I was going to start off this review with some bad vague allusions to the unfortunate naming of this espresso machine. I’m not sure about the rest of the world, certainly I expect Taiwan where the machine originates is clear, but “Gee”, here at least, is a pejorative term, a slang word usually referencing a specific part of female anatomy. I was going to say how I had become excited at the prospect of getting my hands on this Gee. How I was looking forward to playing with it, and tasting what came out of it.
All these things were actually true. Though the jokes would have been crass, my own internal hype monster had built this machine up as a significant step forward in consumer espresso machines. It was to deliver features usually only found in machines several times the price. It had received an endorsement of sorts from ex-La Marzocco engineer Bill Crossland, who was reported to be working with the Taiwanese manufacturer to rebadge the machine and sell it under his own Crossland Espresso Machine banner. It was to be the espresso machine for the masses.
The problem with this kind of hype, like we witnessed some time ago with the Mahlkonig / Baratza Vario, which was at the time likened to the next coming of Christ, is that failure to meet expectations leaves a rather sour taste (sometimes in the cup). Unlike the Vario, however, which hype-removed is a solid albeit unmessianic grinder, the Gee in its current incarnation carries too many shortcomings to be a relevant competitor, let alone a market leader.
My evaluation unit arrived about 2 months ago. While it closely resembles the form of a Gaggia Classic (very closely), certainly from pictures, it is in person substantially larger, utilitarian, boxy. It has rough edges, pieces joining at sharp angles. While not ugly to me per se, at best, being kind you might describe it as plain. Nonetheless it easily fits under kitchen cabinets, and it’s footprint is neat enough to not dominate a modest kitchen counter-top.
Somewhat uniquely it comes with an adequate tamper. Granted the tamper is entirely plastic, but it fits the basket, and is pleasingly ergonomic to hold and use. It lacks the weight and most likely the durability of a “proper” tamper. However, I can certainly see how many people would find it good enough, and not feel the need to fork out $50+ on a custom one. While I didn’t know it at the time, this I would later find out would be one of my more positive findings.
There are bits of fit and finish that are a little worrying. The tube connecting the solenoid to the drip tray, only extends into the drip tray courtesy of half an inch of roughly cut silicone tubing. The steam knob is the cheapest of cheap plastic, and in fact fell off during the initial unboxing (happily slotting back on without too much trouble).
There is ample room on top for cups which I am always happy to use. However, I would hasten to call it a cup warmer as little heat is radiated from this surface, nor are there vents to allow boiler heat to rise up. Having left a number of cups up there for several hours to an entire day the machine barely manages to take the chill out of the cups, let alone transfer any heat into them. Holding the cups between your thighs, or the thighs of a loved one if you prefer, would probably accomplish more.
The steam wand rotates only on one axis, similar to older models of the Rancilio Silvia. Not a big deal, and I found the available angles workable. Indeed the steam wand is reminiscent of the older style Silvia wand, replete with a tip that seems best designed to accumulate milk residue. You cannot simply wipe this with a damp cloth after steaming and expect it to produce a clean wand, no you really need to get in there, elbow grease. Even then in practice I found myself having to soak the tip in Cafiza every couple of days as gradually a build up persisted.
Steaming power is somewhat anaemic. Certainly it is slow. Preparing a 6-8oz milk drink can be done without much difficulty. With larger drinks, it can sometimes be difficult to maintain a consistent rolling motion when trying to texture the milk – but it can be done. Contrary to what is suggested on the Gee website, this is not a dual-boiler espresso machine, it has one boiler and one thermoblock, which cannot be run simultaneously. This translates to, in short, lacking the ability to pull a shot and steam milk simultaneously. So, like the Silvia, there is a delay waiting to steam milk. It is perhaps a slightly shorter delay than the Silvia, but it is a delay nonetheless. Coupled with the lack of steam power the machine falls down greatly in this area, where it had promised much.
The portafilter is of the 58mm variety, made of chromed brass. It is, however, a non-standard portafilter, no other 58mm portafilter (or a SCACE for that matter) I had in my possession would fit the grouphead (although any 58mm basket I tried fit fine).
Far more worryingly, however, is the rate at which the grouphead and portafilter heat up. That is to say they do not do so in any reasonable amount of time. Without any exaggeration, and without any external interference, it can take 2+ hours for the grouphead and portafilter to reach anything resembling an acceptable temperature.
For a machine in this market category, 30 mins would be the maximum acceptable amount of time, and even then it would be towards the long end.
So, although I have gauged the water exiting the grouphead to be consistent with the digital readout, because of the lack of heating of the group and portafilter the brew temperature is often dramatically lower. This not only caused brew problems, but also meant that I was frequently drinking espresso that was too cold, even for someone like me who abhors piping hot espresso.
If ever a machine needed an efficient cup warmer this was it.
Another concern is the stock portafilter basket. I found consistent results rather difficult to achieve with this basket. Crema was often thin and rapidly diminishing, and better results were achieved when using a third party basket. It might be worthwhile to have this basket analysed.
The digital setup works intuitively enough. Setting temperature, brew duration and “pre-infusion” are all very straightforward. The pre-infusion marketed here, however, is dissimilar from what we would traditionally understand as preinfusion, which is brewing under line pressure for a short period of time at the start of the brewing, before ramping up to brew pressure. Here the pump is engaged for a couple of seconds and then stopped before re-engaging for the full brew duration. I cannot determine if this has any benefits, I did not find it improved the quality of coffee produced, and found myself turning this function off.
There are a couple of other quirks to contend with. The PID does not appear to be tuned as well as one would hope. There is a consistent temperature fluctuation, which can get irritating. Every time the temperature drops below the set temp the machine beeps. When it recovers to its set temp it beeps. This can several times in a small number of minutes and can be very irritating. I was unable to find a way to turn this off.
The machine will not allow you to start a brew if the temperature has dropped below the set temp. It will, however, allow you to brew above the set temp. This can sometimes translate to having prepared the coffee puck, locking the portafilter in, only to find the temperature has dropped to 93C instead of your desired 94C. Instead of perhaps making the decision whether this 1 degree difference is acceptable or not, you must wait. On the other side, the temperature may have overshot to as much as 99C and you can brew with that temperature with no restrictions.
It would be unfair to completely pan this machine. It sets its sights high, and seems to accomplish much, such as accurate digital control of brew water temperature (and for that matter I found my unit to set to 9 bar out of the box). I have made plenty of tasty drinks with it. Sometimes I found myself having to cajole them out of it. The cold portafilter could be remedied by running lots of brew water through the portafilter (wasteful), or pulling a dummy shot and leaving the spent puck (also wasteful), or even once, as I found myself doing, boiling the kettle and sitting the portafilter in a jug of very hot water (tedious). All these machinations defeat the purpose of this machine, to offer push button control and consistency, to take away the little quirky tricks (temperature surfing) that are the bane of consumers in this market segment. Had it accomplished that, I could readily forgive build quality quibbles, superficial concerns. Sadly in this iteration it fails on many levels.
To the best of my knowledge, this machine, in this guise is currently for sale in Asia and Australia. Bill Crossland is still working with the engineers to bring it to the US, however, I understand that it will be a substantially upgraded model. For all the shortcomings I can see why Bill chose this machine and this company, not for what it is, but for what it can be.
For what we still hope it can be.