Sources of espresso equipment upgraditis

Recommendations for buyers and upgraders from the site's members.
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HB
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#1: Post by HB »

Jim's comment on the sources of espresso equipment upgraditis is spot on! To prevent it being lost in another thread, I've promoted it to its own top-level thread:
another_jim wrote:I believe there's three sources of upgraditis.

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.

From Recommendations -- Lever versus E61 espresso machine?
To elaborate on Jim's point from one of my posts in another thread, many of the espresso machines reviewed on this site rest comfortably on the cost/value "knee". Above this price point (around $1400), the in-cup difference becomes smaller and smaller, and other considerations like better convenience, consistency, workmanship, and capacity come into play. To get a concrete appreciation of what I mean, read the conclusions for the Quickmill Vetrano and Elektra A3. I authored both reviews and I tried to capture the cost/benefit of each model as well as the "feel" of each.

To be clear, the differences between those at the cost/value knee and those well above it aren't manifested exclusively as raw performance. I've never driven a Mercedes Benz or worn a Rolex (you'd need to drop at least another zero for my price range), but I imagine the same observation holds true between mid-tier and upper-tier representatives in most consumer products.

For reference, in my rough guidelines for today's espresso equipment market, the entry to high-entry tier is around $200 to $600, the mid-tier covers machines up to the mid $2000s and the upper tier starts around the low $3000s. You can always spend more and guys like Kees van der Westen will be happy to oblige with custom kit like the Speedster. It's more than I'm willing to spend, but still, it's oddly comforting that the difference in price between a representative espresso machine at the cost/value knee and one of the most tricked out espresso machines on the planet is "only" an order of magnitude.
Dan Kehn

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tekomino

#2: Post by tekomino »

HB wrote:To be clear, the differences between those at the cost/value knee and those well above it aren't manifested exclusively as raw performance. I've never driven a Mercedes Benz or worn a Rolex (you'd need to drop at least another zero for my price range), but I imagine the same observation holds true between mid-tier and upper-tier representatives in most consumer products.
But there is big difference in driving feel and handling characteristics between Ford Fusion, mid-tier, and even Mercedes Benz C-class or BMW 3-series, high-mid-tier. You can put me blind folded to drive these cars and I will be able to tell them apart. You would be too. I agree that cost/value knee is not manifested 100% in raw performance, if you look at raw performance as going from point A to point B, but few enthusiast look at their vehicles that way.

Same holds true I believe for espresso machines. While grinder is supremely important it is again, just one part, albeit major one, of whole espresso making equipment deal. Machines do have different taste characteristics. For me E61 group machines produce what I taste as "heavy" tasting shots. Olympia Maximatic produces "sharp" tasting shots for my palate. GS/3 produces fairly balanced shots in my taste. Olympia Cremina produces "clearer" tasting espresso, etc. etc.

You cannot say there is anything wrong with any of these taste observations, they are at the end subjective and some will like them and some will not. The more expensive machines, I believe, maximize the taste characteristics of their design and provide consistency that cheaper machines can't touch. So from raw performance point of view, which is taste of espresso, to me there is clear difference. You can add to that ease of use, consistency, reliability, status symbol value etc. and different people place different values to all these, but for me, enthusiast, it is about first and foremost the taste and then consistency.

Again, as I said, we are discussing machines as proxy to discussing taste, and as a rule, you can't judge taste effectively since it is subjective.

If for your palate cheaper machines produce great espresso you are in great luck :D And there is nothing wrong with that (tm) And if for your palate expensive machine makes better tasting espresso, there is nothing wrong with that either.

As I said in other topic, my ideal machine is the one with balanced tasting group head design that is temperature stable and allows temperature and pressure profiles to be set. And I'll upgrade to it if it ever becomes available for reasonable price :)

And as end-point, machines do matter based on evidence shown here. I see lot of seasoned HB participants with some pretty high-end espresso gear :wink:

So, do more expensive machines make better espresso than cheaper machines? Yes, for some people, most of the time, with greater consistency given all other equal parameters. How's that?
Refuse to wing it! http://10000shots.com

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Marshall

#3: Post by Marshall »

another_jim wrote: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.
No. The next great thing is chucking out your espresso equipment and buying a good bulk grinder, filter holder and pour kettle (most likely Hario). Seriously. I was discussing this trend with a WBC winner yesterday, and he tied it to the Slow Food movement, which I hadn't thought of, but which makes perfect sense.

