| Venus and its parts: portafilter, two filter baskets, scoop, the ubiquitous and useless plastic tamper, and manual. Not pictured: water filter. |
The Isomac Venus is shipped in plain jane box, something you usually see from the Italian companies for the more expensive machines. Isomac usually packs these boxes as "so so" in my books - it could be a lot more protected, but there's enough. The good news for anyone buying the Venus from 1st Line is this - they check the boxes and add protection before shipping it your way - a good thing!
The Venus is a heavy machine, no doubt about it. It weighs in at 13.8kg on my scales (13kg claimed), and you can see where the beef goes - it's beautiful in person, all shiny, polished stainless steel (with thick walls) and rounded corners. The frame is solid and heavy, as it should be. The group and boiler are attached to each other, and make up a huge hunk of brass and chrome.
The machine is also large, larger by a fair amount when compared to the Silvia. It stands 38.5cm tall, 23 cm wide, and is 33.5 cm from front of the drip tray (which sticks out a bit from the rest of the machine) all the way to the back panel.
Isomacs may be boxy machines, but they make up for that with a bit of flair and uniqueness in their designs. In the Venus and another machine I'm evaluating, a Super Giada, the top heating plate has a nice bar fence around the back and sides, accentuated by stainless steel ball caps at the end of the pipes. And unlike some of the higher end Isomac machines, the way these tops are designed make adding water to the reservoir an easy thing.
The Venus also features very retro and solid pipe-rocker switches for turning various things on and off. These are very solid switches, giving a total sense of quality and build. I really like them, personally.
And the Venus features something I've long requested in single-boiler machines - a pump pressure gauge, right up front. It's hard to miss in fact - there it is - a nice big dial that shows you the active pressure on the boiler when you activate the pump switch or the hot water switch. Yeah, it's all so much eye candy, but I like it. I like it a lot.
The portafilter is a true pro job, with a nice heavy weight and the standard 58mm basket. Isomac's supplied singles and doubles are fine, but I like to use La Marzocco baskets, especially the Swift baskets, which do a fantastic job on most machines with commercial portafilters and groupheads.
The drip tray is large and deep. Always a bonus in my book, especially after suffering for over two years with the Pasquini Livia's tiny afterthought drip tray. On the Venus, it is all steel, which is nice, and recesses into the back portion of the machine, where a 3 way valve has access for discharging (the Venus is equipped with a 3 way solenoid valve for instant release of built up pressure in the portafilter and grouphead once you complete an espresso shot. You don't find this on many sub $400 machines, but I expect it on most machines over that dollar amount).
The reservoir is a bit hard to reach, but not too difficult - it's a plain jane 3 litre tank. There is a huge bonus though, and something too many espresso machine makers omit - the Venus comes supplied with a water softener attached to the intake hose. Normally you would pay up to $35 or more for this as an aftermarket item. Very nice to see it included.
The machine does deliver hot water out of the steam tap, and the steaming tip is better than the Zaffiro for this kind of work - it has two holes, but they are more angled downwards, preventing splashes and potential scaldings from pouring hot water. Activate the hot water switch and open the steam valve, and off you go.
It is a single boiler machine, or as I like to call it, a "dual purpose boiler" meaning that it cannot froth and steam at the same time. You have to activate the steam switch, and wait for some time before having full steaming power. The boiler looks ample enough to deliver the goods here as well, but I'll only know for sure after a full detailed look.
The area where you brew is a lot higher than most other Isomac machines - you can easily wedge in a 12oz mug under the spouts. By comparison, all the other less expensive Isomac machines have a much shorter clearance between portafilter spouts and drip tray top. This is beneficial to us North Americanos who have a penchant for the huge cups of milky substances. (not me, of course :))
Out of the box, the Isomac Venus gives you a sense of confidence: confidence that you made a wise investment... maybe. But performance is almost everything, so let's get to that.
| || || || |
| || || || |
| Top cover, where you place cups. Can be lifted by bars. |
| Removed cover, showing reservoir and second level. |
| Included filter. Nice touch - not all machines do this. |
| The drip tray is huge and deep. Love it! |
First Use of the Isomac Venus
After doing a wad of photos and taking the machine apart to look at Venus' goods (heh heh, there's a joke somewhere in there), it came time to plug this baby in, and give her a test run.
