Living with the Rancilio Silvia

altI have been asked to cook up a users guide for the Rancilio Silvia espresso machine. And as a result this is the most popular article on the CoffeeCrew.com website!

And although I am not currently in possession of one, I still believe it is the single best machine under 1000$. Those who have one will agree. Those who have given theirs up (for whatever reason) and I regretably include myself in that group, will attest to its reliability and longevity and the foolhardyness of letting a machine such as this slip from their hands.

Anyway. Enough crying on my part!

The Rancilio Silvia espresso machine is a legend among kitchen appliances. In over 14 years of snooping out kitchen coffee appliances, the Rancilio Silvia espresso machine is the one unit that everyone, knowledgeable or not, recognizes; for its quality, for its longevity, for its visual appeal and for its unfailing ability to take a handful of ground coffee beans and produce cafe quality espresso time and time again.

I get asked almost weekly: Why the Silvia?

The answer is, at once, almost instantaneous... then followed by a series of follow-up observations that potentially cloud the real issues of home espresso machine ownership.

Quick answer. The Rancilio Silvia espresso machine packs more commercial grade components into a home espresso brewer than any other manufacturer of home coffee appliance; the 58MM portafilter, brew group, 3-way solenoid, shower-screen, switches and thermostats are all interchangeable with the commercial line at Rancilio.

The Rancilio Silvia espresso machine gives you cafe quality espresso with the least amount of effort or compromise. Rancilio did not cut any corners in designing the Silvia - as a result, you do not need to compensate for machine or design weaknesses.

Out of the box

The first impression you get with the Rancilio Silvia (as you pull it from its shipping container and box) is the weight of the unit. At 35 pounds, the Rancilio Silvia is the most solidly built espresso machine in its class. There is no plastic anywhere near the coffee or in any of the brew areas. I mean, none! Everything is machined in corrosion resistant steel. In the couple of years I had mine, I saw no evidence of rust - despite the fact that it was exposed to moisture constantly - afterall, it is a coffee maker!

As with all machines, a good turn of the somewhat thin manual is a good idea. A better idea is to hit the internet and cruise some of the manual discussion forums devoted to this machine.

Some extras to consider

Before you first plug in and fill your Rancilio Silvia it is a good idea to have some extra tools handy:

  • A 58MM Reg Barber tamper or equivalent
  • A solid knock box
  • A grinder suited to this unit; like a Rocky or Baratza Virtuoso
  • A Pallo brew-group cleaner and some cleaning products
  • A supply of filtered water
  • 12 ounce frothing pitcher
  • Calibrated Taylor milk thermometer
  • A La Marzocco double basket

The most important thing for the Silvia is a worthy grinder. Sure, you can get your coffee pre-ground at the coffee shop but you are truly missing the full experience of the best possible espresso; by grinding it just before you brew it!

In a perfect World you would buy a Rancilio Rocky grinder when you buy the Silvia. The next choice is the Baratza Virtuoso grinder. If you have money to burn, you could buy the even better Mazzer Mini. Does the espresso taste better than when you are brewing with the Rocky? I doubt it - but it's your money!

The 2nd most important thing here is the tamp. I cannot overstate the importance of the solid steel or aluminum coffee tamper for this machine (or any good machine for that matter). Your tamper needs to be solid and it should be flat. I will take flack for this but... I have never found any advantage in having a curved bottom on the tamp.

Of all the machines out there, the most resistant to crappy water are machines with boilers. Thankfully, the Silvia has a marine grade brass boiler. What is so good about brass? Well - it might be slightly slower to heat up, but it is also reluctant to give up its heat quickly and it does not corrode - and it does not add anything to the flavor of the coffee - like Aluminum or steel. That said, the worse thing that happens with Aluminum boilers (other than the fact that coffee and aluminum do not mix) is that you are always drinking a certain amount of aluminum regardless of how pure your water is and regardless of how often you de-scale your machine.

I demonstrated this recently to one of our coffeecrew writers who bought his Dad a used Gaggia Coffee - we gave the machine a good cleaning and were running water through the group. No matter how many flushes we ran through the brew group we could see some gray sediment in the bottom of the cup. Ok, so there is no real health issue here - more of an aesthetic thing - and the fact that your coffee (while brewing) actually acts as something of a filter for grit and stuff from the boiler. Feel better? No? Well read on!

Power and Warm up

Once you find a comfortable place for your Silvia (and Rocky grinder!); hopefully somewhere near a sink and water supply... you will want to fill up the reservoir and flip the power switch.

