Do I need an upgrade to make good espresso?

Recommendations for buyers and upgraders from the site's members.
zepol

#1: Post by zepol »

First off I'm a long time lurker who's found this site to be an amazing source of information and a generally fun read. Thanks.

The problem is that my espresso shots are consistently bitter and harsh. There are good tastes in the shot, but I cannot seem to make the harshness go away. Here's some background information. Eight months ago I bought a Silvia / Rocky doserless combination. Silvia has had the OPV pressure reduced to 8.5 bar and Rocky has the Teflon tape mod. I brew freshly roasted Black Cat, use the WDT, and underdose slightly (around 14g in a ridgeless double basket) using a convexly cut credit card. Tamp is around 30lb. I reverse temperature surf, brewing 45-60 sec after the boiler light goes off. I set the grind to mostly fill my Illy espresso cup in 25-30 sec. This is at seven or eight clicks above true zero. Crema is good. I rarely have obvious channeling issues, e.g. jets from the naked portafilter. I have experimented with the variables above but the harshness remains.

Here's the complication. I recently took a barista training class at Intelligentsia. By the way, the two trainers, Matt Riddle and Andy Carey, were great. It is humbling to see great latte art prepared so effortlessly, but I digress. The best part was that I got to play with two and three group Linea machines and Robur grinders. My "problem" is that almost every shot I pulled was better than anything I have ever pulled at home. Not just a little better. Order of magnitude better. And I was working fast, trying not to display my dorky home technique: no WDT, just grind, use finger to make small mound, tamp, brew. Now I know that I have the capability to pull a shot in the same class as what I've had at Intelligentsia, Ritual Roasters, etc.

The question I'd like to pose is how to proceed from here. I'm beginning to think that I am equipment-limited. I've thought about some things I might try:
  • If temperature management issue: Do more temp surfing experiments on Silvia. Buy or make a portafilter thermometer. Install a PID. Upgrade the machine.

    If other issue with Silvia: Upgrade the machine.

    If grind quality issue: Upgrade the grinder as the Teflon tape mod is the only thing I know to try and I've done it already.

    Technique issue: ?
Any ideas or comments? Before the barista class I would have guessed that I was the culprit. Now I think it may be the espresso machine or grinder. Please help my marriage by stopping me before I go on an equipment buying spree. :D

Thanks again for the wonderful site.
- Rob

CGP4

#2: Post by CGP4 »

Have you incorporated the simpler techniques you were using at the training session back into your home routine? In any case, plenty of great espresso is being made on Silvias; if you have the urge to upgrade, change out the grinder first. You'll probably find that that's enough to keep you happy (for a while at least). I think a Mazzer Mini, Macap M4 or Cimbali Junior (my favorite) would make precise distribution less important than with a doserless Rocky, and you'll be better able to focus on brew temperature.

Temp management is important. Try some different techniques and keep tasting until you're happy. I, myself, am partial to running water through the group until the flash boiling stops (see the video embedded in the recent Silvia review over on CoffeeGeek for an example).)

zepol

#3: Post by zepol »

Have you incorporated the simpler techniques you were using at the training session back into your home routine?
It's funny. The simple technique was the first thing I tried when I got home. The shot channeled like crazy, spraying the front of the machine and the counter, and tasted horrible. I had to pour it out.
In any case, plenty of great espresso is being made on Silvias; if you have the urge to upgrade, change out the grinder first.
I don't really want to upgrade anything. My impression, going into this hobby, was that the Silvia / Rocky combination would produce espresso the equal of fancier equipment, but would just be more finicky. So WDT, temperature surfing, etc would be the price I paid in convenience for the equipment savings. That may still be right and the problem may be with me. I just have doubts given what I saw at the barista class.

But thanks for the advice about the grinder first. It's certainly cheaper than a machine, plus I could use the Rocky for decaf or take it to work to use with the moka pot.
Temp management is important. Try some different techniques and keep tasting until you're happy. I, myself, am partial to running water through the group until the flash boiling stops (see the video embedded in the recent Silvia review over on CoffeeGeek for an example).)
I'll check this out. I assume that you start with the boiler at steam temperature? At brew temperature my Silvia never exhibits flash boiling.
- Rob

CGP4

#4: Post by CGP4 »

Sounds like you already have a good grasp on the variables! My Silvia was very sensitive to updosing, but it sounds like that can't be an issue based on what you're doing. I'll also assume you've been keeping the machine clean with CleanCaf or the like during your ownership. My last thought would be temp-related again. How long to you let your machine idle/warm-up before pulling shots? Although you can get acceptable results withing 10-15 minutes of turning it on, I found shots were much better and more consistent after being on an hour.

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Randy G.

#5: Post by Randy G. »

I have experienced much better espresso on a much more consistent level when I went from Silvia (nearly seven years of ownership) to the Vibiemme Domobar, using the same Rocky grinder and generally, the same roast and blend with both. Based on that I would say that the Rocky is probably not the culprit. And even though better equipment can make a difference, I think you have some potential left in Silvia before throwing money at the problem.

