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Rancilio Silvia Review


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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

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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...