There was a pretty big shake up in the espresso world last year when the espresso machine maker that has served at pretty much every World Barista Championship (WBC) up until 2009 - La Marzocco - was unseated by a company hungry to claim to title of "official machine'". That company is Nuova Simonelli, and they outbid all the other WBC-certified machines (three made the WBC-certified cut in February, 2008) to garner the title.
An interesting outcome played out both before and after the announcement of the 2009-2011 machine sponsor following the 2008 WBC - even though it was one of the industry's worst-kept secrets. Feedback wasn't so good. La Marzocco, and more specifically, their dual boiler, PID controlled machine was the darling amongst many professional baristas around the world. Nuova Simonelli, while generally regarded as a workhorse, wasn't seen as an 'elite' machine in the same class as Marzocco or Synesso and people saw it at best as an unknown; at worst, a potential disaster. (as a sidenote, I'm not sure if Synesso got an official invite or not to submit a machine for WBC certification but I'm positive they would have come out as one of the top machines if they had been involved - the tech there is just phenomenal).
The thing is, most of the people offering up early feedback most likely never had more than two minutes with the Aurelia if any time at all. We're talking about an espresso machine that passed official WBC Certification. Passing certification alone should be an endorsement, but for many baristas far too comfortable with their own environments and machine setups, there were a lot of vocal pans and woes on the Intertubes, via instant thought services like forums, blogs and twitter.
Of course, there were some good comments out there as well, and one or two paid endorsements (one of which is running during the WBC live streaming going on during the 2009 WBC competition). While that one was quite good and well informed, generally I'm not a fan of sponsored endorsements in the coffee biz - just like how our industry is (mostly) free of the booth babe phenomenon that most other technology industries seem to rely on at their trade shows, our industry is also very light on paid endorsements, which is a good thing. That means if you do hear someone without ties to a product or company endorsing that product or company, chances are you're getting the real deal.
And I did hear the 'real deal' on the Nuova Simonelli Aurelia WBC Certified machine from several professional baristas. Some used the machines in competition, some had them installed in their shop. Many had very positive things to say about the machine, and a common thread was how vastly improved this current line up from Nuova Simonelli is, compared to their past machines.
I often reserved public (or private) comment on this machine because my facetime with the Nuova Simonelli Aurelia was quite limited. I'd participated in the WBC certification a year ago in February but the machine playing was left up to the world-calibre baristas involved in that test. I'd pulled maybe a half dozen shots on several Aurelias over the past 20 months - all very informal and all very non-analytical. And to be honest, I didn't know much about the tech inside. I knew that it was a highly tuned heat exchanger (HX) machine using a mechanical pressurestat - which was a surprise to me because I figured only PID would be able to pass WBC certification. Knew that Nuova Simonelli developed a brand new 5.7kg grouphead that includes a kind of 'stalling' point inside the cap to slow down preinfusion and give temperatures time to stabilize. And knew that they'd done some great work on their steam wand assembly and steam lever arm system.
Getting Intimate with the Aurelia
| Nuova Simonell Aurelia in Action |
Danny Bresciani, my gracious and informed host, pulling some shots on the WBC-spec Aurelia.
I needed to know more about this machine. I needed to know if it was a La Marzocco killer. I needed to know if it not only could pass WBC certification, but would be a capable high-volume cafe machine. I also wanted to know more about the tech inside, so I set up a time to visit the showroom of the North American importer and longtime partner for Nuova Simonelli, Espresso Coffee Machines Co. (ECM) in Burnaby, BC. Danny Bresciani is the second generation of Brescianis involved in a company originally founded in 1979; he graciously invited me to their offices and spent the afternoon going over the Nuova Simonelli Aurelia WBC-spec machine with me.
WBC Certified vs WBC Spec
My first surprise was something I'd learned just a few weeks ago. The machine used in the WBC is not the same machine that passed WBC Certification. It has one crucial addition, and other minor tweaks. The crucial addition is a PID, or progressive integral derivative controller, the current darling of the temperature stability crowd (I'm sure David Schomer still sleeps with one under his pillow). The PID device replaced the mechanical pressurestat that the old Aurelia had (and some models still have).
This certainly is great news for people interested in the Aurelia, since you no longer have to take panels off just to adjust temperature.
There were other minor changes inside the machine and to some of the aesthetics, including improved baskets, light package and more, but the big change is the PID. This package is what Nuova Simonelli is calling their "WBC Spec" Aurelia, and the price is $15,000 (Canadian dollars) retail.
