Vesuvius Espresso Machine Review

Behind the scenes of the site's upcoming equipment reviews.
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Postby HB » Oct 04, 2014, 5:05 pm

With the introduction of the Vesuvius by Ambient Espresso, the E61 group patented over 60 years ago fully embraces modern technology. It joins dual boiler espresso machines like the Expobar Brewtus, Vibiemme DoubleDomo, Quickmill 2B, and Profitec Pro 700 that are based on the shiny chrome E61 group, but adds a feature rarely found in single group espresso equipment: Programmable brew pressure profiling.

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Vesuvius evaluation model courtesy of Chris' Coffee Service

Will blending the old and the new lead to better, more consistent espresso? If it does, can you "fine tune" espresso taste profiles using programmable pressure profiling? Does the Vesuvius merit its premium price? Those are the questions we'll explore over the course of this review.
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Postby HB » Oct 06, 2014, 9:04 pm

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Given the cost of the Vesuvius and its significant size, it is shipped via common carrier strapped to a pallet. Shipping this way costs a bit extra and requires that you can accept such deliveries at your residence. Pallet deliveries should not be a problem for a single family dwelling, but could be an issue if you live in an apartment. In my case, Old Dominion Freight Line called to schedule a delivery time and arrived when promised. They used a hydraulic hand truck to place the pallet in our garage. Perhaps needless to say, the crate arrived with absolutely no sign of damage.

Ambient Espresso built a custom crate for the Vesuvius. The crate was tight-fitted with solid core foam padding. The machine itself was bolted to the floor of the crate via rubber feet to allow vibration to be dissipated. Already impressed by the custom crate, I found an interior hinged box containing the portafilters, fittings, 4 machined aluminum feet, owner manual, etc, all arranged in compartments. No cardboard anything, nice!

The Vesuvius can be plumbed or draw water from an internal tank, but its design is a little different than other "switchable" espresso machines I've evaluated. Because positive inlet pressure would affect the final brew pressure and the pressure is programmable, whether the machine is plumbed or not, it always draws water from a static reservoir (i.e., inlet pressure is always zero). When plumbed in, the static tank is refilled by a solenoid opening to allow water from the mains supply to flow into the tank. You access the reservoir via the lefthand hinged panel; it tilts outward when you lift the upper release. The rocker power switch is also located behind this hinged panel.

Once on the countertop, I appreciated how large an E61 espresso machine it is! Before wrapping up the review, I will post photos of it side-by-side with the Profitec Pro 700, a recent E61 double boiler reviewed on HB. That said, despite the Vesuvius' size, it has a very sleek look to it, thanks to the clean slanted panels and minimalistic controls. No round gauges! No electronic switches! Even the heating cycle indicators for the brew boiler and steam boiler are unlabeled! Everything you need to know is shown on the flat touch-sensitive electronic panel. The wood treatment of the portafilter handle and steam/water valves are a welcome touch, adding visual warmth that otherwise would be lacking in an all chrome-on-chrome design.
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Postby HB » Oct 12, 2014, 2:13 pm

My local coffee buddies have seen many espresso machines come and go; they've also participated in many taste tests as part of the review process. I'll report on the results of our group taste taste at Counter Culture Coffee shortly, but first I'll briefly cover the required setup. As a part of the review process, I intentionally don't initially read the owner's manual, since I realize many buyers skip this important step. The other reason is that like many new owners, I'm too excited about getting started to pore over 20 pages of documentation before I plug it in.

Fortunately the Vesuvius basic setup is much like any other espresso machine, i.e., step one is confirming the water reservoir is full and the inlet tubing and return tubing (if present) are correctly placed. If an espresso machine is switchable between reservoir-only and direct plumb, you usually have to flip a switch on/off for the water level sensor and twist a valve left/right to choose which source from which the pump should draw water. But the Vesuvius, having a static water reservoir to aid pressure profiling, is a little different. Its water reservoir is used in both cases (plumbed or not), so there's no valve to twist to direct water, just a rocker switch underneath the machine to indicate your preference. It was already set to "off" (reservoir only) on delivery, so there was nothing much to do beyond plug it in, let the boilers fill, flush them, then wait for it to reheat.

