It's hard to find a fully automatic coffee machine that can successfully froth milk unless you spend a quite a lot of money. The alternative is to buy a bean-to-cup machine, such as the Gaggia Anima, which takes care of making espresso for you but has a traditional Pannarello steam wand for manual frothing.
The results, with a little practice, are better than with the similar Gaggia Anima Deluxe, which has a fancy automatic frother that we found to be inconsistent in our review.
Gaggia has done a great job with the Anima. The combination of black and silver looks fantastic, and this is one coffee machine that I'd be happy to have on display. It also isn't particularly wide or deep compared to other fully automatic coffee machines, so the Anima should fit neatly on any kitchen counter.
Neat and responsive buttons adorn the front, completing the look. As the spout slides up and down smoothly, you can easily adjust for all glass sizes, and I managed to fit in everything from an espresso glass to a latte glass. This is definitely one of the nicest-looking coffee machines available.
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The bean hopper is on top, beneath a neat little flap. You'll easily get a regular bag of coffee into the machine. Inside the hopper is the dial to adjust the grind, although you need to attach the rather fiddly tool to turn the dial. A simple knob or slider would make this adjustment easier. There's also a pop-up flap that can take a single dose of ground coffee.
The responsive buttons provide one-touch access to the drinks and features that the Anima can deliver. These include buttons for Espresso and Espresso Lungo (a "long" espresso), Strength, Steam, Hot Water and the Menu button to change other settings.
The result is a neatly built coffee machine that's exceptionally straightforward to use. Both the Espresso and Espresso Lungo options have a default coffee strength and pre-set volume, although you can override both to suit your tastes.
Out of the box, espresso quality wasn't quite what I wanted, and the first shot was watery and weak. The likely explanation is that the first shot didn't grind enough coffee, as the machine was new; by the second shot, the grinder was pre-loaded with beans.
Even so, the coffee consistency and crema wasn't quite what I was after. To get better results, I opted for a finer grind (this requires more pressure to push the hot water through), and dialled up the strength of the shot. I left the water temperature on high.
This time around, the espresso quality was excellent. The crema was thick and oily, lasting for a few minutes, and the coffee was dark and rich, with the full flavour preserved. Coffee temperature was just about spot-on, too, at 66oC. Make no mistake; this machine is capable of pulling a great espresso shot.
For longer drinks, it's easy to top up with a little hot water directly from the Anima. Hot water is also useful at the start of making a drink to pre-warm your espresso cups, as the Anima doesn't have a cup warmer.
Tapping the milk froth button heats up the machine, after which it automatically starts dispensing steam through the wand. With no tap to control the pressure, you have to froth at the Anima's pace, so it may take a few tries to get right.
Once I was used to the steam output, I found that could get the silky-textured milk that I expect to see. Manually mixing the milk with an espresso resulted in a top cappuccino. Best of all, unlike using a fully automatic machine, this didn't feel like cheating and gave me a sense of accomplishment.
The main downside of not having a dedicated steam tap is that you can't give a quick burst through the wand after frothing to expel any left-over milk. Once you've poured your milk out of the jug, I recommend putting the wand back in and turning on the steam function for a couple of seconds to give it a clean. The steam wand should be removed and cleaned in warm soapy water.
The Gaggia Anima isn't time-consuming to maintain. It will automatically rinse on power-on and power-off to keep the coffee spout clean, but you'll have to clean the steam wand manually.
You'll also need to follow the instructions in the manual, using cleaning tablets to clean out the inside of the coffee machine. When prompted, run through the descaling programme (how hard your water is determines how often this has to be done). I recommend installing the optional Gaggia Mavea water filter in the 1.7-litre water reservoir to help prolong the life of the coffee machine.
Once a week or so, it's worth opening up the side of the coffee machine to clean out the brew unit. This is a little fiddly to remove and put back, but it's still good to be able to clean this important part quickly.
Finally, there's the usual job of emptying the drip tray, which pulls out from the front of the machine. You'll need to take care when it's full. Sitting on top of the tray is the used coffee container, which takes all of the coffee pucks. A weekly clean with soapy water will help keep it clean.
If you can't quite stretch your budget to get a coffee machine that can pour milk automatically, or like the idea of manual frothing, the Gaggia Anima is a great choice. You get excellent espresso from it and, with a little practice, great milk-based drinks.
For those who ave a little more money, the excellent Melitta Caffeo Barista TS does everything automatically.
Great-quality espresso combined with a manual steam wand make the Gaggia Anima an attractive combination: a top coffee machine at a great price.