As a coffeegeek I am trying to increase my coffee performance everyday. All coffee lovers know that a perfect espresso requires 5 things:
• High quality beans
• Great-quality water
• The best grinder
• A top-skilled Barista
• The best machine
As with every process the weakest link will at the end determine the quality of the end product. When I evaluated these 5 requirements I saw that my espresso machine (Vibiemme Domobar) was probably the weakest link in the brewing process, which could be fixed.
I invest a great deal of money and time in the quality of the beans. My beans are purchased from high quality suppliers and I invested in a Hottop coffee roaster. This results in a superior link in the process. I really believe that my fresh beans at home are of a much higher quality than in most coffee bars. In my opinion, and I hope I will not insult anybody, most coffee roasters seem to roast their beans (for the espresso blend) too dark, and I am not aware of a private label that produces the same quality beans as those supplied by my raw beans specialist. Furthermore, I roast in batches of 225 grams so fresh coffee beans are always at hand. In many coffee shops the coffee is old and stale, and pre-packed coffee requires vacuum techniques, which degrades the coffee faster. Probably some will not agree with me, and we could probably argue over it for hours, but I am convinced that the coffee beans are definitely not my weakest link.
High-quality water is also not a problem, if you live in the Netherlands. You can easily use tap water and purify it in a water purifier.
A superior grind is another very important element in the process, but fortunately not difficult to achieve. Just buy a decent grinder. There are enough decent grinders in this world and a secondhand grinder is in my opinion accessible for everybody (in the Western world). Of course it is not Mickey Mouse money, but these kinds of investment require some monetary discipline to save enough money to buy those grinders within a certain period.
Then we come to probably my real weakest link and those are my skills. I am studying a lot and practice almost every day, when I am not traveling for my job. But I will never ever have the skills of a professional barista, just from the fact that it is all about practice and not theory. But still I think that in my previous set-up, despite my relative poor barista techniques, I could improve the total process.
Let me first say that I was always very happy with my Vibiemme Domobar and I will still recommend the machine to anybody who is looking for a machine in this price range. It produces very decent coffee for the price level. But after a while I felt the need for an upgrade, especially after we had plans to upgrade the complete kitchen. My main problems with the Vibiemme Domobar were the temperature stability and the intensity and density of the taste compared to professional machines. The Domobar cannot produce a constant temperature. The Domobar requires temperature surfing skills, if you want to produce constantly at a +/- 2% level from 90 degrees. And even if you have all the skills, it is still very complicated to produce at exactly this range. Furthermore I found the intensity of the taste much more subtle in a professional machine than at home, which was a pity after investing so much time in the beans.
So after my wife approved the investment plan, I was looking for the final upgrade in my life. A professional machine was not an option from me. During weekdays I’m not at home, so the machine would be used most of the time just producing 2 espresso’s a day. So I asked Henk Langkemper, at Espresso Service West, for his opinion about a new machine. Henk was adamant, that the only option was the Marzocco GS/3.
Performance of the machine
There has been a lot written about this machine’s performance, but most are from the professional perspective. This review is written from a home-barista perspective. So I will not measuring the actual temperature, the pressure in the filter, etc, but just write down my own experiences mainly related to the total process, the quality of the coffee and the usability. Furthermore, I will not review the aesthetics of the machine. I think the machine looks beautiful, but everybody will have their own opinion and there are enough pictures on the Internet. This review looks at the following main themes:
- The coffee process
- The usability (all the possibilities of the machine)
- The quality in the cup
- The quality of the cappuccino.
The coffee process
The machine is very easy to install. You just put the water in the reservoir and turn on the machine by pushing the on/off-button. The machine is preset by the manufacturer and those settings are fine to start with. My machine (connected to the main water supply and a water purifier) was installed by ESW, who did an excellent job.
One of the major advantages for any home-barista is the fast heat-up time of the GS/3. From the moment you switch on the machine you can read the boiler temperature from the display in the front. So you always know exactly the temperature. When the GS/3 is ready to operate all the lights on the keypad light up.
