Flair Signature PRO Review

Behind the scenes of the site's upcoming equipment reviews.
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drgary
Team HB

Postby drgary » Apr 10, 2019, 8:25 pm

by Gary Seeman and Dominick O'Dierno

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The Flair Signature PRO is a new model based on the company's highly successful Flair Classic Espresso Maker and its functionally equivalent Flair Signature Espresso Maker.* Like the original Flair, the PRO can consistently brew fine-tuned espresso at a variety of roast levels. With all Flair models you can adjust dose, grind, temperature and pressure.** The PRO's enhancements include:

    - More massive, stainless steel brew group, for better temperature stability with repeated shots

    - Bottomless portafilter to evaluate proper coffee distribution and monitor flow rate

    - Improved preheating of the brew group with a silicone cap, so it can be filled at the counter; this is very convenient

    - Included pressure gauge that is large and easily viewed for pressure profiling

    - Attractive stainless steel drip tray and drip grate

    - Heavy duty frame

    - Stainless steel tamper with silicone grip

Like the original Flair, the brew group has silicone coverings that make it easy to handle heated components. The PRO dismantles to store flat in an included, attractive carrying case. All Flairs are pour-over espresso makers, meaning the brew water is heated externally by the user, and there is no milk foaming capability. The coffee is prepared with a grinder of the user's choice. A high-quality burr grinder and fresh coffee beans are required for satisfactory results.

In this follow-on review to the Flair Espresso Maker, we offer impressions of the PRO compared to the original Flair. We describe workflow and any likes and dislikes. This review unfolds in successive posts and will provide a temperature study to help you fine-tune your espresso. We will discuss the level of grinder needed for proper use and to help prospective buyers estimate overall costs. The review will conclude with a summary.

Thank you, Sergio Landau, inventor of the Flair, for donating two units for review that we will auction for charity when the review is complete.

To ask questions or comment, please go to this new thread:

User Experience: Flair Signature PRO

This topic will be Closed while Dominick and Gary complete the review. Then we will open it for member comments.



* The Signature versions of the Classic come with a copper-plated brewhead stand. One Signature version has a black base and the other has a chrome-plated base and post.

** The original Flair can be enhanced with a pressure gauge add-on kit. A pressure gauge is standard with the PRO model.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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drgary
Team HB

Postby drgary » Apr 13, 2019, 2:54 pm

What's New with the Flair Signature PRO?

The Flair Signature PRO is functionally equivalent to the Flair Classic but is a definite upgrade. "Signature" designates a polished finish. The version with a black frame has a copper-plated brew group platform. As this review is being written, the black Signature PRO costs $299 with free shipping within the continental United States (CONUS). The chrome model adds a chrome-plated base and costs $10 more. This compares to Flair's least expensive current model, the Classic Solo, which includes the carrying case and all essential components and sells for $159 with free shipping in the CONUS.

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Image is courtesy of Flair Espresso and (c) of Intactidea

Both Signature PROs have an attractive stainless steel drip grate featuring the Flair logo and backed by a stainless steel drip tray.

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Brew Group Differences

The Flair Signature PRO's brew group functions like the Flair Classic brew group, with the same number of components, although some items have been re-engineered. Here's the brew group for the PRO. A bottomless filter basket holds coffee grounds that are secured under an inserted shower screen. The cylinder is held onto the basket with a silicone o-ring. The piston is now held captive within the cylinder. It can be easily serviced by removing the o-ring that secures the filter basket. The piston is activated by a plunger, which has a pressure gauge attached. The plunger fastens onto the piston with an o-ring.

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Image is courtesy of Flair Espresso and (c) of Intactidea

Here is the Flair Classic brew group by comparison, although now you can order a pressure gauge kit for the Classic for $50 as seen below.

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Image is courtesy of Flair Espresso and (c) of Intactidea

This is the pressure gauge kit for the Flair Classic models, consisting of the stem, pressure gauge and steel piston where the stem inserts. The pressure gauge is large and can be easily turned for viewing while pulling a shot.

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Image is courtesy of Flair Espresso and (c) of Intactidea

The PRO's supplied portafilter is now bottomless and has a larger capacity than the Classic model. Flair's promotional materials list the PRO's capacity at 14 - 24 gm of coffee grounds. In a later post we'll characterize the sweet spot for different coffees, which is usually somewhere between the lower and upper limits. The Classic has maximum portafilter capacity listed at 16 gm. In his review of the Classic, Dominick was most comfortable brewing with 12.5 to 14 gm of dry coffee.

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You can now order a bottomless portafilter with removable spout for the Classic for $23. The bottomless portafilter with spout comes standard on the Flair Classic Signature model.

