The product we're taking a First Look at today comes from Ascaso Factory in Spain. Ascaso's a name that is becoming more and more familiar to North Americans, but they've been long established in Spain and the rest of Europe as a manufacturer and reseller of a wide range of parts for espresso machines. At one point, their product catalogue stretched to over 20,000 items, offering everything from solenoid valves to customized portafilters, and lots of little valves and screw-joints in between. A lot of their parts make it onto internationally famous machines, some of which you may have seen in your favourite episode of Will and Grace.
The company's founder, Jésus Ascaso, first got involved with espresso machines in the 1950s as an repair person working on Gaggia machines. He founded his company in 1962, and from the start primarily worked on manufacturing spare parts. By 1990, the company was selling over 10,000 different items, all geared towards the coffee and espresso world; by the mid 1990s, the company started thinking about building their first branded espresso machines - and the consumer market was always their goal.
In 2000, their first espresso machine, built primarily from their own manufactured parts, hit the European market, and by 2002, they had the Innova line introduced into North America, first as a grinder, then as a series of espresso machines - the Arc, the Dream, and the Ellipse. All of these machines featured the same internal parts, but different exterior styling.
From 2002 through 2005, they expanded the line with new colour choices and tweaked internals while reducing (a bit) the grinder lineup. In late 2005, the company decided to drop the Innova moniker entirely and go with Ascaso, confident in the power of their long-standing brand name in Spain and the rest of Europe. Along with this change came a new set of "swiss army knife" style machines - the Steel Series, and a new grinder design - the Mini. And they still sell a huge range of spare parts.
The Steel line is indeed a "swiss army" of espresso machines. There's nine different variations featuring everything from single group thermoblock designs to double group 325 ml dual boilers, plus a third thermoblock boiler for producing steam (and you can probably custom order other variations should you place a big enough order!). In fact, Ascaso has three different boiler sizes, two different thermoblock designs, and two different groupheads that get mixed and matched in different configurations for this machine.
In Canada, Morala is importing the Steel Uno PM and PM Professional (225 ml and 325 ml boilers, respectively) and the Steel Duo PM Professional, featuring a 225 ml boiler and a brass thermoblock for always-available steam. The model we have for this First Look is the Steel Duo PM Professional, priced at $1,199 CAD (package deals may be available with a grinder purchase).
Out of the Box
| Portafilter |
Ascaso calls this a 58mm portafilter on their website, but it is a 57mm size. Nice, high end consumer stuff.
It's not fair for us to do an "out of the box" report because this machine was supplied to CoffeeGeek on the show floor at the 2006 Canadian Coffee and Tea Expo. It's brand new, but was missing some items that normally ship with the machine - including the manual, the measuring spoons, tamper, extra doodads. Rest assured, when Morala ships this product, it will be just as the factory ships it.
That said, the machine is packed reasonably well, and should survive all but the worst UPS driver's juggling attempts.
You'll get all the usual things - a single and double filter basket (57mm size - Ascaso says 58mm on their website, but my callipers and tampers say 57mm). A middle-weight chromed brass portafilter with double spouts (unscrew the spouts to have a "single spout" portafilter). There should also be a plastic tamper (splurge here - buy a nicely crafted 57mm professional tamper), measuring spoons, and product manual.
Everything is taped and/or secured in the box, but it should only take a few minutes to unpack and set up. No real assembly required, beyond perhaps screwing the portafilter handle into the rest of the PF and filling the water reservoir.
The machine is surprisingly heavy for its dimensions. It weighs in at about 34 pounds (just shy of 16 kg), and measures 10.5" (27 cm) wide, 14.1" (36 cm) tall and 12.5" (31.5 cm) front to back. The entire finish of the machine is a brushed Inox steel, including the drip tray and the cup holder, all with a good finish and minimal gaps.
