Rancilio Silvia Flash Review (PID temperature controller)

Behind the scenes of the site's upcoming equipment reviews.
User avatar
HB
Admin

#1: Post by HB »

Prompted by Robert's thread, Sour pour with Silvia/Macap, I thought it might be interesting to borrow Mike Walsh's PID'd Silvia for a little trip down memory lane (*), plus update my first official review (link). He agreed to swap for the Expobar Brewtus and will offer his opinion on it later next week.

My own Silvia wasn't PID'd and I immediately appreciated the elimination of "temperature surfing". Maybe it's peculiar to Mike's machine, but Silvia seems to develop a 'steam pocket' in the boiler that must be purged after it's been idle, otherwise the group initially sputters water and flashes steam. Once this formality was out of the way and the PID recovered a couple minutes later, she was ready to go.

Today was six shots (three espressos, three cappuccinos). I used the same grind setting as Brewtus, which proved to be just a teenie bit too tight. The quality of the extractions seemed to suffer with the same dosage (center "dead spot" beneath the dispersion screen bolt), so I reduced it by a gram. The naked portafilter revealed one case of flagrant jet spray channeling and the others were reasonably slow-drippy. The last shot of the series was the best: Black Cat, 17 grams, 28 seconds, 1.5 ounces, lots of tiger striping. Chocolate, spice, light tobacco, smooth finish. Body / mouthfeel could use some improvement though.

One thing that I had forgotten: Silvia really steams wonderfully! Well, except the steam is pretty wet, but the velocity and volume are better than a number of HX machines I've tried. Producing a velvety microfoam was a snap. The PID readout was +260F quickly. Before anyone asks the perennial Silvia question: Did I froth or pull first? Neither option appeals to me (let the crema fade while the boiler heats to steam temperature, or struggle to establish correct brew temperature after steaming?). I opted for brew first and winced while pouring the milk.

Mike's an espresso-only purist with no upgrade aspirations. He is mulling over adding preheat wraps, active grouphead heaters, etc. to his Silvia. Lucky I got the chance to take 'er for a last spin before the serious mods begin...

(*) I actively repress memories prior to Silvia; please don't ask about my Krups/Braun days. :shock:
Dan Kehn

User avatar
HB
Admin

#2: Post by HB »

Today's score is four espressos, two cappuccinos, and two lattes for visiting friends. A couple extractions were reminiscent of those posted in Uneven extraction (excerpted below):
shadowfax wrote:I wonder something.... the dark spots I am getting, I noticed, always seem to be on the side where i get the slower extraction. I can't seem to get a perfectly even extraction...

Image
I grudgingly weighed the remaining shots at precisely 17 grams, which is just slightly below a full and leveled basket before tamping. The flavor was classic Black Cat, and yet the mouthfeel again left me unimpressed. The recent highmark established by the Elektra A3 has spoiled me.

While I was baking in the hot sun this morning around the community pool, my mind turned to popular Silvia modifications. Most address temperature-related issues. The benefit for temperature sensitive coffees is obvious, but why isn't there more interest in improving Silvia's extraction prowess? Few dispute she demands alot from grinders and baristas alike. If this were my machine, after the PID, I would look into a nice preinfusion chamber with low-pressure inlet valve. No doubt that someone has already done this (links welcome).

Is there anyone else who thinks Silvia is overpriced compared to her rivals? If I were shopping around this price point, I would be tempted to increase my budget and get an Expobar Pulser (currently $300 more than Silvia). Seems like you're getting a lot more machine for your money.

Oh, but for a hundred more, there's the Quick Mill Anita... and so the upgrade trail begins. :wink:
Dan Kehn

mike

#3: Post by mike »

I'll also drop a short note here re the swap loan of Silvia for Brewtus. Comments on Brewtus in the Brewtus thread...

