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Time to upgrade already? A newbie's journey and the hunt for more power!

Postby chrisl on Fri Dec 24, 2010 2:22 pm

"I hate coffee."

That was a truism a believed with such fervor that it was near religious devotion. It was bitter, it burned like Hell, and it was a pain in the butt to make. Fast forward to September 2010. Running on minimal sleep at a local convention, I notice a boutique coffee vendor (Coffee Shop of Horrors) handing out free samples. Vanilla cinnamon? Caramel? These sound good. I drink it black and add sugar.

I was turned.

My first purchase was an Aeropress and a Hario Skerton hand grinder. It's great for American-style coffee, but I want something more. After experimenting at local coffee shops, I've learned to love the latte, so I figure I'll try it myself with a Mr. Coffee milk frother. It doesn't so much froth the milk as turn it into a thin bubble bath. No good.

So I take the leap and purchase a Delonghi EC-155 espresso machine for about $90 along with the requisite tools: Terry's tamper (which turns out to be either too big or too small for this odd-sized portafilter), a pair of Bodum 2 oz. shot glasses, a 12 oz Rattleware frothing pitcher.

After some trial and error, I learn some tricks of the trade. I'm frankly embarrassed by some of the stuff I did when I got this thing (200 degree milk, anyone? Or maybe you'd like your grinds tamped so loose you can look at them and make it move.), but I've learned quite a bit. Now I am strongly considering an upgrade.

Now, the Delonghi EC-155 is a great buy for $90. It's quick to heat up, it's cheap, it's really great beginner's machine. The biggest problem I have now is the steam wand. It's way too short and requires you to position the machine near the edge of a counter just so you can get the pitcher under it. It's tremendously underpowered and uneven as well. I would watch this thing sputter to a crawl spitting out barely any steam. You know that vortex you want when frothing milk? When you need a cyclone you get the ripple's of a fat kid jumping into the pool. The espresso it makes is OK, and I know my technique with the milk isn't helping things, but simply put, I think I've outgrown it.

Now as for the grinder, for $40 it is fantastic. Granted, it is time consuming, and by virtue of that it takes too long from beans to brew, but not enough that I'm sure I would even notice. That being said, I know the rule is $200 grinder/$400 espresso machine > $50 grinder/$2000 espresso machine. The problem is I'm getting rid of the Delonghi mainly because of the steam wand and its inability to make a good latte rather than quality of espresso, although I'm sure my next machine will make a far superior espresso.

That brings me to this forum. Like all newbies, you go to the professionals when you need help. So here are just a few of the burning questions I have on my brain...

- For those familiar with the Delonghi EC-155, am I correct is assuming it is more a failure of the unit to steam milk and get a good microfoam than it is me? My technique has improved tremendously after watching some of the videos here, but I want a really thick, creamy latte. Right now I'm getting a mediocre at best latte for 3 sips before I'm pretty much drinking coffee with lots of milk.

- I know everyone says "grinder first, machine second", but given my situation, is that still the case? I feel like if I had a new machine right now I'd have much better lattes with the same grinder, and I could buy a new grinder eventually and improve things even more. But since I recently got laid off, the last thing I'm thinking about is adding a $200-450 grinder on top of an espresso machine if I don't really need it.

- Of course, I've been looking at the Gaggia Classic and the Rancilio Silvia V3. The Silivia v3 looks like a beautiful machine, but the biggest complaints I've heard is that it is overpriced by about $200 and the thermometer can be off as much as 15 degree. I know a PID can fix that, but if we're looking at adding a PID right out of the box, I might as well start looking at $1000 machines that can probably outperform it. And if we're at $1000, what about that $1200 machine that is soooooo much better? Before you know it, I'm spending double what I intend.

- I have zero interest in ESE pods, so that doesn't factor into the equation.

- I'm very willing to buy used or refurbed. I'd rather have a superior used machine with no warranty than a brand new one that isn't that great.

- Budget-wise, I'd say I'm looking for a $400-600 machine. There is wiggle room in very special situations, I.E some awesome machine for $700 refurbed that is normally $1200 or something. This assumes I keep my Hario Skerton grinder for now.

