out again, but sometimes you want your quality espresso without leaving the house. Fortunately, life’s misfortune sometimes creates the occasional unexpected opportunity. It arrived in June in the form of an email to coffeeratings.com from a Philips Saeco rep, with the subject-line come-on of “The Perfect Espresso from Philips Saeco”:

Dear Greg,

Searching for the perfect espresso? We believe you can make it yourself, in the convenience of your home. I’m working closely with my client, Philips Saeco, to share their espresso machines with coffee experts like you. If it’s a good fit, we’d like for you to send you one of these machines.

The normal Greg would have spewed out his home-roasted espresso blend across the kitchen table upon reading that. (“Perfect espresso“? Have they read my blog?) But home espresso beggars can’t be choosers. And if there was ever an opportunity where I could dedicate my time and attention to make an honest attempt at decent espresso with one of these dubious, hulking plastic, overpriced, and underachieving superautomatic home espresso machines, this was it.

It ain't marked 'FRAGILE', and yet it is from Italy Notice the happy couple on the box. Clearly they haven't tried the espresso yet

So last week, without notice, a giant Saeco box arrived on my front porch. Opening it up, I felt a little like Darren McGavin in A Christmas Story. But inside wasn’t a glowing leg lamp. Rather, it was a Saeco Syntia HD8833. To my surprise, rather than sending a throwaway economy job, Saeco sent one of their better models — listing for about $1,000 retail.

If we are going to be outraged about the poor espresso quality from a superautomatic home machine, all the better not to dismiss the verdict on the basis of a cheap machine. We may have seen some of this machine’s siblings in the showroom at the Saeco Caffè in Cape Town, South Africa — and the espresso there may not have been too shabby. But our experience with superautomatic home espresso machines like it has been flattering to the Nespresso machine, and we don’t like Nespresso.

The Alien from Planet ‘Brain-Dead Espresso’

While I am no home espresso novice, the contents of the Saeco box seemed practically alien. What’s with all the plastic? Where’s the metal? You mean there’s more to today’s home espresso machine electronics than a heating element? And what’s that vibrating noise that sounds like a cheap home aquarium filter?

Dafuq is my ink jet printer making espresso?The device seems large, and yet it’s considered “compact” by many of today’s standards. Its side opens up like an ink jet printer — not exactly the mental analogy you want to be making for consumables. And it’s ridiculously robotic. Everything has been automated to death: coffee grinding, dosing, tamping, extraction. Hope still lied in the fact that a number of its automated tasks were adjustable: fineness of the grind, the volume of coffee, and the extraction time. But I am leery of any coffee machine that tries to be smarter than you.

I gained back a little confidence when much of its accompanying printed documentation emphasized the importance of descaling and cleaning. I’ve lost count of how many horrific, Exxon-Valdez-sized coffee oil Superfund sites we’ve stumbled upon in various Nespresso machine kitchens — with their delusional, convenience-obsessed owners believing that these devices also automated their cleaning and maintenance.

The machine required an extended “priming” operation, where the machine went through a series of button pushes, water cycles, and its display performed its best rendition of a Pink Floyd laser light show. Once primed and good beans (a nice Full City+ roast on Guatemala Antigua beans with ~ 1 week since roasting) were added to the hopper, we pushed the button for out first shot — with the maximum dosing (“aroma” in its manual’s parlance) and the smallest-sized shot from the factory presets.

Results in the tazza

The resulting shot was very large (at the rim of a regulation IPA demitasse), with a shockingly white thin crema, and a watery body. It tasted like what most horrible espresso shots tasted like in San Francisco back in the 1980s: overdrawn, over-extracted, and lacking any potency, body, or creaminess. The spent puck it spewed out was well-shaped but thoroughly soggy; gently touching the puck caused it to disintegrate into wet sludge.

Small hopper for its built-in grinder The spent pucks come out soggier than wet snow

Our immediate reaction was to head to the “Troubleshooting” section of the manual. It said much about the “Saeco Adapting System” and why your first shots might, well, suck. For example: “coffee is too weak” states that it is a “Rare event that occurs when the machine is automatically adjusting the dose. Brew a few coffees as described in section ‘Saeco Adapting System’.” Another measure of assurance was in the notes: “Note: These problems can be considered normal if the coffee blend has been changed or if the machine has just been installed.”

The first shot was followed by a second identical espresso shot … followed by a third identical shot. Yes, superautomatic consistency alright. Which is great if the espresso is good, but it’s a horrible curse and a waste of good coffee beans when the espresso sucks. We barely resisted the compelling urge to change practically every possible adjustment right away. Part of the reason was to let the machine invoke its “Adapting System” as advertised, and another part was to minimize the chaos of changing multiple variables at the same time.

Even so, how could an Italian company claim that such a machine is normally factory-tuned to produce “the perfect Italian espresso” right out of the box? I’ve been to Italy numerous times, and the espresso is never close to this bad — anywhere. Worse, Saeco’s documentation warns that you might find some residual coffee grounds on your new machine, as they have been put through testing before packaging. Testing for what? The taste of watery 1980s San Francisco espresso made by clueless minimum-wage employees?

It’s not just Saeco: we’ve found every other manufacturer of four-figure superautomatic home espresso machines guilty of the exact same failures. Yet despite this distasteful — but not unexpected — start, in our next installment we will write about the adjustments we made and how it may, or may not, have affected the quality of the resulting espresso shots.

Starting a shot with the Saeco Syntia HD8833 Things go from thin to pale with the Saeco Syntia HD8833

Things going from pale to full and thin with the  Saeco Syntia HD8833 What did this Saeco Syntia HD8833 do to my good coffee?

“Secret, secret, I’ve got a secret. And it’s how to make decent espresso out of me.”