One thing that is incredibly interesting about the differences of Silvia vs. Brewtus is in crema quality, and I think the pressure profile is the big difference. It might also be the key to the clear difference in body and depth between the two machines. *

I would postulate that Silvia being pretty much a no preinfusion machine doesn't operate much differently from the effect of severe overdosing where the objective is to prevent the puck from expanding. I once told Dan that if he wanted great shot pictures with incredibly speckled crema, the key was to dial down temps a degree or two and pack that basket until the PF barely locked!

The crema that I get from Silvia is always beautifully tiger spotted, viscous, palate coating, and profoundly stable. It's like oil paint on top of a shot. I'd have a hard time proving it, but it would seem like the pressure of the Silvia basically slamming water onto the puck is going to prevent the kind of puck expansion you'll see in a well designed pre-infusion situation. I know that I have had a number of problems recently with channeling, particularly jet sprays on about 25% of the shots. I've heard it said that the ramp up on a vibe is slow enough that you really don't need pre-infusion, but I'm not quite so sure.

On the other hand, I wonder if the pressure profile of Brewtus allows the puck to expand significantly, preparing the puck for extraction like pre-wetting the grounds in a Melitta drip funnel does. We often hear pre-infusion is implemented to avoid pitting and channeling, but I'm getting a bit more convinced after these recent experiences that its effect might be around extraction, much more like the pre-wetting of grounds in drip. I know that the difference in depth between the Brewtus and Silvia is simply staggering. There is, however, a real difference in crema characteristic, so I wonder if there is a happy medium that can be achieved.

I'm a bit out of my ground to take this too far - a long time ago I started roasting and blending, and really lost interest in being too much of an equipment geek. But I am getting more convinced that Dan is right that temperature control may be taken as far as it should be (or perhaps too far!) and that the next frontier is pressure control.

-mike

* As a side note, I'll say that even with a PID, Silvia can produce shots with some pretty significant flavor flaws, and those I think can be attributed to perhaps a wider than ideal temperature variance. If the ideal isn't flat, how much variance should be built in? I'd love to know...

Abe Carmeli
Team HB

#4: Post by Abe Carmeli »

mike wrote: One thing that is incredibly interesting about the differences of Silvia vs. Brewtus is in crema quality, and I think the pressure profile is the big difference. It might also be the key to the clear difference in body and depth between the two machines.
I Believe that Dan's Brewtus, the one you did your tests on, has very low pump pressure - I think Dan said it was 8.2 with 0 flow. Some of the difference in crema may very well be related to the differences in max pump pressure between your Silvia and the Brewtus. What is the pressure on your Silvia?
But I am getting more convinced that Dan is right that temperature control may be taken as far as it should be (or perhaps too far!) and that the next frontier is pressure control.
Giving the Barista the ability to program into the machine a pressure profile is at the top of my wish list for the next breakthrough in Espresso. My first post on HB was about that very same issue. The Next Breakthrough in Espresso Technology.
Abe Carmeli

mike

#5: Post by mike »

My Silvia is between 8 and 8.2b right now. The Brewtus is 8.2b.

I think the real difference is the pre-infusion letting the puck expand. When you hear about the extreme Aussie overdosing and effect, it all starts making sense.

I'll have to check out that other thread when I get a minute.

-mike

User avatar
HB
Admin

#6: Post by HB »

mike wrote:I know that I have had a number of problems recently with channeling, particularly jet sprays on about 25% of the shots. I've heard it said that the ramp up on a vibe is slow enough that you really don't need pre-infusion, but I'm not quite so sure.
Silvia also offered me a similar reminder to tighten up my technique. What's worked is more headspace not less. I cut down from level by one gram using a blind basket edge, something I've never tried before. This morning was your new blend (code named "CG4") and two out of the three extractions were beautiful. I'm not one to wax poetically about cupping terms (fragrance of orchids?!?), and yet my thoughts turn to the taste of red wine with a touch of mulling spice. Not sure if that's what you were shooting for.

(And I haven't resorted to the triple basket crutch... maybe tomorrow :evil:).

