Visit to the Olympia Factory

A haven dedicated to manual espresso machine aficionados.
User avatar
danno

#1: Post by danno »

Ticino. The Italian-speaking part of Switzerland is a bit different from the rest of the country. The weather is warmer, the food and beverages more tasty, and the people are more... Italian. There is still the Swiss penchant for thoughtful design and quality, but it is tempered somewhat with a passion for beautiful things. Olympia comes from this region, located in the medium-sized city of Mendrisio right near the Switzerland-Italy border.

I recently met with Markus Fasnacht of Olympia while on an extended weekend in the Ticino region. Markus was very welcoming and provided me with some interesting insights about Olympia. For example, the reason why Olympia moved from its original purpose-built location in Morbio Inferiore to Mendrisio is because the zoning of the area where the factory was located changed from industrial to commercial. Luigi Bresaola tried to keep the company running, but it proved too costly to run an industry in a place zoned for commerce.

Image

The old factory is sadly now a shopping center.

Thus was born Mokaespresso SA in Mendrisio. Markus moved the company into a smaller industrial complex and outsourced production of many components. All machines are still assembled and tested by hand, though, and the passion for the highest quality in espresso production remains intact.

Image Image Image Image

The Olympia line of machines is marked by continual refinement over the years, but innovation also finds a home at the factory. Markus told me about plans to produce an espresso machine which uses electronic controls for the entire espresso-making process. Through a system of in-house designed circuits and valves, this machine would allow the user to adjust every aspect of espresso production and even permit timed operation. The machine is the same size as a typical semi-automatic. It does not include a grinder. The plan is to include several interchangeable parts and options which will allow users to customize the machine for a variety of uses.

I was impressed by the company's philosophy of production. Few espresso machine producers offer user-replaceable parts, but the Olympia website provides all parts and technical drawings, available at one's fingertips as it were. The factory is completely open with customers, even encouraging them to work on their own machines if necessary. Quite a switch from most modern industries.

In some ways, it seems as though Olympia is a victim of its own standards. Very few Olympia devices need to be repaired because they are incredibly well-made. It is nice to know that the factory still gladly accepts old machines for service and takes great care when refurbishing them.

Image Image Image

Yet, in a world full of mass-produced equipment where profit margins outweigh quality, a company such as Olympia struggles to survive. The fact that Mokaespresso sells its products online as well as through vendors demonstrates their commitment to the customer.

Image

It is refreshing to find a client-oriented corporation. Most Olympia products are expensive, but as Markus pointed out, when comparing the Cremina to a lever machine such as the La Pavoni Professional, the quality of components and manufacture would be favor of the Olympia machine. I love my Europiccola but would have to agree.

Some enthusiasts might be happy to learn that there are plans to build a version of the Olympia Moccaexpress grinder with a chute in lieu of the grounds hopper.

I got to take a close look at the grinder and was impressed by the solid design of the top burr carrier.

Image

Reference marks on the adjustment wheel can be altered simply by loosening a lockscrew and turning the reference dial. Nicely elegant. I was surprised to find that the glass bean hopper and top grind assembly are tightly sealed with three different o-rings, a thoughtful touch.

Image

I asked Markus about the reason why Olympia continues to use a 49mm portafilter on the Cremina and if that relatively small size has anything to do with the machine using a lever rather than pump for pulling shots. He explained that the Cremina could have a larger portafilter, but the group head would have to be resized accordingly. Such a machine would become quite ungainly and would lose its visual and mechanical balance. The travel of the lever would also be shorter owing the greater amount of water being displaced with a large piston. This would ruin the fine adjustment which distinguishes lever espresso machines.

Image

Markus also gave me some insight into the function of a Cremina. Lever machines run with very hot water, so it helps the group when pulling multiple shots to cool the portafilter by running it under cold water between shots. This way, the portafilter will absorb some of the group's heat if it has become saturated after pulling several shots. If you are pulling only a few shots in one session, heat saturation is not a problem.

Another tip is to pull shots with boiler pressure slightly reduced, between 0.7 and 0.8 bar. The Cremina maintains boiler pressure between 1.0 and 0.7 bar automatically. It might seem that high water pressure is better, but the work in extraction comes from the lever, not the boiler. Opening the steam wand to drop the pressure down a bit will help the Cremina work more as it was designed.

