So could a fully automatic coffee machine ever come close to producing what we as baristas loved to brew?
Call us sceptical but willing to be wrong on this score.
So when De’Longhi suggested we have a look at the Primadonna Elite, which is their top-of-the-line fully automatic coffee machine, we couldn’t say no.
And after several weeks of testing and tasting we are pleased to admit that sometimes it’s good to be proven wrong!
Let me show you why.
Back in the days when we were slaving away behind a $7000 coffee machine serving our customers, we learned a few things about what makes a great cup of coffee.
When we were told that we had the best coffee in town we were pleased of course but wondered why? Sure, we got the best beans but is that all there is to it?
To get consistently good results it really pays to clean the machine very regularly. And when some of our business customers told us they were going to buy their own coffee machine for the office, we knew they would be back before long. No one likes cleaning the machine!
Most automatic coffee machines will be able to brew a decent cuppa but for how long if it doesn’t get cleaned regularly?
I’m not sure whether De’Longhi invented self-cleaning machines but they certainly implemented it very well! Every time you start up the machine it goes through a cleaning and heating cycle and every time you shut it down it will clean the spouts again. Yes, it adds a few precious seconds to the whole process of presenting you with a glass of latte macchiato but, hey, you still have your first sip well before you would have placed your order at the counter and gotten your change back from the barista! Yes, the Primadonna is fleet footed too, getting your beverages to drinking level in under three minutes.
Okay, let’s start at the beginning and describe our first impressions.
The Primadonna Elite is a compact machine for what it is able to do but at same time it probably is one of your bigger kitchen appliances, about the size of your microwave standing on its side.
It was well packaged in its retail box which has an outer cardboard box without a bottom, which I found a bit strange because it could do with all the protection needed, particularly with a bit of damage done to the box in that area. Fortunately it was only the cardboard that was dented and not the machine.
There is something very gratifying when you unpack something that oozes quality on every level: the design, the materials used, the user-friendliness incorporated and where everything just works straight out-of-the-box.
You might have guessed that De’Longhi is Italian which, if you know anything about Italian cars and aeroplanes, they know a thing or two about design (see also the review I did about this Italian aircraft some years back).
And of course Italians seem to have discovered what to do with coffee beans!
I am a stickler for reading any instruction manual especially in the case of equipment that has complicated features. But am also keen to find out how easy it is to use a machine or a product without constant referencing the instructions.
If you spend 10 minutes on identifying the main parts and the first set up guidelines then you should have no problems in creating your first cup. There are also dozens of very short How To videos on the Primadonna Elite’s support web page.
Over the years we have reviewed a couple of Jura and Philips top-of-the-line coffee machines but even if this is your first experience with a bean to cup machine, you’ll find that it is quite easy to set up and literally within half an hour you can have your first brew.
We were happy to discover that in addition to the bean compartment there is a small funnel where you can put a scoop of pre-ground coffee. This means that you can cater to people who prefer decaffeinated coffee for instance.
When the machine comes alive for the first time it will give you all the instructions on a 4.3 inch touchscreen and it will tell you all that is happening in the process such as cleaning and heating. On that note it is always handy to have a jug underneath the spouts at all times when you’re not actually pressing your coffee selection. The reason is that this machine will clean the spouts when you turn it on and when you turn it off and rather than filling the shallow drip tray in a hurry you’ll find it easier just to empty the jug.
The Elite’s business end, the custom-height spouts, is lit up nicely with an LED from behind.
My first cuppa was a very simple long black.
Press the Aroma segment on the touchscreen to select coffee from the grinder or the pre-ground funnel and the strength of your brew. Then select the quantity of your coffee, small, medium or large. Finally press the icon of one of a good dozen coffee varieties.
I’m always fascinated by how something works and there is a lot going on in this compact machine. For starters, there are two separate heating systems: one for the coffee extraction which has to be between 88 and 96° and the other one for the steam and milk preparation. This model has its own grinder and mercifully it is very quiet. We were used to the obscenely loud grinders we had in our café. You can adjust the grinding level to your personal taste. The best aroma is always achieved when the coffee beans are ground just before the actual brewing.
The next step in the automated cycle is for the ground coffee to be tamped to the correct density so that the infusion pressure is between 9 and 12 bar. The round coffee cakes end up in a concealed container. Handy tip: Chuck them out on your veggie garden! Your plants will be thankful for that...
The final step in the preparation (or the first one if you like) is adding milk with the frothing level of your choice.
Their so-called “LatteCrema” system is able to deliver near instantaneously the most rich, velvety froth. The ladies in our team who love plenty of delicious froth, topped off with sprinkles, were raving about this. The only problem can be that when you use a lot of milk the temperature of the beverage is not as hot as some would like it. Yes, you can set the temperature of the coffee brew to high or max but when I asked the question of the De’Longhi team the only suggestion was to heat it up further with the steam spout. To me that seems an unnecessary extra bit of handling and cleaning by replacing the milk carafe with the steam spout. You can indeed use the steam spout to bring the temperature of the milk much higher, just like it’s done in a café.
The coffee cup warmer on top might also help in upping the overall temperature.
On the other hand when you use the special chocolate carafe it’ll be the hottest chocolate you could possibly have! Let it stand for a few minutes before you raise it to your lips.... It will have been stirred to perfection - not lumpy at all and with the free starter package of cocoa it also be the most luscious, richest hot choco you’ve ever had.
