I have been without a home espresso machine for some months now. So, it was with much anticipation that I received a brand new Gaggia Baby Twin espresso machine from Espressotec.com in Vancouver.
I did have a Rancilio Silvia for the longest time - but someone (an old friend) made an offer I could not refuse - cash for the Silvia... kind of at a time when I did not need cash nor did I really need to part with the Silvia. My bad.
This loaner came at a time when I had been drinking drip coffee and Aeropress brews pretty much non-stop for months. Ok, so I only drink 2 cups a day... day after day. So I was ready for espresso, good espresso.
Now coming from the Rancilio Silvia, which in itself is a very good machine - it is entirely manual... nothing automatic, nothing fancy, no electronics - totally seat of the pants espresso preparation. For new home baristas, it is important to understand the distinction between the fully auto machine and fully manual machine. With the Gaggia Baby Twin, you are in charge of grinding the coffee, tamping the coffee, locking and loading the portafilter and pressing the brew buttons. With a "Super" you pretty much add beans and water. There is a big difference. Get to know it!
Photo at left - The Gaggia Baby Twin brews killer shots that are intense and hot. Hot meaning the right temperature. There are few things more important that brew temperature. We will talk about this at length in this article.
Contrasting the Gaggia Baby Twin espresso to some of the finer super-automatic machines out there, the Gaggia Baby Twin espresso trims effort in places that are very helpful. Like brew time for instance. It is great to program in preferred volume times on your shots - press button, brew espresso knowing that every shot is the same volume as the last one. Very nice. To take your shots to the next level, the Gaggia Baby Twin espresso even does a pre-infusion on one of the pre-programmed brew cycles.
The Gaggia Baby Twin espresso has two boilers! There is a regular boiler for brewing espresso and a thermo-block boiler for steam production. There are a couple of important advantages to this - The quick answer is - Having a boiler for each task; brewing and steaming - Well, it frees up the home barista from more important things that temperature surfing. Yet more on these and other concepts later.
This Gaggia (and all other Gaggia espresso machines) come well packaged for courier and post travel. The Gaggia Baby Twin comes with a good manual, a couple of coffee filters, a plastic coffee scoop and the disposable coffee tamper that every espresso maker comes with. So yourself a favor - get a real tamper as soon as you can. You will not get the most from these machines without a real steel based tamper (like the Classic Reg Barber).
The Gaggia Baby Twin is a step forward technologically so a good read of the manual is not only in order - It is a must!
Apart from the Gaggia Baby series that I have known over the last 20 odd years, the Gaggia Baby Twin is a complete departure from what we have come to know and love about this venerable manufacturer. And yes, for those really curious about what has been going on with Gaggia at a corporate level - well that is another story entirely. Suffice to say, some obviously forward thinking young minds sat down and decided that "sink or swim" was the operative phrase. The home espresso machine market is stuffed to the point of choking and if one manufacturer or another is to survive, they have to think big and think new - new technology, leading edge stuff with a flair for sexy and innovative.
The Gaggia Baby Twin does that on the surface. So let's look deeper shall we?
Unlike Gaggia's of old, the Gaggia Baby Twin has one switch - on the back next to where the power cord plugs in. This is the power switch. In the good old days, there was a brew switch, a steam switch on top of the 3-button cluster of Power - Steam - Brew. The Gaggia Baby Twin has integrated touch switch technology. This is not i-Pod style as found on the Talea Ring Plus by Saeco - these are touch sensitive. That is it. Handy as heck, but not rocket science.
Gaggia has made another departure in the way they deliver water to the mechanism with a coupled reservoir. It holds 60 fluid ounces or so - plenty for lots of shots and it is genuinely unfussy to refill and load. It does add another gasket to the mix of consumables - but considering that it is only coming in contact with water at room temperature... Well, this gasket should last many many years.
Like any other espresso machine of this caliber, it likes some warm-up time... 20 minutes minimum. Ignore what the manual says - or what other websites say. Good espresso depends on temperature stability and heat retention during the brew cycle. In a perfect World, the brew water (during the brew cycle) would stay at a constant 195 degrees (F) or better (Better being 195-205 degrees). No basic single boiler machine (without an HX or heat-exchanging head) is capable of flat-lined brew temperatures during the duration of the brew cycle. So make darn sure everything is hot, hot, hot!
Any espresso maker is only as good as the bean supply, the grinder and the water. (And) If I was to pick which was is most important, I would say that it's the grinder. Dodgy water I can live with. And beans past their best before date - well, that is often a fact of life for 90% of the specialty coffee consuming population in North America. So make darn sure you have a grinder that can cut the mustard before you tackle any espresso machine... and the Gaggia Baby Twin is no exception. Nothing reduces a good or great espresso machine to a pile of frustrating junk faster than coffee beans that are not ground appropriately for the task at hand. Stale coffee? Well, unless they are months old, there is always a little something left over - enough at least to get some flavor and crema.
