It seems every day one of the most common email questions I get as the Senior Editor of CoffeeGeek is “what’s the best ..." something. I’m usually hesitant to name a specific product or item because I always feel that different products may suit different people.
But the demand has never abated, and this year, we decided that in celebration of CoffeeGeek’s 5th anniversary today (December 18, 2006!) the editors, writers, and I would come up with our first-ever Editor’s Choice awards. After a lot of work and consideration, we’ve come up with a list of the products we feel are this past year's best in a variety of categories. And of course, it's all extremely subjective!
So without further ado, let’s get into it!
Editor’s Choice 2006: Espresso
We had a hard time initially nailing down the categories covering espresso. At one point, we over fifteen potential categories, but narrowed it down to the following awards.
Product of the Year: Espresso
Winner: La Marzocco GS/3
price: $4,500 USD
Just barely squeaking in, by virtue of the first 40 machines (that are supposed to be) shipping in December, is the machine that could possibly set the new standard in temperature stability and performance: the La Marzocco GS/3. The wunderkind of Bill Crossland, La Marzocco’s chief engineer in the US, this machine was designed from the ground up to be the ultimate home machine, running on North American power (110 V, 15 amp max service). Where other companies stumbled or compromised to meet these power requirements, Crossland and La Marzocco hit a home run. This is the first “home” machine that has generated a massive “want” factor in the professional espresso world.
Scace Device, for measuring grouphead temperatures $150-$200.
Best Espresso Machine Under $1,500
Winner: QuickMill Vetrano Rotary
Seems these days the market is nearly flooded with espresso machines in the $1,000-$1,500 range, and to many, they all look the same. The Vetrano Rotary looks like most of its competition, but under the hood you see where the differences are. The fluidotec rotary pump, and the easy ability to plumb the machine in are huge perks and resolve the problem that heat exchanger machines have with built-in water reservoirs that get too hot, thereby changing the brewing temperatures. Other features like upgradeable pressurestats, a design that is meant for 110 V service with few compromises, a new manometer, and more make this our Editor’s Choice for 2006.
Vibiemme Domobar Super, $1,100-$1,400 depending on configuration, www.1st-line.com
Pasquini Livia Semi Auto, $1,379, www.1stincoffee.com
Best Espresso Machine Under $1,000
Winner: Elektra Micro Casa a Leva
price: $929 USD
Our choice this year in this category is as much for sentimental reasons as it is for performance. And still to this day, our Senior Editor claims one of the best shots he ever had came from this machine. The Elektra Micro Casa a Leva is a manual, spring lever piston machine that offers hands on brewing while still offering a good degree of consistency. A calibrated spring sits in the grouphead, waiting to be cocked by a pull on the lever. Holding the lever down manages a progressive, low BAR preinfusion for as long as the barista wants to infuse the bed of coffee. Releasing the lever releases the spring to do its work, pushing water through the ground coffee, brewing great espresso in small quantities. The machine is also a very good steaming machine, albeit slow. Creating microfoam on the Elektra is near-child’s play.
Bezzera BS02S Semi Automatic Espresso Machine, $749 ($849 Direct Water Connect) www.1st-line.com
Best Espresso Machine Under $500
Winner: Solis Crema SL-70
price: $349 USD
It was an extremely tight race between this machine and the new Rancilio Silvia, but the price difference and the Solis’ better steaming performance, quieter operation, and good cup heating features eked out a win. But it almost lost by virtue of Solis’ continued insistence of shipping the product with pressurized baskets (thankfully, aftermarket filter baskets are easily available). The SL-70 consistently produces great espresso in our lab, and is definitely one of the quietest machines we’ve tested - other makers (including Rancilio) could learn a lesson or two here. Steaming performance is upped a notch by another trick Solis uses that other manufacturers should copy: when the machine is ready to steam milk, the boiler element will turn off. But a microswitch connected to the steam knob automatically turns on the heating element when you turn the knob - brilliant, and a very simple way to ensure the boiler is producing lots of steam.
Rancilio (New) Silvia, $495, www.wholelattelove.com
Best Espresso Grinder
Winner: Macap M4 Stepless Grinder
price: $429 USD
Macap’s newest incarnation of the M4 grinder now comes in a stepless “worm drive” configuration that is very easy to adjust. The grinder is exceptionally quiet, micro adjustments to the grind are easy, and the doser design is first rate. Almost all the grinds are swept out of the Macap’s doser, and the lever “action” is so smooth, it feels almost as if it’s on hydraulics. The model is also available in a chute version (doserless). The fit and finish on the Macap is stellar - polished chrome (more durable than steel), with dark smoke-tinted plastic. The doser’s plastic is all wraparound and very thick. The biggest knock against the grinder is its speed - it takes quite some time to grind out 20 grams for a double espresso.
