I'll start this out by giving a little background. For my birthday in December, my wife purchased a Hearthware iRoast and some green coffee from Sweet Maria's. I'll start this out by giving a little background. For my birthday in 2004, my wife purchased a Hearthware iRoast and some green coffee from Sweet Maria's. Little did she realize the monster she was creating. Back then my coffee consumption largely consisted of grinding some store-bought beans in a cheap burr machine and then brewing them in a vacuum pot. While this yielded palatable (well, I at least thought so at the time, you'll have to forgive my inexperience) results, I had no idea what I was missing. My first batch of roasted coffee was over-done, well past a Vienna roast, yet it still produced coffee far better than any I had ever tasted commercially.
A long story short, I quickly became a regular home roaster, and now roast and consume (with the help of my wife) three to five batches of coffee every week. The problem was, having realized I could make exceptional coffee in a vacuum and press pot, I found the espresso I was making was mediocre. We had a cheap Briel espresso machine that, in retrospect, had far too little basket capacity, far too weak of a boiler, far too weak of a pump, and a whole mess of other deficiencies. It produced mediocre espresso, about what you would expect from an automatic machine at Starbucks operated by somebody that only knows how to push buttons, given better beans to worth with. Knowing a bit more now, I suspect even more at fault than this little Briel was the companion grinder, a $30 piece of static-charged crap that threw grounds all over our kitchen.
Thus began my romance with Coffee Geek, Schomer, alt.coffee, and any other source of information I could soak up out there about espresso. For months I read everything I could and deliberated about the best approach. At first, I was tempted to spare expenses and settle on a mediocre solution, but realized that I would replace it in a few years, and never be satisfied. By reasoning that this would be an end-all solution (and of course I knew deep down inside there are still higher levels to achieve, but I tried to repress these realizations) for the time being, I wanted to do it right so I wouldn't feel pressured to upgrade after a few months, or discontinue use out of disgust. In the end, I think I achieved this goal, as I still pull at least two shots through this machine every single day that I am home.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Some of the buying decisions were rather easy. An Espro tamper, to train me on the proper tamping pressure was a no-brainer. Keeping the bathroom scale in the kitchen would not have gone well in the long run. The Mazzer Mini wasn't perfect, but it was pretty much the only obvious choice in my price range, and I don't really feel like there's a compelling alternative yet in the marketplace (I know this is a point of constant debate). Ah, but then there was the problem of the espresso machine itself. I had a few simple requirements:
Build quality must be excellent.
Service must be available and expert; this thing has to last.
Thermal consistency is paramount.
The espresso produced must be excellent (duh?).
Brew pressure should be consistent and ample.
There were so many options out there, but things generally settled into a few camps:
A dual-temperature machine, with a setting for steaming, and a setting for espresso. I'll be the first to admit I'm more of a straight espresso drinker, but I do occasionally dabble in drinks involving frothed milk, and few guests are willing to drink espresso straight, though they know not what they are missing. Things could be made somewhat better by adding a PID controller, but I didn't feel like modifying a machine (and I couldn't really justify to myself to pay a premium for somebody else to vend me a machine that has this modification built in) ... but there was still this problem of having to deal with two temperatures, switch-flipping, and deciding either the milk or espresso was going to have to take a nose-dive in order to produce the finished product. No, that wasn't going to work, and this option died a quick death.
The next obvious solution was to go for the gusto, and get a dual-boiler machine. At the time, the Expobar Brutus was just coming onto the market, but nobody had really had a chance to play with it. I'll be honest, I almost bought this machine. I'm still not entirely sure why I didn't. Maybe because it's ugly, maybe because nobody had really had a chance to give it a go, maybe because I heard mixed things about the luck of people and their service at Whole Latte Love ... but in the end, something drew me away.
That something, you see, was the romance of the heat exchanger. I am a terribly ritual-oriented person, and somehow reading about the cooling flush, and reading about how to achieve thermal stability in a heat exchanger, and how the E-61 group was designed for this sort of thing, and little thoughts started wedging their way into my head that using a heat exchanger machine was just another way to further elevate the art form of espresso production. As you can see, by this point, I was completely bonkers, as these sorts of ideas make no sense to a rational being. I suppose the other advantage was that, at the time, a good HX machine was probably $300 less than the Brewtus (though the actual difference in price I eventually paid was virtually nil).
I'm getting ahead of myself again, but yes, I did end up deciding on a heat exchanger machine, and the choice thereafter quickly became the Quick Mill Andreja Premium. A few articles lead me to Chris Coffee, and shortly I was reading about the virtues of this machine, and how it was designed and retrofitted with top notch parts, and designed for the professional consumer. Way more machine than I needed, but exactly what I was looking for.
Friends, when the fifty pound box arrived at my doorstep, and it became my task to extract this monolith from its box, I realized I was in over my head. Yet, out of a sense of duty, I mustered on, performed the last little bits of assembly, topped off the water chamber, and powered it on. I followed the boiler-priming instructions involving leaving the pump on for a set amount of time and then allowing the machine to rest, as the boiler was filled. Towards the end things became precarious as the next line in the instructions said that if the pump did not shut off, I had to box the machine up and return it to the seller -- I could no longer live without this machine, and could not bear to send it back after only being powered for 90 seconds ... a strange sense of passion had already taken over me, but by some small miracle the pump shut off and the sound of the boiler bringing things up to temperature became the only noise in the chassis.
The new machine worked! The first few shots were a magical experience, and have ruined me to most commercial espresso on the east coast since; I was producing things that were well beyond a god shot on the old equipment, and these were pretty mundane "getting to know you" pulls.
A few things quickly became apparent in the first few hours:
Adding water to the machine would be a hassle without removing the lid. This rendered the use of the machine as a cup warmer somewhat useless. One day I will purchase the direct connect kit.
The drip tray was very poorly designed, resulting in water splashing everywhere. This has been rectified in more recent models, and was available as a retrofit for a nominal charge.
The pre-set boiler and group pressures were far too high. These I later adjusted using instructions on the Chris Coffee website without little incident, and have been consistent ever since.
After several weeks of usage, some of the more long-term quirks showed up. The handle on the group squeaked every time I moved it. A quick email to Chris Coffee indicated I was flushing the group too much. I found this perplexing, as by that point I'd only flushed with cleaner once in several hundred shots, and flushed with regular water about once a day at most. Still, I tried to resist backflushing, to let the natural coffee oils lubricate the group. Months later, I finally gave up on this, and Chris recommended I use a little food-grade lubricant on the handle instead; I attribute this to being a mild quirk; we'll see in the long term how often this needs to be done.
The far greater irritation has come from the brew pressure gauge, which quickly develops an oscillatory pattern during a shot, rendering it unreadable, and making a terrible rattling sound, which when combined with the vibratory pump sends all of the other residents of my house running in terror. Just recently I've been in touch with Mary at Chris Coffee and she is sending a replacement coil that should resolve this issue; this has been indicative of my consistent positive post-sale support from the seller; I don't feel like I'm on my own with $2000 of equipment and nobody to assist me with the various troubles that develop over time.
Overall though, after over a thousand pulls on the machine, I have been largely happy. Things have stayed consistent, and I've had no additional problems develop beyond those I've outlined. Over time I've come to decide that the chassis itself is not the most attractive thing in the world on the top/sides/back, but the view from the front is quite pleasant. The build quality is quite nice, and the internal components are top-notch and easy to self-service. I get the sense that the quirks (drip tray, squeaking lever, brew gauge oscillations) are being worked out over time, and this machine, following its original purpose (a series of improvements on a good design), is evolving to be a premier example of an HX machine at this price point.