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What's the best prosumer espresso machine?
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russel
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russel
Joined: 12 Mar 2010
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Posted Sun Oct 28, 2012, 9:42pm
Subject: Re: What's the best prosumer espresso machine?
 

Hey Bud.  That was one serious reply.  I first want to thank you for hitting the "submit" button, your reply was thorough and level headed for someone who probably feels a little harassed to say the least.  I don't mean to personally attack you or your efforts to understand the equipment available to you, its more than a lot of people do.  

I think your reply does highlight a disconnect between how a lot of newer members think about espresso and the perspective put forth by several vocal and persistent senior members (they deserve a shout out because I know that I just check out of a lot of discussions that I feel are loosing sight of whats important - the actual espresso being made).  So I will stick with it this time and I think we can all come out better for the exchange.

An espresspo machine is like a camera.
George hit it on the head in his response.  An espresso machine is a tool in the way a camera is a tool.  It's the skill and talent of the person wielding the tool that determines the quality of the result.  A simple camera can capture beautiful images in the hands of a talented photographer.  A $8000 pro DSLR will still produce banal results in the hands of a banal photographer.  Composition comes from the photographer.  Capturing the punctum that makes for a photograph that expresses the power of the still images, that comes from the photographer.  The same goes for espresso.  I had some of the worst espresso the other day pulled using a GB/5 and a K10 Pro Bartista and a locally roasted blend that I know is capable of good results having worked through a couple of lbs of it in a week a few months ago.  The saddest part was that the cafe itself was great; the staff was friendly, it has character, it was comfortable, and the regulars where out in force, just not invested in their espresso program.  I think the implication of the photography analogy go deeper.  The mechanics of photography and optics offer more tools that a photographer can draw from.  Working with depth of field.  Controlling the light composition by understanding aperture and shutter speeds.  Flash timing.  There are a lot of photographic tools that a point and shoot doesn't have, but that just about any SLR (digital or otherwise, or even just a camera with full manual controls and a view finder) does.  Telling someone who aspires to learn and grow as a photographer that they should put their time and money into saving up to by a $5000 camera (price of a Nikon 4D body, I'm a Nikon person) when they only need to spend $1000 to gain access to most or all of the fundamental tools of photography is not good for that person's development as a photographer.  This is how I view the obsession with high priced espresso gear.  It actively prevents aspiring espresso makers from getting access to the tools they need to learn.  

An espresso machine is not like a computer - or - espresso is not using a computer
Why?  First, there is no metric for quality in the cup, and if there was it wouldn't really concern itself with the machine used to make that espresso.  If you look at an espresso machine from the stand point of actually making a good cup of espresso, it doesn't do anything other than treat water.  It heats it, it pumps it.  Sure, there are details about pressure and temperature in there.  Some machines actually offer the barista more control than just a button push, but very few relative to the entire espresso machine population.  There is nothing about an espresso machine that you can measure that will tell you that it will make a good espresso.  This brings me to the second point, espresso is not equal to using a computer.  Espresso is a thing, a food thing in fact, that you make.  Using a computer is an activity.  Now, it might make sense to equate using an espresso machine to make espresso to using a video editing suite to make a movie.  This would be very similar to comparing using an espresso machine to using a camera.  The quality of the end product is not implied by the abilities of the tool being used to make it.  A well spec'd gaming rig might be said to do a better job of running a game, providing more detail and a faster frame rate, but the equivalent for an espresso machine is saying that it pumps hot water better.  There is not espresso in that statement because the  machine doesn't actually make the espresso, the barista does that.

Coffee gear, and espresso gear in particular, does attract a lot of people with technical minds.  There is a lot of mechanics and precision involved and it is all very interesting.  I do think that there is a tendency to inaccurately apply technical thinking beyond where it is appropriate.  Making coffee is not like using a computer.  Coffee is food.  Its quality is perceived and judged by a human palate.  The feed back loop used to get a bunch of machines to turn roasted coffee cherry pits and water into a great espresso runs directly though someone's mouth.  (I'm not bashing technical people, I am one.  I'm leaving a career in computer and software engineering behind for one in coffee.  I happen to also have some art school and culinary school under my belt, which probably accounts for a lot of what I'm saying)

Espresso Machine Features vs Espresso Making Tools
When learning how to control the extraction process and training your palate to perceive that flavors that are or are not hiding in the cup, it is important to have capable tools.  I am of the opinion that in general an SBDU is an insufficiently capable tool.  It seems to be the hive mind consensus that on average an NS Oscar is to most affordable and generally available tool with sufficient capability.  From what I know of the Oscar and of other machines, I don't find it particularly appealing, but that a deep as my opinion can go given that I've never owned one.  Making espresso is complicated and making good espresso is very difficult.  I set the bar for a capable tool as one whose essential nature you don't have to fight in order to get a level of performance capable of making good espresso.  Every non-PID SBDU I know of fails this test thanks to small boiler-groups and wide thermostat/pressurestat dead bands.  A reasonable amount of temperature stability is not part of their design.  The inability to steam and extract in close succession is a barrier to developing milk skills (and latte art skills but that not really too important).  I think that it is really important for those looking to learn to have access to the capable tool that they need, tools that don't actively impede the learning process.  I find that SBDUs (even PID equipped ones when you take milk into consideration) take the baristas attention away from details of making espresso and force that attention on the details of getting the machine to perform sufficiently to make said espresso.  I think everyone who wants to explore what espresso making has to offer should be looking to find their way into sufficiently capable making, be it HX, DB, or maybe even thermoblock is the ZPC guys live up to their claims.  

