Now unto the most important part of the review – how does the VII perform?
A bit of disclosure here. I already own a VII pre preinfusion and positive offset. So I am pretty familiar with how this machine is going to perform. Dan's familiarity with the HX and E61 groups led him to a more tentative start when he reviewed the original Vivaldi.
As was mentioned in Espresso Machines 101, an E61 group is too hot for brewing after being idle for 10-15 minutes and needs to be brought back to brew temperature with a cool down flush. The VII is different. Its group will be below brew temperature after being idle (and thus needs a blank shot or two to bring it up a few degrees), or if it has produced a shot recently, near precisely the desired brew temperature. Since the group is never overheated, you need to be aware of how you can inadvertently draw down the brew temperature. For example, forgetting to draw a blank after the machine has been idle or by keeping the portafilter out of the grouphead too long. For me this is less of an issue because I almost always use a bottomless portafilter with very little thermal mass. Dan removes the basket retention clip from his portafilter so the basket drops in and removes easily. He then moves along at his own (slumbering leisure pace) while the portafilter remains in the grouphead. Once the basket and coffee are ready, a quick turn to remove the portafilter, drop in the basket, then back in the grouphead.
The VII's shot-to-shot performance is helped by a fast-reacting and very
accurate (0.5ºC) temperature sensor. After just one shot, the brew boiler's
heating element activates less than ten seconds later to bring it back to brew
temperature. It's recovered in about 30 seconds. Well within even my fastest
shot build time.
In the center of the VII grouphead is a small 8mm bolt that holds the brass water diffuser and dispersion screens on. Notice that read dispersion screens, not screen. The manufacturer explains that there are two dispersion screens, a smaller one beneath a larger one, to reduce grinds passing back up through the grouphead and to prevent channeling. With the two screens in place, there is adequate room for 16 grams of coffee, leaving about 2mm of clearance between the top of the puck and the grouphead. You can double check the clearance is correct by locking in the portafilter and then removing it; the top of the puck will show the light impression of the grouphead bolt in the center if you have the correct clearance.
Everything drops out easily including the grouphead gasket itself, so keeping the business end of the VII squeaky clean is easy. The general consensus from the S1Cafe board (an excellent Vivaldi resource run by Chas Rimpo) is to backflush with water after each session and clean and chemical backflush every couple of weeks. That is my adopted schedule as well.
You will need to set up a couple of presets for your machine: namely, group temperature, preinfusion time and volumetric dose before pulling your first shots. I won't go into the details here since we covered them in the previous section. I do have some suggestions on starting points that have worked well for me. Let's start with preinfusion. My recommendation here is three seconds with a water inlet pressure of 25psi. Set the volumetric dosing on the double button for 2 oz and the single for 3oz. Why? Because I generally don't pull singles and use that button for back flushing and rinsing. Also I generally pull about 1.75oz doubles so I'll be pretty close even if I'm not paying attention and don't cut the double shot off myself. Temperature wise 93°C is a pretty good starting point for your basic espresso blends
Pulling shots by the numbers
Below are the steps for pulling your first shots, plus some added tips for the chronically lethargic morning espresso-loving crowd. Let's assume that you've set the temperature to your liking (93-94°C for medium roasts and maybe a degree or two higher for light roasts are good starting points) and you've adjusted your grinder to pull a reasonable 25-27 second espresso:
- Allow the group 25 minutes to warm up.
Or leave it on* with the portafilter loosely locked in.
- Draw a blank shot with the portafilter in place.
Press the two-cup button, preferably into your espresso cup to preheat it. You will ultimately have to pull two blank doubles to get the grouphead up to temperature. The brew boiler recovers very quickly and if you don't dawdle then back to back drinks will not require additional flushing.
- Measure out and grind your beans.
I found that 16 grams of beans (a level basket with one slight tap during dosing) works best for your basic espresso blends. Lighter roasts have denser beans so will not need the mid dose tap. Some may even end up below the lip for a similar dose.
- Tamp firmly, about 30 pounds of pressure.
Many people underestimate how hard they are actually pressing. If it helps, try tamping on a bathroom scale. The key point to remember is the consistency of your tamp pressure from one shot to another, not the precise pressure amount itself.