Ascaso Steel Duo Aesthetics and Design
| Rail Detail |
There's a lot of little nice touches on this machine, including a generally good fit and finish, and this bordering rail on the cup warmer.
| Switches |
A bit hard to read, but nice feel and nice professional finish in the switches and LED lights.
This looks like a serious machine - not so much of the "toy" look that machines like the Francis! Francis! Espresso machines have, or Ascaso's own "fun" line for the Arc and Dream machines.
On top you'll find a sloping cup warmer that does get pretty hot (we'll measure this for the Detailed Review), and there's a detail rail around the sides and back. Towards the back of the warming tray there's a lid, which covers the water reservoir. The reservoir holds just over 3 litres (6.5 pints) of water. It's completely enclosed by the bodywork of the machine, which is not a problem in a dual heating system machine - in fact, it can increase the machine's efficiency, by being a poor-man's "preheater" for the boiler water.
Up front, you'll see four buttons (there's also a fifth button on the upper right portion of the backsplash plate - more on that later), and four blue LED lights. Right in the middle is a big temperature dial which shows approximately what the boiler temperature is. It also proudly states, “Ascaso; for coffee lovers; since 1962” on it. The buttons themselves actually have writing around their bezels - from left to right, they say:
- O (just a zero, showing the power button)
- coffee (the brewing switch)
- water (for delivering hot water from the dedicated hot water pipe)
- steam (for the "all or nothing" steam wand)
The LED lights below each switch don't entirely correspond with the switches themselves, which may be confusing to some. The far left LED shows if the machine is on or not. The one under the brewing switch shows when the brewing boiler's heating element is active.
On the right side, the LED under the water switch actually lights up if the reservoir is near empty (it was on when I plugged in the machine, before I turned on the power switch). The last LED, under the steam switch, shows when the thermoblock for steam is cycling on (the element inside is heating up).
One more thing you'll notice on the front panel: the words "ascaso" and "for coffee lovers" are embossed in the metal - a much nicer finish than some stencil or sticker.
Moving down the machine, there's Ascaso's very familiar brewing grouphead, which can also be found in other famous-maker machines, basically a consumer style grouphead with lots of chromed brass, a decent dispersion screen, and and a decent locking / bayonet insertion design. It can also be converted to pod use by swapping out the dispersion screen and dispersion plate (kits available from Morala).
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| Temperature Dial |
Nice aesthetics, but not very usable in practice (the Detailed Review will have more on this)
| PF Spouts |
The portafilter is solid, and the spouts are too, but they are small. Gassy, fast shots will overflow.
| Reservoir Lid |
The machine's reservoir is hidden behind this flap. There's no less than four tubes going into it!
| Hot water |
Hot water gets its own tap on this espresso machine - nice feature, and works well.
| Steam Power |
Switch can be turned off to save energy.
| Wand, Aider |
Wand with semi-evil froth aider. Surf the "hole" to achieve reasonable microfoam.
| Wand, No Aider |
Or, you can just remove it. Steams just fine without.
The portafilter is one of those "prosumer" types. By prosumer I mean not the full blown commercial portafilters you get with E61 style machines, but it’s beefy enough and has all the features you'd expect in this price range - good amount of chromed brass, and retention spring for the non-pressurized filter baskets (pressurized filter baskets should be outlawed!). There's a small but elegant double spout that easily pours its entire volume into the smallest shot glasses or espresso cups.
The backsplash panel on our test machine has a microswitch button. Call it a power-saver device. Turn it on, and the steam thermoblock inside the machine is always active, ready to go anytime. Turn it off, and you save up to 1/3 the power draw on this machine.
Another feature of note - between the portafilter and steam wand, you'll notice another pipe - this is the hot water tap for the machine. It draws water from the brewing boiler, which will provide enough hot water for an americano, for preheating cups, or even a small (5 or 6 oz) tea.
The steam wand does have a removable frothing aider - very similar to the froth aiding system on Francis! Francis! machines. You can steam with it (and if you "surf the intake hole" on the side, you can produce microfroth), or you can remove it and steam in smaller pitchers (up to 20 oz sizes) traditionally.
