The morning prior to the group taste test last Friday, I brought the Vesuvius to Counter Culture Coffee's training center and dialed in the test coffee, Aleme Wako
, a Biloya coffee which they describe as "stunning with notes of fig, plum, and milk chocolate." We intentionally chose a brighter, challenging coffee that would reveal differences more readily than their bar blends.
The Vesuvius has 5 programmable pressure profiles. Each profile can have up to 7 pressure segments (e.g., 7 seconds at 6 bar, 12 seconds at 9 bar, etc.). Given my relative inexperience with this new espresso machine, I programmed a spring powered lever type profile: rise to 6 bar, peak at 9 bar, trail off to 7 bar. The La Marzocco EP is similarly programmable. Using a Scace II thermofilter, we calibrated the temperature and pressure of the two espresso machines, confirming they were performing similarly. Vesuvius by Ambient Espresso
The setup of the test is simple. We have two sets of identical cups, except one set is discreetly marked on the bottom, the other set is unmarked. Lem Butler, 4x SERBC champion, served as barista with the La Marzocco. I served as barista with the Vesuvius. Before any of the participants arrived, Lem and I dialed in our respective espresso machines. We tasted tested each others' espressos and agreed that the beverages accurately represented the coffee. The participants were simultaneously served two espressos, one from each espresso machine. They were instructed to sample each and place the one they preferred to the left of the tampers and the other to the right:Winners on the left
We sampled 15 paired espressos. Once the last one was placed down, we inverted and totaled the marked cups, revealing the closest test results to-date -- the La Marzcocco eked out a narrow victory, 8 to 7! Unsatisfied with a statistical tie, Nathan and I did one final round. The outcome was unchanged, still a tie. Below are the comments from several participants:
Lem wrote:To be completely honest, I love having low expectations of home espresso machines and then having my mind blown by ease of use and quality of coffee. The Vesuvius is a perfect example. Yes, I was a skeptic when you told me that this machine could pressure profile, but I was super impressed with the end result. The Vesuvius truly is a great espresso machine! I really enjoyed the shootout. It produced some of the best shots of espresso I've had in a while. Honestly, if I were blindfolded and given a shot of espresso from the Vesuvius, I would not be able to tell the difference if it were from a commercial behemoth like the Strada EP or even a VA388 Black Eagle from Nuova Simonelli. Delicious!
Nathan wrote:The two were extremely close. The one I liked better was very slightly less sharp in terms of brightness. If I were given them consecutively and told they were from the same machine, I most likely wouldn't have questioned that being true.
Jesse wrote:In the shootout between the La Marzocco Strada EP and the Ambient Espresso Vesuvius, I found the two machines to produce similar espresso results. Through several rounds of tasting, I preferred shots off of each at different times.
I was impressed with the visual package the Vesuvius presents. It is a beautiful machine with clean lines, easy access to the water tank, and I'm a sucker for the hardwood details. The limited amount of milk I steamed had virtually perfect texture and I felt like it took an acceptable amount of time to steam a full 8-10ozs of milk.
That being said, the ergonomics of the machine are a bit frustrating as the drip tray is too shallow, leaving the user to balance both demitasse and cappuccino cups off of the front edge of the machine to catch the shots. Additionally, the distance between the group, steam wand, and hot water tap felt cramped.
Nick wrote:I'd have been happy to have been served the shots from either machine. When we did the 'known' side-by-side tasting afterwards, there was a subtle difference in taste (one was more rounded, the other accentuated the high notes more), but I mixed up the cups and didn't know which came from which. Again, I would have been happy with either.
We talked about the difference between 'pulling a shot that just tastes good/is balanced' and 'pulling a shot that really accentuates the specific attributes of that coffee'. I think that sort of distinction was the extent of the differences between the espressos prepared on the two machines. Both were good -- but perhaps in different ways that may have come down to personal preference.
Placement of split doubles before handing two pairs to two tastersJesse pours a nice rosetta on the first attempt Profile panels for Vesuvius by Ambient Espresso and Strada EP by La Marzocco
Walt wrote:My impression of the shootout was the machines were surprising close. Where the last shootout with the ECM Technika, they were close but the Strada definitely made a better espresso. With the Vesuvius, the overall count at 8 to 7 was as close as it could get. There was some discussion as to the differences between the 2 espressos tasted blindly, after the 3rd round I honestly could not pick between the 2 there were so close, almost like it was a double from the same machine.
As I said, I am in the market for a new machine and this verified for me that you can make a great "cafe quality" espresso from a prosumer machine as long as you have a quality grinder and beans. Maybe even better.
Thanks gentlemen for your comments! For next time, we're planning on a head-to-head between two E61 double boilers, the Vesuvius and the Profitec Pro 700
. We'll also keep track of who placed which drink from each espresso machine on the win/lose side, to see if testers are consistent in their selection. Until then, below are the more photogenic of the coffee tasters. Nathan, Marc Nick, Khristian Jesse, Walt Ian, David