The Elite Club
Talking about free stuff: De’Longhi invites you to join an Elite Club when you invest in a Primadonna Elite. You will get a deluxe gift hamper with all sorts of coffee products to try out and some accessories. We’ll report on this more in our update.
You also will have access to a special priority support line if you have any questions and if your machine needs servicing they will even ship you a loan machine. I think they know that once you have been spoiled with the Primadonna brews, you can’t live without those for long!
This is clever marketing as obviously they want their customers to have the very best experience and in that light they also are offering a free Barista Master Class in your home if you’re lucky to live in a metropolitan area.
They will even set up the machine and show you how to use the app. If you ever have been to a Thermomix demo you know how this works. It is a perfect time to invite your friends and share a good cuppa.
The Coffee Link App
Over the weeks we experimented with every option on the touchscreen display and we quickly found that we all had one or two favourite brews. I like my coffee black and strong without any sugar. In fact, I am a plunger guy: quick and easy, nothing much to clean afterwards. Had it not for the Primadonna Elite for its full aroma of the freshly ground beans and the rich crema, I would have been still happy. But now I am ecstatic!
Some of the other team members prefer a standard cappuccino or decaf with lots of milk. And some don’t mind experimenting with a lactose free Chai latte with turmeric and pepper, sweetened with coconut sugar! They love it but I am not converted yet to this exotic taste....
Because we are so individualistic De’Longhi has made an app that will allow you to create your own profile with your preferences. First you have to pair your machine via Bluetooth on your phone. That’s easily done but once you switch off the machine you have to pair again. And that negates a little bit the usefulness of the app unless you leave the machine on all the time. It hardly uses any electricity in standby mode anyway.
The Primadonna Elite from De’Longhi is an amazing piece of equipment: beautifully designed, very well engineered, individually brewed coffees with amazing crema and always kept in optimal condition through automatic cleaning.
That’s the good bit.
The only downside is that not everyone can enjoy a Primadonna Elite because of its price point at close to 3600 Aussie dollars. There is a slightly less expensive model available in this range without touchscreen and the chocolate functionality. The difference is 400 bucks.
There are of course ways to justify this investment, for instance when you always have a lot of people over or when you spend a lot of money ducking out to your local coffee shop for a caffeine fix.
So what is our recommendation?
Sometimes products live up to their advertisement and if they are good value for money we will recommend them.
On rare occasions products will not only do that but absolutely delight us in using them. And, yes, they may not be the cheapest deals on the market but will give you years of great pleasure.
The De’Longhi Primadonna Elite is such a product which we can give our highest recommendation: our Editor’s Choice Award!
Have a look at the Primadonna Elite web page but also have a look at the other De’Longhi automated coffee machines starting at under a thousand bucks.
It probably is no wonder that De’Longhi seems to be the market leader when it comes to fully automatic coffee machines.
We have captioned this segment as Preliminary Findings because we will update you over the next few months how longer term use of the Primadonna Elite (model number ECAM 650.75.MS) will affect our final conclusions.
We’re still trying to find an easier way to get the milk temperature to a higher level other than resorting to extra handling. Were it not for that the Primadonna Elite would score a perfect 10 out of 10.
Anyways, we’ll keep you updated on this.
UPDATE June 2017
As promised, here’s an update on our longer term use of the Primadonna Elite.
After our review went to air we also received the free “Chocolate Pack” that normally comes with the purchase of the machine as a “sweetener” on the fairly high investment price. It’s touted as a $400 value and this large box is stuffed with all the goodies you see below:
Most of the value is in the many packs of high quality coffee beans and even though it’s labelled as a Chocolate Pack there are only two packs of rich chocolate in there. I’m OK with that as the coffee is what it is all about. Handy are also the double wall thermo glasses, the cocoa sprinkler and more maintenance products.
So what did we find after using 152 litres of water to create 587 coffees of different types and 97 chocolates? (Love those statistics!)
We found that:
1. The Primadonna Elite is an essential part of keeping this review team going! We’re not caffeine addicts but appreciate a good cup of joe twice a day and a lush glass of chocolate on occasion as well.
2. The machine is easy to clean and to maintain. We did only one descaling when the appliance indicated we should do so. That takes about an hour (or less if you stay with the machine) and you need to fill up the fresh water tank several times.
Statistics show that we did 190 container cleans over the nearly 4 months of use, which seems a bit high.
3. Never once did the Primadonna Elite let us down. No machine errors, no operator errors. It’s all very easy.
4. Yes, we’ve worked around the issue of the milk (if you prefer lots of milk in your brew) not being as hot as it could be. In those cases 10-20 sec in the microwave will get it scaldingly hot.
5. We love showing off the Primadonna Elite! And give visitors the best coffee they’ve had all day...
And that’s the highest recommendation we can give for any appliance or device that we’ve reviewed!
Also from the De’Longhi Group which comprises the Kenwood and Braun brands, we are currently testing the most awesome Kenwood Cooking Chef we’ve ever laid our eyes on. This is the very latest model of this venerable brand which combines all the previous capabilities of the Kenwood Chef with the cooking capabilities of the likes of the Thermomix and Hotmix Pro.
So stay tuned as we keep testing and tasting...