Coffee Cup
"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2008 - All rights reserved

Coffee Cup
If and When and Why to Upgrade

Friday, November 14, 2008

     A couple of decades ago I use to teach an auto repair class in my home for an independent adult school. I had converted a spare bedroom into a classroom complete with slide projector mounted to one wall and a pull down projector screen over a chalkboard. The closet was piled with old car parts used as visual aids. All my friends knew I was the shade-tree mechanic of choice. I even pulled and rebuilt the 3RC motor of a Toyota for a friend back in the early 70's when I was in college. Over the years I can only remember one or two people asking me, "Do you think I should buy this particular car?" and then followed my advice. But so many times someone would drive over (or ask me to come over to their house) and say, "Look what I bought! Can you fix it?"

     I remember that this is a coffee website, and I am going somewhere relevant with this. I often get asked about the purchase of an espresso machine. Thankfully, most of the time it is before the purchase and so I have been able to guide folks towards machines that will best serve their needs to the best of my ability. But there are times when post-purchase remorse or trauma hits and I get a request for assistance. Recently I answered a question regarding "upgraditus." The person had a basic home machine for a short period of time and was already asking about upgrading to an E-61 machine. The general consensus was that the upgrade seemed premature. But this thread got me thinking that it probably happens more often than we might think, so it prompted me to create this chapter.

     I have to believe that at some time we all suffer a case of upgadeitis, whether it be espresso-machine envy, or just a desire to step things up a notch or three in a quest for better espresso. It might come in the form of an opportunity to go for a total replacement of all your equipment or could be as simple as an upgrade to a more sophisticated part. My current setup has all but removed the thought of upgrading from my mind... for the decade, anyway. If you are using a single boiler, as in Silvia, the many Gaggia machines, and so many other of that class, you will most likely have the desire to step up eventually. So the questions become, "When?", "How?" and, "To what?"

     My advice is based on my own personal experience in making espresso at home. Let's review my personal history in regards to espresso machines:

     Late 2000 - Purchased my first espresso machine and proper grinder - Silvia and Rocky. I used that setup for 6˝ years.
2003(?) - Added a PID to Silvia for more accurate temperature control.
Mid 2007 - Replaced Silvia with a Vibiemme Domobar Super
Early 2008 - Replaced the Rocky with a Mazzer Kony

     The difference between the single-boiler, PID-equipped Silvia and the heat-exchanger, E-61 Vibiemme was evident, right from the very start, literally. Once the grinder was dialed in after a pull or two, the very first pulls from the Vibiemme were superior to those from Silvia. Consistency from shot to shot was dramatically improved and the flavor was very-noticeably better as well. The worst shots I have had from the VBM were on par with the better shots from Silvia, and the causes of most of the poor VBM pulls were easily remedied, and nearly always operator error.

     But why? Shouldn't a machine that delivers hot water to a pile of coffee work the same as another? I suppose an engineering degree as well as intimate knowledge of thermodynamics would be useful to understand the differences in machines, but basically, better machines deliver the water to the coffee more gently at a better controlled flow rate, in a better-controlled temperature range. In my specific case, the greater water capacity of the boiler creates temperature stability, the water delivery pattern of the E-61 brewhead is very even, and the slow ramp up of the pressure (also part of the design of the E-61) means fewer sprites and the near-elimination of channeling when the preparation is done properly.

     To a lesser extent, the same thing can be said for the switch to the stepless, conical Kony. Of course, having infinite adjustments is an obvious difference, but there is more to a quality grinder than that. The adjustable top burr is held rock-solid steady by Mazzer's spring-stabilizing system and the gear-reduction system in the motor spins the conical burrs at a slower speed than most other grinders. Burr quality, alignment of the burrs, and so much more all make a difference based on my experience as well as reports of others.

     So there are no real surprises in all that. A better espresso machine and a better grinder make better espresso, and do so consistently. "Can I have a 'DUH' from the congregation?"

