The Isomac Tea (whoever thought up the name for this machine really doesn’t understand marketing in my opinion) is a serious espresso machine for a person who wants espresso “on demand.” This machine weighs in at 46 pounds and comes well packed. Getting it out of the box and set up on the counter is a satisfying experience. You know you are setting up a serious home appliance. At first, the size is a little imposing but it does fit under standard cabinets with room for cups on the warmer. I have the Tea on an old Lucite cutting board to facilitate sliding it out for refilling the tank. This gets to be a pain and I am seriously considering installing a water line to the machine. This option is definitely a plus. Right now, the TEA comes with a water softener that is rechargeable. Chris at Chriscoffee.com suggests that I recharge this filter every month based on the hardness of water in our area. I usually do this every three weeks. The machine is polished stainless steel and requires attention to keeping it shiny. It definitely is an eye catcher when someone walks into the room. The group and portafilter have a neo-retro look that suits me just fine. The rest of the machine does look like an old sci-fi apparatus. This machine allowed me to pull a good shot the first time and every time after that. I have had to throw out only a few shots since I have had it. Those times, I missed on the grind. I have used three different grinders with this machine. I started using a Solis Maestro, which was okay but couldn’t be adjusted finely enough. I got the Isomac Gran Machinino grinder but, in my opinion, it did not produce a grind even equal to the Maestro. Chris was great in taking back the Gran Machinino and getting me a Mazzer Mini. The difference the Mini makes is really hard to believe. Listen to Mark (Coffeekid) when he says to get a really good grinder for the good espresso machines. Again, I have pulled good to great shots since I got the Tea. I now get great shots as my standard and I get God shots frequently. The machine is straightforward to use and even a novice can be pulling good shots in no time.
Operation and Maintenance-
When I first got the machine, I followed the simple instructions for setup. Chris called me and walked me through the first shot and back flushing, computer web design, golf, computer networking and some other fun things to talk about. Chris is serious about his products and enjoys helping his customers before, during and after the sale.
At first, the machine was cycling between 1.2 and 1.4 bars and I played around with the adjustment, turning the set screw in five minute increments until I got it cycling between 1.0 and 1.2 bars. This setting seems to be the best for my needs.
From a cold start, I let the TEA warm up for a minimum of an hour (two hours is better) before things seem to stabilize and everything has reached the proper heat. While heating, I leave the portafilter in the group head. This is not a problem usually because I simply leave the TEA on 24/7. If it has been setting idle for 15 or more minutes, I run water through the group until it stops sputtering and the stream is clear indicating that the correct temperature for brewing has been achieved. When flushing hot water through the group head, I remove the portafilter so it will not become over heated. Grind, tamp, lock and pull. I go for a 25 second, 16 gram, 30 pound tamp, 2 ounce double shot. The pump pressure gauge will tell me just how close I am to getting things right. I shoot for 9 bars for a 25 second double shot. If the pressure is slightly different, I can adjust my pull a few seconds and still get a great shot. I really appreciate the second gauge.
The machine comes with two portafilters – a single and double pouring spouts. Chris has thrown in a blank basket for back flushing. There are also single and double shot baskets supplied.
After every shot, Chris recommends immediately emptying the portafilter of grounds, flushing it and the group head then go enjoy your shot. A simple flushing at that time keeps the coffee oils from burning on. This keeps the group and portafilter clean for the next shot because there are no burned on oils. After enjoying my shot, I come back and do a better cleaning. Also, Chris recommends back flushing every 2 – 3 days. Using the blind basket in the portafilter, run the pump 25 - 30 seconds, shut off, repeat immediately for three more times. Once every three weeks, use 1/3 teaspoon of PuroCaff in the blind basket. Run the pump for 25 – 30 seconds. Let things sit for 20 seconds, repeat (about 4 or 5 more times) until the back flush is free of soap and is running clear and waiting 20 seconds between pump runs. I am a fanatic about keeping the machine clean. I learned a long time ago that to have the absolute best coffee, you have to start with clean equipment. This is also a good time to recharge the water softener that is attached to the intake hose in the water reservoir. Remove the water softener and gently blow out the water. Soak it in warm water that you have dissolved as much salt as you can. Let sit for 2 – 3 hours in the salt water then flush with clean water until there is no more salt taste. Replace the device on the proper hose and the machine is ready to go again. Simple, easy and all of this becomes routine.
