Recommendations -- Lever versus E61 espresso machine?

Recommendations for buyers and upgraders from the site's members.
User avatar
drgary
Team HB

#1: Post by drgary »

Hello All:

I thought I would draw on your great collective experience and ask for suggestions for an upgrade from a (non) starter Saeco machine to something better than a Silvia, since everyone seems to appreciate that machine but then upgrades. I've got a Lelit PL53 grinder, so that element's taken care of for now.

So I'm trying to decide between a lever machine and an E61 Hx. I'll probably shop for something used. My espresso consumption is a bit unusual. After reading the posts on espresso and cholesterol, I put the shot through a Melitta filter. This is after testing the idea by trying it at Blue Bottle, where I find the taste very satisfying even after the filtering when drinking their wonderful double ristrettos. The flavor's well-defined and wonderfully intense even after it's used in a soy cappuccino or latte, not to mention a Gibralter (a capp with less milk).

I sometimes like to make cappuccinos. But it's just my wife and me and we don't have many large parties where I'd have to pull many consecutive shots or steam more than two caps.

I've read comments here about clarity of flavors, which I can appreciate when I compare the muddy results at best using Blue Bottle's Hayes Valley espresso on my Saeco versus what they make on their La Marzocco commercial machine, which they can also dose much higher and use lower temperature pre-infusion, etc. I've also read about the forgiving nature of the E61 brew group although am a bit concerned about the power consumption of bringing one of those up to temperature. And I've read that the E61 makes lots of crema and tends to make a sweeter, less defined cup than lever machines. In my case, crema for mouth feel isn't important. I've got access to many blends and single origins in San Francisco, so I'm eager to try different coffee flavors and want decent equipment for this.

What else? I'm thinking of having a machine PID'd to have easier temperature control and do know about temperature surfing. I'm not particular about buying a collector's item, just reasonable price and more consistent and satisfying results, with a thicker, more concentrated result than I can currently achieve. I want to get something where a bottomless portafilter can be purchased in order to refine my technique. I also want a machine with good steaming ability. My current equipment doesn't easily make microfoam. The steam's too "wet" (cold) so the foam is often dry, and I want to experiment with what I've seen in that online steaming video using soap bubbles to improve technique.

What are your recommendations for less expensive lever machines versus a used E61 HX?

This will be interesting. I look forward to learning from you! :D
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

User avatar
another_jim
Team HB

#2: Post by another_jim »

In terms of usability: in an E61, the group is connected to the boiler with a thermosyphon loop. This added mass always requires a full hour's warmup. Unless you schedule your shots, you will need to leave it on all day. Lever machines have the groups bolted to the boilers and warmup in 15 to 30 minutes. A very good pair of entry level HX semi-autos are made by Bezzera. The BZ02 has a bolt on group, the BZ07 has a group heater. Both are ready to go in a half hour.

You already know that it will be more of a production to get good shots from a lever machine. However, either way, you can mostly forget about equaling the shots from the cafe unless you learn good technique. Get a scale and a bottomless portafilter, and use them until you learn to make consistently dosed and packed shots that taste the same shot after shot.

In terms of taste: the two kinds are at opposite extremes. The E61 makes a big goopy body shot (think symphony orchestra and choir in a cathedral), and shows best of any machine for classic espresso blends; the levers produce understated and clear flavors (think cello in a recording studio), and does the best job for lightly roasted SOs. The Bezzera is somewhere in the middle, and will do well, but not best in class, across the board.

Personally, if I were buying a machine for myself now, I'd get one of the Bezzeras. However, an Elektra or Ponte Vecchio lever, or any of the ca. $1250 entry level E61s will be good choices.

Of course, some of this discussion is theoretical. Espresso works on the Wizard of Oz principal; 80% of the taste quality is from the grinder, that is, the man behind the curtain, and only 20% from the wizard machine. The L'Elit is a good entry level grinder, whereas the Saeco is a subpar machine, but still, you would also experience a distinct improvement going to a used Super Jolly or Vario.
Jim Schulman

User avatar
drgary
Team HB

#3: Post by drgary »

Thanks, Jim, for your sage advice. You've written elsewhere, I think, about achieving flavor clarity on a sem-automatic, and if I'm not mistaken, this was on a high-end machine, an Elektra T1? You also write very helpfully about adjusting for taste parameters. And I know you remind those who get all wrapped up in the machine side that the mano factor is far more important. Do you think an E61 machine would be a good one also for refining clarity? For temperature warm-up, I would get an appliance timer, so it would be waiting for me in the morning all warmed up, and then I would shut it off when I leave for work.

Thanks to the advice of many, I do have a gram scale that helps lots. I forget the term for this but in addition to Weiss Distribution Technique, I am using the method where one wiggles the tamper to lightly pack the four sides before tamping down more firmly in the middle, and this has helped consistency with my Saeco. Do you believe it's worthwhile to get an E61 with PID to get more control over the temperature variable, or is that a fad for that type of machine, given its temperature stability and the well-known technique of temperature surfing E61s?