     Just this morning we were talking over our morning coffee and I asked my wife, "If I had said we should buy a machine like the VBM when I first was shopping for Silvia, what would you have said?" The response was that my sanity would have needed checking, or words to that effect. Unless your funds are far closer to those of Bill Gates than they are to mine, spending nearly $2000 for your first espresso machine and another $1000 or more on the grinder could be reason enough to have your sanity examined closely, in length, at a private facility. And even knowing now the value of such equipment, I would not know how to even begin trying to convince someone shopping for their first machine that starting at this level is a good idea and the best investment for them.

     So even though I can, without reservation, tell you that the VBM paired with a quality grinder will churn out a far-superior espresso than a "starter" setup (like my Silvia and Rocky pairing), a great part of my success on the VBM comes from my experience with Silvia. It is a frustrating fact that the machines sold as "home" or "starter" machines are the most difficult to use to make quality espresso. They tend to deliver the water in a violent rush, their temperature range swings wildly while their thermostats cycle on an off, and their small boilers do nothing to help them maintain thermal stability. Numerous methods have been developed to help mitigate the problems caused by these, but making espresso is not at all like dropping a piece of bread into a toaster. Much like the clown keeping the spinning plates on sticks from falling, the home barista trying to create a drinkable beverage has to keep a lot of things in mind and control a lot of parameters as closely as possible to achieve any level of success.

     Much the same can be said of many of the home espresso grinders. A quality espresso grinder is a precision instrument. They are equipped with precision-machined burrs, held in precise alignment, and held there using large chunks of metal and precision bearings. They allow for small increments in grind adjustment to allow the barista to adjust the grind to match the coffee, machine, age of coffee, and more. To put it into perspective, the replacement burr set for my commercial grinder cost nearly as much as some entry-level espresso grinders.

     With so many variables in the process which are difficult or impossible to control with the entry-level set ups, the freshman home barista needs to carefully and precisely control the process of preparing an espresso. The grind adjustment, the amount of coffee used, how it is distributed in the portafilter all need to be done as carefully as is possible if good results are to be had. And even then, quality espresso is not guaranteed. My "How-To #12" which I created to address just these sorts of things ended up being over ten typed pages of text! It is not only a matter of knowing what to do, but also what to do when something goes wrong. For example, one click on the Rancilio Rocky grinder can make a three or four second difference in the extraction time with SIlvia. Lacking precise control over grind makes it all the more important to control the other parameters. This all combines to become a frustrating quest for many new baristas, and it is a great part of why so many used, so-called "beginner machines" can be found for sale or sitting on closet shelves or on the back of the top shelf in a garage.

     But as difficult as it can be to get consistent results from these beginner set ups, the educational value of being forced to pay such close attention to the details will serve the home barista for many years to come, regardless as to what machine and grinder they use in the future. Learning techniques to deal with a grinder that creates clumps and a machine that swings through a 25 degree temperature range can pay great dividends. I owe most of what I can now accomplish now to my years of laboring over my Silvia and Rocky.

     So we have established that using a "basic" home setup can be beneficial to the knowledge base, and that upgrading can result in better espresso, the question now becomes, "When?" When should you step up from the "beginner's" set up to an enthusiast's machine? There is no single, specific answer in regards to a time line, but I can offer some advice that may be helpful. The best guideline is based on the quality of the espresso you can coax out of your current setup:

