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By Chris Tacy
Since the publication of my second Pro's Perspective on the Fiorenzato Bricoletta, Dan has proposed various review options. We've talked about espresso machine and grinders and gewgaws of all sorts. But nothing seemed quite right. In the meantime, a long-rumored "dream machine" had finally become something closer to reality. Thanks largely to Mark Prince, the entire coffee world had been buzzing about the "La Marzocco Home Machine" for more than a year. Speculation and rumor had been rife. And then a prototype of the machine was finally demonstrated by La Marzocco and specs were made public. At that point the buzz became deafening. The machine— now officially named the GS3 —was all the rage. Later Mark was given a prototype to evaluate and it became the talk of the Internet. I've never witnessed more debate over a piece of coffee equipment by people who'd never seen it. People complained about it based purely on tiny photos and preconceptions. Others accused Mark of being a shill for La Marzocco and over-inflating the performance of the machine.
Soon after this I received a call from Bill Crossland of La Marzocco. Among other things, Bill is the brilliant engineer behind the GS3 and, along with the visionary Kent Bakke, is responsible for the creation of this machine. Bill told me that La Marzocco was interested in sending a GS3 my way for testing and evaluation. Of course I said yes, but also asked if I could write up a review for Home-Barista.com. After some discussion, we agreed on some basic ground rules and I had the go-ahead to begin a comprehensive review of a machine having the potential to revolutionize the market.
As I've said before (and as a little background), while I know a lot about the technology of espresso machines, fundamentally I'm all about the taste of the coffee in the cup. This is the perspective I'll be bringing to my reviews. I'm not interested in data-logging brew temperature or tweaking pressurestats in the abstract. For me, the machine is a means to an end—the espresso is the goal and the only valid way to evaluate the product and the process. With this review, I'm going to take advantage of the fact that Greg Scace was also evaluating this machine by using his findings to illustrate some of the results at a technical level.
I've been a professional barista for years, but have never owned a home machine. While I've now written two Home-Barista.com reviews, prior to that I'd not spent any significant time using home machines, except for a couple weeks with a La Pavoni Professional lever machine. One perhaps unusual consequence of this is that I have little choice but to compare the GS3 to the machines that I am most familiar with— high-end commercial machines. It's my hope that this somewhat atypical perspective of these reviews will be both interesting and valuable to readers. Of course, this is all a polite way of saying that I initially entered into my Pro's Perspective reviews with the basic presumption (shared by many coffee professionals) that home machines basically suck.
If you put the two previous points together you'll be able to understand that I'm truly fanatic about espresso quality. I'm not interested in drinkable espresso. I'm not interested in "okay" coffee. I want excellence, I want extraordinary, I want astonishing. In this way I'm perhaps a little different than many home baristas. My goal is rarely to make my morning espresso and get on with the day. On some days I throw away 1/3 of my shots, despite the fact that many of these "sink shots" are probably better than what you'd get at most coffee bars in the US. What I'm trying to say is that I set the bar for myself ridiculously high and this will be reflected in this review.
Thanks to Home-Barista.com and the kind folks at La Marzocco, my journey into home espresso-making continues with this very hyped, incredibly expensive and super high-tech beast of a machine. But first, a couple caveats before we get into this review.
Most importantly, this review is of a prototype of the GS3. You will see notes throughout the review describing planned changes to the final release-version GS3. This was, in fact, a large part of what motivated LMI to provide this machine to folks like me. We were able to provide real world testing and feedback that is being incorporated in the final version.
The other caveat is that the GS3 is only theoretically a home machine. By this I mean that although its design may be ideal for serious home users, it isn't a home machine in the typical sense of the word. The rumored price point of the GS3 should be a clear indication that this is not targeted at home users. This has been a source of some controversy in the home espresso community. All I can say is that the machine is what it is - and the price reflects this.
Finally, I wish to thank both Bill Crossland and Kent Bakke (the men behind the machine) as well as the amazing Jacob (who drove the machine down from Marzocco in the pouring rain). And, of course, thanks to Bronwen Serna and Terry Z for vouching for me.
La Marzocco is well known within the professional coffee community. Founded in 1927 in Florence, Italy, La Marzocco rapidly became recognized as an innovator within the espresso machine world. With the introduction of the original GS machine in 1970, La Marzocco established themselves as the creators of the dual boiler, semi-auto espresso machine. With the GS, the company earned a reputation for producing cutting edge (and high priced) commercial espresso machines. The original GS machines have become desirable collectors items. La Marzocco followed the GS line with the espresso machine that would become the gold standard for commercial use— the Linea. While various collectors have used GS machines at home and some fanatics have installed Lineas for their home use, La Marzocco had never seriously considered creating an espresso machine suitable for the US home market until the last few years. The GS3 is a logical extension of the storied GS line and the first La Marzocco machine that has been designed to be easily used in a US home installation.
