Olympia Maximatic - Second Look

Behind the scenes of the site's upcoming equipment reviews.
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#1: Post by HB »

Olympia Express is a small Swiss company manufacturing finely-crafted espresso equipment since 1928. Most forum members recognize the brand by their flagship lever espresso machine, the Olympia Cremina. Over the years this manual lever espresso machine has garnered many admirers, including those who acquired old, abused models and restore them to their former beauty as Steve documented in Restoration of an Olympia Cremina. Despite the online popularity of the Cremina over the years, its pump-driven cousin has received comparatively little attention.

Recently a new start-up company, Swiss Coffee Products, became the U.S. importer of Olympia Express products and contacted me about joining the site's sponsors. I owned an Olympia Cremina for years (see Steve's review of it in Olympia Cremina 2002: The evolution of design), but had never used their HX espresso machine, the Maximatic. They agreed to loan me one for a few months.

Introduction

The Maximatic arrived double-boxed in a neatly packaged custom-fitted enclosure. Although its footprint is small, it's not a featherweight, weighing in at more than 40 pounds wet:

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Olympia Express Maximatic: Width 7-3/4", Depth 13-1/4", Height 14-1/2", Weight 36 lbs (dry)

While most espresso machines include an ill-fitted plastic tamper and little more, Olympia Express includes a full barista kit:

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Scoop, tamper, boiler refill funnel, knockbox, steaming pitcher, portafilter
(double spout, baskets, and owner's manual not shown)


While some reviewers admonish their readers to read the owner's manual, for this review I have intentionally chosen a more typical experiential format. So I left all the measurement aids in the drawer and have managed the Maximatic's brew temperature by intuition. In this same spirit, I skimmed the owner's manual, primarily to read the safety warnings and get a general feel for its quality of writing and usefulness. It appears to be competent translation to English with more flourish than most Italian manuals (e.g. "If you want to make espresso of the highest standard, it is essential to clean the machine on a daily basis and to have regular maintenance inspections!").



To keep the introductory sections together, this thread will be temporarily closed to public replies. Thanks for your patience.

Editor's Note: Long-time members know the Bench forum for its blog-like documentation of the research leading to a Buyer's Guide. As you may imagine, an enormous effort goes into the research, peer review, copyediting, and publication of the site's Buyer's Guides. To offer an informative review with less formality, this forum will feature "Second Look" threads. These threads have the same style of presentation as the research threads for Buyer's Guides, but do not culminate in a formal writeup.
Dan Kehn

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#2: Post by HB »

Below is an excerpt from the owner's manual introduction:
Olympia Express wrote:While the CREMINA is the choice for the gourmet willing to dedicate intuition and free time to his espresso, the MAXIMATIC is the right machine for those who seek a bit more convenience. This electric, semi-automatic espresso machine is so handy and small that it almost fits on a letter-sized piece of paper. This has been made possible thanks to the individual production of all components, ranging from the vibration-isolated pump to the boiler and thus making the MAXIMATIC the smallest espresso machine with a dual circuit heating system in the world. It is so straightforward and easy to handle, it can be used at home as well as in offices, studios, doctors' surgeries and galleries.
The description continues on Swiss Coffee Product's Olympia Express Maximatic Coffee Machine page.

First Impressions

Among espresso grinder manufacturers, Mazzer has established a reputation for solid, nearly bullet-proof construction. Until you've pulled one of their grinders out of the box, it's difficult to appreciate; I almost wondered if it was cast and machined from a single piece of metal. It has that solid a feel. Olympia's products echo the same sentiment. Looking over the Maximatic's exterior casing, you will strain to find an exposed screw (hint: apart from those securing the grouphead, look for two tiny Allen screws in the bottom corners of the front backsplash). Each seam is carefully folded over and every edge is rounded. The lines between component panels meet tightly together.