Mazzer Mini, $449, www.aabreecoffee.com
Best Budget Espresso Grinder
Winner: Solis Virtuoso
price: $199 USD
While the Virtuoso has had some growing pains (mostly centered around big static issues), we couldn’t help but notice how consistent and fast the espresso grind was from this machine, especially when compared to the Solis Maestro lineup. We love the fact that you can grind straight into your portafilter with one hand operation - your thumb stretches to press the front button to grind on demand, while the rest of your hand holds the portafilter. This is a multipurpose grinder, but no other one we’ve tested does a better job on the demanding espresso grind for under $200 (our budget espresso grinder cap).
No runners up this year. Call out to manufacturers: we need a good purpose-built espresso grinder under $200!
Best Espresso Blend for 2006
Winner: Intelligentsia Coffee’s Kid-O Blend
price: $12.99 USD per pound
We’ve tasted better blends this year - let me make this clear. But no blend has been consistently as good as Intelligentsia's Kid-O. This year we went through about 100 pounds of Kid-O in our lab, and the reason is simple: it’s an amazing, forgiving blend that stands up to a lot of abuse and parameters that different machines present us. All year long, Kid-O was our tastebud saviour when other blends had their ups and downs. This is Intelligentsia’s USDA certified organic blend, and an amazing performer.
Ecco Caffe, Northern Italian Blend Reserve, www.eccocaffe.com
Best New Espresso Product
Winner: La Spaziale Vivaldi S2
price: $1,895 USD
La Spaziale is a company proving it listens to the demands of the North American marketplace. Case in point is the brand spankin’ new Vivaldi S2, exclusive to Chris Coffee. The S1 was a groundbreaking machine - a sub $2,000 machine with a rotary pump, dual boilers, and temperature controls. The S2 version ups the ante quite a bit by offering big improvements in the temperature controls, giving the user 1C degree changes (and perhaps even 0.5C changes if you fiddle a bit). Other improvements include the introduction of a manometer to accurately gauge and adjust the brewing pressure, better thermostats and pressurestats, improved steaming, and better electronics. This machine may cost less than half the price of a new La Marzocco GS/3, but it’s not nearly half the machine - in fact, it could give the GS/3 a good run in a head to head competition.
Krups XP Series Espresso Machines, $150-$250, Amazon.com
Winner: Coffeelab Tamper
web: www.coffeelabdesign.com, www.chriscoffee.com
price: $75 USD
This was the year of tampers for many of us in the business. I’m even developing a tamper myself, but I can’t very well place that tamper at the top of the list, now, can I? And to be truthful, the tamper I’m making isn’t for everyone. The Coffeelab tamper, on the other hand, is for just about everyone. Why? Because it’s one of the few height adjustable tampers available. And that’s not the only great thing about this tamper. Available in a very shallow US curve style, the tamper is exceptionally well built and engineered, and features a rubber cap on top and a grip where your thumb and forefinger rest while tamping. The weight is near perfect, and it’s available in a variety of colours and piston sizes.
Reg Barber tampers, www.coffeetamper.com
Best Espresso Cup
Winner: Bodum Pavina Espresso Cup
price: $12 USD for two
This quite possibly could be the perfect espresso cup - too perfect in fact. First on visuals, this lets you see your espresso pours in all their crema-laden, Guinness Effect glory - great for both shot evaluation and appreciation. Next, the double walled nature of these cups work so well, you don’t have to preheat them. In fact, we recommend not preheating them because the resulting espresso may be too hot - just having them sit on top of a machine should suffice. The bowl shape inside is considered near ideal by many professionals and WBC judges, and overall, it’s one of the more elegant ways to serve up espresso and macchiatos. The price is extremely good as well.
Rosenthal-made Illy Collection Cups, $100-$140, www.illyusa.com
Best Espresso Accessory
Winner: Europa Steaming Pitcher
price: $32 USD for 16oz model
The Europa steaming pitcher is one of the most versatile pitchers available today. It allows for a lot of different usage styles - hold by the handle, hold by the handle and balance / move with index finger, or wrap index finger and thumb around the neck for ultimate control in doing latte art. It’s also the only readily available pitcher that comes in a 16 oz size, which is absolutely ideal for doing one large latte, two cappuccinos, or up to four macchiatos. Thick steel construction, polished professional finish, and a very pronounced pouring spout round out a great product.
Pallo Espresso Cleaning Tool, $12.95, www.visionsespresso.com
Best Training Tool: Espresso
Winner: Espro Clicking Tamper
price: $75 USD
It came down to this product and the naked (chopped) portafilter, and the Espro calibrated 30 lb clicking tamper wins by virtue of the fact that the naked PF requires more advanced espresso knowledge to get the best “training” out of it. The espro solves the riddle of how to know if you’re tamping at 30 pounds of wrist and arm pressure - something normally solved in a more mundane way by tamping on a bathroom scale. The fit and finish of the Espro is simply amazing, and you wouldn’t know at first glance that there’s springs and such inside of it - it just looks like a normal (albeit slightly fat handled) tamper. A great training tool for professionals, and an equally great lifelong tool for home enthusiasts.
Naked (chopped, bottomless) portafilter, $60, www.visionsespresso.com