La Marzocco Linea Mini Review

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#1: Post by malachi »

I've been excited about this espresso machine since I first heard about it. The idea of a stripped down La Marzocco home espresso machine modeled after the old, simple Linea is right in my personal sweet spot. The first commercial espresso machine I worked on was a (Schomer-modifed) Linea, and it taught me a lot of what I know about espresso. In a world of precision digital systems and measurement and data driven coffee brewing, the idea of a purely analog experience felt not just retro, but rather liberating.

Upon setting up the machine, the first thing I noticed was how strongly the design language reflected the original Linea. I've seen pictures of the Linea Mini in other exterior treatments, but personally I'd always go with the classic chrome. It just kind of feels to me like the way the machine should be...

It's really quite a lovely machine. It's solid and well-built, but most of all it communicates the heritage and the lineage perfectly. I just smile when I see it on my counter.

Setting the machine up was quick and easy. Drop it on the counter, plug it in, remove the drip tray, pull out the reservoir, fill with water, reassemble, turn that machine on. That's it other than bleeding the steam wand (always a good idea). Oh... a quick word about the drip tray. It's held in place by magnets - which is a brilliant innovation. It's immediately obvious when it's correctly attached, the magnets pull it right into place and lock it in there. It feels very secure. After my first experiences with this drip tray I have to say it's my favorite non-plumbed one ever and frankly should be copied by all machine makers.

The machine seems to take about 25 minutes to get steady at temperature - but we'll need to measure and time that to make sure. There are two lights on the faceplate - one red and one blue. The red indicates when the heater is on, and when the machine is at temperature. The blue indicates when there is water in the reservoir and when it needs filling. Other than those lights, the front plate has two classic La Marzocco styled knobs (Americano spout and steam wand) and the (large) paddle for brewing. Below we get two dials - one for steam boiler pressure and one for brew pressure.

Now... my frame of reference for this review sits right next to the Linea Mini. It's a 'resto-mod" La Marzocco GS - one of the originals. This is a plumbed-in, 230v piece of commercial equipment - upgraded to GB5 spec. So this is going to be a tough comparison for the Linea Mini. But La Marzocco is calling this a Linea - so it's got a lot to live up to.

One of the most intriguing things about the Linea Mini (for me) is the way brew temp is managed. On the side of the machine is a little dial. You control brew temp by rotating the dial. It's marked at 200f, and has detents at roughly 0.3f increments. To adjust temp, you rotate the dial, pull a shot, and taste it. You then tune based upon the taste and your target profile.

Personally... I love the idea. But it will be interesting to see if I continue to like it over time. And I'm fully aware that there will be a segment of the audience that will find this unacceptable - and who will want the comfort of a digital control.
We'll see how this plays out!

The Mini has the new style Stainless Steel portafilters with the quick-release spouts and the baskets are clearly derived from the Strada baskets - so both commercial or commercially derived. The baskets, however, don't have the same highly polished finish that the Strada ones have, and it seems like they may not have tolerances that are quite as tight. I'm going to be testing the machine using both this portafilter and a chopped commercial La Marzocco one. And I'll be testing with the included baskets, as well as Simonelli baskets, OG La Marzocco ones and some aftermarket options as well.

I can't wait! This is like Christmas Eve when I was 6 years old....

Oh... and this time they've included a real tamper...

Finally... if you have questions about the machine, feel free to ask them here.

Full disclosure: I had a chance to spend an afternoon playing with a prototype of the Linea Mini and provided some small bits of feedback that may have influenced the product. In addition, Scott Callender from La Marzocco did a summer internship with me when he was wrapping up Business School. In addition, as many of you know, I did an evaluation and review of La Marzocco's last home machine - the GS/3. Finally, I'm personal friends with several La Marzocco employees.
What's in the cup is what matters.

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malachi (original poster)
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#2: Post by malachi (original poster) »

It's kind of amazing to think that it's been 10 years since I reviewed the La Marzocco GS/3 Prototype for this very site. And now we're back full circle and I'm reviewing La Marzocco's second go-round at the home market.