The last one extracted uneveningly, blonding out along the backside about 18 seconds into the shot. Fortunately it was destined for a cappuccino anyway. Which reminds me that I may have to try the "steam first" approach. Pouring latte art over crema that's sat for almost two minutes has produced some truly sad cappuccinos.
Dan Kehn

User avatar
HB
Admin

#7: Post by HB »

First of all, many thanks to Mike for allowing me to borrow his PID'd Silvia for this little retrospective. It's been fun and interesting. Now some closing comments...

No consumer espresso machine has been subjected to more scrutiny (e.g., Silvia and Classic temperature profiles), and yet I couldn't resist temperature profiling a few shots. The temperature drop over the extraction was five degrees Fahrenheit. Can't complain too much about that. However, over the past week, I did note my growing impatience when making cappuccinos. Given Silvia's current price tag of $500, the cost of PID'ing to eliminate the tedium of temperature surfing, and the inherent delays in a single-boiler design for steaming, it's hard for me to justify the "Silvia premium." On the other hand, there's boundless information on using, troubleshooting, and modifying this machine... that adds intrinsic value.

The updates are complete; comments and follow-up questions are welcome in Article Feedback.
Dan Kehn

Daniel N.

#8: Post by Daniel N. »

Hi Dan,

I have been reading all the reviews about Miss Silvia and other comparable espresso machines in this price range and I really like the Silvia. BUT.... based on the espresso/cappa limitations of the Silvia that I have read, I would be willing pay more for an upgrade. Unfortunately I have a space limitation, the height of the Silvia is perfect (Measurements: 13 5/8" H x 9 1/2" W x11 3/8" D). Sooo, could you recommend an espresso machines that does not exceed 13 5/8" Height and is in the $500 to $1,000 price range and is easier for the average Barista to use? Prior machines Braun/Krups/Starbucks Barista (now on it's last leg). I am willing to put in the time and effort to learn the intricacies of any new machine.

Many thanks,
Daniel N.

User avatar
another_jim
Team HB

#9: Post by another_jim »

I've had a pair of PIDed Silvias that I've been turning on and off (a cheap espresso lab). These have the new, settable OPV and are running around 10 bar at the moment. I do not consider myself much of an expert on these machines yet, so please take my comments with a grain of salt.

First off. There's no question why the Silvia dominates the market -- it is a very solid machine, built better than most of the E61 boxes out there. Moreover, it is the least expensive real espresso shot machine, i.e. one that will produce a full bodied shot of espresso with any semblance of control. The only competitor, the Gaggias, don't come close in terms of build quality, workability, or shot density. Other home style machines for less are a joke compared to it. I have not tried the competitors that have similar build and prices: the Isomac Venus, the Brasilia Club, and the ECM Boticelli -- these may be just as good in this regard.

That being said, I don't think that the Silvia is up to the standard of E61s, Elektra Semi, Cimbalis or LMs (the machines whose production I know fairly well) in terms of the tradeoff in shot clarity and density. The Silvia's gloppy shots basically taste muddier to me than any of these other machines. If one doses less, leaves plenty of headspace, the taste clarifies, but the shots start tasting thin. I haven't as yet tried underdosing and ultra-fine grinding the triple basket -- this may be the best route to a really high quality shot on this machine.

I should also say that one needs considerable experience with espresso, as well as access to great blends and excellent grinders, before the differences I'm talking about here will either matter to anyone, or where ones shot making skills are consistent enough to regularly get to the standard required for these distinctions to be apparent.
Jim Schulman

User avatar
HB
Admin

#10: Post by HB »

Daniel N. wrote:Unfortunately I have a space limitation, the height of the Silvia is perfect (Measurements: 13 5/8" H x 9 1/2" W x11 3/8" D). Sooo, could you recommend an espresso machines that does not exceed 13 5/8" Height and is in the $500 to $1,000 price range and is easier for the average Barista to use?
The Bezzera BZ02S is close: 14.5"H x 14.5"W x 18"D. From what I understand, it's the Livia 90 with less fancy casing.
Dan Kehn