My second surprise came after meeting Bresciani. I found out that the PID setup they're using did not control boiler temperature as we've become used to with PIDs, but instead controlled boiler pressure. That meant that the owner / competitor could change the pressure on the front panel of the machine, but they'd only see boiler pressure in the HX system, and not a temperature readout on the grouphead (or steam boiler) settings.
Third surprise was seeing that the PID controlled boiler pressure could only be adjusted in .05 increments; that means you could set boiler pressure at 1.2 bar, or 1.25 bar, but not 1.21, 1.23 etc. PIDs are notoriously famous for their super-tight control, and since they can go down to 0.1C or 0.1F adjustments, I kind of expected .01 boiler adjustments as well. When I learned it was limited to .05 adjustments I made a mental note to see how much going from 1.2 bar to 1.15 bar would make on the grouphead temperature.
There is a flaw in this design, and it affects overall usability and quick changes by a seasoned barista or cafe owner who needs to deal with differing environmental conditions or different blends being pulled on the same machines. That flaw is the lack of an accurate, instant temperature readout of what the machine is producing in terms of temperatures at the grouphead. If you want to know how 1.2 bar of boiler pressure accurately translates into brewing temperatures, you need to purchase a $300+ Scace device to find out. One possible improvement this machine could see is the addition of a k-type probe into each grouphead and digital thermometer unit reading out directly on the front LCD panel.
Some pleasant surprises came as well. Nuova Simonelli designed a flow restriction system for the groupheads that can be stacked or modified to give different brewing temperatures at each group. I didn't delve into this much, but from what Bresciani told me, it is very customizable by a knowledgeable machine technician. The downside to this is that again, it's not something that can be easily done by the end user, especially on the fly. Some Synesso models and the new Dalla Corta commercial machines do feature this ease of use. Still, the Aurelia is a good candidate for 'multiple coffees' bars - those that like to feature more than one blend.
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| Control Panel |
LCD readout showing programmable steam boiler pressure; hot water button and I'm not quite sure what the multiple cups button is for since this is a semi-auto machine.
| Leather handle |
The machines at the WBC has leather handles. Here's one in white, all ready to get barista-hands tinted soon.
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| Machine Layout |
The semi auto layout is very nice, with very easy to press buttons (that easily register - a problem on LM's competition machine); steam wand action is very good.
| Three Groups |
The WBC-spec machine is available in three group; a two group model may be available soon.
The tech side continues
Bresciani knows a lot about this machine, and continued to school me on its features and benefits. I got my first serious look and use of the steam lever system that Nuova Simonelli is putting standard on all their machines now, and I have to say it's very slick. I still prefer the footpaddle as the ultimate in steam control, but this system on the Aurelia is a close second.
It's all in the action - the steaming lever is an up/down type - pipping it up does a quick purge; pulling it down gradually increases the steam until you get to an indent position and it stays put, full power steam. The pull travel of the steam lever isn't very long but I found it easy to control in small increments of increasing steam power after just a few uses. The learning curve for this steam lever is very short.
| Aurelia Grouphead |
The 8kilo+ grouphead, with top plate being removed to show internal preinfusion chamber. Very nice design.
The grouphead for this machine is a work of art. It is brand new for the Aurelia line, and weighs in at 5.7kg (12 pounds) of gleaming chrome and dense brass. It features a very unique hybrid design borrowing some of the best features from saturated groups, the E61 grouphead system, and even piston lever groupheads. Deep inside the group is a preinfusion chamber that is designed to do a very slow ramp up of pressure in the filter basket, which Bresciani said was designed to "help novice baristas have more even pours, and help seasoned veterans get just that little extra help with their already great technique". Bresciani said the design helped to reduce the most common problem in shot pulling - puck fractures and channeling.
I also liked the usability design of the grouphead. Changing grouphead gaskets is always a serious challenge (it is for me at least); sometimes one can spend an hour chiseling away at a heat-hardened gasket, taking off bits at a time. Nuova Simonelli designed this grouphead so that the entire outer chromed brass cap / bayonet area could be removed, exposing the sides of the dispersion screen assembly and gasket, making removal and replacement a trivial affair. I also scoped out the dispersion screen, and Bresciani told me of a third innovation here: you can actually put in spacers to raise or lower the dispersion screen. Why is this a big deal? Well for those PNW'ers who love their 21g ristretto shots, you can raise the dispersion screen internally to allow for even more coffee!
All this tech was interesting and intriguing; but I still hadn't run my Scace on the machine yet, nor have I pulled a single shot - so that was next, and you can read about some great shots as well as some things that were a bit confusing, all in part two of this article coming in a few days.