Smeg is well known for its achingly trendy retro home appliances, but you’d be forgiven for wondering whether there was more style than substance to its products. Its 1950s style ECF01 falls into that category for me. It looks utterly fantastic with its pastel-shaded colour, curved shape, and chrome trim.
My first thoughts upon prying it from its polystyrene packing frame, however, concerned whether or not it would be able to brew a decent cup of espresso. There isn’t much point looking super-sleek if your coffee tastes of water, after all.
Smeg ECF01 Espresso Coffee Machine review: What you need to know
The ECF01 is significant in that it’s Smeg’s first standalone coffee machine; it has other coffee machines in the range, but they’re all fully automatic machines designed to be built into high-end fitted kitchens.
It’s a manual espresso machine, which means you’ll need to supply your own espresso coffee or grind your own beans to the correct consistency, and then tamp the coffee and steam and froth the milk yourself (if you’re making a cappuccino or a latte). But, despite its simplicity, it also gives you plenty of control over the temperature and volume of your brew, so you can set things just so.
Smeg ECF01 Espresso Coffee Machine review: Price and competition
Costing £280, the Smeg ECF01 is very expensive for a manual machine and it would appear that you’re paying mainly for the name and design rather than anything particularly special.
Certainly, it doesn’t do anything special compared with current favourite manual espresso machines: the Gaggia Gran Prestige (£180) and the De’Longhi Scultura (£150). There’s nothing wrong with the way it makes coffee, though, so if you like the look, it might just be the machine for you.
Smeg ECF01 review: Features and design
Available in glossy black, cream, baby blue and lustrous red and trimmed with chrome, there’s no doubt the ECF01 looks great. It also feels solidly made all-round and its slim profile means even the most tightly packed kitchen worktops will be able to accommodate it.
And, practically speaking, it has all the features you need to make most espresso-based coffee drinks. There’s a cup warmer on top, a milk frothing wand that also delivers hot water on the side and a portafilter that comes with three inserts: one for single cups, one for two shots of espresso and another for ESE coffee pods.
You’re also supplied with a dual-purpose – and rather cheap-feeling – scoop and tamper, but disappointingly no water filter. Despite the fact that the machine’s one-litre water tank has the fitting for one, and despite the machine’s rather high price, Smeg doesn’t even include one in the box.
Still, it’s pretty easy to set up and run, and Smeg has kept the number of buttons on the front to a merciful minimum. There are three buttons on the front: one for a single espresso, one for a double and a third to toggle between steam and hot-water delivery. Aside from the steam/hot water lever on the right-hand side, that’s it for controls.
Cleaning and filling are straightforward as well. The steam button lights up orange when the machine needs descaling, the drip-tray disengages easily and has a float to show when it’s full, and you can either fill the water tank in place by simply removing its lid or remove it completely from the machine, facilitating easier cleaning.
You’ll need to remember to run a bit of steam through the milk wand every time you use it, though, to keep it from clogging up.
Smeg ECF01 review: Performance
To test the machine, we took it to Square Mile Coffee Roasters in London and used a batch of the firm’s freshly ground Red Brick blend, comparing the quality of the resulting espresso with one produced by a professional £14,000 machine.
The first thing to note is that, with the settings on default and using the 7g of coffee for a single shot recommended in the user manual, I found the machine produced a rather watery espresso, lacking the thick crema, the sweet acidity and slightly bitter afternotes produced by the professional machine.
Add five more grammes, however, and the results are far more acceptable. You get a much more tasty brew, albeit still lacking a bit on the crema front. The strength of the Smeg, though, is in its customisability. A quick examination of the manual reveals it’s possible to adjust several different parameters in pursuit of the perfect coffee. There’s a water hardness adjustment, naturally, but you can also change the water temperature (low, medium or high) and quantity of coffee produced by the machine by the single shot and double shot buttons. Square Mile recommends a two-to-one weight ratio of ground coffee to final espresso for Red Brick and, with the judicious use of scales, it’s relatively simple to achieve this for a perfectly balanced espresso.
The only thing I’d say is that accessing those settings and adjusting them is a little fiddly. You have to press and hold the steam button for ten seconds and then follow a fairly obscure series of button presses to get to the setting you need. It’s not something you’re going to remember, so be sure to keep the manual close to hand.
Still, once you’ve set it up, you shouldn’t need to tweak those settings too much, and the milk frother works well, too. It’s a little on the short side, so you might need to experiment to find the right size jug for your milk, but it generates steam quickly and I found it easy and quick to produce fully froth milk for either a cappuccino or latte. With some machines, there’s a certain knack to getting the milk to the right consistency but with the Smeg, I achieved respectable results right away – not barista perfect, perhaps, but not an awfully long way away from it.
Smeg ECF01 review: Verdict
So, is the Smeg a good buy? Yes and no. On the positive side, it gives you all the tools you need to achieve the perfect espresso. It’s flexible, looks great and is easy to maintain and operate. Even the milk frother is simple to use.
On the negative side it doesn’t come supplied with a water filter and, if you don’t want to cheapen the look of your 1950s-style kitchen, you’re going to have to invest in a stainless steel coffee scoop and a proper tamper to complete the look.
Still, for those who value the appearance of their kitchen appliances and also love coffee, the Smeg ECF01 does tick all the boxes – albeit at a high price.