Tools are used to control and manipulate espresso extraction.  Features are things that make the activity of doing so nicer, more pleasant, more efficient, for tactility gratifying, less tedious, etc.  Look at the detail for a $2000 espresso machine provided by a reseller and make a note of which one are tools that you can use to make better espresso and which ones are features that only augment the activity of making espresso.  I'm looking at CC's Alex Duetto II page right now, and I only see one or two details that have any actual impact on the espresso that is going into the cup:  preinfusion and the DB+PID.  The DB part is clearly debatable.  The various PID programming option might be useful to a very experienced user.  Everything else is a convenience feature.  I'm not saying that features are nice or worth ones money; I really like rotary pumps and I think that the ability to plumb or not plumb is a wise investment.  But they need to be understood as such, and valued as such.  I think this is why a lot of the discussion about machines and the rampant upgraditis irks me.  Everyone one is concerned with "value" because espresso gear is so very expensive, but the tone and content of the discourse disproportionately focuses on features that don't actually add any thing to the cup, and thus don't add value where it counts.

Two features I do think add value (at least here in the US): tank+plumb and 15amp+20amp operation.  In uncertain times it seems prudent to plan for changing living circumstances.  These seem like features the reasonably fall under the "already spending a lot, might as well spend a little more with the long run in mind" line of thinking.

Making Espresso vs Making Good Espresso

“Espresso is a 45ml (1.5 ounces) beverage that is prepared from 7-9 grams of coffee through which clean water of 192 - 198 degrees F has been forced at 9-10 atmospheres of pressure, where the grind of the coffee has made the brewing "flow" time approximately 22-28 seconds. While brewing, the flow of Espresso will appear to have the viscosity of warm honey and the resulting beverage will exhibit a thick dark gold cream foam ("crema") topping. Espresso is usually prepared specifically for, and immediately served to its intended consumer.”

The above in the current SCAA definition of espresso.  I'm not presenting this as gospel, its not.  I'm including it because it doesn't include any mention of taste.  It has lots of metrics.  Nothing about taste.  Any reasonable barista should be able to hit these numbers using decent equipement.  From a this perspective, espresso isn't that complicated.  I think we all know that there is a lot more to it than just the numbers presented above.

I think that the Mano in the "4 M's" is under appreciated because it is mis-understood.  By the time you get your espresso at a good cafe many espressos have already been pulled, tasted, criticized, and adjusted.  If you're at a cafe (probably a good one) that offers more then just a house blend, chances are that an actual discussion has been had about how to pull a particular roast to get the nose, body, flavors, and finish that those in charge are looking for (be they owners, managers, or head baristas).  The "4 M's" make espresso, but somewhere along the way a Mano and his or her palate did the tasting and made the decisions necessary to make it a good espresso.  The difficulty of learning to make espresso at home lies in the fact that a green home espresso maker has to immediately step into the shoes and palate of a head barista.  That's really hard given that experience and broad exposure are how you develop your palate.  You don't get much of either when you're starting out.  The difficulty of this situation is compounded by the fact that a lot of people use the cost-savings of making your own espresso to help justify their equipment expenditures.  This in turn discourages them from sending good money on good espresso at a good cafe, which is exactly what they need to be doing in order to develop the subtle taste for espresso that is required to intelligently control the interplay or espresso equipment.  This is one reason I feel that a lot of the "value" talk is actually very unhealthy for forum member, new and old.  As the investment in equipment increases, so does the influence of this line of thinking.  So telling someone with an SBDU that they should be saving up an additional $1000 not only prolongs their lack of access to capable tools, it also deters them from spending their money on the one thing that they really need spend it on to make good espresso, which would be good espresso.  Truth be told, to train your palate a broad range of experience is required, which means seeking out every and any taste (and smell) experience you can.  Go to farmer's markets and sample the hell out of some particular flavor group, often.  Learn why you enjoy a $5 burger and why you also enjoy a $25 burger.  Eat lots of different cereals.  East something new every week.  Smoke at least part of 1 cigar or hang out with someone doing so (maybe only if you can't identify what tobacco flavor is, I don't want to advocate blatantly unhealthy activities)/  Expensive you say?  Sure, but a deft and sensitive palate will help you make better espresso a lot more than the stainless steel frame on your espresso machine ever will.  In my opinion, when making espresso, Palate trumps all of the "4 M's".  Coffee is food, and Palate is king.

I would go so far as to say that the availability of $2000+ prosumer machines is unhealthy for the novice to intermediate home espresso making community because I suspect that increased expenditure on equipment (or planned expenditure) correlates to a decrease in expenditure on high quality espresso at cafes within this segment of the home espresso making community.  This is just my gut feeling, but I can speak from personal experience and note that my coffee drinking "out" decreased while I was in a period of really heavy equipment funding and acquiring.  


I hope that I have written this with a tone of  good natured helpfulness.  Bud, I don't want to flame you, or trivialize the time and effort that you have put in both here and on your own.  It's just that espresso is complicated and difficult, and a lack of clarity can easily make it more so.  My criticism is directed at a culture of feature lust (upgraditis) that online coffee forums tend to foster.  I wasn't sure if I wanted to bring this up...but one of the biggest things that I have observed transitioning from the CG/HB world into the professional coffee community it that the culture there (here?) is one defined first and formost by a love of drinking and tasting coffee, and not the pursuit of better equipment (I'm not saying people don't love themselves some Stradas and Slayers, its just not as important as the actual coffee).  

I also apologize for any typos or gramatical errors that I have probably made.  I've spent too much time writing this and no longer have the will to proof reading it any further.
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qualin
Senior Member
qualin
Joined: 30 Jun 2012
Posts: 653
Location: Calgary, AB
Expertise: I love coffee

Espresso: Izzo Alex Duetto 3
Grinder: Mazzer Mini Elect. Type A
Vac Pot: Looking to buy
Drip: Manual
Roaster: Considering?
Posted Mon Oct 29, 2012, 12:22am
Subject: Re: What's the best prosumer espresso machine?
 

russel Said:

Hey Bud.  That was one serious reply.

Posted October 28, 2012 link

Thanks. My posts do tend to be rather long winded, but maybe that's because I have so many questions, ideas or even information. I felt I needed to reply to you because we're on a public forum and one of my biggest fears is
being humiliated and ousted by a community because I was doing only what I thought was the best thing. Fortunately, something like that hasn't happened to me in a very long time, but one of my biggest fears next to that is
giving out incorrect, invalid or irrelevant information that only serves to hurt the people in a community, either directly or indirectly.

russel Said:

An espresspo machine is like a camera.

