Ponte Vecchio Export: Easy to Use, Harder to Recommend

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drgary
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#1: Post by drgary »

Ponte Vecchio Export: Easy to Use, Harder to Recommend

An Assessment in Its Current Build

By Gary Seeman

Foreword

The Ponte Vecchio Export and its predecessor built by Sama have been popular as entry-level lever machines. Users have noted fit and finish issues for a long time but continue to extoll the Export's ease of use, temperature stability, durability, and overall excellent espresso and steaming. At my request, 1st-Line Equipment supplied a new Ponte Vecchio Export to review. I've had to address build issues out of the box that went beyond sloppy fit to also interfere with brewing. At this point the brewing problems are resolved, and I concur with the reasons for its popularity. But I must also review the machine I've got in front of me. To be fair to a prospective buyer, I must consider what it would be like for an entry-level user to buy an Export at its current price and struggle with issues that take a hobbyist's skills to resolve.

Would I recommend a vintage Export to a hobbyist who's capable of servicing and restoring it? Absolutely. Would I recommend a new Export to a friend? Not at any price with such poor quality control. Home-Barista's formal reviews must pass the friend test. For this reason I am sharing my assessment in the Levers forum instead of the Bench or the Reviews page. Along with what I like I must document the many problems encountered brand new, out of the box. I don't believe any retailer or importer should be responsible for opening every box and inspecting the product. That's the job of the manufacturer. The reseller provides after-sales support, but this has to be worthwhile for them and for the buyer who deserves a reasonable chance it will work as advertised upon arrival.

For these reasons the Ponte Vecchio Export spring lever machine is a living contradiction. With the Export it's easy to make excellent espresso and steam milk, but it's hard to service. From what I can see in the current version, it's built of good materials, but it's poorly assembled. That poor assembly, a failure to honor Italy's artisan tradition, has recently been its downfall. The Export has outlasted many of its peers, and it still could be a contender. But Ponte Vecchio will need to get its act together before its new machines can qualify for a recommendation. I hope it does.


Photo courtesy of 1st-Line Equipment

History

In the 1970s, Sama introduced three spring lever espresso machines: the Export, the Lusso, and the Club. The Export was a small home model. The Lusso was larger, with a horizontal boiler and the same group as the Export. The group in the Lusso was attached differently than with the Export. Thermosyphon tubes circulated boiler water through the group for temperature stability. The rare Club machine resembled the Lusso but incorporated the group from the Elektra Micocasa a Leva of that time. (From Francesco Ceccarelli's historical account.) For a time production stopped when Sama closed its doors. But in 1999 the Ponte Vecchio Srl company was founded and resumed production of the Export and Lusso. The Lusso is now offered in one and two group models.

The Export's appearance is elegantly minimalist, and it was a bargain for many years. It's made of good materials -- a brass boiler, a stainless steel case, the drip grate and cup warmer are chrome plated, and the portafilter has a hefty feel despite its small size. The fittings work but are lower quality than found in pricier brands. Traditionally offered with a painted steel case, the Export recently became available with a durable and attractive stainless steel case. Meanwhile its price climbed to the point it would still be competitive if well assembled, but it is no longer a price leader.

Increasing Concern with Quality Control

The machine that was shipped to me had most of the known fit and finish issues, including a misaligned boiler. Its poor assembly also interfered with its espresso brewing capability. Specifically, the lever on my machine slipped and coffee was being pulled back into the boiler, a documented problem caused by leaking piston gaskets. When I disassembled the group - no easy task - I discovered that the piston seals had not been lubricated. I corrected that and the gaskets now seal. Such problems should not exist with a brand new machine. For many potential buyers, poor QC combined with increased price may now reverse what was once a favorable trade-off.

I address QC in detail below as feedback for the company, hoping it may help motivate improvements, and to alert potential buyers. But there are admirable qualities in its original design. I'll explore those aspects next.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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#2: Post by drgary (original poster) »