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Some home baristas may be surprised by these features of the Maximatic:
  • Stainless steel water reservoir
  • A quiet vibratory pump (!)
The last point is a welcome Olympia Express distinction; the Maximatic's vibratory pump is snugly mounted to avoid propagating vibration through the casing. And unlike many Italian espresso machines available to consumers, all the interior components are secured so they don't rattle like a bucket of bolts! :lol:

That said, it may surprise other home baristas to discover conveniences that are not among the Maximatic's features:
  • No steam boiler autofill (solution: allow machine to cool, remove cap atop the boiler, fill using sight glass to confirm water level)
  • No vacuum breaker (solution: from a cold start, allow machine to warm up a few minutes, bleed some steam from the steam wand, then the boiler will continue heating to full pressure).
  • No water tap (solution: draw water through the group or use a separate source like the microwave or hot pot).
I've owned several espresso machines with autofill circuitry and two without. If you want to regularly draw water from the steam boiler for Americanos, you will miss the convenience of autofill boilers, but for those who are espresso drinkers opting for an occasional cappuccino, it's a minor issue. One advantage of manually filled steam boilers that's not self-evident is the ability to use distilled water for the steam boiler and properly mineralized water for brewing espresso. Forget about scale buildup in the steam boiler!

While I don't miss the autofill steam boiler, I find it tedious to bleed false pressure from the steam boiler at every cold start. When I turn on the machine, I must make a mental note to return in a few minutes to open the steam wand. As I understand it, Olympia Express omits a vacuum breaker because they are a maintenance issue. Indeed, it's true that vacuum breakers do occasionally stick, requiring cleaning/descaling to return to correct operation, but that's a maintenance inconvenience every few years versus the daily inconvenience of bleeding the steam boiler.

UPDATE: Newer models include a vacuum breaker in the fill cap as pictured here.
Dan Kehn

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#3: Post by HB »

To understand the design of an espresso machine like the Olympia Maximatic, it's helpful to know the basics of the common boiler designs. Espresso Machines 101 introduces the three types, represented by popular espresso machines like the Rancilio Silvia (single purpose boiler), La Spaziale Vivaldi II (double boiler), and Vibiemme Domobar Super (dual purpose boiler, more commonly referred to as a heat exchanger or "HX"). With this fundamental knowledge under your belt, let's turn to the particulars of the Maximatic.

Getting Started

If you missed this point in the introduction, it's worth repeating: Olympic Express packs a lot of espresso machine in a very small space (the Maximatic has essentially the same footprint as the popular Rancilio Silvia). As mentioned earlier, some of the size reduction comes at the cost of convenience while arguably improving reliability. If you're the type that admires engineering acumen and enjoys a slightly more hands-on approach to espresso, you'll appreciate these distinctions. The first of these distinctions reveals itself in a throwback, the sight glass.

Nowadays there are few espresso machines with visual indicators of the boiler's water level. While years ago a MIN and MAX score mark on a vertical water-filled glass tube was the standard means of monitoring the boiler's water level, most of today's high-end espresso machines with steam boilers have electronic autofill controllers and water level sensors. A water level sensor is no more than an insulated metal rod that enters the boiler from the top with its tip at the desired water level; if the water reaches the tip, an electronic controller detects the presence of an electrical ground. When the water level drops, the circuit is broken and the controller signals a boiler-refill solenoid to open and the pump to start, filling the boiler until the sensor's electrical ground is re-established. Such an autofill circuit is handy if you steam lots of milk or draw water for Americanos (*). The main drawbacks of this feature are increased cost of manufacture and reduced reliability attributable to failures of the solenoid, sensor, or autofill circuitry (the latter being a rather pricey replacement part).

For an espresso machine without such circuitry, the barista is responsible for monitoring the boiler level. Fortunately the Maximatic's range between MIN and MAX is large enough that you'll only need to refill the boiler a couple times a week if you're a cappuccino lover and barely once or twice a month if you're mostly an espresso drinker. Of course, when the machine first arrives, the boiler will be empty. Filling it is simple: Unscrew the large black triangular cap atop the boiler (**), insert the included funnel into the neck, slowly pour water until the level shown in the sight glass on the right is near the top, then securely screw the boiler cap back on.