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Image is courtesy of Flair Espresso and (c) of Intactidea

One of my favorite features of all Flair products is the thoughtful use of silicone casing for handling hot surfaces. Here are the new cylinder and portafilter fastened together.

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It's now much easier to pre-heat the PRO's cylinder and piston, using a provided silicone cap that fastens securely and is easily removed with a grip tab. The ease of pre-heating the group is one of my favorite features in the Signature PRO upgrade. Here is the cap (pardon the coffee bits, I've been using this a lot!)

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Image is courtesy of Flair Espresso and (c) of Intactidea

Here it is fastened onto the bottom of the cylinder for pre-heating.

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The tamper offered as an accessory or bundled with the Classic models is a nice, heavy, stainless steel.

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Image is courtesy of Flair Espresso and (c) of Intactidea

The tamper that is included with the PRO is similar in weight and feel but has a more ergonomic grip, and the top is finished in black silicone.

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Image is courtesy of Flair Espresso and (c) of Intactidea

When we were first approached to review the PRO we were told that the frame is 50% stronger than on the Classic. The frame on both has been up to the task. With both versions, it's much more stable when you use the included set screw and hex key to fasten the base onto the post. Is it 50% stronger? I'll take Flair at their word.

The next installment will show what's in the box when you order the Flair Signature PRO. Then I'll give a sense of workflow.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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drgary
Team HB

Postby drgary » Apr 19, 2019, 10:40 am

What's in the box

This is the packing list from Flair's site:

    - Base
    - Post & lever with copper portafilter base
    - Stainless steel portafilter with screen
    - Stainless steel brew cylinder with plunger
    - Preheat and tamping cap
    - Stem with pressure gauge
    - Dosing cup
    - Funnel
    - Two-piece stainless steel drip tray and branded polishing pouch
    - Stainless steel tamper
    - Carrying case
    - Screw for affixing post to base permanently
    - Brewing guide

What's it like to pull shots on the PRO?

Here's the workflow, assuming you've set up the PRO, and it's ready to brew with the stand inserted on the base and the drip tray and grate inserted. Place a cup on the drip tray.

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Here are the basic steps.

    1. Preheat cylinder
    2. Prepare coffee puck
    3. Assemble brew group and position on stand
    4. Pre-infuse
    5. Pull through
    6. Release pressure
    7. Clean

I'm using a Bonavita 1L PID (computer temperature-controlled) kettle, and a quality grinder (Niche Zero). I have a large Rattleware knockbox for discarding grounds and an electronic scale that measures to 0.1 gm. I have a steel dissecting probe with a dulled point for redistributing grounds (Weiss Distribution Technique, aka WDT).

Preheat cylinder, first fill: Set the kettle to just off the boil at 99°C/211°F. No need to measure water carefully, because I'll preheat the cylinder once or twice before the shot. I prepare the cylinder by making sure the piston is at the top of its travel -- for denser shots you can pre-set the piston a bit lower in the cylinder to reduce the fill. The piston is easily pushed into place by hand or with the included plastic dosing cup. Place the bottom of the cylinder in the silicone warming cap. Pour water until it fills to the top reservoir and let the cylinder sit for 30 to 45 seconds. Since I'm going to refill, I'm not timing this carefully.

Prepare coffee puck, dose and grind: Measure coffee beans into the dosing cup on a scale. Add a few drops of water before pouring the beans into the grinder chute (Ross Droplet Technique or RDT reduces static cling of the grounds). Grind the beans.

Preheat cylinder, second fill (if needed): Turn the cylinder upside down over the sink to drain it, and refill with hot water. If you're using a medium to dark roast a second fill may not be necessary. With some dark roasts, preheating isn't needed -- more on this later.

Prepare coffee puck; dose, distribute, and tamp: Set the funnel over the portafilter, add coffee grounds, stir with a probe (WDT mixes particle sizes that differ from start to finish with a single-dosing grinder). Insert provided tamper into the top of the portafilter with the dosing funnel still attached. Do a soft, nutating tamp* to evenly distribute grounds. Remove the dosing funnel.

Assemble brew group: Place the shower screen on top of the coffee grounds with small holes facing down. This ensures even infusion of water into the coffee and keeps the wet grounds in place to help prevent channeling. Pour water out of the cylinder, inverting it over the sink. Turn it over, and remove the warming cap, keeping your hands away from the hot water runoff. Place the cylinder on top of the portafilter. Raise the lever and seat the assembled cylinder and portafilter on the portafilter base.

Pre-infuse: Gently pour hot water into the cylinder until it starts filling into the reservoir. Filling slightly into the reservoir helps prevent an air gap above the coffee at the end of the pull. Gently insert the plunger and engage the lever at the top of the plunger, applying minimal pressure for about 15 seconds. As the coffee becomes infused with water, you'll see droplets starting into the cup.

