What a fun six months! A dozen or more bags of beans later and I am on top of it completely.
I had always wanted an espresso machine, tried silly strong coffee makers, done pods, thought about "cup" (Keurig) etc. but there is nothing like a real espresso. Finally, I broke down and my wife picked this one at W&S.
I got it home and spent several shots just fiddling, thinking I was getting closer to a finished product but boy was I wrong. The can of pre-ground W&S sold her initially was crap - it worked OK in the double wall filter but seemed to be a lot lacking. The tamper W&S sold her was good, much better than the plastic spoon included. That is a good utensil but not tamper. The level spoon or two is perfect for a single or double.
I used the first can then head to a grocery store for a bag of beans and the grocery store grinder. As it turns out I was lucky and thought I was successful. The first bag of self-ground (at the store) seemed to work quite well. The first shot saw the gauge on the front shoot to midpressure and then I knew I was on to something as previously I thought the pressure was fine at a few bars. The shot was better sort of. I keep fiddling. Probably ended up into my third bag of beans. I can feel the airplane about to take off....
At this point I start searching the internet, with no idea what I would find and learn. The best things I found were some YouTubes and this site. Now I am really rolling. Next trip to Target I buy a timer and start shooting for a mid-20 second shot, tweaking the tamping, things are improving. I order the Krups filter (see the other posts) and things REALLY start working well once it arrives. It was like taking the gloves off. Quite rewarding to get the shot working well without the training wheels of the double wall.
All the while I am fiddling with the steamer, the hot water, cappuccinos, lattes, all that. No problems there, just the testing and technique, experimenting. Sometimes things worked well other times Iíd screw up but kind of knew where. The machine was/is never inconsistent. It is always doing its thing the same. The only this that varied was me. Learning all the way until......
After another bag or two, I get screwed on the ground beans big time. not sure what happened but the Krogerís I was going to and using the grinder suddenly started producing either too fine or too coarse and I couldn't find a middle grind among the two espresso settings. Three Krogerís I tried. I try a whole foods grinder, a fresh market grinder. Nothing. All the same, either too fine or too coarse. My wife stops at a Starbuck's and gets a grind from them for espresso and it is too coarse!!! Ah what's going on?
I try a little experiment. I mix one scoop of too coarse with one scoop of too fine. Hmmm, that seems to work well. I get the electric mixer out and mix 1:1 coarse:fine for a whole bag. That gave me a few full bags of workable shots, but alas the grounds were days or weeks!! old by the time I used them. Waste not want not. But I was really disappointed. I keep reading the reviews, the websites, looking for answers. The machine was still dead on. Pumping away just like it was supposed to do.
All signs pointed to grinding the beans at home per shot and "dialing" in a burr grinder. Geez, do I really want to try this. What if the situation doesn't improve and I get stuck with yet another implement that I can't make sing.
I delay for a couple weeks, hemming and hawing. I break the news to my wife who rolls her eyes. She is trying the Starbuckís VIA and similar. She is happy.
I break down and research the 'net to find the best grinder for the money. I nervously settle on the Baratza Virtuoso. Nothing like good money after bad. I read about the dialing in, fully prepared to disassemble. I get it home and step down from 20 to 13/14 (I read someone else had success there) things are getting better. I can feel the shot coming in better and better. Each step of the burr grinder added a second on the pull. Excitement. The dear little Breville was pumping hard for several shots in a row. Step 9 of the Virtuoso was close.....
Ah! Step 8 was perfect. The portafilter and filter took the grinds perfectly; wiping the edge felt just right again, the grounds were slightly clumpy, light and airy though. The pressure gauge on the Breville was topping out on the second from the last in the black optimum area. 26/27 seconds. If I tamped a bit harder the gauge went to the edge of the black, 31+ seconds. A lighter tamp the gauge was mid-black area and 19+ seconds or so. the optimum scoopage seems to be two scoops barely above even and then ground on 8 (for my unit)
I had consistent, predictable, repeatable SUCCESS! The right grinds, the right tamp, good beans - mmmmm crema, dark and rich!
