I spent a week with the Sage by Heston Blumenthal espresso machine “The Oracle“, I didn’t spend a week with Heston Blumenthal himself… although I can imagine that would be equally interesting!
A while ago I wrote a post called The Espresso Machines I Might Buy When I Win The Lottery. In that post, the first machine I mentioned was the Sage by Heston Blumenthal “The Oracle”, and that wasn’t a review as I’d not used the oracle at the time – I was simply saying that it was high on my list of purchases if I were to suddenly be able to afford it to spend this kind of money on an espresso machine.
Well, I didn’t win the lottery, unfortunately (and by the way I know it’s officially called “lotto” now, but I’ll never call it that, just sounds odd to me), Sage by Heston Blumenthal sent me “The Oracle” espresso machine. Not to keep, boo! Just to use for a few days (it ended up being a week) so I can review it – but I’ll enjoy it while it lasts!
Before I get into The Oracle review, I wanted to first look into who the company “Sage” is, and what the machine is all about in theory, before I get started on what I think of the machine in practise.
When I first started researching this machine, I noticed that it looked identical to a machine made by Breville, and I know of the UK firm Breville. For me when I think of this company I think of toasters and toastie makers. I did a bit of reading up and discovered that Breville was founded in Australia in the 1930’s, and became a household name. In the 80’s, the rights to the Breville name in Europe was sold to another firm, so now the company Breville in Europe is a completely different company to Breville Australia, who now therefore need a different name for the brand in Europe, hence the name Sage. So if you see The Oracle in YouTube videos as “The Breville Oracle”, now you know why.
Sage appliances as a company in my humble opinion, are brilliant. I’ve noticed that with many of the espresso machines, and with grinders, that the manufacturer often isn’t in the UK, which can mean that in some cases (with Rancilio for example) that your warranty isn’t with the manufacturer but it’s with the retailer – which then makes your choice of supplier all the more important.
With Sage however, they’re here in the UK, and you can pick up the phone and give them a call (as I have down recently when I purchased the Smart Grinder Pro), and be instantly on the phone to a human being, which is always a good thing… I found them to be very nice, helpful and friendly and being able to just dial a UK phone number and speak to a member of customer services who knows their products, instils a lot of confidence.
While this may be the same with some other brands of espresso machines and related equipment, it’s certainly not the case with all. I’ve found that often with consumer and even with some prosumer machines, equipment is imported directly into the UK via retailers meaning that if the retailer doesn’t offer you the support you need, you may be on your own – and while some people might be happy doing their own support and maintenance, I would expect that when spending this kind of money on a machine, to just be able to phone the manufacturer and have any issues sorted. With Sage products I wouldn’t have any worries at all about support from the manufacturer, having had some experience with them.
OK so now I’ve introduced you to Sage by Heston Blumenthal, I’ll get into the actual espresso machine review.
The idea behind The Oracle, is that the crucial elements of making a great espresso are automated, leaving only the more subtle fine-tuning to the developing skill of the home barista. In other words, someone like me with zero Barista skills can get this machine out of the box and be making espresso and espresso-based drinks that are only a hairsbreadth from perfection, but at the same time there is some element of skill involved, which isn’t the case with a fully automatic bean to cup coffee machine.
If you like the look of this machine but you would like a more manual espresso machine, by the way, have a look at the Sage Barista Express. It lacks the automated features; the grinding dosing, tamping & milk texturing is all manual rather than automated, and I think it’s safe to say that these things actually require a lot of skill, so I would expect the learning curve to be much longer than with The Oracle, but the price tag is much smaller. So the barista express is the Sage machine at the best price, and if like me you’re wondering why this machine is so much cheaper, one of the main things I can see other than the lack of the automated features is that its single pump, which means that unlike The Oracle, you can’t steam your milk at the same time as extracting your espresso. Personally, given that extracting an espresso takes maybe 20-30 seconds, this doesn’t bother me; what I think I’d miss about The Oracle if I was to swap now to the Barista Express, would be all of the automated bits such as the automated grinding, dosing and tamping, and the automated milk texturing.