- Either lock in the portafilter with coffee (speedy morning people), or remove
the portafilter, drop in the basket, and then relock it in (slowpokes).
For the slowpoke approach, the basket is at room temperature but the portafilter is heavy brass and very hot. The basket and coffee will come up to temperature quickly, losing less than 2°F throughout the shot. Again this tip is mostly for slowpokes.
- Dump the hot water from the cup and wait for the temperature led to stop
flashing, wait until it is solid and then press the two-cup button. Waiting
for the temperature light to go solid is the trick to consistent temperatures
across your espresso routine.
You may want to take a moment after the shot is complete to rinse the grouphead by loosely locking in the single-shot portafilter with its backflush disk and running another shot while slowly jiggling the portafilter handle back and forth. This “wiggle-rinse” will wash most of the loose grinds off the grouphead and dispersion screen and over the sides of the portafilter into the drip tray. Be careful not to splash yourself with hot water! At the end of a session, I also recommend a quick water backflush to clear the pathway from the grouphead to the pressure relief valve that empties into the right back corner of the drip tray. Refer to Espresso Machine Cleaning - Why, How, and When for more details on a cleaning regime that applies to the VII.
Remember to relock the portafilter back into the grouphead to keep it warm.
(*) Hint: If you leave your machine on overnight, you can save energy by pressing the BOILER button after your last cappuccino for the day. It takes only 15 minutes to heat the steam boiler and temperature stability isn't an issue for frothing (one of the advantages of separate boilers). Once the steam boiler is at 1.25 bar, it's ready to go.
If all goes well, you should here the water solenoid click on for about three seconds before the pump starts. You will see your first drops of espresso in about another five seconds and continue for about another twenty. A good stream will be characterized by a dark, rich color that transitions to ribbons of dark brown / tan stripes as the pour progresses. Finally towards the end the color will lighten and the stripes stop. If the auto-dose hasn't already ended the shot, you can press and release the button again to stop it. I noted a light impression of the dispersion screen on the puck when removing the portafilter and no signs of channeling.
Channeling can be a problem if you overdose this machine. That said, one thing I have noticed is that preinfusion does make the new VII more forgiving of dosing and tamping issues than my machine.
Once you have run through your espresso routine a few times the VII's impressive level of temperature control and stability makes pulling shots by the numbers pretty much a reality. Touchpad temperature control also comes in handy if you like to change blends. I like to run my Single Origin espressos at a lower temperature than some of the blended espressos I use. No problem- a quick push of the button and voila a new temperature setting. Yeah, La Spaziale's on-the-fly temperature adjustment capability can be addicting.
The VII's rotary pump allows for easy adjustment. My recommendation is to set it to 9 bar and leave it. Chris' machines come bench tested and preset to 9 bar. Pressures of nine bar and below make for an easier pull without channeling. I attribute this to the lower pressure that doesn't force open fissures that would otherwise lead to channeling. Some espresso aficionados claim to taste a difference at various pressures. If you are inclined to tweak the pressure to discover for yourself, it is easy to do so with a rotary pump since it has a built-in bypass valve that allows you to set the pressure directly and you can use the dual manometer to check the pressure reading. That is, unlike vibration pumps, which put out their maximum pressure for a given resistance and rely on an expansion valve for pressure regulation, a rotary pump puts out the same pressure independent of the flow rate. In a commercial environment, one rotary pump may service several groups, plus it doesn't require the pauses that a vibration pump must have (about one minute maximum before resting for one minute). For this reason and of course their durability and longevity, rotaries are the de rigueur in such demanding situations.
One other advantage of rotary pumps is they are quieter than vibration pumps, especially when the pump is external to the machine under cabinet as is often the case in commercial setups. The VII's is inside the unit. I don't own a sound meter to measure precisely, but empirically it sounds much quieter and at a lower tone than the already reasonably quiet vibration pump of the La Valentina.
The VII can be fitted with an optional kit for pods. This includes a narrower diffuser disk, screen, and single basket that contain the pod tightly during the extraction. Espresso pods are popular among those who wish to simplify the preparation and eliminate almost all the cleanup.