Let me pre-face this with a bit about me. I am not a "super user" like some of the reviewers, I know what terms like "temperature surfing" and "god shot" are, but can't be bothered. I enjoy a good cup of espresso on the afternoon, and a cappuccino or latte in the morning. I spend my time making it, but don't go overboard... it takes me about 5-10 minutes for my "routine". I had a second-hand Starbucks branded Saeco machine that worked... okay, but took a long, long time to heat up, and never really made enough steam to froth milk at all, just pushed it around and warmed it up. This machine was at the upper limit of my price range. I knew I wanted good quality steam to make hot chocolate for the missus, and a semi-automatic machine that would give me worry free use. Until recently, I was dead-set on getting the Rancilio Silvia, but the color and style of this one swayed my vote.
The setup and priming was straight-forward, I used some stale beans to dial-in the extraction to just over 10 seconds per ounce (head counting to 20 before stopping).
The first "real" shot of espresso had a light creama, and a good start, but very bitter finish. A bit more fiddling with the tamp and grind and I was good to go.
I also steamed some "soap water" a few times to get a feel for the steam wand. Totally different experience from the Saeco! From "end-of-the-shot" to "steam-ready" was 60 seconds!
I had one major incident with it, after pulling a shot, steaming and enveloping it in a rich creamy layer of microfoam, I turned the steam switch off and took the cup upstairs to show me wife (she was suitably impressed of course :P ). Upon return to the kitchen, I tried to remove the portafilter - it was stiff so I gave it a good yank. BANG! hot water, and steam-blasted grounds everywhere. I just stood there is shock.
After cleaning up, I read manual a bit closer and found the section that says to release the pressure after steaming. A powerful lesson on what not to do, and a new respect for this machine.
That night, we had a dinner party with 8 people. I pulled 4 shots in a row, then frothed milk for them. Using 2% milk worked really well and I was able to get excellent micro-foam. Once I ran out of that, I had to switch to my wife's 1% lactose-free milk. I wasn't able to get the same results and had to serve "cafe au laits" instead for the remaining 3 drinks. After 10pm, we all switched to steamed milk (with vanilla bean). The only clean cups left were big enough to sink the titanic in! With the unlimited steam, I had no issues getting the milk heated for everyone (other than my arm getting tired, and poor foam due to only having the lactose-free milk left in the house).
A couple of odd quirks:
The steam pressure builds very fast, and is ready in just a couple minutes. I had gotten so used-to the Seaco's poor performance that I left it on "steam" and turned my back to prepare dessert. The group-head started billowing steam. The next day I experimented more and learned I could pull a shot, then switch to steaming milk as soon as I had it prepared.
I've since learned a few tricks/quirks:
- The lights seem meaningless, turn the unit on, wait 5-10 minutes, then go.
- the "helper" style steam wand seemed less intuitive than the regular one. I only used the "helper" one once before switching it out permanently.
- to freeze or not to freeze? The Saeco's underwhelming steam performance meant freezing the pitchers was the only way to get even close to something foamy, not so with the Ascaso, in fact I found it took longer and I ended up with more large bubbles due to fatigue in being able to keep the tip at the right spot.
My routine (just over one week in):
- pre-heat a cup and prep gounds
- grind until loose-pack is level with the top, then tamp
- After the shot is pulled, wait about 10-15 seconds then remove the portafilter and knock out the puck (it will be "wet" on top, but still firm enough to knock out in one piece)
- switch on "steam"
- rinse the portafilter in the sink and re-attach
- get a pitcher and milk ready for frothing
- open the steam valve to purge water into a cup until steam appears
- froth milk as per usual
After frothing, I turn off the "steam" setting, hold a cup under the portafilter and turn on "coffee". Once steam stops coming out, open steam valve to fill all the lines (and boiler) with fresh water.