Posted October 28, 2012 link

Probably one of the better analogies which I've seen. You know yourself, "Garbage in, Garbage out."

russel Said:

I do think that there is a tendency to inaccurately apply technical thinking beyond where it is appropriate.

Posted October 28, 2012 link

I think that I'm not the only one suffering from that. :-) Coffee seems like such a subjective thing to me. There are ways to get very precise about it, but it also has a chance to get my artistic side out and suddenly all of the
hard and fast rules that people think they need to follow get thrown out the window completely. That intrigues me a lot and has garnered my interest.

russel Said:

Making coffee is not like using a computer.... An espresso machine is a tool in the way a camera is a tool.  It's the skill and talent of the person wielding the tool that determines the quality of the result.

Posted October 28, 2012 link

I would certainly agree with that. I also see a computer as a tool as well and I've seen some people work magic with it, just as much as I've seen users reduce their computer down to a piece of junk.

Perhaps I needed to put it another way. I've met some absolutely amazing developers who have managed to work miracles with a computer, but what they are doing is far beyond just "using" a computer. They are
creating with one. They are putting their imaginations into code and making the computer do something downright amazing. Just as much as one feeds beans into a grinder to get ground espresso, they're taking their
ideas and "Grinding" them into code, which the computer "Brews" (compiles) and eventually produces a binary. (The Coffee) Except that one just simply can't taste a binary. The user has to install the binary, then use it
and give a subjective opinion about it.. Just like how the customer (user) just drinks the coffee (Program) that the Barista (Developer) makes.

I can't say how much a better computer doesn't always make for a better developer. It can make them more efficient though. That's pretty much where that analogy ends. It does all center around the developer,
or in this case, the barista.

russel Said:

When learning how to control the extraction process and training your palate to perceive that flavors that are or are not hiding in the cup, it is important to have capable tools.

Posted October 28, 2012 link

I think that is the big issue behind this post. What is "Entry Level" for a tool which is capable enough not to hinder the user? You won't ever see a carpenter using a plastic toy hammer to nail wood.
If I meant to convey that it _HAS_ to be something around the $2000 mark, I would like to apologize for the misunderstanding. I would agree with you that an NS Oscar is a good starting point.

In my particular case, yes.. I admit, I do experience feature lust, but I'm also the same guy who has a light commercial washing machine in his basement, or a dishwasher with a built-in water softener
because we have very hard water here. I'm the kind of guy who always looks at buying higher end when it is justifiable. I'm not the kind of guy who will go out and buy a LM GS/3 or an Elektra T1,
because I don't think those machines would make me a better drink. At least, not right now.

Actually, I'm a little puzzled behind the mentality of the more experienced coffee geek that owns one of those machines and what was their rationale behind buying one. Maybe I just don't see it.

russel Said:

I am of the opinion that in general an SBDU is an insufficiently capable tool.

Posted October 28, 2012 link

You know, I think for the amateur barista or for that person who just wants coffee in the morning, they're probably not all that fussy when it comes to whatever a Silvia cranks out. It's black, it's hot,
it tastes like coffee, good enough. Heck, it was probably an upgrade from Starbucks and that is good enough for them. I know that the serious coffee geek wants something which can produce a much
more consistent shot with the same dose, tamp and grind. They want to take the machine out of the equation when it comes to making a sour or bitter drink. I agree it takes more skill for the barista to
compensate for the limitations of the machine. Personally, I don't like temperature surfing, but I think I've got the hang of it. After a while, it does get old.

russel Said:

I don't find it particularly appealing,

Posted October 28, 2012 link

OK, I agree that a black plastic cabinet doesn't really convey that the machine is expensive. Actually, when I first laid my eyes on one online, it struck me as a very cheap looking machine. Although,
you and me both know that realistically, it won't impact what is made in the cup. Would the user (Or the OP in this case) like a stainless steel cabinet instead? Well, its a matter of personal taste.

russel Said:

Making espresso is complicated and making good espresso is very difficult.

Posted October 28, 2012 link

Actually, in all honesty I'd like to partially disagree with you there. I realize you have a lot more experience and knowledge than me and I respect that, but really, unless I'm naive and ignorant, it's grind,
dose, tamp, lock and pull. Am I missing something here? That's not really complicated in my eyes. Now, Making GOOD espresso... THAT I agree is difficult. Making latte milk? Even harder. :-)

The local Phil and Sebastians roasters here make a macchiato latte I've been trying to duplicate for ages. It has this amazing "Nuttella"-like flavor. It's a little frustrating because I get HINTS of it,
but it's not all there. It's like listening to your favorite song on a radio station which is too weak. I realize it could be any factor in my case.. Water too hot, water too cold, dose not enough, dose too much,
grind too fine thereby overextracting or grind too coarse, underextracting... I'm still working towards it and someday I will get it.

I know that upgrading my equipment will certainly get me closer to that shot, but I also realize that it is me who is also at fault, but I won't stop until I get it right!

russel Said:

 Everyone one is concerned with "value" because espresso gear is so very expensive, but the tone and content of the discourse disproportionately focuses on features that don't actually add any thing to the cup, and thus don't add value where it counts.

Posted October 28, 2012 link

I'll admit, I'm seeing a lighter version of this kind of obsession on this board and in the coffee community in general, but not to the extent which it is prevalent in other hobbies. This hobby is unique in that everyone is creating
rather than just using. It is like someone listening to their favorite song, then deciding to make posts on a music supply forum saying, "What is the best guitar?" without really understanding simple music theory or even how to play
one. Even musicians don't allow themselves to get hazed with equipment limitations, they generally work around them or take advantage of them. :-)

russel Said:

tank+plumb and 15amp+20amp operation.  In uncertain times it seems prudent to plan for changing living circumstances.  These seem like features the reasonably fall under the "already spending a lot, might as well spend a little more with the long run in mind" line of thinking.