I am through the dozenth or so bag on my little home espresso machine, the Breville 800, and I couldn't be happier with unit's performance on a sustained level. If has not been inconsistent whatsoever and is perfectly predictable. The most one could hope for.
As I said above, the unit is attractive, gauge is actually reflective of the shot pull and all the other parts and uses of the unit are pretty well done. Once you know what you are doing the unit is as good as you can get for a top end home unit. I pull a couple to a few shots a day for maybe 40 or so a month for 6 months. That is pretty heavy usage.
I have specifically tried espresso shots at various commercial establishments in the six months and none have been as good as the recent bag. Not nearly. I assume the commercial establishments could do better if they were pressed but it is significant to see what they put out as a pull when you order an espresso. It is like strong coffee most times.
As a side note, I bought four bags of RED espresso (red tea) and have almost used them all up. That stuff is pretty neat (I like teas anyway) and I highly recommend a fiddler with espresso give that a shot. Interesting results can be had, I like a double shot, run twice and then cut with equal part hot water. No caffeine, billions of antioxidants - savory, tart taste.
As for the negatives, the unit could be a half inch taller - mainly for the water reservoir removal issues. It is a little tight and the pickup tube is a slightly undesirable arrangement. I see on the newer model they have a better reservoir setup. The double wall filter is stupid. Get the Krups. There is a post about another filter that requires screws to be loosened. That sounds intriguing but I can't see the process based on that one description. I am waiting for some other folks to chime in on that. They are shipping both on the newer model.
The power button is a little flaky but again almost consistently flaky. I am considering calling Breville and asking them to ship me something. The problem is only that you have to hit the power button twice but that seems like a manufacturing defect for a $500 machine. The catch basin meter is weak, the basin fills quickly (particularly when you run successive shots while testing and fiddling to perfection). The cup warmer could be better, I just fill the demitasse cups with hot water and set them on the warmer then dump and dry quickly before I pull the shot. Also, you have to run a double of hot water through the grouphead/porto if you just turned it on and even if it has been on for an hour. It cleans and heats the whole system up.
I read somewhere to remove the sleeve on the steamer and did that recently. I feel like this improves the steaming process and I can only assume the sleeve is for looks (which is better) but may impart more air? Not sure. I also read the temperature of the espresso is too low. I am skeptical of this as it is piping hot. I may try a thermometer in the future but too hot to drink immediately is hot enough for me right now.
i have done some preliminary fiddling with the progamming of the shot to adjust the water. only now that i have a known good setup will i re-embark on the programming. not sure what they could improve. i have not tried a ristretto yet. i have tried differences in the 'leave it under the drips" or pull it just after the machine stops. no big differences for me are discernible yet....
One final thought, the newer model has the grinder built-in the unit. I am skeptical of this arrangement if only because I am so thrilled with the virtuoso as a standalone grinder. The dialing in and the fresh grind is essential obviously but I feel like having the unit separate from the machine will give more long term benefits. I am thinking of trying Turkish somehow and would like to have the diverse separate unit.
All in all I feel like the experience has been great and the burden of problems was with me and the espresso learning curve. My wife actually likes the double shots I produce now and that was not the case with some of the early shots that I thought were so good. She prefers the latte/cap which I am pretty good at now, too.
I hope this has helped, I have been meaning to do the full write-up as my research gathered info helped me tremendously over the last six months. I spent a great deal of time on this board reading all sorts of reviews up and down the price ranges. Hopefully some folks out there will benefit from my experience.
Iíd buy this again. The only thing I really have a beef with if the power button, Iíll call Breville soon.
Get the real filter, get the burr grinder you can dial in, get a timer, get a clear demitasse glass, expend several bags of beans and you'll be handsomely rewarded.
Espresso is an art based on science. It takes a lot of patience.
It is like golf, if you know what you are doing and have serviceable components (to meet the physics) you can have a rewarding time.
The Breville is a steady, good unit that is far closer to a perfect espresso machine than I am to the perfect espresso maker.