A Traditional Spring Lever

Italians typically drink smaller espressos and milk drinks than their American counterparts. The Export group's capacity is an example of that Italian tradition. Users report a wide range of shot pulling techniques with good results. This is a very forgiving machine. It has the same group as the Lusso . Here is Dan Kehn's technique for brewing espresso with this group from his Lusso review.
HB wrote:My best results are with the Fellini Move (effectively 1-½ pulls), 2-3 seconds of gentle preinfusion, back up gently to refill, followed by slow release. The brewing ratio is 100% for one pull ristrettos (i.e., 11 grams of coffee in, 11 grams of liquid out) and 60-70% for a full two-pull espressos. Pay close attention to smoothly pushing down the lever to raise the piston / compress the spring and gently releasing to begin the extraction. If done properly, the second pull extraction tastes like strong coffee from a moka pot. For most coffees, it balances the espresso's strong-ristretto flavor with only a small impact on the body.
I have found that I can increase dose dramatically and get delicious results. I can easily load more than 15 gm in the double basket and found this excels for a properly executed light roast in the Nordic style. My technique is to fill the basket to the brim with grounds, sweep excess grounds off the top and tamp lightly. This doses about 15.2 gm. I do a long long preinfusion followed by a pull that I allow to proceed 1/3 of the lever travel. I then re-cock the lever and allow it to complete a full stroke. This yields 28 gm of espresso for a 54 percent brew ratio, just qualifying as a ristretto. It's well layered. For that light roast the group and portafilter need to be sufficiently heated. I make sure the portafilter has been locked in for at least a minute for my first shot before starting the pull. The long preinfusion with a sufficiently tight grind adequately heats the brew chamber. Of course different coffees vary in ideal dose and grind, so 15 gm isn't a general recommendation. My machine was factory pre-set at 1.2 bars pressure, and it's equipped with a 2mm heat break gasket.

Experienced user reports attest to the group being well designed to deliver larger shots with multiple pulls. The double basket can reportedly hold more than 16 gm and does not need much headroom to the shower screen. The basket also has straight, vertical walls, a design feature may avoid overextraction that could occur at the outer edges of a tapered basket. However the flow of hot water surges forward instead of being evenly distributed. This could cause an uneven extraction that may be minimized with sufficient preinfusion to soak the tall vertical column of coffee. The quality of the cup is what counts, and I find that a properly pulled shot with multiple pulls delivers good taste and mouthfeel. Here is Jack Piccolo's well-practiced technique, which also employs a higher dose.
peacecup wrote:I use very full baskets, 16.5g usually, and multiple pulls, usually 3-4 partial pulls. This yields shots between 20-30g liquid, so a 75-50% brew ratio. Although some PV users have reported problems using multiple techniques, my experience with the bottomless PF shows that I consistently get nice, even extractions. This only confirms my long-standing opinion based on results in the cup. The multiple pull method probably requires a cooler group that would be required with a single pull, however, because the water is in contact with the group longer.

Ponte Vecchio's use of a heat break gasket in the Export helps prevent overheating. I don't know if that heat break was in vintage machines and invite others to chime in about that. The declining pressure extractions of spring levers offer softer shots with more flavor layering and reduced body compared to a good pump machine using constant pressure. This explains the characteristic taste and mouthfeel of the Export. Compared to the Elektra Microcasa a Leva the Export and its counterpart, the Lusso, are known for denser mouthfeel and less flavor layering. The Export's spring feels somewhat stronger than that of the popular Microcasa. Its smaller group diameter (45 mm compared to 49 mm in the Elektra) contributes to greater pressure applied in the brewing process. With adjustments to dose and grind the Export is capable of similar shots to the Elektra, but machines tend to have their own style, and the Export's is typically a bit denser.

Brew Temperature is Repeatable and Consistent

I found this machine very repeatable and consistent for brew temperature when used in my usual morning routine of pulling a shot or two before breakfast and maybe once afterward. As an experienced lever user I didn't just walk up and pull a shot but did my own informal version of temperature surfing to adjust to the coffees I was pulling. Before each brew session I would purge the air pocket in the steam wand and group. If I was brewing very light Nordic roasts, I would want the group to be hot. I would lock in the portafilter and let it sit in place for at least a minute, then start each shot with a long preinfusion, usually holding the lever down for 15 seconds. The grind was fine so drips might or might not hit the cup. I would release the lever and let it run a third of the way through its arc, then re-cock the lever for five seconds before allowing it to pull through. This reliably produced properly temped shots at about a 50% brew ratio. With a slightly darker roast I would lock in the portafilter, start the preinfusion right away, and might preinfuse for only five seconds at a slightly coarser grind. As drips started hitting the cup I would release the lever, let it run a quarter to a third of the way through its arc, re-cock the lever for five seconds or less and allow it to run for a full pull. This also worked well.