There is also the Sage by Heston Blumenthal Dual Boiler Coffee Machine, which is basically the same dual boiler machine but without the integrated grinder and without all of the super auto stuff.
Review Day 1, unpacking and initial impressions.
They pack this machine well! This is a very good thing… if you’re spending this amount of money on anything, you want it to get to you in one piece. I do a lot of ordering online, and usually thanks to the sale of goods act, it’s very simple to get a refund or replacement if the item turns up in less than perfect condition, and in fact I find Amazon are brilliant when it comes to replacing stuff, I can even just drop items off at my local Asda (which is only a small local one, not a big store), but it’s just a pain if things reach you damaged, so I do like the care that sage have put into boxing the oracle, they’ve done a great job there.
On getting it out of the box, the first thing which catches my attention is just how cool this machine looks! Even my wife (who’s not at all excited about anything to do with coffee, since she doesn’t drink it) admitted that it’s a good-looking machine; it improves the kitchen just by sitting on the work surface, in my opinion!
I opened the instructions, and actually it all looked fairly straight forward. As this is a machine which has been demo’d previously, I could skip some of the steps that have to do be followed when the machine is used for the very first time, such as inserting the filters, but still there is nothing in the instructions which would particularly confuse me, and I’m not the best when it comes to instructions, I even struggle building Ikea furniture!
I put the bean hopper on securely, filled up the tank (I like the fact that the tank doesn’t have to be removed to fill it, but you can do if you prefer), turned on the machine, and wow – when turned on, it lights up the kitchen even more!
After waiting a couple of minutes for the machine to warm up, I filled the hopper with beans, as per the instructions, and then followed the instructions with regard to putting the portafilter into the grind outlet, which resulted in the automatic process of grinding, dosing and tamping. Then I put the portafilter into the group head (the bit the water comes through) pressed the single cup button, and watched an amazing looking single espresso with a decent looking crema appear from my first attempt only minutes after opening the box, impressive!
Just keep in mind that there’ll be more steps involved for anyone fortunate enough to be actually purchasing the espresso machine, as this one is just on loan I could skip some of the initial start up steps since the machine had previously been used.
So this first espresso was good, if this was all the machine did, then I’d be very happy with it – of course it isn’t all this machine can do! It can do double espresso, long black / lungo, Americano, and it can steam / froth milk, either using the automatic feature, or manually. Also, it allows the user to play around with the grinding, to find the best grind. The machine came to me set to 6, which seems a bit on the fine side, so I’ve set it a bit more coarse, and I’ll continue to experiment with it. The instructions tell me that the flow should begin after 9-14 seconds, and if it starts earlier then the grind is too coarse and will result in under extraction; if it starts later then the grind is too fine and will result in an over extracted shot.
So day one of the trial of this machine, I set it up at about 6pm, made a stunning espresso straight away, and then a couple more with different grind settings, including a couple of double espresso’s and long blacks. No, I didn’t drink them all, or I would be bouncing off the walls! I sampled them, the kids helped too ;-).
I couldn’t wait to try out The Oracle this morning! I realised that I didn’t time the start up yesterday, and this might be something people might want to know, so I opened the timer on my phone and set it going as I pressed the on button. It took 2 minutes and 27 seconds from cold, to reach standby temp, and I’m guessing how long it takes will depend on the ambient temp of your kitchen, or wherever you put the machine. If this is too long for you, then you can simply use the auto on feature to set what time you want the machine to switch on, so it’s ready for you when you’re awake and in need of coffee.
As I’m turning the machine on, I realise that every detail of this machine oozes quality, even including the feel and response of the buttons, including the power button. It doesn’t feel like you have to fully press the on button to wake up the machine, it’s as if it responds a split second before you touch it!
As I reach for the portafilter to put it into the grind outlet, I am struck by how solid and heavy duty the portafilter is. No I don’t mean I’m “struck with it” literally, I reckon that would hurt!. It just feels like a heavy, solid and expensive bit of equipment. OK it’s not a cheap espresso machine, so you may say “it should be all amazing quality stuff for £1500”, but don’t forget that this is actually not that expensive when compared to some of the prosumer machines, and that this includes the grinder.
