Before Christmas, we had a bit of a ‘home appliance breakdown’ period chez Bsag. The biggest (and most expensive) casualty was our central heating boiler, but we also had a succession of other things break, including my beloved Rancilio Silvia espresso machine. Not having any heating or hot water is one thing, but no coffee — that’s insupportable. I opened up the machine and found that the boiler had developed a substantial leak through a crack in the boiler wall, so steam was escaping all the time that the machine was on, and the temperature and pressure was not holding. This was an old, second-hand machine, and I wasn’t at all confident about being able to find and fit a replacement boiler and get it back in working order. Replacement boilers also seemed to be expensive, so it was a gamble that might not pay off.
For a while, we reverted to using the Aeropress to make coffee. I like the Aeropress a lot, but I missed the distinctive espresso taste, and making Aeropress for two is much less convenient than making a cup for one. I did a lot of research on possible replacment machines. If money and kitchen work-surface space was no object, I would have gone for a lovely, Birmingham-made lever machine, the Londinium I, paired with a superbly engineered hand grinder, the HG one. Both machines are made to last a lifetime, and mostly rely on human muscle power, physics and mechanics to work their magic on coffee beans, rather than electronics, and thus there is very little to go wrong. However, even the Londinium alone was well out of our price range, and I wasn’t convinced that the Rocky would be up to the job of grinding coffee for it. We would also have nowhere convenient to put it in our kitchen since you need plenty of space above it for the lever. A friend of mine who saw our Rocky/Silvia combo commented that we had dedicated about 90% of our kitchen to making coffee. My first response was, “Yeah, so?”, but it’s true that we do occasionally want to make things other than coffee in there. Perhaps it was time to try to find a more compact solution. Eventually some Christmas money from our families and a great sale price enabled us to buy the Sage Barista Express. I haven’t regretted the purchase for a second — it’s a fantastic home espresso machine.
Choosing the machine
I think I became aware of this family of machines a couple of years ago, from American review sites. In the US, and in the company’s home country of Australia, it is known as the Breville Barista Express1. Breville has a great reputation in Australia for making high quality coffee equipment, and many of the reviews in the US were also very favourable. Whenever I’m on a coffee information gathering exercise, I make heavy use of the video reviews made by Kat and Gail of Seattle Coffee Gear. Their video review of the Breville Barista Express was really useful. To digress for a moment, I love Kat and Gail. They are smart, funny and extremely knowledgeable about coffee, and present entertaining and informative videos that give you an objective evaluation of the features of different models. I’m not sure that I would have been so confident about buying the machine without being able to get my hands on it if I hadn’t been able to use their videos to compare different models.
It seemed at the time that you couldn’t get the Breville machines in the UK, so while I thought the machine looked ideal, I couldn’t actually buy it. However, after Silvia broke down, I noticed that Breville were now distributing some of the machines under the name ‘Sage’, promoted and endorsed by chef Heston Blumenthal. I have nothing specficially against Heston, but I think if I hadn’t already come to the decision that the Barista Express was a great machine, I might have been put off by the celebrity endorsement. The machine appears to be identical to the ones sold in the US, only with a different name stamped on the front, and — of course — with a 240V power supply rather than 110V.
Since this is going to be a very long review, I’d better sum up why I like this machine now, for those of you who abandon ship before the end. I like it for three main reasons:
- It makes espresso that tastes fantastic.
- It is very thoughtfully designed with the home user in mind, and so it is ideal for low volume coffee production, and is exceptionally easy to clean and maintain.
- The controls, manual and markings on the machine itself help you to get better at making consistently good coffee, without taking away your ability to experiment and tinker with the variables.
Overall design and build quality
The Barista Express is largely made of stainless steel, with only a few plastic parts where appropriate. It is a solid, weighty machine, and doesn’t move around on the worktop when you lock the portafilter into place (which is also solid and reassuringly hefty). The buttons and switches all have a solid and positive action. Everything fits very well, from the drip tray sections to the way that the rest below the grinder grips the portafilter securely and also acts as a funnel to prevent too many grinds from falling into the drip tray. The 1.9 L water tank is transparent and fits on the back of the machine in such a way that you can easily see the level (from either side or the back) wherever it is placed on the counter, without having to shift the machine. With a bit of care, you can also remove the tank without having to move it away from wall cabinets. All of these things are vital for a home machine, where you may have little choice about placement. The tank also has a charcoal water filter (they give you one filter lasting 2 months to start with), so you can just fill the tank straight from the tap. The instructions for replacing the filter and for starting the cleaning cycle of the machine are printed on the side of the tank facing the machine, so that you can read them when you remove the tank, but the back of the machine maintains a clean appearance.
