This machine is non-plumbed version of the Junior. The reason I initially chose this model over the plumbed in version was that I don’t normally make more than 4-5 coffees a day and so that I could (easily?) move it around if I needed to – like outside next to the BBQ. However, in 15 months of owning the machine I have only moved it twice and have now plumbed it in although it is relatively easy to convert back to non-plumbed if I wish to move it (details below).
Being of Italian extraction I drank Moka pot coffee for about 40 years but my hands-on experience with espresso machines goes back about 8 years to a reconditioned Cimbali Domus (purchased from the same store I purchased this Junior). With the Domus having a 1989 manufacture date, and yours truly having a major birthday coming up I decided it was time to upgrade to something a bit newer and more serious. While owning the Domus I made 4-5 double shots most days, and the only thing it needed in that time was regular cleaning and one new group head (GH) gasket. Apart from the noisy pump and the useless cup warmer, a major limitation with the Domus, and I guess for all small machines, is the boiler simply can’t keep up with making more than a couple of cups in a row, which can be annoying when entertaining more than just a few friends. The other factor that steered me towards a commercial grade machine was going to friends and relations homes and seeing their low end and mid range machines often out of action either because they were still waiting for a part to come in or their machines needed yet another service.
With the assistance of a serious coffee-geek (GRB) from work we tried out the Junior at the store (see buying experience section). When I went back to pick up the machine a few days later I did not even bother repacking it in its box. I just put it on the floor in back of my van and drove home - there was no way this machine was going to tip over – that also meant I could let the store get rid of the box and the packing material.
The first thing I did when I got Junior home was take a careful look all over and inside the machine. The first thing I noticed is the inside looks like the outside – seriously solid and built to last. However, I did find one flaw - the chrome inside on one the portafilters (PF) had a 3 mm wide pit which was replaced without question by the store.
When I first started the machine up, I filled it up with water, let it come up to temperature and then let water and steam flush through all outlets until the water tank sensor stopped the machine. I ran the water from the GH and water outlet and steam from the wand into clear containers and noted a clear very pale yellow colour and a few flakes of metal (they sink real quick) come through from the hot water outlet – the water from the GH appeared to have a few coffee grounds. I guess this says something about the factory and the store since they didn’t bother to do this before they let me try it out – not that I tasted anything when I did. I then continually refilled the tank and flushed through until the water was visibly clear from all outlets – it took about 2 more tanks full of water until I was satisfied.
As I am a scientist I cannot resist tinkering with any machine and much to my wife’s irritation I have cluttered up our kitchen by constantly taking Junior apart and attaching various temperature and electrical sensors and computers to it. Although I should know what I am doing I would be less likely to do this on a more flimsy machine. Of course this kind of behavior is not for a regular consumers but the solid build of the Junior means it is well suited to having this sort of thing done to it. One of the most productive things I think I have established by this tinkering was the energy use and warn up pattern of this machine. It takes about an hour to warm up this machine in winter and slightly less in summer. An electrical timer turning the machine on and off twice a day reduces green house gases and pays for the timer in about 6 months. After that you are saving money. I use a timer that turns it on between 5:30 am and 8:30 am, and again between 5:30 pm and 9:30 pm on weekdays and lets it run all day and evenings on the weekends. If you are not going to use the machine for the next 3 hours it is defintely worth turning off. The money you save on electricity using these techniques can contribute substantially to your next machine.
Grinder and Dialing-in
At the same time I purchased the Junior I also purchased a Mazzer Mini (from an on-line store) but the Mini took a week to arrive and during this time I had to revert to my well-used Saeco grinder. Using the grinder setting I normally used for my Saeco/Domus combination, the Junior pump simply drove the water through this grind way too quickly. I ended up getting a reasonable flow and shot with the grinder set barely above the minimum setting. I found the taste of this coffee very similar to the Domus – but of course done with minimum fuss and bother.
