By Chris Tacy
After I completed my last review, Dan proposed I evaluate a home espresso machine that addressed some of the weaknesses I had commented on, specifically with machines having a water reservoir (pourover) and vibration pump. So he said, "How about reviewing a plumbed-in, rotary pump Bricoletta next?" It didn't exactly take a whole lot of arm twisting to get me interested.
As I've said before (and as a little background), while I know a lot about the technology of espresso machines, fundamentally I'm all about the taste of the coffee in the cup. This is the perspective I'll be bringing to my reviews. I'm not interested in data-logging brew temperature or tweaking pressurestats in the abstract. For me, the machine is a means to an end—the espresso is the goal and the only valid way to evaluate the product and the process.
I've been a professional barista for years, but have never owned a home machine. Prior to my first Home-Barista.com review, I'd not spent any significant time using home machines, except for a couple weeks with a La Pavoni Professional lever machine. One perhaps unusual consequence of this is that I have little choice but to compare the Bricoletta to the machines that I am most familiar with—high-end commercial machines. It's my hope that this somewhat atypical perspective of these reviews will be both interesting and valuable to readers. Of course, this is all a polite way of saying that I've entered into this review process with the basic presumption (shared by many coffee professionals) that home machines basically suck.
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If you put the two previous points together you'll be able to understand that I'm truly fanatic about espresso quality. I'm not interested in drinkable espresso. I'm not interested in "okay" coffee. I want excellence, I want extraordinary, I want astonishing. In this way I'm perhaps a little different than many home baristas. My goal is rarely to simply make my morning espresso and get on with the day. I probably throw away one-third of my shots—despite that many of these "sink shots" are probably better than what you'd get at most coffee bars in the US. What I'm trying to say is that I set the bar for myself ridiculously high and this will be reflected in this review.
Thanks to Home-Barista.com and the kind folks at 1st-Line Equipment, my journey into home espresso-making continues with one of the more interesting espresso machines on the US market—the Fiorenzato Briccoletta. Fiorenzato is another one of the many Italian espresso machine makers that are nearly unknown here in the US. The Bricoletta is the entry level of Fiorenzato's line of commercial models and is intended for low-volume commercial use and high-end home use. It comes in three different models: semi-automatic espresso machine with vibratory pump and reservoir (link), semi-automatic with rotary vane pump and direct connect (link), and automatic with rotary vane pump and direct connect (link). The model being reviewed is what I would consider to be the ideal combination, the semi-automatic with rotary vane pump and direct connect. The main reason why I consider the Bricoletta one of the more interesting machines available is that the combination of the rotary pump, a plumbed-in machine and an E61 group seems to be very rare at this pricepoint. Given that this combination represents most of the big commercial machines out there, it's odd that there aren't more "prosumer" machines like the Bricoletta. I don't particularly like vibe pumps and am a huge fan of plumbed-in machines—so this represents a great opportunity for me.
Note: The standard configuration of the rotary vane models includes a driptray drain hookup. A regular driptray (i.e., without drain hookup) is available at an extra cost.
Photo courtesy of 1st-line.com
When I unpacked the Bricoletta, the first thing I noticed was that this is an "old school" espresso machine; stylistically, it is modeled on the classic Art Deco Faema and Gaggia machines of the late '40s and early '50s (the so-called "garbage can" machines). It has the wonderful Deco ridged casing and a really cool badge on the back of the machine. The machine's look is dominated by the enormous exposed E61 group.
Sadly, this machine had been very slightly bent before it arrived. The welds connecting the front half of the machine (the drip tray) to the back half (the body) were intact, but the metal itself had deflected very slightly (around 2mm). After a little evaluation I determined that the effects were only cosmetic. The lesson learned from this mishap is to always check on the state of the equipment before signing for it.
Other than that, the machine looked perfect. It was well packaged (though the packing was slightly damaged in shipment) and all needed supplies were included. The manual was average for an Italian espresso machine. In other words, it was somewhere between almost useless and laughable. Sadly this is par for the course.
The machine is solid and well constructed. Almost everything is metal and the plastic parts are in places where they are unlikely to see serious stress (portafilter handles, knobs, etc.). It's a solid machine, but not enormous or unduly heavy. It's clean and purposeful in layout, style and feel.