1.) Quick prime: If you want to prime the machine fast (and who doesn't?), open the steam knob full or partially, place a cup under the steam wand and press the brew switch. The pump will rumble and grumble and water will come out of the steam wand into the cup.

2.) Switch off brew switch and close the steam knob.

3.) Place a cup under the brew group with the empty portafilter locked in place (with a suitable coffee basket as well).

4.) Press the brew switch and allow water to flow through the brew group into your cup. Switch off the brew switch after about 3 seconds.

 

At this point you could do one or two things:

-go relax for 15 minutes while your machine heats up... or

-prepare your espresso coffee of choice with your grinder. Have a steel jug handy if you are going to make latte or cappuccino. Keep that Taylor cappuccino thermometer handy as well as a good tamper, knockbox and some paper towels (because coffee is messy after all).

You can heat up your Rancilio Silvia somewhat faster with a few tricks and techniques - and it will speed things up by 5 minutes or so, but what is the point? If you have to rush something as sacred as espresso preparation, why not just go to a cafe and have someone else make it for you? Disagree? Ok. More on these tricks later in the article.

 

Just brew it

Once you have your Silvia all warmed up you need to decide what you are going to brew; straight espresso? latte or cappuccino?

If there is steamed milk involved (for latte and cappuccino) you are going to want to do this first.

Golden Rule: If you need to foam milk for specialty coffee beverages, you must do it first before brewing espresso!

Your Rancilio Silvia is going to do one thing by itself (a lot) to tell you its state of readiness. This is the Boiler On indicator light directly to the right of the Power On-Off switch. When this orange light is ON, your boiler is heating water. When it is not on, your boiler has stopped heating the boiler water and the Silvia is ready to brew espresso.

It is very important that you get acquainted with the Boiler On light because it will make a difference in the quality of your espresso shots.

The rhythm of the espresso machine ready-light can be very

confusing for the new user of pump powered espresso makers and the Rancilio Silvia is no exception. Get to know it. Watch it. And understand how it effects your brewing ritual.

Ok. Let's talk about steaming milk for latte and cappuccino. I am assuming that you have your 8 fluid-ounces of ice-cold 2% milk in a 12 or 16 fluid ounce stainless steel foaming chalice; not a glass container, not a china container, not rolled up newspaper! Stainless steel! There is only one kind of container for foaming milk; stainless-steel. Capiche?

Ok then. Flip the steam switch ON. It lights up. Get this: The Boiler light comes on too because a "Steam" thermostat has been switched into the circuit to super-heat the water to steam. When the boiler light goes out, you are almost ready to steam some milk.

Golden rule: The steam switch must be left in the on position for the entire time you are foaming milk or using steam.

I have had many e-mail from people who insist that they are getting little, if any, steam from their machines. And when I ask them exactly what they are doing they tell me the same thing: "I heat the machine up until it starts producing steam and I immediately turn the steam switch off!" - Ye gads, why do people do this? It is like starting your car and killing the ignition the moment you start moving. No, no, no! Leave the steam switch on AT ALL TIMES while steaming milk.

 

So go steam your milk. By the way, this is not a milk foaming tutorial. There is a milk foaming tutorial on this website. Go find it - I am not repeating it here.

When you are done bringing your milk up to 160 degrees (F) and hopefully no more than 5 to 7 degrees above that (because milk scalds at 170 and is useless for cappuccino then!), put it aside for the moment.

And then (and only then) turn OFF the steam switch on your Silvia.

For good measure, after wiping the milk off the steam wand (like you will do every time), give it a final blast by opening and closing it after the milk chore has been done. This makes sure that the wand is clear and not plugged the next time you want to make a Cap or Latte.

Now I am assuming that you have some pre-ground coffee for the Silvia to make your espresso. But wait!

Your boiler is still super-heated and the water is still to hot to make espresso. What to do?

Leave the portafilter on the Silvia (empty of coffee of course) and place a cup under it. Hit the Brew switch (meaning, turn it ON).

Sure enough, it will take about 5 to 7 seconds before any water comes out of the portafilter. And before that happens you might even get some sizzling steam coming out too. That is because there is super-heated water in the system that has to be let out before we can safely brew espresso.

Once water starts coming out of the portafilter, count to 3 and shut off the brew switch. The boiler light might come on for a minute or two and that is OK. We have just pulled some cool water into the boiler and the boiler needs to heat it up. All good.

Remove portafilter and load up your basket. How much? Fill whatever double or La Marzocco basket you are using to the top, level it off and tamp it down with about 7 to 15 pounds of pressure.