Once the steam boiler is filled to around the MAX line, fill the reservoir; it's the open-top tank accessible underneath the back chrome cover. The pumps of most pourover espresso machines draw water through silicone tubing from a plastic tank. After a day or two, the plastic imparts an unpleasant taste to the water. In contrast, the Maximatic's reservoir is made of stainless steel and the inlet is located at the bottom, eliminating the need for plastic and tubing.

Setup is nearly complete... your final step is to toggle the power switch located on the right of the machine and then press the Red Brew Button (RBB):

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Not to be confused with The Really Big Red Button

The Maximatic's RBB serves two purposes: It engages the surprisingly quiet pump and it glows warmly when the heating element is on. Place a catch bowl under the grouphead and press the RBB to start the pump. You'll hear water gurgle for a few seconds as the heat exchanger fills and then a steady stream of water will flow from the grouphead. Turn off the pump and allow the boiler to continue heating for awhile.

(*) Reminder: For an HX machine, the steam boiler water is never used for making espresso. Instead, fresh brew water is drawn directly from the water reservoir and flashed heated to brew temperature.

(**) NEVER remove the cap if the boiler is hot! When heated, the boiler is under pressure and will release steam and scalding-hot water if the cap is removed! Double-check that all pressure is released by opening the steam wand valve before loosening the boiler refill cap!
Dan Kehn

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#4: Post by HB »

After filling the steam boiler, water reservoir, and priming the pump, all that remained was waiting for the boiler to reach operating pressure and the group to reach a steady-state temperature. Don't forget that the older Maximatic models don't have a vacuum breaker, so the warmup phase is a two-step process: First turn on the power and wait for the "RBB" heating element light to go out. Next, open the steam wand valve to equalize pressure; the needle will suddenly drop and then continue its slow rise to the boiler's operating pressure.

Intermission

Until this point, this review has focused on the Olympia Maximatic's appearance, craftsmanship, and the basics of its design. The next installments will turn to how to operate the Maximatic, followed by comparisons of its espressos to those of other popular machines. As I mentioned in the introduction, this Second Look will have a more experiential slant than past research threads on the Bench, setting aside fancy tools of the review trade like thermocouples, precision scales, and timers.

To more accurately reflect the typical buyer's early experience, I intentionally skimmed the owner's manual (*), despite that it appears to be one of the better written ones among espresso machine manufacturers. That said, it's not as if I'm blindly walking up to the Maximatic. I've used different heat exchanger espresso machines and I owned an Olympia Cremina for several years. A lot of what works for one machine applies equally well to others. So with that in mind, I waited until the Maximatic had a good 30 minutes of warmup time and checked the boiler pressure gauge:

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Boiler pressure of 1.3 bar equates to water temperature of 259°F

I was surprised to see the needle resting comfortably at 1.3 bar. There no "green zone" indicator, but still, I mentally noted that the Maximatic's factory boiler setting is blazing hot compared to the more typical 1.0 to 1.2 bar of other machines that I've tested (a quick flip through the owner's manual confirmed it was within specification). Given the premium price and solid reputation behind Olympia Express' products, I felt it reasonable to trust that they delivered the Maximatic with its pressurestat properly adjusted and moved onto the next step.

(*) Don't try this at home! Wise consumers read the owner's manually carefully, taking special note of the safety recommendations.
Dan Kehn

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#5: Post by HB »

If you've done some initial research, you no doubt have come across the two popular types of espresso machine boiler designs: heat exchanger and dedicated brew boiler. Much of what you'll read will focus on the extra steps heat exchangers require, a ritual known as the "cooling flush." Although dual boiler espresso machines simplify this necessity by dedicating a boiler to maintaining brew temperature, heat exchanger machines are not without their own advantages:
  • Reduced purchase cost
  • Less parts means potentially reduced maintenance costs
  • Consumes less energy than double boilers (*)
  • Brew water is flash heated, so it's guaranteed to be fresh
  • With practice, the barista can make minute temperature adjustments on the fly.
There's ample debate of the merits of the two types of boiler designs:
As I'll explain in the next section, when it comes to espresso machines, there's different degrees of heat exchanger-ness. Note: If you're a double boiler fan, the Olympic Maximatic is decidedly not the espresso machine for you.