I ran eight shots in a speed run and measured the outside of the group. I didn't measure the coffee cake temperature because this would have involved a tangle of wires. I used very old greens ("has beans") home roasted to Full City. Throughout the run the coffee didn't taste burnt. My thermocouple was placed at the side of the group. (Temperatures measured by others may vary, depending on probe placement.) Average time between most shots ran about 1:45 to 2 minutes. The speed run reflected my experience in temperature surfing. At 1.2 bar the machine was set to cruise below the temperature at which it would stabilize if run under load, whether with a long preinfusion or with multiple, successive shots. When fully heated it hit a ceiling and stabilized. With speed runs I rinse the portafilter in room temperature water before refilling. I do that because it's a realistic way to approach pushing a home machine for successive shots. Here's my Artisan graph showing 8 shots in a little over 15 minutes. Placing the cursor over the peak of the graph yielded the following outside group temperatures in Fahrenheit: 188, 194, 197, 199, 198, 199, 198. In Celsius this would be 86, 90, 91, 93, 92, 93, 92.

I didn't attempt to measure the temperature range at the coffee cake compared to the exterior temperature. A more detailed temperature study comparing outside and coffee cake temperature at different pressure settings might be interesting to some users, but I would find it unnecessary to dial in a machine. If I were setting the PSTAT for my daily preference I would do it by taste and adjust my technique (cooling the portafilter in water or locking it in to heat it, preinfusion time and such as noted above). Daily use of the Export over a couple of weeks told me that it's relatively forgiving and can be temperature surfed without the need for heating flushes.

Good Steaming Power

At the 1.2 bar factory setting the Export's three hole steam tip makes it easy to texture milk for latte art. The steam wand is fixed and inserts at an angle into the milk pitcher, a good position for creating a spinning vortex of milk that heats evenly. However, the portafilter turns in toward the steam wand and creates a very tight space, which is not the case with some competitive machines.

Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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drgary (original poster)
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#3: Post by drgary (original poster) »

Pros and Cons Summarized

Here's a quick feature assessment. I discuss some items in greater detail where they're not self-explanatory.

Pros
- Excellent espresso quality
- Very good steam wand design and power for easily texturing milk
- Simple, elegant design
- Strong spring for dense shots
- Deep filter basket
- Durable stainless steel case for burn protection
- Brass boiler
- Durable chrome-plated drip grate and cup grate
- Good feel to the lever pull, with no side play and firm support at the base
- Heat break gasket, 2mm thick, for temperature stability
- Adjustable pressurestat for tuning temperature
- Suction cup feet to help prevent sliding
- Safety features include easily read sightglass, resettable thermal switch, overpressure valve, grounded plug

Cons
- Poor quality control in assembly
- Group is very difficult to service
- Steam valve has a rough feel that gets easier with use
- Steam knob is small and relatively hard to grip
- Portafilter handle turns toward steam wand, obstructing access
- Tiny drip tray
- Drip grate slides in base
- No retainer spring for filter basket
- Small boiler fill aperture
- Supplied plastic tamper doesn't fit filter basket, requiring purchase of an additional tamper

I don't know if the current version still has plain steel boiler screws that would tend to rust. Perhaps someone reading this can address that issue. If it does it would be another example of careless build.

Solid Feel of Lever Action

One of the features I like best is the solid feel of the lever action, with no sideways play. There's no flex at the base during a pull either, although there is some give of the suction cup rubber feet. This compares well to recent versions of competitive models.

Elegant and Readable Sightglass

The sightglass is well designed and implemented. The water level is easy to see when reflecting the paint behind it. Positioning the sightglass at the edge of the case is an elegant touch and enhances the machine's clean lines.

No Frills Features

I don't think of no frills features as positive or negative. They are common in home lever machines that may be configured for simplicity, cost savings, or both.

The Export has modest boiler capacity of 0.9 l. This is sufficient for a home machine, allows fast heating from a cold start (about 10 minutes plus a heat flush), and has a capacity of 8 double shots using multiple pulls, somewhat less if steaming milk drinks.

Because there's no vacuum breaker, air trapped inside must be flushed through the steam wand and group to allow the machine to reach full operating temperature. One member's post in our Lever's forum mentioned that a vacuum breaker was introduced and then removed from recent Olympia Express Creminas and reasoned that if the vacuum breaker accumulates mineral scale and doesn't close the machine could boil dry. Because this is a real risk, I am neutral about its omission.