Several people who've seen the Vesuvius have commented on its clean, uncluttered look. This minimalistic approach is epitomized by the "do and show everything" display. Below is an excerpt from the owner's manual showing the commonly used panels:

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The first panel with the time/date shown is the "home" display. Its upper line shows the brew pressure, steam temperature, and steam boiler pressure. The thermometer indicates the brew temperature setting. The min/max scale indicates the water reservoir fill level, though the owner's manual hastened to mention the tick marks are non-functional, i.e., the level only indicates full and empty.
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Postby HB » Oct 13, 2014, 8:06 pm

The morning prior to the group taste test last Friday, I brought the Vesuvius to Counter Culture Coffee's training center and dialed in the test coffee, Aleme Wako, a Biloya coffee which they describe as "stunning with notes of fig, plum, and milk chocolate." We intentionally chose a brighter, challenging coffee that would reveal differences more readily than their bar blends.

The Vesuvius has 5 programmable pressure profiles. Each profile can have up to 7 pressure segments (e.g., 7 seconds at 6 bar, 12 seconds at 9 bar, etc.). Given my relative inexperience with this new espresso machine, I programmed a spring powered lever type profile: rise to 6 bar, peak at 9 bar, trail off to 7 bar. The La Marzocco EP is similarly programmable. Using a Scace II thermofilter, we calibrated the temperature and pressure of the two espresso machines, confirming they were performing similarly.

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Vesuvius by Ambient Espresso

The setup of the test is simple. We have two sets of identical cups, except one set is discreetly marked on the bottom, the other set is unmarked. Lem Butler, 4x SERBC champion, served as barista with the La Marzocco. I served as barista with the Vesuvius. Before any of the participants arrived, Lem and I dialed in our respective espresso machines. We tasted tested each others' espressos and agreed that the beverages accurately represented the coffee. The participants were simultaneously served two espressos, one from each espresso machine. They were instructed to sample each and place the one they preferred to the left of the tampers and the other to the right:

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Winners on the left

We sampled 15 paired espressos. Once the last one was placed down, we inverted and totaled the marked cups, revealing the closest test results to-date -- the La Marzcocco eked out a narrow victory, 8 to 7! Unsatisfied with a statistical tie, Nathan and I did one final round. The outcome was unchanged, still a tie. Below are the comments from several participants:

Lem wrote:To be completely honest, I love having low expectations of home espresso machines and then having my mind blown by ease of use and quality of coffee. The Vesuvius is a perfect example. Yes, I was a skeptic when you told me that this machine could pressure profile, but I was super impressed with the end result. The Vesuvius truly is a great espresso machine! I really enjoyed the shootout. It produced some of the best shots of espresso I've had in a while. Honestly, if I were blindfolded and given a shot of espresso from the Vesuvius, I would not be able to tell the difference if it were from a commercial behemoth like the Strada EP or even a VA388 Black Eagle from Nuova Simonelli. Delicious!

Nathan wrote:The two were extremely close. The one I liked better was very slightly less sharp in terms of brightness. If I were given them consecutively and told they were from the same machine, I most likely wouldn't have questioned that being true.

Jesse wrote:In the shootout between the La Marzocco Strada EP and the Ambient Espresso Vesuvius, I found the two machines to produce similar espresso results. Through several rounds of tasting, I preferred shots off of each at different times.

I was impressed with the visual package the Vesuvius presents. It is a beautiful machine with clean lines, easy access to the water tank, and I'm a sucker for the hardwood details. The limited amount of milk I steamed had virtually perfect texture and I felt like it took an acceptable amount of time to steam a full 8-10ozs of milk.

That being said, the ergonomics of the machine are a bit frustrating as the drip tray is too shallow, leaving the user to balance both demitasse and cappuccino cups off of the front edge of the machine to catch the shots. Additionally, the distance between the group, steam wand, and hot water tap felt cramped.

Nick wrote:I'd have been happy to have been served the shots from either machine. When we did the 'known' side-by-side tasting afterwards, there was a subtle difference in taste (one was more rounded, the other accentuated the high notes more), but I mixed up the cups and didn't know which came from which. Again, I would have been happy with either.

