Using the Francis! Francis! X3 is fairly straight forward. Turn it on. Wait for it to heat up. Chose your weapon, uh, portafilter. Lock and Load. Press the middle button.
Do all of that, and you'll get okay shots from the grounds portafilter, and so so shots from the pod side of things. I'll cover these individually, then talk about hot water delivery and steaming operations.
The X3 as a Pod Machine.
Well, it's got a funky cool portafilter for pods, that's for sure.
But I was underwhelmed by the pod performance on this machine. I've used previous machines that seemed to do a better job, and some of those machines weren't even ESE (Easy Serving Espresso) certified machines (such as the Solis SL-70).
To give this machine a proper "pod shakedown", I used pods from five different sources: Chris' Coffee Service's own brand, Illy Pods and ABetterCup pods from EspressoPeople, pods from the local Starbucks, and Bristot pods from the aforementioned PodHead website.
First part of the test was ensuring freshness in the pods. By nature, they ain't "fresh"... no pod is - it's preground coffee and no matter how much nitrogen flushing or bathing or processing they go through, it's still preground coffee. But nitrogen processing, whereby the coffee is ground, pressed, and packaged in a nitrogen environment, does help keep the coffee "less stale" as it were. With this in mind, I requested fresh pods from all sources and got fresh from all sources with one exception: Starbucks. They don't supply anything to this website, and asking the PBTC there how old the pods were was an exercise in futility.
Next stage was rounding up a few guinea pigs. This proved to be very hard, as many of my espresso aficionado friends look at pods and want to die. ;) But I was determined, so I got a few espresso newbies involved.
I'll say one thing about pods. They sure are easy and clean.
| Elegant, yet basic controls on X3 |
I'll say another thing about pods. It may be a crying shame, but pods will give you better espresso than maybe 50, 60% of the cafes out there. It's true. A solid 50% of cafes on the west coast could improve their espresso, sometimes dramatically, by switching to pods.
I also enlisted the aid of two other pod-capable machines to see how the Francis! Francis! stacked up, but I'll cover that more in the comparisons section.
Brewing with pods on this machine is simply unwrapping the pod, placing it in the special pod portafilter, locking it in place, and activating the brew switch.
Pods brew fast. Way too fast.
But I digress. Once the shot is done, you remove the portafilter, and in the case of the X3, the pod is almost always glued to the dispersion screen, requiring one of two things: either use your fingers (be careful, it's hot), or run the brew switch for a second and the pod will drop.
There's not a hella lot more I can write about pods. Oh... throw it out when you are done brewing the shot. Unlike tea bags, you cannot reuse a pod.
Brewing with Grounds Portafilter
Here's where things got a lot more interesting, and enjoyable.
From my very first fresh ground coffee shot, I was producing what I'd call "acceptable" or better espresso shots with the FF!! X3. In fact, they were better shots than I got from the $700+ Elektra Nivola. This got me excited… after I got over my shock of having a Francis! Francis! machine perform so well.
Operating the X3 with the grounds portafilter is pretty much the same as any other single-boiler machine that doesn't have a pressure relief valve. Get the machine hot and ready. Make sure your portafilter (PF) is as hot as it can be. Grind directly into the portafilter as fast as possible. Tamp it down. Lock it into the machine so the PF is pointing at about 5 o'clock (there's a red indicator on the grouphead showing the proper lock position - you have to bend down to see it though). Press the brew switch, watch it brew, turn off the brew switch when you're satisfied with the shot.
Because this is a machine without a pressure relief valve (3 way solenoid valve), you must exercise caution in removing the PF after a shot - if you do it too soon, you will get a spray of messy and hot coffee grounds all over. Either wait a minute or two, or very slowly and carefully remove the portafilter. It will be full of water as well, so take care not to spill it everywhere.
If you wait several minutes, the portafilter can be removed easily, and it is relatively "dry" inside, allowing you to easily dump the spent puck of coffee.
Hot Water Delivery
If you're a veteran reader of the Detailed Reviews at CoffeeGeek, you know we value any machine that features instant hot water delivery - not all do, but they all should. Maybe this is a west coast thing (after all, some of my east coast friends in the coffee biz feel I make too much of this issue of hot water delivery), but regardless - I'm a wet coast espresso and Americano fan, and who's writing the review afterall??!
| X3's drip tray is shallow, and easy to spill, but designed for the body's artistic shape. |
The X3 delivers hot water through the use of a check or pressure valve - when you turn on the brewing pump, water flows inside the machine through a line that first goes to the steam wand. If the steam wand knob is turned off, the water continues on to the grouphead. But if the steam wand is open, the water flows through the steam wand itself, delivering hot water.
I've seen several machines that use this functionality (instead of a separate hot water only switch), and some do it well, some, not so well - I've seen major leaking at the grouphead while the machine is supposed to be delivering hot water.
The X3 is not in that category - it delivers hot water just fine, and there's no leakage at the grouphead while doing so.
Given the size of the boiler, you can't expect to fill up a 12oz mug with 190F water from this machine in one go. But hot water delivery is ample enough to give you enough hot water needed one traditionally sized Americano (2-3oz hot water, 5oz or so total cup size), and if you have the brew boiler active, you can eek out enough for two cups.
You can do latte art with the Francis! Francis! X3.
Not very well though; it's kind of a toss up with the big bubbles; and you have to be a serious latte art technician beforehand, but it is possible. I've done it on the machine, and a couple of my super-proficient espresso buddies have also done it.
Where the challenge lies is in two areas - the wand design (it's a froth aid device), and the wand length (it is very short). You can't really use anything larger than a 12oz or 14oz frothing pitcher with this machine. With a 12oz pitcher, if you want true microfoam, you better hone your skills and learn to "surf the air hole".
On the side of the froth aiding device, there's a small hole. The design is such that air is drawn through this hole when the typical newbie X3 owner sticks the tip of the steam wand into milk. You'll get froth all right - big, fat ass bubble froth that you can shoot darts through. The bubbles do "calm down" a bit if you submerge the tip half way through your frothing mission (and the manual does advise this). But if your goal is true microfoam, you can do it with the machine - barely.
You need to hover the surface of the milk around that intake hole on the side. It takes some serious practice, but can be done. By floating the surface of the milk around that hole, you control the amount of air introduced. It's kind of like surfing the tip of a traditional steam wand on the surface of your frothing milk, but in this case, you're thinking horizontally instead of vertically. One thing's for sure - this is not for newbies. It takes a practiced hand.
The (additional) good news is this - you can grow with this machine.
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| The steam wand on the X3 is short, and a froth aider style (note hole on left side (edge)). |
| You can microfoam with the X3 - it involves "surfing"... |
| You need to "surf" the steam wand hole on the side, instead of the bottom of the tip like other machines. |
| The result can be fairly good microfoam with a mirror-sheen surface, and very little "big bubbles". |
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| Some latte art done with the X3 - this one has chocolate powder added. |
| This one's a woman flapping her skirt and kicking up her heels! :) |
| A nice rosetta, with some advanced leaf definition. |
| This is the first rosetta attempted with the X3 in our lab - not too shabby! |