"Uhm, Colin... what about the single basket?"

And I say: "Grasshopper. It is too soon to think about the single basket. You are neither worthy or ready for the single basket. Put it away. Far, far, away. Do not think about your single basket for a minimum of 6 monthes grasshopper!"

Ahem. 7 to 15 pounds of tamp pressure on the espresso coffee in the portafilter! No, not 30 pounds. Not 40 pounds. Not 50 pounds.

Level the coffee and uniformly tamp it down. Let the ground espresso coffee do the work - that is, restrict the flow of coffee so you get a creamy, crema rich 25 second shot.

People that feel the need to tamp until they are blue in the face are Macho-Monkey's wasting their breath and strength.

Let the tamp do your work. And this is why it is so fundamentally important to have your own Burr grinder right there next to your espresso machine. Why? Because little variables like changes in humidity and atmospheric pressure and coffee type can actually throw your coffee grind for a loop. Getting your local coffee house or roaster to grind your coffee beforehand is just wrong on so many levels. Another great big reason to have your own grinder? Coffee beans are fresh for upwards of 15 days out of the roaster. Coffee that is ground is fresh for about 2 hours. I hope that perspective helps your decision making progress.

Anyway. There will be many shots pulled and discarded in your quest for something worthy. Yet again, you might get lucky and pull rich 25 second 1 and 3/4 ounce shots right off the get go. In the photo (upper right) - I have great success pulling nice cappuccino worthy shots with some fresh coffee. If you get a shot like this one, dump it into your Cap or Latte cups (which you have pre-heated of course) and bingo, you have a Cap or a Latte. What is the difference? In simple terms: A cappuccino is largely foamed milk -- you know, more fluffy foam than wet steamed milk. A True latte is all steamed milk on top of the espresso and NO FOAM. So why do you have to say "No foam Latte" when you are ordering "the latte of your dreams" in your favorite cafe? I do not know. It is like when you order a "Macchiato" at Starbucks, you get a 700 calorie dessert drink in a 20 ounce cup with a staggering 15G of fat! And when you are in a "real" cafe and order a Macchiato, you get a double shot of espresso with a small stain-sized scoop of milk foam. This is one of those deep mysteries that even I cannot answer.

In some ways, mastering the milk steaming/foaming process is more demanding with your espresso machine than brewing good shots - but results will vary. Just be prepared to go through a few pounds of coffee beans when you get it all together.

The Rancilio Silvia is a good learning machine in that it is very stable; thermally and physically. Once it heats up and you are ready to roll, there isn't going to be anything that gets between you and the final product. Again I will stress that it is ultra-important to have your own Burr grinder. A good tamper is helpful as well - but it is not a deal breaker... unless of course you are one of these people that insists that you need to tamp at 30+ pounds of pressure - because you do not!

Keeping your Silvia Happy and Healthy

The Rancilio Silvia is the best machine for under $1000. No question. It is well built and assembled to last a lifetime. There are very few things you can do to break it... if you can that is.

A couple of things off the top of my head:

  • Do not leave your Silvia on all the time. Unless you are drinking coffee morning, noon and night (in which case you should be using a commercial machine!) you do not need to leave your machine on all the time.
  • Do not put your Rancilio Silvia on a timer (to have it pre-warm before you get up in the morning). Unless you can devise a way of having it prime itself, it is not a good idea.
  • Do not overwork your Silvia. It is not a commercial machine. It is not really meant to host espresso cappuccino parties. It is meant to brew a couple of beverages an hour a few times a day. Seriously, it is not a commercial machine. They cost thousands of dollars more.
  • Do wipe your Rancilio Silvia down after every use. Do not use abrasive cleaners or steel wool. A bit of windex or soapy kitchen cleaner and soft tissue paper is great.
  • Do use soft water with your Silvia. Bottled is fine but it is over-kill. Distilled water of any kind makes flat tasting coffee, so skip it. Use a Brita system but follow the filter change schedule to the letter.
  • Descale your Silvia once a month whether it needs it or not. Back flush it every few days because rancid coffee oils and ooze builds up quickly and taints the flavor of your coffee.

Do these few things and a few others we will discuss in the forums and you will be a happy Silvia owner for many years to come!

 

Alternate reading: For a great overview on the new Silvia, check out CoffeeGeek.Com's review here.

 


Colin Newell lives and works in Victoria B.C. Canada as a electronics specialist, writer and pop culture analyst. He once owned a Silvia and sold it during a moment of silliness to an acquaintance. Years later, I still regret it.