Disclaimer: The EspressoForge is designated by V1(Version 1),V2(Version 2), V3 etc based on the production batch. They are principally similar but do have some small variation/improvement with each batch. The device I'm currently reviewing is the V1 (which was from the first batch). Also, this is a production unit I've purchased and have no special affiliation with EspressoForge
Stock image from EspressoForge.comBackground:
Portable espresso has been always been a niche market for a few reasons. First, the machine choices in this section are often cheap and make inferior/faux espresso (ie. Handpresso, Minipresso, Airspresso etc). Thus it has created a general perception of portable espresso equals inferior espresso. Second, because of the portable nature, the overall brewing process is too involved for today's expectation of everything quick-and-easy. Third, with the majority of coffee drinkers loving their lactose source, it is easy to understand why portable espresso makers aren't more popular than they are now.
Regardless, there have been a few attempts in the recent years to improve portable espresso's reputation, noticeably the long-in-the-market Presso (now known as Rok with stronger material, but still has plastic parts and is not easy to generate 9 bar without veins popping out), Mypressi (impressive shots but has leakage issue now and then. The company has now ceased operation as well, making it difficult to obtain its propietary parts), Portaspresso (beautiful precision tool from Australia that makes absolutely amazing shots
, but costs more than most are willing to pay and has a backlog of months, not the most convenient device to use as well).The conception of EspressoForge
Early this year (2015), Andre Vornbrock (with the handle name of EspressoForge) from our very own forum has embarked on a DIY project that eventually turned into a small business venture. EspressoForge was born from the simple idea that espresso is just an act of pushing hot water through a coffee puck, and with the criteria it has to be done under a price point(<$250). You can revisit the journey here
At that stage when EspressoForge project was being developed, I've explored and tasted what a portable device could deliver (from the Portaspresso Rossa). So my eye was opened to look for the next revolution in this niche portable espresso area. In theory, EspressoForge sounds like a fantastic idea and simple enough to execute. Plus, the build material is fully stainless steel which is arguable the safest food-grade material (compared to brass, aluminium or plastic in other espresso machines). So my curiosity got the better of me and it didn't take long before I placed my order. Construction - simple and robust
On hand, the EspressoForge exudes a satisfying heft due to its weight(1.35kg) and its robust material (stainless steel). The device is made up of 3 main parts - The piston, the cylinder body, and the brew head. The piston is just a long piece of stainless steel rod, which inserts neatly into the cylinder body to generate pressure. The cylinder body is where the hot water sits and is pushed towards the brew head. The brew head itself is of two-piece machined stainless steels (the 'grouphead' and 'portafilter locking ring') with the sole purpose of holding an E61 showerscreen, a filter basket and a gasket. The construction of the entire device is so simple that you'd wonder why has no one done it before.Image above: Three main parts - piston, cylinder body, brew head
Image above: Roughly 1.3 kg without stand (2.0 kg with stand) - a very satisfying weight and feels tough
As a nifty touch, the Espresso Forge can be added with a brew pressure manometer. This serves two purposes - (i) to give a visual indication of the extraction process (it tells whether the grind is too fine or too coarse, thus improving the ease of use and user experience) and (ii) to allow the user to play with pressure profiling, which seems to be the hottest topic amongst high end machines (Slayers, GS3, Vesuvius). The gauge itself is perfectly-sized and does not intrude the look of the device. In fact, it adds an extra touch of sophistication to the overall look of EspressoForge.Image above : Pressure gauge/manometer of the EspressoForge. 100kPa = 1 barPerformance out of the box - there's a learning curve but it gets better
Because this is a new device on the market, there is not much prior experience nor a good set of instruction on how to operate the device. I imagine for most people, the first few weeks will be spent on finding the right workflow. For instance, you might be wondering how much water you need to boil, what to do next during the workflow, how long to preheat the device, how much pressure to apply, constantly reminding yourself to have a drip tray around, etc etc. However, once you've gone over the learning curve, most things will become a second nature.