Brew Temperature Management

Having written a number of reviews, I've come to recognize differing degrees of how heat exchanger-centric a particular espresso machine is. My shorthand for these distinctions are:
  • Dragon - key characteristics are lots of flash boiling, fast recovery, nearly zero thermal memory, and slowly rising brew temperature profile. Simply stated, after the cooling flush, the heat exchanger output is the brew temperature. Examples include the Elektra Semiautomatica, Gaggia Achille, and the Olympia Maximatic.
    • Mixer - key characteristics are modest flush, medium to slow recovery, considerable thermal memory, and initial rising then falling brew profile. Unlike the Dragon, the Mixer's brew temperature isn't determined solely by the output of the heat exchanger. Other factors, such as cool water mixing via an heat exchanger injector, backflow from a thermosyphon, and the attenuating effect of a heavy grouphead temper the final brew temperature. Examples include HX E61 espresso machines like the Vibiemme Domobar Super and Quickmill Vetrano.
      • Agnostic - key characteristics are small, fixed volume flush or none at all, and long thermal memory. Careful tuning of a Mixer with tweaks in the design can produce an espresso machine that is heat exchanger in name only. Examples include the Cimbali Junior and Nuova Simonelli Aurelia.
      As the last entry suggests, these categories are not immutable. With minor modifications or boiler pressure adjustments coupled with barista techniques, an espresso machine that naturally fits in one category can morph into one of the other categories (e.g, Ian's HX Heaven or 1½ Boiler).

      The practical benefit of recognizing the characteristics of heat exchangers is the time saved learning the correct brew temperature management scheme (**). For example, I recognized the Maximatic as a Dragon by flushing the group until the water stopped flash boiling, waiting a minute or so, then repeating; it was fully recovered. The Elektra Semiautomatica is also a Dragon with a slightly heavier grouphead, but they share the same flush-n-go technique for targeting the brew temperature.

      The video below demonstrates this point:
      Hint: Don't watch the video, LISTEN to the video!

      Heat exchangers and especially Dragons don't speak in temperatures like 198, 201, and 203°F. Instead they speak in terms of hot, medium, and cool (skilled baristas can add at least one more gradient "medium-cool"). After a day or two of practice, flushing to a specific range is second nature; after a few weeks, it's not difficult to manipulate the coffee's flavor profile by adjusting the flush amount on the fly. That's what I've been doing for the last week and will be the subject of the next installment.

      (*) Some double boilers have a separate power control for the steam boiler, enabling you to save energy if you won't be making cappuccinos/lattes.

      (**) This is one area where lever espresso machine owners are well informed because lever group designs often require enhanced "Zen" barista skills in temperature management in order to produce the best espresso. For example, brushing the fingertips against the grouphead to judge that its ready for brewing is something you won't see non-leverites do!
      Dan Kehn

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      #6: Post by HB »

      The tricky part of evaluating espresso equipment is deciding when the results are consistent enough to be reproducible for a would-be buyer. Jim aptly commented on this reviewer's dilemma in The Princess on the Pea:
      another_jim wrote:On the surface it seems like a delicate balancing act: get too picky and you're a princess on pea, not picky enough, and you join the whatever brigade.

      Everybody occasionally goes overboard in one direction or the other; but people who are always over or under-scrupulous have a problem: they don't care as much about the coffee as about themselves. The princesses want to impress you with their perfection, the whatevers by their cool.
      When in doubt, I err on the side of caution before reporting results. For example, if I believe a piece of equipment performs notably better or worse than expected, I will ask friends to try it out for confirmation (Counter Culture Coffee holds a public espresso lab every Friday morning at their Durham roasting facility; this has been an invaluable resource for soliciting second opinions and testing beyond the budget of an amateur website). Being slow to arrive at conclusions may make me closer to the whatevers than the princesses, but I believe that it's justified when significant purchase dollars hang in the balance.

