cafedemitasse.com | Little Tokyo - Coffee, Espresso, Teas, Chocolates

Rancilio Silvia Review


Question? Have a question or just want to talk espresso? Check out the forum and its FAQs and Favorites!



Image
When I suggested that the Rancilio Silvia should be among the first espresso machines reviewed under the site's new streamlined format, some members wondered why I would bother. Over the last 10+ years, Silvia is unquestionably the most heavily discussed and documented home espresso machine on the Internet. Perhaps counter-intuitively, that's precisely why skipping the Rancilio Silvia would seem like an error of omission. Besides, it was my first "real" espresso machine, so admittedly I looked forward to seeing how my 2003 review held up today given my added experience and test techniques. So partially for comprehensiveness, partially for nostalgia, I spent a couple weeks reacquainting myself with an old friend.

Introduction

The Rancilio Silvia's casing is brushed stainless steel with exposed black powercoat frame; it blends well with modern kitchens, especially those featuring stainless steel appliances. Silvia's countertop footprint is small, allowing plenty of working space in front of the machine. The driptray is very shallow; you'll need a catch container for flushing water through the group, otherwise it will need emptying every second shot.

Image Where to Buy:
Seattle Coffee Gear
Chris' Coffee Service
Since its introduction over a decade ago, Rancilio has made esthetic and functional improvements every few years. The evaluation model shown to the right is known as "version 3". It includes a newly designed steam wand that rotates on a ball joint. As one of the many newbies who struggled with the multi-hole steam tip on the original Silvia, I welcomed the new beginner-friendly one-hole steam tip. The steam boiler produces ample volume and velocity, which makes it easy to roll the 8-10 ounces of milk latte lovers in the US demand.

If you search for how-tos on the Rancilio Silvia, you'll find gigabytes of suggestions on getting the best out of this espresso machine. It isn't my intent to rehash the already formidable collection of information, but instead this review will highlight the best tips geared towards the Silvia's target demographic, first-time buyers. With that caveat out of the way, let's look at its espresso and cappuccino performance in turn.

Espresso Performance

During the research phase of this review, one of my goals was judging the Rancilio Silvia's forgiveness factor. If you've read a sample of the many "I'm a New Silvia Owner, Help!" type threads in the forum, you know that this popular entry-level espresso machine has a reputation for being finicky. Is it justified? Honestly, I would say yes and no. Jim spells out why entry-level equipment as a class get a bad rap:

Jim Schulman wrote:Newbies invariably attribute their inability to pull two identical shots in a row to the lack of sufficient equipment settings they can change between shots. The fact is that the entry level equipment used by newbies is much more unforgiving than the commercial equipment people buy after they decide they'll pursue home espresso. This creates a double whammy, the people with technique good enough to use entry level equipment have moved beyond it; and the people buying it will have their weaknesses mercilessly exposed. The upshot is that entry level equipment gets a lot of unfair criticism; and that newbies get a very long hazing learning to cope with it.

To make matters worse, many first-time buyers economize on the grinder under the assumption that it doesn't matter (it just reduces coffee beans to powder, right?). Plainly stated, It's the Grinder, Stupid. In my initial testing, I used a commercial conical grinder, the Compak K10 Pro, so the grinder wasn't the weakest link. While Silvia did exhibit minor fussiness, the majority of extractions were even from start to finish. The taste inconsistencies I noted from shot-to-shot occurred when I skipped the temperature surfing step because of video production futzing (temperature surfing is explained at the end of this section).

The video Newbie Introduction to Espresso - Barista Mechanics introduces the basic shot-building steps all home baristas must master. Specifically for the Rancilio Silvia, pay careful attention to the clearance between the dispersion screen and the surface of the puck. If you lock in and then remove the portafilter, the screw that holds on the dispersion screen must not touch the puck. Many Rancilio Silvia owners have remarked that the stock double basket seems fussy; while I haven't exhaustively tested this assertion, I recommend using a deeper basket like the EspressoParts 14 gram or 21 gram. The extra headroom allows an extra second or two for prewetting the puck, which reduces the risk of channeling.

Temperature Surfing Explained

Image
Years ago I documented a "reverse temperature surf" technique for the Rancilio Silvia on CoffeeGeek that produced consistent brew temperatures time-after-time, but it was really tedious. Mark Prince's flush-n-go technique shown in his 2007 video is more time efficient and nearly as accurate. Wish I had figured out this trick in my Silvia days! I confirmed what Mark said in the video about the brew temperature with a Scace thermofilter, i.e., that approximately 2 seconds past the end of flash boiling, the brewhead temperature would peak around 202°F. As the pour progresses, the brewhead temperature falls around 4°F from its high temperature.

Why this flush trick works is worth a more thorough explanation: Because of the heat loss from boiler to grouphead, the brew boilers of all espresso machines are set above the target brew temperature. The magnitude of that offset varies among different espresso machine group designs. According to an Auber Instruments study of the Rancilio Silvia, its boiler offset is 15 to 18°F above the brew temperature, which means the boiler's temperature rises well above the boiling point of water. As a result, if you draw water from the boiler soon after the heating element turns off, the exiting water will flash boil to steam at atmospheric pressure, making the telltale sizzling sound. By flushing the boiler, the overheated water in the boiler quickly cools to brew temperature range. This "surfing" to the desired brew temperature explains the origin of this Silvia ritual.

