Iíve enjoyed espresso for some time, and wanted to try getting into the hobby of making it. I wanted to get an entry level set up that would allow me to see if it was something I would like, but still something high enough quality that would hold me for a while even if I did want to upgrade. I started my research and found that a single boiler/dual purpose semi-automatic machine offered what I was looking for. I didnít really have a budget, but wanted to buy a decent machine without falling into a diminishment of returns. The machines in the $400-$500 range offered the most bang for the buck. I saw an Ascaso Dream at Starbucks that was on ďcloseoutĒ for $450 (at one location only, other Starbucks wanted full MSRP) that I knew I could get for $315(family member is an employee). Itís a less popular machine than some, so the reviews and forums were a little scarce, but didnít seem like a bad machine. It looked like a step above other machines in the $300 range, and had some nicer materials that compared to the original $400-$500 machines that I was looking at. Iím probably one of the few who has bought a Dream based on price, but at $315 it really did seem like a good deal.
I purchased the Versatile ďSpecial EditionĒ Dream which is capable of both grinds and POD espresso; they also have both a grind and POD only models. To be honest with you, I couldnít tell you what made this edition so special; cleaver marketing I guess. It should also be known that I mated this machine with a Baratza Virtuoso that I purchased at the same time. Feel free to read that review from 10-27-2007.
Out of the box, it came with a lot of stuff. There was a standard portafilter(PF), pod PF, two PF handles, double basket, single basket, single/double pressurized basket, dosing scoop, tamper, manual, coffee cleaning chemical, and a shiny polished aluminum espresso machine. The standard PF is made of chromed brass that feels nice and heavy and retains the heat well. All three baskets fit the standard PF. The pod PF is also made of chromed brass but less mass than the standard PF, yet it takes less time to prepare so thereís less time for it to lose heat. I have to admit Iíve used the pod PF a couple of times just to see if itís as bad as people say; what it lacks in quality of espresso, it makes up for in convenience and cleanliness. I didnít spit it out, but I canít say the taste would be anything Iíd seek out. To tell you the truth, Iíve paid for worse shots. If you use a lot of milk and flavoring and I doubt youíll notice. The PF handles are non descript, just a black plastic handle, but it does feel good in my hand. All three filter baskets are 57mm. It wasnít a problem exactly, but 57mm tamper choices and availability arenít as readily available as 58mm. If they went as large as 57mm, why not just make it the standard 58mm? I have only used the double filter basket. Not much to say about it; itís a double sized filter basket that fits in the PF. From what Iíve read, singles are tricky to make work, and I usually drink double drinks (typically caps) so I havenít been that curious. I tried the pressurized basket, but it just made a mess (I think I tamped too hard). From what I understand the pressurized PF is supposed to add ďcremaĒ to compensate for stale coffee or improper technique or grinding. I suppose producing faux ďcremaĒ might add some texture to a shot, but if your using stale beans in the first place that requires a pressurized PF to get the ďcremaĒ, the stale beans probably cancel out any texture. My guess is you get a pod quality shot but with all the mess and time taken to load and empty the basket. What I can say is that when Iíve used fresh roasted beans, real crema has never been an issue. Even when my technique was WAY off, I still got crema with good beans. The dosing scoop is made of a cheap brown plastic. Its purpose is to fill the baskets; it didnít take me long to realized it was useless. The scoop is too small in volume and the shape makes each scoop precarious to fill the basket. The tamper included is made of the same cheap brown plastic. Its wafer thin base made it too difficult to tamp evenly. There isnít a solid way to hold on to the handle making any even tamps I had pure luck. I gave it a fair shot for a week then anxiously waited for my new tamper to arrive (57mm rubber handle Bumper Tamp). The manual is about the only thing in the box thatís cheaper than the scoop and tamper. The directions are poorly laid out making it confusing; ie) talking about all filters at once. It doesnít really tell you how to make espresso either. One example is ďtamping of the coffee should be varied to our recommendations.Ē The only advice it gives on tamping is ďfirmly tampedĒ. The rest of the manual is about the same. I got what the basic switches do and went from there.