Every square inch of the machine has been really well considered, I can’t see any cut corners here in terms of features, and the way it looks and feels – I’m not an engineer so I can’t “pop the hood” and tell you all the ins and outs regarding the tech specs of the boilers and the pump and whatnot, but from a laypersons user perspective it all seems very well thought out and put together.
This morning I was tired, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I was craving an espresso, and the espresso I made with very little thought, really hit the mark. After getting ready, showered, encouraging the kids to get ready (which mainly involves continually trying to wake our son up, our daughter is usually awake early, she’s definitely her mothers daughter, our son takes after me!) I made myself a long black, it tasted incredible – with little help from me.
At this point I realised that thanks to The Oracle, I was making almost perfect, barista-quality coffee in my own kitchen, without any training, and barely having even looked at the instructions. But at the same time, this isn’t a 100% bean to cup espresso machine, there is some level of skill to it, but the lack of skill doesn’t result in crap coffee, just maybe 7 or 8 out of 10 with the potential of 9 or 10 out of 10 with some work.
This, I think, is what this machine is all about. Sage refer to this machine as the world’s first automatic manual espresso machine, and I didn’t quite understand what this meant before, I get it now. The crucial parts of the process, that can really end up with a nasty espresso if you get it wrong, are done automatically, but unlike a bean to cup machine, there are fine-tuning elements which are left to the home barista, and this is where you can work on continually improving your craft, as a home barista.
At day two, I think I’m on my way to being properly “dialed in” with this particular bean, in that the grind coarseness for the beans I’m using now is about right, I’m very happy with the way the espresso tastes, but I think It’s still under extracting slightly, so I’ll continue to experiment tomorrow. For me at the moment, where I need to practice more than anything is with the milk texturing, it tastes fantastic, but it doesn’t quite look how I’d like it to.
The steam wand is very clever! You can set the temp very easily, and I’ve got it set to 60C at the moment, which is the temp I’ve figured is right for making Latte. You can select manual or automatic; the automatic setting is amazing, it produces such a silky smooth textured milk, a couple of bangs of the steel jug, and a bit of vigorous swirling, and it looks perfect. It tastes incredible too, but I just can’t get it right when it comes to trying to do latte art with it.
I’ve watched YouTube videos where people using this exact espresso machine (but with the international “Breville” branding) are creating perfect latte art using the auto setting, but when I do it, it just doesn’t quite work, the only milk foam which colours the coffee comes out right at the end and is too thick to do anything with, just ends up being a blob. I did make what looked like a melting snow Christmas tree earlier though, which was an improvement.
I have tried using the manual setting too, and it came out slightly worse, I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing! So, this is something I need to work on, and will continue to practise with. Is it that important that this machine can be used to make latte art? No I don’t think so personally; having said that though, I can see that others are doing this with this exact machine, so it’s annoying me that I can’t, but I do realise that it’s only my second day using the machine, and I’ve only made a total of maybe 12 or so coffees with it, so I can’t expect to be an expert at Latte art just yet.
By the way, I’ve discovered that the auto steaming option to froth milk, makes fantastic hot chocolate, and for this reason I think the kids may miss this machine even more than I do when we have to give it back!
Made another espresso this morning, tasted great. If I’m comparing the taste of the coffee I’m making with this machine vs. chain cafe’s, I think I’d give them a run for their money with this – using freshly roasted coffee beans.
Having said that, I’m not saying that the coffee I’m making with this machine would be comparable with an Espresso or Espresso based coffee I’d get at an independent specialty coffee shop, using freshly roasted and expertly selected beans, and made by an experienced Barista who fully understands exactly what they’re doing at every step of the process from selecting the beans to texturing the milk.
I think I might be getting somewhere with the milk texturing. My son pointed out to me (annoying when your kids know more than you!) that since the foam that makes the latte art, comes at the end of the pour, surely the problem is that I was starting out with too much milk. So I tried with less milk, and while I still won’t win any awards with my Latte art, I’m making progress ;-).