So how is the Linea Mini going to fare? How will it compare to the GS/3 - and to my GS?

For this test, I'm starting with the Linea Caffe espresso blend. This is a three bean blend that I'm very familiar with. I'll also work with some single origin espresso, some lighter roasted ones, and some more complicated multi-bean blends. I'll choose coffees that are optimal at a wide range of brew temp, dose and extraction.

A note on extraction: In the spirit of this analog throwback of a machine - I will not be weighing (either in or out). I will trust my palate and work from taste alone.

So here goes day one of my evaluation...

The first thing I can say is that it was exceptionally easy to dial in both the coffee and the machine. It took less than 5 shots to get the grind, dose and temp in the right spot. The machine provides exceptional feedback. I wasn't a huge fan of the stock spouted portafilter, and decided to switch for now to the chopped one. I stayed with the stock basket, starting with the 17g one. The stock basket initially seemed problematic - with shots showing decreased sweetness and viscosity. This is an area I plan to explore more.

The steam wand was simultaneously amazing and frustrating. The steam is perfectly dry and the wand has extraordinary power. With the stock 4 hole tip, it's shockingly easy and quick to produce perfect, thick or easily pourable, milk. But the lack of articulation means there seemed to be really only one spot where you can steam and at only one angle.

While the pump is noisy compared to an externally mounted pump - for an internal pump it's actually surprisingly quiet. The cup warmer on top has a tiny little rail around it - and I tend to toss demis. So I'm leaving all my cups on top of the GS.

Oh... I bet you want to know about the paddle group.
Ummm... it's a paddle group.

That's kind of the amazing thing about it. You use the Linea Mini and the fact that it's a paddle group doesn't really register. You're just using the machine. To make espresso. For me it's incredibly intuitive and honestly I forgot entirely about the paddle. And I think that's a great thing.

In fact, this was the amazing thing about the machine in general. Other than the articulation issue with the steam wand - I never really thought about or paid attention to the machine. It vanished and what I saw and experienced was the coffee.

That's great.

Overall I'm really quite happy. On first experience, I'm liking it more than the GS/3. I love the simplicity. I love the refocus on the espresso. I love the way it expresses the heritage.

I'm sure I'm going to find more things to annoy me - but I'm not sure it will stop me from loving this machine.
What's in the cup is what matters.

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malachi (original poster)
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#3: Post by malachi (original poster) »

After the initial day of experimentation, I spent the next few days working with the Linea Espresso and experimenting with various portafilter and basket options as well as getting used to the steam wand.

I decided that, given it was my primary initial complaint, I needed to spend some time trying to get better at steaming on this machine. Well... it took me about 3 tries and now I get it. There is articulation - with constraints. Once you get used to these limitations and understand where there is range the steam wand works brilliantly. Hugely powerful, but controllable. Steaming while brewing works perfectly. The position is constraining, but the power and control of the wand really is exceptional. It's quite similar to a commercial La Marzocco in that you need to react quickly as things change fast. Unlike with most commercial machines, however, it's less important to have "calm hands" with this wand. If you react quickly, you're pretty much good to go. Stretching milk takes me well less than 3 seconds, so it's important to be prepared in order to avoid over-stretching. In fact, I'm now wondering if it's possible to replace the ('70s) wand on my GS with this one.

I tried a wide range of baskets (the stock 17g and stock 21g; a Simonelli stock double, an EPNW 'precision' 17g; a Synesso basket and various Strada, other LM baskets). For the Linea Espresso, general opinion was that the stock baskets were less ideal than either the EPNW or Simonelli ones.

With the chopped portafilter and aftermarket basket, I really don't have issues with this machine. I continue to be very impressed by the way it "gets out of the way" and let's me focus on the espresso.

Build quality appears so far to be excellent. I'd honestly say this isn't just of La Marzocco quality - but rather of Commercial quality.

The next step will be to roll in some new coffees and see how that goes and evaluate the machine (and baskets) against those new coffees.

