Lelit Bianca Review

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#1: Post by another_jim »

After the first week of using the Lelit Bianca (PL162T), the show tune 'anything you can do, I can do easier; I can do everything easier than you' comes to mind. Since the Lelit Bianca has been reviewed on other sites, we'll focus on its performance, comparing it to lever and other profiling espresso machines. We will also cover the experience of using it, both for beginning and more advanced hobbyists. Interested in having full manual control of flow and pressure? If so, the Lelit Bianca is worth close consideration.

Lelit Bianca (PL162T) - image and evaluation model courtesy of 1st-Line equipment

Lelit, 1st-Line, and Bella Barista have already posted useful video tours that cover basic shot making and the Lelit Biana's construction. So we will be focusing on the machine's performance; with me comparing it to levers, and Dan to other profiling machines. We will also cover the experience of using it, both for beginning and more advanced hobbyists.

We'll be keeping this thread closed until our review is complete; there's a user experience thread in the espresso machine forum where early adopters can relay their impressions, and for Q & A.
Jim Schulman
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#2: Post by another_jim (original poster) »

Pressure and Flow Profiling

The Video:

The Text:

Question: I can vary the grind, dose, and shot timing on my conventional espresso machine; so what does a profiling machine get me that a regular espresso machine doesn't?

Changing dose and grind on a regular espresso machine lets you vary the extraction yields enough to optimize the flavor for different kinds of roasts. But it is necessary to lower the dose when making the grind finer and raise the dose when making it coarser. This puts limits on the kinds of grinds that can be used. For instance, if I wanted to use a Turkish grnd on a non-profiling machine, I'd need to dose at about 8 to 10 grams in a conventional basket; and I don't have the skills to pull that off. Using soft preinfusions, that is a long pasue with the pressure at about 2 to 3 bar, the puck can be softened and expanded. This means that you can use any grind at reasonable dose levels. This makes managing the shots a lot easier.

Another factor is brew ratios. It has become SOP to go with very lungo shots, i.e.e low brew ratios, with light roasts ,in order to maximize extraction yields. But the point of espresso is concentration. With competent profiling machines, it is possible to throttle the flow sufficiently to get high extraction yields with very high brew ratios. It simply requires making very long shots indeed, around 90 seconds to 2 minutes. A later entry will discuss the challenges of doing this in automatically in a cafe, but for a hobbyist there is no problem doing such long shots.

After a few weeks of comparing different profiles for the same coffee, using the same dose and brew ratio, and varying the grind and timing, I've noticed a taste effect that is new to me -- flavor integration versus separation. In a regular espresso shot, the flavors of the coffees are distinct, like an arrangement of different objects. In the long profiled shots, the flavors fuse, sometimes, unfortunately, like colors mixing to grey; sometimes, fortuitously, like atoms combining to form a molecule with entirely novel properties. If you have a coffee that is all edgy flavors, the fusion of a long profiled shot may be a very pleasant surprise; if you have one with several nice flavors, the fusion can be a let down. The Tikur Anbessa was a standout in this regard, since both the separate flavors of the conventional shot and the fusion of the profiled shot were really tasty.

For those following along the review; I would encourage experimenting along these lines: same coffee, same dose, different grind settings, different profiles, and check the taste. Is the fusion versus separation thing real, or am I full of it?
Jim Schulman
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#3: Post by another_jim (original poster) »

Manual versus Automatic Profiling

People who want manual shot profiling have many choices, from manual levers to Stradas and Slayers. The Bianca may well be most controllable and flexible of these choices; and that makes it well worth considering for those who want to do shot profiling. But what about the whole choice between manual and automatic profiling? Levers and other manual profiling choices became popular again because there were no good choices for automatic profiling; now that there are, will the manual machines become obsolete again?

I think there are two considerations. The first is that the automatic profilers have a way to go; the second is that there may be no real niche, either in cafes or for amateurs, for automatic profiling machines, once conventional ones have long, programmable preinfusions.

