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the first look - rocky first look
Rancilio Rocky First Look
Author: Dana Leighton
Posted: June 7, 2003
First Look rating: 8.0
feedback: (18) comments | read | write
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There's a grinder that's been around for awhile, and while the espresso newbie may think we're talking about a Sly Stallone movie when it is mentioned, most folks have heard of it: The Rocky grinder by Rancilio. Words like "time tested" and "built reputation" come easy when talking about the Rocky, so I felt a bit intimidated when the opportunity arose to review the grinder: could I give it a fair shake, knowing as much as I do, and having as much experience as I've had with this grinder?

I came up with a solution. The very capable Dana Leighton has taken up the charge to do a First Look, and Doug Wiebe will be doing the Detailed Review for the Rancilio Rocky (as well as the Rancilio Silvia). The rest of this report is courtesy of Dana.

CoffeeGeek.com was supplied with a stainless steel model Rancilio Rocky grinder by Rancilio North America. This grinder has seen a recent price hike because of the poor performance of the US greenback against the Euro for the past year or so, so where people were paying $200 or so for the non-stainless steel version a year or two ago, that model is now $250, and the stainless steel one is $270 (all prices in US Dollars).

Out of the box

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The Rancilio Rocky's box is attractively printed with photos of Rocky, a full-color affair, with views of the grinder from every side, even the top, ready to go on the retailer's shelf. While it's not a big deal to me, Rancilio NA shipped CoffeeGeek their stainless steel model, but the box depicted the black-and-white version. This would certainly cause some confusion if Joe Average espressohound bought the unit off the shelf, thinking there was a black and white unit inside.

Rancilio uses great graphics on the box, with the "Rocky" name in bold white capital letters, letting you know this is a serious machine. The Rancilio double-R logo is prominent, and the box features a cute moniker: "Rocky the coffee-grinder." Good to know I'm not the only one that anthropomorphizes this machine.

Rancilio shipped Rocky to CoffeeGeek inside a larger plain box packed securely with styrofoam peanuts, because Rocky's box is not suitable for shipping. It's meant to look good on the shelf of your favorite retailer, ready to be bought and go to work crushing your beans.

Unlike some packaging we've seen at CoffeeGeek, Rocky is packaged firmly inside its box with cardboard spacers, and comes out as a whole unit, no assembly required. You need some muscles to take Rocky out of the box, because its empty weight is 7 kilograms, or almost 15-1/2 pounds. When placed on the counter, it stays firmly put, and doesn't walk around on the counter, thanks to its rubber vibration-damping feet.

On the counter, you realize Rocky is one good-looking hunk. It's a squareish, compact machine, made of attractive brushed stainless steel, complemented by black painted steel trim. The roundness of the dosing chamber reflects the same curves as the round bean hopper. I am a big fan of great industrial design (one reason I have always owned design award-winning Apple Macintosh computers) and I think the whole design works as a solid unit, both aesthetically and functionally. It reminds me of the clean design of the early Macintosh computers, an aesthetic Apple is returning to. But, I digress.

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With the exception of the hopper & dosing chamber, their covers, the portafilter holder, dosing lever and a couple switches, the entire unit is solidly made of steel. The whole fit-and-feel of the grinder is one of solid, understated, quality. You know from the weight that there is a serious motor and burr assembly lurking underneath the plain exterior. Rancilio's logo is on a molded plate attached to the back of the grinder, showing that the company expects you to proudly display it on your counter or on a bar, with the back facing the room. On the curved face of the dosing chamber, there is a Rancilio sticker underneath a sticker with "rocky" printed on it. I felt the "rocky" sticker was a bit cheesy-looking, and detracted from the simple good looks of the grinder.

The grinder is 11.6 cm wide, 24.5 cm deep, and 35 cm high (4.5" x 9.7" x 13.8"), a good size for sitting on your counter under your cabinets, right next to Miss Silvia (Rancilio's consumer espresso machine). The power cord is a heavy-weight cord with a very solid-feeling plug at the end. It is about 70" long, so you needn't be right next to a plug, either. The dosing lever is on the right side of the grinder, so you'll need to leave about three inches on its right side to operate the lever.

Rocky's bean hopper is plenty large enough for a home grinder. It will hold 300 grams of beans, more than your average home roasting batch size. I did not test it, but it appears that the dosing chamber could not hold a full batch of ground beans, but then, you'll most likely be grinding in smaller quantities anyway. Both the hopper and the dosing chamber are made of transparent, brown-tinted plastic, which will help protect the beans and grounds from the deleterious effects of light.