The wand works surprisingly well without the froth aider, and initial tests show it's definitely on par with most of the faster single boiler machines.
The drip tray area is expansive. The top of the tray is not removable - it's part of the machine's outer body. So how do you get your waste water out of the machine? The drip tray underneath slides out the front. The drip tray is a surprise on this machine. Surprising in that it holds a helluva lot more water than you'd think - it can hold 850 ml (29 fl oz) easily and be removed without spilling (maximum volume is just shy of a litre).
The drip tray also features three "ribs" which are there to help prevent sloshing about when you move the tray from machine to sink to dump the spent water. Removing it from the machine is not hard, though slotting it back in takes a bit of practice.
The machine sits on grippy rubber feet. I can't believe how many espresso machine companies drop the ball on this minor feature - but Ascaso certainly doesn't. The machine stays put on most counter tops, even when locking the portafilter into place.
The back and sides of the Ascaso Duo are pretty plain, though there are venting cutouts on the back panel. They are there to allow for steam release from one of the plastic tubes that feed from the steam thermoblock to the reservoir area.
Operating the Ascaso Steel Duo
Operating the Ascaso Steel Duo is pretty simple. Fill the water reservoir, and watch the bright LED "low water" light indicator go out. Turn the machine on, and do two things - first, run the brewing switch until water starts flowing out of the grouphead. Next, turn on the steam power switch (located on the backsplash), and turn on the steam switch. It's independent pump (I believe, this machine has two pumps - but I need to confirm this) will start running and fill the thermoblock. Once water starts flowing out of the wand at its slow pace, turn the steam switch off, and let the machine come up to temperature, which should only take a few minutes.
It's very important for an espresso machine to be hot - every part that touches the brewing process, from boiler, to grouphead, to portafilter, to cup, should be hot - as hot as the brewing water for most of the items. So even though this machine is fast to heat up, your espresso will be better if you give it fifteen minutes.
Ascaso's manual recommends running a half tank (1.5 litres) of water through the boiler and grouphead (and portafilter) before using it for the first time to brew coffee. So we followed these directions.
The 225 ml boiler on this grounds-capable machine runs at 100C (212F) (pod versions have a 95C thermostat). What this means is that typically, the water may start at 100C when going to the grouphead, but by the time a) the reservoir water mixes, and b) the grouphead and PF leech their temperatures a bit, the brewing temperatures will probably be around 95C (203F), give or take a few C (so the range is probably around 192-205F - which we will measure for the Detailed Review). Further, there's the thermostat's deadband to consider. I've been told the Ascaso machines have a 5C deadband (roughly 10F), which is the norm for machines in this price class.
As mentioned previously, the brewing boiler supplies water to both the grouphead and the hot water tap, which needs to be kept in mind if you draw a lot of hot water off the machine.
Accessing hot water is very simple - press the hot water switch (first dial on the right side of the temperature gauge) and a good steady stream of water will pour out. If you do it right after a boiler cycle, or if the machine's been on for some time without any brewing taking place, it may sputter and splash a bit, but it's less forceful and definitely less dangerous than other machines we've evaluated, including the KitchenAid Pro Line, which is a hazard in this regard.
Even though this is a "semi-auto" machine, it's all microswitch controlled (soft electrically controlled switches, instead of mechanical ones). Press the button to brew, and it will brew until you press the button again. Ditto for the hot water switch. Ditto again for the steam switch - no knobs on this machine - it's a full on, or full off machine when it comes to steaming.
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| Dispersion Block |
Pretty solid disperson block and bayonet mount - but it sits low, meaning you cannot updose your basket.
| Plumbing |
Four tubes into the reservoir - remember, you're servicing two heating units.
| Nice! |
Nice design treat in the 800ml capacity drip tray - ribs to keep water sloshing in check.
| Underneath |
A view up at the hot water tap and steam wand. The steam wand may be interchangable with other traditional wands.