First, the remaining kinks in automation: Flow profiling has two phases, a long preinfusion where there is no flow; and a later part where the coffee is flowing. The automation for the preinfusion phase is fine -- a certain amount of time at a certain pressure is exactly what is needed. But in the flow phase, you want to do two things: manipulate the flow rate, not the pressure, and calibrate it not by time but by the weight in the cup. The DE1 can do this in advanced mode, but all the other machines have a way to go. Googling the topic will show that most experts agree with this.

This kink will probably be solved very soon, and existing autoprofilers will probably be upgradeable. So what happens to manual profiling then? Let's start at a café, and then go on to hobbyists.

In a third wave cafe, there will be a brew bar with a barista making pourovers, and an espresso bar with several baristas making mostly milk drinks. Should the latte machine be making 90 seconds profile shots? Of course not. The only ergonomically sane place for the straight espresso shots, especially when profiled, is at the brew bar. Have your latte blend at the latte bar, set up on a preloaded, preset grinder. Have the profiling machine and single dose grinder at the brew bar, and charge an arm and a leg for making profiled straight shots from any roast in the house. And in that case, what sort of machine? Obviously a manual profiler: either a sexy lever or a do everything paddle machine. The distinction between espresso and brewed coffee is obsolete; in the current high end cafes, the distinction is between custom and ready made drinks.

So where are the hobbyists, at the ready made bar or the custom bar? It's not a trick question, just a really obvious one.

All in all, I don't see manual profiling machines becoming obsolete any time soon.
Jim Schulman

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#4: Post by another_jim (original poster) »

PID and Offset Programming

You can download the programming manual from here.

There are comments for each parameter that make it all fairly self explanatory. I would advise to consider altering only 4 of the parameters, leaving the rest alone:
  • EC This is the offset for the brew boiler. It is factory set at 10C. If the offset is correct, the readout will be your shot temperature. If you suspect your shots are running hotter or cooler than the indicated temperature; you should calbrate it. There are three ways: 1) You can use a Scace thermofilter. 2) The shots run roughly at the temperature of the hottest part of the group (at the top of the neck). Use a naked thermocouple pressed hard to the group under an insulating pad to check. 3) Use the flash boil method
  • KPC & KDC These are the proportional and differential constants. You can set them somewhat higher if you are doing a lot of long profiled shots with very low flow rates. Up to 20 for the KDc, up to 12 for the KPc.
  • TR If you set TR to 1, you see the actual temperature (with offset subtracted) rather than than the setpoint. This may be more to some people's liking. If you experiment with other settings, you will definitely want to set this to 1 to see that you haven't screwed up. If you goose the PID settings for low flow and set this to one, you will see a good deal more jittering +/- 1C when the machine is idling.
Jim Schulman
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#5: Post by another_jim (original poster) »


I'm not sure if this is qualifies for the "stupid Bianca tricks" or the "for real" category, ask me again in a few months; but the Bianca can do any coffee at any grind and at any brew ratio.

For the French Press grind, I preinfused for 90 seconds with the paddle almost all the way off, so that the portafilter was at a very slow drip. After that, I ran up the weight to 100 grams in abut 25 seconds. The manometer showed no pressure, since the grind has no real resistance to flow. The taste was very much like that from my clever dripper (my favorite for French Press grind). I experimented with 60 seconds and 120 second preinfusions; to my taste the first was too delicate, while the second had a slightly bitter tinge. This may vary from coffee to coffee and palate to palate.

For the Turkish grind, I preinfused for 20 seconds, again at a slow drip, with the pressure reading around 2.5 bar. Then I maxed it out to 10 bar to finish the shot at 50 grams in another 40 seconds. I experimented with preinfusions of various lengths -- longer ones do not get bitter, but lead to more focused, intenser flavors with lighter mouthfeels that work better at higher brew ratios (the effect is hard to describe, I'm reaching a little). The brew is unique, not like a traditional demitasse or mocha pot, but clearer and more delicate. However, this may be a function of the very light roast.