To use the Forge, it is best to have a kettle with a narrow pour spout and the tripod stand is almost a compulsory accessories. The process of making a shot involves pouring hot boiling water into a narrow bore opening (the cylinder body), thus the requirement for a narrow-spouted kettle. The tripod stand helps to hold the device steady and is crucial to avoid burn accidents (by spilling hot water over yourself). It also supports the downward force during the pull without the risk of breaking your favourite cup. Try as you might(I did), but some spillage is always expected from overfilling - it usually ends up as a pool of clear water on the brew head(figure below).Image above : Some spillage is expected usually from overfilling but not a experience-killer
To achieve 9 bar at the pressure gauge, the pulling force required is within my comfortable range using a two-handed approach. Single-handed pull gives me about 7 bar max pressure. However, I acknowledge this is a male-biased device as I can't imagine my wife having enough strength to execute even a 5 bar shot. To be fair, she's a petite lady and can't even move the lever on my spring lever.Issue - getting up to the 'right' temp
This is probably an area where ignorance is bliss for most - if you refine your technique by taste alone and not numbers, you will probably be fine. But unfortunately that is just not me.
One of the biggest challenges in using EspressoForge is to get it up to temperature - aka to get the right 'number'. In the early days, I've tried the device without preheating and it works sometimes (giving sour shots occasionally). Later on, I've settled into a single preheat ritual - basically by filling the device with hot water and dump that before the actual brew. From taste, I believed it was still brewing on the lower side of temperature scale. However a longer pull (time), preinfusion and, to a certain degree, beans choice had helped compensate to create a balanced and enjoyable shot. By snaking a thermocouple probe into the device (from top), it had confirmed that the Forge was pulling around 76-85°C (170-185°F). It was difficult to measure exact temp because of the narrow and deep opening tube. (Note: probe touching the side wall changes the reading and it's difficult to measure temperature above coffee puck from below).
Recently, the idea going around in the forum was to use steam for preheating the device (basically by placing the device on a kettle and letting the steam from boiling water warms the device up). I have a standalone steamer that has roughly the right diameter for the Forge to sit on. With steam preheating, I manage to overheat the shot (made obvious by very dark crema)! With the same measurement methodology as above, I managed to read about 96°C(205°F) in the bore opening and it stayed relatively constant (temperature declining slightly over time). Image above : Steam preheat technique - but not perfect yet
The limitation of this steam preheating technique is that a kettle with just the right lid diameter is needed. So far I haven't seen any electric kettle that works perfectly for this technique. So, temperature management to brew at conventional temp (93°C/200°F) is possible but it needs more refinement at this stage(finding a more suitable kettle that is accessible to other EspressoForge owners).
In most cases, the best bet is to brew with a single preheat (requiring a blind basket), and adjust the pulling time/parameter etc to tweak the extraction dynamics to get a decent balanced shot.Image above : A typical shot from EspressoForgeEspresso Performance
Here, I will base my opinion based on the single preheat procedure as I imagine that's the most likely scenario that most people can get access to. As a fore-warning, I'm not a coffee-taste description expert so please forgive me for using layman terms in describing flavors.
The Forge's shot has a certain style when compared to other espresso machines. It is akin to how Elektra Microcasa gives soft and layered shots, how E61 shots tend to have heavier bodies, how entry level machines (Gaggia or Silvia) shots have a harsher front. Overall, the signature tastes of Forge's shot are of flavorful, but softer and mellower. Worth noting that it has also slightly reduced body and less of the harsh acidic front. In brief, I would describe it as a smooth and a crowd-pleasing espresso. Initially, I was wary about the device muting the flavors (especially for some expensive and exotic single origins), but am happy to report that is not the case.
For some inexplicable reasons, the shot is so smooth that I can gulp up the Forge's shot in one go, whereas with other espresso makers I tend to drink sip-by-sip otherwise it'd be overwhelming for my palate. Based on these observations, I can imagine Forge's style espresso is the least offensive and best way for someone new to straight espresso.
At some point, I did try to measure the coffee strength(%TDS) indirectly by using an optical refractometer. Being a ballpark method, I don't have solid numbers from the tests but am convinced that the extraction strength and yield can be comparable to other espresso machines (of course if you screw up you will underextract or overextract the shot as well, which was shown by the refractometer).
During my ownership of the EspressoForge (still owns it at the time of writing), I've acquired a Rancilio Silvia V3 with PID that offers a predictable brew temperature. Dialing in the best shot I could with the Silvia, I came to a conclusion that the EspressoForge makes a more satisfying shot, with better flavor representation of the roasted coffee. The Silvia in contrast, has some muted flavor notes and tends toward harsher spectrum in the palate front. The caveat is of course the test was not a blind test. However, the difference is significant enough that I could barely finish the shot from Silvia (that is paired with Compak K10).Image above : Mr Forge vs Ms Silvia
For making milk drinks in the past 3 months, I had also prepared shots from the Forge mixed with about 120ml (4oz) microfoamed milk for my wife. It can often be on par with, or even beat, the commercial lever(Brugnetti Aurora) and Portaspresso Rossa, and beats the poor Silvia consistently - all her comments. No reason for her to side with this ugly little duckling.
