January 22, 2008

You too can have great espresso at home

Around Christmas, my household got a super-auto espresso machine. For the uneducated, that's a machine that takes coffee beans and water in one end, and produces espresso at the other end (it also complains occasionally about being dirty; cleaning is easy).
The machine in question was a Saeco Incanto Sirius (no link provided, because I don't want to encourage you to buy it). After making a few adjustments, it was producing respectable shots of espresso. The cleaning process wasn't too bad. It produced tolerable hot water and steam when requested. Unfortunately, it had a bad flow sensor (apparently a common problem on this model) which made it refuse to do anything at all for days at a time. Thankfully Costco has a no-questions-asked return policy, and back it went.

I went back to researching machines, since this model was no longer available for the crazy-low price I paid. Eventually I decided that an old-school machine would suffice. The grinding and tamping thing isn't that bad, you know. I settled on a Rancilio Sylvia with accompanying Rocky grinder. I got them from Great Infusions in Santa Cruz (Sebastian, the owner, offers a load of useful free stuff if you buy both machines).

What I found interesting is that the coffee I get from Sylvia is consistently better than the best shot I ever got from the super-auto. I'm using the same beans (Peet's Espresso Forte) but the shots are hotter, better extracted, and have better crema. I have yet to learn to produce art-quality foamed milk, though.

The amount I paid for the Sirius was about the same as my new setup (within $10) so I am convinced that the convenience of a super-auto is not worth the quality and reliability penalty. Sylvia's electronics are simple and reliable (3 thermostats, 4 switches, a heater and a pump) but a super-auto has all kinds of sensors and computer controls to go wrong.

And, to top it all, Sylvia appears to be very hackable.

Update: a coworker tells me I should roast my own coffee too.

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