  • Can you drink the espresso you create straight? Even in small samples, is the taste pleasant? After swallowing a sip do you want another?
  • From shot to shot, does it taste about the same? This is a good test of consistency in your preparation techniques and your ability to get the best from your equipment. With some equipment it is nearly impossible to duplicate shots, but how close can you come?
  • If something is not right in the taste or production, do you know what to do? Is it the grind or the dose? Is it the water temperature or the tamp? Being able to diagnose problems is a good sign that you have a good base of knowledge that will trade over to a better machine.
  • When switching to a fresh batch of coffee, or changing coffee, can you quickly adjust things to match the new coffee?
  • Can you adjust in and out of the coffee's best taste? Do you know the range of grind, dose, distribution, and temperature range that works best, and can you move within those parameters to get drinkable and consistent results.
  • Have you experienced better espresso with the same coffee you use? Have you used better equipment and been able to produce better espresso consistently with that equipment? In other words, will you be able to tell the difference, and will you care? Having a basis for comparison is critical. You may think you are producing excellent espresso, particularly if you are comparing what you produce to the run-of-the-mill coffee shop in town. Most (but certainly, not all) commercially-produced espresso is pretty marginal at best, and it is not difficult to beat it at home. On the other hand, I have tasted some amazing espresso and have only approached that taste a few times at home. Everything is, indeed, relative, and that is so very true when it comes to espresso.

         Before considering an upgrade consider that it takes a commitment to quality coffee— a serious commitment. A high quality espresso machine, commercial-quality grinder, and a top-line, home coffee roaster along with all the little add-ons (cups, steaming pitcher, tamper, etc.), can cost more than a nice used car (well, more than my, nice used car). That would seem to work as a definition of a financial commitment to coffee. But it takes more than just throwing a handful of money at it.

         If you are thinking about an upgrade, and are fortunate enough to live near a seller of quality espresso machines, make use of that resource. Bring some of your coffee with you and get an education. If classes are offered in preparation or tasting, take them. If not, find a decent coffee shop locally and start hanging out there. Find out when your favorite barista works and show up often. Show an interest and ask questions. You will be amazed just how much you can learn just watching a skilled barista.

         What to upgrade to? If you have been using an espresso machine for a year or two, or more, and are ready to make a commitment, the deciding factor is probably going to be your bank account. There are some really nice machines in the $6000 and up range, but if you can afford that you probably are not reading this website looking for purchasing advice. Beyond cost, some other factors to guide your decision include:

  • ARE YOU READY? - do you really need to do a full upgrade? Instead of getting an new machine and grinder, will just replacing one of them work for you for now? Maybe just upgrading the machine with a PID or adding an adjustable overpressure valve would be sufficient.
  • USE - do you entertain groups? The more beverages you serve the larger the boiler should be to accommodate that use.
  • SPACE and LOCATION - Some machines can be quite large and heavy. If the top of the machine needs to be removed to fill the machine with water, and the machine weighs 70 pounds, you don't want it located under an overhead cabinet. There are some grinders too tall to even fit under a cabinet.
  • POWER - be sure that the electrical circuit to which the machine will be powered can handle the load. Some machines need a 220 or 230 volt circuit.
  • WATER - if you are looking at a machine that needs to be plumbed-in you need to add the cost of installing a dedicated water treatment system to limit scale buildup in the boiler.
  • WASTE - the waste water that ends up in the drip tray needs to be dealt with. That might mean carrying the tray to the sink or plumbing a waste line.
  • NOISE - there are some folks who are bothered by the clicking of the pressurestat which controls the heating element. These are not at all loud, but if that sort of thing bothers you it is something to investigate before purchase. The same can be said with some machines which are equipped with vibratory pumps.

         But for now, if you already have a basic setup, go ahead and keep working at it, save your Sheckels, and when you are ready to step up, my advice is to step up in a big way. I can't recommend a specific amount to spend because these chapters hang around for quite some time, and with the value of the dollar, the financial situation in the world, and the price of metals, can make any dollar amount irrelevant in the future. There are also changes happening at the "pointy end" of the market. Dual boiler machines are now in the affordable range to the motivated home enthusiast.

         Before choosing an upgrade path, use the various online forums and user review sites to get aimed at a machine you think you can live with, ask lots of questions, and visit a reseller if at all possible. I can only add that, from my experience, the upgrade path is a path worth following.

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