So. How did I do first time out of the gate with the Gaggia Baby Twin? With some fresh espresso beans and 2 good grinders; The Baratza Virtuoso and the Rancilio Rocky - I managed to get very tasty shots of espresso from the word go (note the picture at the top of this page). These espresso shots would be perfect for any latte, cappuccino or other specialty coffee drinks. As straight espresso it was pretty good (as good as any espresso from any Gaggia or Solis unit that I have ever used). The shots were not as absurdly intense as those from the Rancilio Silvia or the ECM Giotto - and this is not surprising. The shots are hot (the right temperature) and properly extracted. Top marks overall.
The Gaggia Baby Twin has 2 "Boilers" - well not quite. It has the requisite boiler for brewing espresso and a thermoblock for generating steam. A thermoblock is not a boiler. There was a line of espresso machines that appeared on the market last Christmas (I think) that were solely powered by thermoblock units - and this is bad. The thermoblock was never a good design for espresso machines - they are insanely sensitive to hard water and block (or scale) up faster than a business-man on a diet of french fries. So it is with a bit of trepidation when I see a thermoblock used anywhere near an espresso machine - I have to be honest here.
Ok. So what about the steam? Well, on my first attempt I made a double shot for 2 cappuccino and about 16 ounces of milk for the foam - and yes, maybe 16 ounces of milk is a little unfair for starters. Nonetheless, the steam production was somewhat anemic with this volume. I think it took me about 45s to 1 minute (maybe longer) to get 16 fluid ounces of milk up to 145 degrees (F)... which is not hot enough... but my patience was running thin.
The double shot was flawless (I used fresh espresso from Discovery Coffee Victoria) and the microfoam was acceptable. The overall cappuccino experience was okay even though the beverage was a tad cool (brewed for immediate consumption as they say!)
What I discovered after a few milk sessions (I was actually using lactose-reduced Natrel 2% for my tests) was that one had to be careful how much milk one tried to steam/foam all at the same time. My first attempt at foaming 16 fluid ounces of milk was disappointing. The manual stipulates: Do not steam beyond 60s in duration. Gee. Thanks for the warning Gaggia. I found that 8 fluid ounces or so was kind of the upper limit if you wanted to bring cold milk up to 155 degrees (F) within the requisite amount of time.
One important disclaimer about the Gaggia Baby Twin - Although this unit has 2 "heating" units - a boiler and a thermoblock, you can only brew or steam milk. Not both at the same time. It only has one pump and the pump cannot really do both at the same time - at least from my observations.
3-way: The Gaggia Baby Twin has some extras on the inside that should be noted. One is the 3-way solenoid. What the 3-way does is: After the brew cycle completes, a valve opens and releases the pressure within the brew group and diverts it (and some waste-water) through a tube and into the drip tray. This is very handy because it allows for a quick reload of the portafilter and subsequent shots of espresso. Without the 3-way solenoid, there is latent pressure in the portafilter assembly and removal of the portafilter (to reload or refill) results in a pressure release - messy and potentially hot!
Unfortunately with the sample unit I received - the 3-way solenoid was not working. Chances are a wire or something fell off during shipping. I am returning the test unit tomorrow and in a few days I will know what went wrong with the sample Gaggia.
Programming: The Gaggia Baby Twin has 2 button positions that are fully programmable. They are volumetric settings. It means you can program the exact volume of each brew cycle. Very handy if you have 2 people in the household that prefer different shots for different beverages. Or, you might be brave enough to tackle single baskets (good luck!) and need to have very low volume programmed in. Hey. It is all good. One of the brew button positions also features a pre-infusion cycle - a brief blast of hot water before the primary brew cycle kicks in. Does it make a difference? Probably. Uber-serious machines like the Synesso and the La Marzocco in your favorite cafes use a pre-infusion cycle during the brew period.
The Gaggia Baby Twin is a solidly built unit for those that want a bit more freedom from the manual ritual of home espresso preparation. The touch panel system with programmable brew volume is very nice and does free up the user to concentrate on other things - if only for 25s or so! Pre-infusion: I think it is a nice touch and you might actually be able to taste the difference.
I liked the overall fit and finish and bulk of a machine that has a long running legacy. Gaggia still is a name that I trust.
I did not like the inclusion of the thermoblock unit for steam production. Seeing that I cannot brew and steam at the same time, I would have rather just lived with the single boiler and done some "temperature surfing" between brew and steam cycles. This is just me.
I like machines that have a 3-way solenoid. This one does but it was not working. We will find out why.
In the end analysis, I give the Gaggia Baby Twin two thumbs up with one or two small reservations.
Colin Newell lives and works in Victoria, B.C. Canada - and writes about cafe culture. His consumer reviews of home barista equipment have been a staple of this internet site for over ten years.