Robert Hall, a long time CoffeeGeek member, active participant in CoffeeGeek Forums, and a maestro at that latte art thing, recently hosted a weekend "EspressoFest" at his home in Shorewood, Wisconsin. This is his report.
ed. Note: while this is hosted in the "Newbie Revelations" column, this is by no means a newbie article - we've decided to host it here to get it on the site quicker, since we just recently published an article in the Cafe Stage guest column, and wanted to give both that article and Robert's report a fast publication and a good run on the website. Next time you see an article in the Newbie Revelations column, we'll be back to the stories about people discovering quality coffee for the first time.
What do you get when you combine 5 espresso machines, 4 grinders, and 6 coffee geeks in one kitchen? Espresso chaos and nirvana at the same time of course! That's what happened in my kitchen on Saturday. I'm not sure my kitchen will ever be the same, but it was quite fun. We had plenty of espresso beans, milk, and we only tripped my electrical circuit breakers twice (of course right when I was steaming milk; it's hard to make microfoam when you lose power).
The main purpose of this coffee geek love-in was to compare three popular heat exchange machines: the Isomac Millennium, the LaValentina, and the Expobar Office Control. We had a fourth heat exchanger machine show up, the Nuova Simonelli Oscar, and an Elektra lever machine in made an appearance as well. With the number of machines and people in attendance it was hard to do true side-by-side comparisons. We were all very busy trying everyone's specialty drinks, sampling different espresso blends, and attempting to soak up some espresso knowledge.
So, who were these people invited over to my house? People I didn't know except through online discussions, save one that I have met in person before. Kind of scary, and my wife, who is a policeman's daughter, was asking me who these people are that will be coming into our house. All I could say is that I "knew them" through CoffeeGeek and they all were really into espresso and had invested a fair amount of money in the pursuit of perfect espresso—they can't be all that bad!
A few months before this planned event, I "met" a fellow CoffeeGeek who lives very close by and has an ECM Giotto. We did a side-by-side over at my house and I reported the results on the Discussions page. It was quite interesting to actually meet someone else interested in espresso, and see another machine in person. I thought it would be great to expand on this and see a bunch of machines at once.
| The testing grounds with all the machines and a couple of Mazzer Minis tossed in (along with other devices). |
It's really amazing how many people in the Milwaukee/Chicago area are espresso connoisseurs. It was not difficult at all to find people interested in a big side-by-side test. Unfortunately my neighbor with the Giotto couldn't make it, but we had so many people interested in attending this event that I had to turn some away.
The first person who expressed interest was Cheryl Rusch. She owns the Expobar Office Control. I really wanted to see this machine, since it is one of the most affordable heat exchanger machines on the market and has generated a lot of interest. Cheryl is in the coffee business. She works for The Coffee Project, a vendor of green coffee on the internet. She brought 3 lbs of Malabar Gold, her husband Terry, her two kids and of course the Expobar.
Soon after, four more people expressed interest in attending: two from the Chicago area, and two nearby in Wisconsin. Many of you are probably familiar with Jim Schulman, a moderator here on CoffeeGeek, and full of espresso knowledge. He has an Isomac Tea, similar to my Millennium, so the Tea stayed at home. He was kind enough to bring some of his own personally roasted beans: one for cappuccino, and a decaf espresso blend. Both were excellent, and near the end of the session it was nice to try something that didn't contain caffeine. Jim drove up with Joel Klein who brought his Elektra lever machine and some Cafe Italia espresso blend.
The last two participants were the two Chris's. Chris Beck bought his LaValentina, another machine I was very interested in seeing. The LaValentina is a relative newcomer on the market and seemed very interesting. Like me, Chris' last machine was a Silvia. Chris (Gonzo) Schaefer, like Cheryl, is in the coffee business part time. He's a part time roaster for a coffee company just north of Milwaukee. He brought an Oscar, a package of Nuova Simonelli espresso cups as door prizes, and some of his Northern Italian Espresso blend.
And who am I? Well, I've been making espresso for almost ten years. I never drank coffee in college or medical school. My wife introduced me to espresso after we got married and someone gave us one of those steam powered espresso machines as a wedding present. I'm sure the first coffee we put in that first espresso machine was Folgers, and about 10 years and 4 machines later I have an Isomac Millennium. Many of you have seen my latte art here on CoffeeGeek, and I thought I could impress everyone that came with my latte art, but being true CoffeeGeeks everyone was more intrigued with all the machines.
So here's what everyone's been waiting for. What's the bottom line on these machines? After about 3 hours of making espresso and trying out all the machines, everyone in attendance agreed that the Isomac, LaValentina and Expobar were very comparable machines. Each machine is similar in size, made excellent espresso and had plenty of steam power! Sorry…no clear winner.
Here are some of my thoughts about each of the machines (and I'm sure that the others that were in attendance will chime in under the comments):
| From left to right: La Valentina, Elektra Micro Casa a Leva, Expobar Office, and Isomac Millennium. |
This is my machine. I have been very happy with its performance over the last 4-5 months. I do prefer the (E61 group's) lever, which activates the brewing. The other two machines have a control pad. I also prefer the steam wand on the Isomac. When I steam I like to raise the angle of the steam wand after the stretching phase. This seems to help me get the milk rolling and swirling. You can only change the angle of the steam wand a small amount with the other two machines.
The stock tips on each of the machines are very similar, and an improved 2 hole tapered tip (which comes with machines from Chris' Coffee Service) that I use on my Millennium also fits on each of the other machines. The steam power of each machine with the improved 2-hole tip was very comparable. The Expobar appeared to have a bit more steam power (probably because of the larger boiler) but we did not do any timed steaming tests. The important note is that each machine seemed to be a very capable steamer.
I really liked this machine. It is quite good looking. Chris had to take it apart to work on something. It is very easy to take the panels off of this machine. I think its only four screws on the sides. I have had to get to the inside of my Isomac Millennium a few times, and taking off the panels is a real chore. There are too many screws to count, some of them underneath the machine. Jim Schulman noted that the panels on his Isomac Tea are easier to take off. Schulman pointed out that the components on the inside of the LaValentina are of very high (commercial) quality.
Expobar Office Control
This is Cheryl's machine, and is the least expensive of the three. Unlike the other two machines it does not have a boiler pressure gauge, but this does not appear to be a big negative. I personally like the looks of the other two machines a bit better, but the Expobar is not a bad looking machine at all. Its water reservoir was the easiest to fill, and unlike my Isomac, you do not have to remove the cups from the top to fill the boiler.
I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out why this machine sells for so much less than the other two. The Expobar is quite the bargain, and I don't think you're sacrificing much by buying it instead of the Isomac or LaValentina.
I wish I could have spent some time with the Oscar, but there were just too many people and machines to deal with. Plus, I was continually washing cups so that we could keep the espresso flowing.
Of note, we all agreed that some of the best espresso shots we tasted that day came out of Joel's Elektra lever machine. I had a lever machine for about a month a few years back and had a hard time getting good espresso out of it. It's truly an art form making espresso using these beautiful but finicky machines.
I would like to thank Intelligentsia for providing us with two pounds of freshly roasted Black Cat. It is truly good espresso, and was enjoyed by all in attendance. Also, thanks to all the participants that loaded up their cars with their machines, beans and other goodies. Lets all do it again this fall!