Enjoy your hand-dripped Burundi with the local strawberries you bought at your Farmers' Market. Now, you're riding the wave!
Marshall
Los Angeles

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Spitz.me

#4: Post by Spitz.me »

The real source is subjectively manifested within each individual. Upgradeitis is different depending on what you have. It's obviously tiered at 'lower' levels where you'll see that - within one ability to do so - upgrading is a matter of utility, really. I know that's generalizing and people can refute that until their blue in the face with VERY specific examples, but generally if I have a 'cheap' espresso machine or any consumer product for that matter, I/WE will be inclined to upgrade it.

Let's not believe that this concept is lost on people with Linea's and GS/1-3's and similarily priced and competitive products. Time is a major contributing factor to upgradeitis along with upgrades in technology and best practice adoptions. I would bet the house that at least one person believes that if they had a GS/3 they wouldn't ever NEED to upgrade, which is essentially true for really any machine that DAN describes as being at that cost/value knee, but people still look to upgrade.

It's ignorant to believe that because you spend 7k on espresso equipment that you'll never get upgradeitis. Everything DOES get super-ceded, it's just a matter of time and when THAT time comes we all know what happens. Having a hobby like espresso is like trying to climb the slippery slope we're on with bare feet, a blind fold and our hands tied behind our back.

Having said all that, I do believe you can do things to help thwart the incessant need to upgrade like starting with a nice HX machine and a b-vario hahahaha

Great quote by Jim and a great post Dan and Dennis.
I know I've pulled a great shot when the flavour is 'like a beany taste that tastes like a bean'.

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HB
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#5: Post by HB »

Marshall wrote:No. The next great thing is chucking out your espresso equipment and buying a good bulk grinder, filter holder and pour kettle (most likely Hario). Seriously.
Good counterpoint, I'm reminded of the thread Downgraditus?

Overall, I believe focusing more on the coffee and less on gear will bring greater improvements to the enjoyment of espresso/other brew preparations. To wit, we're planning on spending more time reviewing coffee than equipment this year, starting with the Favorite Espresso Blends 2010 review.
Dan Kehn

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tekomino

#6: Post by tekomino »

HB wrote:we're planning on spending more time reviewing coffee than equipment this year, starting with the Favorite Espresso Blends 2010 review.
Fantastic idea, can't wait. If you guys need any help you know where to find me.
Refuse to wing it! http://10000shots.com

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Peppersass
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#7: Post by Peppersass »

Me too. Can't wait to read about the coffees!

I think Jim was almost correct in pointing to the aesthetically pleasing aspect of well-engineered top-of-the-line equipment, but I think tekomino was more correct in highlighting the sheer pleasure of using such equipment as more than just living large. There's a papable difference in the experience, provided you can afford it (and it's even better if you worked really hard to earn the bread :P ) Further, a high-peformance espresso machine can shift the focus from trying to coax performance out of the machine to other areas that may need more attention.

When I took the huge leap from Silvia to a GS/3, I knew the machine was no silver bullet. I was well aware that the grinder (a Macap M4 at the time) was a huge limiting factor, and my barista skills and lack of experience were an even greater limiting factor. It was a matter of opportunity: top-of-the-line machine for an irresistable price that I was able to afford. Many hassles later (which don't need repeating here), I'm a bit bloody and bowed, but still glad I took advantage of the opportunity. I seriously doubt that I would have a GS/3 today had the fire sale not taken place.

I would, however, probably have a Vivaldi II or similar feature-packed rotary DB in the "knee region". Silvia was a deliberate limited-financial-exposure test of whether I would be committed enough to espresso to jump in big time. When the answer turned out to be yes, I was destined to end up with one of the best home machines. Having started with one of the most hassle-packed machines on the market, I knew that I would not be satisfied until most of the hocus-pocus was eliminated. Nothing against HX machines -- they're an eminently sensible approach and a great bargain. I just wasn't interested in doing a lot of dancing around to stablize the temperature. I wanted to concentrate, first and foremost, on selecting the coffee, finding the optimum window after roast, and learning all I could about grinding, dosing, distributing and tasting. I wanted the machine to fade into the background. It's turned out that way, though not in a straight line path.

