Rancilio Silvia with PID vs. competition on shot quality

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weasel

#1: Post by weasel »

Over on Coffeegeek, Mark asked why isn't Silvia getting a price drop. This in turn led to a round robin of which machines are competitive at Silvia's current price point. ( of course WLL dropped the price $105 )

A general consensus was that you could get a lot more machine for a little more money.

My focus is a little different. I'm concerned only with shot quality.

My question is which machines can compete with a pid'd Silvia in terms of shot quality, for similar or less money?

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Randy G.

#2: Post by Randy G. »

You might also ask, "If I spend a little more than a Silvia + PID, what could I get that was better?"

Silvia is a well-built and well designed machine that will give years of service if given some regular maintenance and the occasional thermostat and brewhead gasket replacement. What is does need is a lot of attention to detail and a really good grinder. That makes for an excellent learning tool. Depending on your dedication and frequency of use (and the quality of the grinder and coffee you use) you may get years of happy service from her.

But with hindsight, I can say that you might do well to first consider what grinder you are going to purchase. To think espresso machine first is putting the horse before the cart.

A well-designed HX machine with an E-61 brewhead can beat the panties off Silvia, all other things being equal. I can only speak from my personal experience, but the espresso from my E-61 machine is so mush more consistent and better tasting that what Silvia produced, that after 6½ of owning Silvia (much of which was PID'd) I have actually increased my coffee consumption (a bit).

If you can be a bit more specific about your experience, your goals, daily consumption, previous machines, etc., we can probably be a bit more helpful....
Espresso! My Espresso! - http://www.EspressoMyEspresso.com
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Tag Team Jesus

#3: Post by Tag Team Jesus »

Hi, Jim,

I've been following your post on CG too. I, like you, am most concerned with shot quality....rather than instant steam or anything else, my primary goal is achieving the wonderful textures/flavors of shots I am tasting at places like Blue Bottle and 4 Barrel in San Francisco.

I have owned Silvia for 1 year and 3 months now and it's been PIDed since last January; also I now have a panel-mounted pressure gauge reading the pressure at the puck that has allowed me to get it down to the proper pressure since my machine came with the pressure set about 1 bar too high. After all this and drinking up to 4 shots/day or so, I have a pretty good sense of what this machine delivers....and what may be lacking.

First of all, forget about this machine if you aren't going to PID it. Not worth the frustration. Temperature surfing isn't a "technique" anyone should have to learn. Once PIDed, I think it's a very fine way to get into the espresso world. Are you considering used? You may find some good prices that way.

You do still have to learn to flush consistently with Silvia. The group will need that to really be temperature stable. But it's not a big deal. Also, the PID will control the boiler temp, but if you leave the machine idle for a while, conditions in the case will really heat the whole system throwing off your temperature stability. Thus, I find if you leaving for a while, it's a smart idea to turn the PID down a bit while you're away. Again, not a big deal.

Also, it is generally believed that e-61's more evenly distribute the water to the puck. I cannot confirm this yet based on my limited experience. I will say that if your distribution and tamp is not spot-on with Silvia, you will get an uneven extraction - sour shot. Not to scare you, I have drank plenty of money shots in my time with this machine.

When Silvia is at it's best and all my parameters are working for me, I find the shot quality is characterized like this:
very light and airy shots. The crema is barely distinguishable from the coffee below. The crema literally swirls around to the bottom of the cup. Here's what's crucial for me: I find that the best shots I've gotten off of an e-61 and the best shots I've had from La Marzocco's and Synesso's in cafes are characterized by different textures. They may not be as light and airy as Silvia's shots, but they are capable of other amazing textures I don't think Silvia is fully capable of delivering. For instance, take Stumptown's Hairbender. Not my favorite, but it gives me a good idea of textural differencs. On these other machines I get a distinct pool of syrupy coffee that lives below a distinct layer of bubbly crema. The bubbles are big and dark and mmmmmm. From all the playing around I've done on Silvia, however, though I may get light/airy and flecking on top of the crema, these other textures are not really ever coming out. Silvia shots have their own charm, but I think some of these big bold bubbles and distinct layer of syrupy coffee is not really what Silvia does best.