Pull through: When those droplets are falling evenly, increase pressure to pull your shot. I like to apply highest pressure here, about 8 or 9 bar on the gauge. This requires some effort, so I may be using two hands on the lever. I gradually ease the pressure during the shot to mimic a spring lever pull and avoid overextracting the coffee.

Release pressure: I don't do a hard push to squeeze out every last bit of water but do take the lever wheel past the top of the plunger. Then I ease up at the end. Watch the gauge to see that the pressure has released but also keep the lever engaged while easing pressure. The cylinder may lift slightly off of one side of the portafilter, but it will not break the seal. If your dose and grind are dialed in this may not happen. Now the pressure is released.

Clean: Remove the plunger from the top of the group. Hold the cylinder assembly over your knockbox. Turn it sideways. Gently unfasten the portafilter and allow remaining water to run off into the knockbox. Press against one edge of the shower screen so you can grip an edge and lift it out. Knock out the spent coffee grounds. Rinse these parts at the sink. Flair's instructions advise you to wash by hand, without soap that could flavor your coffee. They also warn against putting any components of the Flair into a dishwasher.

For tuning your shot, you can reference the chart in the Quick Start Guide, which I show here. I don't automatically assume I'll need to pull at full 9 bar pressure at the start. Depending on the roast level and coffee and the amount of effort you want to exert, you can pull lever shots at about 6 bars to start. Let your shot quality be your guide.

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Image is courtesy of Flair Espresso and (c) of Intactidea

The Quick Start Guide recommends dialing in dose and grind with inexpensive beans. That may be good to get into a general range as long as the beans are fresh and are similarly roasted and processed to what you'll be using. But for dialing in your intended coffee, you'll need to use that coffee. Otherwise your shot may not be sufficiently tuned.

Fine-tuning flavors and mouthfeel is a basic skill applicable to any espresso machine. Here's a link to the guide on Home-Barista.

Espresso 101: How to Adjust Dose and Grind Setting by Taste
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

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drgary
Team HB

Postby drgary » May 02, 2019, 2:12 am

The Flair Signature PRO brew group's unconventional design

The Flair Signature PRO has a brew group that performs all of the functions of a lever espresso machine. It has a piston that travels down a cylinder containing hot water that's forced under pressure through coffee grounds below. Conventional designs attach the center of the piston to a piston rod that is pressed downward. The piston rod is typically penetrated by a pin that attaches to a lever. The lever is attached to another pin behind the piston rod, creating a pivot that makes it easier to drive the piston downward.

Here's the piston from one of my restorations. You can see it attached to a piston rod. Soft gaskets on the piston engage the cylinder. The gaskets here are traditional v-cups that flare outward to create a good seal.

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The Flair Signature PRO's piston uses o-rings instead of flare seals. This type of seal isn't new. It was used on some versions of the Arrarex Caravel manual lever in the 1960s. But unlike most manual levers, the PRO uses a wheel on the lever to press the piston down.

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The piston rod equivalent is the stem that has an attached pressure gauge. The lever wheel presses down, but as it travels across the top of the stem, it also exerts some force front to back. This can cause the o-ring to slightly catch inside the cylinder during the pull, creating a jittery feeling that doesn't noticeably affect the quality of the shot. I use a food-grade lubricant to smooth the ride. Would flared seals provide a smoother travel or accentuate the catch? I don't know, but o-rings are much less expensive, reducing production and maintenance costs.

Another way all Flair espresso makers differ from traditional machines is the way the portafilter attaches to the cylinder. In traditional machines, the portafilter has a handle so you can turn it into the group. It has tabs that engage holes in a groove. When you tighten the portafilter onto the group, the top seals against a gasket and it locks it in place. The coffee is held in a filter basket contained within the portafilter.

All Flair versions combine the filter basket and the portafilter in one piece. The PRO's portafilter is held onto the cylinder by an o-ring in the cylinder. The portafilter and cylinder are fixed securely from the bottom by the brew platform. It's held in place on top by the lever engaging the stem. The cylinder and the portafilter aren't locked together but have a good seal. Because of this, the cylinder can tilt slightly where it engages the portafilter. This does not leak or affect the pull. Pressure inside the brew chamber is in all directions, so the pressure exerted through the coffee bed is unaffected. Here's what that can look like:

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For typical lever users, the unconventional design of the Flair Signature PRO brew group has a flexing action and an occasional jittery feel that take getting used to. These are inherent to the design, and after awhile I got used to it. Also, more rarely, if excess pressure is left inside the brew group and the lever is suddenly released, the cylinder can slightly disengage from the portafilter. The brew group is still held in place, and the pressure released is small, so it does not create a mess or spray hot coffee grounds. This disengagement at the end of the pull can be eliminated entirely, as I'll show below. With a little attention to technique you can reduce the flexing of the cylinder on the portafilter and make the pull smoother. These are topics of the next section.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!