The theme of eliminating inconvenience/distraction and taking advantage of opportunity has driven my grinder selection as well, but the results have been quite different. Instead of immediately upgrading to a Titan grinder, as conventional wisdom might dictate, I bought a Baratza Vario (heavily influenced by Jim's recommendation.) Obviously, the GS/3 deserves to be paired with a top-quality grinder, and I do have the means. But I've setteled for a reasonable stop-gap solution because the grinder I really want doesn't exist and I don't want to install a massive new grinder that's basically a compromise.

The problem is that I have yet to find a Titan-level grinder that satisfies all of my criteria: large conical burrs, minimal retention, doserless, accurately timed, fits comfortably under an 18" cabinet (and in the space between the GS/3 and stove), runs off 110VAC. The only products that come close are the K30 with modified hopper (but it's flat burr and may not be a big enough step up from the BV tastewise) and the Versalab M3 (questionable design, even more questionable company, no timer.)

I suspect the Nino would please me the most of all the Titan grinders out there, but it's just too massive for the space and I'd have to run 240VAC to it. So, I wait. Meanwhile, I might buy another BV for decaf and/or a second coffee, and perhaps to play with other brewing techniques (Scott Rao's new book just arrived :D)

I'm sure a lot of people out there think I'm nuts for having spent a pantload on the GS/3 and not on the grinder. They'll say, "How can you settle for less than the very best cup?" Well, one thing I've learned over the past six months is that there's plenty of room to improve my skills, and thus what's in the cup. The BV is perfectly adequate to facilitate that. Meanwhile, it's helping me to (hopefully) optimize the eventual grinder purchase. Certainly, had the BV not been available, I'd probably have some big-*ss grinder by now and would have to sell it when my dream grinder finally sails in.

So, in my particular case, the availability of money doesn't necessarily drive all the decisions. For me, upgradeitis is often a matter of opportunity. I have plenty of ability to resist the call when the upgrade doesn't meet my criteria, but I tend to pounce when I think it does and the price is right.

zin1953

#8: Post by zin1953 »

"Random thoughts and bon mots . . . " (with apologies in advance to Scott Ostler)
another_jim wrote:I believe there's three sources of upgraditis.
I believe there is at least one more, unless you feel like "shoe-horning" the following with those listed above. One cannot overlook "peer pressure," as in everyone else has a ____________________ (insert machine/grinder/tamper here); I need to get one, too! or similar sentiment . . . "Keeping up with the Joneses" in other words, be it a specific machine, a grinder, or just -- generally speaking -- a class of machines (e.g.: a DB over an HX). A classic example might be the Baratza Vario (aka Mahlkönig VARIO Home), but it changes with the "buzz" of the moment.

With regard to Dan's comments re:
Mr. HB himself wrote:Above this price point (around $1400), the in-cup difference becomes smaller and smaller, and other considerations like better convenience, consistency, workmanship, and capacity come into play.
I must say that I agree completely. I know that I certainly appreciate the increase in "convenience, consistency, workmanship, and capacity" of my Elektra T1 over my La Valentina. Trust me: refilling the reservoir gets really old real quick! But is the Elektra, in and of itself, making espresso that is twice as good as the La Val? Of course not. I am the one making the espresso, and I had no complaints about what I was making with the La Val . . . but I prefer the Elektra! The flavors are different. I find them "brighter," and more layered, but that could just as easily be my own palate rather than any concrete differences (though admittedly different machine can emphasize different profiles). Bottom line for me preferring the Elektra? In random order, the top three reasons are a) it's plumbed in whereas the La Val is not; b) it's quieter than the La Val; c) it's better looking in my kitchen! In other words, for me, it's all about the convenience and the workmanship . . . and the aesthetics.
tekomino wrote:Same holds true I believe for espresso machines. While grinder is supremely important it is again, just one part, albeit major one, of whole espresso making equipment deal. Machines do have different taste characteristics. For me E61 group machines produce what I taste as "heavy" tasting shots. Olympia Maximatic produces "sharp" tasting shots for my palate. GS/3 produces fairly balanced shots in my taste. Olympia Cremina produces "clearer" tasting espresso, etc. etc.