I appreciate your recommendation on the grinder, too. I think I'll upgrade one element at a time, leapfrogging now to an adequate espresso machine, and once I've gotten more proficient with that, I can take the Lelit to my office and combine it with an inexpensive lever machine there. For much later of course and for other readers of this thread, are there any lever machines to avoid because they're subpar?
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

User avatar
drgary
Team HB

#4: Post by drgary »

BTW, I'm leaning toward an E61 instead of the Bezzeras you initially recommend just because they've been on the market for so long I can probably pick one up inexpensively.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

User avatar
another_jim
Team HB

#5: Post by another_jim »

Pleasure talking to somebody who's done his homework.

I use the Elektrica Semiautomatica, a home machine, which has slightly better flavor clarity than the E61s, but not quite as much body (The A3 and T1 also have the body). The Bezzeras have a group design which is nearly identical to the Elektra groups and in my tests achieved shots with the same clarity.

The Pasquini Livia, the Bezzera BZ01, and the Bezzera BZ02 are all identical under the skin and have been around for a while. If you are looking for a used machine with quicker warm up and more clarity, these would be the ones to trawl for on Ebay. I have no idea if they are easier to find or cheaper to buy.

Your packing technique is called the Staub tamp, named after Carl Staub, of Agtron fame, who came up with it.
Jim Schulman

User avatar
drgary
Team HB

#6: Post by drgary »

I'm intrigued by the group design of the Bezzeras you describe and have seen Livias on the market. I just found out I have a little more budget for this so may go for one of the machines you mentioned plus a grinder. Between Super Jolly and Vario, which do you prefer? I really appreciate your comments on shot clarity and balance between that and body across different machines -- you and the other experienced members here have done us all a service.

For lever machines, should one stick to an Elektra or Ponte Vecchio or would other common brands offer similar results in the cup? BTW, I had fun reading about your tests of a very simple, antique lever machine from the 1970s. [Later edit FYI: this was a discussion about a La Peppina. See: La Peppina vs Elektra Microcasa a Leva]
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

User avatar
another_jim
Team HB

#7: Post by another_jim »

I'm not an expert on lever machines; but as far as I know, it is the spring levers that have the exceptional clarity. You need to check in the lever forum for detailed info.

I like the Vario and SJ equally for espresso grind quality. Up to you whether you want something completely bullet proof, or something more flexible and house broken.
Jim Schulman

User avatar
drgary
Team HB

#8: Post by drgary »

BTW, after Jim's recommendation of a Bezzera BZ02, I remembered that I had seen its twin online, apparently the same machine imported by Gensaco. http://www.gensaco.com/homuse.html I mention this because perhaps I would see one or the other on sale used or refurb.

At this point, since I'm reaching beyond my experience, I wonder whether I would have better control of results if I follow Jim's initial take and get a Bezzera machine or a Pasquini Livia, both of which have similar groups and would balance richness and shot clarity, or whether I could get similar results and more control by getting an E61 with PID, since so many are doing that and getting results they really like? (Or, as I asked earlier, is PID not so important in an E61 because of the brew group's stability and the well-known method of temperature flushing ... and I do have a garden for recycling the extra water!

I take Jim's point of course that mano or technique is very important and appreciate his guidelines in his recent post about variables affecting flavor. See Mano Lite: A Short Guide to Dialing in Espresso SOs and Blends. I also acknowledge his advice that the grinder is the more important choice.

But such issues being beside the point of getting a better than adequate espresso machine, am I really looking at a trivial difference between the non-E61 HX machines listed above versus an E61 HX with PID? With sufficient technique, would each be capable of producing consistent shots with clarity and intensity? (Oh to have the budget for an Elektra T1 or a La Marzocco GS/3!)

My point here is actually not to get too theoretical, something Jim warned against, but to make a careful choice that will last me many years before I get upgraditis (famous last words, no?)!
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

User avatar
another_jim
Team HB

#9: Post by another_jim »

I believe there's three sources of upgradeitis.

The first is the simplest. Almost any car on the road now has a handling and speed envelope one cannot approach in 99% of driving situations; yet many people buy high end cars for the sheer pleasure of owning something well engineered and aesthetically pleasing. Most people buying very high end espresso gear fall into this category; it's less about expecting revelations and god shots, and more about being able to accommodate and afford the very best. There's nothing wrong with living large, and if you have this mind set, by all means go for it.

The second is the vacuous one: being under the delusion that barista omnipotence is just around the next technological corner. Tip for those interested: For the next two weeks that corner is pressure profiling, and you need to buy a Slayer. But do it fast before it's old hat, and the next magic wand appears.

The third is functional and fairly self limiting: needing to trust your espresso set up to produce the flavors nature and the blender/roaster intended for every coffee. In this respect, any of the machines discussed will do the job, scoring 8.5 out of 10 or better on all the taste aspects. At the very high end, you might get up to 9.5 out of 10 on everything, but it would be a tweak, not a transformation, of the taste of the coffee. For this purpose, the bigger payback is on getting a really top grinder and being very painstaking pulling shots. If I needed to explore the possibilities of an unknown espresso blend, I'd have more trust in using a basic Saeco or Gaggia, matched to a big commercial conical, a 0.1 gram scale, and a bottomless PF than using a GS/3, matched to a Mini or other domestic grinder, and no scale, no bottomless.
Jim Schulman

User avatar
drgary
Team HB

#10: Post by drgary »

Thanks for your map and coordinates, Jim!

I'm getting the means together and will post the results.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!