Philips Saeco Intelia Focus Coffee Machine

I have muttered at great length in the past about my various espresso machines. I last bought one – a moderately nice Gaggia in 2009, and until last year, it behaved flawlessly. Since then, it’s needed more and more cleaning and descaling, with frequent bouts of deciding not to produce anything even vaguely resembling coffee that you’d actually want to drink.

Now I could have carried on spending more and more time cleaning and descaling the thing. I could even have investigated cost of having it professionally serviced, but I suspected that would be more expensive than I could justify for a machine that’s over three years old. So I began to think that maybe I should look for a replacement. While I generally buy such things online, I do like to see them in the metal and plastic to get a feel for how they’ll fit in the kitchen, and to generally feel the controls and so on.

So, last Wednesday lunchtime, I had a wander round the shops to see what was on sale locally. I wasn’t expecting much – most of the machines on offer are designed for one of the increasing number of capsule systems (I really think there are too many of these now, and that most of them will disappear, leaving people with moderately expensive unusable kit), or very low end manual devices. What I was hoping to see was something in a similar line to the Gaggia Baby Class D that I bought in 2009. Mostly manual, but with automatic dispensing. At one point, I contemplated some rather expensive monsters which require you to use a lever to force the water through the grounds, but I decided that would be far too much effort for my essential first espresso of the day.

The other kind of machine I’ve had is the fully automatic bean to cup sort of thing. I had one once, but it suffered a terminal leak after about five years use. I suspect it was the water quality that did for it, but it had been very expensive at the time. Current equivalents seemed to be even more expensive – I saw one, which admittedly does Very Clever Things with milk (which I don’t need) but cost an eye-watering £1200, which is more than even I would contemplate for my coffee.

But on my way through Fenwicks, I saw something a bit different. It was a slightly smaller than average bean to cup machine with a price tag of £299, which is considerably less than such things normally cost. Now I don’t rush into these things, so I did a little research on the device. For a start, I found that the list price was £450, which is more what I’d expect such a thing to cost. Then I looked for the manual (nicely detailed) and some reviews, including a nice video from the lovely people at Seattle Coffee Gear:

It was the video that convinced me, as it went into enough detail about the machine to be useful, and confirmed that the results were good enough to satisfy some serious coffee people.

So, I did a bit of shopping around, and at the time, I couldn’t find an online price any better than the £299 in Fenwick’s, so I went back there and bought one.

Once I got it home, setting it up was a doddle – fill the tank, let it run a rinse cycle, then make the first coffee. The first shot came through in a very watery form, but then it settled down to producing really very good espresso. Smooth, strong, without a hint of bitterness, and with a lovely crema on top.

The electronic display is nicely informative, with large icons letting you know what’s going on – red ones for a problem (water tank needs filling, dump box needs emptying, etc), yellow ones when it’s sorting itself out (warming up, doing its automatic rinse thing, etc) and green ones when it’s happy (ready to make coffee, actually in the process of making coffee, etc). Some of these actually have little progress bars so you can see that things are happening, as if the noises being made and the steam and water flow weren’t enough to give you the general idea.

There are two coffee buttons – one for a shot of espresso, and one for a longer coffee. Both can be set to deliver the volume you prefer, which is the usual kind of thing. I haven’t found it necessary to change the defaults – the standard espresso shot looks about right in one of my little espresso cups. If you tap the espresso button twice, it will make two shots in succession, which is my usual drink.

Like all such devices, this does require some cleaning and maintenance. The complicated brew group needs to be removed weekly and rinsed under the tap – no detergent should be used. At roughly monthly intervals, a deeper cleaning is suggested – you can buy cleaning tablets which go in the water tank for this. The brew group requires occasional lubrication, and a tube of the recommended grease is supplied with the machine. And of course, there’s descaling – this requires the Saeco liquid descaler[1] and some button pressing – and a bottle of descaler was included with the machine.

So far, the only negative point I’d make is that the water tank is rather small. But unlike some machines, it’s easily accessible from the front and slides in and out neatly, so it’s not a major problem.

There is the option of using special water filters in the tank – I’ve bought a sample, but there seems to be a problem with the fitting, as in rather than firmly clicking into place, the filter is too loose. I found a German forum where someone was reporting the same problem, so I’ll take that up with Philips at some point. As I have a filter tap, this isn’t a real issue for me. Using filtered water is recommended to improve the taste of your coffee and keep scale to a minimum.

For £299, this is a very nice machine indeed. And I’ve since seen it even cheaper from some Amazon Marketplace sellers, so do shop around.

[1] This is the same stuff as the Gaggia descaler I’ve used previously