First Use

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Closup of the side stainless steel with a vent for the motor inside.
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This is the top burr assembly (inverted), with the restricter screw still in place. We removed that pretty quick.
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Bottom burr assembly shows the beefy-ness of the grinder and the sharp grinding teeth. Note grinds - this is how it arrived.

Okay, I will admit it: I am a manual freak, an attribute that drove my ex-wife absolutely crazy. Whenever I get something new, I resist the temptation of tossing the operation manual aside in favor of forging ahead with my new toy. I even go past the "quick-start" guide and head straight for the full instruction manual. I recommend you do the same with Rocky. There are some fairly specific things that need to be done before dumping the first bag of beans inside.

Rocky's instruction manual is printed on A4-size paper, which is a heavy stock, and fortunately quite resistant to water and spilled coffee (as I soon discovered). Instructions are printed in five European languages (Italian, French, German, Spanish, and fortunately, English).The English section is six pages of clear, illustrated instructions on installation, adjustment, maintenance, and troubleshooting. The text is so clear that the illustrations are largely superfluous, but nice to have nonetheless.

Apparently in response to finicky buyers who complained to Rancilio's customer service department, there is a slip of paper included in the instructions telling buyers that there may be traces of coffee in the grinder. These are "due to the last testing" for Rocky. Apparently some buyers thought they were getting a used machine rather than a new one. (ed note - this is still a problem to this day - some people seem to ignore that slip of paper and go online and complain their grinder was "used" when shipped).

When the grinder first arrived, Mark Prince made the 'editorial' decision to remove a restricting screw that is inside the hopper - put there so the average consumer does not accidentally overtighten and gnash the grinding burrs. Mark reasoned that it was a good precaution for newbie users, but if you wanted to find your "zero point" on the grinder, and grind for super-fine ristrettos, the restricting screw had to go.

After making this custom modification, we adjusted the grinder to find the "zero" point at which the burrs begin to contact. To do this, we turned on the power switch, a nice precision-feeling switch, and slowly dialed the burrs closer together, until we heard the barest sounds of steel-on-steel.

After marking the zero point (it does not correspond with "0" on the grinder adjustment dial), we backed the burrs off 6-7 notches, per the commonly found instructions online (I believe Mark Prince posted a "dial your zero point" article about the Rocky back in 2000 or 1999 in the usenet newsgroup alt.coffee). I loaded in some Bristot Tiziano roast beans, and flicked the switch on. A burst of grinds flies out of the grind chute, and then it settles down into a slow progression of grinds out the chute. There is some clogging in the chute (the channel between the grinder burrs and the doser chamber) so after you've ground the quantity of coffee you want, you'll need to get the grounds out of the chute or risk stale grounds in your next grinding session.

If you back off the burrs to grind for french press or (gasp!) drip coffee, you'll notice that at coarser grounds, the grinds fly out and stick to the doser chamber with plenty of static charge. This static problem mainly is a problem on dry days, and it may or may not bother you. I've already got a great static generator, the venerable Braun KMM-30, which I'll probably keep for grinding french and drip coffee, mostly so I don't have to dial Rocky back in for espresso.

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The doser worked smoothly and as expected, dispensing the coffee into the portafilter. I tried a few times dosing two lever-pulls into a standard Rancilio double portafilter, and discovered that does not deliver quite enough coffee. I needed to use three pulls of the lever to get the right amount. I discovered that I had to pull Rocky's lever gently, though, because if you pull the dosing lever too fast, the coffee will shoot out diagonally, missing the portafilter (ed note: this is a common problem with most doser grinders and a little thing called velocity and gravity).

I ground some coffee, dosed it, tamped to 30 lbs, and pulled a shot. I was amazed that the first shot out of the gate was drinkable: a full two oz shot brewed in 28 seconds, with good crema. However, my luck didn't last as the next shot pulled a bitter ristoretto in 30 seconds with lame crema. I suspect the burrs were settling into place after grinding the first shot worth of coffee. It only took me another five adjustment cycles to get a very drinkable 1.5 oz 23-second espresso with 4 mm of good crema and an amazing Guinness effect. I was very pleased with the process, although throwing all that espresso down the drain is a sorrow only a CoffeeGeek can relate to.

First Few Days with the Rancilio Rocky

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Rancilio Silvia and Rocky, side by side.