On this model, there is no LCD display, but the white indicator lights around the buttons are attractive and provide all the information you need. The pressure gauge (which I’ll talk about more below) is extremely helpful in adjusting your technique. There is a thermocoil instead of a boiler for heating the water and providing steam. You can’t pull an espresso and steam milk at the same time, but the thermocoil heats up very rapidly, so that it is at a decent temperature only a minute or so after you switch it on. The power light stops flashing to indicate when this temperature has been reached. Incidentally, it has a PID unit installed to control the stability of the temperature, and you can adjust the temperature at the group head by pressing buttons to increase or decrease the water temperature by a few degrees. I haven’t found I have needed to do this with the beans I use, but it is nice to have the option. Similarly the water volume delivered when you pull a shot can be programmed to your preference, but I have found the default volume to be just right for my needs.
It has an integrated grinder, which was my biggest worry before trying the machine. Often, integrated grinders are of poor quality, and obviously you can’t swap out the grinder for a different model if you wanted to. However, I am really happy with the grinder. The hopper holds an ideal quantity of beans for home use, and seals with a rubber gasket, so it keeps steam from the machine out of the hopper. You can also unlock and remove the hopper while it is full of beans, which is really useful if you want to change the variety of beans, or just to clean the burrs. Cleaning the burrs is also extremely easy, as you can unlock the upper burr once the hopper is removed, and use the flip-up handle to turn it to the unlocked position. The positions are clearly marked with arrows, so it is all a fool-proof process.
I was initially concerned that it might not be able to grind finely enough to extract the best from the beans, but I need not have worried. When making the first coffee with the machine, I set the grind to 5 (as advised in the manual) and completely choked the machine. I find with the beans I use (Has Bean’s Brazil Espresso Perfetio at the moment), that 8 or 9 is about the right setting (on a scale of 1-16). Since the grinder is set up for espresso grind only, the steps between each setting are easily small enough to enable you to tweak the grind as the beans age, or with other conditions. Note the way that Sage labels the grind setting, so that you don’t have to remember which number means a finer grind, or which way you need to turn it to get a faster or slower extraction. That might seem like a feature only useful for absolute beginners, but it is also a very useful prop for those of us who are more experienced but occasionally not firing on all cylinders before we have made our coffee in the morning.
The grinder has volumetric dosing, set by using the single or double filter button and the dial to set the quantity of coffee. I’m not sure if I’m using odd beans, but I have found that my ideal volume falls between the largest volume on the single filter setting and the smallest volume on the double filter setting. That’s really my only gripe about the machine. However, in practice, it doesn’t really matter that I have to set the filter size button to single filter to fill a double basket. The point is that I’ve found the setting that gives me consistently the right amount of ground coffee with the minimum amount of waste. It’s also worth noting that the retention of grounds in the body and chute of the grinder is very low, so you’re getting freshly ground coffee each time.
The steam arm
I usually drink only espresso or Americano/long black coffee (without milk), so I don’t use the steam arm extensively. However, I have tried it out a few times, and it works really well. Sage provide you with a very nice quality stainless steel milk jug with the machine, and admirably clear advice in the manual about the best way to steam milk. The arms is articulated on a ball joint, and has a silicon rubber loop to move it around without burning yourself. It’s a single hole steam tip, so while it’s not that quick to steam milk (perhaps a minute or so, though I haven’t timed it), it does give you time to get your technique right. I’m no expert at it, but even I managed to get lovely glossy ‘wet paint’ micro-foam at a great temperature. I never got close to that level of proficiency with the Silvia. My latte art, however, always turns out like a Rorschach blot test.
There’s also a spout for hot water, which can be useful for pre-warming cups or making Americanos, though I find it easier just to boil a kettle generally.
The drip tray
Drip trays are often a messy hassle on home espresso machines, but the one on the Barista Express is beautifully designed. The metal grill has strategically placed holes that prevent splashing when you are purging the steam arm or running water through the portafilter. When you slide out the tray, you see that there are two holes at the back corners of the tray. These, and the internal baffles in the tray, allow you to cleanly pour the water out of the drip tray into the sink without even removing the covers. Having regularly slopped a lot of dirty water from Silvia’s drip tray on to the kitchen floor en route to the sink, I can’t tell you how happy this makes me.
Under the metal grill, there’s a perforated plastic cover that is supposed to separate any spilled coffee grounds from the water. This mostly works quite well, though you will inevitably get a few grounds in the water — not that this is really a problem. The tray also has a very cute little yellow sign reading “Empty me!” that floats up out of a slit in the metal grill when the tray is full. I’ve deliberately filled the tray up to test it (it works), but in practice the capacity of the tray is large enough that you will have probably emptied the tray in the normal course of cleaning before you get to that point.