Neither cup had light roast grassiness, which was apparent in the conventionally made shots from this coffee. Tasting side by side, it was apparent that the two brews came from the same coffee. The smell was the same. The taste difference was analogous to hearing the same notes played with different instruments at different tempos.
Jim Schulman

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#6: Post by another_jim (original poster) »

The Bianca for Espresso Newbies and Intermediates

First off, congratulations: you've bought a high quality machine that will take you from first steps to the leading edge of espresso. Most of the previous posts have assumed that Bianca buyers are people who've had lots of espresso machines, and are up on all the on-line discussions of pressure profiling. But there's always the all-in people who walk past the kiddie pool and jump right into the deep end. This post is for you.

There are three sections. The first is about using the Bianca as a straight forward E61 espresso machine. The second is using the paddle to emulate classic lever machine shots. The third is about more extreme pressure profiling that creates drinks that are something new, no longer akin to conventional espresso.

Conventional Espresso

The Bianca can be used like a conventional E61 machine, if you leave the paddle unused, all the way to the right. The display turns into a shot timer, and a bottomless portafilter is part of the kit. Get good at making shots that take about 8 to 10 seconds before the first drops emerge, and another 20 seconds of flow to make a standard espresso (about 1.5 ounces volume or 30 grams weight for the double basket).

Once your mechanics are sound; experiment with different combinations of finer grind/lower dose weight or coarser grinds/higher dose weight until you become proficient at making all these combinations. Note the difference in espresso taste. For most people, using most coffees, finer grinds and lower doses lead to a softer tasting shot; and higher doses with coarser grinds lead to a punchier tasting shot.

Finally, when your shot making mechanics are sound at different grinds and doses; experiment with different temperature settings. For most people and most coffees, lower temperatures lead to a more acidic balance, while higher temperatures lead to a more bitter balance.

This is the learning curve for people first using a high quality conventional espresso machine. It is by far the most difficult step of the three, since you are learning all the barista skills. Once you have these skills, you will be able to make really fine shots on just about any kind of machine with only a little more practice.

Lever Style Espresso

Working with grind/dose and temperature variations on a conventional espresso machine runs into limits. Coffees from Central America and East Africa, especially roasted light, have been treasured for regular brewed coffee since the early 20th century. However, these are often too intense and acidic for classic espresso, even if you use a fine grind and a high water temperature. Lever users noticed that they could make concentrated espresso shots from these acidic coffees that were much better balanced. Similarly, very dark roasts could be pulled with creamy tobacco and dark caramel tastes and no bitterness. Bottom line, levers can make good shots from a wider range of coffees, including those that are challenging on regular espresso machines.

So how does this work? When you pull down a spring lever, the water seeps int the puck at a pressure of 1 to 3 bar. And baristas can maintain this for as long as they want. Then when the lever is engaged, the pressure goes up to 8 to 9 bar, then declines as the spring stretches out, keeping the flow steady and maximizing the extraction.

The exact same thing can be done on the Bianca with somewhat less effort than on a lever. Grind your coffee a little finer, and dose a little higher. When you start the shot, move your paddle to the left, keeping the pressure at about 2 bars for about 20 to 25 seconds. Then finish the shot by moving the paddle to the right, to about 8 bar, and slowly letting the pressure drop and the flow slow down, so you have a normal sized espresso in another 25 to 40 seconds.

Try the same coffee done this way compared to the normal E61 style. For most people, when using regular espresso blends at medium roasts, the regular shots will have a small edge in creamy mouthfeel. But the lever shots will have the clear edge for both lighter or darker roasts, due to a more balanced taste.

"Brewed Shots"

Variable pressure machines like the Bianca can be used to make shots from any grind going from ultrafine Turkish powder to ultracoarse French press pebbles, and at any shot volume from the traditional ounce or two, up to four or six ounce shots. These shots may use preinfusions that last up to 90 seconds and shots that go on for several minutes.