Here comes the big question - if it is not brewing at 93°C, can Espresso Forge still be qualified as an espresso maker? In my humble opinion, the answer is yes without a doubt. If handed to me blind, the shot from Forge has all the criteria that an espresso would have - the mouthfeel, the strength, the balance, the intense lingering aftertaste, all which defines espresso for me. It is espresso through and through to me. Image above : How this is not espresso? Workflow and ergonomics
In term of workflow, the Forge is probably the best compromise point between shot quality and ease of use, among all the portable devices I have used. For instance, Handpresso is easy to use, however, you do compromise on the shot quality (not sure if I'd even call that an espresso). Portaspresso gives absolutely amazing shots but could be too much fuss for some to use daily. The EspressoForge seems to sit nicely in the mid ground in the workflow required but still offers an excellent but slightly different espresso experience.
In its stock form, I find that the handle of the EspressoForge is not as pleasing to use. It was small and hard which means applying pressure is not easy/comfortable. I did some modification by wrapping a rubber pad around the hard plastic and it is now comfortable even up to 11 bar pressure.
Another shortcoming was the heat insulation material's durability on the portafilter locking ring. The insulation on mine was torn after a short while (due to downward force during the pull). As a result, the insulation material was stuck to the tripod stand very often. I took care of that by applying an extra layer of black electrical tape (to get rid of the stickiness). The later version of Forge (V2) addresses this issue with a more durable silicone band, and looks pretty cool at that. Image above : My modified handle
There is one last thing I wish could be better on the Forge - the manometer. At times when I was too rigorous about rinsing the Forge, water seem to find its way into the manometer and fog up the gauge during a pull. However, I don't see much can be done about that and it does self-dry after a day.
Other than those three points, the rest of the EspressoForge is fairly well thought out. The heat insulation on the cylinder body works pretty well, the showerscreen is easily removed for cleaning (it stays clean pretty much), etc. Some early adopter commented the machined threads were a bit fine & sharp. It was not a problem to me but was still addressed in V2. Shot volume (weight)
It may not be obvious to most, but there is a limited volume capacity on the Forge (this is similar to other portable devices/levers). With a 15g coffee dose, I find that the max shot weight I get before the piston bottoms out is about 28g-32g. With more coffee (ie. 17-18g), the coffee puck will retain even more water and result in a lower shot volume. My dose is often at 15g so the current capacity works fine for me, but it is a point worthy of consideration. However, again, it was addressed in V2 with a longer cylinder but does come at an expense (a longer device overall).Maintenance
This is what I consider the strongest point on the EspressoForge - its ease of maintenance. Due to its full stainless steel material, the device is pretty much stain-proof and stays clean without doing much.
Every week or two, I will open up the shower screen to give it a quick wipe, but even that, it is a lot cleaner compared to most espresso machines after just one shot. Image above : Inside the shower screen - this was after 2 shots and it won't get a lot worse than this
Occasionally, the O-rings will require lubrication with Dow 111 (when it gets jerky), but that's a quick and easy job.
Overall, very few, if not minimal, maintenance needed.
The consumable parts on the EspressoForge are the two O-rings(on piston) and the portafilter gasket. The O-rings on mine have lasted quite a while and are still going strong. I've gotten almost a dozen of them since they're cheap (50 cent each). In case EspressoForge stops supplying spare parts, the O rings should be available from some existing coffee machine parts, or even in any local bigbox store. The portafilter gasket is just a standard E61 gasket. So definitely no parts availability concern down the road.Image above : The O-rings have squashed a bit after bedding in. But can easily hold 11 bar with breeze. You can see some traces of Dow as wellPost-shot clean up aka messiness factor
Like most manual device or espresso machine without a 3-way-valve, after the shot is finished, the coffee will continue to drip. Here's where it can vary for EspressoForge users. If a drip tray/cup is available (ie working in a dedicated coffee station), the user can just slip the drip tray underneath and push through or purge all the remaining water (requires pulling out the piston and push again).
