Using a Solis SL-70 machine is fairly straightforward and fairly intuitive. This doesn't preclude reading the manual though. You need to do so to know how to initially prime the machine and how to first set it up. It also gives tips on how to clean the machine, including instructions on how to clean the grouphead and intensive cleaning of the boiler. If you would like to see the SL-70 product manual, you can download it here (SL-70 Manual, English), in PDF format (436kb)
Operating the Solis SL-70
The SL-70 is a semi-automatic machine; meaning that it automatically controls the temperature and pressures in the boiler for steaming and brewing, but you manually brew the shot by activating a brew switch, or you put it into steaming mode by turning on the steam switch, and using the steaming knob. The machine is very mechanically based, but does have a few "electronic" tricks up its sleeve.
The SL-70 takes under 2 minutes to heat up to a "ready" state, but isn't really ready yet. It has a fair amount of brass and metal that needs to be heated up - and the initial two minutes simply won't do it. Commercial machines with all their metal take 30 minutes or longer to heat up. The SL-70 needs at least 15 minutes or more to do the same.
You can cheat the SL-70 up to proper overall brewing temperatures by running a fair amount of brewing water through the grouphead and steam wand (maybe 8 or 10 ounces' worth) right after the machine gets up to temperature.
Once you get the machine up to temperatures, you will notice two things about the pump. It's very quiet (a plus) and also very slow (a semi-minus). When I wrote the Elektra Nivola review, I really harped on a slow pump rate in that machine, and while the SL-70 isn't nearly as slow as the Nivola, it is nevertheless below average. This has some negatives, and a possible plus. In the negative department, the shot can take longer to produce because the espresso flow can start later than other machines. Water "hangs out" with the grounds longer, which could lead to more bitterness in longer shots. Sometimes visually good looking ristrettos would take as long as 34 seconds or longer for a 1 ounce shot, and there would be that slight bitter tang from coffee that's been exposed slightly too long to brewing water.
I think I've made it clear that I do not like "gimmick" filters or portafilters on espresso machines. Sure, they make the machine easier to use and produce visually good looking results for the espresso newbie, but it is in my opinion (and extensive testing) that pressurized filters and portafilters degrade the possible quality of a shot. If you have all the right things - a good coffee, a fresh roast, a perfect grind, a properly heated machine and super attention to detail, that "9" espresso shot will come out a "7.5" thanks to the pressurized filter's "help".
These filters work by creating a two level path for the brewed coffee. Inside the basket there is a false bottom that has a large amount of filter holds. Below this false bottom sites the true bottom of the filter, and a single (or 2 or 3) pinholes where the beverage is forced through, like a jet, to the bottom of the portafilter and out the spouts. This jet action foams up (and to a lesser extent, emulsifies) the coffee beverage.
Visually it works great. Even old coffee, ground several weeks before, can produce a crema laden shot. Freshly ground coffee produces even more crema. But it's a false indicator, and I believe the very jet action reduces the taste quality of the shot.
The SL-70 ships with two of these pressurized filters - a double and a single. In addition, it ships with a pod-capable third filter. I will cover pods below.
Baratza, at my suggestion a few years ago, sourced out and found replacement filter baskets for the SL series machines. They sell these as "aftermarket" solutions, and that is what they are - a solution. The shot quality difference between the pressurized baskets and the non pressurized aftermarket baskets is notable, even by espresso neophytes. These are a highly recommended purchase, and I hope one day either Solis or Baratza just tosses these in the box when shipping, they are that necessary for shot improvements in the machine.
While the portafilter is a hefty weight and is made of chromed brass, it screams "toy machine" when looking at it. Where other machines in the $300 and $400 range feature quasi commercial 57mm and 58mm portafilters complete with internal springs to hold the baskets in place, the SL-70's portafilter is a 53mm model that uses a flip latch to "hold" the filter basket in place when you knock out the spent grounds. While using this machine for a month and a half, I came to really dislike that flip latch. Not only does the design make the filter basket easy to knock out, but you cannot place the portafilter level on a counter to properly tamp the basket. I had to put it near the edge of the counter, to let the latch hang below. If Solis ever desides to retool the SL series, giving it a 58mm grouphead/portafilter with larger baskets would be the obvious choice.
Day to Day Use
In the simplest terms, this machine was a joy to use overall. I liked the fast heat up times, the good temperatures provided by the large boiler were especially good for the "tea lovers" in the house because you could get up to 175ml of water that was above 85C in the cup. That's a bit below boiling, but not much. For my personal hot water fave - americanos, I could build the entire drink from start to finish in under 50 seconds.
The reservoir is big enough that it only needs filling every few days (and possibly even longer if you don't go through as much brew water as I do). It is a bit ackward to fill in place because it is narrow front to back. Removing it easy, and sink filling is not a problem.
