La Marzocco GS3 Prototype
Conclusion


People have asked me more than once over the last few months if I could sum up my thoughts on the GS3. At first I had a very hard time doing so. It seemed like a big task. And then I read something that Andy Schecter had written about this machine and I simply started reusing his very illuminating and accurate statement. Yes... this is a great espresso machine. Yes... you can make great espresso with it. But more importantly—this is an important espresso machine.

In almost all ways, this is a true "blue sky" accomplishment. Bill Crossland et al have created a machine that is not bounded by existing traditions or expectations. It's not constrained by market forces or marketing needs or goals. In most ways, this is a "no compromises" espresso machine. And as a result of this, it is a breakthrough machine.

Baristas at work? It is important because it shows us the way forward. Sure, it's a fantastic espresso machine in and of itself. But the true value in this machine is what it will create. As a result of the GS3, we should see the adoption of key technologies from it throughout the espresso machine market. With any luck, this machine will become the emulated benchmark that the original E61 once was. In addition, and perhaps of even greater (though more subtle) value, is what this is going to create within the coffee community. It is entirely possible that this machine will enable the current generation of baristas and roasters to see personal breakthroughs in the understanding of espresso. And this should lead to dramatically improved espresso for all of us.

And that is why this is an important machine.

In addition, I've mentioned the incredible espresso performance already, but something else needs to be pointed out. In the past, it has been deeply frustrating to learn about espresso through experimentation. Even the supposed constants in the process (brew temperature, brew pressure, etc) have actually been variables. This has resulted in a massively complex, multi-variable problem that made drawing conclusions more akin to a Seance than Science. This has also made evaluating and tuning espresso blends and bean roasts very frustrating and time-consuming. With the GS3, a skilled barista can produce shot after shot of a coffee that all taste the same. This is a very, very significant change. By turning some of these variables into at least near-constants, the learning curve when it comes to understanding espresso becomes exponentially quicker. And, of course, evaluation of coffees truly becomes easy.

This is not to say that the machine is perfect in its current (prototype) form. Throughout this review there have been the periodic mention of nits and issues and problems. In talking with Bill and the folks at LMI, it is clear that all these issues are now known and most if not all of them are being addressed in the final, production version. It would be remiss of me, however, to not outline the issues I've run into and their current status.

Prototype issues and status:

  • Steam tip is non-optimal (fix is complete to allow for options)
  • Steam wand angle is wrong and articulation is limited (steam wand is being re-engineered)
  • Condensation in steam wand (steam wand is being re-engineered)
  • "Tacked-on" drip tray (there is a new drip tray)
  • Drip tray not plumbable (there is a new drip tray)
  • Drip tray cover doesn't allow for good drainage (there is a new drip tray cover)
  • Drip tray doesn't stick far enough out and isn't wide enough (new drip tray is larger)
  • Adjusting brew temp is time-consuming (it sounds as if there may be a new control option for this)
  • Adjusting pump pressure is difficult (pump angle could change)
  • Have to remove reservoir cover to know how much water remains (level indicator of some sort and low warning being added)
  • Challenging to get the hot water tap to a specific temp (unknown status)
  • Tight layout of control pad (rumors of redesigned control pad)
  • Iffy feedback on control buttons (rumors of redesigned control pad).

But let's sum it up, beginning by an enumeration of the pros and the cons of this machine (assuming the changes planned are made to the production machine), followed by some detail on both. On a small side note - while I hope that some of the listed issues are addressed, I really, really hope that nothing that make this machine the breakthrough do change. I know there will be the temptation to "dumb down" the GS3 and I hope Bill and the folks at La Marzocco can resist that. In any event, here are the pros and cons (again, assuming the above changes and fixes).

Pros:

  • State of the art temperature stability,
  • Incredible ease of use,
  • Wonderful espresso,
  • Amazingly compact (and even portable),
  • Does not place limits or constraints on the barista,
  • World class components and technology.