The machine heats up within 15 minutes, which is much more rapid than a regular E61-machine. The machine has a installed PID (Proportional Integrative Derivative) Controller. A PID Controller uses a feedback loop to control the output of the heating element based on a calculation involving the difference between the actual boiler temperature and the desires boiler temperature. Furthermore the La Marzocco has a so called “saturated” group. The group is integrated with the brew boiler (and thus "saturated" by the water within that boiler) and therefore the group does not cool when idle.
So you don’t need to pre-flush the machine (as I needed to do with my Domobar to ensure the temperature remained constant during the entire process). Furthermore you don’t need to temp surf. This saves me a lot of time and you can produce continuously espresso’s without investing time in getting the right temperature in the boiler and in the rest of the machine. After using this machine for almost 2 months I can tell you it is all about stability. Of course, this was already stated in the professional reviews, but as a home-barista you will be pleasantly surprised to no longer produce a light crema because the temperature was too low or a too dark crema because the machine was too hot.
Maybe I announce too early the major improvement in my weakest link, but this machine is all about stability.
The art of making the espresso
The machine is supplied with two portafilters (a single and a double). For a home barista it is always difficult to switch between a single and a double portafilter, because you need to adjust the grind, and most home-barista just own one grinder or at least use only one regularly.
Then we come to the major drawback of the machine, in my opinion, and that is the ridge in the coffee basket. The ridge in the coffee basket is a well-known problem for users of the Marzocco baskets. The problem is that if you not do overdose (and my definition of overdose is > 18 grams), the tamper will hit the ridge (58 mm which perfectly fits the basket up to the ridge). The effect is that you can’t put enough pressure to the coffee bed, which is essential to create a good pack to resist the pressure from the machine.
At the moment I overdose, so I will not hit the ridge. I know that some people refuse the term overdose for the weight of the coffee, but I have the opinion that you should also be able to make an espresso the Italian style (7 gram per cup). Furthermore there should be a space left between the top of the packed coffee and the bottom of the dispersion screen. This room is needed, because the packed coffee will swell 2-3 millimeters during the extraction process. When you (over)dose to avoid hitting the ridge, there is no room for expansion during the brewing. David Schomer describes a trick to check if you are not overdosing. Just pack the coffee and put the portafilter in the machine. If there is a dent from the dispersion screw in the packed coffee, you know you have overdosed because the required room for expansion is not available. I checked the portafilter from the Marzocco regularly and I found always a sign of the dispersion screw in the packed coffee. Sometimes the coffee is even caked on the dispersion screw, meaning that there is pressure against it.
There is another solution and that is to buy a smaller tamp (for example the Marzocco tamper (57.5 millimeter). But then the tamper is too small fit the basket ideally, which creates a higher change of channeling and thus imperfection.
After I discussed the issue with ESW (the supplier) they provided me some ridgeless baskets (not Marzocco’s because they are not available, see www.coffeekid.com/cafetalk/05-16-2003). I have tried these ridgeless baskets and I have to admit that the La Marzocco basket is giving me a better result than the ridgeless one. Probably the machine needs the ridge to close exactly the space between the coffee pack and the dispenser, but it would be ideal if the ridge would not disturb tamping. I really thought that I would find an imperfection in the baskets. The La Marzocco baskets are considered one of the best and many home-baristas swap the baskets in their own machines with Marzocco baskets. The Dutch Barista Championships and the World Barista Championships use Marzocco machines during the competition and most of them will not change the baskets. Furthermore, thousands of barista’s use the Marzocco baskets everyday. This is a bit of a dilemma for me.
After tamping (and not hitting the ridge) we take the cups just from the top of the machine. The machine produces enough heat to pre-heat the cup, but only after 30 minutes are the cups heated sufficiently. With the Vibiemme the cups needed to be pre-heated because the machine did not produce (or leak) enough heat to warm the cups at the right temperature.