- Usage-wise, we're talking about 2 drinks back-to-back 98% of the time. On rare occasions, it could be maybe 5 or 6. That being said, I need a machine that won't take 45 minutes of prep time for 2 drinks.
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Postby roastaroma on Fri Dec 24, 2010 4:32 pm

Ciao Chris,

Thanks for your little coffee-bio; it reminded me of how most of us had "humble beginnings" (my first machine was a Starbucks Sirena). Your manual grinder is probably quite adequate, and if you have the patience, there's no reason not to keep using it. Orphan Espresso has plenty more hand grinders suitable for espresso, if you find the need later.

http://www.orphanespresso.com/Espresso-...c_279.html

As for the Delonghi, your instinct to upgrade is justified. Steaming complaints usually focus on steam intensity or steam quality (esp. if the wand has a froth-enhancing tip, as yours does). In the latter case, it is often possible to remove the offending plastic appendage. However, in the former case, if the boiler has been properly maintained (descaled) and the steam intensity is still poor, upgrading is the way to go.

If I were in your position, the Silvia would not be my first choice. I would consider the Gaggia Classic or the LeLit PL041QE ($400 from 1st Line Equipment). The Classic has a froth-enhancer tip, but it is removable. It has been widely available for a long time, so you could find a refurb for around $350. But I would check the LeLit specs, too -- it looks like a worthy challenger:

http://www.1st-line.com/machines/home_m.../PL041.htm

Buona Fortuna, & Buon Natale,
Wayne
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Postby zin1953 on Fri Dec 24, 2010 4:52 pm

roastaroma wrote:If I were in your position, the Silvia would not be my first choice. I would consider the Gaggia Classic or the LeLit PL041QE ($400 from 1st Line Equipment).

+1 -- either machine should suit you well . . .
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Postby clumeng on Fri Dec 24, 2010 5:03 pm

Welcome Chris. So it sounds like you are a bit more than newbie because you have already decided that home espresso is part of your life I assume...enough to invest in it to get better and enjoy it on a daily basis. I'd recommend you think about a jump to an upgrade and be satisfied for a long long time option...it may be more pricey but I think it's worth it once you know you're hooked.

2 lattes a day is the equivalent of about $1500 a year at a cafe, keeping in mind that most of the quality machines are going to last 5+ years easy (grinders likely more than that) this is why, it was "easy" for me to justify the investment in something that was going to feed my habit for a while.

If you are a milk drink drinker (latte/caps) you are going to be most satisfied with something that you can steam and brew almost simultaneously with. The Gaggia, Silvia, and Lelit (another popular option) are SBDU (single boiler dual use) machines meaning that after pulling a shot you have to wait or it to heat up to steaming temp. Then after steaming you have to purge it to get it back down to brew temp. This only takes a few minutes between them but for 2 drinks this is a PITA over time. I had a silvia as my first machine and loved it but the mechanics and workflow upgrade I experienced going to a dual boiler machine can't be quantified in my mind.

My recommendation would be to try to save up to get into the $1000 heat exchanger class of machine. Steaming power will not be a problem. Brewing options in terms of temp control can unlock flavors and experiences I'll guess your current machine can't get close to. Bezzera BZ07 and BZ02 are attractive options in this area.

The grinder is very important but many swear by their manual grinders. The automatic ones clearly have advantages of convience. Basically with my setup I make a latte in 2-3 min start to finish including cleanup.

If you go the refurb route make sure there are parts available in case something happens. For the price of the more expensive machines I think the support is important as things can go wrong...especially with shipping. I had an errant screw on the bottom of my new machine and Chris Coffee were amazing in helping me figure out where it came from and where to put it back.

Good luck...keep reading...save up for a definitive jump IMHO...
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Postby hankua on Fri Dec 24, 2010 7:18 pm

Hi!
I think a used solis SL70 or SL90 might be worth a look as they are running around 100-200$. Parts are still available and there is plenty of support on the coffee forums. I've had one for more than seven years, replaced two switches and one bulb. Mine has the narrow switches, the newer ones have wide ones. eBay or private sale from a forum member, I've seen some very clean looking machines lately for sale. Good luck!
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Postby chrisl on Fri Dec 24, 2010 8:32 pm

So is there a specific reason why people are swaying me away from the Rancilio Silvia? Just curious why 2 people back-to-back are saying it isn't a good choice.

