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Coffee in Australia by Alan Frew
Up at the Sharp End
Author: Alan Frew
Posted: May 24, 2003
Article rating: 7.5
feedback: (12) comments | read | write

There are a number of "espresso enthusiasts" out there for whom the Rancilio Silvia represents not the pinnacle of perfection but just a step along the way. Unfortunately for their bank accounts, it’s a pretty big step! I’ve had a number of queries about higher end home machines over the last 12 months, so I decided it was time to do some in depth evaluation of the machines available locally.

A bit of a disclaimer is called for here. All the machines tested are 220v 50hz, i.e. standard Australian and European current. I wasn’t able to test them side by side with each other, so I checked them out using the Rancilio Silvia as the standard. This isn’t meant to be a review, just a comparison of what I think the strengths and weaknesses are. I find “temperature surfing” with a Silvia to be redundant after it’s been on a day or so, so I just flush, load, lock and brew.

I decided to treat all the machines the same as I would a Silvia, so they stayed on for 24 hours before I started brewing, which meant that I had to flush the groups to get them down to “brew temperature”. One of the factors I measured was the volume of flush water, since none of the water tanks in these machines were very big. The table below sets out my basic comparison, followed by comments and photos.

FeaturesRancilio SilviaIsomac MillenniumExpobar Office ControlBrugnetti Simona Top
Australian Retail
Price (inc. GST)
$759.00$2,200.00$2,200.00$1,700.00
Size & Weight
(cm & kg, LxWxH)
34.5 x 23.5 x 29.0
14.0kg
44.5 x 29.0 x 39.0
22.0kg
42.0 x 29.0 x 39.0
17.0kg
30.0 x 25.0 x 38.0
17.0kg
Included1 portafilter, single & double baskets, tamper, scoop, manual.2 portafilters, single & double baskets, tamper, scoop, pamphlet.2 portafilters, single & double baskets.2 portafilters, single & double baskets, tamper, scoop, manual, blind filter, detergent.
Tank Volume2.0l2.5l4.5l1.8l
Boiler Volume300ml1.2l??1.7l1.5l
Hot Water TapNo (but possible via switch & steam wand.)YesYesNo
Pressurestat,
manometer,
vacuum breaker
NoYesNoYes
Flush water volume30ml120ml250ml120ml
58mm group,
std. group screen,
ULKA pump.
YesYesYesYes
Automatic Programmable
Shot volume control
NoNoYesYes
expobar tank
The Expobar "storage container" tank.

Water tanks are a bit of an issue for me, I like them to be reasonably easy to remove. The Brugnetti's tank is wired in, so it loses on that score. It's also by far the smallest in volume, and extremely difficult to fill without some sort of funnel. Most interesting was the Expobar tank, which is sold separately in Australia as the Decor Storage container, complete with flip top lid! We keep pasta, rice, cornflakes etc. in ours.

When it came to the boilers, I admit to being mystified as to how the boiler volumes quoted in official specifications are arrived at. The Isomac boiler looks to me to have a volume of 600 to 800ml max; it's not that much bigger than a Silvia boiler, but it's quoted as being 1200ml. The boilers on the Brugnetti and the Expobar are much bigger, and are quoted as being 1500ml and 1700ml respectively.

Isomac boiler Expobar Boiler Brignetti boiler
The diminutive Isomac boiler
The Expobar boiler, note no pressurestat and vacuum breaker, just the safety valve and thermostat.
The Brugnetti boiler, everything except a hot water outlet.

The amount of boiler "furniture" seems to vary dramatically as well. Despite its pretensions to being a "high end" machine the Expobar does NOT have an adjustable pressurestat, but instead a single thermostat. This means that there is no way of regulating boiler pressure and temperature, and the machine I tested ran consistently "hot", needing a lot more water flushed through the group to get an acceptable brewing temperature.

Brugnetti Tank
A side view of the Brugnetti tank & boiler. Note the tank electrodes and the boiler drain plug.

Steam pressure on the Isomac was pretty weak compared to the Silvia, but could probably have been boosted by increasing boiler pressure. Unfortunately getting at the pressurestat on the Isomac involves removing the tank and top, rear and side panels, so it's not a job for the faint hearted. As supplied the Isomac was only operating at 1.2 -1.3 bar, while the Brugnetti was at 1.5 bar out of the box. Both the Expobar and the Brugnetti had good steam pressure, but not any more so than the Silvia...frothing time for 200ml of milk was identical. Of course the HX machines will just keep on steaming.

The lack of a hot water outlet on the Brugnetti was surprising, especially since the boiler already has a "drain plug" outlet that would make it pretty easy to plumb in a pipe to a valve on the front of the machine. It might even be a fairly easy retrofit for aspiring machine modifiers.

Now for the important bit; how were the espressos? Well, "out of the box" there was considerable variation between the espresso from a Silvia and the espressos from the Isomac and the Expobar. The HX espressos were richer and fuller flavoured, which turned out to be not that much of a surprise after I'd inspected the filter baskets that came with the machines. The Isomac and Expobar single filters hold about 11 grams, or a third more than a standard Rancilio single. The double filters hold over 18 grams, about 20% more than standard. The filters supplied with the Brugnetti were almost identical to the Rancilio ones, and the coffee was the same as from the Silvia.

Single Filters
Rancilio Single filter on left vs. Isomac Single filter on right.
Rancilio Double filter on left vs. Isomac Double filter on right.

Since all the portafilters and baskets on all 4 machines were 58mm they could be mixed and matched at will, and used in any machine (including the Silvia) in any combination. By using the Silvia baskets in all the machines, I got shots that were identical to those from the Silvia. Likewise I could duplicate the Isomac shots on any machine, just by using the Isomac filter baskets. I had to conclude that what the coffee was "seeing" during brewing (pressurized hot water from identical vibration pumps) was just about the same from any of the machines.

Which in turn led me to conclude that in terms of overall shot quality, I wasn't testing machines, I was testing filter baskets! It makes a lot of sense when you consider that all the machines use the same ULKA vibe pump and have similar water distribution and shower screen setups. The only remaining variables (apart from the filters) would be pump bypass pressures and brew water temperatures, and the flushing appeared to take care of the temperature pretty well. Pressure <may> be amenable to adjustment, but I didn't try it.

tampers
The really small, cheap and nasty Isomac tamper is the one on the right, the Rancilio one supplied with the Silvia is on the left.

In terms of "extras" supplied with the machines, the Brugnetti had the best manual by far, the same scoop & plastic tamper that come with the Silvia, and a blind filter and sachet of Pulycaff. The absolute winner for the WORST extras was the Isomac; the 4 page pamphlet that comes with it isn't even an excuse for a manual, and the cheap and nasty plastic tamper was even cheaper, nastier and SMALLER than usual.

So where does this leave the person looking to "upgrade" their espresso? Well, if all you drink are straight espressos you'd be better off keeping the Silvia and investing in different filter baskets! There are other issues at work, of course, and a copious supply of steam, good looks, automatic shot volume adjustment and auto boiler refill are just some of them. Personally I'm still undecided about whether to stock/sell any or all of these machines, they all have their strengths but there are quite a few weaknesses as well.

My Ideal would be something with the Isomac's body and the Brugnetti's insides, with the Brugnetti's price and a hot water tap. I'll just have to keep on searching!

Article rating: 7.5
Author: Alan Frew
Posted: May 24, 2003
feedback: (12) comments | read | write
All Retired Columnists Articles
These articles are listed in alphabetical order, first by columnist, then by article title.
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