"Espresso! My Espresso!"
An Ongoing Internet Novelette
by Randy Glass - Copyright 2002 - All rights reserved
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
7I started looking at the Briel Lido- a machine that sold for about $110. "That looks pretty nice, and I can afford that," I naively deceived myself. A little research onto it and it seemed OK, but of course the machine was surrounded by lots of other brands and it couldn't hurt to look around.
Machines, Machines, Machines...
Hmmm... These look nice. Here's a Capresso that this place is closing out. It looks quite nice for the money. An E-Mail reveals that they are gone- sold out. The next model from Capresso up is going for $200 over here. A little research now reveals that is has an aluminum heating device and since we try to avoid having aluminum coming into contact with our food in the course of cooking we ruled that machine out.
We had to make a trip "into town" anyway- we live in the mountains and there are no nearby stores. The closest city with any real cultural center is about twenty-five miles away (there are two Starbucks there- well, one really. The other is inside the Barnes and Noble). We stopped by the local kitchen supply shop. It's a pretty cool store with lots of kitchen stuff. Back in the corner we found that they carried what appeared to be the whole line of Capresso home machines. I picked one up and was immediately relieved that I hadn't already bought one. They are O.K., but in my hands this machine had the feel of a Mr. Coffee. Very little mass and an all-plastic case. "Ooo... Look over here!" On the bottom shelf was a Solis SL70 being closed out for 25% off. "Let's go back home and do some more research."
Back on the Internet. I found that although the Solis was a solid, well built machine, we could get a similar functioning machine, the Saeco Espresso Classico for about $100 less. A call to one of the online suppliers, Whole Latte Love, revealed not only a very helpful and friendly salesperson who genuinely enjoyed the art, but some very good information. I was being educated. Both these machines, although of excellent quality, had what are called "pressure handles." That is, the filter handle has a some sort of valve or regulator in the bottom of it so that the hot water will pass through the ground coffee, build up pressure in the handle, and will not flow until the pressure reaches a level pre-determined by the manufacturer that is not adjustable.
Speak to a purest and they will tell you to avoid these machines if it is true espresso that drives your quest. Although the pressure handles create something that looks like real espresso with a layer of what appears to be crema, it does so partly by emulsifying the oils in the coffee brew through these artificial devices. The experts don't consider it true espresso (and neither do I at this point). The problem is that even if you under brew, over brew, under pack, over grind, or make any number of other mistakes in the preparation these machine can still make an espresso(-like) drink with a crema(-like) head.
It should be clear that, even at this very early stage of my shopping and research, I was becoming an espresso snob. One of those people that find it difficult to drink espresso at a coffee shop if they don't hear the grinder running right before the portafilter is attached to the machine to brew your beverage. One of those people who looks to see how well the portafilter is cleaned between brew cycles. One of those people who question the blend, roast, and grind being used. One of those people who times the brewing cycle while his espresso is being created. Cool! I'm becoming one of those people!
I had gained the realization that one of the pressurized-handle type of machines was not for me. For this I gave the salesperson a kind and courteous "thank you," and it was back to the Internet for me.
"Hey look!" I had found the Gaggia New Coffee. "Here is a machine with a standard filter handle, metal case, and it only costs $300. It also says it has 'forged brass components' so that's good." When the handle and brewing components are made of heavy, forged brass, they hold heat better. These need to be warmed up ahead of time but this keeps them from pulling the heat out of the water during the brewing process and helps give you a better chance towards that illusive perfect cup of espresso- remember that one of the key factors was water temperature? The machine starts looking like a winner but a little more research reveals that this unit has an aluminum boiler! Man! Am I ever going to get a break here?
A bit more shopping narrows it down to one affordable unit. Well, affordable is a relative term. The Rancilio Silvia (the name of one of my aunts- Silvia, not Rancilio... geeze!). This thing seems like it is built like a tank with heavy, forged brass components throughout (including the entire heating tank), stainless steel cabinet and steel internal framework. A view of the interior revels that it was designed and engineered by folks who know what they are doing. The interior is beautiful (if you like that sort of thing). Wires laid out in sensible patterns, quality wiring and connectors, a pump insulated on rubber standoffs and other nice details. Not only is it beautiful and well built, it also costs about the same as a 130 double lattes including tip. The thing is reported to weigh around 30 pounds! Now that's a machine, particularly when compared to the Capresso machines that I examined!
The only other machines at this point that were receiving any semblance of serious consideration by me at this point were the Solis SL70 and SL90. It was hard but I ruled them out for a number of factors. Compared to the SL70, I liked the heavier switches on the Silvia. Although the SL90 has a very nice cup warmer and a larger heating element when compared to the Silvia I didn't want the electronic controls and their associated electronic components. I can easily trouble shoot and replace components of the Silvia if and when that time comes (and if it happens OUT of warranty) but I can't say the same thing about the SL90. Additionally, I really like the three-way solenoid valve on the Silvia that relieves pressure on the portafilter when the brew cycle is turned off. That will save me from scraping hot, used coffee grounds off my face and the refrigerator. Oh, ya- My wife said that $400 was the limit for a machine, so the SL90 at around $430 was over the limit. She's pretty generous with my money, though- don't you think?
When I started this quest I figured that if a Mr. Plastic coffee brewer sells for around $20, a machine that sells for five times that much, or around $100, should be pretty decent (back to delusional mode). Wow! I started shopping at around $100 and ended up at four times that. Keep that in mind when you shop.
I doubt that a $100 machine will last anywhere near as long as a $400 machine nor can it possibly make espresso as well or at least as consistently. If Company A could make a decent machine for $100 all the companies B through Z would do the same. Quality heating elements, forged and chromed-plated brass components, powerful pumps, quality switches, stainless steel cabinets, all the other components that make up these machines, and good engineers and designers all cost real money and lots of it. If you went out to purchase four, high quality, sealed and temperature resistant rocker switches, they could cost you $5-10 each- that approaches half the cost of one of those bargain machines. Add the cost of a forged, chromed-brass portafilter and you approach 75% of the cost of the department store Joe-A-Lator.
I can list some of the conclusions I had reached at this point:
1) It cost HOW MUCH?!
2) If you are going to do this- do it right. A cheap machine will not hold a consistent heat level nor a consistent pressure over time (or even from cup to cup). Repeatability of the various brewing factors is a critical component to approaching decent espresso.
3) If you are on a tight budget consider just finding a decent coffee shop with a good barista behind the counter and get your espressos there.
4) Don't tell your spouse how much you are about to spend until ready to make the purchase.
5) Remember that the quest is as important as placing your hands on the Grail. If you don't think so then
maybe home brewing is not for you.