Back in the days when the world first began changing too quickly, when train stations, malls, and department stores were still new and sparkling; people wanted a quick shot of fresh coffee without interrupting their metropolitan promenades. And Luigi Bezzera was happy to oblige, creating the world's first espresso machine in 1901. Today's generation of Bezzeras continue this tradition, producing capable HX espresso machines for the home. Of these, perhaps the most deserving of wide recognition is the highly refined BZ07, an espresso machine with stunningly good performance at an entry level price. This review, however, is about an HX espresso machine with a twist: the Bezzera Strega.
The Bezzera Strega is a commercial lever group espresso machine in a small, pourover package designed for home use. Bezzera's goal for the Strega, as for all their home machines, was to make it so its owners could produce shots far superior to any capsule or superauto with only a minimal learning curve. But the application of this design philosophy to a lever espresso machine had an unintended and entirely spectacular consequence: they produced a lever-pump hybrid that, with a few simple operating tricks, can make some of the world's best espresso, especially when using lighter roasted coffees. These shots have a level of clarity, body, and wine-like sweetness that is only equaled by the most advanced double boiler, pressure profiling machines.
The Strega's espresso chops come from design features that control the temperature and the pressure in unique ways. The combination of heat exchanger and stored heat in the cylinder of the lever group produces a hot start/cool finish temperature profile. The higher initial temperature ensures a properly heated puck and a full extraction, so that the slower dissolving caramels and oils add sweetness and body to the faster extracting, aromatic fruit acids and Maillard reaction compounds (which create the toast, wood, and nut flavors). The lowered finishing temperature prevents overextraction, avoiding the muddy and highly bitter flavors one gets in bad ristrettos, in coffee left too long on hot plates, or in instant coffee.
Just as the Strega has two heat sources, the heat exchanger and the group heater; so it has two pressure sources, an Ulka pump, set at around 11 bar static, that supplies the pressure at the start of the shot; and a spring lever, that starts at around 9.5 bar and finishes at around 5.5 bar, which supplies the pressure during the rest of the shot.
The Strega also produces the flavor clarity of classic lever machines, since the declining pressure of the spring, coupled with the dropping temperature, completely prevents overextraction and its associated muddy or bitter flavors. The combination of a pump and lever produces one further unusual property in the Strega, but this one will reduce the shot quality if the user is unaware of it. For a given basket, you need to either grind finer or use more coffee to keep flow rates and shot timing similar to other espresso machines. Using ultra-fine grinds will usually drown out the coffee's acidity and Maillard flavors with extra caramels. This results in a nice comfort food espresso, but never a shot that will sing. So it is better to use the regular grind settings and overdose the baskets, using 3 to 4 grams more than usual in double baskets, or 2 to 3 grams more in singles. That will keep the flavors balanced properly for the best coffees.
All the Bezzera home machines, including the Strega, have 1.5L upright (BZ07) or 2.0L horizontal boilers (Strega), along with precise four hole tips which produce superb steam at a full commercial clip for about forty five seconds before needing to recover. This means you can steam milk for a perfect six ounce cappuccino in under ten seconds, and for a pair of twelve ounce lattes in about forty. People who use commercial steamers will find it a joy it use, people with less experience will face a learning curve to get used to this fast pace. Once they are used to it, they will find that steaming with just about any other home machine is a drag. The steaming pace means you can steam and make the shot at the same time, even for a pair of lattes.