Conclusion so far: Sage Are Not Getting This Back! 😉
I’ve got it all planned out, and will carry out a drill after work to make sure everyone knows what their role is for mission “avoid whatever courier Sage by Heston Blumenthal uses to collect their Oracle Espresso Machine.” OK, I know it’s not the best mission title ever, and I may have to work on one that’s a bit more concise, but the idea is simple: turn out all the lights, find something to hide behind, pretend there’s noone home!
OK I’m kidding of course, I do realise I’ll have to part with the machine, but we will miss it without a doubt.
For me personally, the idea behind this machine (to bring Barista espresso making within reach of the mere mortal by designing a machine which ensures that an untrained average person can’t make a terrible coffee with this espresso machine, but that they have more of a part to play than just pressing a button) is genius, and in my humble opinion having spent a few days with this machine in my kitchen, Sage have done an incredible job with it!
What I love about The Oracle, is that I feel like I have at least a part to play in the process, and this I think is what I’d miss if I were to go from this machine to a bean to cup machine such as the De’Longhi ESAM or ETAM, or one of the Jura machines.
I like feeling like a Barista as I insert the portafilter under the grinder, and then put it into the group head. I like the way the espresso is being made the way an espresso is supposed to be made, even though of course I’m being given a helping hand by the tiny Barista who lives inside the machine, so for me personally, I’m not sure that I would enjoy using a fully automatic machine as much.
So these are my thoughts so far, and I’ll continue to edit this post until the inevitable happens and the machine is collected; hopefully in the meantime I’ll manage to create latte art that resembles at least something.
I still have it! 🙂 They’re collecting next week, boo!! In the meantime, I’ll continue to use, and to blog about, The Oracle, the amazing espresso machine from Sage by Heston Blumenthal.
I got home late last night, and I try not to drink coffee later on in the day, as it was drummed into me a few years ago when I had a personal trainer for a while, that drinking anything containing caffeine later in the say can have negative hormonal consequences which can ultimately result in weight gain. I’m the lightest I’ve ever been, having dropped about 3 stones of fat and kept it off for about a year now, so I’m being careful not to slip into any habits which might lead me back into the big jeans…
This morning though, the minute I was up I was downstairs switching on the shiny silver magical machine, and a couple of minutes later, I was drinking this little wake-me-up:
My Latte art is improving, as you can see. That’s quite clearly exactly what I was going for, which is a Bull, stood by a stream, snorting in cold weather. Well OK it’s just a scribble, this latte art thing is a lot harder than it looks! It tasted lovely though, I can tell you that much.
I have to say by the way, that so far I’ve not made a single espresso that I didn’t think tasted brilliant. I think I have the grind just right for these beans now, but even with different grind settings when I was under extracting or over extracting, it still tasted great to me. I would challenge anyone to make a crappy tasting coffee with this machine, I just don’t think it’s possible, if you’re using decent freshly roasted beans.
When this machine has gone back to Sage, I’ll be trying and reviewing another espresso machine for a few days, and this is going to be a hard machine to follow, without a doubt. Having said that, I will of course keep in mind the price tag. This is a great espresso machine with features which make it very difficult to not make incredible coffee, but it’s also £1500, and what you’re mainly paying for is this clever technology. The Sage Barista Express is about a third of the price, and doesn’t have all of the automated features, so I wouldn’t expect the same results without a considerable amount of trial and error with this lower priced machine, and I wouldn’t expect that either from other more affordable espresso machines on the market.
The other thing I should mention is the knock box. This came with the demo machine, but is sold separately usually, and is about £20. I would very much recommend the knock box; you’re going to have a very smart looking machine in your kitchen if you have this machine, and I think it’s a shame to be knocking the portafilter into a plastic box or straight into a bin. The knock box has “Sage” embossed on it as the espresso machine does, and it’s the same colour, so it’s a must have accessory in my opinion. I’m not usually fussy like that to be honest, but if I’d invested this kind of money into an espresso machine, I’d want matching accessories if they’re available. The knock bar simply unlocks and slides out so you can wash it, and the box itself is easy to clean.