Posted October 28, 2012 link

Yeah, pretty much.. This is very unfortunate, but this was my line of thinking when I was considering a machine, but this is applicable only to me. It may not be relevant at all to the OP.

russel Said:

This in turn discourages them from sending good money on good espresso at a good cafe,

Posted October 28, 2012 link

I've always made it a point to ensure that I'm tasting espresso from various shops so I know which cafes know what they are doing and which ones have no clue. I find I need a benchmark to figure out what to expect.
That's how I found out about that "Nutella" shot I've been trying to duplicate. I think that anyone who is dedicated to this hobby should know how to reproduce or improve upon whatever blend a seasoned barista is working from.

russel Said:

So telling someone with an SBDU that they should be saving up an additional $1000 not only prolongs their lack of access to capable tools,

Posted October 28, 2012 link

I know it is for me! Believe me, I've just been tempted to bite the bullet and buy an intermediary machine, but if the OP isn't facing an uphill battle to get one, go for it!

russel Said:

a deft and sensitive palate will help you make better espresso a lot more than the stainless steel frame on your espresso machine ever will.

Posted October 28, 2012 link

Couldn't agree with you more! From a longevity perspective, it does help (ie. rust prevention) but I agree that it doesn't produce a better cup.

russel Said:

observed transitioning from the CG/HB world into the professional coffee community it that the culture there (here?) is one defined first and formost by a love of drinking and tasting coffee,

Posted October 28, 2012 link

You know.. It's kind of strange.. When I was growing up, I got into CB radio.. But found out that the Amateur Radio community detested the CB'ers, so I became a Ham. (Amateur Radio Operator) After a while,
I learned that broadcast engineering professionals detested some Amateur Radio operators (At least to some degree, even though some Amateur Radio operators were broadcast engineers themselves!) so,
I went to a technical trade school and took broadcast engineering. What I found out was vastly different from the professional side of things than the amateur side of things.

So, the parallel between someone who is a professional barista looking down upon the amateurs in this group and forum is understandable.

I can understand your rant a bit and understand exactly where you are coming from. You are putting forth that we're all kind of losing sight of the thing which matters the most and I would agree. It is nice to
fantasize about having the best equipment money can buy, but realistically it does come down to the end result in the cup and whether or not we enjoy it. Without that, it's all kind of pointless anyway.

 
Garbage In, Garbage Out, for every step of the process. From Beans to grinder, grounds to machine, coffee to cup.
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EricBNC
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EricBNC
Joined: 22 Jun 2010
Posts: 1,866
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Expertise: Just starting

Espresso: QM Silvano, LP Stradivarius,...
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Posted Mon Oct 29, 2012, 2:27am
Subject: Re: What's the best prosumer espresso machine?
 

tglodjo Said:

I've begun thinking about upgrading from my Rancilio Silvia to a prosumer heat exchanger or dual boiler. I would love to get everyone's thoughts on what the best machine to get it. The Silvano?...

Posted October 23, 2012 link

Short answer - the Silvano will meet your requirements.

 
I chew coffee beans with my teeth while gargling with 195 F water to enjoy coffee. What is this "coffee brewing" device you speak of?
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emradguy
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emradguy
Joined: 31 Mar 2011
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Expertise: I live coffee

Espresso: Duetto II; Twist v2
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Posted Mon Oct 29, 2012, 8:19am
Subject: Re: What's the best prosumer espresso machine?
 

russel Said:

Espresso Machine Features vs Espresso Making Tools
...it is important to have capable tools.  I am of the opinion that in general an SBDU is an insufficiently capable tool.  

Making Espresso vs Making Good Espresso
I think that the Mano in the "4 M's" is under appreciated because it is mis-understood....So telling someone with an SBDU that they should be saving up an additional $1000 not only prolongs their lack of access to capable tools, it also deters them from spending their money on the one thing that they really need spend it on to make good espresso, which would be good espresso....I would go so far as to say that the availability of $2000+ prosumer machines is unhealthy for the novice to intermediate home espresso making community....This is just my gut feeling, but I can speak from personal experience and note that my coffee drinking "out" decreased while I was in a period of really heavy equipment funding and acquiring.

Posted October 28, 2012 link

I think there were an huge number of extremely valid points in the original post, which I've chopped down to a couple of things I believe deserve a little "devil's advocate" type of comment...

1) The comments about whether to get some machine between a SBDU and commercial seem contradictory to me...and I'll just leave it at that.

2) Not everyone lives somewhere they can just go get good espresso.  For example, have you ever been to Corpus Christi, TX? Talk about espresso adventures...the best place there, is mediocre when at it's best, and on most occasions, frankly undrinkable.  Sadly, I used to live there and even before I got my training, I had the best espresso in town (which I'll add was made on a non-PID Silvia, using a Rocky grinder).  I completely agree, one must know what good espresso tastes like AND one must gain experience, in order to be able to reproduce it in the home!  Fortunately for me, I only spent a few years in Corpus crappy, so I've had many a good espresso before and after, and had an idea what to shoot for in the cup. If going to the experts lets you know what constitutes good espresso, why wouldn't you recommend that the home "barista" seek out some professional level training?  For someone willing to spend $3-4 k on a machine grinder combo and accessories, I would think they'd be willing to spend some money to travel somewhere they can takle a course from the pros and really learn, hands-on, how to do it right.  Hell, I went to California to take a course at Klatch...and I live in Texas!  I suspect most people wouldn't have to travel that far.

 
.
Always remember the most important thing is what ends up in your cup!
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JasonBrandtLewis
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JasonBrandtLewis
Joined: 9 Dec 2005
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Posted Mon Oct 29, 2012, 8:32am
Subject: Re: What's the best prosumer espresso machine?
 