Careful observers will note this technique relies on the flush-n-go technique, similar to the heat exchanger brew temperature management technique described in How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love HXs. Other espresso machines have their own water flushing regime prior to starting the extraction. Whatever the specifics of the technique may be, the purpose of the flush is the same: Establish a temperature equilibrium, albeit fleeting, prior to starting the extraction.

Steaming Performance

The Rancilio Silvia Flash Review was the site's first review and it was based on a consumer writeup I posted on CoffeeGeek back in 2003. The model I owned was the original design, i.e., it didn't have the improved steam wand of the current model. That explains one of my comments in the review:

Dan Kehn wrote:Getting "latte art" quality microfoam was my biggest challenge and Silvia's most evident weakness, I believe owing to the rise and fall of steam forcefulness that occurs as the boiler cycles on and off. This isn't to suggest that you can't produce an admirable result—it's just far from a no-brainer.

Back then, countless online Silvia fans sought technique suggestions and replacement options for the stock multi-hole steam tip. Evidently Rancilio listened, because the current model's steam tip is much more newbie friendly. It has a single hole and the boiler pressure is steadier. Subsequently, some of the steps I wrote for maximizing the steaming performance in the original review are outdated. Today's simpler steps are:

  1. Purge condensation from the steam the wand
  2. Steam milk, surfing slightly under the surface to inject air until milk is warm
  3. Immerse tip and angle it to produce a nice rolling rise from top-side-bottom-top circulation
  4. Keep warming milk to serving temperature (around 150°F)
  5. Turn off steam, wipe wand, and pour.

If you have the misfortune to start steaming at the very bottom of the heating cycle, purge steam for 10 seconds, close the valve for 20 seconds, then watch for the heating indicator light to illuminate, then start steaming as the boiler reheats.

Conclusion

This review is the debut of the site's streamlined format, which includes simplified 5 star ratings rather than the 10 point scale of the detailed Buyer's Guide. The Rancilio Silvia ratings are as follows:

    Overall: 3 stars
    Espresso Performance: 3 stars
    Forgiveness Factor: 2 stars
    Cappuccino Performance: 3.5 stars

The Forgiveness Factor rating captures how well the espresso machine tolerates minor errors in barista technique like uneven distribution of coffee in the portafilter basket. Especially for inexperienced baristas, this rating largely determines the expected quality of the espresso and cappuccinos they'll serve rather than the espresso machine's technical prowess shown in a specifications sheet. With careful attention to distribution, dose, screen-to-puck clearance, and a quality grinder like the Baratza Vario or Mazzer Mini, beginner home baristas will avoid Silvia's foibles that some new owners report. However, the Rancilio Silvia is less forgiving than some of its contemporaries in the same class, so it is docked points on this score, meriting 2 stars.

The Espresso Performance rating judges the espresso quality a barista with moderate experience should expect on a daily basis. In group taste tests and later in a blind taste test, participants noted the Rancilio Silvia espressos tend to a less complex flavor profile than commercial gear, depending on the dose (higher dose -> chocolates, lower dose -> fruits). Those who drink cappuccinos and lattes won't notice this difference, but experienced espresso aficionados who prize multi-layered flavor profiles may be disappointed. That said, coupled with a good grinder, fastidious attention to technique, and mastery of temperature surfing, Silvia pulls full-bodied espressos better than most cafes, earning a solid 3 stars.

For its Cappuccino Performance, the modifications over the years have paid off richly with 3.5 stars. Thanks to the swivel steam arm and 1-hole tip, even first-time home baristas should have little trouble producing top-notch microfoam. For small milk drinks, its pace is nicely balanced with speed and volume. Even when preparing lattes with 8 ounces or more of milk, Silvia finishes in less than a minute, which is best of class among entry-level espresso machines (i.e., the so-called "single boiler, dual use" design).

When the Rancilio Silvia was introduced over a decade ago, there was no entry-level competitor on price or shot quality. Thanks to its unbeatable price/performance combination, it was adopted in droves by home espresso enthusiasts. Today there are more options from manufacturers like Quick Mill and Gaggia, though arguably the Rancilio Silvia's rock-solid construction and timeless, kitchen-friendly looks are strong selling points. The design improvements over the years like the swivel steam wand with nicely balanced tip, adjustable maximum brew pressure, and cosmetic changes (shapely commercial portafilter, steam knob, driptray, etc.) are certainly appreciated, but the need to temperature surf and slightly finicky nature leads to a lower although quite respectable Overall score of 3 stars.

Acknowledgements

Without the support of HB sponsors, reviews such as this would not be possible. I would like to thank Seattle Coffee Gear for the loaner evaluation equipment. I would also like to thank Counter Culture Coffee and Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea for the test coffees used during this review.

More background information...