After having a small introductory Breville espresso machine (wedding present), then finding out there was so much more to home espresso, I did what any good geek does, and went in search of an upgrade.
With a work at home graphic designer wife, and both of us having a love of coffee, my requirements were:
- hot water function for my long blacks
- excellent steaming for wife's cappuccino
- possibility for some playing with technique
- simple to use for someone who just wants a quick coffee
My search came down to:
- Solis SL70/90
- Imat Mokita (Junior II)
- Rancilio Silvia
- Sunbeam EM6900
I really got excited about owning a Silvia, or something more traditional, but ended up reading too much about temperature surfing and the finess required for a good coffee. My reality came down to the fact that my wife would be the main user of the machine whilst working at home. For her, ease of use was a must, let alone a decent cafe quality coffee. This was when I found out about the availability of the Solis in Australia. The Sunbeam EM6900 had also just been released, and looked fantastic, but the pull of a brass boiler was just too much.
The only down side when trying to make a decision, was the look of the SL90. Compared with the impressive looking HX machines, down to the EM6900 and all their chrome, aluminium and other shiney material, the black of the SL90 was quite different. I was dreaming of something like a laScala Butterfly, so the EM6900 was on the right track in looks, but now that I have the SL90 with it's more Ikea look, it looks very slick on my kitchen bench. The unit is nice and heavy, with metal sides and top. The front panel and buttons look okay, but certainly doesn't look traditional or ooze quality. The buttons are all covered by a silver film, with a clear plastic coating over the whole sheet/film. This does have a couple of bubbles of air under it, but hardly noticable. Although it doesnt look the best, it makes it very easy to clean, with just a wipe over the flat surface. No raised buttons to get muck and milk stuck in.
I also did my research, got the message about the grinder, and paired my SL90 with a Rancilio Rocky.
Out of the box, the unit is well packaged and easy to setup. The first thing you notice is the excellent large water tank. Easy to remove and fill, easy to clean, and the best for viewing it's water level as the tank pokes out a little either side at the back. Plug it in, fill the tank, turn it on, and turn on the steam wand knob to let it fill the tank.
General operation is damn easy. This is where the electronic timer buttons really help those that don't want to pay too much attention to the art of coffee making. Once you get the grind about right, anyone can make a decent coffee on the machine with a press of a button. The electronic timer also gives you some extra time to organise things when making multiple coffees.
For those that want something more manual, you can just bump up the timer number (or set it to zero, or use the double shot button) to use the buttons to start and stop the shot manually. The unit also does a pre injection of water into the basket just as you press the button, waits a few seconds, then pours the shot. You cannot disable this.
The unit comes with a pod basket, as well as pressurised single and double baskets. The unit has a nice heavy 53mm portafilter, but the baskets are then a little smaller, and hold a little less coffee than a more commercial 58mm portafilter. You can however really tamp hard and get a good dose of coffee into these baskets. Everywhere I've read also recommends the non pressurised baskets, but I haven't been able to find an online retailer that ships these to Australia yet. The pressurised baskets give you a good coffee, although sometimes it can leave you with a strong bitterness. The pressurised portafilters do allow you a good latitude of grind though, and you can find a good coffee out of a more medium grind. The unit has an inbuilt tamper on the underside above the tray, but this really doesn't allow you to tamp hard enough. I really recommend getting a seperate decent 53mm taper to help you pack that coffee in.
Steaming is fantastic ! This was a must for me, and the unit has plenty of steam and it's damn strong. With a little technique (mostly just letting it swirl, no up and down etc etc) you can always get a really good froth perfect for cappuccinos. Microfoam is always a real challenge it seems for any home espresso machine. The unit has no problems steaming milk for 4-5 lattes in a row, with still more to go. When the steam button isn't enabled, the steam wand puts out hot water straight from the boiler for those long blacks, or cups of tea. One thing I recommend though is to take a small screwdriver and remove the plastic handle for the steam wand, and just use a cloth to take it in and out. The handly just gets messy, and restricts how much you can plunge the wand into the milk. With it removed I also think the unit looks a little less tacky as the wand handle looked like cheap plastic. The wand itself is not on a ball joint or anything flash, and just comes in and out towards the front of the unit. It's a good length and very easy to use.
The cup warmer on the top of the unit is a good size, and easy to keep clean, but is very underperforming as far as heat is concerned. It does warm up, but doesn't really get hot enough to warm cups in any short amount of time. It's much faster to splash a bit of hot water into the cup to warm it up before pouring a coffee into it (and throw the water down the drain).
The tray is easy to remove, but a little harder to keep clean. The removable grill on the tray is deep, and cleaning it properly can be intricate. Thankfully the rest of the unit is well designed such that there are not many nooks and crannies to get much caught up in. Generally a wipe top, back, front and sides is all that is needed every now and then.
A couple of slight annoyances are:
- Pucks are wet messy things
This unit does not have a 3 way valve to release any pressure or steam after pulling a shot. This causes the unit to drip a bit into the puck after a shot has finished, and leaves the puck wet. There is no problem taking off the portafilter off straight after a shot, but washing the puck out with hot water (to keep the portafilter at temp) is usually what I find easiest.
- The unit drips
Once again, maybe to do with not having a 3 way valve. When you turn the unit on, it starts dripping out of the head. This is not a problem, and only a small bit of water actually comes out. As long as you expect it, it's not really a problem.
- No spring clip basket
When removing the puck, the basket is held in with a flip plastic brace you hold in place when emptying the puck. Not the greatest, and I'd much prefer a spring loaded basket. It's more like what you'd find on a cheaper unit. Annoying, but doesn't affect coffee quality of course.
Overall, I now have close to cafe quality coffee (sometimes better) at home, and it's as easy as pressing a button.