Bud, we all relate to what we do/know in "real life."  A couple of additional comments/observations, if I may . . .

qualin Said:

Perhaps I needed to put it another way. I've met some absolutely amazing developers who have managed to work miracles with a computer, but what they are doing is far beyond just "using" a computer. They are creating with one. They are putting their imaginations into code and making the computer do something downright amazing. Just as much as one feeds beans into a grinder to get ground espresso, they're taking their ideas and "Grinding" them into code, which the computer "Brews" (compiles) and eventually produces a binary. (The Coffee) Except that one just simply can't taste a binary. The user has to install the binary, then use it
and give a subjective opinion about it.. Just like how the customer (user) just drinks the coffee (Program) that the Barista (Developer) makes.

I can't say how much a better computer doesn't always make for a better developer. It can make them more efficient though. That's pretty much where that analogy ends. It does all center around the developer, or in this case, the barista.

Posted October 29, 2012 link


OK, so while I have used computers since those dark, dreary days before MS/DOS (let alone Windows or an Apple II) existed -- some may recall CP/M -- I am only an "end-user."  I've never designed one nor been a programmer.  Rather, I spent 35+ years in the wine trade.  Perhaps this is why the whole computer analogy makes next to no sense for me.  I'm at a loss to understand the quote above, especially how a barista is a "developer."  Coffee is not a "program," it is a beverage, a food, something you TASTE.  I may, for example, prefer WordPerfect to Word, and be "ticked off" that WordPerfect stopped writing for Macs in the last century, but there isn't anything I can do about it -- I'm stuck.  In the "Coffee World," that might be equivalent to being stuck with *$, and in the "Coffee World," I'm not.  (And, since I am an end-used and not a developer, I cannot simply go out and develop a "WordPerfect alternative" for me to use.)

But -- as the end-user -- I can tweak the parameters of my drink.  I am also not a barista.  I'm some (for lack of a better term) a "coffee geek" making the best espresso I can at home.  I am not a professional, making espresso, tweaking a machine's parameters, adjusting the grinder, etc., etc. but never tasting the final product!

qualin Said:

Coffee seems like such a subjective thing to me. There are ways to get very precise about it, but it also has a chance to get my artistic side out and suddenly all of the hard and fast rules that people think they need to follow get thrown out the window completely.

Posted October 29, 2012 link

Here, you are -- IMHO -- starting to get it. It IS subjective.  Indeed, since it is all about what's in the cup -- how does it taste? -- EVERYTHING is subjective!

Here is where -- in my opinion, at least -- my (usual) analogy of wine comes in.  Winemakers never taste the final product -- not the very bottle that you open at open, and certainly not the one that you've been patiently aging in your cellar.  Winemakers taste the wine prior to bottling, but once it's bottled, their role is over.  Similarly, the professional barista never tastes the drink they hand us over the bar.  But you, me, the person who is making the coffee at home -- we are also the ones who drink it.  And our tastes vary from one another's.  The way that I make my espresso -- what I may feel is a damned great shot -- may not do a thing for you; conversely, the shot that excites and delights your taste buds may leave me scratching my head in wonder . . .

You need look no further than the millions of people who think Starbucks is fantastic . . . .

This all boils down to taste, and THAT is subjective.

If you look carefully at my posts, I am always posting thing like

JasonBrandtLewis Said:

* OK, so there are very few hard-and-fast "rules" -- more like "rules-of-thumb."

Posted February 15, 2011 link

JasonBrandtLewis Said:

Any of these machines will fulfill your needs.

Posted October 28, 2012 link

And even in this very thread, in response to its very title, I replied

JasonBrandtLewis Said:

There isn't one . . . What is "best" for me might not be the best for you; what's best of her might not be the best choice for him.  It all depends upon how the machine is to be used, how you make your drinks.

Posted October 23, 2012 link

To say there was would be a lie, and would imply objectivity.  While one can point to features and build quality and perhaps even conclude that X is better than Y, in real life -- in day-to-day usage -- X is really only better than Y is if suits the user's needs better.  And if Y is better suited than X . . . well, than for that individual, Y is the better machine regardless of how it appears on paper.

qualin Said:

In my particular case, yes.. I admit, I do experience feature lust, but I'm also the same guy who has a light commercial washing machine in his basement, or a dishwasher with a built-in water softener because we have very hard water here. I'm the kind of guy who always looks at buying higher end when it is justifiable. I'm not the kind of guy who will go out and buy a LM GS/3 or an Elektra T1, because I don't think those machines would make me a better drink. At least, not right now.

Posted October 29, 2012 link

It may or may not result in a better drink, because -- regardless of the machine's capabilities -- there remains the capabilities of the most crucial component:  the 4th M, "mano."

qualin Said:

Actually, I'm a little puzzled behind the mentality of the more experienced coffee geek that owns one of those machines and what was their rationale behind buying one. Maybe I just don't see it.

Posted October 29, 2012 link

Personally, I think it's because you're looking for answers in the wrong place.  You're seeking (or so it seems to me; please correct me if I am wrong) an objective rationale for a GS/3 or a T1, and 98 percent of the time, there simply isn't one!

I can only speak directly of how and why I upgraded . . .

Grinders:  I moved up from a Mazzer Mini to a Cimbali Max/Hybrid because I had "upgrade-itis," because I could afford it, and because the Titan Grinder Project -- done by people I've come to trust over the years -- demonstrated it was better.  I upgraded to the Mahlkönig K30 Vario because the MaxHybrid was L-O-U-D, because I could afford it, and because many people I have come to trust over the years said it was better.  In any case, did I need to upgrade?  No, of course not.  Did I want to upgrade?  Absolutely!  (And then I got a Baratza Vario because I needed a second grinder -- and it's in daily use, but I have to say, grinding a 15.5 gram double in 12.5 seconds seems really S-L-O-W when the Mahlkönig does the same thing in 3.6 seconds . . . .)

