The Rancilio Rocky is a robust, near-professional quality home grinder.
Positive Product Points
Reliable, highly adjustable grinding performance from a solid, quiet, heavy-duty domestic grinder.
Negative Product Points
The doser is superfluous for home use. (See 3-month review below. My appreciation of the doser has grown in the past few months.)
The Rocky is my second burr grinder. I bought it used after a year of experience with a Solis-branded Solis 166. (See my review of the Solis on Coffeegeek.com)
I believe that there's often a "sweet spot" in product groups--that's the point on the quality vs. price curve at which a step up in price gets relatively less improvement in quality and functionality. When buying durable goods, I always aim for the sweet spot.
I have been making espresso at home seriously since 1992, initially using a blade grinder to pulverize my beans. Until I learned how important a good grinder is, I was wasting good coffee and abusing my tastebuds. In 1999, I broke the portafilter handle on my espresso machine, and went "googling" to look for a replacement. That's when I discovered alt.coffee, and learned about the importance of good grinders.
Within a few months of discovering alt.coffee, I had decided that the "sweet spot" in burr grinders was occupied by the Solis 166. I ordered one from Sweet Maria's (along with a HWP roaster) and the quality of my espresso made a quantum leap. The 166 was a dramatic improvement over the blade grinder.
After using the Solis 166 for approximately a year, I had the good fortune to find a used Rancilio Silvia espresso machine for a very attractive price, and I made the jump. My Solis 166 grinder worked fine with the newly acquired Silvia. But my occasional trips to quality espresso bars showed that my espresso was missing the depth of flavour which made great espresso stand out.
About this time, fortune smiled on me again. The Coffeekid (Mark) acquired a commercial quality grinder and decided to sell his Rancilio Rocky. I snagged it, and took it home. The improvement in the flavour of my espresso was immediate. For reasons which I can only speculate, espresso produced from Rocky-ground beans tastes deeper and richer than espresso from Solis-ground beans from the same roast. The difference is immediately apparent.
In addition to improving the taste of my espresso, the Rocky has also helped by enabling me to adjust the grind in fine increments. Whereas with the Solis, I often had to tape the grind setting between notches to get the fine adjustment needed for a great shot, the Rocky's 50 grind settings provide a lot more fine-tuning capability.
The Rocky is also much quieter and smoother in operation than the Solis. When it's running without coffee in the hopper, the Rocky is whisper-quiet.
Despite all this praise, the Rocky does have a few weak points. My biggest complaint is the doser. Dosers make a lot of sense for high volume commercial operations where shots are being pulled dozens of times every hour. They make it easy to "dose" a measured volume of grounds into the portafilter. But unless the doser is full, the dosing volumes are inaccurate, and the dosing feature is relatively useless. Of course, keeping the doser full of ground coffee will result in stale grounds, and awful tasting brew unless dozens of shots are being pulled every hour. In short, a doser is useless, at best, in a home setting.
Worse, the doser is actually more awkward to use than a system in which coffee is ground directly into the portafilter, or, as with the Solis 166, into a grounds hopper to be dumped manually into the portafilter.
In addition, the doser is inconvenient when grinding for machines requiring different consistency (such as when switching from espresso to presspot), and even when switching between beans that require a slightly different grind (e.g. I use a "3" setting for Malabar Gold vs. an "8" for Sweet Maria's Moka Kadir blend). The dosing chamber must be carefully cleaned out to ensure that you don't end up with fine grinds when you need coarse, or vice-versa.
Finally, like many grinders, Rocky has a hangup, literally, with oily beans. Dark, oily roasts tend to hang up in the throat of the bean hopper, and require you to give Rocky a shake (or a rock--is that the REAL origin of the name??) to dislodge the sticky beans.
Despite my complaints about the doser, the Rocky remains a significant improvement over my Solis 166. The doser isn't really all that awkward to use, and I suspect I'll be happy with the Rocky for some time to come.
Bought used from the Coffeekid himself. I had the caffeine jitters by the time the sale was consumated.
Three Month Followup
The road to "Gosh" shots is long, and progress is gradual. And the more you learn, the more you appreciate the potential of your equipment.
In my initial review, I pronounced the Rocky doser "useless, at best, in a home setting". I have since revised that view.
There are two reasons for my revisionism. First is my purchase of an accurate scale for weighing the beans I put into a shot. My practice is to place only enough beans in the Rocky for the shot I'm about to produce. When grinding for a LM double basket for my Rancillio Silvia, I weigh 18 grams of beans, place them in the hopper, and grind as I'm bleeding steam from the Silvia boiler. This charge works out to be only a gram or two more than I need. It allows me to carefully spread the grounds in the portafilter to ensure even, seam-free coverage that virtually eliminates channelling--and with minimal waste. (I use the handle of my head-cleaning brush to spread and level the coffee--it works great and keeps my finger clean.) This approach also minimizes coffee spillage during dosing, which minimizes cleanup requirements.
The second reason for my conversion is Ted Simpson's observation on alt.coffee that using a doser speeds the process of filling the portafilter, meaning it spends less time out of the brewhead cooling off, thus helping to maintain the brewhead and portafilter at a more consistent, flavour-friendly temperature.
The Rocky doser hasn't improved since my original review. It's still cheaply made, and leaves too much ground coffee behind. But I don't think it's enough to affect the flavour of the next shot. So while the doser hasn't improved, my appreciation for its benefits has increased substantially.
One Year Followup
A lot more than a year has passed since my initial review, but when you have something new to add, there’s no time like the present.
A little more than a year ago, I replaced the burrs on my Rocky. I estimate that between Mark Prince (the original owner) and me, we had run approximately 500 lb. of beans through Rocky since new. What twigged me to the need for new burrs was that it seemed increasingly difficult to find the right grind setting when switching between blends. I ordered the burrs from 1st Line for $35, and switched out the old ones without difficulty.
When I reassembled the grinder, I set about finding the zero point. What I found was that the burrs began touching 3 notches above “zero”, starting with one small contact every revolution, making a “z . . . z . . . z” sound. I moved the burrs a notch closer, and it changed to a “zzz .. zzz .. zzz .. zzz”, then finally “zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz” as I notched it tighter until full contact was achieved.
Wow! It hadn’t done that before I changed the burrs! I measured the thickness of the burrs with a micrometer and eliminated the possibility of asymmetrical burrs. Next, I disassembled the machine, checked everything, re-cleaned everything, and re-assembled. This did not solve the problem! Then I noticed that I could change the contact sound without changing the grind setting by pressing sideways on the bean hopper. The burr carrier threads had an excessive amount of slop in them. This could not be wear caused by frequent use – the forces required to grind roasted coffee beans are far too low to wear a threaded connection the size of the Rocky burr carrier.
After careful consideration, I decided to try applying Teflon tape to the upper burr carrier threads, hoping to take up some of the slop between the upper and threads. It worked! So well, in fact, that Rocky now grinds better than ever!
I suspect that all Rockies have too much slop in the burr carrier threads, but some are probably worse than others. I also suspect that any Rocky will benefit from this treatment. If you’re going to try this, apply three layers of tape wrapped clockwise onto the upper burr carrier threads. The upper carrier will be stiff to turn, but very solid in the lower threads. It may make it unnecessary for you to upgrade to a Mazzer Mini.
Meanwhile, I’m considering modifying the Rocky by installing 3 springs in the Rocky burr carrier to preload the burr carrier threads, just as is done in the Mazzer Mini. Stay tuned.