Saeco Starbucks Sirena Espresso Machine

Saeco Starbucks Sirena Espresso Machine

ratings (4 Epinions reviews)
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The Mermaid Delivered (to me, at least)

Dec 29, 2007 (Updated May 8, 2010)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Gorgeous design; quick espresso-to-steam transition; commercial portafilter; fail-safes; programmable shots; easily adaptable for higher quality

Cons:Questionable reliability; drip tray; wet steam; steam wand grip; temp gauge; superficial manual

The Bottom Line: The Sirena semi-automatic was the last espresso machine to bear the name Starbucks. Mine was "one of the good ones". It taught me a lot.

Espresso is the most elaborate coffee-making method yet devised, barely over a century old. The Sirena (Italian for "mermaid") is the result of a two-year collaboration between Saeco, BMW Designworks USA, and Starbucks, the Sirena's distributor. My girlfriend was able to get us the Sirena at a huge discount, thanks to her friendship with a Starbucks manager. Under the circumstances, and given Starbucks' reputation for customer service, it was worth taking a chance on an unproven macchina; the only other viable choice from Starbucks was the Spanish-made Ascaso Dream, another glam machine.

Before my critique of the Sirena, a few prefatory remarks are in order for those who are new to espresso-making. Those gleaming professional machines you see in coffee shops cost thousands of dollars. That should help put things in perspective: making good espresso at home ain't cheap. I reckon it takes a bare minimum investment of $400 if one wants all-new equipment; at least $200 for a serious grinder, $200 for la macchina (plus accessories). It is an axiom among espresso-heads that a quality burr grinder is absolutely essential, more so than for any other brewing method.

Fresh beans are also essential; this means purchased less than a week after roasting (this rules out supermarket beans). Local roasters are your best bet: the kind that put the roast date on the bag, not a sell-by date. With luck & skill a home barista can occasionally overcome poor equipment & materials, but to have consistently good results, i.e., crema-laden nectar that rivals wine in complexity, one has to start with the best. $500 is just in the mid-range for home espresso machines, where it starts to get serious. If you can't afford quality gear, you're better off paying your local barista (not Starbucks, please) to make your espresso drinks; that way everybody's happy.

To give credit where it's due, Starbucks did a lot of things right in making the Sirena. In the looks department, it rivals the Francis Francis! X-series and the Ascaso Dream. Sirena's exterior is silver powder-coated die-cast steel which is easy to clean and doesn't show fingerprints. It weighs 21 lbs. dry, hefty enough that one can lock in the portafilter without having to grip the casing. At 13" wide, 15" high, & 12" deep, it can fit most kitchens without overwhelming them. The clear plastic reservoir holds 57.5 oz. and is easily lifted out with a built-in handle. The water level is in plain sight, but there is also a low-water indicator light and fail-safe; it won't let you pull shots until the tank is refilled. Another fail-safe: the machine powers down after 90 minutes of inactivity. This could save on energy, as the machine pulls 1050 watts.

The boiler is stainless steel, and from a cold start it takes between 2 & 2.5 minutes to reach brewing temperature; still, for best results, let the machine heat up thoroughly. Recovery between double-shots takes 20-30 seconds (less between singles). This is no problem, considering that it takes at least that long to clean and reload the portafilter. Though the term "dual-boiler" has been mentioned in Starbucks propaganda, the Sirena probably does not have two boilers (a feature found only on more expensive "prosumer" machines). For one thing, on the Sirena you cannot pull shots and steam milk simultaneously.

The manual refers to a "Rapid Steam generator" made of die-cast alloy; I am convinced this is a thermoblock which draws hot water from the boiler to make steam. This is a clever way to switch quickly between espresso & steam modes; from espresso-ready to steam-ready takes only 11 seconds. The temperature gauge, amazingly, has no numbers; Saeco says the gauge is more for cosmetics. Still, if one carefully observes the fluctuations, "temperature surfing" should be possible. Degree numbers on the dial would have been helpful, though.

It is possible to reprogram the single and double-shot buttons to vary their quantity; the defaults are to produce 1 oz. singles & 2 oz. doubles (the volumes of water are on the high side, actually). For pulling double ristrettos, I found that the single-shot button does the job very nicely. Before making any changes, it would be a good idea to measure and note the original shot volumes, in case you want to restore them.

Some things I'm about to tell you are not in the manual; that little multi-lingual booklet tells you just enough to run the machine without breaking it or electrocuting yourself. This is sadly typical of the industry. Getting the best espresso and steamed milk out of this machine (or any other) will require study and practice.

