First espresso machine: Ascaso Steel Uno w/PID or Lelit PL62T Mara?

Recommendations for buyers and upgraders from the site's members.
MntnMan62

#1: Post by MntnMan62 »

I am a casual coffee drinker, typically having a cup in the morning and every so often another in the afternoon. My wife likes her mocha lattes (decaf) and visits Starbucks fairly frequently. I am presently drinking the swill produced by my old small Keurig or from a french press that I tend to use on weekends. I'm hankering for some quality coffee that was even more pronounced this weekend when I had a nice espresso at a high end steak house after dinner and this morning after my first visit to a new coffee shot bakery that makes a mean latte.

I have done a fair amount of reading online (always a dangerous thing), watching video demonstrations, talking with a neighbor who has a Nuova Simonelli Musica Lux and then visiting with Jim at 1st Line at his store. When I went to see Jim I had narrowed down my choices between two very different pricepoints. At the lower end I had decided upon the Ascaso Steel Uno w/PID and my upper end selection was the Bezzera Unica w/PID. After hearing my drink preferences and needs, Jim agreed with the Ascaso at that pricepoint but said I would be better off with the Lelit PL62T Mara at my upper pricepoint. He said the Lelit would be far better at producing steam for frothing than the Bezzera and after researching both machines further I agree with him. The Lelit's boiler is significantly larger than the Bezzera's.

My grinder decision was an easy one and will go with the Baratza Vario.

So, my question to you good people is whether I should save some money and go for the Ascaso as my first machine or should I spring for the Lelit? I will add that I do have limited counter space in my galley kitchen so the Lelit would be perfect for my lack of space. I also love the look of the Lelit over the Ascaso. I have never posted on this or any other coffee forum before but when I was looking for some stereo/hifi/home theater advice the good people at Audiogon were amazingly helpful in my thought process. So I thought this would be a good place to pose my thoughts before I plunk down either $850 or $1,399 for an espresso machine. I thank all of you in advance for having read this far and for any thoughts you wish to provide.

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jfrescki

#2: Post by jfrescki »

Since it sounds like you'll be making lattes for you wife, I think the ability of a heat exchanger over the Ascaso (which I believe is a single boiler/dual use machine) would make the decision for me. It looks like the Ascaso has a 325ml boiler which isn't going to be terribly temperature stable even with a PID. The Mara is a totally different machine.

EDIT: I've not used either machine so take this with a grain of salt.
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BenKeith

#3: Post by BenKeith »

I think you are going to find out, from anyone that really knows about making a good cup of coffee or good espresso, and your bottom line price might cover the grinder. So, when you are talking about a budget you would like to keep it in, how much are you planning all together for machine and grinder, because most put more importance in a high end grinder over a high end machine.

MntnMan62 (original poster)

#4: Post by MntnMan62 (original poster) »

jfreski, I agree with you. The Ascaso remains a consideration only because I've never owned an espresso machine before and it represents a less expensive option. But on the other hand I'm one of those people who likes to do things right and the Lelit will be much better at accomplishing that than the Ascaso. Clearly you can tell I'm just about ready to pull the trigger on the Lelit and just looking for confirmation that I won't be making the wrong decision.

And ben, your suggesting that I spend $1,400 on a grinder and then go out and buy a machine for less than that goes against everything I have read on lots of websites and from what I have heard from people who know how to make a good espresso.

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bluesman

#5: Post by bluesman »

MntnMan62 wrote:So, my question to you good people is whether I should save some money and go for the Ascaso as my first machine or should I spring for the Lelit?.
No question for me - I'd go with the Lelit option if you can. I bought a new Lelit SB Anna from Jim in the summer of 2014 and was blown away by the quality and value of the machine. Their products are beautiful and they make great coffee if you do. The Mara is a serious piece of equipment - it weighs almost twice what the Ascaso does, and it has the look and feel (at least, for me) of a much "better" machine. The Ascaso just seems industrial to me, without the chic. I sold my Lelit last month when we sold our house and moved to an apartment. I wanted a plumbed machine because we have much less counter space now, and moving the machine around to fill and use it would have been a pain. So I rebuilt a used direct-connect Oscar I got for $300 on Craigslist, and it's great until we finish outfitting the apartment and see where our budget leaves us (e.g. the house had a wine cellar, so we just ordered two 120 bottle Summit commercial wine refrigerators). But I have only admiration for Lelit and recommend their products highly. Even my little Anna steamed like a champ - it makes great microfoam fast, albeit with a single hole tip and a small boiler that's only up to a casual party pace. I hope the new owner loves it as much as I did.

1st Line has also been excellent - I consider them to be "my" dealer. I get any product I need from them if they sell it, and I often pick a substitute they do carry if they don't sell what I first wanted.