      That said, the Second Look is a less formal review format than the Buyer's Guides, so I hope readers will allow for preliminary observations that may need refinement (or abandonment?) before the concluding post.

      First Espressos, First Cappuccinos

      Having identified the Maximatic as a Dragon and one quite similar to the Elektra Semiautomatica, dialing in the brew temperature was a snap. Although countless forum topics stress the importance of stable, repeatable brew temperature, the last couple years I've felt its contribution to quality espresso is frequently overstated. A more nebulous measure, referred to as the "morning after" score in the Buyer's Guide or the "forgiveness factor" in discussion, carries considerable weight. I've made this point before, most recently in E61 vs E2009:
      HB wrote:I am less interested in the particulars of brew temperature control than the consistent quality/character of the group's extractions. But that's hard to quantify, so manufacturers ceaselessly tout their equipment's impressively flat/reproducible brew temperature profiles. Yawn.
      To put it another way, I've used espresso machines that were impressively consistent in terms of brew temperature, but were devilishly fussy about proper dose and distribution. Others I've used had unremarkable brew temperature consistency, but their espressos were an absolute delight for the modestly skilled barista.

      Determining whether an espresso machine is a taskmaster or delight doesn't take long, as was the case for this evaluation. I started with a level-cut double basket, which comes out to around 14 grams for the Olympia Maximatic. My first impression was that the Maximatic demands a tad more attention to technique than my other benchmarks, the Elektra Semiautomatica and espresso machines equipped with E61 groupheads like the Expobar Brewtus, Vibiemme Domobar Super, and Quickmill Anita. The telltale signs of channeling revealed themselves if the distribution was off (e.g., twisted barber poll stream, early blonding, reduced body and muted flavors). Through experimentation over the next few days, I found that nutating motion noticeably improved consistency. I used to deride this technique; now it's part of my standard barista toolbox.

      To eliminate concerns about the grinder's consistency, I paired the Olympia with the Mazzer Robur, which menacingly towers over it. Within 3 or 4 pulls, PT's Bella Vita was shaping up quite nicely, though it wasn't the flavor profile I remembered for this blend. I wrote Jeff Taylor about it:
      Dan wrote:Hey Jeff, I'm dialing in some Bella Vita this week. I haven't sampled it as frequently as I would like, but I thought it was more chocolaty than fruity. Or it may be the new equipment (?).
      He had mentioned that the blend was changed a bit lately. I have a second bag in the freezer and plan to return to it now that I've had a couple weeks of practice to see if the lower chocolates were a change in the blend or reflects the equipment choice.

      During the initial week of testing, I switched odd/even days between my regular setup and the Maximatic. My general impression was that the Maximatic espressos had slightly less body and clarity than the Elektra Semiautomatica (by clarity, I mean separately distinguishable flavors versus a melange; think chocolate and nuts versus chocolate mousse). On the other hand, a surprise was a contrast of Counter Culture Coffee's Gerbicho Rogicha single origin espresso on their La Marzocco GB-5 versus the Olympic Maximatic. It delivered an intriguing ultra fruity floral burst of flavor on the La Marzocco, but suffered from a lemon pucker finish. On the hot-headed Olympia Maximatic, the Gerbicho rocked. The lemon peel disappeared, replaced by sweeter, more balanced cranberry and light milk chocolate. I was disappointed when they ran out of that coffee, it really shined on the Maximatic.