Up until now I’d been using the best quality coffee beans I could get from a local shop on the day the machine arrived, but today by new beans from Pact Coffee arrived. I love the variety that pact offer, this is my fourth bag and each bag has been completely different. This is the first bag I’ve had from pact that I haven’t asked them to grind for me, due to the fact that The Oracle has its own grinder, and previously I’ve been using my cafetiere and V60.
This coffee from pact is called La Valentina, and I LOVE IT, as I have done so far with all the coffee I’ve had from pact. One thing is for sure, the tip from Heston Blumenthal that comes in the instruction manual for the Oracle in which he recommends beans as freshly roasted as possible for the perfect coffee, is a good one. The coffee with these freshly roasted beans from pact provides a much more enjoyable taste than the ones I’d picked up from the local supermarket. If I were to describe the difference I’d say that the freshly roasted coffee is more vibrant, has more going on, is more interesting, and by comparison the supermarket bought coffee beans are more dull and less interesting. Having said that, this is only by comparison, I was more than happy with the espresso I was getting from the not so freshly roasted beans until compared to the taste of the freshly roasted.
Today my mum came around, who also loves coffee, she’s particularly fond of cappuccino, so I made her one and she was very impressed, agreeing that it tasted as good as from any chain coffee shop. I am really being spoiled by this machine, I’m getting used to being able to make brilliant tasting espresso, using this brilliant machine to make up for my lack of any Barista skills, and I’m going to be lost when I have to send it back in a few days time! My kids will miss it too, they both love the coffee that comes from this machine, especially my son who tends to share my coffee with me in the morning as we’re getting ready, he’s a morning coffee drinker like me while my daughter prefers tea like her mum, although she does like the occasional coffee. They’ll both miss the hot chocolate that can be made with this machine too thanks to the steam arm, the auto function is brilliant, just set the temp depending on what kind of texture you’re going for, set it to auto and come back to it when it goes quiet.
My latte art is improving, look, it’s an eye 😉
I have to say I’m not sure that I’ve still got the temp setting quite right for the auto function, or maybe I’m not swirling enough, as the foam doesn’t seem to be integrated enough into the milk, so it comes out right at the end of the pour and it’s too thick to be able to do proper latte art with. I’m not blaming The Oracle for this, it’s just that I’ve not experimented enough with it, and to be honest I haven’t done because I’m not really bothered how it looks, as long as it tasted good that’s all I’m concerned with, and every coffee I’ve made with this machine so far has tasted perfect!
If i owned this machine rather than having it for a week on loan, I’d be planning to do more experimenting over time including using the same coffee beans for a few weeks and messing with the grind, but given that I’ve only had the machine for a week and it’s going back in a couple of days, I’m over the moon with the results, and I know I could fine tune them over time.
Post review update:
I really do miss the oracle sitting on my kitchen worktop, the kids miss it too. My wife doesn’t miss it, because we do have a small kitchen, and it’s a big machine. Having said that though, it does incorporate the grinder, so if you were to have a smaller machine and a separate grinder, the combined size would be similar anyway. They do the Smart Grinder Pro, which I really like the look of, as it seems to have all of the dosing and grind functions of the Oracle and the Barista Express. If you put this next to a slimmer, more compact machine the combined foot print would probably be about the same. (update 08/01/18 I bought the Smart Grinder Pro about 18 months ago, and it’s been a brilliant grinder! Love it).
What I miss about it is being able to make amazing espresso and Latte, cappuccino etc way beyond my actual (non-existent) Barista skills at the touch of a button, but to actually feel like I’m playing a part in the process. To use an analogy to try to explain what I mean, I’d rather drive than be driven, but if there was a car which could enhance my driving skills then I’d rather drive that car than the car that will literally only respond exactly to my driving. My first car was my Dad’s Lada Riva estate.. there was no enhancement of skill there, it was akin to driving around in a bunch of metal girders with wheels. The car I have now though, 20 odd years later, has traction control and all manner of other intelligence to enhance my driving abilities, to the point that I’d struggle to get into a spin if I tried. Using the Oracle is similar in that I am doing it myself; it’s not full bean to cup, I am going through the mot, in the same way I would with any espresso machine, but I’m being aided in every part of the process by the brains of the oracle.