The four holes in the bottom of the Cremina's piston? Ah, yes, as some suspected, they are designed to help the bottom piston seal more effectively on the lever's downstroke.

I got to enjoy a drink from an older superautomatic Olympia. A super-sized machine, indeed.

Image

A friend told me that many Ticino communities keep or rent Olympia superautomatics for big events. The one in his community is very old, but it still works flawlessly. I must say the superautomatic at the factory produced a better shot than I have gotten in most Swiss cafes. Of course, Markus was the operator.

Image

Markus showed me the spreadsheet he uses to track every single machine which exits the factory. There was a run of serial number stickers which had incorrect dates on them, and Markus told me exactly when my machine left the factory. He plans to revert back to individual serial number stamping to keep production dates accurate.

Image

The ownership experience is quite unique, indeed. I got an English language version of the owner's booklet and discovered it provides a very comprehensive overview of all aspects of espresso extraction, surprisingly so for a user manual. The user experience. That is the essence of Olympia ownership. Olympia products are elegantly made, highly tactile in use, and the company is very careful about providing maximum value for its customers.

Olympia may indeed be one the few remaining low-volume, customer-centered manufacturers of espresso machines. I hope they can continue to remain profitable.

Image

Thanks to Markus for entertaining me for a few hours.
d

klieglight2

#2: Post by klieglight2 »

This is my first ever post on HB forums, but I have been lurking here and on CG forums for over a year. It was the various Cremina restoration threads that finally got me to do something with my 1977 Cremina (beginning restoration) and 1980 Maximatic, both of which I love.
I have loved Olympia machines since I first saw one when I was about 7 years old (not kidding) at a relative's house. At that time I was told it was just a "special coffeemaker" and when I asked further, I was told I would not like it! Anyway, that started my Olympia obsession.
I contacted Markus via email about parts for my Cremina, and was pleasantly surprised with the very prompt and personal communication that I received. A far cry from most modern corporations. I can see how it would be hard for a company like Olympia to survive in a world of throwaway mass-market equipment. Then again, there will always be those (I hope) that recognize quality and craftsmanship, and are willing to pay more for it. Where else can you find products that still function after 25 or more years, let alone still have a company that will support them so well?

I love your photos, someday I hope to get my hands on an Olympia Club machine, and perhaps the gorgeous Caffarex VT and NT. You don't see them much in the US, but I am going to keep my eyes open.
One question, Is the 2 group commercial lever machine shown in one of the photos an Olympia? It is hard to tell but it looks more like a Cimbali or Faema.

Many Thanks!
Doug

User avatar
danno

#3: Post by danno »

klieglight2 wrote: One question, Is the 2 group commercial lever machine shown in one of the photos an Olympia? It is hard to tell but it looks more like a Cimbali or Faema.
Hey Doug-

That is indeed an old Faema two-group machine. It appeared to have been unused for quite a while. I suspect that someone in the shop took it in as a favor for a friend.
d

User avatar
espressoperson

#4: Post by espressoperson »

Danno,

Thanks for the report and pictures. It's a real treat to see behind the scenes and learn about the people bringing us Olympia products. The Olympia outlook is more hopeful than I thought it would be. Their glory days may be gone but they seem to be doing better than just surviving.
danno wrote:Markus also gave me some insight into the function of a Cremina. Lever machines run with very hot water, so it helps the group when pulling multiple shots to cool the portafilter by running it under cold water between shots. This way, the portafilter will absorb some of the group's heat if it has become saturated after pulling several shots. If you are pulling only a few shots in one session, heat saturation is not a problem.

Another tip is to pull shots with boiler pressure slightly reduced, between 0.7 and 0.8 bar. The Cremina maintains boiler pressure between 1.0 and 0.7 bar automatically. It might seem that high water pressure is better, but the work in extraction comes from the lever, not the boiler. Opening the steam wand to drop the pressure down a bit will help the Cremina work more as it was designed.

Interesting tips on usage. I always preheat the portafilter. I don't think I will start cooling it between shots, but I will try not heating it for awhile to see if it has any affect.