So far my thoughts are as follows...
  1. This machine is really gorgeous and accurately expresses the heritage (and lineage) that lies behind it.
  2. It's a wonderful machine for those who want to focus on the coffee.
  3. The machine takes itself out of the equation, allowing the espresso to be simply about the coffee and the barista.
  4. If you are a "gear head" who loves tinkering and mod-ing your machine this might not be a great fit for you.
  5. If you are a "coffee person" you might well love this machine.
  6. This is not a machine for beginners. If you don't know how to tune extraction parameters by taste, you're probably going to get frustrated (and burn through a lot of coffee).
  7. Personally... I absolutely love this machine and would likely choose it over all other (production) home machines currently on the market.
And yes... I still love this machine.
What's in the cup is what matters.

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malachi (original poster)
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#4: Post by malachi (original poster) »

One thing I really wanted to do when evaluating this machine was to have a few other people experiment with it - and it was a huge pleasure to include Andrew Barnett in that list.

For those of you who don't know who Andrew is...

He was the founder of Ecco Caffe and now runs Linea Caffe. Many in coffee consider him to be one of the great espresso creators in the United States. His coffees are strongly rooted in the Italian tradition - tending to focus on balance, sweetness etc. They're Brazil based and are often described using words like "elegant" and "polished". Some call them "comfort blends" but that (to me) tends to imply a more chocolate profile than Andrew's espresso, which is usually dominated by caramel and nut butter.

Andrew is also a huge fan of La Marzocco machines in general and the Linea in particular.

Having the opportunity to pull shots of the Linea Caffe Espresso, from the Linea Mini, with Andrew was amazing. After playing with the machine and tasting the coffee from it, I think Andrew's opinion can be summed up by the following quote...
Andrew Barnett wrote:This is the first time I've ever had a shot of my coffee from a non-commercial machine at someone's home that I would be happy to serve in my shop.
In particular, he was a huge fan of the macchiato I served him. It's fair to say that this machine steams milk like no other home machine I've ever experienced.

Andrew agreed that it's hard to know how the home barista community is going to react to this machine. It's a throwback and it runs counter to a lot of trends in the market right now. It puts the responsibility for the coffee back on the barista and pretty much removes the machine from the equation. As a barista, it's back to being a conversation between you and the coffee. But this assumes you have confidence in your palate, can tune parameters from taste, understand espresso -- and that you desire the removal of gear from your experience. I don't know if there are a lot of home folks who fit this profile. But I'm interested in finding out - and so is Andrew.

Kudos to La Marzocco for satisfying one of their biggest fans!

I also invited Hector Coronado (from Linea Caffe, previously at both Stumptown and Coava Coffee) over to test it on a different day.

He pulled shots using the Linea espresso, which he is obviously very familiar with. I also pulled shots along side him.

In the end, he had more difficulty getting used to my grinder (Anfim Super Caimano) than the machine, which he said feels a lot like the Linea he works on daily. He was able to get shots that he felt he'd be happy serving at the shop - within 5 tries. This includes adjusting grind, and tweaking the brew temp. To be fair - he didn't use the provided portafilter and basket (instead going with my preferred combo of chopped LM commercial portafilter and EPNW double basket). His big (repeated) comment was how "user friendly" the machine is. He loved how stripped down it is, and in particular loved both the temp adjustment method and the steam wand. He steams on a commercial three group Linea daily - and said this steams just as quickly and effectively as that does.

I guess I'll simply leave it like this...

Hector said that, for the first time in his life, he now wants a home espresso machine - this one.

We both agreed that the next step is to test the stock set-up with both SO espresso and a multi-bean blend like Hairbender.
What's in the cup is what matters.

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malachi (original poster)
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#5: Post by malachi (original poster) »

So I've sorted out the steaming. And I've gathered input from experts.

And I was to the point where the only real issue I had was with the stock baskets (using the Linea Espresso) so I figured it was time to roll in some new coffees.

