A great machine for manual espresso beginners but keen amateurs will crave more control
- Compact and easy to use
- Makes consistently decent espresso
- Automatic milk-frothing works brilliantly
- Not cheap
- No manual steaming knob
For many of us, a morning without coffee is one to forget. However, if you refuse to wake up for anything less than fresh espresso and hand-crafted flat whites, time is your enemy – making top-notch coffee with a manual espresso machine is something that can’t be rushed. Sage has a solution: the Bambino Plus, a manual espresso machine with a semi-automatic twist.
Sage Bambino Plus SES500BSS review: What you need to know
The Bambino’s key trick is its milk-frothing tech. While most manual machines expect you to froth your own milk – and don’t necessarily make it easy to get the best results – the Bambino Plus includes Sage’s automatic milk frother. Press a button, and it serves up near-perfect hot milk with a fluffy microfoam much like you’d get in the best coffee shops.
And while you’ll still get the best results from good quality coffee beans freshly ground in a good grinder, the Bambino Plus will work well with pre-ground coffee – the supplied dual-wall filter baskets are perfect for supermarket coffee. If you want to save time, but still crave the hands-on ritual of a manual espresso machine, this is the machine for you. And when the time comes to try the really good stuff, the Bambino Plus won’t disgrace itself – even if it won’t serve up the black magic of pricier machines. For this kind of money, that’s all you can ask.
Sage Bambino Plus SES500BSS review: Price and competition
Since we first reviewed the Bambino Plus, the price has fluctuated significantly. It came down as low as £199 for quite some time, but the huge demand for coffee machines during the pandemic saw it shoot back up to its RRP of around £399, and it’s stayed there ever since. That now puts it in very close contention with our sub-£500 favourite, the Gaggia Classic (£399).
Fast forward to 2021, and Sage has released a new, even cuter model – the Bambino (read our full review). The Bambino loses the automatic milk texturing of the Plus, but it’s more compact, still very easy to use and is around £100 cheaper. If you’re after a stylish, compact coffee machine that will fit into the tiniest of kitchens, it’s a decent choice at its £329 RRP. Just as with the Plus, however, the Gaggia Classic is still not much more expensive.
Choosing between the Bambino, Bambino Plus and the Classic couldn’t be easier, however. Where the Babmino and Bambino Plus’ clear instructions, helpful accessories and ease of use make a very sensible purchase for beginners, the Gaggia Classic is a more robust, utilitarian machine which can – with a little more effort – produce a much better quality of espresso. If you want to unlock the finest flavours from the best coffee beans, the Classic is by far the better machine.
Other models in the Sage family have also received similar price hikes. If you really like the idea of a manual espresso machine with a built-in grinder, Sage’s Barista Express is still well worth considering. Before the pandemic, it was retailing for around £400, but it’s since gone back to the £550 mark. If you don’t like the idea of a separate coffee machine and grinder, or indeed don’t have enough room in your kitchen, then it’s a good choice.
Sage Bambino Plus SES500BSS review: Features and design
The Bambino Plus is a handsome little machine. It stands 310mm tall and, since it’s only 195mm wide and 320mm deep, doesn’t take up much room on the kitchen worktop. Stainless steel curves attractively all around the sides and the ridged surface on top doesn’t just look natty, it gently heats up to keep your coffee cups warm.
At the rear, an amply-sized 1.9l water tank clips easily and securely into place. Unlike some machines that require you insert the tank from above, the Sage’s design hinges from the bottom so you can remove and refill it without having to slide the machine out from underneath a kitchen cabinet. That’s a huge help in smaller kitchens.
There’s a hefty-feeling portafilter (this is where the ground coffee goes) and, unlike its rivals, Sage bundles the Bambino Plus with a stainless steel milk jug, a coffee tamper, and its own “Razor” tool for gauging how much coffee to use, so you don’t need to splash out on accessories. It’s also nice to see a water filter supplied as standard. This slots into the bottom of the water tank and makes sure your espressos are scale-free.
While our review sample was supplied with only dual-wall filter baskets, several readers have been in contact since to inform me that Sage is now supplying the Bambino Plus with both single- and dual-wall filters in both single and double shot sizes. This is very good news.