There are two options to run the water through the coffee. One is through the automatic buttons and one is by using the continuous brew-button. The automatic buttons will stop after a pre-set time, which can be easily adjusted, There are five automatic buttons. Two are for brewing espresso (’s) (single/double), two for brewing Lungo’s (single/double) and one to supply hot tea water. One option is to use the automatic buttons and just let the machine do all the work. But as a home-barista this is very tricky, because the grinder needs to be adjusted every time to account for the freshness of the beans, the type of beans, the temperature or the humidity change. A home barista does not continuously produce coffee and so the grinder is probably not adjusted to the optimal level. So the home-barista needs to cheat a little bit now and then by giving it a little more or less time. Off course this may not change with more than 2-3 seconds, but sometimes you need 25 seconds and sometimes you need 30 seconds to produce a good espresso.
Then it is time to push the button. First it starts the pre-infusion-phase. In this phase the machine briefly wets the coffee bed on a low pressure, which allows to swell, redistribute and becomes more adhesive before the full pressure is applied. This is a very essential phase as it will decrease the chance of channeling and therefore improves the consistency. For the two espresso and the two Lungo pre-sets you can set the time period that it will wet the ground and the time the coffee can swell before the pressure hits the coffee bed (the off-time). This will give the user the opportunity to experiment the right infusion time or set it to the standard of the experts. The GS3 will help the user to have a stable performance and gives the barista a chance to play with the machine easily to find the perfect setting to produce the best espresso in the world (in his own opinion).
From the moment you hit a button to start the process, a timer runs on the display. This gives you the exact time that the machine runs, which can be helpful. Of course you can see with your own eyes how the water runs through the coffee, but I think it is worthwhile to be backed up by the facts. Furthermore, this machine will also probably be used in restaurants and bars, so for the beginning barista it is good to know if he is doing the right thing.
This machine is controlled through the pre-settings which you can adjust through the display. Let just start to describe what I dislike. I find the accessibility of all the options of the machine not very user-friendly and counter-intuitive. There is no “menu” button to provide access to all the settings. You need to find the right combination of the buttons to access certain sub-menus. Although this is fairly well described in the “software” guide, I think that a one-button access to all the settings would be more intuitive.
Furthermore, it will not surprise anybody that this machine provides all the options you could possibly want. Through the display you can adjust:
- The coffee and the steaming temperature
- The pre-infusion time (including the interval)
- The automatic brew time for 1 or 2 espresso and 1 or 2 Lungo’s
I really appreciate that the temperature can be set to any level. You just set the temperature through the display at 0.2 degrees Celsius increments.
In the espresso world a lot of people use just one temperature (90 degrees Celsius), but in fact it depends on the roast and bean type. This machine provides the option to change the temperature exactly as you prefer, through the display in 0.2 Celsius degree increments. Neither a screwdriver nor a thermometer is required to set the right temperature.
In addition, the easy way of adjusting the steam temperature provides the option to turn off the steamboiler during the weekdays when I only drink espresso, and in this way I can save on the electricity bill and more importantly on my CO2 emissions.
The easily set pre-infusion time is a big step forward for the real home-barista. By twist and tweak you can set the pre-infusion time you like. There are not many consumer machines on the market which have this option.
There are some complaints on the internet about the fact that the continuous flow cannot make use of pre-infusion, but actually I do not see the point. I never use the continuous flow to brew coffee, but just to flush the machine for cleaning purposes. I guess the continuous flow was not designed to use for coffee. I have set the espresso pre-sets (the Lungo’s I do not use) to such a long interval that I actually use it as a continuous button and stop the process manually.
In addition to the settings on the display, you can manually set the water pump pressure, the expansion valve and the tea water temperature, all by the “adjustment” screws.
In summary the machine provides many options to adjust to the preferred setting for your ideal espresso. These settings are easy accessible, but could be improved if there was a menu button.
Coffee in the cup.
In the end the only thing that counts is the quality in the cup. Of course the gadgets of the machine are a big help for a home-barista, but if the coffee is tasteless it is useless. But my verdict is crystal clear. The quality of my cup improved a lot by using the GS/3 in my process, even with my (relatively poor) barista skills. The first espresso from my GS/3 felt like a taste explosion in the mouth. This is probable due to the combination of the perfect temperature with the perfect pressure and of course the perfect beans. The coffee is very dense which gives your tongue the opportunity to taste all the flavors in the coffee. It is a real pleasure every day. I’ve discovered flavors in my favorite espresso blend, which I’ve been using for five years and never tasted before. As earlier said I was very happy with my Domobar, but this machine brought my espresso to another level. My wife, very skeptical about yet another upgrade, acknowledges that this machine produces more taste than the Domobar.
