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Breville BES900XL Dual Boiler - Peter Russell's Review
Posted: December 16, 2012, 11:27pm
review rating: 9.0
feedback: (3) comments | read | write
Breville BES900XL Dual Boiler Espresso Machine
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Arrow The Breville BES900XL Dual Boiler has 10 Reviews
Arrow The Breville BES900XL Dual Boiler has been rated 8.02 overall by our member reviewers
Arrow This product has been in our review database since November 6, 2012.
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Quality Reviews
These are some of the best-written reviews for this product, as judged by our members.
Name Ranking
Josh McGrath 9.00
Peter Russell 9.00
Mike Timmins 8.67
John Denham 7.50
Rick London 5.67

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Ratings and Stats Overall Rating: 8.2
Manufacturer: Breville Australia Quality: 5
Average Price: $1,200.00 Usability: 9
Price Paid: $839.00 Cost vs. Value 10
Where Bought: williams sonoma 30% off sale Aesthetics 8
Owned for: 1 year Overall 9
Writer's Expertise: I love coffee Would Buy Again: Yes
Similar Items Owned: several saeco/starbucks barista machines
Bottom Line: pro-level results in the cup at a breakthrough price.  the only unknown is whether Breville has managed to overcome it's less-than stellar reputation for long-term reliability. finger's crossed
Positive Product Points

Temperature stability, temperature stability, temperature stability!!!  BOTH inter-shot and intra-shot temperature stability as good or BETTER than the $6500 "benchmark" home machine, the La Marzoco GS/3.

Both boilers, steam and brewing are stainless steel, which is not as easy to work with by hand as the copper and brass that the Italians who make them by hand, use.  But Breville is a large manufacturer, so they can afford the expensive tooling required to work stainless steel affordably.

The portafilter is also stainless steel, heavy, solid, and professional feeling with good balance.

Even the lowly portafilter basket is amazing.  Along with the incredible temperature stability, it may be the single best part of the whole machine.  Don't waste your money buying expensive VST brand baskets unless you want bragging rights.  The Breville baskest, when viewed under a microscope has holes at least as perfectly round and evenly spaced as VST baskets, and those are features VST brags about and are famous for.

Negative Product Points

While this machine will feel pleasingly heavy and solid to people moving up from cheaper equipment, almost commercial feeling, it's so very very good at making espresso that it needs to be compared to the class of machines beginning in the $2500 range, (twice the full retail of the Breville machine).  Compared to THAT class of machine, it will feel light, weak, and cheap.  And it is--a little.  The beautiful stainless steel surface is only a thin veneer.  It will dent easily if you are not careful swinging that beautiful, heavy portafilter--ask me how I know? :)

long-term durability remains a question mark due to consumer-grade (as opposed to professional-grade) construction

Detailed Commentary

Gosh, where to start?   Having had this thing for a year now, some of the neat "little" features are now so automatic to me, that I've almost forgotten about them.  I suppose this is a good place to put in the minutiae since the pros are so superlative and are the most important part of what ends up in the cup--and I have already mentioned them.

So, the minutiae:

The packaging is attractive and secure, yet easy to unpack, and as I'll point out in a bit, easy to repack.

The BDB comes with some neat gear:  
a nice steaming pitcher that's unfortunately too big for most modest lattes--I got myself a couple of smaller ones, one tiny one for macchiatos (least milk-to-espresso ratio), and a bigger one about half the size of the Breville one for lattes where the coffee is not totally lost in the milk.  a couple of years worth of water-softening resin filters, a silicone insert for the filter baskets for the cleaning cycle, a few cleaning tablets, and all this gear stores neatly in a "secret compartment" inside the machine.  it comes with four filter/brew baskets:  a single and double-sized "cheater" basket, (so-called because they build pressure by their design, rather than the preferred method of proper shot preparation), and a single and double-sized regular basket.  Most pro baristas don't use single-sized baskets and DEFINITELY don't use pressurized "cheater" baskets.  You will want to do the same--use only the single-wall double-size basket.  but Breville includes the rest at no cost, so there.  not sure what i would ever use the others for though.