Steam is indeed available all the time on this machine. There's a slight pause after you activate the switch as the thermoblock builds up the initial pressure, but after about three seconds, steam is very accurate, and the steaming times are on par with the Rancilio Silvia when it is in steam mode. In our Detailed Review, we'll measure steam times and steaming quality, but early on, this machine looks very capable in this regard.
When you shut off the steam switch, you may be in for a small surprise - there's a huge "whoooosh" and lots of steam escaping from the upper back portion of the machine. That's because the microswitch, when turned off, releases a solenoid to release all the remaining steam pressure in the thermoblock - a feature that should increase the lifespan of the thermoblock and the Ascaso Steel machine as a whole.
On top of the machine, there's room for a lot of cups. I've been able to put twelve espresso cups on top, and still have (albeit tricky) access to the water reservoir flap.
The Ascaso Duo Steel Professional appears to be a well engineered, dual heating system machine. The price, at roughly $1000 US ($1199 CAD), is actually quite decent for what it is, and in some ways, the feature list surpasses that of the other low-priced dual heater system out there, the KitchenAid Pro Line Espresso machine. The whole "dual boiler" scenario has often been something unattainable by many of the famous Italian manufacturers, but Ascaso is taking a serious run at it.
The main problem with dual boiler machines running on 110V, 60hz, 15 amp, 1500 watts maximum service (the typical wall outlet in North America) is that running two heating elements, one (or more) pumps, and electronics tends to swallow up all that power. In Europe and parts of Australasia, it's not a problem - 220, 240V service is the norm there, and engineering a machine to run dual boilers is simple.
On this side of the pond, you typically run into "engineered for Europe" issues, like for instance a noticeable drop in pump pressure if a boiler's heating element engages, or the same again (drop in pressure) if the steam boiler decides to refill. One thing I've noticed in the Pro Line machine, which uses power-hungry Gaggia internals is that the steam power is absolutely anemic on that machine. I didn't see the same issues in this First Look with the Ascaso Duo, but I also didn't do accurate tests for this either. Also, I didn't notice any visual loss in pump pressure when the boiler element would engage, which is also a good sign.
The Ascaso Duo has the look of a serious coffee making tooll, yet it doesn't take up too much counter space. It fits under most cupboards and, matched up with the Ascaso Mini grinder, would present a complete "hot drinks" one-two punch for your kitchen.
It doesn't draw a lot of power either - 1000 W in full mode, less than that in economy mode (with the steam thermoblock turned off). In this machine, there's a lot of benefits to be seen that come from a company manufacturing its own parts, and knowing how they work.
In our Detailed Review, we'll get down to the nitty gritty on this machine - how it really operates on a day to day basis, how the shots coming from the machine taste, how the boiler cycling affects shot quality, how good a steaming device it is, how it stacks up against competing machines, the works. It will be paired up with an Ascaso grinder, as well as a Solis Maestro Plus, Virtuoso, and a Macap M4 to really put it to the test.
Remember, this article is not a review, but a First Look. However, if you're sufficiently convinced this is a machine to consider, you can't go wrong buying it from Morala Trading in Ottawa (they also ship to the US). I don't mind saying that Hamid, the owner of Morala, is one of the best guys I know in this business of vending machines to consumers, and he'll definitely treat you right as a customer. At $1199, this machine looks to be a good value, considering it's one of the least expensive dual boiler (well, boiler / thermoblock) machines on the market.
About the coffee we use for testing We exclusively use Intelligentsia Coffee for all the product evaluation and testing we do on CoffeeGeek. As one of the United States' best artisan roasters, Intelligentsia features a wide range of ever changing, Direct Trade coffees, limited edition award winning beans, organics and highly respected blends designed for great espresso and brewed cups. They ship throughout North America, so give them a try today.