First, I switched over to the Stumptown Hairbender for a few days. I figured this would be a real test, as the Hairbender is notoriously challenging to work with. In addition, it's a complex, multi-bean blend that tends to benefit from updosing and under-extraction - so I knew this would be a good test of the stock baskets.

I pulled shots using the stock 21g basket (based on Strada-derived feedback from friends at Stumptown) as well as from the Simonelli basket - and from my GS (using the Simonelli basket) as a frame of reference.

The difference between the shot on the GS (with the Simonelli) and the shot on the Mini (with the same basket) was small and subtle. The shot from the Mini was "fluffier" and had lower "density" on the palate. The aftertaste didn't last as long. Otherwise, very comparable.

That's just nuts. In general, I shy away from working with the Hairbender on home machines. One of the great glories of the initial prototype GS/3 was how I was able to get good shots of this espresso using it. I was simply unused to a standard home machine being able to cope with the requirements of this coffee.

In addition, my GS is in many ways ideal for the Hairbender. I've kind of calibrated that machine for the Hairbender at this point.

So to be able to pull shots of Hairbender from this 110v home machine that are comparable to what I get off a completely dialed in, 230v commercial machine... that's just... well... it's insane. Seriously. This machine is nuts.

When I switched to the stock 21g basket, on the other hand, things got weird. I was able to get consistent shots after I'd got the grind right. It was relatively easy to work with once dialed in as well (especially using the Anfim). But the flavor in the cup was dominated by Indonesian coffee notes, with a lot of mushroom funk that wasn't even identifiable in the other shots using other baskets. In addition, there was a decrease in viscosity and most of the cherry flavor vanished. Finally, I actually ended up having to run at a higher brew temp using this stock basket.

No matter what I did, I was unable to get a shot from the stock basket (even with guidance from Stumptown) that was comparable to what I was getting from the after-market baskets. And I burned through all my Hairbender trying to do so.

OK, so that's a three bean blend and a five bean blend. The first of them is optimal in my experience with a slight updose and slight under-extraction, and the second seems to shine most at very heavy doses and rather heavy under-extraction. So for my next coffee I decided to choose a Single Origin Espresso (in this case, the Linea Caffe Brazil FAF) - which is lighter roasted and optimal at a neutral dose and full extraction.

This was clearly the type of coffee that the stock baskets were intended for. With this coffee, dialing in the shot was super easy. Getting optimal tasting shots was quick, and once I had the grind, dose and temp correct the shots were incredibly consistent.

I'm going to predict that working with a lighter roast single origin espresso is going to be nearly brain-dead easy (especially if you either weigh each shot or are an experienced barista using a timed grinder like the Anfim).

Compared to shots from either the EPNW basket or the Simonelli one, with this coffee the shots from the stock basket had far greater transparency and clarity. Sweetness was improved and the shots had wonderful sparkling acidity. In addition, I was able to get far more complete extraction without losing body or developing astringent flavors.

I'm going to suggest that anyone buying this machine should probably augment the stock baskets with an aftermarket basket that is optimized for complicated blends and/or coffees that are best when dosed outside the designed "neutral" band for these baskets. If I owned this machine, I'd have three baskets on my machine: the stock 17g, the stock 21g and the EPNW Precision or Simonelli double.

The stock baskets really require a fine grind / neutral dose / full extraction approach to the coffee. When measuring your coffee, this results in a relatively idiot proof way to get consistent and acceptable extraction from most coffees. If you want to go with a different approach or you want to do fine-granularity tweaking of the parameters, you're probably going to want to at least experiment with different baskets.

Now... after-market baskets are probably the cheapest "upgrade" you could have to face with a new machine. So this isn't that painful. And with that additional basket (and in my case a different portafilter) I think this machine would be absolutely perfect for my home needs.
What's in the cup is what matters.

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malachi (original poster)
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#6: Post by malachi (original poster) »

At this point I think I have a pretty clear handle on the Linea Mini.

This is a barista's espresso machine. If you're a barista, first and foremost, I'm going to predict you're likely to love it.

The analogy that best explains how I feel about this machine is a car one.