We talked about the difference between 'pulling a shot that just tastes good/is balanced' and 'pulling a shot that really accentuates the specific attributes of that coffee'. I think that sort of distinction was the extent of the differences between the espressos prepared on the two machines. Both were good -- but perhaps in different ways that may have come down to personal preference.

Walt wrote:My impression of the shootout was the machines were surprising close. Where the last shootout with the ECM Technika, they were close but the Strada definitely made a better espresso. With the Vesuvius, the overall count at 8 to 7 was as close as it could get. There was some discussion as to the differences between the 2 espressos tasted blindly, after the 3rd round I honestly could not pick between the 2 there were so close, almost like it was a double from the same machine.

As I said, I am in the market for a new machine and this verified for me that you can make a great "cafe quality" espresso from a prosumer machine as long as you have a quality grinder and beans. Maybe even better.


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Placement of split doubles before handing two pairs to two tasters

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Jesse pours a nice rosetta on the first attempt

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Profile panels for Vesuvius by Ambient Espresso and Strada EP by La Marzocco

Thanks gentlemen for your comments! For next time, we're planning on a head-to-head between two E61 double boilers, the Vesuvius and the Profitec Pro 700. We'll also keep track of who placed which drink from each espresso machine on the win/lose side, to see if testers are consistent in their selection. Until then, below are the more photogenic of the coffee tasters.

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Nathan, Marc

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Nick, Khristian

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Jesse, Walt

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Ian, David
Dan Kehn

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Postby HB » Nov 02, 2014, 11:10 pm

Although most home baristas won't be serving crowds of 20-30 people, the last few reviews have included a stint at a local dealership's "cars and coffee" event. I planned to run the Vesuvius from the onboard water reservoir; I assumed filling the tank 3-4 times would be less hassle than bringing a 5-gallon jug and Flojet water dispenser to direct plumb it. The only hard part of setting up was carrying the equipment from the car! Within 15 minutes, the Vesuvius was warming up.

My first customers arrived around 8:30am and the cafe closed at 12:30pm. There were only a couple times when the backlog in the queue exceeded 5 drinks. The Vesuvius is technically a home unit, but it steamed nearly as fast as commercial units like the La Marzocco GS/3. If I remained focused, the drink-to-drink time was around one minute for traditional cappuccinos (4-5 ounces milk). Dosing takes 20 seconds, lock in the portafilter / place cup / start extraction takes another 10 seconds, then brew and steam at the same time for 25 seconds. The milk finished seconds before the extraction ended. Pour and on to the next one!

With the demanding use of serving a large crowd, I found the water tank needed to be filled even though it's halfway full. Rather than risk running out of water unexpectedly, I got into the habit of filling the tank a couple times an hour. If this were my home setup, I'd definitely take the extra time of plumbing the Vesuvius in. The driptray has a drainhole for waste water that's capped when delivered, but given the driptray's small capacity, plumbing it in is worth the extra effort.

After the cars and coffee event ended, I dropped off the Vesuvius with Phillip "the newbie" Marquis. He's been using it for the last 10 days and will provide his unique viewpoint. From what I've heard, his wife has become quite the fan of his barista skills and she'll be chiming in too!
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Postby HB » Nov 16, 2014, 9:15 pm

I loaned the Vesuivus to Phillip for his so-called "newbie" perspective.

Phillip wrote:Once again Dan was able to raise the bar and gave me the Vesuvius to try out for a couple weeks. This machine is incredible! Significantly more "wow-factor" all the way around compared to any other machine I've used before (Duetto, Breville, Gaggia, ECMs). The best way to describe it is simply "wow."

The pros:
It's downright beautiful. The clean lines with the wood handles gives it a very modern yet warm look and feel. They've also done a great job with the lights and the touch screen pad that provides great information and flexibility to go in and adjust multiple settings. This is the first machine that I've used that I felt comfortable enough to play around with the settings and customize for my own use. I used the daily timer setting to turn on and off certain times of the day so it was hot and ready for me.

