Solid, good looking machine that produces excellent espresso, much better than I thought I was capable of making.
Negative Product Points
Small drip tray, water level not visible externally, a bit slow to heat up.
I had been using a Starbucks Barista for 5 years and had grown accustomed to it's very forgiving nature and insensitivity to grind, tamping pressure, and temperature. It also produced very acceptable lattes, usually better than what I could get at Starbucks. I was never able, however, to get that "really great" latte that I did get frequently, although not all the time, at Peet's and very occasionally at Starbucks and other coffee shops. I had been reading about the Silvia for some time but was generally happy with the Barista and wasn't about to junk it and buy a $600 machine.
Then, last week the Barista developed a problem. One of the boiler seals around the heating element terminals started to leak. I was faced with the option of having the Barista repaired for $100, purchasing another similar machine at Starbucks for about $200, or upgrading. After years with the Barista, I was afraid that I would have too much difficulty operating a more sophisticated machine like the Silvia without the pressurized portafilter. After all, professional baristas at coffee shops were generally very inconsistent and getting good espresso was a hit and miss proposition. Clearly they could produce excellent drinks, but these were rare. The usual product I obtained at coffee shops was no better, and usually worse than what I could do easily with the Barista.
To help me decide what to do, I went to see Sebastian at a local coffee equipment store, Great Infusions, to try out the Silvia first hand. Sebastian demonstrated how to start up the Silvia, grind, tamp, and pull the espresso shot. In addition, he had a slightly used machine that he was willing to sell at a discount. I decided that I had nothing to lose because if it was a total disaster, I could sell it for nearly what I was paying. My main concern was that I might need a $300 grinder to replace the $79 Solis Maestro that I had been using with the Starbucks machine. Again, Sebastian came to the rescue by allowing me to bring my grinder into the store and try it out with the Silvia. When it worked, my mind was made up. The Silvia it was.
I was excited to get the machine home and try it out. For the first shot I used a pretty fine grind and medium tamping. I must have had channels in the puck because the crema was light and the pull was pretty quick, about 20 seconds. The resulting brew was actually pretty good, comparable to what I had been getting with the Barista, but not great. My second attempt with heavier tamping (I'm not sure how many pounds it was) resulted in an extraction that took about 30 seconds and produced some beautiful blond colored crema. I quickly steamed some milk and finally had a latte that compared with the better ones I had ever gotten at the coffee shops. After a couple more experiments I settled for a slightly coarser grind and heavier tamping. The results have been outstanding. I am finally getting lattes as good as the best ones from the professionals.
Using the Silvia to make my lattes is not nearly as difficult as I had feared. I was used to "temperature surfing" because I had done it for years on the Barista, and the procedure is very similar on the Silvia. It's necessary with any single boiler machine in order to both steam and brew. I turn on the Silvia, run some water through the head and steam wand, and wait for the heater light to go out. I then run some water through the brew head and portafilter to warm them up, and flip on the steam switch. A few minutes later, when the light goes out indicating steaming temperature, I open the steam valve for a second or two to purge the wand, then I froth the milk. The Silvia produces lots of steam and works very much like the Barista, so I have no problem getting good foam. I then turn off the steam button and run water through the brew head in short bursts until the light goes on, indicating that the water temperature is below the brewing level. This is the same thing I had done on the Barista to transition from steaming to brewing. While the boiler is re-heating, I grind and tamp the coffee. Once the light goes off, I run a little water through the brew head for a couple of seconds until there is little or no steam coming out. I then insert the portafilter and pull the shot. My results have been consistently excellent.
Another thing that worried me was using pods with the Silvia. I usually drink caffeinated coffee, but occasionally have guests who want decaf. The Starbucks Barista came with a single shot basket and a rubber pressure device that allowed it to work with pods. Since the pods are vacuum packed and have a long shelf life, I kept a supply on hand for those occasions when I needed to use decaf. I didn't like the Rancilio pod adapter kit because it goes on the machine rather than the portafilter, requiring a screw driver to switch between pods and ground coffee. I purchased a $5 "pod" basket for the Silvia, but it didn't work well. A shot took about 10 seconds and water leaked over the top of the portafilter. On a lark, I placed the rubber pressure device (sort of a disk with a hole in the middle) that came with the Barista under the pod basket in the Silvia's portafilter and, miraculously, was able to get a decent shot. It's not as good as with ground coffee, but comparable to what the Barista did and perfectly adequate for the occasional guest. It took about 30 seconds to dispense one ounce.
So far I am very pleased with the Silvia. My fears were completely unfounded and I now believe that anyone who has been getting good results with a Starbucks Barista or similar machine for a length of time will have no problem getting even better results with the Silvia. It does take a little more care in grinding and tamping, but the results are well worth it.
Great Infusions was wonderful to work with. Sebastian was patient, willing to do a good demo, and allowed me to try out my grinder in the store. I would highly recommend them.
Three Month Followup
I'm still getting good results with the Silvia. I had an opportunity to upgrade the grinder to a Rocky at a good price so I went for it even though the Maestro was working adequately. It took a few attempts with the Rocky to get the grind right, but when I did the results were slightly better than with the Maestro, probably due to a more consistent grind.
Results with the Silvia, though generally very good, are not completely consistent. Sometimes I get an excellent latte and other times one that is just "o.k." with some bitterness. I'm still working on the consistent aspect, trying to keep frothing, temperature, grind, and tamping pressure the same every time. I'm not sure what keeps changing, but sometimes I get 3 or 4 great results in a row, then one that is not as good. However, even the "not as good" results are still easily on par with what I was getting with the simpler Starbucks Barista machine.
I'm very glad I made the switch to Silvia and, knowing what kind of excellent brew this machine is capable of, I'm sure I will get to the point where I can produce it nearly every time.
One Year Followup
I added the PID upgrade to the Sylvia. It improved consistency somewhat, but I believe that most of my inconsistency problems were due to variations in dosing and tamping rather than temperature. Results have improved as I gained more experience with the machine. The biggest improvement with the PID is easier operation due to elimination of temperature surfing. Although the PID does not control steaming temperature I use it to determine when to start steaming so that the heater is on during the entire steaming process. The result is much faster steaming and much better foam. Overall I still love this machine and am even happier with it after the PID upgrade. I can't see how a single boiler machine could be any better.