Another lovely touch is that there is a secret plastic storage tray tucked in behind the drip tray, which is pulled gently out when you slide out the drip tray. This contains all the unused filter baskets2, the rubber inlay for cleaning the machine, the cleaning tablets, a cleaning tool, the allen key to remove the shower screen, a brush for cleaning the grinder’s burrs, and the ‘Razor’ dosing tool. In short, all those things that you would either lose or would clutter up a forgotten drawer somewhere are neatly stored within the machine itself for easy access. In the video, Kat called this a ‘squirrel pouch’, then corrected herself to say that squirrels don’t have pouches. In fact the family Sciuridae is a large and diverse one, and since some squirrels do indeed have pouches, I have always referred to it as my squirrel pouch in honour of Kat.
I’ve dealt with the main features, but number 1 on my list was “It makes espresso that tastes fantastic”, so I should really describe the actual business of making coffee.
Making espresso properly requires you to get the balance of a number of different variables just right. The beans have to be freshly ground, to the right degree of fineness. The weight of coffee needs to be just right and it needs to be tamped evenly and to a consistent pressure. Finally, the temperature and volume of water and the pressure applied during the shot needs to be correct. The great thing about this machine is that it provides just enough automation to support you in making consistently good coffee (one you have found the right parameters for your beans), but it also allows you to over-ride those settings if you want to experiment. Finally, the pressure gauge is a helpful tool (along with tasting the coffee itself, of course) in judging whether you have got it just right.
Let’s start from the beginning. Once I have turned the machine on and it has got up to temperature from cold, I usually press the single cup button to run a bit of hot water through the group and the empty filter basket in the portafilter. This helps to warm the basket so that you don’t have hot water hitting cold metal and cooling down. If I’m making a second coffee, having left the portafilter locked loosely in the group, I don’t bother with this step.
I then unlock the portafilter and dry the basket carefully with a towel. Once dry, I slide it into the cradle below the grinder, which grips it securely. A gentle single press to the end of the portafilter handle activates the grinder switch, and it dispenses a measured dose of coffee. If you want to judge this by eye, or to top up the dose, you can press and hold for manual activation of the grinder, which stops when you release the button. The grinder produces (to my eye) nice even, fluffy grounds, so they will be quite heaped up in the basket. I then carefully slide the portafilter out so that I don’t spill the coffee (I’ve got quite proficient at this), and gently tap the basket while using the flat of my thumb to redistribute the coffee evenly across the basket.
Next, tamping. Many high-end espresso machines come with flimsy, cheap plastic tampers, but not the Barista Express. It has a heavy tamper with a solid, hard plastic body and a steel-covered base. It’s not a patch on my lovely Knock tamper, but unfortunately the filter baskets are 54 mm, not 58 mm, so the Knock tamper is too large. However, the supplied tamper does a good job, and has a couple of very nice features. First, there is a metal inset at the end of the handle, and a niche built into the area to the left of the grinder. This has a magnet in it, so you can store the tamper tucked out of the way in the machine itself. Second, the manual tells you that the correct fill level after tamping is achieved when the top edge of the metal cap is just level with the top of the filter basket. This kind of rule of thumb makes it so much easier to achieve consistency in your methods.
There’s another tool you can use to get the dose of coffee just right: the ‘Razor’ dosing tool. Again, Kat and Gail’s video has had a lasting effect on me, because I cannot even think about this tool without pronouncing its name in my head in a sinister way, complete with an exaggerated French accent, as Kat did. “Le Raaaazzeurrrr!”. Anyway. What this tool does is trim any excess coffee off the top of your tamped puck and the sides of the basket. It is shaped so that the protruding blades fit the diameter of the basket precisely, and so that the depth of those blades ensures that you have enough headroom above your puck. You insert it into the basket vertically, then gently rotate it, which — if you have too much coffee in the basket — scrapes off a thin layer of coffee that you dump out gently3. The idea is that it is a tool to help you while you are learning about the necessary dose, but it is a handy check to run anyway.
At this point, I press the single cup button again to run a small volume of water through the empty group, which helps to stabilise the temperature (this is recommended in the manual), while I wipe any stray grounds off the rim of the filter basket. Then I lock the portafilter into place in the group, place the cups or glasses under the spouts, and press the two cup button. Then I watch the stream of coffee and also monitor the pressure gauge. Some of you may be thinking, “Why are there no actual pressure markings on that gauge?”. Normally, I am all in favour of labelling things accurately, but I think they did exactly the right thing by labelling the correct zones for the pre-infusion and extraction stages. You don’t actually need to know the exact pressure if you know where the needle ought to be at each point. There is always a tendency for espresso nerds to get obsessed by the precise pressures or precise temperatures when they are pulling a shot. In the end, none of that actually matters if you like the coffee that you produce. I think that Sage steer a sensible line in giving you enough information to maintain consistency and improve your technique, without encouraging you to obsess over the details.
