For travelers who've visited Europe, LaCimbali will be one of the few names that they can rattle off as automatically associated with espresso bars. From the expansive café machines to their logo on espresso cups in Rome, there is an unmistakeable association in their name. I suppose this shouldn't be a surprise — afterall, the company has been in business since 1912!
For espresso aficionados throughout the world, LaCimbali additionally means uncompromising quality of materials and workmanship, and unparalleled temperature stability among heat exchanger espresso machines. Given the Cimbali Junior DT1's reputation and its ardent followers who expect in-depth treatment for their hero, this Buyer's Guide goes to greater lengths than the previous reports, featuring a side-by-side group taste comparison against another espresso industry icon, La Marzocco.
I logged more than four months of daily use of this machine before arranging the test to be certain I had a firm grip on the nuances of operating Junior. Frankly, the tallied votes surprised me. But before getting to the results of the shootout, allow me to first introduce the LaCimbali Junior DT1, whose nickname is simply "Junior".
Although it's really designed for small cafés, the Cimbali Junior DT1 is an appealing high-end choice for the home barista because it can be powered by an ordinary household 15 amp outlet (modern home kitchens generally have at least two 20 amp circuits for appliance outlets), and it fits comfortably beneath standard kitchen cabinets. Junior's appearance also blends well with today's popular choice of stainless steel kitchen appliances and granite / marble countertops. Once out of the box, the first thing I noticed about Junior was that it is shorter and deeper than it appears in online photos. The feet are individually adjustable in height; extending them out halfway gives about 1½" of clearance for the incoming water connection and the outgoing drain while keeping Junior's overall height to below seventeen inches.
Because the Cimbali Junior is rated for commercial duty, it has features that distinguish it from many prosumer espresso machines, such as:
- Large 2.25 liter boiler and heavy commercial group,
- Whisper-quiet rotary pump and ready to plumb driptray,
- Huge warming shelf that accommodates 24 Illy demitasse cups,
- Ample clearance underneath for easy cleaning,
- Design features to avoid downtime for repairs (more on this later in Materials and Workmanship).
Junior's look is minimalist and no-nonsense. I had read about Cimbali's legendary brew group design and studied its schematics, but had never seen it first hand, so I wasted no time getting the covers off. The two side panels remove easily with only a Phillips screwdriver. The quick access to the interior demonstrates another quality of well-design commercial equipment: Repairs are fast and not disruptive. For example, there's no need to remove the cups from the warming tray to get at the majority of the internal components. You'll appreciate repair technician-friendly thinking like this the day you want to adjust the brew pressure or boiler temperature, or if you live in a hard-water area where it's necessary to drain the boiler for preventative descaling (again, more on this in Materials and Workmanship).
Beyond the niceties that please those who enjoy tinkering, there's also small attention to details that caught my eye. For example, the rubber-dimpled steam and water tap knobs have little retractable "skirts" that close the gap between the back of the knob and the machine's faceplate. Whether the knob it tightened down completely or wide open, the brass valve and its stem are not visible and errant splashes can't make their way behind the faceplate. Such circumspectness is unnecessary in the friendly environment of an average kitchen, but in a commercial venue, gunk of every description will invariably make its way into any exposed crevice, potentially causing maintenance problems after years of hard use.
My love at first sight experience of its construction and design didn't match up to the first few days pulling shots on Junior. I expected that given Junior's premium price, it would be dreamily easy to make fabulous espresso. However, that wasn't to be in the beginning. I learned that getting proper extractions from Junior demands that the barista pay more attention to technique, otherwise there's a risk of channeling.
I partially blame my lazy habits acquired from years of using prosumer equipment, especially E61s, which are more forgiving of imperfect technique (see Espresso Machines 101 to learn more about the E61 group design). To reach Junior's potential, I needed to raise my barista skills to the next level. During the same period I began my evaluation, a buzz about "bottomless portafilters" erupted on the Barista Guild board. Inspired by Chris (malachi) Tacy's diagnosis series Training with the Naked Portafilter, I started my own case study of what's going on behind the pour spout. The results were eye-opening and revealed the reasons behind my initial disappointment. The how-to Perfecting the Naked Extraction documents the results of my journey from Junior's ordinary to extraordinary espresso, all thanks to the consistent application of fundamental barista skills.