As far as usage, it made brewing so simple my shots came out nearly perfect every time. So much so, that I started to steer away from measuring my doses on a scale. As a test I started dosing shots based on seconds of grind time rather than weighing them out. Even when I was a second or two apart in my dosing, the difference in the shot was negligible. I don't know exactly how the Vesuvius works, but it seemed to adjust to the dosage I was using. Almost like if there was too much it would increase the pressure, and if it was too low of a dose it would decrease the pressure. Being a novice I don't know if this is exactly what it was doing, but I could hear the noise increase and decrease as the machine was brewing.

The cons:
Not too many. Steaming seemed to take a little longer than some of the other machines (Duetto and ECM), though I haven't tried experimenting with higher steam boiler pressure. The other down side to the machine is that you can really tell that it is meant to be plumbed in. The sensor for the water tank will tell you it needs to be refilled when it still has about 25-30% of water remaining. Also, not that I ever would, but if someone was to not empty the drip tray pretty frequently, they would discover that there is an opening in the back of it. Although the drip tray does have to reach about 75% full before overflowing, once it does they would not notice a mysterious water puddling on their kitchen floor :).

All in all, I am now more spoiled than ever after using this machine. If it were mine I would definitely plumb it in. Once this was done I can't imagine there being a more perfect machine for a home barista.

His wife also weighed in:

Kelley wrote:The Vesuvius is the fifth home brewing machine that we have experimented with, not counting the Keurig, heh, heh.

It is a lovely machine. The wood detailing, sleek, minimalistic look and touch screen are reminiscent of a sports car. And just like a new sports car... I was a little intimidated by it.

My husband plugged it in and told me to to start brewing. No other instruction. I am still very much an espresso novice. I make a great deal of mistakes, from the grind settings to the dose, however, this is by far the most forgiving machine I have used. I can hear the machine adjusting as it brews. The pours have been super consistent and so good. I haven't played around with any of the settings, so I know I have barely scratched the surface in terms of its capability, but I have been thrilled with the results.

Thanks Phillip and Kelley for your writeup!

There will be a slight pause in the review over the upcoming holidays and the site's planned upgrade. I am planning a second shootout, this time between two E61 double boilers, the Vesuvius and Profitec Pro 700. Before wrapping up, I will also add a precision pressure gauge to the Vesuvius' brew pathway so I can directly measure how well the brew pressure correlates with the program profiles.
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Postby HB » Dec 16, 2014, 2:42 pm

Alas Phillip and Kellley reluctantly returned the Vesuvius. I have a few more site upgrade tasks to complete, but hope to finish them soon and return to this review over the holidays. In the meantime, those interested in updates should consult Mike's Vesuvius has landed thread for another viewpoint. Mike is a long-time HB member and owner of Compass Coffee Roasting; I look forward to reading his thoughts too.
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Postby HB » Jan 18, 2015, 11:55 am

This Friday we held another shootout at Counter Culture Coffee's training center in Durham, this time featuring the Vesuvius versus the Profitec Pro 700. Last time the Vesuvius was pitted against La Marzocco's pressure-profiling commercial machine, the EP Strada; it ended in a draw. This time around, the Vesuvius was compared an E61 double boiler espresso machine without brew pressure profiling. Would the Vesuvius easily best its cousin?

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Vesuvius by Ambient Espresso

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Pro 700 by Profitec

To make the comparison more challenging, we intentionally picked a single origin espresso with lots of fruitiness: Elias Benata. This Yirgecheffe is a natural sundried coffee with ample fruit notes complemented by sweetness. Both espresso machines were calibrated using a Scace II thermofilter to the same temperature. The Vesuvius brew pressure profile was programmed to a fairly rapid rise and then a slow, modest decline.

Prior to the arrival of the other participants, Jesse Gordon and I dialed in both machines. Each dose was weighed and we used the same grinder. Once we were satisfied the espressos accurately represented this coffee, we pulled doubles and split them in small saki cups.

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Split double

Half of the cups were marked with a small blue dot, the other half were unmarked. Tasters were served two espressos at once, one from each espresso machine.

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Ready for two taster evaluations

To avoid any potential for bias, I picked up a pair of cups and set them on another table and pseudo-randomized their positions. Then a second person would serve them to the participant, eliminating the possibility that the taster could guess which espresso was from which machine.

