I have been acquainted with Breville through using their juicers and blenders for quite awhile. I always felt like their products looked better on the outside than most of the competition; however, upon assessing each design in terms of its actual functioning, I always feel like weaknesses are rather easy to discover. The juicers rip through some fruit, e.g. stone fruits like plums, too quickly to extract the full amount of juice possible. They should have put an option to rotate the motor at even lower rpm's. The blenders have blades that can seperate over time because they are not constructed in one piece. They should have gone for one piece.
Now, for the 800ESXL espresso machine. Once again, beautiful. Breville must own stock in die-cast stainless steel because almost everything they make has this same impressive housing. Fair enough, can't complain about that. However, once we go below the surface, it's hard to remain all that impressed.
I tested this machine through the help of a professional barista who works across the street from me. He makes wicked espresso so it has been a privilage to have his help. I also rallied the taste buds of my roommates and some other friends. We tried five different beans: two from San Francisco's Blue Bottle Coffee, a couple Trader Joe's beans, and another one from North Point Roasters purchased at Whole Foods. The grinder we used was the Capresso Infinity, tested on the two finest settings of the grinder for each bean. My barista friend was initially impressed with the ability of the machine to pull shots that dripped slowly and did not just gush through the machine. As he put it, "I've seen a lot worse, and this is much better than other machines I've seen in the price range." However, the crema was by and large pale, and not very thick. Occassionally you get a swirl of some other color of brown, perhaps some streak of real crema that managed to sneak past the pressurized filter basket in its unadulterated form. Taste: it's ok. I could drink it, and I drank it often. My friends said it was a bit watery, even on the settings of the Infinity that resulted in correctly timed double shots (25-27 second range). To be fair, I did not test the Breville with a grinder better than the Infinity, but nonetheless, my shots were timing well and seemed to be obeying the "Golden Rule". My barista friend said that the taste was a bit off, not allowing the bean to really speak in the way it should. Nonetheless, I thought the shots tasted ok. Acceptable, not exceptional. Resembling strong coffee with thin crema rather than the thick, emulsified heaven that should be espresso. I am guessing that this effect is somehow related to the fact that thermoblocks and pressurized filter baskets are not the way to build espresso machines, despite what Breville's self-promoting claims. Reminds me of their self-promoting on their juicer: most powerful, 1000 watt motor! Well, is that always a good thing? Tears the shreds out of some fruits before actually juiced. I digress....back to espresso:
Milk frothing: I got an opportunity to froth milk on a pro machine at the cafe across the street. On the pro machine, of course it was easy to produce micro foam. Chewable, heavenly milk that once tried, it becomes really hard to settle on much less. Understanding the technique involved in surfing the tip of the steam wand on the surface of the milk, I returned to the Breville with my barista friend. Both he and I gave the steaming a go, with and without the froth aid attachment...the best we could do was produce something acceptable, not really that grand. The result is something thick enough to pour as a decent mass, but still ending up with a slightly watery feel in the mouth. As my friend told me, "well, this is about as good as this machine is going to be able to get you." Well, I guess here's the gist then:
Like my previous experience with Breville products, nothing on their espresso machine is bad. Everything is acceptable. You can get by and even enjoy it. I kind of enjoyed it. But nothing is all that great either, and the construction inside of the machine always reveals why. Something always seems to be missing from Breville's designs that prevents them from producing machines that could be considered wonderful. So, here's the thing: at this price range, this machine could be called a good "entry level" machine. But, hey, so is the Rancilio Silvia if you call around dealers and find yourself a deal. I returned the Breville and ended up finding a brand new Silvia for the same price as the undiscounted Breville, $434 after taxes and shipping. Even at Silvia's undiscounted price, $595, this doesn't seem like that much to pay if you are already dishing out $400 for a machine that doesn't even come close. And, I mean it, you can definitely find refurbished or barely used Silvia's from trusted dealers at Breville's price. Call around dealers and talk to an actual person on the phone.
As for the idea that the Breville makes it easier than the Silvia to make a decent shot, I still don't think this "entry level" argument lasts for more than a few minutes. Because, yes, the Silvia has a learning curve, but it's not that hard and it's worth it in the end. I think some people make it sound too hard to pull a shot on the Silvia, too hard to produce good crema from unpressurized filter baskets, too hard to produce steamed milk when you pull that little froth aider off the wand. Just learn how to do it and you won't be sorry you took the time. And once you get some variables under control, the result is just better. Hands down.