Have a question or just want to
talk espresso? Check out the forum and its FAQs and Favorites!
Rancilio Silvia Flash Review
By Dan Kehn
Silvia has a lot of fans and mountains of online forums detailing
every aspect of her performance. She can make
very good espresso and steam impressive microfoam, if you're
willing to learn a few of her idiosyncrasies. With just a little time
and effort, you'll enjoy as good or better espresso than
you'll find at many cafés.
The carefully detailed steps in Cheating Miss Silvia are one example of the lengths
people go to learn the intricacies of this little powerhouse. Taken to
another extreme, there's also instructions for serious hobbiest
modifications like Murph's Silvia PID Page. These articles
demonstrate the level of dedication to this espresso machine—and
the tradeoffs that Rancilio made to create a consumer product at this
price point. Few would argue the result isn't impressive for a
home unit. However, there are reasons why one finds equipment costing
far more—those nagging compromises.
If you're a cappuccino lover, the biggest compromise is that
Silvia is a single-boiler espresso machine without a heat exchanger; in other
words, you must wait a minute or so between steaming milk and making
espresso. This delay can be quite irksome if you wish to produce more
than two milk-based drinks in succession. Silvia is at her best for one
or two drinks.
The Rancilio Silvia is one of the notable advanced entry-level machines that
demonstrate the adage "weight makes the difference." To put
it another way, the more brass the better, since that's key to
temperature stability. The boiler and grouphead are bolted together, so
good heat transfer is assured. Compared to an E61-style machine,
however, Silvia reveals her weakness: A nine-pound brass grouphead like
an E61's combined with its +liter boiler won't deviate more
than a degree or two from the target temperature with the influx of a
few ounces of water. Silvia's two pound grouphead and 12 ounce
boiler can't make that same promise. In addition, Rancilio uses a
thermostat with a wide range between "too cold" and
"hot enough" to keep the heating element from constantly cycling
(this range between the thermostat's on/off cycle is known as the
deadband). A large deadband increases the likelihood of the brew
water temperature being off the mark when you start an extraction.
The practical consequence of the thermostat swing is that obtaining
spot-on brew temperature requires timing the start of the extraction to
a specific point in the boiler's heating cycle; this technique is
known as "temperature surfing". This sort of
pickiness won't be an issue if you're exclusively making
milk-based drinks, since milk in espresso, like rich sauces on steak,
hides many sins. But for espresso au naturel, it makes a
significant difference (to read about my own experiments on the subject,
see the thread Some extraordinary results by reverse temperature
surfing). Put together this technique, a good grinder, practiced dose-distribution-tamp, and
you're on the path to espresso nirvana.
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.
Note: While it is true that Silvia will have some steam
twenty seconds after pressing the button, it's not forceful enough
to reliably produce microfoam. You must wait closer to 50-80 seconds
until you can begin frothing.
As discussed in the previous section, surfing addresses
Silvia's brew temperature shortcomings. Steaming, on the other
hand, requires more than a consistent routine. It requires more
intuition and a clear understanding of Silvia's steam "hills
and valleys." Below is how you can learn about these ebbs and
flows, thereby becoming one with your machine:
- Bleed out condensation from the steam wand with a 5-10 second blast
into a pitcher.
- Cut it off, wait thirty seconds.
- Open the valve full blast for 10 seconds onto the counter (or drip
tray if you prefer). Observe the amount of force.
- Wait 30 seconds, blast again. Continue this for a few minutes,
noting the cycling of the boiler.
- Refill the boiler, take a break.
- Start over, this time focusing on (a) forcing the boiler light to
illuminate when you want by bleeding steam, and (b) keeping the light
on for as long as you desire while steaming.
Also experiment with longer and shorter delays (15 seconds, 45
seconds, 1 minute). Consider taking notes of your observations.
Now try the same thing, but instead of spraying the countertop, use
nine ounces of water in a 20 ounce pitcher. This time you'll focus
on creating a "standing wave" or swirling turbulence. The
goal is to acquire an intuitive feel for when Silvia is in the perfect
steam zone versus the wimpy steam zone. It isn't easy
to froth microfoam with wimpy steam. You'll get a lot of
medium-sized bubbles that won't break when you thunk the pitcher
on the countertop. The perfect steam zone also carries a caveat: Too
much in too small a pitcher and you'll paint the walls with milk. I suggest nine ounces of milk/water
and a 20 ounce pitcher until you have a good feel for the cycles
I'm talking about. Then you should try a twelve ounce pitcher and
a single-sized amount of milk, say six ounces.
Whole Latte Love and 1st-line offer three-hole steam tips for Silvia.
The one from WLL is actually the Rancilio S23 steam tip attached to a
handy adapter. The three-hole steam tip from 1st-line is exclusively
theirs. I've tried both and I'm not overly impressed. They
are OK, although they feel like "cheater" tips when I use
them. They produce average foam very easily, but truly great foam with
much effort (see this discussion for more opinions).
My final suggestion for latte-art quality microfoam: Stop the
"stretching" phase early, around 70-85°F and spin
longer. Following suggestions in The
Milk Frothing Guide, I've tried stretching as high as
140°F for cappuccinos and that works well on heat exchanger
espresso machines, which have lots of steam volume in addition to high velocity.
You will get way too much milk expansion if you do the same with Silvia.
In short, Silvia is a great steamer, but does require a certainly
level of finesse. Set aside a few hours, focus on the basics outlined
above, and be patient.
Silvia at her worse is finicky and demanding. At her best,
she'll kick butt on espresso machines costing twice the price. The
difference is all in the barista. In some respects this makes the Rancilio Silvia an
ideal espresso machine for those wanting to "be one with the
bean." For those with extra cash and less patience, there are
better choices. The good news is that if you decide to apprentice on
this machine, you won't have an inordinate cash outlay and are
assured good resale value should you want to upgrade someday.
If you see yourself preparing lots of cappuccinos or lattes, you may
want to consider a heat exchanger (or dual-boiler) espresso machine.
However, for a drink or two, a heat exchanger or dual boiler borders on
overkill. Again, putting the temperature surfing issue aside for a
moment, the most important consideration is whether you want to serve
successive milk-based drinks.
If the answer is yes, then Silvia is not a good fit. If you are
very focused, you can prepare milk-based drinks for four people in 20-25
minutes. I found it became more chore than pleasure, so I limited group
service to three people (myself included). After upgrading to a heat
exchanger espresso machine, I never wait for it, independent of group
size. To be clear, I can recommend Silvia if you're
willing to work a little harder and don't mind the inherent
delays. If you decide later to upgrade, its resale is very good.
Reminder: Don't skimp on the grinder. I initially paired Silvia with the
Solis Maestro. It is a capable grinder for drip coffee and a good
price-to-performance value. However, frustrated by inconsistencies in my
pours, I later upgraded to the Rancilio Rocky. Rocky doesn't have
the "float" it its settings like Maestro, thanks to
Rocky's top burr being set in a threaded brass cylinder; in
contrast, Maestro's rides atop a nylon bushing. Like Silvia, Rocky
is also a heavy, solid performer (approximately 25 and 15 lbs,
Want more information?
This review was my first official consumer review and it was
originally written in 2003 based on a stock Rancilio Silvia. See
Silvia Flash Review, Reloaded
for an update based on a modified electronically-controlled version
of this very popular home espresso machine (NB: this modification is often called a "PID" because of the
Proportional-Integral-Derivative algorithms the controller uses).