I suspect that the pre-infusion phase is very important in improving the final flavour of the coffee. The idea is that a small volume of water is introduced to the filter basket at low pressure. This allows the water to start to extract some of the volatile compounds, and also ensures that the puck is evenly wetted and thus less likely to fracture when the full pressure is applied. You see the needle hover in the low pressure, pre-infusion zone for 4-5 seconds before it moves to the vertical position as the full extraction pressure is applied. If your grind is too fine, or you have tamped too hard, it nudges the rightmost end of the ideal extraction zone. Occasionally, if I have not distributed or tamped evenly, the pressure fluctuates as gaps or channels open up in the puck of coffee. Mostly, however, the pressure is steady and in the ideal zone. The stream of coffee is steady and viscous (like dripping honey) and just the right speed. The crema produced is really excellent with this machine. It’s a warm, caramel colour, thick and lasts until you’ve got about half way down your espresso.
Once the water flow stops, I knock out the spent puck. It usually releases very easily and cleanly, and you can run a bit more water through the empty filter basket to clean it and the screen. Then I settle down and enjoy my coffee. As I’ve said, the machine produces an excellent cup: very rich and aromatic with a great mouthfeel and a lot of complexity. It’s also intense without being at bitter, just as good espresso should be.
Every espresso machine needs a bit of maintenance. You can get scale in all the components that come into contact with hot water, and coffee can leave a sticky residue that blocks up holes and introduces a bitter, rancid taste. Thankfully, the Barista Express is very easy to maintain. I mentioned that it is supplied with cleaning tablets. When the machine needs to be cleaned (a schedule which depends on how much you use it, but for me is about every 2 weeks), the ‘clean me’ light comes on. You then insert a single filter basket into the portafilter, along with the rubber insert, and place a single cleaning tablet in the middle of the insert. The portafilter is locked into the group head with the machine switched off, and when you hold the single and double cup buttons and hold the power button, the machine starts the cleaning cycle. All you need to do is put a bowl or jug under the spouts to catch the water, and leave it for 5 minutes. It beeps when it has finished, and I usually run another cycle with no tablet present, just to make sure that it is thoroughly rinsed through. It’s extremely easy, and the light reminds you to clean it regularly.
As I mentioned when discussing the grinder, it’s very easy to take out the top burr and use the supplied brush to clean any residue off the burrs and out of the chute. The fact that you can do it while you still have beans in the hopper (because you can easily empty them out temporarily) means that you are less likely to procrastinate and leave it until a more convenient time. The other task that needs to be done every couple of months (depending on the hardness of your water) is to descale the machine. They recommend using white vinegar, which is cheap and easy to get hold of. I have taken to doing this task when I change the filter in the tank, which also needs to be done every 2 months. Again, it is a simple task, involving filling the tank with a mixture of water and white vinegar, and just running it through the machine via the group head, water tap and steam head, then rinsing through. You can take the shower screen off yourself to wash and clean it, and I also note that you can buy replacement seals around the shower screen and fit them yourself, as these tend to gradually compress and perish after a lot of use.
I should also mention the excellent manual that comes with the machine. I’m the kind of weirdo who reads technical manuals for fun, but I think anyone would find the manual very useful and easy to follow. It has clear instructions for each step of the process, and graphics to help you to diagnose when your coffee might be over- or under-extracted. There’s a lot of sensible and easy to follow advice, and particularly if you are new to making espresso, it’s a really valuable guide to getting started.
I think it’s pretty clear that I absolutely love this machine. It’s a difficult thing to describe, but the feel of the machine is excellent, and it is a pleasure to use every day. The quality of the coffee it produces is also wonderful, and I really feel as if we are getting the best out of our beans now, which is the main benefit. As a side effect, we have a bit more kitchen worktop space on which to prepare non-coffee types of food. I believe such things exist…
- Interestingly, not the same Breville who made the famous sandwich toasters or kettles in the UK. ↩
- They provide single and double normal baskets, plus single and double double-walled baskets for use with pre-ground coffee. ↩
- More than once I’ve lost my whole puck because I have accidentally knocked the portafilter against the side of my Grindenstein knock box, swiftly followed by much swearing, because I hate wasting coffee. ↩