So, to the actual machine. There are three main switches on the front of the machine. One for power, one for brew, and one to activate the boiler to steaming temp. Each switch is aligned with an amber indicator light. My favorite part of this machine is the switches. They are nice industrial feeling toggle switches that really do go ďclickĒ and ďclackĒ. Right next to the switches is a tempurature gauge. Itís on a macro scale that really doesnít tell you the temp. I use it solely for a rough idea of the temp, but itís really nothing more than eye candy. The top of the machine is a cup warmer with small gauge rod formed as a fence to keep the cups from falling off. Itís pretty useless as a cup warmer. It takes a long time for warmer to come up to temp (30min to 60 min) and even at that it doesnít really get the cups warm. I generally ďbrewĒ hot water into the cup Iíll be using in order to get it to temp. It does however work as a great holding station for shot glasses, cups and my tamper. On the right side of the machine are two things. First is a transparent plastic water tank (roughly 1qt in volume). A little cumbersome to remove completely, but I use bottled water; I pull the tank out about half way and then just poor the bottle in. The great part of the tank is that itís transparent so you can see when you need to add water. Iíve seen other machines where this isnít the case. The second item on the side is a knob to control a valve for steaming milk. It actually feels kind of chinsy; why put great toggle switches on the front and then add a poor feeling plastic knob on the side? But, none the less it does the job. Having the ability to control the steam really is a nice option; full open throttle is too aggressive, especially when Iím using my 10oz pitcher. The steam wand has a froth aid device. Iíve surfed the ďfroth holeĒ, and have gotten pretty good result. I can get micro-foamy result, but not the ultra decadent velvety foam that I get from quality local cafťs. Iíve gotten some meh results for latte art. A lot has to do that these are my first attempts at latte art, but I do feel the frothed milk is capable. Just the right amount of tapping the milk on the counter and swirling the pitcher makes the milk and foam a good texture. I have gotten fair results in a 20oz pitcher, but I primarily use a 10oz pitcher. The steam wand has a second purpose as a hot water dispenser; itís great for americanos. My main complaint of the wand is its length. It works great in the 10oz pitcher, but itís hard to sink the wand at 100deg. when it only goes down so low in my 20oz pitcher. In the larger pitcher I tilt it to be able to ďsinkĒ the wand. My secondary complaint is the plastic tab that attaches to the wand for swiveling the wand without getting burnt. It stretched out in the first week and constantly pops of the wand. I usually have a towel on hand, so Iíve been using that instead. The last feature of the machine is the drip tray. This had been one of the more frustrating components. The problems are 4 fold. The actual surface area of the grate and tray is too small. Iím constantly having liquid splash or spill outside of the grate area, or even worse, just barely hit the edge of the grate and run below the tray into the base of the machine. The second problem is the volume of the tray; a couple flushings and itís full. The 3rd and 4th problems are getting the grate and tray out. I have to pry the grate out with a knife because thereís no where to grab onto. The tray has two holes to lift it out with your fingers, but the holes are so small, itís precarious at best to get out, almost always spilling the coffee on the machine, counter, and kitchen floor. I use a ramekin for flushing and heating the PF as not to fill the drip tray. A feature I feel is missing from this machine is no pressure release or 3 way valve. It makes for a soupy topped puck and a mess when the PF is unlocked after pulling a shot; the pressure is released running hot water over the sides of the PF. This mess is compounded by the ridiculous drip tray that isnít big enough to catch all of the splatter. Based on the level of this machine, there are other choices that come with a 3 way valve. My final complaint with this machine is the clearance between the drip tray and PF spouts. There is enough room for shot glasses and demitasse cups, but even my 6oz cappachino cups I have to snake under the spouts to collects the goods. 8oz and bigger, you canít pull right into the cups.
In brewing the espresso, Iíve gotten pretty good results (that is, once I figured out what I was doing.) My feeling is the quality of my espresso is limited by my grinder (Baratza Virtuoso) and not this machine. There is no real mystery to an espresso machine, it only has two functions in making espresso; it uses pressurized water that is heated and held to a specific temp. If a machine can do that, it can make good espresso. The Dream has all of the key components to make good espresso. The brass boiler is 225ml which works out be a little under 7oz; big enough to pull a couple of shots, but not so big it takes too long to heat and recover. For me, it takes at least a minute to dose and tamp which seems to be enough for it to recover. It also heats to steaming temp in about a minute. The heavy brass group and portafiler are also key in heat stability and retention. It has a 16bar pump thatís most likely restricted at 9 bar, but a more powerful pump will probably have a longevity over a 10 bar pump thatís always pumping as hard as it can. I donít find myself needing to really temp surf it too much, but I do have a couple of tricks that I use. After I dose and tamp, I can do a quick 2 or 3 sec flush then lock in the PF and pull the shot which turns out ok, but if I turn the steam switch on (which starts the boiler) for ~15sec(basically while Iím tamping), then do a quick flush, I get better shots. Either the thermostat isnít calibrated properly or overheating it that little bit compensates for any thermal loss from the boiler to the group and the thermal loss to the grinds. Being a dual purpose boiler, I steam my milk first which gets the boiler too hot for brewing. After steaming, I run approx. 6-8oz into my ramekin to flush out the hot water in the boiler. I then run another 6-10oz through and fill my cup(s) which preheats the cups that the ďwarmerĒ wonít do, but it also runs fresh water through the boiler to help cool it down. By the time Iíve ground and tamped, Iím ready to go.
Even with all of its problems, itís still a decent machine. All metal exterior and solid brass parts make it feel and work well. Like I said, it will make good espresso, but with a price tag of $850, itís way out of its league. At the $315 that I paid, there isnít anything I can be upset about. Iím not really sure what you can buy it for though. Most online retailers that Iíve seen want in the $700 range. Some retailers want as low as $649 and one even wanting $999; YIKES!!! I have seen it on EBAY for $450ish which seems more reasonable, but I donít know the details. Even at $450, there are some solid choices like the Sylvia and Gaggia classic which I might suggest over the Dream because of their popularity; that is, there are more people to give you advice on making them work to their full potential. But what the Dream has that others donít, is a machine that doesnít look like an industrial metal cube sitting on your counter. It is a good looking machine without a single harsh edge on it. It even comes in a variety of colors to suit your taste. I have it in polished aluminum which looks very striking with my black appliances, black countertop and maple cabinets. So if the form is as important as the function (to me it is), this just may be the machine for you, even at the high price tag.