I don't get the point of reducing pressure but it is easy enough to try. It's hard to ignore the advice of the guy who builds them.
michaelb, lmwdp 24

bobcraige

#5: Post by bobcraige »

I have owned a Olympia 67 for about a dozen years now. About three years ago, I saw a new Olympia in a shop in Zurich. I was delighted to see it. Previously, I had thought Olympia were out of business. I recently had occasion to contact Markus regarding questions about my machine. He was terrific! He was very giving of his time and greatly helped me to understand how to get the most out of my machine. I have always been tremendously impressed by the quality of the machine, having serviced it myself when I first bought it. It was great to learn that Markus is serious about his commitment to these machines. He stressed that not only can the owner support the machine, but that he encourages it. This machine can be an heirloom to be handed down. In this day of throw away everything, it is wonderful to find such a machine and company. Markus told me of this site, and I am delighted to join. It was great to be greeted by a visit to Olympia to start with.

Bob Craige

User avatar
danno

#6: Post by danno »

espressoperson wrote:Interesting tips on usage. I always preheat the portafilter. I don't think I will start cooling it between shots, but I will try not heating it for awhile to see if it has any affect.

I don't get the point of reducing pressure but it is easy enough to try. It's hard to ignore the advice of the guy who builds them.
I asked Markus if he felt heat saturation in the group was a problem when pulling only a shot or two, and he indicated it would not be an issue. I think he meant that cooling the portafilter is only an issue when pulling several shots at one sitting. I have been pre-heating my portafilter, too.

The point behind reducing pressure is to reduce the heat of the water coming through the group. I got the impression that, although the machine turns off at 1.0 bar, it does not need that extra heat and pressure for pulling shots. The extra build-up is likely to ensure reserve pressure for steaming. So far, I have not yet found the lowered pressure to have a significant effect on pulling shots, but then again, I changed a few things in my ensemble, so I probably need to practice more.

I was invited to go back to the factory to do a step-by-step illustrated guide on how to get the most out of the Cremina. Hopefully Steve Robinson will provide us with some of his wisdom before that happens.
d

User avatar
cpl593h

#7: Post by cpl593h »

danno wrote:I was invited to go back to the factory to do a step-by-step illustrated guide on how to get the most out of the Cremina. Hopefully Steve Robinson will provide us with some of his wisdom before that happens.
d
OOOOH

This would be invaluble. Step by step straight from the horse's mouth!

I'm sad to say that I am struggling a bit with the Cremina. Yea, I've only had it for about 2.5 weeks... in operation it's more different from my Europiccola than I thought it would be.

klieglight2

#8: Post by klieglight2 »

I thought I would ask a question before this thread gets buried. While we are on the subject of Olympia machines, does anyone know what kind of commercial machines Olympia produced prior to their superauto units? The Olympia website states that they concentrated on the manufacture of commercial units up until the mid 1960's but I cannot say that I have ever seen a true commercial Olympia, unless you count the later Caffarex models. Did they make true commercial lever machines?
Thanks for any info.

Regards
Doug

User avatar
danno

#9: Post by danno »

klieglight2 wrote:I thought I would ask a question before this thread gets buried. While we are on the subject of Olympia machines, does anyone know what kind of commercial machines Olympia produced prior to their superauto units? The Olympia website states that they concentrated on the manufacture of commercial units up until the mid 1960's but I cannot say that I have ever seen a true commercial Olympia, unless you count the later Caffarex models. Did they make true commercial lever machines?
Hello Doug-

I am relatively certain that the large single lever unit pictured beneath the paragraph outlining use of the 49mm portafilter basket is a professional model. I am a bit brain dead with jet-lag, so I do not remember its name right at the moment. Olympia also made some non-superautomatic professional units at least through the 60's. I will ask about this in my next communication with the factory.

If you look closely at the photos in this article, you will note that I tried to include some less-known models. Look at the shelved units. I did not ask, but several clearly appeared to be professional units.
d

User avatar
danno

#10: Post by danno »

Hello all-

I have been catching up with lever machine forum posts and noted a few mentions of my remark in this article about being advised to cool the Cremina portafilter before drawing shots. I would like to clarify that Markus mentioned this only in the context of drawing multiple shots. When I asked to clarify what he meant, he seemed to indicate that, for one or two shots, this procedure was unnecessary. I will get further clarification when I go back to visit Mendrisio.

I think the fact that multiple shots was mentioned leads me to believe that the Cremina can be left on for extended periods of time. This subject has been visited before. Leaving it on all day is probably a bad idea, but since the machine turns itself on and off as needed to maintain pressure, leaving it on for several hours seems entirely reasonable. Drawing several shots at a party, for example, would be well within the parameters of the machine's design.

Best wishes in the new year!
d