Espresso Machines:  I moved up from a Gaggia Coffee after 25 years to an Ala di Vittoria La Valentina because a discovered CoffeeGeek and Home-Barista, and because -- having recently retired from the wine trade -- wanted to improve my espresso, and play around a bit more with something else I enjoyed the taste of.  I had no idea there was such a thing as "prosumer" machines; I thought there were home models, and multi-group commercial models and nothing in between.  So I was a very happy camper!  I upgraded to an Elektra T1 because I got really tired of the daily refiling of the water reservoir and the daily emptying of the drip tray with the La Val.  I loved the espresso I was making, the steamed milk I was making . . . indeed, I still use this machine on a daily basis in my office, making espressos and lattes for the others in the office and for clients.  (I didn't stay retired for long, just switched careers.)  So I got the Elektra T1 because I had upgrade-itis, because I could afford it, and because this review (and this one) -- both written by someone I've come to trust over the years -- helped me to narrow down my choices to machines that had the extra features I wanted.  (Needed? No.  Wanted? yes.)  Between the two, I chose the one that was more aesthetically pleasing.  I've never regretted the choice.

Do I need the extra features to pull great shots?  Oh, heck no!  I'm not even sure I could tell the difference in the straight shots I pull every day on my Elektra versus those I pull Mon-Fri on my La Val were I able to somehow taste them side-by-side in a blind tasting.  But do those extra features make for added convenience? Absolutely!  And it makes me a happy camper.  So much so that, as long as it's an option, if I ever need to buy another machine again, I'm going to make sure it's plumbed in and plumbed out!  

Once you get to a certain point, upgrading isn't about getting better quality espresso.  That's all up to you, the 4th M, anyway.  Upgrading is about convenience and happiness.

More random observations:

qualin Said:

You know, I think for the amateur barista or for that person who just wants coffee in the morning, they're probably not all that fussy when it comes to whatever a Silvia cranks out. It's black, it's hot, it tastes like coffee, good enough. Heck, it was probably an upgrade from Starbucks and that is good enough for them.

Posted October 29, 2012 link

I don't think of the individual you are describing as an "amateur barista."  I think of an amateur barista as the student who gets a part-time job in the coffee house at the college.  To me, the individual you're describing is a "coffee geek" -- someone who cares enough about their coffee to go out and spend close to $500 on a machine that will make two ounces of espresso at home.  To me, that is a significant difference!  An amateur golfer eventually is hoping to turn pro.  Very few, if any, of us coffee geeks what to become professional baristas -- and that holds true for the people on HB as well.

qualin Said:

I know that the serious coffee geek wants something which can produce a much more consistent shot with the same dose, tamp and grind. They want to take the machine out of the equation when it comes to making a sour or bitter drink.

Posted October 29, 2012 link

I strongly disagree with this, Bud.  The serious coffee geek -- even the less serious coffee geek -- wants to produce consistent shots.  And what makes for consistent shots?  Again, it's the 4th M, it's you, the person operating the machine, NOT the machine itself (unless you are taking the 4th M out of hte equation all together and focusing on super-autos, which (virtually) no one does!

qualin Said:

I agree it takes more skill for the barista to compensate for the limitations of the machine.

Posted October 29, 2012 link

Few machines are that limited that a skilled individual cannot pull a significantly-better-than-average shot!

qualin Said:

Personally, I don't like temperature surfing, but I think I've got the hang of it. After a while, it does get old.

Posted October 29, 2012 link

I don't find it so, but YMMV.  For me, it's second nature, like driving a stick shift perhaps, rather than a car with an automatic transmission.  But whether it's an SBDU, an HX, or even a DB, some flushing is required -- even if it's only to clean the group head.  I don't find it an issue, but -- as I said -- YMMV.

qualin Said:

. . .  unless I'm naive and ignorant, it's grind, dose, tamp, lock and pull. Am I missing something here? That's not really complicated in my eyes. Now, Making GOOD espresso... THAT I agree is difficult. Making latte milk? Even harder. :-)

Posted October 29, 2012 link

You aren't ignorant, Bud.  Perhaps naïve, but only in that you -- along with many others -- are seeking objective, concrete, x + y = z type answers and there aren't any.  (IMHO.)  The grind changes during the day and week, depending upon weather, age of the beans, age of the burrs for that matter, and any number of other factors.  You cannot really say "it's 3.5 microns, less the relative degree of _____ -- there! that's perfect!"  EVERYTHING is judged by one criteria, and one only:  how does it taste.  Indeed, how does it taste to you (which is different than how it might taste to me or to him or to her).

Enough for now, I'm late for work, but . . . well, hopefully,you get the idea.

Cheers,
Jason

 
A morning without coffee is sleep . . .
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russel
Senior Member
russel
Joined: 12 Mar 2010
Posts: 437
Location: Los Angeles
Expertise: Professional

Espresso: 73' Cremina, '74 Club,...
Grinder: Super Caimanos x2, Forte BG,...
Drip: V60, Kalita Wave, Clever,...
Posted Mon Oct 29, 2012, 10:55pm
Subject: Re: What's the best prosumer espresso machine?
 

OK, a lot going on in this thread.  I hope the OP is still around and not completely fed up with my/our soap box time.

emradguy Said:

1) The comments about whether to get some machine between a SBDU and commercial seem contradictory to me...and I'll just leave it at that.