First, you said that Silvia had the brew force turned down to 8.5, but how was it set and how long ago? Was it done with a blind filter or during a simulated flow rate? Was the gauge accurate? Maybe it as changed since it was set? Is 8.5 correct for you? Have you tried 8.75 or 9?

More importantly I would think that temperature is the key issue. There is a mass of data and anecdotal evidence showing that Silvia does indeed respond very well to PID temperature control that cannot be had with any surfing method. Kits are available starting at about $190 or so or if you are handy, you can piece together a system for about half that or less, depending on whether you have any things like wire, connectors, etc.

And, there is also the factor of the coffee- Try a few different single origins, or another blend.
Espresso! My Espresso! - http://www.EspressoMyEspresso.com
LMWDP #644

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HB
Admin

#6: Post by HB »

zepol wrote:The problem is that my espresso shots are consistently bitter and harsh.
Those are general terms, but bitter usually means the temperature is too high, or it's overextracted. Jim offers several other diagnosis possibilities in The Home Barista's Guide to Espresso. I'm with Randy and am inclined to blame the temperature for this particular case, or another possibility is the blend is being fussier about temperature stability. Lately I've pulled Black Cat cool at around 198F with good results.
zepol wrote:There is a mass of data and anecdotal evidence showing that Silvia does indeed respond very well to PID temperature control that cannot be had with any surfing method.
I never PID'd my Silvia, but I spent a couple weeks playing with Mike's and documented it. The convenience was quite impressive. However, I was reminded how much easier La Valentina and similar E61 were in comparisons. Jim's comments are in the Silvia writeup too:
another_jim wrote:That being said, I don't think that the Silvia is up to the standard of E61s, Elektra Semi, Cimbalis or LMs (the machines whose production I know fairly well) in terms of the tradeoff in shot clarity and density. The Silvia's gloppy shots basically taste muddier to me than any of these other machines. If one doses less, leaves plenty of headspace, the taste clarifies, but the shots start tasting thin. I haven't as yet tried underdosing and ultra-fine grinding the triple basket -- this may be the best route to a really high quality shot on this machine.

I should also say that one needs considerable experience with espresso, as well as access to great blends and excellent grinders, before the differences I'm talking about here will either matter to anyone, or where ones shot making skills are consistent enough to regularly get to the standard required for these distinctions to be apparent.
On a related note, I was surprised that the guy who dedicated years to the definitive Silvia fan site (Espresso! My Espresso!) recently wrote:
Randy G. wrote:While we were sipping our morning cappas she talked about how much smoother the coffee had been since the VBM arrived, and that the morning drinks were so much more consistent now. "Except for that one morning, they have been really good every time." 'That one morning...' I'll never hear the end of that one.... :wink:
Which echoes my comments in the introduction of the La Valentina review:
HB wrote:I soon discovered that producing a superior shot with Valentina was also a fraction of the effort that Silvia required. In very little time, I routinely pulled shots that were better than 80% of those I ever managed with Silvia, despite my adherence to a strict routine.
All this said, the Rancilio Silvia is unquestionably capable of producing very good espresso in the right hands (and if the moon is in the proper phase). But it doesn't compete well against the equipment at your disposal during your barista training. On the other hand, it weighs several hundred pounds less and sells for a fraction of the price, so what did you expect?

Returning to your question, "Do I need an upgrade to make good espresso?", I would say no. Problems like bitterness and harshness aren't intrinsic to your current setup and upgrading is an expensive way of correcting the problem. Work the temperature, try a different blend, re-read some of the suggestions above. If you're still unsatisfied two months from now, the good news it will be the holiday gift-giving season.
Dan Kehn

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Psyd

#7: Post by Psyd »