As this machine is plumbed-in, set up requires some planning and forethought. You'll need sufficient space: 17" deep, 13" wide and almost 20" high to allow for storing cups on top. Given that working on the machine requires the vertical removal of the casing and that a plumbed-in machine it is more challenging to relocate for servicing, I recommend installing it in a location with ample overhead space. Also make sure that the counter you're putting the machine on is low enough for tamping comfortably and effectively on it. Of course, you'll need an outlet nearby, but those are all the minor aspects of setting up this machine.
The big step is plumbing it in. Plan carefully and have everything ready when the machine arrives. With this machine you have two options.
Given that it's an evaluation machine, I decided to go with the second option using a five gallon water bottle and a FloJet pump to create positive inlet pressure. An Everpure water filtration cartridge was installed as well to avoid the need to pre-treat water (or buy tons of Crystal Geyser) and allow it to run off tap water. I recommend a water filtration unit like this whether the machine will run off bottle or water lines. Not only does this protect the machine by filtering the water to remove particulate matter, it also eliminates chlorine and off odors and flavours while protecting against scale build-up. A drain from the drip tray into a three gallon waste water bottle completed the installation.
Setting up a machine in this manner is not rocket science. Nothing more than basic plumbing tools and some Teflon plumber's tape are really required. That's about it. Don't be stressed, it's not hard. And oh my is it ever worth it. It only took those first couple test shots (to make sure that the plumbing and wiring were all working) for me to get a big old grin on my face. I do not understand why all home machines are not plumbed-in. It's so much easier, cleaner... just better.
Before putting new equipment into service, I always start off with a thorough cleaning. First, flush about a liter of water through the machine, and then backflush the machine with cleanser and clear water. Soak the baskets and portafilters in a cleanser solution and then scrub the insides of the portafilters with a green scrubby. I wipe and brush and clean everything that comes into contact with the coffee. And then run at least a dozen shots through the machine without worrying about setting grind or tasting anything. Once these steps are completed, clean water backflush the machine one last time and then it's ready to go.
The machine comes with two portafilters (double and single spouts) as well as single, double and blind baskets. Oh man, I hate new portafilters. In my opinion and to my taste, the flavor of espresso from a new portafilter is horrible. There is an artificial brightness and harsh metallic note that I am convinced comes from the chrome plating. As a result, I strip the chrome off the insides of my portafilters and then keep the brass clean, polished and seasoned. The chrome was stripped off the double Bricoletta portafilter, and I sourced a broken-in La Marzocco portafilter as well. It was then soaked in a Puro Caff solution and then I heavily scoured the interior with a green scrubby before rinsing and seasoning with a couple of garbage shots. These "seasoning" shots are an example of my fanatic obsession with espresso quality. While these extra steps are probably not required, I find that seasoning the portafilter in this manner eliminates off flavours from either metals or persistent detergent.
A couple immediate impressions upon setting up this machine. First and foremost it's so nice to have a rotary pump. Eliminating the vibration pump noise is wonderful. But, as mentioned earlier, of far more value to me is the fact that the espresso machine is plumbed in. I can dump bad shots into the drip tray at will. I don't have to worry about water levels. No need to balance a drip tray while walking across the tile floor. Really, really nice. And, as it turned out, there were some additional advantages to the combination of rotary pump and plumbed-in machine that I hadn't realized earlier. As I'll discuss later, this combination seems to have some real benefits when it comes to espresso quality. And finally, the machine is beautiful. Everyone who saw the machine commented on its looks. It's not just classic, it's also quite lovely.
So I loaded up my Cimbali Junior grinder with some of the Olympia Coffee Roasting Big Truck espresso and pulled a triple shot.... a bit hot and a bit fast. A quick adjustment and the second shot... Wow. I would say the best shot I've had of that blend, and that includes shot pulled off a La Marzocco Linea. Damn. Nice powdered chocolate notes, a little high end winey fruit, good aromatics, heavy body. Very nice indeed. Okay... some more shots. Some experimentation. Wow... more good espresso. Roll in the Stumptown Hairbender and a few tweaks to the grind later... voilà. Right about this point I started getting excited.