I currently drive a heavily modified Subaru. It's definitely a "sporty" car. It's a mechanic's dream and in the right conditions is a true giant killer. But building this car... it's cost me a fair amount of money - enough money that if I were going to spend it on a new car I could get a really nice vehicle. And I've been thinking about it.

There are two cars that come to mind immediately, which are also "sporty" and cost in the range of what I've spent on my Subie.

The first is the new BMW M4. This is a technological marvel. Just going for a drive would probably require me to spend about 10 minutes figuring out what everything was. To be fair, once I understood the car just a little, I'd bet I'll appreciate the incredible flexibility and control it gives me. The thing is I worry I would feel like a passenger in a really comfortable ride. Sure, I would be sitting in the (very comfortable) driver's seat, but I would pretty much just be controlling the systems that drove the car.

The second car would be the Lotus Exige S. There are no options. There are no fancy controls. There are few if any comforts or extras. I'd just hop in the car, adjusted the seat and mirror and rip away. And in my dreams, the car would... vanish. And it would me and the road. Without any creature comforts. Or computer back-up to stop me from killing myself.

It's like this... Both cars are amazing. Both will get you down the road quickly and with control. But they are wildly different from each other.

Because they are solving different problems - for different people with different needs and desires.

Espresso machines like the La Marzocco Strada are very similar to the M4. Super powerful and cushy and with nearly limitless controls and options and which produce absolutely wonderful espresso - and at the end of the day you, the barista, become the guy working the controls.

The Linea Mini is like the Exige, obviously. Stripped down and purpose-specific. And all about the barista. Without any safety net.

So when you consider the Linea Mini you have to ask yourself, what do I want? What do I value? Who am I? Am I the kind of person who loves the controls and options? Am I an M4 buyer? Because this machine might well not be for you.

Or am I the kind of person who loves being a barista? Because if that is you - honestly... you owe it to yourself to at least experience this machine. Because at the end of the day, I'm a barista and it's now the end of my testing period... and I still love this machine.

Oh. Actually... you could also be the kind of person who loves tinkering and fixing and modifying stuff.

Are you a mechanic?

Because if you are... I've got a GREAT deal on an only slightly abused Subaru for you...
What's in the cup is what matters.

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#7: Post by csepulv »

I would like to understand the following comment:
malachi wrote:So to be able to pull shots of Hairbender from this 110v home machine that are comparable to what I get off a completely dialed in, 230v commercial machine... that's just... well... it's insane. Seriously. This machine is nuts.
Could Chris (or anyone else) explain why this is (or might be)? In my ignorance, I would have expected a quality prosumer machine, with similar specs, to be able to achieve comparable shots. Ergonomics, aesthetics, etc. aside, I've thought the capability of what can be achieved in the cup would start to converge at some point.

I don't doubt Chris' comment (especially given his experience), but I don't understand why this would be.

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malachi (original poster)
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#8: Post by malachi (original poster) »

You're talking about two very different classes of product.
Specs, etc only tell part of the story.
To illustrate, and just as an example, if you examine the frame of a commercial machine and compare it to a prosumer machine, you'll see the difference (and an example of why there is the cost variance).

A skilled barista on a high end home machine can produce great espresso. But it takes a sh** ton of work as compared to getting the same results on a well dialed-in high end commercial machine. And doing so consistently under load gets even more challenging.

It's one of the more amazing things, to me, about this machine. I don't think I'd call this "prosumer" as much as I'd call it a commercial quality home machine.
What's in the cup is what matters.

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malachi (original poster)
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#9: Post by malachi (original poster) »

One note: I want to thank Dan for inviting me back to write this review, and Scott Callender from La Marzocco for agreeing to provide the machine to me for this. And I want to thank all the mods here who provided input, advice and feedback on my drafts throughout the process. Y'all rule. Thanks. It's been a great experience.
What's in the cup is what matters.

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#10: Post by TomC »

Spectacular review! I appreciate that it clearly defines the target audience/buyer. I think that along with your own first hand experience will go far in helping potential buyers in the decision making process.
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