The Export has no steam gauge (manometer), which would otherwise offer feedback during warm-up, in case the pressurestat scales and pressure rises out of control, or to fine-tune the machine for a coffee preference. For instance, someone typically darker roasts roasts might want to reduce the pressure setting to walk up and pull cooler shots. The small boiler capacity leaves little extra for heating flushes to raise temperature for lighter roasts during a brew session. Some view the lack of a vacuum breaker and manometer as keeping the design simple, others prefer having them. Users can fashion a steam wand manometer if they want to work with pressure settings. Instructions are readily found for that DIY project by searching the web.
Gary
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What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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drgary (original poster)
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#4: Post by drgary (original poster) »

Pervasive QC Issues in a New Machine

The QC problems apparent in this new machine are well documented and easily found by searching the Levers forum. I bring them together here for someone who is considering buying a new or vintage Export, since many of the documented issues are present in my machine. I start with fit and finish.

Fit and finish defects. The worst fit and finish defect and one that's hard to fix is that the boiler is noticeably mounted out of alignment. This shows in the misaligned group and makes it harder to align the steam valve.





The steam shaft is far out of alignment and looks bent so it will exit the case on both ends. Its operation was stiff at first, suggesting the valve was poorly lubricated, if at all. The drip grate does not seat securely in the tiny drip tray and comes loose when moving a cup on it. The strain relief where the steam wand exits the case has excessive play as does the gasket for the power cord. Although some might consider this a minor issue and not an unusual one, I found the serial number sticker slapped on the bottom with no regard for alignment. Given all these other problems, I believe the serial tag is like a signature and its haphazard placement shows a lack of pride in craftsmanship.



Many are prepared to accept such fit and finish issues if they are forewarned and choose the Export for its performance at a competitive price. But at current pricing people are paying a premium for the Export as a real espresso machine meant to surpass what they'll find in most consumer retail stores.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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drgary (original poster)
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#5: Post by drgary (original poster) »

Brew quality defects. The worst assembly failure is that sloppy QC impacted espresso brewing. You can't make decent espresso with polluted boiler water. The lever slipped and coffee washed back into the boiler. Heat cycling with Pulycaff coffee detergent cleaned the boiler, but this should not be standard maintenance.

Before I found and corrected the cause I was sometimes able to correct lever slippage by allowing a very long preinfusion or by re-cocking the lever. Users of various espresso machines with coffee backwash cope by inserting filter paper between the dispersion screen and the coffee cake. I tried this and it helped, but after further use I noticed some coffee was still leaking into the boiler. Following an alert by long-time H-B member Jack Piccolo, aka peacecup, further research suggested a leaking piston gasket.

So, I removed the piston and found that the piston gaskets were intact but hadn't been lubricated. I lubricated the piston gaskets with DOW 111 and reassembled. That solved the leak. Also the portafilter gasket hadn't been lubricated, which may explain why turning in the portafilter felt rough. The shower screen popped out a couple of times after re-installation, then the portafilter gasket dropped out. When fully inserted into the group the portafilter gasket did not hold the shower screen in place. Also, the portafilter gasket could be a bit softer and thicker so it would remain seated and keep the portafilter from turning so far to the right.

Group is Challenging to Service

Because I had to inspect the piston gaskets I had the pleasure of servicing the group, which can be an ordeal with the Export if you don't have the factory tool. That tool is a modified portafilter that is threaded so you can lock it in and turn a screw that moves a clamp against the bottom of the piston. The threaded bolt compresses the spring to loosen tension on the lever pin that catches the piston rod. The pin can then be removed ... theoretically. The lever pin was held in place by a retaining ring that had no place to grip it unlike the usual kind that is grasped with circlips pliers. I was able to ply off that ring - probably another cost saving part. It launched itself and disappeared. I will replace it with a real circlip that is now on order.



Several user threads have explored ways to compress the spring to release the lever pin. Some have recommended a screw mechanism mounted with a wood block on the base. Others fear that may risk stressing the group's mount on the boiler. Improvising with a C-clamp is tricky. Without the factory tool one faces the risky prospect of improvising with a large C-clamp. The clamp grips the group on top and the piston bottom on the other end somewhat off center. It can slip under pressure of the powerful spring that's being tensioned, so I was careful to keep my hands clear of any release trajectory. I caught the top edge of the group on the frame of the clamp after cutting a patch from rubber anti-slip carpet pads that also prevented scarring the chrome. I used the same material at the piston end. The end of the clamp still tended to slip on the piston bottom and had to be repeatedly forced back into place with hand strength. This eventually worked. Perhaps there's a better way to clamp that spring -- for example there are C-clamps with double heads that may catch both sides of the group on top. All of this also suggests that this machine is not designed for the group to be serviced without the factory tool. Perhaps a double-headed C-clamp would work better, but I don't have one to try. I describe a more elegant solution below. Essentially providing a better tamper and drilling the bottom of a portafilter could solve two problems in one.