However, if a drip tray is not available, one can simply retract the piston to stop the flow immediately (This is my favourite technique). I initially had concern this will pull the coffee grinds back into the body, but my experience has proven otherwise and this is a sound method. To clean up, you can unlock the basket to find a moist but solid puck (with the piston still retracted). Once in the sink area, pull off the piston entirely and the water will rush out, cleaning the shower screen in the process.Image above: This is the result of the first method above - after purging most of the water
Overall, using the EspressoForge is not a messy process (after you've got your workflow down). Though, you sometimes do get some clear water spills (from overfilling the cylinder). That is inevitable but is not a big deal.How does V1 compare to the current V2 Forge?
Without a V2 on hand, I can't give a solid comparison and I'm not 100% sure how much of my V1 review can translate to the V2(my guess is a significant part of it which was why I even bothered to write this). From what I see, the V2 has a few improvements functionally compared to V1. V2 has a larger shot capacity, better(?) handle, more durable heat insulation material, and gentler/less sharp thread edges. The only shortcoming of V2, in my opinion, is the aesthetics (ie the device looks unwieldy long and the uncovered welding points may be off-putting to some.But please be reminded I'm commenting as someone who has not seen it in flesh and just from photos). Things you should know before buying:
If you are considering the Forge, do keep in mind that the Forge production runs on a batch basis, with each batch designated as V1, V2, or V3 (provided there is enough demand for a third run). So in a way, it is not a finished product where all the R&D are done in advanced (requires big deep pocket). However, it is only fair to say that there are some trials done (within reason) before rolling out each batch. If you're expecting an ultimate and perfectly refined product, EspressoForge may not be the one. (Iphone comes to mind oddly) However, if you could live with some of the minor shortcomings, handy in modding/DIY, or just wants to get your feet wet with espresso for <US$300, you'll be extremely happy. As it is now, the EspressoForge is a usable product (it is a manual process however, and thus not a production method for cranking shots after shots) but may just be lacking in terms of aesthetic.
This is probably the highlight of the review - who would I recommend it to, or will I recommend it at all?Who should consider:If you:
+ Plan to get an entry level machine like Gaggia/Silvia for making straight espresso
+ Are open to tasting how espresso can be from a different perspective
+ Have limited/small coffee counter space
+ Travel a lot and require portable espresso
+ Want a simple and durable machine/tool that can make good espresso
+ Want a quick espresso with minimal warm up time
+ Want a back-up espresso maker in case the main machine breaks down or when electricity is outIt's not for those who:
- wants an easy/convenient (hands-off) espresso experience
- expects a refined and perfect product out-of-the-box
- strongly believe good espresso can only be had at 93C(200F) - it's possible but no direct solution at this stageA few neutral points:
= If you want to get this for pressure profiling, I don't think it is a compelling reason because of the temperature limitation. But it does allow one to vary the brew pressure.
= You will need a good grinder (Lido 3 works fine in my experience) because the EspressoForge requires a much finer grind. The degree of change is equivalent to switching to VST basket from a conventional basket on a conventional espresso machine (same basket used on a full-fledged machine vs EspressoForge). As such, using a VST basket in EspressoForge may sound like a good idea theoretically but is actually not due to the excessive grind fineness.
= Again, you have to be open-minded that it may not brew at 93°C (200°C) but it is capable and easy to make enjoyable (definitely better than decent) shots.Summary:Pro:
+ Forgiving and easy to use (after initial learning curve)
+ Makes real espresso in a portable form (keep in mind with stand it's almost 2kg so not light weight by any mean)
+ Smooth espresso without muted flavors
+ Fast to use (takes only slightly longer than boiling up 250-500ml water to make an espresso)
+ Easy to keep clean & stay clean
+ Extremely durable and no maintenance issueCons:
+ Hands-on process
+ Not the best looking espresso maker
+ Needs a narrow spouted kettle
+ Brews at lower temperature (~176F/80C) and will require fussing to brew at 90-94 Celsius (195-202f)
+ Have to obtain a separate steamer for espresso-based drinksConclusion:
After using the EspressoForge for more than 3 months daily, I'm pretty impressed by what the EspressoForge can do. My own conclusion is the EspressoForge is a formidable espresso maker that makes real espresso at under $300. It may take more effort than pressing a button but is less fuss to use compared to many other manual devices. It is an espresso package that is easy to use, deliver good shots, and is not fussy about maintenance
, what more could you ask for?
But do remember to BYOS - bring your own steamer if you need to make a latte.
Let me end with this picture - the portable espresso Duo: