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Initially, this machine made fantastic coffee straight out of the box. Over time, there seems to be an inherent problem that you should consider before purchase. For those thinking of taking the plunge, let me explain a little about 'bean to cup' machines, and what made me purchase this coffee maker.
A bean to cup machine makes similar quality coffee to that found in high street coffee shops. In my opinion, there's no shortcut to this - no filter or percolating machine will match that taste and richness. This machine has a hopper up at the top left for coffee beans. These funnel down into an inbuilt grinder. You fill a water tank over on the right of machine, enough for several coffees. When you ask the machine for a coffee, it automatically switches on the grinder, grinds the beans freshly for each coffee, puts the grounds into the 'brew unit' (where the magic happens inside the machine!), and then forces water from the tank through the grounds under pressure. Coffee comes out of the twin spouts into your cup or cups (you can place two espresso cups on the machine and catch one spout with each if you wish). Finally, the helpful machine presses the used grounds into a neat little disc, and dumps it into the grounds bin, also inside the machine. The machine will do a reasonable job of making coffee with pre-ground too - you simply tell it that you are making a pre-ground, use the spoon provided to add your ground coffee to the middle hopper and it will get you a decent result, but not the same quality as from beans. I tend to use this only for speciality blends, with the main hopper kept filled with everyday beans.
The sign of a good machine is the 'crema' it produces - a fantastic creamy froth on top of the coffee, even before adding milk. This machine makes top quality coffee with plenty of crema.
Steamed milk / froth
Most of these high end coffee machines have a steaming facility, a way of heating and frothing milk. This machine comes with a milk jug, so the process is even easier. You take off the hot water nozzle and attach the milk jug in its place. There's a clear plastic tube in the jug which goes down into the milk. The machine uses this to draw up milk, froth it with steam and dump it into the cup via the spout, as shown in the picture. The spout is adjustable to suit different sized cups. You can ask the machine for a 'Cappucino', and it will organise the whole process, making coffee and frothing milk at one press of the button.
If you don't want the coffee bit, and just want the frothed milk, you can press the 'Cappucino' button twice quickly, and it will just froth milk for you, until you ask it to stop. When not required, the milk jug can be kept in the fridge and the hot water nozzle left in place instead. You can use the machine simply to produce hot water only. Crucially, and this is something you should consider, this machine has twin boilers. One produces hot water for coffee, the other for hot water and steam. This costs more, but is very useful. With a single boiler machine you will have a short wait between making coffee and frothing milk, while the machine adjusts to the temperature required. With twin boiler machines, you can do both operations back to back, or have the automatic cappucino facility that this machine offers.
Everything about the machine is controllable. Length of coffee and strength of coffee are both easy to set. You can ask for one cup or two cups. There are three pre sets for length (short, medium or long coffee), and if those don't suit , you can programme a 'My coffee' setting to match your cup size (highly recommended). There are five pre sets for strength. There's a user friendly LCD display and a little menu of options that's very easy to navigate.
At first setup, De Longhi provide a test strip for you to test the hardness of your water. You programme the machine for the relevant hardness, and a cup counter in the innards somewhere works out when it is time to descale the machine. I like that it takes the water hardness into account, and only tells you to descale when it is actually needed, not on some pre chosen cycle. If you get one of these machines, do not skimp on descaling. Buy the proper De Longhi descaler liquid, and do it as soon as you are told it's required. It's really important for the machine's health, and if you have a problem the techies will be able to see from the machine history if the descaling schedule has not been met. Not doing it can invalidate your warranty.
Cleaning is pretty easy. There's a drip tray and a grounds bin to empty at least daily, more often if you drink a lot of coffee. It tells you to empty the grounds bin, but won't remind you to empty the drip tray, and this can leak over your worktop or into the base of the machine if you let it get too full, so I always empty both at the same time. The drip tray fills up pretty fast, as the machine self cleans by pulling fresh hot water through the pipes at each switch on and switch off. Every so often, you have to clean the brew unit by taking it out and immersing in warm water for a while. Most of the used grounds go into the grounds bin, but there are always some stray grounds that land in the innards of the machine, and these have to be brushed out regularly or they will go mouldy. The instruction manual is excellent, and explains all these things really well. Cleaning is really not a big deal, given what this machine does for you. The milk jug can go straight into the dishwasher, top, body and draw tube separated.
Bean to cup versus pod machines
I considered this really carefully before purchasing my first De Longhi (this is my second). Pod machines are, comparatively, a fraction of the price, and make coffee that is nearly as good. However, when I looked at running costs, it was obvious that the price of coffee pods would cost way more over the lifetime of the machine. I felt it would restrict my use and enjoyment of the machine, i.e. I would not make good coffee with reckless abandon all day long, and it would become a 'special' treat. By comparison, coffee beans are ridiculously cheap. I get mine from an online catering supplier, and you can get a 6 kilo box of a decent blend for around £60. That runs the machine for at least 2 months, perhaps longer. Beans cost us less than what we used to spend on instant coffee. You have a simple choice - buy a cheaper machine and spend significantly more on consumables, or shell out more up front and enjoy cheap running costs.
So, great tasting coffee, a very friendly machine, looks good in the kitchen and (if you buy well) is actually cheaper to run than buying decent quality instant. What's not to like? In one word. Heat.
No bean to cup machine will make boiling coffee. You need to understand that from the off. If you grind fresh beans and pass very hot water through them, you will get a bitter taste, so these machines are not meant to make a drink that's as hot as an instant, made from the kettle. Initially this machine was making coffee at an acceptable temperature (about 85 degrees or so). I've had two of these machines now, and there is a pattern of decreasing temperature over time, to the point where it's unacceptable. De Longhi's customer service is exceptional, the agents are properly trained on the appliances, have surprisingly good technical knowledge and have autonomy to get things done. Really rare. They do seem to have a bit of a blind spot over temperature though, it's difficult to get them to accept that your machine isn't making the coffee hot enough. The real rub is that both my machines (costing £350 and £550 respectively) have been away for boiler replacements within the first two years. That's OK, as De Longhi give you a 2 year warranty, so both repairs have been free of charge. My older machine needed a new boiler again, one year after its first repair and out of warranty this time, so I picked up a repair bill of £90. My newer machine is now back on the downward temperature slide, again, so I feel pretty justified in saying that this is an inherent problem.
I find it irksome in the extreme that a machine costing this much can't have parts that can be expected to last the lifetime of the machine. You have been warned - if you want to run one of these past the 2 year warranty, you must budget for repair costs.
Having said all that, would I buy another? Yes, I would. We love our coffee, and I've spent less on these appliances than I would have spent in coffee shops (we work from home these days). I would simply be aware of the maintenance costs before splurging again.
Short name: DeLonghi ESAM 04.350.S