At the same time, while one could categorize the GS3 as a "home machine," it would be more accurate, in my mind, to call it a light-duty commercial or a catering espresso machine. It just so happens that many of the requirements of such a machine overlap with the requirements of a home machine (110V power, portable, compact size, easy to use, no plumbing requirement). There are, however, small giveaways to the true nature of this machine; for example, in one programming mode you have the option to set a day of the week that your shop is not open for business so that the machine doesn't turn on. A significant giveaway is that the rumored price range, which may be considered reasonable for a commercial machine, is well outside the current home market price range.
Despite the warnings, I was still shocked by how small the GS3 is (21"w, 16"d, 13.25"h for the prototype). It is very hard to believe that this little box contains two boilers, a reservoir, pump and motor, electronics, plumbing. It's like some sort of clown car trick. This may seem like a minor point, but in many ways it is one of the most profound "wins" of this machine. Due to its compact nature, the GS3 can be easily fit into just about any small commercial location or home location and, perhaps more interestingly, is actually reasonably portable. This is valuable for the potential catering market and, as you'll see later in the review, it also can be quite worthwhile for the home user. In addition, this finally puts to bed the long-held belief that, in espresso machines "bigger and more massive" (as Andy Schecter would say) is always better.
I like the general look of the machine, though I would prefer to have a naked group head rather than the plastic cover; the drip tray looks a bit raw and "tacked-on" (of course, when I mentioned this, I was told that it was, in fact, tacked on and wasn't even similar to what the final design will be). The GS3 has a highly "functional" aesthetic that I appreciate. More than that, however, I think that Bill et al have done a fantastic job retaining the GS3's heritage in the GS and GS2 while updating some of the dated or non-functional aspects. I compared the GS3 to both a GS2 and a GS soon after doing the install and it is very clear that this machine is part of a family. I hope that people understand this and appreciate it. The GS was an amazing breakthrough machine at the time of its creation. In fact, you will find many who say that they still prefer the espresso from these machines to the espresso from a more modern La Marzocco like a Linea.
While the GS3 is smaller than the Bricoletta that was last on my counter, it is dramatically heavier (even when the tank and boilers are empty). I would describe the GS3 as "dense." Once the tank and boilers are full, one wonders if it is made out of some sort of collapsed or dark matter. Needless to say, place the machine in its final position carefully before you fill anything.
Once your eyes get past the exposed grouphead, the next thing you notice is the keypad. When Jacob delivered it, he gave me a quick introduction to the various settings, parameters and programming options. This is a complicated machine! Seriously! I pity the person who has to write the manual. There are about a thousand various options and controls and variables. It was pretty intimidating at first. Not only was I afraid of "breaking" something, I honestly didn't know if I was going to be able to remember everything. In addition, I'm a bit of a Luddite, preferring the simplicity and required attention of a semi-auto; as a generalization, the espresso from a semi-auto tastes better to me than from an auto, all other things being equal.
The second think I noticed was the non-standard steam operation. Instead of using a rotary knob, the GS3 uses a multi-directional 'joystick' to control the steam valve. At first glance, I was skeptical to say the least. I've spent a lot of time learning to steam milk with the "normal" setup. Okay, so I was willing to evaluate it but I was hesitant. It seemed a bit gimmicky, a bit unnecessary. But most of all, it seemed like it was in the wrong spot. I was afraid that I was going to have a hard time controlling steam and that I was going to end up burning myself or knocking over a cup while pulling a shot, or... or... You get the idea.
Nonetheless, first impressions were exciting and positive. Overall you get a sense of seriousness and solidness from this machine that is unlike what I have seen from the usual home machines and is more like what I expect from commercial machines.
The GS3 is a reservoir machine and the tank is huge. While you could run out and buy a pallet of bottled water, it would get very expensive very fast. With the help of the resourceful Terry Z of Espresso Parts, I rigged my FloJet and Everpure water system to work as a manual system that I can use to refill the reservoir when needed.
With the prototype, I also received a box with portafilters and baskets. This included a stock LM portafilter and a new OEM naked portafilter(!). A huge range of baskets was also provided - including the standard ridged double and the triple.
