THIS IS A BIT LONG (but, hey - I take lots of notes <g>)
After much anticipation, the new HUGE chromed espresso mothership arrived yesterday evening. After debating whether or not rent a forklift to get it up on the counter top, my wife and I managed to get it done. I spent a few hours playing with adjustments (pressure stat settings and the like, testing water hardness) and dialing Rocky in to best take advantage of it's new playmate. I burned myself a couple of times (all that pretty chrome gets HOT) - but at the end of it all, I came up with the best shots I've had yet. These were straight ristretto pulls, not my usual milk drinks (which says even more about the qualities in the cup). To be fair to the now-estranged Miss Silvia, I have done a LOT of reading whilst waiting for this new machine. So, my improved technique would have surely shown an improvement with either machine (hopefully ;-)).
Frothing milk well on this beast is going to take a few gallons to learn. I tried frothing some half and half, but it just laughed at my (lack of) ability. Hey - what fun would it be if there was nothing to it? Basically,
I got rather jittery after no dinner and the 6th shot; so I stopped for the
night. (Must learn to taste and spit...) The steam is very dry once the condensate has been bled from the wand and there is no shortage of it
(steam, that is). I just have to re-learn the process because the two-hole wand will not swirl the milk like Silvia did. Normally, I use 4%
or 'whole' milk, but we were out at the moment. After replenishing
supplies this evening, I tried my hand at frothing twice with very
average results. Decent microfoam but under a blanket of larger
bubbles... This is just one of those things that you can know what's
wrong, but you have to have hands-on experience to correct the problem.
<<FLASH FORWARD A FEW WEEKS>>
Thankfully, a couple of e-mails to a fellow alt.coffee (and Isomac Tea owner) corrected the problem. A two hole steam wand will not 'swirl' milk like the Silvia did. It produces more of a 'moire' pattern in the pitcher that will get the job done rather nicely once you practice. The main thing is to keep the steam tip below the surface at all times and also directly in the center of the milk. Frothing happens FAST - you have to be ready for that as well. I would guess 30 seconds or less for 5-6 oz. of milk. It's all good once you get used to it.
<<BACK TO THE REVIEW>>
At any rate, there are a few things that I would like to nitpick: One is that damned auto pump shutoff! This thing kills the power (right in the middle of pulling a shot, of course) with what looks like about a liter of water still left in the tank! There are a couple of ideas that I'm working on to improve this function. For now - FILL THE RESERVOIR DAILY - period.
Directly plumbing the Tea is not an option at our condo - we plan on moving in less than a year - so maybe then. Nonetheless, it is possible -so that's good.
Second, the Tea sits under cupboards on our small counter. So, in order to refill the tank, I have to slide it out enough to have room to do so. For those of you who have hernias (like me) - be warned! This machine weighs upwards of 50 lbs. dry! My solution was this: I got a cheap set of those "Easy Slider" (TM) furniture pads (you know, the
ones that supposedly make your couch, etc., slide like magic across the
carpet? Somtimes these are known as "Moving Men") from e-Bay and set the Tea on those. The setup actually works very well (whew).
This machine is put together like a brick 'you-know-what!' Solid and heavy throughout. The two manometers are nice indicators of what's going on (even if they are not totally accurate). The gigantic drip tray is great. As most everyone knows, you have to run a quantity of water through the E61 group to bring it down to operating temperature - this drip tray is large enough that you never even need to think about emptying it until you're ready.
This machine also features a few things that are different from the pictures that you see on the web. The portafilter handles are of a different design (which I feel is a bit cheaper than what's pictured). The black textured plastic is very thin and hollow (almost like the standard Silvia pf) and they flex a bit when you tighten the pf into the group head. Also, they have improved the large black knobs for steam and hot water. They are round (as opposed to the 'star shape' pictured) and they have appropriate icons on them to show what they are and how they work. Not huge differences, but just FYI.
All in all, I think this machine is worth the money (based on the
construction and materials alone), but that in no way 'justifies' the
purchase (thank you, my darling wife). I am amazed that I have rediscovered straight espresso. The real excitement will be when I've grown comfortable enough with the machine to really release it's potential. That will take a bit of time, but that's the fun of it, right?
TASTE DIFFERENCES FROM THE SILIVA:
Please keep in mind that I'm certainly not any authority on taste and,
as with all such things, this is completely subjective (blah, blah, etc...).
I've been making daily espresso and/or cappuccino with the Tea for about a two months now. I am very picky about cleanliness on any machine that I have; but I imagine your 'taste experience' will be different if your machines are allowed to become disgusting and your beans stale (I'll let someone else 'do the research' there ;-)).
Other factors that are relevant? Well, I do roast my own espresso blends which may range from Espresso Vivace green "Dolce blend" to SM Monkey to my own concoctions. The grinder is now a Mazzer Mini (thanks again to Chis' Coffee), but I have also used a Rocky
with this machine as well. Both grinders were able to produce a nice
quality finished product (IMO).
The first thing that stands out (to me) when comparing the two machine's espresso is the consistency. What I mean by that is the ability to produce repeatable results from one shot to the next. The Isomac is definitely the winner here. The best term that I can come up with is 'tolerant.' The Tea is a lot more tolerant of any flaws in my technique than the Silvia was. It's been stated in the newsgroup alt.coffee many times that the Silvia rewards perfection, and that was my experience as well. Once you get used to using the E-61 group and learn the basics of how the machine will perform (dialing in the grinder, etc.), it's almost like being on 'auto pilot' when pulling a shot. That is a welcome feature with a 7 month old son around the house! The Tea is very forgiving to tamping variations, slight grind changes, humidity, etc.
Although this has been stated before, it's worth repeating: If you are used to "temp. surfing" with Silvia - you don't need to worry about that with this machine. What you *do* need to do, though, is make sure and flush the group head to cool down water from the HX if the machine has been sitting idle from more than 10-15 minutes. A lot of people really seem to look at this as a big negative. I don't think it's any hassle at all. I just let the pump run while I'm dosing/packing and then all is well. In an e-mail from Chris Nachtrieb (@ Chris Coffee) he said that the most expensive, full commercial machines will heat up like that after sitting idle, it's just the nature of the beast. I figure he should know, so I don't worry about it.
So - how does it taste? Great! To my palate, there is more body present in the cup. The crema even seems to be a bit richer, redder (is that a word ;-)) and more dense than Silvia. With the Silvia (as well as the Gaggia Coffee before it), I found that I made mainly milk-based drinks. The espresso from the Tea is enjoyable enough to me to drink 'straight' much more often than I used to. The espresso seems more 'dense' in flavor with enjoyable 'after tastes' lasting for a good long time.
After some experimenting with how brew temperature affects these factors (via the pressurestat), I find that my preference is for a hotter setting. A boilder pressure of about 1.4 bar seems to really bring out tastes that I enjoy. The down side of that is I have to flush more water through the grouphead to cool it - but that is a small price to pay in my opinion.
OK - so was this good stuff NOT present with Silvia? Yes, it was - just not commonplace. A "God shot" with Silvia would have these factors, too (for the most part). The difference is that a "God shot" with Silvia is almost a 'ho-hum' shot with the Tea. I think I've just been basically spoiled. That's not to say that I won't find little things to improve on here or there. Remember, I've only had the Tea a short time. I'm still experimenting with different roast levels and blends, grinds, etc. (that's all part of the fun). I also don't know how much of the taste difference is tied to the pre-infusion on the Tea. That may be a big part of it, but either way, I'm not complaining! <g>