As for a heat exchanger, I honestly don't know enough about the technology. If the main difference between a Bezzera BZ07 and any of the much cheaper models recommended earlier is reducing time between espresso and steaming, then right now I don't think I could rationalize the 200% price difference.

As for a Solis SL70 or SL90, I have never heard of these models, but reviews seem to be rather mixed. I'm also a little cautious buying something used out of warranty with such a questionable review history.

Since it has been mentioned here, I am strongly considering the LeLit PL041TQE. The main question is if a PID will make enough of a difference to make up for the $200 jump in price. Thoughts?
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Postby clumeng on Fri Dec 24, 2010 9:35 pm

Espresso machines are essentially hot water delivery devices. A variable you get into as you fine tune your tastes and skills is water temperature which can significantly change the taste and bring out flavors if you can hit those temps consistently. (all of this is out the window if the grind is bad or the beans are bad BTW).

Silvia and Lelit are probably comparable single boiler machines. The Silvia is great but the price has gone up to the point where it is not the most bang for the buck any more in its class. The Lelit has probably jumped over it. The PID is worth it if you want to control temp carefully. Silvia has a larger community overall but Lelit is growing. You can PID a Slivia as well. The logic is that the money you save getting a Lelit over a Silvia will permit you to spend more on a grinder.

HX benefits are not just time but also steaming power, temp control, looks, and overall consistency and popularity.
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Postby hankua on Fri Dec 24, 2010 10:30 pm

Solis is a Swiss made machine with quality parts. If you want a warranty then 1st Line has buyers remorse, demos, scratch and dent units. A lelit machine and grinder would make a good looking pair. Why don't you get in touch with 1st Line and Chris Coffee after the holidays. Someone may be returning a Xmas present. :D
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Postby zin1953 on Sat Dec 25, 2010 10:07 am

chrisl wrote:So is there a specific reason why people are swaying me away from the Rancilio Silvia? Just curious why 2 people back-to-back are saying it isn't a good choice.

Chris, the Rancilio Siliva is a fine machine. And it was a fine machine when it was priced at $399. Now it is substantially more expensive ($648) for essentially the exact same machine. In other words, it is a very fine machine that is, IMHO, seriously overpriced. A Gaggia Classic (on sale for the holidays at $399) or a Le'Lit PL041QE (also on sale for $399.95) will serve you equally well as a Silvia for substantially less money. Save the extra and put it towards either a better grinder, or towards your next machine upgrade . . .
chrisl wrote:As for a heat exchanger, I honestly don't know enough about the technology. If the main difference between a Bezzera BZ07 and any of the much cheaper models recommended earlier is reducing time between espresso and steaming, then right now I don't think I could rationalize the 200% price difference.

Chris, the difference between an SBDU machine and an HX is significant. One of the key differences -- the one that is most obvious -- is that an HX lets you steam milk and pull shots simultaneously, rather than waiting for the temperature of the boiler in an SBDU to cycle up or cycle down . . . and thermal stability in an SBDU is much more difficult to achieve and maintain when one is constantly switching boiler temperatures back and forth. The more you use the machine, the more important this is. There are other significant differences as well -- typically (there are exceptions), an HX has a larger, heavier group and that means more thermal stability when making your espresso. The list goes on, but do you know what is even more important?

Staying within your budget!

If an HX machine is too much money right now, then forget it! Simple as that. Stick with a solid SBDU machine, don't look back, and ENJOY THE JOURNEY!

Cheers,
Jason
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Postby jfrescki on Sun Dec 26, 2010 4:17 pm

chrisl wrote:As for a heat exchanger, I honestly don't know enough about the technology. If the main difference between a Bezzera BZ07 and any of the much cheaper models recommended earlier is reducing time between espresso and steaming, then right now I don't think I could rationalize the 200% price difference.


No matter how much you're going to spend, you should go into this with a little more info. Check out the extensive resources here on HB, especially Espresso Machines 101 and 201, as well as How to Buy an Espresso Machine on coffeegeek.

Just be aware that we use SBDU (single boiler, dual use) to talk about Silvia class machines, where in 101, the article uses SBDU to refer to Heat Exchange (HX) machines instead.
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