User avatar
drgary
Team HB

Postby drgary » May 02, 2019, 2:13 am

Good shot technique with the Flair Signature PRO

Like any traditional manual lever, the Flair Signature PRO requires fresh ground coffee with appropriate fineness, particle size and dose. These need to be evenly distributed in the portafilter and tamped lightly but level. You'll need a burr grinder of sufficient quality for the consistent fineness and particle size required. We'll get into comparing grinders later, but anyone who has a grinder that's producing repeatable and tasty espresso shots with another machine should find that adequate to the PRO. Be sure to insert the shower screen on top of the coffee cake to ensure an even extraction.

The keys to minimizing the jittering and cylinder displacement are sufficient dose, avoiding creation of an air pocket above the coffee, sufficient time for preinfusion under low pressure, and a consistent pressure profile during the pull, without extra pumps or letting up while the brew chamber is under pressure. Sufficient resistance in the coffee grounds are provided by particle size tuned to dose, so lower doses will have finer grounds to create the same resistance as larger doses with coarser grounds.

Reducing channeling and sprites

Too low a dose or uneven distribution can cause channeling and sprites with any espresso machine. Channeling is when the water flow breaks through a less resistant part of the coffee cake. This causes overextraction along the channel and bitter tastes and underextraction, causing blandness through the rest of the coffee bed. Sprites are finer streams than channels but are a similar phenomenon and can spray coffee outside the coffee cup. If you start to encounter channeling or sprites, ease up on lever pressure by 1 - 2 bar for at least a second or two to allow the coffee to more fully infuse before bearing down again. With stubborn channeling or sprites you may need to do a lower pressure pull and rethink your dose and grind for the next shot.

Reducing cylinder separation

You may not completely eliminate cylinder separation, but keep in mind that a slight tilt in the cylinder won't degrade shot quality. It's a characteristic of this design. You want to make sure you haven't lubricated the o-ring that holds the cylinder to the portafilter, otherwise you ease the separation.

You'll reduce cylinder separation further by a very light and level tamp followed by a sufficient preinfusion, where you'll see coffee drips slowing a bit and dispersed around the bottom of the cup. Then do a gradual ramp up in pressure. Pulling at 6 - 7 bar is a sweet spot that's more forgiving than higher pressure. A harder tamp may induce side-wall channeling. A good guideline for easing up on pressure to avoid overextracting is to try and keep the coffee stream to a consistent thin stream, often called a mousetail. You'll know you're at proper fineness of grind and dose if your pull takes about 40 - 45 seconds, overall.

To eliminate cylinder separation at the end of the pull, make sure you avoid an air pocket by filling the brew water as you prepare your shot, until it starts to fill the reservoir at the top of the piston. Then insert the stem. As you near the end of the shot, At the end of the pull, keep your eyes on the pressure gauge. Maintain lever pressure by keeping it in place until the pressure reading goes to zero. Then ease off the pressure on the lever for a second or two. In my experience the "worst case" is pretty mild, and the cylinder does not completely separate from the portafilter. It looks like this -- and can be entirely avoided.

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During cleanup there can be a small amount of water left in the brew group. If you have precisely dialed in your dose and grind, the Flair team tells me you can start with the piston positioned slightly lower to reduce the water fill. The residual water doesn't bother me, so I haven't experimented with that yet.

A rough brew temperature guideline

Later Dominick will provide a temperature study. This is a guideline showing lower and higher temperature shots. I've found that with a dark roast (to second crack, where oil is starting to release from the beans), I can start with a cylinder at room temperature and pour in water at 193°F/89°C. This produces a shot that is mild and sweet and hasn't extracted the bitter roast flavors. How large a dose? It depends on the coffee. Use the guidelines in the earlier posts to dial in.

For a very light roast that I find hard to extract without sourness, I like to position the cylinder in the silicone pre-heating cap and fill it twice with water off the boil, letting it rest at least 30 seconds each time. When emptying the second batch of preheating water, I turn the cylinder bottom side down and remove the cap with my hands out of the way. This drains the remaining water. I then place the cylinder on the portafilter and onto the brew platform, fill with water off the boil, insert the stem and pull. For very light* roasts I grind very fine and may dose as low as 14 gm, filling the cylinder with the piston positioned at the top. This balances sweet and sour and brings forward the complexity of the coffee.

* I'm aware that "very light" is a subjective description for this rough estimate. For my purposes it's at the lighter end tolerated by any of my gear. We'll be more precise in the temperature study.
Gary
LMWDP#308

What I WOULD do for a good cup of coffee!