      I've only made a few cappuccinos. The steam arm rotates in a horizontal plane, has good depth for a small pitcher, and the dispersion pattern of the four hole tip doesn't demand jostling for latte art quality microfoam. The high boiler pressure makes for ample steam out of the gate, though it falls off quickly if you're steaming for two, doubly so if you considered using the ambitiously large stock pitcher:

      Image

      The pitcher on the left is the Cafelat single serve pitcher. It comfortably accommodates around six ounces and the shape works well with the Maximatic's powerhouse output, roiling the milk with aplomb. Filling the stock pitcher halfway seems appropriate for one "Big Gulp" latte or two double shot cappuccinos, although the steam boiler loses its ummph before the milk reaches serving temperature.

      (*) Food for thought: Which is better, an espresso machine whose absolute best espresso beats all but requires barista Ninja skills possessed by few, or one whose typical espresso beats the top performer most days but will never surpass its best?
      Dan Kehn

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      #7: Post by HB »

      Tonight's installment is the last of the introductory posts. The remaining entries leading up to the conclusion will be adhoc as time, ideas/questions, and public interest dictate. And now the question that's foremost in my mind and perhaps yours...

      Is it worth the premium price?

      Always a difficult question! And one that the site's Buyer's Guides never attempt to answer directly. Instead the reviewer attempts to convey the strengthes, weaknesses, and "feel" of the equipment under consideration. Of course would-be buyers expect some sort of scoring and the reviews oblige:
      • The exceptional espresso score rates the espresso quality a barista with moderate experience should expect on a daily basis
      • The morning after score considers those who are learning and what they should reasonably expect in the early days following delivery
      • The cappuccino lover's score weighs the speed and ease of frothing
      • The materials and workmanship score rates the fit and finish.
      There's no final score; instead the conclusion leaves the overall value asse$$ment to the reader. In terms of the Olympia Maximatic, I knew it was a solid performer in the first three categories on day 1 and deserves top marks in the last category for the obvious heightened attention to design and finish details.

      Although the materials and workmanship score is from 0.0 to 10.0, for this evaluation, we may need an 11:

      Image
      "Why not just make 10 louder and make that the top?"
      Dan Kehn

      Endo

      #8: Post by Endo »

      Looks like the "Swiss Watch" of espresso machines. Very interesting machine for the espresso hobbyist but I expect a cheaper HX "Timex" machine would do almost as good a job. Still, it's nice that the "collectors" and people who don't plan to ever upgrade have high quality choices like this.

      I loved the comments about the different HX machines (Dragon, Mixer, Agnostic). I think we'll being using that a lot.

      I also liked the question regarding machines that require "Ninja Barista Skills" but can produce the odd exceptional result. My present machine seems to be in the category of producing very good repeatable results, but I find myself strangely attracted to the more difficult machines like Dragons or levers.

      Finally, I was wondering if you have any close-up "Swiss engineering porn" pictures of the Maximatic internals?
      "Disclaimer: All troll-like comments are my way of discussing"

      Beezer

      #9: Post by Beezer »

      It does look like a very nice machine, but I'm not sure it's worth over $3,000 when you can get some very nice HX or DB machines for around $2,000. I do like the fact that it includes a real metal tamper, a decent spouted pitcher, and even a knockbox. But then again, for the amount of money they're asking, it should include some extra goodies.

      Although I'm sure the construction is excellent, the price seems a bit far-fetched when it doesn't offer any obvious real-world advantages over other, cheaper machines. In fact, it's lacking some things that I would really miss, like boiler auto fill and a vacuum breaker valve that allows the machine to be placed on a timer. I wonder how many people will be willing to pay a premium for the perception that they're getting a machine built like a Swiss watch.
      Lock and load!

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      #10: Post by Bluecold »

      Beezer wrote:I wonder how many people will be willing to pay a premium for the perception that they're getting a machine built like a Swiss watch.
      They don't pay for the perception. They pay for the fact. Also, i gather quite a few people would do that. Leica is still around. And Olympia Express is even 'purer' than Leica who is shamelessly rebranding panasonic compacts.
      LMWDP #232
      "Though I Fly Through the Valley of Death I Shall Fear No Evil For I am at 80,000 Feet and Climbing."