Cons:

  • Very expensive,
  • Steep learning curve for milk steaming,
  • Not semi-auto,
  • "Functional" aesthetic.

I've covered the temperature stability earlier in the review and will provide more detail in the cribsheet, but suffice it to stay that I know of no stock machine that has independently confirmed and verified temperature stability which is superior to the GS3. That is my idea of "state of the art." As noted earlier, this gives you incredible control and flexibility as well as making the machine far easier to use. The combination of the dual boiler, the PID control, the incredible technology to allow for a no-flush operation, the extensive stainless (and lack of brass), the automatic controls... explain why I gave the GS3 a perfect score when it came to usability. The truth is that this machine is a near perfect marriage of high quality espresso and easy to use machinery.

In terms of the quality of the espresso, I can honestly say that this machine sets a new standard. The quality in the cup is still the responsibility of the barista and the coffee. But with the GS3 that is pretty much all that matters. And that is a first.

The GS3 spares no expense in the technology or the components used. There is not a single cheap or inferior piece in the entire machine. There are no corners cut, there are no shortcuts taken.

Of course, that translates into is a very, very expensive toy. There has already been a lot of whining about the estimated (and ever-changing) price of this machine. Personally, I'm glad it costs this much. Sounds crazy, right? Actually... no. You see there is only one way to make this machine cost less. They could cut corners. They could make compromises. That would result in a more affordable machine, but it would be a vastly inferior machine.

Replace the rotary pump with a vibe pump? Get rid of a lot of the custom stainless components and replace them with standard brass? Sure, and with each sacrifice the quality would drop. You'd go from a state of the art machine to a good machine, and then to a decent machine. The reality is that there are a bunch of good machines out there. There are a whole lot of decent machines out there. And there are a ton of affordable machines out there, we don't need any more. But there are few truly cutting-edge espresso machines, so to those who expect to pay Honda prices for this Ferrari, I say "grow up."

The learning curve for milk steaming is steep on this machine. To be fair, this is a prototype and it sounds as if a lot of the changes in the production model will relate to the steam wand and tip. Nonetheless, the combination of a new wand, a new controller and a high power dual boiler system is going to present challenges to many people. Of course, in this case a steep learning curve should take most experienced baristas a couple of weeks to overcome.

The aesthetic of the GS3 is controversial. Some people have expressed dismay and even disdain upon seeing the pictures. Personally, as a fan of the old GS, I really like the design of the GS3. Yes, it's functional. Yes, it's different than other machines. Taste is personal. I like it - others don't.

So who would buy a GS3? Well... when it comes right down to it, I think that the vast majority of these machines will probably be bought for commercial or semi-commercial use. By this I mean that they will be bought by roasters for tasting, evaluation and training. They will be bought by small coffee bars. They will be bought by caterers and by restaurants.

But some individuals will consider buying one for home. So who, in my opinion, should consider buying a GS3 for their home?

Grouphead closeup I figure there are probably two groups of home users who should consider the GS3. The first group is the seriously obsessive home espresso freaks. By this I mean the people out there who have already paid Schomer for his training course and consider the money well-spent. I mean the people who plan family vacations around espresso. I mean the people who have extensive cupping logs. If you are the kind of person who is passionate about coffee and wants to truly understand espresso as best you can - cost be damned - then the GS3 is your dream machine. And if you can afford it, you should buy it. It will free you to truly explore the boundaries of your abilities and your understanding. The second group are those who have more than ample funds, love coffee and simply want a very, very good cup of espresso every morning without too much muss or fuss. These are people who are going to find a local roaster whose espresso they like and stick with it. If there were semi-auto machines that produced great quality drinks, they would own one. They're willing to get barista training - if it means that their espresso is better and easier each and every day. For this group, the ease of use of this machine is going to be an eye-opener.