Posted October 29, 2012 link

How so?  I didn't think that I was really presenting much of any specifics opinions on specific machines.  Personally, I think the Livietta/Maximatic/Coffex is the perfect home espresso machine...but they're only available used and often in need of a lot of work, so thats not a very reasonable recommendation (I can't include the current $3000+ Maxi...I don't even want to get into that.  I think the best machine for most home espresso makers is one that you don't have to temp surf and that you can afford to purchase and maintain.  As far a SBDU's with integrated PIDs go, I don't have enough hands on experience to have a strong opinion.  In my experience SBDUs don't steam and brew in close enough proximity for me; either your espresso is busy getting cool off or your milk temp & texture is shot by the time you get your drink together.  There isn't much a PID can do about that.  I happen to think that milk is important because evaluating a roast's interaction with it is part of exploring and understanding it.  I know there are lots of different prosumer options, and I have my preferences when it comes to build quality and all the little details.  I just think that actually getting a capable machine in your hands so that you can start making espresso is more important than allowing your budget to creep steadily upwards as you add non-cup-quality related features to your list requirements.

emradguy Said:

2) Not everyone lives somewhere they can just go get good espresso.  For example, have you ever been to Corpus Christi, TX? Talk about espresso adventures...the best place there, is mediocre when at it's best, and on most occasions, frankly undrinkable.  Sadly, I used to live there and even before I got my training, I had the best espresso in town (which I'll add was made on a non-PID Silvia, using a Rocky grinder).  I completely agree, one must know what good espresso tastes like AND one must gain experience, in order to be able to reproduce it in the home!  Fortunately for me, I only spent a few years in Corpus crappy, so I've had many a good espresso before and after, and had an idea what to shoot for in the cup. If going to the experts lets you know what constitutes good espresso, why wouldn't you recommend that the home "barista" seek out some professional level training?  For someone willing to spend $3-4 k on a machine grinder combo and accessories, I would think they'd be willing to spend some money to travel somewhere they can takle a course from the pros and really learn, hands-on, how to do it right.  Hell, I went to California to take a course at Klatch...and I live in Texas!  I suspect most people wouldn't have to travel that far.

Posted October 29, 2012 link

This I agree with completely.  It is very difficult to learn to do anything well in a vacuum.  I would like to recommend that people seek out more coffee education if it was reasonable to do so, but like you said, it is often few and far between and completely disorganized.  Cupping is a good example.  It's a pervasive activity in the coffee industry, enough to sometimes to become tedious especially when the stuff your cupping if just not very tasty.  Not a lot of home coffee makers get to cup regularly or even sporadicly.  Obviously there are often geographical restrictions that can't easily be overcome, but I also find that there isn't a lot of clarity within specialty coffee as to how to engage consumers/enthusiast in any type of coffee education.  I had to work for free in a cafe to get access to the quantity of coffee tasting that I wanted (I just wasn't in the position to buy 8 different coffees several times a week, few people are).  I think this is a problem.  I feel that there needs to be a more focused effort by specialty coffee at large to help non coffee professional coffee lovers gain access to a greater quantity of coffee education.  I organize a series of public coffee events in LA  as part of an effort to bolster public access to coffee education.  I have a whole thing about this, and it's my reason for pursuing coffee professionally, but it not the time for that and this isn't the place either.  So I agree with you Ron, and to anyone reading this who's looking to make better espresso, if you live in an area with micro roasters (or maybe macro roasters too), or multi-roaster cafes, or some other coffee business that deals in coffee tasting, hit them up to see what they might have to offer you.  People in coffee love coffee and are really excited (or at least they should be) when other people seek out coffee.


qualin Said:

Thanks. My posts do tend to be rather long winded

Posted October 29, 2012 link

Hey Bud, don't sweat your enthusiastic participation.  I can't get into responding your response with quotes, so I will try just to write back as best I can.  No coffee professional (especially a barista) should despise a coffee enthusiast, coffee geek, or home barista.  We all love coffee.  Also, unlike CB or Ham radio, the coffee industry and especially the specialty coffee industry joined at the hip to the actual coffee consumers.  Coffee is driven by businesses, and business need customers.  The more excited and passionate the customers are about coffee the better.  

I do think that you need to abandon your attempts to relate espresso making to computers.  It just doesn't seem to be working to your advantage.  Coffee is food.  Think of coffee appliances as one might think of other food preparation appliances (go figure!).  A commercial range provides superior power and control, but it doesn't make you your food nor does it make a mediocre chef anything other than a mediocre chef.  A ultra high quality pizza oven doesn't automatically make perfect pizza.  Same goes for a bread oven.  Better tools are better at doing what they do, but it's human touch and taste that make the things you eat really pleasurable.

There is a difference between a mechanically sound shot of espresso and a shot of espresso that meets the gustatory goals of the barista/drinker.  Mechanically sound shots are not hard to make.  Find your target metrics then adjust your dose, grind, and technique accordingly.  The issue is that mechanically sound shot X is not necessarily the shot you you want.  Maybe you want more body.  Maybe at you dose weight the coffee is too sensitive to make reliably pulling a balanced shot reasonable.  Maybe you want more bass, or more fruit, or less earthiness.  What about that unpleasant and lingering finish? First you need to identify what's in the shot, then you need to know what it's you think you can get out of the shot, and then you need to have the ability to get there, hopefully without burning though an entire hopper of beans.  Making a shot is the starting point.  Making the shot that you want is the challenge.    

My dislike for SBDU machine I think stems from having the unpredictability of temperature added to the mix.  I use a lot of levers and god knows they can a ton of temperature issues, but they offer a lot in exchange for the effort, one of which is shots of an often unique quality not attainable on a pump machine.  I respect mastering temperature surfing an SBDU, but I always feel that all the effort gets you is some of the performance of a machines whose flow design is actually intended to create stable temperatures.  It also seems extra cruel that those with the least experience and skill get stuck with machine that don't want do what their sole reason for being is (heat water and deliver it to the PF at the proper temperature and with the proper pressure for the duration of the extraction).  And then there's the milk thing.
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NobbyR
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NobbyR
Joined: 10 Jul 2011
Posts: 2,023
Location: Germany
Expertise: I love coffee

Espresso: Poccino Opus One, Ariete
Grinder: Eureka Mignon Istantaneo
Vac Pot: N/A
Drip: Melitta Linea Unica de Luxe
Roaster: N/A
Posted Tue Oct 30, 2012, 12:08am
Subject: Re: What's the best prosumer espresso machine?
 

qualin Said:

... Coffee seems like such a subjective thing to me ...

Posted October 29, 2012 link

There's a German saying: "You cannot argue about taste."

