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First Impressions: Saeco Sirena Espresso Machine

Filed under: Reviews and Impressions — Charlie Summers @ 3:06 pm

As many of you know, I love coffee. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not a snob about it…I don’t spend hours “temperature surfing” or searching for the prefect grind. I just want a good espresso coupled with an equal amount of steamed milk, with some foamed milk on top, and I don’t want to spend all day doing it.

In that search for a good cappuccino, I’ve gone through a lot of low-end pump machines. Some make good coffee but can’t steam milk very well (DeLonghi), others steam well (once removing the silly plastic or rubber steamer aids) but couldn’t produce crema to save their rear-ends (Hamilton Beach), and some can’t do either (Mr. Coffee). The only machine I ever really liked was the first one my wife gave me many many years ago, purchased at a chain that no longer exists, and I honestly cannot remember the brand…but it did everything really well and, more importantly, really fast.

I stumbled over a great deal on a mid-line espresso machine, the Saeco Sirena. Oh, before I go any farther, I need to mention that this machine is “branded” by a certain coffee chain I don’t have a lot of time for (I have frequently referred to it as, “The coffee shop for people who hate coffee”), but I will in this article refer to it by its manufacturer and name, not branding. Even with that name (only on the thermometer, which is easily ignored) I simply couldn’t pass up this machine…it lists at $599, sells at that faux-coffee shop for $399, can be found on Amazon for $350, and was mine new complete with warranty for $200 and $5 shipping. Now that I’ve played with it for a while, I thought I’d describe my experiences.

The main pro: this machine looks good. With a design by BMW, I suppose it should, but it really is one good-looking machine, and that photo up there really doesn’t so it justice. The “Ooh…Shiny!” factor of this puppy sitting on a counter-top or table simply cannot be ignored.

It’s a semi-automatic, which means only that it stops itself. It also has a self-pressurizing portafilter, which coffee snobs hate. I admit it’s a little odd not to be tamping down the portafilter, and odder still not getting a hockey-puck out of it when cleaning, but ok, I can live with this.

The first thing one needs to do when unpacking from the box is to throw the “Quick-Start” instruction sheet into the trash…if you follow the directions enclosed therein to prime the pump, you will assume your machine is damaged and be calling customer service for help. Fortunately in my case, my machine arrived on a Saturday when I couldn’t call CS (yeah, they’re Monday-Friday, regular business hours only), so I was spared that. Thanks to some really helpful folks on the Woot message board, I figured out the problem with the priming and was able to get the machine functional.

The instructions tell you to turn on the machine, wait until the flashing shot lights go off (which means the machine is at temperature for pulling a shot), and then operate the water dispenser until the blue flashing light goes off. The “fail” here is that the machine’s heater will not operate until the system is primed. So you can wait all day for the shot lights to come on, but it ain’t gonna happen. What will really happen is when you hit the power button only the blue water light will flash. With a container under the steam wand and the water basket filled, turn the steam control the whole way on…the pump will engage for maybe five seconds, and shut off. Don’t despair, though…do it again. And again. And again. Keep doing it until water flows out of the steam wand. Then keep doing it (at this point I was turning the pump on, then off, then on manually) until the blue light goes out and the shot lights begin to flash. At this point your machine is primed, and doesn’t need to be sent in for repair.

Seriously bad instructions in the manual and Quick-Start guide, though…thanks to them, it wasn’t until afternoon before I pulled my first shot.

Ok, so you have the machine primed, and the shot lights are on steady, meaning the machine is ready to make some coffee. After assembling the portafilter as per instructions (mine came pre-assembled, but I felt the need to disassemble and wash everything up first), you fill the portafilter about three-quarters full, force yourself not to tamp it down, and install the portafilter into the machine. Push the double-shot button and…boffo, coffee espresses from the machine. I know I’m supposed to pull the shots into shot glasses, then within ten seconds use the shots by pouring them into my cappuccino cup, but…er…that seems to be a really stupid waste of time and temperature, so I pull them directly into my pre-warmed cup. Not “proper,” but wildly more efficient.

The coffee is fine from this machine, with a nice crema. I realize the snobs look at all three parts of the shot (the heart, the body, and the crema), and will mumble about the start and finish of the taste, but I’d wager most people who talk like that are simply parroting what they’ve heard and wouldn’t know a nutty finish from the Nutty Professor. Me, I’m looking for a good, strong coffee taste without bitterness. (The Mrs., who does not like coffee, says it’s all bitter. But we know better, don’t we?) I buy my beans at a local coffee house, in an old dry cleaner shop with a huge lower area containing the roasters…sometimes when I get my pound of espresso roast, I’m told it was roasted that morning. You can’t get much fresher than that.

But before we pull the espresso, we should probably steam some milk. This machine unfortunately takes away most of the control from the human, who (at least in this case) can do a much better job with machines a quarter the price of this one. To steam milk, you wait until the machine hits temp for pulling a shot, then hit the steam button, and wait for that to hit temp. Next is to turn the steam knob the whole way open with the wand over a container to pump out all the hot water that is sitting in the lines (if you don’t, you’ll double the volume of your milk with hot water before you get any steam out of the wand), then turn it off. Place the wand down into the milk, and again turn the steam control the whole way on to shift the pump into generating steam. You have no control whatsoever how much steam comes from the wand, nor how much air is mixed with it. The steamed milk I’ve gotten from this machine has a wonderfully stiff head approaching whipped cream, but doesn’t have that thick creamy consistency one should aim for, with a heavy quantity of micro-bubbles infused thoughout the milk. I’ve gotten better steamed milk from a $50 DeLonghi, and also from a $70 J.C. Penny machine once I removed the silly rubber or plastic “aids.” Admittedly I’m new to the machine and may need to simply practice, but again, there’s so much about the procedure the human cannot control that there doesn’t see to be much I can really do to improve on that the machine insists on pumping out. It isn’t really steamed milk, more like hot milk with a thick head.

The lack of serious micro-bubbles in the milk makes for a somewhat watery cappuccino (hum…I’m getting dangerously close to coffee snob territory, aren’t I?), which is unfortunately pretty close to what you would normally get at the coffee-shop-that-shall-not-be-named (those guys couldn’t make a cappuccino with the proper ratio of coffee/milk/foam if you held a gun to their heads). Maybe it’s by design, but I’d prefer the machine would get out of the road and allow the human to handle at least some of the process.

Still, it is a relatively rapid progression from start-up to drinking your coffee, so I can’t complain a whole lot. The self-pressurizing portafilter tends to leak a lot at the oddest times (every time you hit the steam button you can expect some water to come out of the portafilter into the drip tray), so plan on cleaning the tray frequently. The manual also recommends cleaning the water head once every month, which I find a little gross, preferring to clean it with a cloth or wet paper towel after every pull…I mean, who wants yesterday’s coffee in today’s shot?

I’m hoping as I get more used to the machine I get better, especially at using the steaming wand, although like I said, it doesn’t look like I’ll have enough control to change things. I admit to doing something with this machine I’ve never done before…making a mocha. I promise to avoid caramel macciatos though, because that would push me past coffee drinker into “chichi” territory. And none of us could handle that.

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