The mechanics of making these shots is not a problem on the Bianca. Decide on a brew recipe -- coffee grind and dose, preinfusion time, shot time, and shot weight -- then work the paddle so the preinfusion has a very slow drip of coffee from the portafilter into the cup, and the flow portion gets to the right weight in the right time. It's a whole lot easier than learning how to make properly flowing shot at different dose and grind combos on a pump machine (the first step in this guide).

The problem is figuring out what brew recipes to use and why. And the answer is ... welcome to the bleeding edge. This stuff is still way up in the air.

My rough take so far, very unproven, is that there are two kinds of recipe.

The first is to use very fine Turkish grinds with very long preinfusions and brew ratios of about 2 to 3 parts water to 1 part coffee. When this is done with very light roasted "3rd wave coffee" the flavors that are separate in a regular brew, and unpalatable in any kind of regular or lever espresso, fuse into a single complex flavor. Getting this just right is a sort of 3rd wave holy grail.

The second is to use the Bianca as a high tech brewer. Use longer preinfusions for coarser grinds, shorter ones for finer grinds (as if you were steeping the coffee in a french press), and then go for demi-tasse brew ratios of 1 part coffee to 4 to 8 parts water. If you get this right, you will get the clarity, balance, and definition of brewed coffee, but at higher concentrations than conventional brewers.

However, this is so new that you should experiment for yourself. A major attraction of the Bianca is that you can make any ridiculous mad scientist shot that comes into your mind. The Bianca is the dream espresso machine for experimenters and brainstormers.
Jim Schulman

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#7: Post by another_jim (original poster) »

Using the Programmable Preinfusion

Don't; or mostly don't. If you want a classic E61 shot, the best approach is to set your paddle to about 60% to 70%. This will get you the signature 8 to 10 second ramp up to full pressure. If you want to do a long preinfusion with a very fine grind, using the paddle to keep the pressure at 2 to 3 bar wile the pump is running is your best course of action.

But ... if you want to make very fine grind shots without attending to the machine, the programmable preinfusion will work. The programming turns the pump on for a short amount of time to let water into the puck, then turns it off for longer amount of time to let the puck soak, then turns it back on for normal operation. The initial on and off time can be programmed.

Use 5 seconds on and the full 20 seconds off to preinfuse a fine grind properly. The pressure will rise to about 3 - 4 bar, then drop back to about 2.5 when the pump shuts off. This is the pressure required for a fine grind preinfusion. 20 seconds is the minimum time needed to soften the puck, so that the subsequent shot will flow rather than choke or drip.
Jim Schulman

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#8: Post by another_jim (original poster) »

Thanks to Graham for posting the Innards of the Paddle Group:

Take note of his warning:
Graham J wrote:I'd advise measuring outlet water flow at operating temperature, before removing the paddle and opening the valve assembly. I had a graph of flow from the group at 6 points of paddle position, posted elsewhere on H-B,but four measurement points will be enough. You'll need this data to return your paddle to its previous flow set points. One spline change can make a 5-10% difference in flow rate.
Jim Schulman

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#9: Post by another_jim (original poster) »

Lelit Bianca versus Bezzera Strega, Round 1:

This was like a chess world championship, mostly draws, with the wins coming from tiny differences in the shots.

I did 23 paired shots over the past weeks, pulled about 2 minutes apart, not tasted blind. The shots were ground, dosed, basketed, and prepped identically. After doing this series, I figured the pattern would hold for me no matter how long I went on, and stopped. I'll do a round two with anyone interested at the next get together.

Of the 23, 9 shots were indistinguishable, another 5 were draws where the shots tasted different but I liked them about the same, and of the 9 wins, the Bianca went 6 to 3.