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Lem and Khristian evaluate

We had a diverse group of tasters from newbies to professionals. There was enough time for at least 2 rounds per person and some went an additional third round. This test was a simple thumbs up/down, that is, tasters simply had to place the cup they preferred to the left of the divider line and less preferred to the right. After 36 cups were placed, the great reveal:

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Left = Winner: The espresso machine with unmarked cups takes 12 out of 18 rounds

The evaluation was definitive, that's for certain! I'm waiting for comments from the participants and will post the name of the winner soon.
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Postby HB » Jan 28, 2015, 9:48 pm

Gathering written comments has delayed the wrap of the shootout. It's been over a week, so I'll go with those that I've received to-date and summarize the informal discussion post-reveal.

Given the prior shootout between the La Marzocco EP and Vesuvius ending in a tie, I really expected the Vesuivus would sweep the Pro 700 aside. But when the cup markings were revealed, it was clearly the opposite with the Profitec Pro 700 taking a decisive 12 out of 18 cups. Below are comments from some of the tasters:

Jeff wrote:Well... I am just beginner to tasting... so these are my impressions. While there were some overall similarities in taste and aroma, the one I preferred was a bit less bitter with a sweet aftertaste, also a bit milder overall. The other one had a stronger overall taste with less pleasant aftertaste. The aromas of both were similar. And boy was I buzzing!

Walt wrote:I found the rounds to be very similar in taste profile, I did check the 2nd round after placing the one I preferred on the table and it was the shot from the 700. The 3rd shot re-enforced my preference by also picking from the same machine. I found the 700 to bring out the sweetness and brightness of the espresso.

Kurt wrote:I am not a espresso judge by any means. So I hope this is not too far off base. What surprised me was that with both rounds I could pick up a noticeable difference in the aroma. Both times I found one of the shots to be more appealing right from the start. The aroma on my preferred shot was sweeter and more inviting. There was nothing wrong with the other, it just lacked a little interest for me from a floral perspective. I thought the flavor was smoother on the shot I preferred. The other shot had a stronger lemon citrus kick.

We intentionally chose a fruity, floral, berri-lious coffee whose flavor profile was more likely to reveal differences between the two espresso machines. Most of the participants commented on the balanced, sweet, easy-going taste profile of the Pro 700 compared to the sharper, more floral Vesuvius. Lem and I discussed this particular point, debating the merits of an espresso that emphasizes a coffee's uniqueness (namely fruit notes on the Vesuvius) versus an espresso that favors an overall balanced approach (namely the sweet, crowd-friendly Pro 700). While Lem argued for fidelity to a coffee's strengths as the most important factor, other participants and I favored the more balanced approach.

Of course, this isn't to say that the same crowd-pleasing result couldn't have been achieved leveraging the Vesuvius' ability to deliver programmable brew pressure. I used the same "lever type" declining profile as the first shootout and fought to a tie with the similarly programmed La Marzocco EP. In this case against the standard E61 brew profile of the Pro 700, the uniquely programmable nature of the Vesuvius proved to be an advantage in some circumstances and a disadvantage in others. As is often the case when enabling easy manipulation of a variable, the responsibility for dialing in that variable falls on the barista, putting the possibility of improving the end result... or, as in the case of this shootout, just the opposite if the barista gets it wrong.

UPDATE: See follow-on discussion in Vesuvius: shot profiling potentials and pitfalls.
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Postby HB » Mar 21, 2015, 11:48 am

Although the owner's manual provides a helpful explanation of brew pressure profiling and useful tips, it's easier to visualize what's happening in a video. Below is a 7 stage profile as suggested in the thread cited above. It begins with 10 seconds of preinfusion, raises the pressure to the peak in stages, then slowly declines in stages:



Keep in mind that the Scace II thermofilter shown above has a fixed orifice, so it will allow a greater flow rate than an actual coffee puck would. For more accurate measurement of the brew chamber pressure during an actual extraction, Eric Svendson has loaned me a gauge and adapter that attaches to the E61 grouphead. I will try to make a second video showing that before wrapping up the review (the sponsor Chris' Coffee may have sold this evaluation unit and thus I'll need to hurry!).
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