At the risk of insulting people, I'll also point out a couple of groups who should not consider the GS3. First and foremost are those who think that the machine should do the work for them. While the GS3 is incredibly easy to use, you still have to have a great deal of skill as a barista if you want to make great espresso. An unskilled barista using the GS3 is unlikely to produce good coffee. Ever. As with any other espresso machine, the GS3 is a tool for the barista. If you don't know how to use it... you're going to be out of luck. For these people, it is going to be exceedingly frustrating to spend this much money and not have great coffee. You would be far better off buying an Expobar Brewtus or the like and spending the difference going to Seattle for Schomer's training course. The second group are what I would describe as the passionate engineers (also known as tinkerers). For these folks, the process of modifying and improving the espresso machine is at least as enjoyable as drinking the coffee made from it. The GS3 is going to be a mistake for these individuals for a couple of reasons. I used to own a sporty little roadster - the Honda S2000. This car had a mixed reputation. Amongst sports car and roadster enthusiasts and people who liked to take their car on the track, it was considered a great bang for the buck option. The trouble was that it was the most sporty and highest horsepower Honda. As a result, the Honda "boy racer" community was also attracted to it. The trouble was that the car was already tuned to near its maximum (drivable) potential. Getting additional performance out of the car was incredibly expensive for very small results. Amongst the "boy racer" community, as a result, the S2000 developed a reputation for being a very poor "bang for the buck" option (as compared, for example, to a Civic). This analogy is directly applicable to the GS3. Turning a Rancilio Silvia into a machine capable of creating very good espresso is more a matter of time and effort than money. Improving on the performance of the GS3, on the other hand, is likely to be frustrating, time consuming, produce limited results and be very expensive.

Conclusion

Testing the GS3 has not only been a pleasure for me, it has been an incredible opportunity. As a result of having this machine in my house I have unlocked new understandings about espresso. I have come to new (for me) conclusions and have started to develop a far greater comprehension of espresso. This would never have happened had I not had access to this incredible machine. I feel incredibly lucky to have had this chance. I've learned so much. At the same time, there have been days when I just wanted a quick double shot of espresso - and the GS3 enabled me to do so, quickly, easily and with great results.

The GS3 is in amazing accomplishment. It represents a step forward. Already we are seeing other machines begin to react to the GS3. There are rumors of a variant to the La Marzocco GB5 that leverages some of the technology developed for this machine. I hear that Synesso has a modification for the Cyncra to give it comparable temperature stability to the GS3. When you consider that those machines are both plumbed in, 220V machines costing more than what you'll likely pay for the GS3; and that you can hardly throw the GB5 or Cyncra in your car for a long weekend at the Coast... well now you know why I think this is such a breakthrough moment.

I've said it before and I'll say it again - I think that the La Marzocco GS3 is a historical machine in the same vein as the original 1961 Faema E61.

As noted earlier, I decided to score the GS3 overall against the machines I know best - a stock La Marzocco Linea, a temperature stabilized Linea and the mighty Mistral.

  GS3 Stock LM Linea Modified Linea Mistral

Espresso

10

7

8

9

Milk

8

9

9

8

Usability

9

8

9

8

Liveability

10

8

8

9

Workmanship

9

8

8

10

Aesthetics

8

7

7

10

 

54

47

50

54

If it were not for the aesthetics of the Mistral (a truly gorgeous piece of sculptural art), the GS3 would dominate the overall scores. The numbers do not lie. The GS3 is a breakthrough. It is an accomplishment. To my mind it represents the current benchmark in espresso machines.

I cannot wait to see the final production version. I hear rumors of 220V versions, and versions with plumbed drip trays. The future looks bright indeed.

Want more information?

If you want to read about the process of reviewing this machine, see this review's thread in The Bench forum. If you have comments or questions specific to this article, see the Article Feedback forum. If you are interested in more feeds-n-speeds and step-by-step operating instructions, see my Cribsheet on the next page.

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