The only real irritant is that there is no gauge on the water reservoir so when it reaches its magic (i.e. spring load) setting telling the TEA that it is low on water, the machine will stop totally. This usually happens when I am pulling a shot. I haven’t gotten into the habit of checking the water amount before pulling a shot yet. Operation and maintenance is really a snap.
I keep reading about temperature surfing on non-heat exchange machines and it sounds like a real pain. When explaining about running some water through the TEA to bring the temperature down to brew temperature, one person stated in alt.coffee that this sounded like temp surfing. However, after reading about temp surfing, I cannot really compare running out a little water to the more complex temp surfing ritual needed for a non-HX machine.
Description of the TEA: Quality shot after quality shot, day in and day out, 24/7 when paired with a grinder that produces quality ground espresso (in my case, a Mazzer Mini). The TEA is tolerant of slight changes in the variables and will still allow you a great shot because it gives you the tools (i.e. the heat exchanger, the pump pressure gauge which allows me to make slight changes in the time I run water through the coffee) to do so. This TEA has produced an extremely spoiled espresso drinker. I won’t drink coffee out anymore because the elixir I get at home simply cannot be beaten anywhere. I do roast my own beans and use them within a seven day period. This machine is like the battery bunny – it just keeps on going and going. I really do not anticipate having to upgrade and so far, the quality seems so solid that I am not worried about it quitting on me. If it does, Chriscoffee.com does warranty and repair work. As I got to know Chris, I have become confident that whatever needs fixing; it will be done quickly and expertly.
I haven’t even begun to talk about micro frothing milk. I have read a lot by people saying they are having problems learning or relearning how to micro froth on the TEA. I had good results the first and each time thereafter and have only messed up once. It does go fast but putting the wand 1 mm under the center, surface of the milk and keeping it there as the milk stretches seems to do the trick. Walking the wand helps to get rid of any larger foam. The one time I messed up, I let the milk get too hot. Of course, I bleed water out of the wand before getting all the dry steam I could ever ask for. I have frothed and pulled shots at the same time although I am looking for my third arm as things do move fast. Being left handed helps out for frothing as the wand is on that side.
In the mornings, I alternate between espressos and Americanos. There is plenty of hot water for the Americanos. It would be a definite improvement if the hot water wand was retooled to rotate over the drip tray so I could rinse things with hot water. The drip tray holds plenty and is easy to empty and clean.
Last night, I had a medium sized group over to shoot pool. They all wanted espressos. I pulled shots until I ran out of beans - shot after shot, added water to the TEA and kept pulling shots. I didn't shoot much pool but sure had a fun time showing off the TEA. It's fun to watch people have their first really great espresso shot. My point here is that the TEA's ability to produce shots was limited only be the operator. It kept up with me and could have handeled faster production, I simply couldn't move any faster.
I used a steam toy for a long time and complained about the 40 or 50 bucks I spent for it. But, I used it a lot! As good coffee houses sprang up in my town, I discovered that espresso could be fairly good. When father’s day/birthday rolled around, I asked for an espresso machine. I ended up with a *$’s Barista and Solis Maestro. This combination was expensive to my way of thinking but I was pulling better shots than the company stores and most independent coffee houses. I had the thing two weeks, went on vacation where I had my first God shot. I instinctively knew the Barista couldn’t ever produce that type of shot. When I got home, I started researching for a better espresso machine to upgrade to in a year or so. Then the unexpected happened, the Barista died. I got my money back and decided to take the total plunge. Early on in my research, I discovered Chriscoffee.com and the Isomacs. From there I discovered Coffeegeek and Coffeekid with plenty of reviews. I decided to go all out and get the Millennium but after talking with Chris, I decided on the TEA – more gadgets and easier to tinker with. My experience to compare this machine with others is too limited so I will not attempt to do so. I will say that I pull frequent God shots and have quality shots all the other times. This type of consistency makes this machine, in my opinion, one of the leaders in the home/semi-commercial espresso machine category. I guess the other HX - E61 group head type machines fit into this category as well. Chris stated that the shots from this machine compares with the commercial machines he sells and I have no problem believing this.
Because I didn’t spend a whole lot in upgrade fever over the years, I believe that I have spent wisely. I have great espresso with ease and on demand. I don’t expect to upgrade to a better machine because I believe that it will be a long time before a better machine comes along. I like the challenge of controlling the variables to get a great shot each time. As I become more familiar with the TEA and the Mini Mazzer, I am able to keep these variables in check to produce a quality shot.
Final recommendation – would I do it again? In a heartbeat! If you want the best espresso on a consistent basis, 24/7, fairly forgiving, good looking and just plain fun then go with the Isomac TEA.