A Vintage Design Worth Saving

It must be frustrating for proponents of the Export to see these build issues getting in the way of a more positive recommendation. One could argue that someone with a hobbyist's willingness to work on a machine will be rewarded by performance and longevity. But why not obtain a vintage machine at lower price if a new one requires substantial remediation? Others might argue that my machine was probably built on a Monday or Friday, so it has an unusual number of flaws. But it has had such pervasive assembly defects that I can't believe it's inspected much, if at all, before it's packed in the retail box. These problems have been called out for a long time. I hope this assessment prompts the company to get its act together, because I believe the lovely vintage design of the Ponte Vecchio Export is worth saving.

My next post offers some solutions to issues identified above.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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drgary (original poster)
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#6: Post by drgary (original poster) »

Recommendations for Low-Cost Improvements

As discussed in my prior post, the group is very hard to service without the factory tool. Also the supplied tamper doesn't fit the group, despite reviews and complaints going back many years. There's also the issue that for a machine without a large user base or a geographically distributed network of service centers, it needs to be easily serviced by hobbyists, at least. The factory tool used to remove the piston for servicing looks like this, from sorrentinacoffee's thread:







Ponte Vecchio could provide that same portafilter as standard issue. They could thread it to accommodate a spout and provide a steel tamper that unthreads from its handle. The tamper head would then thread into the portafilter from above and onto a handle to crank it from below. If they would supply the centering ring, owners would have a group servicing tool to release the spring tension without having to resort to a C clamp that slips out of position. They could provide real circlips on the lever pins. This wouldn't cost much and would also make the group easier to service. Ponte Vecchio could sell the new portafilter and tamper to existing users of PV and Sama Exports and Lussos. Or, Ponte Vecchio could center drill and tap the portafilters it now makes for a similar solution.

Other issues can be resolved without re-engineering. A few dabs of silicone caulking on the bottom corners of the drip grate could keep it from sliding out of place. The steam wand could swivel so those who make many milk drinks could more easily reach it. Sure, users can now remove the portafilter before steaming, but that can slow down a brew session. Ironically the portafilter handle on the test machine no longer obstructs the steam wand, but that's because the portafilter gasket is too thin and the handle now turns until it almost touches the case.

More importantly PV should solve the sloppy assembly problems, doing better at overseeing quality control and inspecting each machine before it is packed for shipment.

The hard problem is changing the attitude at this or any company. Is there a will to make improvements and overcome people's' typical resistance to changes? Time will tell.

Until then, I would caution anyone buying a new Export to purchase from a vendor that will stand behind you if you encounter build quality issues.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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Bluecold
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#7: Post by Bluecold »

Have you been able to get into contact with the manufacturer over these issues?
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#8: Post by drgary (original poster) »

I will leave that to resellers. This was a review machine, not one I bought.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

Desmo490

#9: Post by Desmo490 »

interesting write up.....and fair.

I have just purchased a new PV Export. I don't have many of the issues that seem to be common. My boiler is pretty straight. It's not perfect, but it's not even close to the pictures of the one you had! The group is straight(vertical), not like the one in the photo's that appears to be out of plumb. The drip tray is small, and the cover does slide about easily. My PF has a basket retention spring clip....both the factory one, and the bottomless one. I don't have any steam valve issues, it sits squarely on the boiler. My sticker is applied squarely on the bottom of the base too. My PF handle sits right in line with the group...it doesn't cause any interference when steaming.

I have not attempted any service yet, so I cannot comment on the difficulty of replacing piston seals, but I do have a spare set of them if needed.

When I called a shop in Seattle that used to carry the export, they told me they no longer carry them due to QC issues.

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jfrescki

#10: Post by jfrescki »

Thanks for the review. I'd been keeping an eye out for 1st-line to restock the Lusso. The site says
The new V2 has an improvement with the internal steam pipe in the boiler having an extra welding to hold it in place
for many months, but as the machine has been out of stock for at least as long, I'm guessing QC problems still abound there too.
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