HB wrote:All this said, the Rancilio Silvia is unquestionably capable of producing very good espresso
Returning to your question, "Do I need an upgrade to make good espresso?", I would say no. Problems like bitterness and harshness aren't intrinsic to your current setup and upgrading is an expensive way of correcting the problem. Work the temperature,
Listen to your site hero, he knows of what he speaks. I hae a Silvia Rocky Combo at my GF's house, and 275 lb, $7800, 240V gorilla two-group (of acceptable lineage, but no LM or Synesso) married to a pair of Majors. Because I've been training on the Silvia for years, I've mastered her intricacies. I can get shots that would compare to most pro baristi (and I meant the good ones, not yer average highschool kid with a part time 'spro job). As good? Probably not, but still pretty darned good. Better than what you'd get at about ninety percent of the countries coffee shops, if my experiences are anywhere near accurate. Better even than, what I thought would be, the ultimate upgradeitis cure, the pro, plumbed, two-group, eater of kitchens.
Spend your money on some gear to check pressure and temperature, or upgrade because you need more coffee faster (I'm thinking that Silvia is good for two milk drinks in a row, and then you need to start over...)
For what it's worth, I've heard that the newer Silvia's will produce good results if you pull the shot just after the light goes out. Try turning her on and immediately running water through the wand to make sure the boiler is full. As soon as you start to get water out of the wand, it's topped off. Turn off the water switch and close the steam/water valve, and let her warm up for at least a half-hour. I like to go forty-five, some will say an hour. Half hour minimum. Then grind your beans an load your PF. I've been getting great results from level baskets, you do what you need to do. If your getting 2 to 2.5 ounces in 25 to 30 seconds, you should do what you're doing. If they tend to blonde early and/or run fast, updose to the level basket.
It sounded as if you have a naked portafilter? If you do, it's fairly easy to see where blonde starts, it's where the cone starts to diminish and the striping goes away, and the stream starts to be lighter and all one color. If you don't have a naked, look for the white spot in the crema around the stream. You really want to stop the pull just before that starts, but it takes a few times of seeing when that's coming before you can anticipate it, of course.
Anyhoo, once you get the PF dosed and tamped, run a little water through the steam wand til the light comes on. Lock in. As soon as the light goes off, start the pull. Watch for blonding, and stop.
Check your time vs volume math, and adjust the rocky as necessary. Wash, rinse, repeat, til you have a two to two-and-a-half ounce drink in just under thirty seconds. Once you have that down, taste it. If it's still bitter and harsh, then start playing around with surfing. Change one variable at a time. First make sure that the thing has stabilized, temperature-wise then get pull time and volume right, then start temperature surfing.
Good Luck!
Espresso Sniper
One Shot, One Kill

LMWDP #175

zepol

#8: Post by zepol »

Thanks for all the responses.
HB wrote:the Rancilio Silvia is unquestionably capable of producing very good espresso in the right hands
I don't mean to malign the Silvia, I just wonder if I have the right hands. Anyway, the discussion is heartening, and leads me to think I haven't fully explored the espresso variable parameter space, in particular temperature. I think I'll do some experimentation with temperature surfing this weekend, and will post my results here. If the issue is overextraction, what should I do?

As for pressure,
Randy G. wrote:First, you said that Silvia had the brew force turned down to 8.5, but how was it set and how long ago? Was it done with a blind filter or during a simulated flow rate? Was the gauge accurate? Maybe it as changed since it was set? Is 8.5 correct for you? Have you tried 8.75 or 9?
I occasionally check the pressure with my homemade tool and it hasn't varied. I have no idea if the tool is accurate or if 8.5 bar is the best value. I made the tool from a cheap hardware store pressure gauge. I just heard that the stock 11 bar was too high for ristrettos and adjusted accordingly. This didn't solve the harshness problem. Perhaps I should do some experimentation here.

As for upkeep,
CGP4 wrote:Sounds like you already have a good grasp on the variables! My Silvia was very sensitive to updosing, but it sounds like that can't be an issue based on what you're doing. I'll also assume you've been keeping the machine clean with CleanCaf or the like during your ownership.
I do the portafilter wiggle after every shot, backflush with water every day, disassemble the shower screen for a soak in CleanCaf once per week, backflush with CleanCaf once per month, and descale once per quarter.

And as for updosing,
CGP4 wrote:My Silvia was very sensitive to updosing
I have observed exactly the same thing. I experimented with the right amount of underdosing, and made a credit card tool that leaves the right amount of coffee in the basket for Black Cat. Interestingly, Black Cat decaf likes to have a larger volume in the basket. The other side of my credit card tool is for decaf and is less convex.
- Rob

JimG

#9: Post by JimG »

I'm a little suspicious of the fact that you don't get any steam from the brew head when you flush. Normally on my Silvia's there is at least a little steam that spits out before the hot water.

A very simple method to determine if your brew temperature is too low is to turn on the steam switch for 15-30 seconds before pulling a shot. This will raise the boiler temperature several degrees. If your shots taste better using the steam switch this way, then your brew temp is probably too low now.

Jim

Randii

#10: Post by Randii »

As you probably know, the new version of Silvia has a brew thermostat which is set at 100C, 10C lower than the original thermostat. I found that the brew temperature - just when the light goes out, and at 60 seconds after the light goes out - were the "optimal" times to take the shot. I also turned on the steam switch for about 5 to 10 seconds before hitting the brew switch, to help stabilize the brew temperature during the shot.

Seven to 8 clicks above zero seems a bit loose from my experience with Rocky, Silvia and Black Cat. I was using 4 to 5 clicks above zero for Black Cat. I also only used 14 to 16 grams of coffee with Silvia, because I too, found she had problems with updosing. Heather Perry taught me to taste the extraction every few seconds with a teaspoon, to see what is happening with the "layers" throughout the extraction. You might want to try that to see where things are going "pear shaped" in your extraction.

I have to say though (full disclosure), I did upgrade my Silvia after owning her for only two months, to an Expobar Brewtus II. I had a choice to PID the machine, or buy a better machine, and I decided that it would be wiser to spend the money on a better machine. I too, have found that the quality of my espresso is much better and much more consistent since my upgrade, and that it is much easier for me to get good extractions. The Brewtus doesn't make me "suffer" for my art! :wink: