Peter Giuliano and Daryn Berlin from Counter Culture Coffee (CCC) organize weekly cuppings at 10am in the company caf� adjoining their Durham roasting facility. Peter invited me a couple times to join the group, but I've never made it because, well, I work for a living and my employer notices if I take a half-day off. The CCC staff really wants to reach out to espresso enthusiasts in the Triangle, so beginning last year they graciously offered to let anyone interested in coffee trash... err-r... use their espresso bar Fridays at 7:30am until the regular cupping starts at 10am.
In addition to giving local home baristas access to the freshest of fresh coffees, commercial equipment (La Marzocco Linea 3AV with Chronos, La Marzocco Swift grinder, Mazzer Robur and Super Jolly grinder, etc.), and their expert advice, our regular get-togethers have provided an ideal forum to swap theories and opinions about all things coffee and espresso. We're also fortunate to have a good mix of experience and backgrounds among the attendees. Whatever the topic, whether it be home roasting, espresso machine modifications, latte art, cupping, coffee blending—you name it and somebody among the regulars can help (or at least offer an opinion!).
Back to the subject of this article: The Cimbali Junior. Let's not joke about it—Junior is an expensive machine and I thought it was reasonable to put it up against stiff competition. Peter and Daryn enthusiastically agreed to host a comparison taste test of the Cimbali Junior against their own La Marzocco Linea. Cindy Chang, CCC's caf� staff trainer, offered to serve as barista for their equipment.
The day before the test, Peter and I met at the espresso lab to verify the equipment and finalize the details. He explained how to organize blind-tasting of coffee, or "cupping" as they say in the business. One of the purposes of cupping is to elicit feedback, some of which may be very subjective. Indeed, the distinctions between two samples can be very subtle, and sometimes choosing the best cup reduces to hairsplitting differences. On the other hand, the goal of an espresso equipment comparison is to declare a clear winner, not split tenths of a point, so we modeled the scoring of this test to follow "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" simplicity. The score sheet we used is shown to the right.
Briefly, the rules we followed were:
- Equipment will be regulated to the same brew pressure (nine bar) and temperature (202°F).
- To avoid the sounds of equipment or barista chatter influencing the tasters, the tasters will be seated in a separate room.
- A taster will be simultaneously served two espressos in identical cups; each cup will be marked using a set of numbers randomly assigned to a given machine.
- Tasters will be informed that some "calibration pairs" will be served from the multi-group Linea among the comparison espressos. The intent is to keep everyone on their toes, knowing that some shots are expected to be nearly identical.
- All comments will be anonymous to assure everyone feels comfortable speaking freely.
- Tasters will have two rotations of six espressos each.
La Marzoccos have one boiler for brewing and another for steaming; as discussed in HX cooling flush in detail, their temperature profile looks like a slanted-L. The Cimbali Junior has a single boiler and heat exchanger; its temperature profile has a distinct "hump" at the beginning of the shot. My earlier experience suggested these two temperature profiles might favor one blend type over another, so we selected two espresso blends: Counter Culture Coffee's Toscano and Intelligentsia Coffee Roaster's Black Cat. I theorized that the former blend would fare better with Junior's temperature characteristics, while the latter blend would fare better with the Linea's.
By the way, if you did the math in your head, yes, you understood the last rule correctly: Each taster received three paired samples per rotation of each blend for a total of twelve doubles over a two-hour period. Adding to that the warm-up shots we pulled and I was vibrating well past 11pm that night!
With agreement on the rules and the equipment regulated, I took a few moments to repeat the "humped profile" experiment described in the previous report on brew temperature management of heat exchangers. It's a simple procedure where you allow the HX temperature to rise slightly longer after the cooling flush, producing a short duration temperature spike at the beginning of the extraction. Peter commented that the effect on the espressos' taste was unmistakable and produced a sweeter shot for his Toscano blend. I wondered if purposely modifying the usage in this manner to better suit a particular blend would give the Cimbali Junior an advantage over the La Marzocco Linea, which is specifically designed to deliver only a slant-L temperature profile. In the end we decided against taking any extra measures that would slow the production pace. This would better model continuous usage, which is often cited as a strong selling point for both machines.
Very early the next morning Cindy and I set up supplies, marked cups, and recalibrated the grinders a second time. The rest of the tasters arrived an hour later. The group represented a good mix of experience levels: one professional and four home enthusiasts composed of two "hard core," one moderate, and one newcomer. I was certain it was going to be an interesting test.
The results surprised me. Out of forty paired comparisons (recall that twenty were taster "calibration pairs"):
31 were judged equivalent
5 were considered better by the La Marzocco Linea
4 were considered better by the Cimbali Junior
There was no case where a pair had one "significantly superior" to the other.
Bottom line of the comparisons—it was a dead heat. I honestly expected the results to break for the Linea, given its towering reputation in the commercial world and the fact that it's a three group commercial machine. And I had secretly hoped my "humped profile" theory would be validated with the Cimbali edging ahead for Toscano and La Marzocco for Black Cat, since I believe Toscano favors the hump temperature profile, but there was no clear trend.
Although most of the tasters considered their paired samples so close as to be considered equivalent, some used the comments section to jot down their thoughts on tough calls. Below is a summary of how each taster voted by experience level and their observations in the taster notes, if any:
- Where professional barista had a preference, split the vote evenly between LaCimbali and LaMarzocco. No side notes for the ties.
- Where hardcore home barista #1 had a preference, picked the LaCimbali; side notes for the ties were split.
- Where hardcore home barista #2 had a preference, picked the LaMarzocco; side notes for the ties leaned in favor of the LaMarzocco.
- Where moderate home barista had a preference, picked the LaMarzocco; side notes for the ties leaned in favor of the LaMarzocco
- Where newcomer home barista had a preference, picked LaCimbali two out of three times. No side notes for the ties.
Comments I collected from the participants include:
"All the shots were very good. Making comparisons was
"I liked how the shots from Junior lingered longer in the aftertaste."
"The inter-machine variation was as great as the intra-machine variation."
"This test proves you can get 90-95% of the way to god shots with just good solid fundamentals."
What are my own thoughts? I was scratching my head as I watched one of the participants tally the results. I unconsciously accepted La Marzocco as the de-facto standard based on all the positive press that I had read. My expectation of a lopsided victory in favor of the Linea simply did not materialize. As anticlimactic as it is to say, all the shots were darn good and if there was a difference, it wasn't much to get excited about.
So where does this leave you, the home espresso lover? The last comment above states it best: "This test proves that you can get 90-95% of the way to god shots with just good solid fundamentals." And obviously it helps to have a great espresso machine, which the Cimbali Junior proved itself worthy of the title.