At this point, I usually say RTFM (read the freaky manual), but in this case, I won't give that advice as firmly as I do for other machines. The reason? The Isomac manual is so horrible, it's a joke. Read it for pointers and identifying parts of the machine, but try not to snicker too much at the whacky translation. They need some serious work here.
First up, you have to fill the boiler. Not a big deal - fill the reservoir, open the steam wand, plug it in, and engage the hot water switch. Soon water was coming out of the wand, and she's good to go for her trial running.
Next, I ran about half a reservoir of water through the machine's grouphead and steam wand to flush out any settled dust or particles that may accumulate. Then I left the machine to do a proper 30 minute heat up.
I should point out that the Venus is not an auto filling or replenishing machine like the more expensive Pasquini Livia, or machines like the automatic Solis SL-90. You have to manually replenish the boiler after steaming, and you have to manually fill the machine the first time you use it. This isn't necessarily a knock against the Venus, but it would be and added bonus if it had water level sensors to do this stuff automatically.
Inside the Venus sits a 52W Ukla pump, the same pump that's in my Pasquini Livia. Good sign (I should note that most of the Isomac machines have the same 52W pump). When she was all hot and ready (heh heh), I filled up the double filter with the same grind I have spent years super-tuning for my Livia, and decided to see what she could do with it.
On these initial shots, the Venus did really well.
I don't know what it is lately, but it seems with these lower priced (below a grand) machines, I'm nailing pretty decent shots the first time around. With the Venus, it seemed even better than that. The first shot was fantastic.
| All brass and chrome grouphead is beefy and hold heat well. |
| Dispersion screen does the job and is easily maintained. Ditto with red gasket. |
Out of the box, from the get go, ready to roll, good to go (have I used enough catch phrases yet?) the Isomac Venus delivered me a 3.5 star ristretto shot… not the fabled 5 star shots I reserve for those moments I'm floating on ether, but a damned nice shot that was rich, pure, and full. I guess it helped that I had some primo beans for this first shot, and that the Isomac appears ready and willing to match the grind setup I have for my Livia. Damned nice shot… it's five days later, and I still remember it.
I wanted to see if I could repeat the results, so I cleaned and flushed the grouphead, cleaned the PF, dosed another shot, tamped and went at it again. This time around, it wasn't as good as the first one - it was very, very good mind you - but not the 3.5 star shot I got the first time… call it a 3 star. Definitely enjoyable. But I could see that this machine, like any quality machine, had a learning curve like any other, and it would take time to tame Miss Venus (heh heh heh).
One thing I liked about this machine, and would expect on the machine at this price point is the inclusion of a pressure relief valve. These solenoids let rapidly bang out shot after shot with the machine, because they instantly remove built up pressure in the portafilters after a shot is completed. With the Venus' heating system, recovery time was next to nothing, and banging out shot after shot was easy and fun.
On this first day of my evaluation, I was impressed with the machine. I wasn't quite sure if Venus could unseat the Rancilio Silvia from my own personal "levels" perch I've placed that machine on, but hey, I haven't steamed yet with the Venus, have I?
First Week with the Isomac Venus
As my first few days rolled on with Miss Venus, she saw some heavy duty early on. My girlfriend and I like to have the occasional (and casual) dinner party, and the second day Venus was going through trials, we had one. In that one afternoon and evening, I pulled 16 doubles, and built 9 milk-based drinks, and the shakedown came as a good success - other than the wait time for steaming, Venus showed she could handle dinner parties well.
Steaming on this machine, save for the warm up time wait, was a distinct pleasure. The Venus appears to have a larger boiler than the Silvia, and you can see it at the steam wand. The 1200 watt heating element also shows its muscles, giving you a warm up time from brew to steam in about 45 seconds (more detailed timing will be published in the Detailed Review).
