Minneapolis isn't a coffee Mecca. We have Starbucks, Dunn Bros., Carabou Coffee and numerous independents all of whom provide perfectly adequate product. There is much written about Deity shots and I suppose, since I've never been to Italy or Seattle I wouldn't know one if it bit me in the butt. However, the SL-90 produces a better quality shot and Latte than I can buy at any of those establishments. There are a couple of things I do that may help explain my early success:
First, I took the big plunge and bought a Mazzer Mini grinder. After a minimal amount of screwing around with it I found a grind setting that was slightly larger than a traditional espresso grind. This, I am told, works better with the pressurized filter that is standard issue for the SL-90. It is also recommended that when using the pressurized basket, minimal tamping is required. So, if the non-pressurized shot gets 30 lbs., think wimp and you should do OK. As alluded to earlier the non-pressurized basket I ordered is touted to produce an even better shot. We'll find out, won't we? Also, I grind only the coffee I will use throughout the day each morning. Fresher is better.
Secondly, I start with fresh water every morning and the water here is very soft. Brewing beer may work well with hard water, but coffee is a different story. I don't think there's much upside to using distilled water but, I can't say for sure.
Thirdly and probably most importantly, I clean my machine and run clear water through it after every pull. They say this removes oily buildup that turns coffee bitter. So far, the magic is working.
If you're anything like me, you will become interested in what more expensive machines are capable of. Here's what I've learned:
The SL-90 has a 54MM portafilter and the larger machines have 58MM pfs. So, the 58MM portafilter is 7% larger in surface area. Arguably, the larger the surface area the better in a non-pressurized environment, however, I'm not certain that the difference is that noticable.
Another feature of the high priced machines is the Faema E61 group. If I understand this feature correctly, it is a massive amount of brass with the hot water produced by the machine circulated through it to stabilize the group temperature as it brews. The SL-90 does not have this type of group but does have a substantial amount of brass in its group and I think the temp is regulated by electrical resistance. It probably produces shots a few degrees cooler that a Faema group machine. Does this matter? I couldn't begin to guess. But, the SL-90 is ready to go in a few minutes. A Faema group machine takes an hour to reach proper brewing temperature. Wait an hour for a caffeine fix? I think NOT!
Many high priced machines have manual brew controls. There is much ado about the twenty-five second pull in the pursuit of the deity shot. The SL-90 has all of this preprogrammed so you get a very predictable pull each time. I don't know about you, but I'm fairly certain that I'm firmly positioned on the ascending slope of the IQ bell curve until at least 10:00 AM each morning. Score a point for the idiot proof SL-90!
The most common complaint in the high priced machine group is steaming ability and sometimes its hard to use the steam wand. Here the SL-90 excels, too. You don't really need a thermometer. All I do is flush the steam wand, put the milk into a cup and start steaming. I can tell when its ready by the sound the machine makes. If I let it go too long, the milk really gets jumping around and it makes a mess to add to the cleanup chores. While the milk is steaming I get a paper towel wet to wipe down the wand immediately and I also get a small cup of water to run some steam into for cleaning the inside of the wand. There is not a lot of grey matter required for this, either.
There is something important to note about the SL-90 and steaming. Apparently, there is a supplemental heater to produce steam. After the steaming process is completed the group is too hot to pull another shot right away and the idiot light on the shot control will blink rather than be on steady. You can shut the machine down for fifteen minutes to cool it off, or you can lower the temperature to brewing specs, by turning the steamer button off and opening the steam knob. I put a small cup underneath the wand to collect the steam and water although there's usually plenty of room in the waste water collector tray. In about fifteen seconds the machine will be cool enough to resume brewing and you can tell because the brew idiot light now glows solid green.
Many of the high buck machines get bad reviews because the grate and waste water collector is difficult to remove and clean. The SL-90's waste tray and grate pull out easily and rinse clean under the tap in a few seconds.
Last, but certainly not least, aesthetics. Here's where the big buck machines shine, literally! Most of them are housed in various degrees of stainless steel and beautiful brass. Some have retro baklite knobs and pressure gauges. They are oh so pretty. The SL-90 is housed in black plastic with an aluminum cup warmer that I don't ever use.
If you have achieved a highly developed sense of kitchen feng shui and are into the mystery of the diety shot and all of the voodoo that goes with it, plunk down the extra $850.00 - $1000.00 and be thrilled with your purchase.
If, like me, all you want is great coffee with minimal cerebral involvement and espresso witchcraft in the process, buy a SL-90 and be ever so happy and thrilled with the great coffee you can make in five minutes or less. Furthermore, you'll have money left over to purchase a Mazzer Mini grinder and maybe blow out of town for a little well deserved vacation with the balance of the money you saved.