Using the BDB:

Used as a pro machine in the typical way, with the unpressurized, double basket, using the manual dispenser button, and not fiddling with the volumetric buttons, the quality of the espresso will be limited only by your skill--that means it will not cover for your lack if it, either.

Aah, the volumetric dispensing buttons: they are programmable to dispense a set volume with each push.  The trouble is, the way these systems work leaves them susceptible to drift, caused by variances in your technique.  Beginners are often confused because they think the system doesn't work when they don't get the same volume of liquid every time.  Experts know this is a limitation of all volumetric dispensers and either don't use these buttons at all, or watch them closely and are prepared to throw out unsatisfactory pulls.

The digital display will display the all-important time duration of each shot. You can program it to start up the machine in the the morning before you wake up, so its already warmed up for you when you get to it.  This is also where you select the even more important item in espresso, brew temperature for your shot.  Super accurate and stable rew temperature is the BDB's ace up it's sleeve.   By the way, the reason the BDB is so good at temperature control is that it has not one but two PID (proportional integral derivative) routines, controlling the temperature in _both_ the brew water boiler and the brew head itself.  The competition at twice the price only PID-controls the brew boiler.  A lot can change on the way from the brew boiler to the coffee puck in the group head.  Although to be fair, the really good expensive machines (two-five-times the price), have other ways of achieving temperature stability.

the seriously excellent portafilter baskets have a tapered wall that gets narrower the deeper it goes.  some people don't like tapered baskets, though i'm not sure why.  spent pucks eject cleanly and easily with a light tap, instead of the more solid and repeated banging you have to do with straight-wall baskets.  the trouble with tapered baskets is, if you don't put enough coffee into a tapered basket, when you go to tamp it down, the tamper will hit the tapered walls of the basket before achieving proper tamp force.  so tapered baskets are not very forgiving of baristas who are not careful to use the right amount of beans in the basket every time.  precision coffee dosing is easy with a cheap scale.  if after all this, you still MUST have a straight wall basket, there is good news: the breville portafilter is commercial-standard, 58millimeters in diameter, so many well-known commercial baskets will fit.

Steaming performance.  This is one area where its a little short of its (much) more expensive competition.  But only in raw horsepower--not steam quality, which is superlative.  So you won't be able to steam up that monster pitcher of milk to make two huge milky lattes quickly.  BUT everything else about steaming with the BDB is excellent.  It's almost foolproof making pro-quality microfoam.  I read the account from Breville's pro barista on the design of just the tip of the steam wand, and the careful testing of the tiniest detail, like changing the hole diameters by tiny fractions of a millimeter.  Painstaking attention to detail.  Awesome.

The water reservoir: holds plenty, but even better, its SUPER easy to refill. Best I've ever seen.  The fill flap is right up front at the top.  you don't even have to move the machine to do it.

So, going back to the top,  why was I happy it was easy to repack?  Because my first unit needed to be replaced under warranty.  Was it defective?  Not really.  It's mechanical, overpressure relief valve was merely mal-adjusted.  But Breville didn't want us adjusting it ourselves, so they did a full blown replacement, at their expense for shipping. I want to stress that this was not a defect but an adjustment--the kind that people do all the time on pro machines.  The kind i will be doing myself, now that my machine is off warranty, if i need to.  And even after all that, it turns out that adjusting the overpressure relief valve is perfectly easy to do at home, exactly like they are with the much more expensive machines the BDB equals or betters in terms of espresso in the cup.  This recalls another item that acts as a burr under the skin of experienced users:  Breville's policy that users not descale the boiler's themselves, where the more expensive, traditional machines are (typically) descaled by their owners.  Descaling an espresso machine, any espresso machine, must be done right, or descaling fluid will remain in the machine and spoil the drinks that come out of it.  Breville as a large corporate entity that does much buisness in lawsuit-happy USA does not want to bear liability exposure in case customers do it wrong.  Simple as that.  Over time, i bet the farm that savvy users will figure out how to do it on their own.  In fact, the pro barista Breville hired to spearhead the BDB project has all but said, (without crossing the line and violating Breville's policy) that the BDB will be very easy to descale.  So, with all the savvy users, why do we not already know how?  First, my experience has shown that most new BDB users are not savvy.  They are usually relatively new to espresso.  Second, most BDB's out in the wild are still under warranty and people don't want to void that warranty by tampering.  Third, and very significantly, Breville includes a couple of years worth of real resin-type water softening filter cartridges that when used as directed must have some effect of slowing down calcification.  Further, while some electronic sensors require at least some hardness to work right, many users report perfectly good operation with their home RO water systems...including myself.