Now, if you are primarily concerned with shot quality, really I think PID Silvia is a good bet. And though I've never used one, I would imagine a PIDed Gaggia would be a fine option if you could figure out that project. However, from everything I've heard, PID Alexia might be the best option at this price point for espresso shot quality...hopefully able to deliver these other textures I am looking for and have not yet found at home. This machine costs more, but it might be worth the price. If you read the review here on H-B you'll see evidence of a much more stable temperture during the shot. And the e-61 most likely distributes the water more evenly and gently. I am currently very interested in Alexia.

weasel

#4: Post by weasel »

Thanks Randy. I have been following CG and this site for around a year now. I've seen your site, and many of your posts.....and others', I am aware of the need for a good grinder.

My question is more in the spirit of: given a good/great grinder, which machines compete with pid'd Silvia solely on the basis of shot quality ( is her price justified? ) ( is the Gaggia Classic close enough in shot quality, that the extra money gets you very little? ).

Granted, I could consider how much better can the espresso get for more money. For now I'm curious about a pid'd Silvia's shot quality vs. her lower priced 'peers'. I saw some mentions I still need to check out- La Peppina, Domobar, and some others.

I'm in no hurry to buy, but a deal on a machine capable of great shots could tempt me. I know the 4 M's, but not all machines are equally capable.

My experience- I have done time on a FF with a Capresso Infinity grinder. In terms of grinders, I will certainly look at the LeLit when the time comes. My drink preferences are straight doubles, singles, and macchiatos.
Drinking- I have had doubles/macchiatos at Barefoot, Temple Coffee, Bellano Coffee, Verve, Ritual, and the late Broken Door.

Endo

#5: Post by Endo »

Jon,

Your analysis of the Silvia is "spot on". Your description of the shot quality matches mine exactly.
"Disclaimer: All troll-like comments are my way of discussing"

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Psyd

#6: Post by Psyd »

Tag Team Jesus wrote: Temperature surfing isn't a "technique" anyone should have to learn.

You do still have to learn to flush consistently with Silvia.
...if you leave the machine idle for a while, conditions in the case will really heat the whole system throwing off your temperature stability.
I find that I can do both of those without a PID, and get my Silvia to within a few degrees of the desired temp regardless of sit-time. Sure, it took quite a bit of learning curve, but it's do-able. It kinda depends on whether you're willing to spend the time to learn the kit, or spend the money to not have to.
If you're a bit of a gear-head, the process is half the fun. If you're not, it could end up frustrating you.
Kinda like the old racing adage, in a way, "How fast can you afford to go?"
I can now dial in the surfing technique and integrate it into my morning routine:
Get up and turn on Silvia, go about my morning routine.
After the bathroom ritual, go to the kitchen and start the coffee ritual.
Dose the grinder, flush the group, wait for light to go on.
Turn on the grinder, flush again (if the light hasn't gone on yet).
Set the timer.
'Groom' my puck. About that time the light goes out.
Flush to set the start temp (which is what you get with a Silvia...).
Lock and load. About that time, there are thirty seconds left on the timer.
Turn on the steam switch and pull the shot.
It won't work for everyone, but if you're not willing to put out the extra cash, it works purdy darned well. While the shots don't always compare to my two-group at my house, they come pretty close, and occasionally show me flaws in my technique with the 'real' espresso machine! ; >
Espresso Sniper
One Shot, One Kill

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weasel

#7: Post by weasel »

OK, yesterday was busy for me, I wanted to check in sooner. Thanks Jon, Endo, Chris, and again, Randy for your insights.

FWIW I've also seen occasional mentions of Silvia's shot quality (usually vs. HX). I notice no one ever compares HX machine shots to Gaggia's.

I have also gone to the WLL site and used the 'compare' feature. I looked at the 'coffee temperature at outlet' numbers, thinking that might be somewhat useful, but considering the deadband range for semi-autos I'm doubtful. Did they warm the machines up? Use a cooling flush? I'm sure both Gaggias and Silvias can brew too hot.