I have to say at that point I was slightly disappointed, but, eight days later the Mazzer arrived (and as everyone else has already said) I found out that only using a quality grinder was I really able to really put Junior through its paces. It took GRB and myself an evening to get close to something decent (grind setting, tamp combination) and then a few weeks later before I felt really “dialed in”. The Junior/Mazzer combination seems to provide excellent control of factors like, time to first extract and shot extraction time. It takes some getting used to but after a month of so almost everything you do is reproducible which is especially important since if you decide you want to go back to where you were a few moves ago, one can do it. It’s like using a precision power tool that you can trust to do the right thing if you do the right thing to begin with. This is not to say that it doesn’t take some familiarization but once it clicks it seems to be like learning to riding a bike.
My shot routine is pretty standard.
1) Dump a double+ worth of beans into the Mini and press start.
2) Remove pre-warmed PF and wipe out with dry cloth
3) Flush GH for about 10 seconds (or one minute if it’s the first coffee for a while)
4) Dose coffee, rattle PF gently on PF fork and overfill from Mini
5) Wipe off excess coffee from PF into Mini doser and Tamp.
6) Lock PF and place cup on right hand side of drip tray
7) Pull shot and discard first second or so before sliding cup under PF
8) Marvel at the wondorous crema oozing from the crotchless PF
9) Stop machine, unlock PF and dump puck
10) Flush GH for 10 seconds or so
11) Wipe out PF and lock back onto GH. If not making more coffees I usually rinse PF before locking back onto GH
12) Study crema collapse and take the time to smell and taste
13) Clean up Mini with small paint brush
14) Wipe bench and machine of splashes and coffee grounds
The one thing I still can’t quite control as much as I’d really like to is the tamping which is not really a machine problem. Pre-Junior I thought using a decent tamper was something for the uber-coffee-geek but a machine like a Junior makes you realize the significance of a good tamper and getting the whole tamping process right. Since getting a decent tamper and getting the bathroom scales out a few times this aspect has been significantly easier. The most significant thing that has helped me improve my tamping technique has been using a naked PF.
One thing I looked forward to about purchasing a machine like the Junior was to test out ones ability as a barista and explore the fine subtleties of changing the coffee making procedure and using different beans. I admit I am still not all that consistent in the quality of the coffee I make, particularly first thing in the morning. I have to admit I am also still a long way from really exploring different beans but al least I know I have a really good tool to do this – hopefully sooner rather than later.
Another thing that has impressed me about the Junior is its ability to produce a reasonable coffee from what are otherwise ordinary beans. Depending on how much coffee I’ve had during the day I’ll sometimes resort to a decaf in the evening. The decaf beans we have been using are freshly roasted from a very reputable roaster and I am very happy with the quality of the coffee produced by the machine with these beans. I do find changing the grind setting between decaf and regular beans a bit irritating especially as I can’t always remember which beans I ground previously.
Finally when it comes time to parties or gatherings with 20+ people the Junior comes into its own and you can just keep churning out coffees as fast as you can make them. I have made 50+ coffees in an evening and although it was sort of fun I was glad I don’t work as a full time barista.
Cleaning and Maintenance:
Cleaning is relatively simple and I’m finding under normal use and decent flushing between shots, a weekly clean (shower screen removal/clean, group head scrub and backwash) suffices. I have a spare shower screen and fit a pre cleaned unit every time. I then gently boil the dirty shower screen in a strong solution of water and dishwashing powder which dissolves the gunk off quite easily in about 15 minutes. Then I rinse several times and boil in filtered water twice.
Every 3 months I have removed the big chrome PF clamp and given the GH a really thorough clean and check the gasket. This is reasonably easy – remove 3 bolts and it drops down providing ready access to all.
I have de-scaled the boiler twice in 12 months using the standard citric acid technique but after monitoring the input water for several weeks on sevral occassions using a total dissolved solids meter and not detecting much in the water I will probably now only de-scale once a year.
