I received my new Breville Barista Express a few weeks ago and have loved it. Originally bought the BES830XL, but returned it after two weeks, as I couldnít pull a decent shot with it. The problem wasnít with the machine, but with my grinder. I have a beautiful vintage Peter Dienes coffee grinder (Click Here (www.dienes.fr)) that Iíve used for a very long time, and still grinds coffee to a very fine powder, which worked very well for my old Krups (http://coffeegeek.com/reviews/consumer/krups_steam_espresso) and Starbucks Vapore (with built-in pressurized portafilter/creama enhancer), but not for single-walled portafilter baskets. That said, my two week struggle was mainly due to the difficulty one has in trying to dial-in to the correct grind range on a manual grinder needed for semi-automatic espresso machines, that doesnít allow you to step the grind dial. The grind was either too coarse or much too fine. I could have bought the Breville 800XL smart grinder, but due to limited counter (width and height), the Barista Express offered the same quality grinder but in a smaller footprint. So, Iím really glad I bought the Barista Express! Gorgeous to look at and pulls delicious shots of espresso.
So hereís my review of the Barista Express (BES860XL) based on components.
Portafilter basket: I use the single-walled portafilters and not the double-walled. The double-walled portafilter works fine if youíre looking for something that looks and almost tastes like good espresso; but Iím picky. That said, itís a smart design by Breville, as they have built a very solid, capable espresso maker that offers espresso newbies a chance to build their skillset for espresso-making with the double-walled portafilters, but once they are confident, they just need to switch-out the double-walled with the single-walled portafilters, rather than having to switch-out machine. The single-walled, single-shot portafilter that comes with the Barista Express is superior to the one that comes with the BES830XL: itís a different design (tapers towards the base rather than starting wide, and then having it step to a smaller diameter) resulting in more consistent, tampering, shots, and therefore better taste.
Portafilter: the portafilter overall has a very nice solid feel to it, nice weight and sits level on the counter when tamping down the coffee. I find that the curved delivery-spout flows better than the two vertical slots commonly found on lower end machines (Breville and other non-Breville models). Additionally, the two sided delivery-spout unscrews so that you can change it with a single delivery-spout if you typically (like me) always serve into a single cup.
Tamper: I like the tamper that comes with it. I have a proper, heavier one with my espresso machine at work that feels wonderful in the hand, but having the magnetic top allows it to be conveniently tucked away when Iím done with it. Very efficient.
Grinder: Though part of me would rather have had bought the 800XL smart grinder so that I could grind larger batches of regular coffee for my wifeís drip coffee machine, and then switch to the fine grind for my on-demand needs, the footprint that the Barista Express uses is so much smaller (both in width and height) than if I had separately bought the 830XL espresso machine and the 800XL grinder. For that reason alone, Iím glad I bought the 860XL. The grinder is a proper conical burr grinder that allows you to adjust both the grind and the quantity, allowing it to give consistent dosages of coffee for either single or double shots. Very efficient use of space, which cannot be said for many other home semi-automatic espresso machines!
One note with the built-in grinder is that even though the espresso machine warms up fairly quickly (you can pull shots within 5 minutes if you temperature-surf the unit), most people will usually give it 10-15 minutes to thoroughly warm up, resulting in some heat transfer from the body of the unit through to the grinder section. This means that it will warm up your beans a bit over time, including the conical burr grinder. To an espresso aficionado, this would be sacrilege, as any warming of the bean except during extraction means youíre causing the beans to go stale faster, thus losing flavour and aroma. The simple solution is donít fill the hopper to capacity and youíll be fine.
I find that the best setting on the grinder is grind #11 and the dosage set to 3 Oíclock (i.e.: 11 & 3) for a single shot on a single-walled basket; however, obviously that depends on the type of bean, darkness of roast, and taste buds. I find that 11 & 3 is perfect for medium roast coffee (I highly recommend Lavazza Crema et Aroma - very aromatic, sweet and creamy), but 11 & 4 or 12 & 6 is necessary for dark roasts like Starbucks (the finer the grind, the longer it has to grind for to produce the same mass of coffee grind). Sweetmariaís does a good job explaining why you need to sometimes adjust the grind setting depending on the darkness of the roast (Click Here (www.sweetmarias.com)).