As for the rest of the user experience, there's not much to say, really--because this machine is so complete in it's capability that you just dig right in and use it.  As with a proper commercial or pro-sumer machine, and unlike many home machines, you do not concern yourself with working around it's shortcomings.  You are free to focus completely on your preparation technique, grind consistency (if you have a grinder that is up to it), and freshness and taste of your beans, just like a bona-fide gourmet barista would.   But what's good for the goose is good for the gander.  if you are careless or inadequate in your knowledge or skill, don't have a good enough grinder, (more on this below), or are not using the best possible, freshest beans, or don't even know what they are, it will not cover for you either.  to be fair, no machine can.

questions about durability:  Breville has a poor reputation for long-lived espresso machines.  but they did something VERY different this time with the BDB by taking on a real pro-barista (not a lifelong corporate shill) to head the project, and he reports that they tested it to a mean time between failures of over 14,500 shots.  promising, if true.  my intuition tells me it can't possibly last that long without problems.  but if it does, i will happily buy another.  heck, if it lasts half that long, i will buy another.

Words to the wise:

Breville has a knack for industrial design that I put right up there with KitchenAid.  You can't help being drawn to their products.  This is no exception.  Their design themes are VERY cohesive across related product lines--so much so that a trap awaits the prospective BDB (Breville Dual Boiler) buyer.  Williams Sonoma, one of the major purveyors, also sells the Breville BCG-800 Smart Grinder.  This thing looks like it was made to partner with the BDB.  The design theme is identical.  The unsuspecting buyer is too often led by this into thinking that this is the grinder for this machine.  I do not know how to emphasize this enough:  IT.  IS.  NOT. The Smart Grinder is not in anywhere near the class of capability of the BDB espresso machine.  Do NOT be fooled by the matching looks, as many have.  It is NOT a matched set.  The grinder was NOT designed to go with the BDB.  Your BDB will not, no, it CANNOT perform to it's potential with the Breville Smart Grinder.  The point of this rant is not to negatively review the Smart Grinder.  It's perfectly fine for a $200 grinder.   But you need at _least_ a $300, preferably a $500 grinder.   That means at  the $300 Baratza Precisio at a minimum.  The $460 Baratza Vario would be better.

Breville has hit a home run selling this machine to people with more cash than experience.  And that is another "trap" that awaits the new owner. It's like the guy that buys a Ferrari. It can run smoking lap times, but only if he has the skill.  The BDB is a Ferrari.  It will make smoking-good espresso--but only in the hands of someone who knows what he's doing.  There is no automatic button labeled, "make good espresso".  It cannot circumvent the laws of physics or good espresso.  You still have to give it good beans AND a quality grind or it cannot make good espresso.  BDB forum threads are littered with folks asking remedial questions about why their espresso is unsatisfactory.  This machine will not cover for a lack of ability any more than a fighter jet will to a student pilot.  What Breville HAS done is give us a machine that will not hold us back until we reach a very high level, if ever.  Enough beating up the newbies now.  Why?  Because unlike other endeavors, when it comes to espresso, a beginner should start out with the best equipment he can afford.   A beginner should get this machine if he can afford it and AT LEAST, a $300+ grinder.  An advanced barista will already have a good grinder. So as long as he doesn't need the romance and aesthetics of a traditional machine, he should also get one.

Buying Experience

November 2011, when this machine was released also coincided with a Williams Sonoma sale that offered 30% off of any purchase over $1000.  The regular price was $1199, so I got mine for $839.  I have not yet seen a better deal.  If you have one, some credit cards offer to double the duration of the factory warranty, which in this case is only a year.  i did not do this, and wish I did.

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review rating: 9.0
Posted: December 16, 2012, 11:27pm
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