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September 2006 Newsletter

Believing  everything that you read online, where espresso
machines are concerned, can lead to instant confusion.  This
month's newsletter is about busting some of the myths. One myth
often repeated in online forums that "the Rancilio Silvia is a
difficult and finicky machine make good espresso with." Actually,
I find it easier to make good espresso with a Silvia (given, of
course, a decent grinder) than with any comparable machine.

You read a lot about boiler temperature variations and the need
for PID electronic control, but again, I've never found it
necessary. To prove to myself that I'm not imagining things I
recently conducted a set of three straight runs of 6 double shots
(18 shots in all), measuring the temperature of the shots in the
glass as soon as they were pulled. The coolest shot I got was
67ºC, the hottest was 69ºC, and all the shots tasted basically
identical. During the process I simply ignored what the boiler
was doing and just kept on grinding, tamping and brewing. There
are people out there who claim to be able to detect a 1ºC or less
variation by taste; I'm obviously not one of them.

One VERY interesting feature of the whole shot pulling process
was that the faster the shot (and they were all between 25 and 30
seconds) the hotter the shot. It makes sense when you think about
it, as the water reaches the top of the coffee at 92ºC and cools
down during the rest of the brewing process. The less time spent
"in the stream" between portafilter and cup or glass, the less
cooling will occur.

So for me, at least, the Silvia still remains the best-in-class
domestic machine.

Another myth that's popped up recently has been a couple of
Aussie café owners (who coincidentally have both bought the same
super expensive espresso machine) declaiming that crema on
espresso is no longer as important as it was.

This appeared in the Coffeegeek forums as a response to a
consumer complaint about the lack of crema on an espresso
purchased at one of the most highly rated Perth cafes. See
for details.

To quote directly, " Crema is important but not the core of
espresso. Also fresh coffee crema can disappear so fast."

And " Although the Italians created the espresso machine and have
detailed much of the espresso brewing process the major
advancements and cutting edge developments are not coming from
the Italians anymore."
Hmm. Somebody should mention this to the
Italians, because they could close down their expensive espresso
research laboratories.
Also " Crema is different with the new machines. The Synesso has a
velvet like crema with the espresso at a silky texture. Sugar
won't hold up in this crema. Espresso has changed and it's moving
in a new direction."

Now, if I'd just dropped 15 grand on a machine that can't produce
a decent crema, I might be saying something similar, but frankly
if I was an Italian machine company I'd be laughing. You can
rhapsodize about "the developed nuance in the cup and the
magnificent mouthfeel" all day, but if you served something like
that in the world's biggest espresso market chances are you'd end
up wearing it. After spending a fair bit of time in Italy in the
last few years (and seeing the sheer SCALE of the coffee industry
there) I have to admit that my attitude to espresso is that
there's always more to learn about production, but the end
product desired is fairly well established. I doubt that the
attempts to redefine "espresso" by a tiny USA machinery company
and a couple of local café owners will amount to much in the end,
but given the power of the internet you never know.

The standard for crema? It's supposed to be a dense, persistant
finely emulsified foam, able to support a teaspoon of sugar.
Today that standard has been extensively tested and
refined, but still remains fundamentally intact. Espresso
research in Italy simply dwarfs anything else happening in the
rest of the world, spin doctors aside, and no amount of marketing
spin can cover up the fact that the Emperor's clothes appear to
be missing when the most expensive machines can't duplicate the
results of their lesser brethren.

Shot pulled on the $599 Sunbeam
Persistent at 30 seconds afterwards

Crema is still there at 5 minutes...and the passes the sugar test at 30 seconds on the second shot

Yet another frequently expressed myth is that rotary pumps (as
found in commercial espresso machines) produce better espresso
than vibration pumps, as used in domestic machines. The arrival
of my new laScala Butterfly shipment has allowed me to put this
one to rest forever, because along with the Butterflys I imported
a couple of laScala Eroica machines. These are identical to the
Butterfly except for the rotary pump & motor replacing the tank;
they are designed to be the fully plumbed in version. So I set an
Eroica and a Butterfly up side by side and started pulling shots.
My assistant then moved the shots while my back was turned, and I
had to try and pick the differences and which machine produced
which shot.

Over a dozen trials I not only couldn't pick which machine
produced which shot, I couldn't detect any differences between
the shots at all. Pump type appears to have no effect on shot
quality whatsoever.

The Eroica (on the left) and the Butterfly pulling simulaneous rotary and vibe pump shots.An inside view of the electric motor and pump in the tank space.

And finally, one myth I believed in myself, that consumer
superautomatic machines all produced crap coffee, consistently.
After spending a week with the latest Sunbeam machine, the EM8910
"Intuitive", I have to say that it can produce reasonable (6-out-
of-10) espresso when correctly set up. You need to
set the coffee dose to the maximum and the grind to the finest
possible (still not as fine as I'd like it) and the temperature
to "Medium", then adjust the single shot volume to 30ml. Program
a double shot at these parameters, use superb coffee, whisk the
glass away at 60ml (otherwise you'll end up with 95ml) and you've
got a decent shot. The steam power is pretty good, too.
After having also set up a couple of Miele built in
machines (CVA 620, built into the kitchens of neighbour's new
houses) I can state with confidence that the Sunbeam Intuitive is
currently the market leader in terms of value for shot quality.

The Miele machines are basically Saecos at heart, and the major
limitation on coffee quality is the Saeco superauto group. It can
only hold a limited amount of coffee, and is unable to cope with
too fine a grind. By setting the Miele machines to the finest
grind, maximum coffee dose, highest brewing temperature and
lowest shot volume I managed to get barely acceptable shots, 4-out-of-10
maybe. Note that the Saeco group is also used in the Solis, Gaggia and
Spidem superautos.

The Sunbeam Intuitive EM8910 superautomatic espresso machine, pulling a double shot after I'd set it up. Finest grind, maximum coffee, single shot volume tweaked to 30ml.The built in grinder uses the Solis 166 burr set and burr carriers, it could potentially grind finer than is currently allowed. Rotating the bean hopper allows the use of pre-ground coffee.

The Sunbeam brew group. The "Barrel" design allows enough coffee for a decent double shot, about 12 - 13g.A standard Saeco/Solis/Gaggia/Miele/Spidem group. You can get 6g of coffee at most into the brew chamber.

Unfortunately, even when you set the single shot volume to a repeatable 30ml, a double still comes out at 90 ml. Software glitch?The secret to a good shot is to pull it about here (60ml) and let the rest run into the drip tray.

This month's special is for the chocaholics among us,


A  full bodied, low acid coffee with complex dark chocolate
flavour and distinct cocoa aftertaste. The addition of milk and
sugar produces the definite impression of milk chocolate. Superb
single origin espresso.