Since this machine does not have a pressure release system of any sort (like a 3 way solenoid valve), you cannot remove the portafilter right after brewing a shot, unless you want to risk spraying hot grounds all over the place. One thing I did note is that with the pressurized baskets, this risk is minimized somewhat. The design of the pressurized baskets seems to leech off the built up pressure a bit more than the non-pressurized baskets. How, I cannot figure out, but my empirical testing showed this to be the case. With the pod filter basket, there is no concern - you can remove the portafilter right away.
| Drip tray in low position. Click to enlarge. |
| Drip tray in high position. Click to enlarge. |
The drip tray is what I'd call "normal" sized. Not too shallow, but not especially deep either. It has a dual height grill, made of plastic. Removing the tray is easy for the occasional dumping of the waste water.
The cup warming area above the machine gets fairly warm, and holds a good amount of cups. They are marginally hot enough for proper espresso making, but I tend to pour a bit of hot water (from the steam wand) into the cup just to heat it up more.
Speaking of the hot water delivery - it isn't completely intuitive for the first time user. There is no hot water switch; instead, you turn on the brew switch and open the steam knob - water will go to the steam wand instead of the grouphead. Shut down the steam knob (with the brew switch still on), and water is then directed to the grouphead.
I cover steaming quite a bit on the Performance section of this review (see the bottom for the link), so I'll only mention it briefly here - it's a very competent steaming machine, though you do need to bleed off a fair amount of boiler water first before getting the dry stuff.
The machine has a built in tamper. Useful if you're the non tamping type or rely exclusively on the pressurized filter baskets, but I stopped using it after my initial tries - the amount of force I would have to apply upwards on the portafilter was enough to make the machine lift up and move around.
The SL-70 as a Pod Machine
Solis ships the machine with a pod-capable filter basket. This system is not ESE (Easy Serving Espresso) certified, mainly because most ESE machines need a purpose-built grouphead to match up with a purpose-built filter basket system. The SL-70 has the basket, but the grouphead is meant for grounds.
Still, the grouphead is also designed for a 53mm filter, which brings it close to the size of pods. As a result, pod production on the machine is what I'd label as "good". It isn't as good as a pod-adapted Nuova Simonelli Oscar, or the Elektra Nivola, but it's too close for my tastebuds to really distinguish (all pods be bad to me). I had a couple of testers who like pod espresso try the three machines out, and the SL-70 was a close third to these other two ESE certified machines.
This does add versatility to the machine, and I can see it as a benefit to some potential buyers - pods are definitely convenient. But if you want the best espresso you can have, stick to fresh ground.
Maintenance of the Solis SL-70
This machine is pretty straightforward in terms of maintenance. When brewing a shot, the lack of a 3 way solenoid means the grouphead doesn't get as dirty and grimy as a machine that does feature a pressure relief system. However, if you remove the portafilter too early, you negate this because grounds will spray, up into the gasket and elsewhere. My shot to shot maintenance consisted of pulling the shot, and waiting a minute or so before removing the portafilter. I'd dump the spent grounds in a knockbox (and half the time knock the filter basket out into the goop of old grinds - grrr). I'd give the portafilter and filter a good rinse in the sink. Then I'd put a pressurized basket in to the PF, and put it loosely back in the grouphead. I run the brew switch, swishing and jiggling the portafilter. I use the pressurized baskets for this because they will flood up, holding water at normal air pressure, and will rinse out the grouphead completely, along with the gaskets. This only takes a few seconds.
I then remove the pressurized filter and put the non pressurized one back in the PF, and lock it back into the machine. Remember, a portafilter should always be in the machine, and heated up to produce a good espresso.
When steaming, a quick wipe of the wand with a clean washcloth right after steaming removes all traces of milk. A quick blast of the steam after cleaning the wand, and I turn the steaming switch off.
The machine does not auto-prime itself after steaming, so you have to remember to run the brew switch (with the steam knob open) after you turn the steaming switch off. This will replenish the boiler. While the lack of auto-priming is common in lower end machines, I still miss this ability to just completely forget about the boiler's ready state.
Once a week I did a good grouphead cleaning. Removing the dispersion screen is easy thanks to the central screw, and a good wipe down with a stiff brush and minimal soap will get the area sparkly. Make sure you rinse thoroughly - soap kills coffee.
My secret weapon when cleaning filter baskets is boiling water and Oxyclean. It completely eats away at coffee grime, even the stuff trapped in tiny filter holes. A good 20 minute soak does the trick. Keep Oxyclean away from chrome and brass, and aluminum, but for steel, it works wonders.
Though I didn't have to do it myself, Solis recommends a good decalcifying of the machine every 4 to 6 months, and has detailed step by step instructions in the manual, along with pictures, on how to do it. Follow the instructions well (although you don't have to use their product, Solipol - you can use any coffee machine decalcifying cleanser), and your machine will hum. Don't use the old standby of vinegar - it will ruin the machine.