While cupping coffee is more or less an accurate and objective evaluation of the taste (bitter, sour, sweet, salty), aroma (floral, chocolate, fruity etc.) and body of a specific cup of coffee in a comparative setting, it doesn't tell you if this particular coffee will taste good to you. A cup of espresso one person considers a godshot may seem godawful to you, even if its preparation and physical properties are perfect, simply because you may prefer an espresso with more acidity or different flavors, for example. This is perfectly okay, because taste is highly subjective and mood sensitive, and that's why it's no use arguing about it.

What it boils down to is this: Even though your equipment, your beans, and your skills may be great, the resulting coffee can still taste bad to you or some other person. Brewing espresso is more an art than science.

 
***
"This drink of the Satan is so delicious that it would be a shame to leave it to the infidels." (Pope Clement VIII on coffee, when he was urged to ban the beverage)
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qualin
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qualin
Joined: 30 Jun 2012
Posts: 653
Location: Calgary, AB
Expertise: I love coffee

Espresso: Izzo Alex Duetto 3
Grinder: Mazzer Mini Elect. Type A
Vac Pot: Looking to buy
Drip: Manual
Roaster: Considering?
Posted Tue Oct 30, 2012, 12:14am
Subject: Re: What's the best prosumer espresso machine?
 

russel Said:

I think the best machine for most home espresso makers is one that you don't have to temp surf and that you can afford to purchase and maintain.

Posted October 29, 2012 link

IMHO, A machine which is supportable by the vendor doesn't hurt either, in case there is something really FUBAR which goes on. My own options are limited, but the OP should consider that when buying a machine. This is one of the
reasons why I'd be very very leery about buying a used ex-commercial machine, because I have no idea how it has been used or abused, if it has been cleaned, drained while in storage, etc. If I was restoring espresso machines as
a hobby, which actually wouldn't be a bad thing to do, perhaps I would consider it as an option. I mean, I'm even leery about buying a machine online, but if it can save me hundreds of dollars at the expense of having to ship a large
box back and forth in the case of FUBAR, well.. that's something which the OP should think about, but I could live with that.

russel Said:

I do think that you need to abandon your attempts to relate espresso making to computers.

Posted October 29, 2012 link

OK! OK! I give up!!! :-) I surrender! :-)

russel Said:

My dislike for SBDU machine I think stems from having the unpredictability of temperature added to the mix.

Posted October 29, 2012 link

Exactly. I don't think you could have said it better. Yes, I agree that the barista should learn to compensate for this to brew a better shot. However, I admit that it is just easier to have more precise control over the temperature
of the brew water, wether or not it is using an HX with a grouphead thermometer or a double boiler with a PID.

russel Said:

I use a lot of levers and god knows they can a ton of temperature issues,

Posted October 29, 2012 link

When i was considering my first machine, I was considering buying a Elektra Casa Da Leva machine, only because it looked affordable, not because I wanted to get really intimate with the espresso making process. After asking
about one from the local Elektra dealer, they came in with a $1800 price tag. I think I got a huge case of sticker shock.. I was expecting one of those to cost roughly half as much. Boy, what did I know. I made a post on the Lever forum
about them and was effectively discouraged from buying one. I think I wouldn't mind getting my hands on a cheap used Elektra if only out of curiousity, but I won't be expecting much from it as I don't have a lot of skill using one.
(I've never pulled a shot on a lever machine in my life so I'm not even qualified to talk about them whatsoever.)

russel Said:

It also seems extra cruel that those with the least experience and skill

Posted October 29, 2012 link

Well, it is true that the new do get hazed, at least to some degree... If anything, all the Silvia showed me was that with enough determination, I can pull a great shot and that I absolutely love making a short latte for myself in the
morning. It helps me focus, relieves stress and forces me to take a bit of time out of my day (A paltry 10 minutes) to make myself something that I can enjoy. In other words, the reward is worth the work and then some! It just would
be nicer if there is less waiting and more creating! :-)

 
Garbage In, Garbage Out, for every step of the process. From Beans to grinder, grounds to machine, coffee to cup.
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NobbyR
Senior Member
NobbyR
Joined: 10 Jul 2011
Posts: 2,023
Location: Germany
Expertise: I love coffee

Espresso: Poccino Opus One, Ariete
Grinder: Eureka Mignon Istantaneo
Vac Pot: N/A
Drip: Melitta Linea Unica de Luxe
Roaster: N/A
Posted Tue Oct 30, 2012, 12:58am
Subject: Re: What's the best prosumer espresso machine?
 

qualin Said:

..., the reward is worth the work and then some! It just would be nicer if there is less waiting and more creating! :-)

Posted October 30, 2012 link

Even after almost 20 years of brewing espresso at home with a portafilter machine, using a cheap thermoblock machine at first, a SBDU later on and a prosumer HX machine by now, there are still days when some shots come out godawful. But then I just make another one.

 
***
"This drink of the Satan is so delicious that it would be a shame to leave it to the infidels." (Pope Clement VIII on coffee, when he was urged to ban the beverage)
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JasonBrandtLewis
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JasonBrandtLewis
Joined: 9 Dec 2005
Posts: 6,368
Location: Berkeley, CA
Expertise: I live coffee

Espresso: Elektra T1 - La Valentina -...
Grinder: Mahlkönig K30 Vario -...
Vac Pot: Yama 5-cup
Drip: CCD, Chemex
Roaster: No, no, not another...
Posted Tue Oct 30, 2012, 6:45am
Subject: Re: What's the best prosumer espresso machine?
 

NobbyR Said:

Even after almost 20 years of brewing espresso at home with a portafilter machine, using a cheap thermoblock machine at first, a SBDU later on and a prosumer HX machine by now, there are still days when some shots come out godawful. But then I just make another one.

Posted October 30, 2012 link

We all do!  The difference is that, with experience, those godawful-pour-it-straight-down-the-sink shots are few and far between.  (The last time I pulled a sink shot was when I was at my brother-in-law's house and tried to pull a shot on MY own SBDU Gaggia that I hadn't used in 5+ years.  THAT shot sucked!)  ;^)

 
A morning without coffee is sleep . . .
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