So, my first thoughts in a nutshell: Although it's not as easy as setting up a reservoir machine by any means, plumbing the machine in is no big deal. Certainly, the so-called "hassle" of plumbing in an espresso machine seems to be more myth than reality. The machine itself is gorgeous. Classic Italian Deco styling, solidly built, seemed like great ergonomics. The components are serious and commercial. A lot of home machines claim they're "lightweight commercial" machines but the Bricoletta is the first one I've tested that even comes close to delivering on this promise. It's plumbed in... it's a rotary pump...
Honestly, at the end of day one I was feeling pretty damn good about the Bricoletta.
First and foremost the Bricoletta is a heat exchanger (HX) machine. This has profound impact on the usability of the machine. If you have not read Dan's excellent piece How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love HXs on this site, you need to go do so—right now. Nearly all of the usability challenges of the Bricoletta have to do with the fundamental realities of working on an HX machine.
The Bricoletta, like all HX machines, sees a steady increase in temperature at the group when idle and "runs hot" most of the time. In order to obtain the optimal brew temperature for a specific coffee, the barista must develop a routine for not only cooling the group off, but producing that target brew temperature when the shot is pulled as well as keeping temperature stability during the extraction of the shot. This routine is commonly known as "temperature surfing" and is the topic of endless discussion both here and elsewhere. Until you've mastered temperature surfing, it's hard to get consistently good results with any HX machine, including the Bricoletta.
I've spent most of my career using commercial dual boiler machines. With them, there's little need to temperature surf. If the machine has been idle, a quick flush of the group brings it up to temperature. With commercial HX machines, you may choose to temperature surf like home units to obtain the target brew temperature more precisely, but the variance even when idle is dramatically lower and temperatures change more slowly. In addition, commercial machines in a café are less likely to see extensive idle periods. But, after my first Home-Barista.com review, I had a handle on temperature surfing of home machines.
To start, I tried the same temperature methodology that had worked in the last review. It turned out that this so-called "Pro Method" was far less ideal with the Bricoletta. After experimentation, I found that the best solution for me was a modified version of Dan's "water dance" methodology. I would grind, dose, distribute and tamp and then flush until the sputtering ceased at which point I would perform my "mississippi" count to count down to the target brew temperature. It turned out that if I start with "mississippi," each number corresponds to one degree Fahrenheit. After tasting the first shot, I then adjust the count based on the results. In other words, if the taste indicates that the brew temp is 0.5°F too high, I'll add a half count to drop the brew temp that amount. One of the nice things about this method is that it seems to mimic the temperature profile I prefer, the so-called "slant-L" brew temperature profile of a La Marzocco.
The implications of the requirement that a barista manage brew temperature are, in my opinion, significant. In the absolute, it means that a home barista using a home HX machine needs more skills than a professional barista using a La Marzocco Linea in order to make a great shot. This being said, every professional barista who used the Bricoletta was able to pull great shots with ease. As Dan has said in the past, "the problem is on the handle side of the portafilter." To obtain exceptional results, you must become a skilled barista who understands the machine and the espresso or you're going to have a rough time of it. This doesn't mean you must be able to taste a 0.5°F brew temperature change, but rather that you need to understand this machine and learn to work within its constraints. Now to be fair, my guess is that this statement is true of nearly all home machines and a very large percentage of commercial machines as well. This is not a issue with the Bricoletta, but a basic reality of home espresso machines and in particular HX espresso machines. Commercial dual boiler machines are very expensive for a number of reasons. A primary one is that they have been designed the barista's job easier. Regardless, as noted earlier, skilled baristas are skilled baristas and the ones who participated in this review process had nothing but praise for the Bricoletta. Fundamentally, the experience of working on the Bricoletta reinforced my fundamental belief that the capabilities of the machine are rarely the problem in espresso.
Other than these general home HX issues, the Bricoletta is a very usable machine. The ergonomics are well thought out, levers and knobs are well placed, easily identifiable and provide good feedback. I wish the On/Off switch were a little less "cheesy," as it looks like something from Radio Shack, but that's a small complaint. With the exception of the required temperature surfing, working on the Bricoletta will seem familiar to those who have worked on commercial machines. The techniques, the style, being a barista—it's very much the same. If you have skill, training, and an understanding of the realities that lie behind the espresso machine, you'll be satisfied. If you're a seasoned barista, it will make immediate sense to you. Within a few shots I felt very at home and was able to apply most of the techniques, lessons, skills and theories that I had developed from years of practice. In other words, being a barista is being a barista, regardless of your tools.