Microfroth is definitely not a problem area with this machine. The steam is ample, and runs long. I was able to froth up about 10 ounces of milk (usually enough for a cappa and a latte) in under 50 seconds. I haven't done my 7oz test yet (two cappa volume), but I would guess it to be somewhere around 35 seconds - very good numbers for this class of machine.
The steam tip is well suited for the job of micro foaming - the slight angle on the two steam holes facilitate the perfect mix of air and liquid, and a practiced hand will be microfrothing on the machine in no time.
Back to brewing, in this machine, you get what you pay for, it appears early on in my evaluation. And what do you pay for? All that brass around the area you place your ground coffee - in the commercial portafilter, in the grouphead, and in the boiler. I ran some early tests on the grouphead temperatures, and after being on for a half hour, I measured a very admirable 89C on the edge of the grouphead - while not perfect (92-95C would be), it's damned close.
I did have a bit of trouble figuring out the lighting system on the Venus - there's four lights on the machine, and at times it is difficult to say what means what. The top left light indicates when the brew thermometer has engaged the boiler; the middle left light is automatically on when you engage its switch - hot water delivery. The bottom left light is the one that confused me - it works in tandem with the brew light, but I took me a while to figure out that the bottom light stays on when you activate its switch (the switch is to put the machine into steam mode). When the machine is ready to steam, the top lamp goes off, but the bottom one stays on.
The bottom right lamp is the power lamp, and on my machine, it pulses erratically. I'm not sure if this is by design or a wiring issue.
Towards the end of the first week of testing, I did notice some minor fluctuations in the brewing temperatures of the machine, and especially a slightly longer draw in the cycling times. One or two of my shots seemed a tad sour, a sure sign of a too-cold brew.
But it's early days yet, and we'll see how this plays out in the full Detailed Review.
By the end of my initial five day evaluation of the machine, I was very impressed with the Venus. Here's some highlights:
- Can brew a 4+ star ristretto, with very little effort by a seasoned hand
- Steam power is ample
- Steam heat up time is fairly short
- Heaps of brass
- Heavy weight - definite bonus - more weight = better heat retention, in my book.
- Hot water on demand - awesome, and fast flowing.
- Large cup surface on top that gets plenty hot enough.
- Brewing pressure gauge! I LOVE it!
Some things I was less impressed with:
- Minor sourness in some shots on the last day of this initial test - brewing water seemed a tad cold, and the cycling of the boiler seemed to wait longer before it would commence.
- Even though it's easier to add water to the reservoir on this machine than on other Isomac machines, it's still a pain, and you can't see the water levels
- No autofill. Well, the Silvia doesn't have it either, but for an extra hun, I'd almost expect it.
- Lights can be confusing on the machine
- Did I mention you can't see the water level? This is an issue. I ran the thing dry twice and the first time, I didn't know what the problem was.
- For all the cool switches and lights, they stencil on what the lights do with confusing icons. It cheapens the machine a tiny bit.
- Reservoir water gets a might hot. This is a minor point, because single boiler machines aren't affected by this nearly as much as heat exchanger machines are.
Overall, I was impressed with the Venus. Five days isn't a helluva lot of time to spend with a machine to give it a full evaluation, and this document doesn't pretend to be a full and complete test... but with that said, I felt this machine could very well be worth the extra hun or so over the Rancilio Silvia's price. One knock against the machine however: it doesn't have Silvia's 5 years in the marketplace to fall back on - the Venus is a relatively new machine to the North American market, and it stands to be seen how it lasts long term. The machine does seem solidly built with a lot of commercial and quasi commercial parts tossed in, but it's early days yet, as my British friends tend to say (so what is Murray Walker doing these days?).
As always, I like to point out this rambling bunch of words is a First Look only, and everything, including the font I've chosen to use, is subject to change. Wait for the Detailed Exhaustive, "I'm married to this machine!" Review before you get our final thoughts on this machine.
Once again, CoffeeGeek would like to thank 1st Line Equipment, LLC for supplying us with the Isomac Venus. It retails for $529 (call for best pricing, or deals with grinders) and is brand new to this marketplace.