E61 grouphead, two pressure gauges, commercial heat exchanger/boiler, and it can be plumbed in.
Positive Product Points
This machine provides an E61 grouphead, a commercial design that has stood the test of time (40 years) and still has not been improved upon. The heat exhanger is located low in the boiler. It contains boiler and pump pressure gauges. It can be plumbed in thus bypassing the reservoir altogether. When using the reservoir system, the unit shits off when water gets low. 2-hole steam tip microfroths well. The cup warmer does a great job. The case is very thick. It comes with two portafilter holders - a single spout and a double spout.
Negative Product Points
This has to be the worst name EVER for an espresso machine. The reservoir has no indicator for the water level. A shot will not finish being pulled if the water gets too low in the reservoir even though a little water remains. The E61 grouphead is HOT. It doesn't have a rotary pump, but that's only a factor if it is used commercially. The instructions are horribly translated from Italian.
I like to use comparisons for my reviews because I believe it gives a better benchmark. A "10" on a Rancilio Silvia is not the same as a "10" on the Tea because those ratings are in comparison to like machines within their category. Obviously, a Rancilio Silvia can't steam or be left on all day like an Isomac Tea. My comparison here is with the Pasquini Livia 90 and the Isomac Millenium.
I first ordered a Pasquini Livia 90, but changed it after talking to Chris at chriscoffee.com who sells the Pasquini and the Isomac Tea (and Isomac Millenium). I went with the Isomac Tea because it had more features at a better price than the Millenium and was of a better quality design than the Livia. Internally, the Tea and the Millenium are identical to each other (and most other E61 machines e.g. ECM Giotto). Here are some comparisons between the three machines I considered.
Cost - The Millenium is listed for $100 more. The Pasquini is $60 cheaper.
Size - From largest to smallest: Millenium, Tea, Livia.
Pressure Gauges - Boiler and pump gauges on the Tea, boiler only on the Millenium, pump only on the Livia. The boiler gauge is very important to adjust temperature by. The greater the pressure, the higher the temperature of the water. I adjusted mine down from the original high point setting of 1.3 down to a high point setting of 1.1 to lessen the temperature. Still, I run 5 or 6 ounces of water before pulling my initial shot. My temperature readings showed 206 degrees initially, but stabilized at 203 degrees after running this amount of water.
Plumbing in - Possible on the Tea and the Millenium, but not the Livia. I will be installing mine (through a water filter designed to reduce scaling) as soon as Chris Coffee has the plumbing kits ($15-20) available.
Aesthetics - Pasquini is modern with stylistic straight lines, the Millennium is curved (which adds to the price), and the Tea is what I call retro-futuristic. This is the straight-line, angled panel design you'd see on machines on the original Star Trek show, or even better, Lost in Space. Or think about bad sci-fi movies or Twilight Zone episodes from the 50s and 60s that take place in future outer space. That's the Tea! Way cool!! Of course, all three are extremely good looking machines. Factoring in the size, I would give the Pasquini an edge as the best looking of the three. Mark's picture above is excellent.
Drip tray - Much larger on the Isomacs than the Livia.
Steam tip - Pasquini owners don't seem to like the 4-hole steam tip preferring to replace it with a 2-hole Giotto tip; Isomacs have a 2-hole tip.
Grouphead - The Isomacs have the proven E61 thermosyphon design for better temperature stability (as Schomer recommends); no E61 on the Pasquini.
Heat Exchanger - It's located at the top of the Pasquini boiler instead of lower in the Isomacs and every other HE machine. It seems to me that water in the bottom of the boiler would stabilize the heat exchanger better than steam at the top.
General comments - How in the world did someone think an espresso machine should be called a "Tea"? Was "Cocoa" taken? The only comparison I know of off hand is the U.S. agency for everything that happens outdoors. It's called the Department of the "Interior" - the one word you can't use!
How bad are the English instructions? Here's an exact quote: "In case that the water should finish or miss, one micro, placed under the plate of the coin keeper, will operate and will turn off the machine" (period left off the end of the sentence). Huh??? A friend who speaks Italian translated that sentence as actually stating, "If the water in the reservoir gets low, the lighter weight on the tray beneath the reservoir container will trigger the machine to turn off automatically." Of course, all espresso machine instructions are only very general anyway.
OUTSTANDING! Because I bought this machine under time constraints for a large party I was having on a Saturday night (I had just sold my Rancilio Silvia a few days before I ordered the Tea), Chris gave me his cell phone number to call him on that Saturday morning when I was setting it up. He said it might be necessary to call him due to the poor English translation of the instructions. He gave me a break on the 2-day air price because he quoted me a price below what turned out to be the actual shipping cost. I offered to decline the six free Illy cups and saucers he gives away with each machine purchase, but he wouldn't hear of it. He also threw in for free a blind portafilter I wanted to order.
Three Month Followup
OK, this is actually a six-month follow-up. I wanted to plumb in the machine, but the plumb-in kits had not yet arrived from Italy when I ordered the machine. When they finally did arrive, Chris said they were parts only with no instructions and not easily discernable to the typical end user. However, six months later when the electronic board malfunctioned (which Chris repaired free under warranty), I asked if Chris would install the plumb-in kit. He agreed to do so, and for nothing because he knew it was one of the reasons I bought the machine from him in the frist place. BTW, the repair and the plumb-in install were done in a one-day turnaround and shipped back to me accompanied by a phone call explaining the install and asking what tubing I'd use so they could install the proper size adapter for my water filter. Wow! Chris' customer service is unparalleled.
One Year Followup
The Pasquini Livia I considered purchasing when shopping for this machine has risen in cost while the Isomacs have lowered. Be sure to use a water softener/filter if you plumb this in. The smaller two hole steam tip Chris' Coffee has is great for small capacity steaming/frothing.