Oddly enough, all 6 pairs of the turkish grind shots tasted identical. I used 1:2 brew ratio shots of very light roasts, with 30 second peinfusions; that is, poster child profiling shots. As far as I can tell, levers do these shots just as well as profiling machines. If you want to specialize on these shots, spend your money on a really good Turkish grinder* and use any machine that can do arbitrarily long 2-3 bar preinfusions and arbitrarily long shots without overheating (on a sipper, raise the lever to about 7:30 to 8 o clock, and hold). I gave up comparing this style shot after this string of draws.

On conventional shots, the Bianca mostly had a small edge on body, and the Strega, on flavor clarity, leading to a tie. But the Bianca won more often by equaling the Strega on clarity and beating it on body than the Strega won by beating the Bianca on clarity and equaling its body. Three of these shots were indistinguishable.

A caveat here. The Bianca has more flexibility than a lever for shots with higher water volumes. It has no advantage in being able to do fast shots with short preinfusions, since the Biaanca's E61 group head takes about 7 seconds minimum to ramp to full pressure.

*I used the Bunn with the Turkish burr set, which I found very tasty compared to a manual Turkish grinder, or the ultra fine grind from the K10. But I have no side by side experience with the EK43,
Jim Schulman

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#10: Post by HB »

The review sponsor, 1st-line equipment, provided two Bianca units for evaluation, so I'll be adding some "color commentary" to complement Jim's already excellent writeup.

It's worth re-emphasizing a point he made earlier: The Bianca is ridiculously easy to dial in. No design has been more thoroughly represented in the reviews than the E61 group. I honestly thought that after the last 10+ years of manufacturers tweaking them with electronic temperature controllers (PIDs) and carefully fine-tuned brew temperatures, there was nothing left to be wrung out from this more than half-century year old design. After a week with the Lelit, I joked in an offline discussion that we may need a new superlative to describe how forgiving the Lelit Bianca is since "ridiculously easy" seems to understate it.

Of course, this assumes you know what you're doing... newbies without a firm understanding of brewing concepts may find the ability to avoid mishaps in grind, dose, and prep with pressure manipulations yet another thing to screw up. :wink: With that caveat, I initially thought the announcement post Pre-order this game changer home espresso machine from 1st-line was marketing hyperbole. Maybe not?

Is the Bianca the Ludicrous Speed of E61s?
If so, all we're left with going forward is "Plaid Speed". :lol:

Jim's prior post compared the Lelit Bianca to the Bezzera Strega. How about the Elektra Microcasa a Leva? I don't know if it's a fair comparison since the doses are different, but the results were consistent.

I attempted to match a Microcasa-like pressure profile with ~1.5 bar preinfusion and 6 to 4 bar declining pressure at ristretto brew ratio for the first round. Then I opened up the grind a bit. In both cases, it was a very good showing of Lever Craft Coffee's Ethiopia Guji Single Origin. The Bianca had more body and more acidity in the finish. The Microcasa, as usual, was the king of clarity and even finish.

The differences were easy to spot, but less than I'd expect from a Strada versus Bianca, even with the Strada's poor man's pressure profiling. So, another day, another round: La Marzocco Strada versus Lelit Bianca.

Since the La Marzocco Strada doesn't have the precise control of the Bianca, I used the 4-9-6 bar profile that's fairly easy to reproduce on the Strada. It was only two rounds, but the Strada eked out a win on both body and complexity, basically the opposite of yesterday's results with the Microcasa. It's worth noting that the comparisons were not blind and all espressos were quite good

For another comparison, today I did the same side-by-side, but with a different coffee: Counter Culture Coffee's Jabanto. This time around, the two rounds were maddeningly close, with the Bianca edging out the Strada on balance and surprisingly on wonderfully viscous mouthfeel (where La Marzoccos typically dominate).

It's worth noting that producing the 4-9-6 bar profile on the Bianca was trivial; it required surgeon-like precision and Ninja-like reflexes on the Strada, demonstrating the difference between "by design" (Bianca) and "by hackery" (Strada). That difference in ease of profiling heavily favors the Bianca, compared to the degree of chance when trying to replicate it with the Strada.
Dan Kehn