The drip/waste tray is smallish and depending how much you flush between shots needs to be emptied about every 6 – 8 shots. The tray also needs to be tipped onto a slight angle it to remove it. This means that if the tray is full to the brim you end up having to partially empty it using a bailing technique, otherwise you end up tipping water over the electrical connections box! This problem has been alleviated by plumbing in the machine (see below).
The design of the machine is such that water flushing from a PF-less GH is not all captured by the waste tray and some water splashes out onto the bench top. To minimize this problem I sometimes flush into a 250 ml plastic tub, which I tip into the drip tray although is not a really attractive thing to leave behind on the machine.
Another slightly annoying thing about the standard Junior steam wand is that it can’t be tucked right out of the way eg right to the back of the waste tray. However, by changing the tip to the smaller M15/20/20 wand tip, a much better tuck position can be obtained. The smaller tip leaves about ½ in of the wand thread exposed and a ½ in metal collar is needed to cover the exposed thread otherwise cleaning the milk off the thread can be a problem. Apart from this, the steam wand and general steam generating capability is great.
About 12 months ago I decide to have a go a plumbing in. The waste was relatively easy although the length and quality of the plastic nipple or tube fitting provided on the bottom of the black plastic base of the drip tray is not all that inspiring and my guess is that it will probably snap off eventually. To reduce the possibility of this fitting snapping off I did not drill the hole in the bottom of the drip tray to full width, which means it might block up more easily, but so far, so good.
I used a 18 in long piece of 5/8 inch diameter flexible clear PVC hose to connect the drip tray to ½ in diameter black polyethylene garden irrigation hose and fittings, which I ran through a hole in the bench top and then through 2 cupboards direct into the dishwasher/sink p-trap connection. The flexible PVC forms a loop under the machine and means I can easily remove the drip tray for cleaning if I wish. Cleaning the drip tray of scum and excess grounds is done when I flush the boiler once or so each week. I remove the drip tray cover, squirt some dishwashing liquid into the the drip tray and then flush the boiler. When the drip tray is full I use a dishwashing brush to scrub the inside of the tray and all is flushed away as the water drains. I then rinse a few times with fresh water. Having a clear PVC hose once can easily see if the rinse is flushing everything away properly.
[Edit: 21 Dec 2005 following advice from Ken Fox I changed the drainage system. Firstly I disconnecting the drain hose that was connected direct to the drip tray spiggot and added a small drainage chamber/box inside the machine and connected that directly to the drain hose. The drip tray now discharges direct into the drainage chamber and the drip tray can now easily be completely removed from the machine and thoroughly cleaned in a sink. - Thanks Ken]
The input or water feed comes from a standard sub-micron water filter via a standard blue ¼ inch polypropylene pipe through a pressure reducing valve set to about 8 psi and then feeds up inside the back of the machine. The polypropylene pipe slides with a neat push fit directly inside the silicone rubber tube that normally attaches to the water softener cartridge inside the tank. The tank sits in the machine empty and you need to short circuit the tank level sensor wire direct to the tank housing otherwise the machine will not function. I have also experimented with filling the tank with water and passing the incoming water through a copper pipe heat exchanger sitting inside the tank as sort of water pre-heater but it does not add more than about 10 oC to the temperature of the incoming water.
Although scale is not a big issue in our area, to minimize boiler scale build up I flush the boiler at least once a week. I would only recommend plumbing in using this method if scale is not a problem otherwise you should think about using a more serious filter. I can also revert the machine to tank use in about 30 seconds and back to fully original no plumbed in about 2 minutes. Reverting the machine back to tank use is useful for descaling purposes.
To summarise I guess one could ask, would I buy one again? While there are some very nice machines out there for about 2/3rd s of the price I don’t have any experience with the longevity of these types of machines. Certainly I have had absolutely no trouble with Junior and although it took some time to get used to it I can now make great coffee with it, and being a tinkerer it more than satisfies my urges in this area.