The heavy 58 mm portafilter is made of chrome-plated marine brass and has twin spouts; it may be the first commercial-grade "pressurized" portafilter. That is, it comes with a back-pressure adapter that pretty much guarantees crema even without barista skills (no tamping required). Aficionados regard this device as a cheat, a crutch which produces average espresso at best. But for those willing to trade quality for convenience, that rubber disc is a godsend. (If one really wants no-brainer espresso, there are also super-automatics like the Nespresso.) For those committed to quality, the pressure adapter is very easy to remove. Without it, one can practice all the barista techniques of grind, dose, distribution and tamping till the cows come home, for potentially superior results. But in that case you'll have to get your own tamper, specifically for a 58 mm basket.

There are two filter baskets provided: the one "for ground coffee" has ridges to indicate the levels for singles and doubles; I pull only doubles, as those tend to turn out better. The other basket is a single-basket, which the manual says is for ESE pods, designed esp. for making espresso; this basket is meant to be used without the back-pressure adapter. I tried pods (a free gift, thank goodness), and the results were uniformly mediocre. Given the cost of the machine, I can't see why anyone would use pods -- they're a waste of money, given that ground coffee goes stale so quickly, no matter how it's packaged.

The steam wand is mounted on a ball joint and is very maneuverable. The chrome panarello froth-aider makes decent foamy milk a snap, but like the pressurized portafilter, the panarello tip is like the training wheels on a bicycle. To find the wand's true potential, one should remove the chrome sheath and steam with just the black plastic tip. Perhaps the Saeco engineers wanted us to have the option of going the extra mile for quality's sake. Personally I would've preferred a more commercial steam tip, not to mention commercial steam intensity. Bear in mind that North Americans are stuck with 110V house current; I wouldn't be surprised if the European 220V version performs significantly better in this regard. [Update: After hearing from other owners, it appears that steaming is most likely the Sirena's weak point. Perhaps I was one of the lucky ones.]

Still, beginners may benefit from having to take their time to perfect their milk-frothing technique. The video demos at the Sirena website are laughable when compared with what real baristas do; at YouTube, seach for "steaming milk" and "latte art". Microfoam can be achieved with the Sirena, given the necessary attention and effort. The fact is, in less than a week I learned to make cappuccinos far surpassing those served at Starbucks, using their machine and their beans. That's setting the bar rather low, of course, but for someone who's only just started, it's highly gratifying.

There are a few design flaws worth mentioning, none of them deal-breakers. The steam wand has a flimsy plastic grip on its curved portion (not seen in photos or videos). Mine broke off after a few weeks, and I don't miss it, since I move the wand by its tip when I need to. If anything, the wand is easier to clean now. The drip tray is the more enduring disappointment; specifically, the distance from portafilter spout to drip tray is greater than it should be, about 4.75" (3.75" in the elevated position). I reckon the designers wanted us to be able to stick glasses & mugs under there for making oversized milk drinks, Starbucks-style; maybe it was partly aesthetics. But I'm a conservative when it comes to espresso. The extra distance only increases the splatter from my small cups; so my drip tray is always elevated, which detracts a bit from Sirena's graceful appearance. In the greater scheme of things, this is a minor irritant.

The Sirena's flat top is OK for storing cups, but the surface never gets hot enough to truly warm them up. Since warm cups are vital, one can simply pull blank shots to pre-heat both portafilter and cups. Re backflushing: the Sirena does not have a 3-way solenoid, so backflushing is not recommended. For deep cleaning, I run Cleancaf through the reservoir and soak the portafilter & dispersion screen in Cafiza. For best flavor, one should clean the internals more often than the 3-4 month intervals suggested in the manual.

Thinking about how Starbucks has positioned itself in this market, it appears to me their "flagship" is meant to clobber the glam machines on price and features and to appeal to novices who can a) afford decent equipment and b) want a gentle learning curve. The Sirena's reliability is the big unknown factor. Other owners have reported problems, enough so that I feel compelled to lower my rating to 3 stars. [Update: Starbucks has taken the Sirena off the market, which should be fair warning; the build quality has likely gone downhill since the model was introduced, perhaps due to outsourcing.]

At full retail, I advise serious home baristas to consider intermediate machines like the Rancilio Silvia, the Ascaso Steel, the Le'Lit PL041, or the Isomac Venus. I imagine that for those who eventually outgrow the Sirena, the next natural step up will be a big one, not to the Silvia, but to a heat-exchanger or a real dual-boiler, paired with a prosumer grinder. Then we're not talking about a hobby anymore, but a full-blown obsession. Maybe it's time to get a loan and open a coffee shop, eh?

I should warn you, there's one little hazard I had not anticipated: once you start making good espresso at home, it can spoil you, big-time. You may never set foot in a Starbucks again!

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