Once the reservoir was filled, we needed to start the machine up and bleed off some pressure from the group. This is an important first step. Because of the design of the machine, filling the machine can trap air in the group when starting from a dry boiler. This can lead to the dreaded "water hammer." Bleeding pressure from the group is easy with the GS3. Once done, the machine needs about a half hour to reach the target brew temperature. In general, I found that it took about thirty minutes for the boilers to get to temperature and about another fifteen minutes for the group to totally stabilize.
The machine has a main on/off switch on the frame (an amusingly re-purposed Linea brew switch in fact). Once this is on you need to power the machine up using the key pad. On the prototype, the key pad buttons are mislabeled. Rumor has it that this was done deliberately to stop people from "fiddling" with the machine when demonstrated at shows.
In general, other than getting used to the controls of the GS3 and bleeding a little pressure, setting up the machine was really easy. There was no plumbing, no fussing. Now admittedly, not only was this a prototype, it was also a "broken in" machine. It had been used (rather extensively I gather) in both some testing and as a sort of "catering machine" at Kent's retirement party.
From talking with Bill Crossland, it was clear that one of the primary goals in developing the GS3 was to make a simple to use machine. In this he was entirely successful. Using the GS3 is practically foolproof compared to any heat exchanger espresso machine I've used—and is noticeably more straightforward than even a Linea.
With heat exchanger (HX) espresso machines, you need to become a master of brew temperature management. Through various flushing methodologies, you manually deliver the target brew temperature. This is the largest single challenge of these machines. With some HX machines, the requirements of flushing are simplified, particularly with the high-end commercial HX machines. But even with these machines, managing brew temperature requires skill, particularly when starting after a long idle period.
Even with the existing dual boiler machines, it is important to understand the relationships between idle times of various durations and brew temperatures. Machines like the Expobar Brewtus have issues with this due to the group design. Automatic Lineas have different issues due to the placement of the flowmeter in the brew pathway. Indeed, semi-auto Lineas provide the best results when flush-managed.
This is not an issue with the GS3. If you so choose, you can get good to great results while ignoring flush methodologies entirely. In my case, and probably motivated by tradition and paranoia, I merely programmed the "short single shot" button to provide a one ounce flush and hit that immediately before pulling any shots. This worked perfectly for me. With it, flushing became dead easy.
The combination of the dual boiler set up and the simplified (or lack of) flushing results in a machine that is easier to use than anything I've ever worked on. To make life even better, the GS3 also provides a number of additional treats to simplify the barista's work.
First and foremost, it's an automatic machine. Yes, I remember stating my opposition to automatic machines earlier, and as a general rule, I still prefer semi-autos. But I cannot argue that autos don't make the job of the barista easier. Programming the volumetric dosing is trivial. Enter the correct program mode, stick a shot glass under the group, select the desired button to start and again to stop when the desired volume is reached. Repeat for all the buttons you desire to program. You can, of course, simply use the "continuous brew" button as a manual (or "semi-auto") start and stop button if you so desire. Note, however, that pre-infusion is unavailable when using the machine in this manner.
What you may not notice at first is the lack of brass on this machine. What does this mean? This means no more little green scrubbies. This means no need to pull the dispersion screen and scour and clean the block every 45 minutes. This means a reduced chance of that horrible cigarette ash and fish oil taint. Cleaning the group can now be done with a screwdriver, a gasket brush and a towel. Amazing! Talk about making the job of the barista easier! Use a naked portafilter on this machine and your cleaning regime is incredibly simple and quick. Gotta love the extensive use of stainless in this machine. Yeah, it makes the machine really expensive. But, in my mind, it's entirely worth it.
There are a handful of other tricks and tweaks designed to make your life easier. I loved programming the machine to turn off at a specified time and then turn on at another time. The cool-touch wand (while still in development and a bit funky on the prototype) means no more worrying about getting burnt. I love the water mixing on the hot water wand. This allows you to combine boiler water with cold water to arrive at a desired delivery temperature. You can set it to the right temperature for your Americanos - or use it for tea (black, green or even white).
I'm not a huge fan (ergonomics and/or usability-wise) of a couple things about the machine. The biggest issues I had were with the control button layout and button feedback. The buttons are very close together and it is far too easy to accidentally hit the wrong button. Of course, this is exacerbated on this machine by the mislabeling. From what I hear, the number of buttons may be reduced in the production model, in which case the spacing would presumably increase. In addition, the feedback from the buttons is iffy—it's frequently hard to know if you have actually engaged the switch. While the buttons are really pretty, I just wish they provided better sensory response.
In general, however, this is easily the most usable espresso machine I have ever worked on.