You cannot say there is anything wrong with any of these taste observations, they are at the end subjective and some will like them and some will not. The more expensive machines, I believe, maximize the taste characteristics of their design and provide consistency that cheaper machines can't touch. So from raw performance point of view, which is taste of espresso, to me there is clear difference. You can add to that ease of use, consistency, reliability, status symbol value etc. and different people place different values to all these, but for me, enthusiast, it is about first and foremost the taste and then consistency.
Dennis, I don't believe anyone has said that there is anything wrong with you taste observations, but I disagree that they are purely subjective. For example, two people can taste the difference between one wine and another, and while they may disagree about which one they like better (subjective), there is no disagreement over the fact that a) there is a difference, and b) what -- broadly* -- that difference may be (objective).

We agree that different machines emphasize different characteristics, and/or produce shots with more or less clarity that others, but we may disagree on which machine produces the "best" shots. It is the "best" that is subjective.

Having said that, I don't think anyone is comparing (e.g.) the quality of a $299 machine with that of a $10,000 machine. Rather, there are broad, ill-defined groupings, as Dan suggested -- under $600, up to the mid-$2,000's, above $3,000 . . . . For example, I put the Maximatic in the mid-category despite its price tag, whereas the Elektra "Sixties" models are in the upper-end. Just my 2¢. YMMV.

Cheers,
Jason

* This is true no matter what the experience level of the tasters may be, though the greater the experience, the more specific and articulate the discussion about those differences will be.
A morning without coffee is sleep. -- Anon.

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tekomino

#9: Post by tekomino »

zin1953 wrote:Dennis, I don't believe anyone has said that there is anything wrong with you taste observations
Oh, I did not mean it to sound like that at all. I tried to illustrate (probably rather badly) that my taste observation will not match taste observation from lot of other people...
zin1953 wrote:For example, two people can taste the difference between one wine and another
They may, may taste the difference. I do not agree at all that tasting the difference is given. I've experienced this many times where I've been able to taste the difference and my wife would say coffee is the same and vice-versa. Any human experience is purely subjective. :D

Shiny machine you like, may enhance/influence your experience of tasting espresso and you may think it tastes wonderful and 10 times better than cheap machine. Its just that, subjective.
zin1953 wrote:For example, I put the Maximatic in the mid-category despite its price tag, whereas the Elektra "Sixties" models are in the upper-end.
I agree and say mid-category only because it gets elevated by build quality, don't know about Elektra...

And I had to add this when we talk about subjective:
Refuse to wing it! http://10000shots.com

zin1953

#10: Post by zin1953 »

Dennis, I don't want to stray too far off topic, nor get involved in a debate on definitions . . . my point is that, even if the people cannot describe the differences between two wines/ristrettos/pieces of music, etc., they will know there is a difference in a side-by-side comparison. That is objective fact; but exactly what those differences are, and which is preferred (barring some sort of obvious chemical or bacteriological flaw in the case of a wine, for example) is a matter of subjective opinion.

I've made my living off this very point for nearly four decades.
tekomino wrote:I agree and say mid-category only because it gets elevated by build quality, don't know about Elektra...
If the Olympia is "mid-category only because it gets elevated by build quality," are you saying that the Olympia is actually a low-category machine with a high build quality? I'm confused. Actually, I'm very impressed with Olympia machines, but find them over-priced when new. For $3,677 new, I can think of several other HX machines I'd buy, and yet I'm very pleased with my Olympia Caffarex NT (built in 1989) and wouldn't think of selling it . . . Still, for that much money, I'd expect it to be plumbed-in, use a rotary pump, etc., etc.

(Now THAT is a subjective comment! :wink: )
A morning without coffee is sleep. -- Anon.