I need to tell you first that I previously had a six-year-old Chevrolet of an espresso machine and grinder combo: the Starbucks-sold Estro Profi (made and marketed by Saeco as the Rio Profi). This machine was a great beginner machine, which can produce consistent, although generally mediocre, espresso. I had pushed this machine to its limit, adding the non-pressurized portafilter, and had learned to temperature-surf it to get a better brewing temperature. My regular visitors at my occasional coffee-klatches would consistently praise my espresso shots.

For this review, I was provided a Rocky and Silvia combination, and since I had no room on my small grad-student kitchen counter for all three machines, I decided to dive in, retiring the old Profi, and put Silvia to its test. I tell you all this because I was learning the idiosyncrasies of both machines simultaneously, something any trouble-shooter or careful scientist will warn you about: never change two variables simultaneously.

But, Silvia surprised me. She is a forgiving machine, and I was able to get started producing some quite impressive shots right out the gate with Rocky (a First Look is coming soon on Silvia, and a later Detailed Review by me). Rocky's grind is so consistent and stable that I didn't need to worry too much from shot-to-shot that the burrs were going to get looser or tighter between grinds. When a shot wasn't pulling fast enough, backing off the burrs one notch fixed it.

So after having Silvia and Rocky dancing together for just a few days, I bravely decided to call a coffee-klatch, and invited several friends over for a taste-test. I wasn't sure how this would go, but my confidence in Rocky was rewarded. After a couple shots adjusting the grind for humidity changes (it was raining, whereas the previous tests were in dry weather), I could pull shot-after-shot of rich, dark espresso shots, with 3-4mm of crema. I pulled somewhere in the order of twenty shots that morning, and although Rocky needs time to grind that many beans, it never had trouble keeping up, and the grind was consistent every time. The ultimate testimonial was that several friends ordered seconds on their cappuccinos, mochas, and even straight espresso.

I even switched coffee in the middle of this whole affair, and again, it only took me a couple of shots to dial Rocky back in for the new beans. After that, all was good and consistent. The grinder's adjustment mechanism is fine enough that one or two notches on the dial are just right to make fine adjustments to the grind, ensuring great extraction from the coffee.

Over the next few days, I put Rocky to some more tests -- using it for drip coffee, french press, and back to espresso. The french press grind was up on the dial about twenty notches, a good indication of how fine of an adjustment each notch represents. The drip coffee setting is around ten notches above espresso. When returning to the espresso setting, I only had to toss 1 shot before I got a good pull from the grind. I suspect the tossed shot (extraction too fast) may have been due to coarse drip-style grinds left in the dosing chamber though.

Which leads me to one complaint I have about Rocky, and I have seen this raised by others. Rocky's dosing mechanism leaves a fair quantity of grinds in the doser, which slip by the dosing vanes as they sweep by. Rocky's vanes are hard plastic on the bottom, which have to maintain clearance in order to sweep by smoothly. It seems fairly trivial to design the vanes with a flexible rubber lip on the bottom, which could sweep the errant coffee along instead of leaving it behind to get stale and contaminate the next shot (especially if it's a day or more later).

One thing I can't complain about is Rocky's noise level. Rocky's motor runs very quietly. Even with beans loaded and grinding away at espresso grind, Rocky is surprisingly quiet for such a fast grinder. My guests had no problem continuing their conversations in my smallish graduate student residence hall room, with Rocky grinding away in the background. It won't be good in a library, but in any normal home setting it'll be fine.

Wrap Up

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Overall, I am very impressed with Rancilio's stalwart grinder. Graduating from my Profi grinder to Rocky is a pleasure. The Profi's grind adjustments were just too coarse, so I found myself always trying to compensate with changes in tamp pressure or quantity of grinds, a pain in the rear.

There's a lot to like about this grinder, and a few minor complaints, but I have to save those for the Detailed Review. My first few days with the Rocky grinder by Rancilio were very promising, and I'm really looking forward to the next few months giving it the full court press of tests.

Once again, CoffeeGeek would like to thank the folks at Rancilio North America for supplying us with a Rancilio Rocky grinder to have for a long term test. The grinder can be found at 1st Line Equipment, LLC (www.1st-line.com), and EspressoPeople (www.espressopeople.com) in the US. In Canada, Morala Trading (www.morala.com) is your hookup for this product. The grinder retails for around $250 USD for the white and black model, and $270 for the stainless steel model.

First Look rating: 8.0
Author: Dana Leighton
Posted: June 7, 2003
feedback: (18) comments | read | write
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