Hopper: love the low profile of it! Fits perfectly under my low counters, which allows me to tuck away the unit when Iím not using it. Again, very efficient and well designed for the modern kitchen.
Frother: works like a charm, but it takes a bit getting used to as the steam function is all or nothing. Unlike many other models on the marker where you select the steam function and you dial-in the delivery steam pressure; this one you turn to steam, it spits out a bit of water (nothing compared to other machine that will eject nearly a ľ of a cup of water before you can froth), and then you get very dry steam. The 360 degree swivel of the arm is great, and the frothing adaptor works really well. I was a bit skeptical at first and took off the adaptor, as Iím used to the Starbucks Vapore frothing arm which is your standard single-hole nozzle, but I figured since they hired an award winning professional barista to help them design the functioning aspects of these units, surely it must work. Yes it does, and very well too. Every espresso machine is different, so learn how to use it rather than impose old habits and then complain the problem is with the machine ;-) That said, once youíre done frothing the milk, you need to turn the knob back to standby, wait for the steam to stop, and then pull the milk away. You have about 6 seconds to switch it back to steam in order to clean the wand, otherwise it automatically flushes the steam out of the system and re-equilibrates the water temperature for espresso extraction. A bit akward at first, but once you get used to it, itís not a problem.
Programmability & pressure gauge for espresso shots: I really like how the unit gives you the option to program a pre-set volume of water for both a single and a double shot, or you can just free-hand it by manually keeping your finger on the button. As for the pressure gauge, some would consider it to be a gimmick, as a well-seasoned aficionado can tell you if itís pulling correctly based on the flow rate, texture, and pull-time; but for the rest of us mortal human beings, itís a big help. I usually pack it such a way that the gauge reads within the last solid grey bar (after that itís the hatched bars indicating that youíre outside of the ideal 9 bar range for espresso).
Dry Puck feature: it really works. Long story short, if youíre under or over extracting your coffee, either due to incorrect grind setting or poor tamping technique, youíll always end up with a wet puck of coffee in the portafilter basket, even with the Dry Puck feature. Donít curse it; embrace it, as itís telling you youíre doing something wrong. Iíve played with many, many different grind setting, dosages, delivery volumes, and tamping pressures, and Iíve found that the best pulled shots of espresso always have a perfectly dry pucks that pop out of the portafilter basket with little effort (for single shots, I usually just need to knock it against the palm of my hand and it pops out). If your extraction conditions are wrong, your espresso will taste terrible, and the puck will be soupy, even with the Dry Puck feature.
PID heater: Iíve read so many reviews where if someone is having problems pulling a decent shot of coffee, thereís always an army of Rancilio Sivlia owners telling you to ditch your espresso machine, and get a Silvia instead, because somehow itís always the instruments fault. Then I find that itís the same people explaining in great detail how to temperature-surf the Silvia in order to reach the optimum extraction temperature with the unit, due to its very heavy brass boiler and lack of PID controls, or how to install aftermarket PIDís on the Silvia in the same way someone turns an old Honda Civic into a tuner car. Silviaís have been around for 30 years, so you hope by now they would have worked the bugs out of the system. As with any espresso machine, before you grind, run a shot or two of hot water through the brew head, espresso cup, and portafilter in order to bring everything up to optimal temperature. Grind your coffee, dose it, tamp it, run another shot of hot water through the brew head to make sure itís nice a hot, and then pull your shot. Almost every home espresso machine requires some temperature surfing to pull a proper shot; itís just that PIDís do a much better job maintaining the ideal temperature.
So, between the single/double shot doser on the grinder, the programmability of the shot volume, the pressure gauge, and the frother, it all comes together to help you pull really tasty, consistent shots of espresso. Like I said earlier, itís an amazing, very capable machine that will allow you grow with it.