In the end, I have a lot more faith in word of mouth and considered reviews by experienced users, than posted stats.

Alan Frew

#8: Post by Alan Frew »

weasel wrote:Over on Coffeegeek, Mark asked why isn't Silvia getting a price drop. This in turn led to a round robin of which machines are competitive at Silvia's current price point. ( of course WLL dropped the price $105 )

A general consensus was that you could get a lot more machine for a little more money.

My focus is a little different. I'm concerned only with shot quality.

My question is which machines can compete with a pid'd Silvia in terms of shot quality, for similar or less money?
Unless there's a domestic machine out there with a similar commercial group setup that I haven't seen, the answer is that with or without PID there is NO machine in the price range which can produce a better shot. This has nothing to do with temperature control, just with the physical water distribution setup. AFAIK Silvia is the only domestic machine using the commercial water distributor/dual layer mesh showerscreen setup. Everything else in the price range squirts water out in jets onto a single plate pierced screen bolted directly to the base of the boiler.

Better water distribution = better extraction. I would guess I get to taste this difference more often than most people, simply because I spend more time playing with different brands of domestic machines.

Alan

Frost

#9: Post by Frost » replying to Alan Frew »

I think the water distribution problems on these machines are of a different kind. I don't know about Silvia but on the Gaggia and Isomac Venus, running the water full flow (no pressure) the shower pattern is fairly even and gentle, no evidence that there is any damage to the puck from 'jet spray'. Under brew pressures the flows will be much lower.... And this leads to where I suspect most of the issue with water delivery is:
The unfortunate flow volume/pressure curve of the vibe pump and how this will cause a rapid pressure rise at the start of the shot before the puck has a chance to be fully wetted. (ie: lack of adequate pre-infusion)
Having adequate air space in the brew water path (including headspace above the puck) helps. The situation is made worse by overstuffing the basket and a firm tamp slows the wetting as well. The Gaggia is much worse than the Venus in this regard as there is much less air space in the brew path when starting a shot.
You can do a pre-infusion on these machines be opening the steam wand when you start the shot for a couple seconds and then closing it to complete the shot. This will divert the excess flow/pressure to the steam wand. There is a noticable effect in shot quality when combined with a moderate dose and tamp.
Unfortunate for the gaggia it wastes precious hot water that will cause the shot to run cool even sooner than it does already. Retrofiting a fixed orifice flow restrictor on these machines would seem a good low cost solution. The Venus does ok without this 'poor mans pre-infusion' as the dwell time and ramp to above 2 bar takes several seconds without cracking the wand (again provided one leaves adequate headspace and using a lighter tamp) Give this a try.

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another_jim
Team HB

#10: Post by another_jim »

I think the Silvia, with or without PID, with or without OPV, makes distinctly inferior tasting shots to any E61 or other commercial machine with a decent group.

My evidence: I had a pair of Silvias set up identically to do grinder and coffee blend tests, these were both PIDed and with the new OPVs set to identical blind filter pressure. I thought this was a stroke of genius. The low 800 watt draw of the machines made pairing them an attractive way of getting an inexpensive home two group test machine; while having one start up in the morning on steam, and one on coffee, took care of my morning cappa. But the outcome was disappointing. Shots from different grinders or blends were invariably far less distinct from the Silvia than from any other machine I tried. In terms of taste, the Silvia's shots were incurably and terminally muddy. So like most of my other genius ideas, this one ended up on Ebay.

Don't get me wrong. I would always prefer a Silvia to a Gaggia Classic or any other small home machine, the others aren't even close. But it simply isn't competitive in shot clarity with inexpensive HX machines like the Expobar, Bezzera BZ, Oscar, or any of the E61 single boiler machines.

Therefore, I do not think the Silvia is a good choice for someone who is a serious home roaster or someone who is spending a lot of money on the high end espresso blends or SOs. The Silvia cannot adequately render their taste.
Jim Schulman