Furthermore, the machine has a very stable performance. This is due to the integrated PID and the saturated group, which produces extremely consistent water temperature. This machine makes it possible to produce by definition a perfect espresso after the grinder is adjusted for temperature and humidity. The crema looks beautiful and almost by definition you get the much-desired tiger prints in the cup.
Last but not least the machine is very forgiving, which is extremely important for a home-barista producing only 2 espresso’s per day, as they are not trained like a professional barista and the settings of one day the day may not be entirely suited to the conditions of next,. Of course I would not recommend this tool to people who are not dedicated to produce the best espresso’s, because without skills and dedication you will not produce “high quality” espresso. But the performance again is very stable even if you over- or under-dose, over- or underpack or the grinder had not the ideal setting. Again you come back on the one word that described this machines at best and that is “stability”.
The GS/3 really improved the quality of my espresso. The coffee machine is no longer my weakest link. The weakest link is me and my barista skills, and even these are well-hidden by the machine. Due to the excellent coffee produced by the GS/3 I am very motivated to train and work on my skills. I even reread my old study books and bought some new ones. But unfortunately my profession is in Finance and so I do not have the opportunity to continuously produce espresso’s during the day. In the weekend I am producing at 10 – 20 espresso’s per day, but then I come to the point where my body can no longer absorb more caffeine, although my brain still asks for more.
The quality of the cappuccino
What probably surprise the people who are already studied the machine is that I did not mention the dual boiler system. I have to admit that I am more of an espresso lover than a Latte fan, so I was not really interested in a dual boiler system. But since I have the GS/3 I have been converted. I have to admit that my house guests (not coffeegeeks) acknowledge my improved cappuccino skills rather than my espresso skills. If you have a little barista skills (and especially in the field of Latte I was not a Champion…) this machine will provide the required steam to produce beautifully textured milk. It is a pleasure if somebody orders a cappuccino, where in the old days I groaned if somebody asked for a cappuccino. I now even drink cappuccino’s during the weekend, because it is a pleasure to make and I starting to like the taste due to the perfect creamy milk produced by this machine. In first instance the steam from the machine was a little bit too wet, but I was still able to improve my cappuccino's significantly. The reason that the steam was a little bit wet was probably caused by the coolness of the steam wand. Although this was very nice from a safety perspective and you could move the steam wand easily before and after the steaming. La Marzocco initiated a modification after they received more complaints about the quality of the steam. My supplier (ESW) modified my machine without any charges and it produces now a beautiful dry steam and after 6 months I could even further improve my cappuccino's, although the steam wand does not stay cool anymore.
Again this machine is very stable. The steam will not cool down during the steaming process, which was the case with my Domobar, and again you can preset the machine to you preferred setting. You can adjust the pressure of the steam boiler (manually by adjusting a screw) and the steam boiler temperature (through the display) to find the perfect setting.
In one phrase I love this machine. I will recommend this machine to every home-barista. Of course it is a big investment, but when you compare it to the costs of other hobbies such as motor biking, audio hiking, football, golf, yachting and last but not least cooking, the cost is favorable. Most home-baristas spend more time on their coffee affection than on other things, but still are very reluctant to pay more than € 1,000, but when they are buying a car they will spend it on a foolish accessory.
This machine will give you everything you always wanted, but never dared to ask, from your machine. No more temp surfing. She just produces for you the perfect espresso by hitting one button, if you give her the high quality coffee, the perfect grind, the required dose and of course the required pressure. But she will forgive you, if you do not fully satisfy her needs and still gives all her best to produce an excellent espresso. You can give her very strict orders (in temperature, pre-infusion, pressure, etc) and she will follow up exact as you ordered. She is very consistent in her production and gives you all the stability required for the perfect espresso. And last but not least she provides you tastes in the cups, you never experienced. She will make your coffee affection even more enjoyable.
Special thanks to Jonathan Browne who reviewed this article and improved it a lot by his suggestions.
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