Silvia has a lot of fans and I’m one of them. She can make excellent espresso and steam impressive microfoam, if you’re willing to learn a few of her idiosyncrasies. Even with just a little time and effort, you’ll enjoy as good or better results than you’ll likely find at many cafés.
The carefully detailed steps in Cheating Miss Silvia are one example of the lengths people go to learn the intricacies of this little powerhouse. Taken to another extreme, there’s also instructions for serious hobbiest modifications like Murph’s Silvia PID Page. These articles demonstrate the level of dedication to this espresso machine—and the tradeoffs that Rancilio made to create a consumer product at this price point. Few would argue the result isn’t impressive for a home unit. However, there are reasons why one finds machines costing far more—those nagging compromises.
If you’re a cappuccino lover, the biggest compromise is that Silvia is a single-boiler machine without a heat exchanger; in other words, you must wait a minute or so between steaming milk and making espresso. This delay can be quite irrisome if you wish to produce more than a few milk-based drinks in succession. Silvia is at her best for one or two drinks.
Silvia is one of the notable advanced entry-level machines that demonstrates the adage “weight makes a difference.” To put it another way, the more brass the better, since that’s key to temperature stability. The boiler and grouphead are bolted together, so good heat transfer is assured. Compared to an E61-style machine, however, Silvia reveals her weakness: A nine-pound brass grouphead like an E61’s combined with its +liter boiler won’t deviate more than a degree or two from the target temperature with the influx of a few ounces of water. Silvia’s two pound grouphead and 12 ounce boiler can’t make that same promise. In addition, the manufacturer uses a thermostat with a fairly wide range between “too cold” and “hot enough" (this range is known as the deadband) to keep the heating element from constantly cycling; a large deadband increases the likelihood of the brew water temperature being off the mark when you start an extraction.
The practical consequence of the thermostat swing is that obtaining spot-on temperature requires surfing (timing the start of the extraction to a specific point in the boiler’s heating cycle). This sort of pickiness won’t be an issue if you’re making milk-based drinks, since milk in espresso, like ketchup on steak, hides many sins. But for espresso au naturel, it makes a big difference (to see my own experiments on the subject, see the thread Some extraordinary results by reverse temperature surfing). Put together this technique, a good grinder, practiced dose-distribution-tamp, and you’re on the path to espresso nirvana.
Getting “latte art” quality microfoam was my biggest challenge and perhaps Silvia’s most evident weakness. This isn’t to suggest that you can’t produce an admirable result—it’s just far from a no-brainer, I believe principally owing to the rise and fall of steam forcefulness that occurs as the boiler cycles on and off.
Note: While it is true that you’ll have steam after a twenty second wait between brew and steam temperature, I’ve found that it is not forceful enough to reliably produce microfoam. You have to wait closer to 50-80 seconds until you can begin frothing.
As discussed in the previous section, surfing addresses Silvia’s brew temperature shortcomings. Steaming, on the other hand, requires a lot more than a consistent routine. It requires more intuition and a clear understanding of Silvia’s steam “hills and valleys.” Below is how you can learn about these ebbs and flows, thereby becoming one with your machine:
- Bleed out condensation from the steam wand with a 5-10 second blast into a pitcher.
- Cut it off, wait thirty seconds.
- Open the valve full blast for 10 seconds onto the counter (or drip tray if you prefer). Observe the amount of force.
- Wait 30 seconds, blast again. Continue this for a few minutes, noting the cycling of the boiler.
- Refill the boiler, take a break.
- Start over, this time focusing on (a) first getting the boiler light to come on when you want by bleeding steam, then (b) keeping the light on for as long as you desire while steaming.
- Also experiment with longer and shorter delays (15 seconds, 45 seconds, 1 minute). You might consider taking notes.
Now try the same thing, but instead of spraying the countertop, use nine ounces of water in a 20 ounce pitcher. The idea is to focus on creating a “standing wave” or swirling turbulence. The goal is only to get an intuitive feel for when Silvia is in the perfect steam zone versus the wimpy steam zone. It isn’t easy to get microfoam with wimpy steam. You’ll get a lot of medium-size bubbles that don’t break when you thunk the pitcher against the countertop. The perfect steam zone also carries a caveat: Too much in too small a pitcher and you’ll paint the walls (no joking, I’ve done it more than once). I suggest nine ounces of milk/water and a 20 ounce pitcher until you have a good feel for the cycles I’m talking about. Then you might try a twelve ounce pitcher and a single-size amount of milk, say six ounces.
Whole Latte Love and 1st-line offer three-hole steam tips for Silvia. The one from WLL is actually the Rancilio S23 steam tip attached to a handy adapter. The three-hole steam tip from 1st-line is exclusively theirs. I’ve tried both and I’m not overly impressed. They are OK, although they feel like “cheater” tips when I use them. They seem to produce average foam very easily, but truly great foam with much effort (see discussion for more opinions).
My final suggestion for latte-art quality microfoam: Stop the “stretching” phase early, around 70-85 degrees and spin longer. Following suggestions in The Milk Frothing Guide, I’ve tried stretching even up to 140F for cappuccinos and that works great on heat exchanger machines that have lots of steam volume in addition to high velocity. You will get way too much milk expansion if you do the same with Silvia.
In short, Silvia is a great steamer, but does require a certainly level of finesse. Set aside a few hours, focus on these basics and be patient.
Silvia at her worse is finicky and demanding. At her best, she’ll kick butt on machines costing twice the price. The difference is all the operator. In some respects this makes it an ideal machine for those wanting to “be one with the bean.” For those with extra cash and less patience, there are better choices. The good news is that if you decide to apprentice on this machine, you won’t have an inordinate cash outlay and are assured good resale value should you want to upgrade someday.
If you see yourself preparing lots of cappuccinos or lattes, you may want to consider a heat exchanger (or dual-boiler) espresso machine. However, for a drink or two, a heat exchanger or dual boiler borders on overkill. Putting the temperature stability and surfing issues aside for a moment, the real question boils down to whether you want to serve successive milk-based drinks.
If the answer is yes, then Silvia may not be a good fit. If you are very focused, you can prepare milk-based drinks for four people in 20-25 minutes. I found it became more chore than pleasure, so I limited group service to three people (myself included). After upgrading to a heat exchanger espresso machine, I never wait for it, independent of group size. To be clear, I enthusiastically recommend Silvia if you’re willing to work a little harder and don’t mind the inherent delays. If you decide later to upgrade, the resale is very good.
For more details, see my updated review.
Don’t skimp on the grinder. I initially paired Silvia with the Solis Maestro. It is a capable grinder for drip coffee and a good price-to-performance value. However, frustrated by inconsistencies in my shots, I later upgraded to the Rancilio Rocky. Rocky doesn’t have the “float” it its settings like Maestro, thanks to the fact that Rocky’s top burr sets in a threaded brass cylinder and Maestro’s is atop a nylon bushing. Like Silvia, Rocky is also a heavy, solid performer (approximately 25 and 15 lbs, respectively).