Review: Starbucks Barista

This post is a repeat from a former blog in 2011. Hope you enjoy!

I have been using the Starbucks Barista (which in essence is a rebranded Saeco Aromaor Saeco Via Venezia…the only difference is the exterior and steam wand) daily for about a year and a half now, so I figure that now is a better time than any to give an in-depth review of the machine.

The Barista is a pump (not steam-driven) espresso machine with a single 5 oz. stainless steel boiler and stainless steel exterior. It has a mechanical power button, brew and steam settings. The temperatures are controlled using cheap thermostats on the internals, which are adequate given the price point but may leave a bit to be desired as far as temperature control. The drip tray is a three part plastic and stainless steel drip tray, which has a reasonable volume and is dishwasher safe for easy cleaning. The tank, which sits behind the grouphead, is plastic and removable, and is visible without removing any parts.

Below is a picture of my personal machine. Notice the switch on the upper left portion of the machine is not stock but is rather a modification I made to allow better steaming. Essentially, I wired in a switch to bypass the steam thermostat to allow the boiler to get hot enough to steam milk adequately. Simple mod, and I will post a how-to in the nearby future.

Now I’ll get to the specifics of performance in various categories. Note that I have played around with other espresso machines in this price point, up to one of my favorites, the $2000 Expobar Brewtus.

Warm-Up Time: 9/10

The warm-up time for the Barista is excellent, due to the smallish boiler. It warms up to both steam and brew temperatures in less than five minutes. However, this category is not big in my book, although it may be if you are always in a rush to get out of the door.

Aesthetics: 7/10

This machine is not the prettiest (at least in my eye), but given the competition in this category, the fact that you get a stainless steel exterior is huge. The machine is also offered in red, black, blue, green, and stainless (as pictured before). The biggest negative, of course, is that nasty Starbucks logo on the front of the machine….

Brew Temperature: 6/10

Here is where the Barista falls a bit short, but it is to be expected of machines in this price point. The boiler temperature in the brew setting is regulated by two mechanical thermostats. When the brew temperature reaches a lower set point, the element kicks on, and when it hits the higher set point the element turns off. The issue is that the lower set point is much too low (think 185 degrees). However, this issue can be mitigated with temperature surfing (more on that in a future post) to start the brewing at the upper end of the temperature range.

Note also that, as expected, the temperature stability within the shot is not great given the lack of thermal mass (think chunk of metal), and the small boiler. While a shot is brewing, the boiler is filling automatically with room temperature water, which lowers the temperature of the brew water. However, this will be an issue with all machines in this price point.

Steaming: Stock 5/10, Modified 7/10

The stock steam wand has a single hole tip, which is much better than many auto-frothing type steam wands on machines in this level (and even on the Saeco Aroma). An auto-frothing steam wand essentially sucks air into the steam to froth the milk, rather than relying on user control. This results in big bubbles, not micro-foamed milk. The fact that the Barista has a normal steam wand is a huge plus in my book.

However, the steaming capacity is a bit lacking. The issue is that once the machine reaches steaming temperature (which I believe is 265 degrees F from a boiler thermostat), the heating element turns off. What this means for anything more than a small cappuccino or macchiato is that the boiler temperature will get too low during steaming and you will be forced to wait for the boiler to get back up to temperature or deal with “wet” steam. Waiting for the boiler to get back up to temperature only takes about 30 seconds, but is a bit of a hassle.

The modification that I have done to my machine allows the heating element to be on during the entire steaming process, and gives much better steam performance. I will post a guide in the nearby future on how to go about doing this modification.

Portafilter: Stock 2/10, with pressurized parts removed 6/10

The stock portafilter is a 53 mm pressurized portafilter, and pressurized is a no go in my book. This means that the stock portafilter creates a fake crema by incorporating air bubbles into the espresso, and won’t allow brewing below a certain pressure. This allows the user to not be quite as fussy about the grind size and quality, but in my opinion makes terrible coffee. This is easily fixed, however, by simply removing the basket and taking out the pressurized parts, leaving only the basket and the brass.

Even with the pressurized system removed, the coffee still exits the brass of the portafilter and comes into contact with a lot of plastic. This doesn’t affect the taste of the coffee, but does mean that it is hard to clean. There are retrofits available on the internet to fix this problem at Seattle Coffee Gear.

Drip Tray: 7/10

As mentioned earlier, the drip tray is a pretty decent size, and if I don’t careless run water into it I only have to empty every few weeks. It is also dishwasher safe, which is very handy.

Tank Size: 8/10

For a machine in this price point, I don’t think I’ve seen a tank this big. I don’t have exact ounce specifications, but it is very large given the size of the machine and only requires re-filling every few days, even with a lot of steam wand usage. Only pulling single shots, the water in the tank could last weeks (although you probably wouldn’t want it sitting in there for that long).

The water level can be seen from the exterior, but may require shaking the machine a bit given the fact that the tank is partially clouded. The tank is removable, but may be filled via a door on the top of the machine (see picture)

Overall: 7/10

I give the Barista a 7/10, which is a bit generous but is really in my opinion the best espresso machine under $300. With the pressurized portafilter removed, you can pull some very nice shots. No, it won’t be like using a big $2000 E61 double boiler machine, but given the price the espresso is good.

The machine is a great platform for modifications, as well, if you are a tinkerer. There is much literature on these machines, given the prevalence. For the entry-level Home Barista on a budget (like me), you can’t go wrong.

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