Let me explain: dual-wall baskets (also known as pressurised baskets) are great for getting the most flavour out of ground coffee that is weeks and months, rather than minutes, old. The second wall of metal, hence the name, increases pressure inside the basket and makes it possible to eke flavour and crema from coffee that’s past its best. Single-wall baskets, however, rely entirely on the freshness of the coffee, the correct grind and just the right amount of tamping to create the perfect amount of pressure inside the basket. They can give vastly better results with good, fresh coffee, but you’ll need to be ruthlessly consistent if you want to get the best results time after time.
Sage Bambino Plus SES500BSS review: Ease of use and coffee quality
Whichever you choose, using the Bambino Plus couldn’t be any more straightforward. Three large round buttons on the front allow you to choose a single shot, double shot, or begin the steaming function, and two smaller buttons adjust the milk temperature and amount of foam. There’s precious little waiting around, either: the machine is good to go just a few seconds after prodding one of the front buttons to wake it up.
At its default settings, the Bambino Plus’ serves up a single 30ml espresso or a 60ml double espresso but it’s easy to tweak these amounts to your preferences. There are both one cup and two cup dual-wall filter baskets included as standard, the one-cup basket holding up to 10g of ground coffee, and the two-cup up to 19g, so it’s pretty easy to get the coffee tasting just how you want it.
In fact, this is a great machine for the absolute beginner. Even if you don’t have accurate scales to hand, the supplied Razor tool means you can just pour coffee into the basket and spin the tool around to check that you’ve got the right amount in there. Then press the coffee down with the supplied tamper and check to see that the metal ring around the tamper pushes just beneath the lip of the basket – if it doesn’t, you’ve got too much coffee in there; if it disappears deep inside, you’ve got too little.
In my testing, I settled on using the two-cup basket with 18g of freshly ground coffee, and programmed the single espresso button to deliver around 38g (or millilitres) of coffee. Most of the coffee roasters I’ve bought from seem to recommend around a 2:1 extraction ratio, and this certainly worked well with the Bambino Plus: it serves up a decent espresso with a balanced flavour and attractive crema, at just the right temperature. It’s by no means the best I’ve had – it lacks the body and complexity of pricier machines – but it’s consistently decent.
The milk-frothing features will be the star of the show for most people. Fill the jug with milk, make sure it’s sitting on top of the temperature sensor and a single button press sets the process in action. A couple of minutes is all it takes to create perfectly steamed milk with a wonderfully light creamy microfoam on top. Yes, it’s possible to do it manually by simply pressing the button to start and stop the steaming process, but the automatic results are so good it’s really not worth it. As you can choose between three temperature settings, and three levels of “frothiness”, it’s unlikely that you won’t be able to get the milk just how you like it.
Combine the two and you can put together a simply superb cappuccino, flat white or latte with a minimum of hassle. And you’ll be able to get reasonable results even with supermarket coffee. The dual-wall filter baskets supplied do a great job of making the most of less-than-fresh coffee and help to produce a decent looking crema. Crack open the really good stuff, however, and the single-wall filters are a must: you’ll need to carefully hone the grind size and dose (how much coffee you put in), but get those right and the results are superb for the money.
Sage Bambino Plus SES500BSS review: Cleaning
At the front, the large drip tray captures most of the spills and drips – I say most, as the steam wand’s self-cleaning routine does tend to splash a little – but it’s easy to remove and clean. If you don’t want to wash it out every single time you use it, a little red indicator floats up to warn you when it needs emptying.
Descaling is one of those procedures that you shouldn’t have to do too often, but if, like me, that normally sends you scrabbling for the user manual, the Bambino has a lovely trick up its sleeve. Unclip the tank, and pictorial cleaning instructions are printed on the inside.
Another neat touch is that Sage has hidden a little pin-prick tool underneath the tank, which you can use to clean the steam wand if the nozzles get blocked. In my experience, this only happened once when I left the machine unused for a week or so.
Sage Bambino Plus SES500BSS review: Verdict
Coffee connoisseurs will scoff at machines like the Bambino Plus. Admittedly, it’s not what we’d recommend for people who’ve already honed their skills on a cheaper fully manual machine. But, just as its high-end Touch models brought manual espresso excellence within the reach of less experienced home baristas, Sage now wants to encourage everyone to take the manual espresso plunge.
The key appeal is that, unlike most fully manual espresso machines, it’s surprisingly difficult to make a bad coffee with the Bambino Plus. The included accessories and clear instructions demystify the coffee-making process and the automatic milk frothing isn’t just a time-saver, it works brilliantly. If you want to take your first steps into the world of proper espresso, this is a superb place to start.