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canuckcoffeeguy

#6: Post by canuckcoffeeguy »

A wise man once said... Get the best machine and grinder you can afford the first time around.

Because when upgraditis takes hold, it's an unshakeable disease. It's all consuming. And you'll wake up at night, in a cold sweat, shaking, staring at the ceiling, wondering why you didn't get the shiny chrome and the gigantic burrs. :shock:

At that point, the only cure for the affliction which has plagued many home baristas since some goats in Yemen ate coffee cherries and got over-caffeinated(as the legend goes), is spending more money. And then you'll be left wondering why you didn't just increase your budget the first time around.

All kidding aside, that's basically the typical advice. Get the best combo you can afford, to stave off upgraditis later. And don't skimp on the grinder.

MntnMan62 (original poster)

#7: Post by MntnMan62 (original poster) »

canuckcoffeeguy wrote:And don't skimp on the grinder.
Canuck, I hear you loud and clear. And laughing as I type this. But seriously, do you think the Vario is a good choice? I'll be switching almost daily since my wife drinks decaf exclusively and I need my caffiene in the morning. I don't usually have coffee at night but probably will after buying the machine and would do decaf at night. So, the Vario?

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MntnMan62 (original poster)

#8: Post by MntnMan62 (original poster) »

Thanks Bluesman. Jim is great. No sales pressure when I went to visit the store and he has fielded a followup phone call and an email from me, again with no pressure. And my list of accessories will mostly be bought from him as well.

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canuckcoffeeguy

#9: Post by canuckcoffeeguy »

MntnMan62 wrote:Canuck, I hear you loud and clear. And laughing as I type this. But seriously, do you think the Vario is a good choice? I'll be switching almost daily since my wife drinks decaf exclusively and I need my caffiene in the morning. I don't usually have coffee at night but probably will after buying the machine and would do decaf at night. So, the Vario?
I started with a Vario and still have it/use it. So I can speak from my experience.

The Vario is a great value, bang for the buck grinder for the price. It's also much smaller than the commercial Titans. And with low retention, it's very well suited to single dosing, which is what you'll need to do if you want to change beans during the day, as you implied (caffeinated beans to decaf and back and forth etc.)

It also has burrs that enable the Vario to punch above its weight, so to speak. For espresso, you want the ceramic burrs. The ceramics are made by Mahlkoenig, and they know a thing or two about grinders and burrs.

Some have said the Vario is similar or better than a Mazzer Super Jolly in terms of taste. I can only compare side by side to my Compak K10PB, which does clearly(to me) produce better straight shots than the Vario. But it's a Titan conical that cost me 4 times as much as the Vario, so it should be better. Having said this, I still use my Vario for espresso, especially if I'm in a hurry -- because it requires less single dosing workarounds than my K10PB -- and the Vario still impresses for its small size and convenient form factor.

The main cons for the Vario are that some would say it doesn't possess commercial build quality. Well, that's true. It's not a commercial grinder and doesn't cost what a commercial costs. The big brother the Forte is more robust, but also costs a lot more. But if you're careful with your Vario, such as always running the grinder when changing the grind setting, and dedicating it to one brew method, it should last a long time.

That's a key thing to note: despite the Vario's claim to fame, that it can switch between espresso and brew easily, this is not really the case in reality. There are umpteen threads about people switching to French press grind from espresso, then back to espresso, only to to be met with frustration. In such situations, it might take a shot or two for the Vario to settle down and give you the espresso grind setting you want. Solution... Just use your Vario for one brew method at a time.

By all accounts Baratza has great customer service, so you won't be left hanging if something is amiss. That's another plus.

So at the end of the day, the Vario is a great value. And doesn't take up half your kitchen. And it single doses well.

Are there better grinders out there if you're strictly judging by taste? Are there other grinders more robust to withstand an attack by Skynet during the Terminator apocalypse? Yes. But you'll have to spend quite a bit more to jump to the next tier. And you'll also give up some convenience.

In the domain of grinders, you can't really have it all. Unless you really want to pony up for a really expensive grinder like a Titus or EG-1.

So you have to decide what priorities are important to you and your needs. Good luck!

BenKeith

#10: Post by BenKeith »

I would suggest you read the post just a couple above this one on choosing a machine/grinder. Also take note of the following line out of it.
At this point I should remind readers that many first-time buyers make the mistake of focusing on the espresso machine, not the grinder. While it seems like a grinder just reduces coffee beans to powder, its contribution to the cup is greater than the espresso machine. For example, I could readily pull better shots on a $1400 grinder + $400 espresso machine than a $100 grinder and a $14000 espresso machine. In other words, the order of importance of contributors to exceptional espresso are:

•Barista
•Coffee
•Grinder
•Espresso Machine