The 2008 Festive Buyers Guide - Chapter Four

Last minute buyers feeling the fire as we get down to the wire!

Rancilio SilviaWith less than a week to go before that special day, I thought I would take a slightly different approach to the wrap up on our buyers guide series... with a virtual walk around the ultimate specialty coffee showroom. This showroom only exists inside my head but I am going to take you there with the power of my words and knowledge about coffee culture. It is also going to be built on a years worth of questions and feedback on all things espresso coffee... even those other methods too.

So. Grab a glass of rum and egg-nog... heavy on the rum. Sit down in your most comfortable chair. Take a sip. Close your eyes. And read on (or listen to the sound of my voice on the accompanying podcast mp3 file...
Welcome to the coffeecrew.com virtual showroom of all things espresso and coffee! Please take a seat on the sofa by the fireplace as we wait for a few stragglers. Help yourself to some fine baked goods from Bubby Roses Bakery - yes, the mince tarts are particularly fanciful this time of year. The open bar by the hearth is stocked with many spirits suitable to the season. I would suggest an Islay single malt Scotch to accompany your mince tart. Enjoy my friend, enjoy.

As you can see, the coffeecrew showroom is as much kitchen as it is sales center - and that is because coffee is as much a part of food culture as food itself. The two are inseparable.

"Hey Colin!"
Ah. Yes Theresa?
"Is that Christopher Walken over by the sink playing with a Rancilio Silvia and Rocky grinder? he makes it look so easy to use!"
No. That is not Christopher Walken... That is my assistant Deid, who will be helping me demonstrate every piece of coffee equipment in the Coffeecrew kitchen show room... Deid, my good friend... over to you.

"Thank-you Colin! You are indeed a gracious host and remarkable writer - for allowing me the privilege of participating in this remarkable exercise I salute you! Alas, Theresa, you have noticed the Silvia and Rocky combo - in over one year we have received hundreds of e-mails asking the Coffeecrew team about this wonderful coffee maker. Everyone wants to know - is it everything it is brewed up to be? Can one machine and grinder serve all my coffee needs for one small price? Why is it so popular? Well my friends - The Rancilio Silvia and rocky grinder set the bar for great espresso coffee some years ago and have yet to be bested? Why you ask? Several things. Each Rancilio Rocky and Silvia are hand assembled by skilled Italian artisans - sculpted in stainless steel and brass. There is nary a ounce of plastic or aluminum in any of these fine machines. The swiss: They have their fancy expensive clocks. The Italians: they have their Rancilio. It is pretty much sewn up. Watch as I brew perfect shot after perfect shot and perfectly foamed milk for cappuccino and latte. One only provide some fresh coffee beans and a carafe of ice cold 2% milk... after 15 minutes of warming up the Silvia, you are brewing cafe quality drinks..."

Thanks Deid. You know... in a year we have probably encouraged 10,000 people or more to make the jump from ok coffee to great coffee with the Silvia and Rocky. We mustn't forget all those folks that have grown up with the Coffeecrew website - like the ones that bought a Silvia some years ago and are ready to move upwards to the next level - keeping in mind that you can never actually retire a Rancilio Silvia - all you can do is give it to someone you love... who is ready for great coffee in the home... Deid?

"Thank you Colin. You are too kind. Next to the Silvia on Colin's Italian granite kitchen counter is a ruby red Nuova Simonelli Oscar and Grinta grinder. For a few dollars more you get a bigger machine with a couple of special creature features - a heat exchanging brew head and boiler control through pressure-stats instead of inaccurate thermostats. Yes, the Oscar is more dollars but it is big on taste. Additionally, you can steam your milk on demand and brew your espresso coffees independantly of each other - very handy if you are catering a small gathering of friends and family..."

Thanks Deid. Let's remind everyone that the Oscar is still a home espresso machine...

"Exactly Colin. This machine is still intended for very light use - you know... under a dozen servings a day or so. They do not call it home espresso machine for a reason..."

"Mmmmmmmm. This espresso from the Oscar is somewhat more intense than the Silvia...."
That is because the water temperature on the Oscar is more tightly regulated than on the Silvia. A skilled palate will spot that. Good for you.

"Some of us are not ready for the Silvia Colin! Or the Oscar... What then?"
Good question Theresa... like I said in some previous chapter - depending on your needs or tolerance for big learning curves, you might want to get something with a pressurized portafilter - a gizmo that allows some flexibility with the grind of the coffee and the freshness of the beans. Solis makes a couple of these and so does the ever reputable Saeco series of semi-auto machines like the Saeco Aroma - a big seller and popular with those folks just getting their feet wet with home espresso.

"Cheaper still?"
Sure. For well under $300 you can buy a couple of great Gaggia units, granted in their unsexy thermoplastic shells - like the Topazio. It has all the rugged internals of all the other Gaggia espresso machines - including the commercial sized components and it is often marked down to below $200! Staggering!

"That is great Colin but what about the coffee grinder?"

We said in previous chapters that blade grinders are good for few things; mashing up spices, pulverizing M&M's for an interesting ice cream sundae... little else. Any good coffee deserves a burr grinder. But what is a burr grinder you ask? A burr grinder has 3 important parts; an electric motor, a lower burr assembly, and an upper burr assembly. Generally, the lower burr assembly is connected to the motor - hopefully via a gear reduction assembly - to slow the burrs RPM. The slower you grind the coffee, generally the better it is for the coffee and the more consistent the grind.

Anyway - great grinders from the bottom up include the Baratza Maestro in an all-plastic model with superior conical burrs - assembled in America, it is often discounted from $150 and it might be the last grinder you buy - it does it all from espresso to coarse French press and press pot brews. The Maestro Plus at $169 has an enhanced solid metal base - so it sits on your counter better. Each one has 41 grind settings. One of my personal favorites is the Baratza Virtuoso grinder - At around $200, it has Italian conical burrs and a 480 Watt DC Motor (quick start time and high running torque) which produces a more consistent grind. One tick upward is the Gaggia MDF at around $299 and it hosts an actual doser to tap out your espresso coffee into the coffee machine portafilter. Yes, it is somewhat more espresso-centric but it will grind across the complete range.

Next up is the beloved Rancilio Rocky grinder. Deid, what can you tell us about the Rocky?

"Thank you Colin - most kind. The Rocky, priced out around $450 is the last grinder you will buy. It is a fabulous espresso grinder, yes, but it is also the kind of grinder that can handle any task. At 17 pounds, the Rocky demands respect and delivers reliability. The Rocky is equipped with 50MM hardened steel cutting burrs that are rated at a staggering 1000 pounds of coffee before you need to replace them. 1000 pounds. Hmmmm. 63 espresso = 1 pounds of coffee = 1 week. You do the math. This worker bee is going to be with you a long, long time!"

Good point Deid. Beyond these basic machines are many, many choices for those with slightly deeper pockets. The bottom line is justifying spending more than 1000 bucks on a collection of items and accessories just to make a cup of coffee. Why do we do it? Simply, we love our cafe house coffee and we want to be able to do it at home and impress our friends at the same time. In a new year follow-up we will talk about some of the alternatives to these basic espresso machines - and raise the question: Super-Autos versus the Pod machine. Who is best and why? We will be there for you... in 2009!


Colin Newell lives and works in Victoria B.C. Canada - he has been tapping away at one keyboard or another for about 14 years. You would think there would not be much left to say about coffee. Guess what...