I also miss the way it looks on the kitchen worktop, as I do feel that it brought the kitchen to life! In that regard though I could go for the Barista express, which is a more affordable machine, but looks almost identical. It doesn’t have a lot of the automated features as the oracle, which is why it’s more affordable I’d assume, so it would suit the more skilled home Barista, but I’m sure with some practice I could at least come somewhere close to the same kind of level; when I say “some”, I mean a lot! 😉
Update 10th March 2016.I’m actually getting somewhere with my Latte art now, as you can see – it looks a bit more like Latte art than my previous attempts, and this is without the amazing auto milk frothing that the Oracle provides (I don’t have a steam wand at all currently, I’m using a £5 Le’ Xpress frother ), so I’d love to try my hand at it again with milk steamed with the Oracle’s steam wand!
I make espresso with my Aeropress and it tastes great don’t get me wrong, but sometimes I just crave a “proper” espresso at home, and I loved using the Oracle, so I am going to get another espresso machine.
I can’t afford the Oracle, but the Barista Express is much cheaper, and includes the grinder. I can’t afford that either to be honest – but if I go for an inexpensive espresso machine along with the grinder, the cost will be in the region of £250 – £380 depending on which machine I go for, so I’m considering saving for a bit and going for the Barista Express… I don’t know, we’ll see – I’ll update this when I decide! 😉
So to conclude the Sage Oracle review, I’ll say this: If I win the lottery, the Sage Oracle is still right at the top of my espresso machine shopping list.
My latte art has improved, check it out:
These are some of my better ones, and I’ve done plenty of terrible attempts too ;-), I’ve had some issues with consistency of milk texturing with my Gaggia classic, and I do miss the dual boilers and the steam power of the Oracle, so I’m looking at upgrading now.
While I still think the Oracle is a brilliant machine for anyone who wants such a high level of automation, I’ve started to at least start to develop some home Barista skills, so for me personally now I probably wouldn’t want some of the super auto features of the Oracle such as the grinding, dosing, tamping and auto milk texturing, as I enjoy doing all that myself. I would like the other features though, all the programming ability and the auto on and auto off features would be so good to have, which is why the Sage Dual Boiler machine is a serious contender for my next espresso machine, they’re on offer at the moment too – and they’re significantly cheaper than the Oracle. Check the current lowest price on Amazon.
I’ve had quite a bit of experience with Sage appliances now since I have the smart grinder pro, and I wouldn’t hesitate in buying more equipment from sage, it’s a refreshing change to deal with a company that you can easily get hold of a human within only a few seconds on the phone, and be getting really friendly customer support straight away. I had an issue with the grinder after 5 or 6 months of use, it just started to sound a bit odd and wasn’t grinding as quickly, they helped me on the phone to investigate to see if something was lodged in the burrs, there wasn’t anything there, so the next day I was sent a replacement machine, a brand new retail boxed one too, not a recon. This isn’t special treatment either because I’m a coffee blogger, as the person I spoke to who arranged all this didn’t know I was a blogger until I gave them my address for the delivery, and they began to recall sending me the Oracle.
I created the Sage Oracle review over 2 years ago, when I was an Espresso machine newby. Before using The Oracle, I was mainly brewing with manual brewers. Using The Oracle wet my appetite for Espresso making though, I caught the Home Barista bug. A few months later, I bought the Sage Smart Grinder Pro, and a used Gaggia Classic – and this worked great for me for about 2 years. I’ve stuck with the Smart Grinder Pro, it’s amazing (see my Sage Smart Grinder Pro Review) and I’ve recently upgraded my Espresso machine, this time going for something completely different, a fully manual La Pavoni Europiccolina lever Espresso machine.
Life is like a box of chocolate, so follow me on twitter and that’s all I have to say about that.