If I were to make a quick assessment and boil down specialty coffee enthusiasts to two distinct groups (if such a thing is practical, reasonable or possible...)...
This is what it would come down to:
Group a.) likes to play with buttons and knobs. They concern themselves with timing, equipment specifications, adjustments, parameters, tweaks and hacks. Not only do they endlessly research their current machine, but they are also relentllessly looking forward to their next acquisition, all the while dismissing their second to last possession at utter rubbish - and sadly relegating perfectly good gear to the scrap heap of disrespect and mediocrity.
The Alpha group has their kichen cafe on the psychiatrists chair at all times. They are not satisfied unless there are questions to be asked... even if they need to be asked multiple times of multiple experts - and the answers? Alpha group is never happy with the answers.
You might think that, on some level, all coffee nerds are somewhat hypochondriacal. Well, they are... because, under almost all circumstances the coffee experience is almost always less than perfect.
That is a crude example of the perfect Alpha espresso person - sadly, I have met a few of these and they are the bane of my existence - but there is a little Alpha in all of us.
Group b.) or the Beta's are an entirely different kettle. They are the kind of coffee and espresso drinkers that do not appear on this website... because they do not need to.
Who are they? They are the good folks who love espresso coffee, plain and simple - and how to get it. They have no concern about how the product is actually delivered or whether or not their machine has multiple pressure gauges, thermostats, boilers, gaskets, blah blah blah... They want great espresso and the ability to steam milk in such a fashion as to make great latte and cappuccino.
They are not a complicated lot are they? No. They are not.
So what kind of machines do the Alpha's and Beta's use?
Now that answer is easy!
An Alpha has a Rancilio Silvia... or a Gaggia Classic...
A hard-core Alpha has a la Pavoni lever style of espresso maker.
The owner of the Silvia loves the thrill of the variable... the unknown... the utter challenge that is every brew session with the Rancilio product.
Owning a Rancilio Silvia means becoming one with the unit - understanding and exploiting its quirks. Surfing. Tweaking. Tricking.
Life with the Rancilio Silvia is a cat and mouse game of hunting for the God shot -- and from time to time, the utterly diligent Silvia owner is rewarded with espresso that rivals anything any cafe could turn out. Most of the time, Silvia espresso is merely really good... better than average and almost always better than anything that is happening in the coffee house.
The la Pavoni lever espresso user is simply "mad scientist" level Alpha. Cue the Thomas Dolby music folks - we needn't describe this enthusiast any further.
A Beta coffee enthusiast would buy the Nuova Simonelli Oscar espresso machine without hesitation. Someone who does not want fuss in their life would buy one of these machines.
I had the good fortune of having Reg James of EspressoTec.Com load up my little Honda Civic full of stuff. And if you think living the life of coffeecrew guy means driving up to the front of Macy's and getting the concierge to load you up "gratis" - well you are partially right.
This particular load included a Nuova Simonelli Oscar and matching Grinta grinder - not forgetting two V-Tech Pod and Dual boiler espresso systems (yet to be reviewed).
And for the impatient among you - I actually think I like certain things about Pod systems... so stay tuned for the honey-soaked review.
Back to the Nuova Simonelli Oscar. The Nuova Simonelli Oscar has been given a solid initial review on Mark Prince's Geek site - and if you have not read it yet: Do it. I will add in a link when I get a moment while this article is being written. For regular readers of the coffeecrew website (that is, the ones that have better things to do but invariably hang out here while articles take shape...) you can actually watch articles get built one or two stanzas at a time - and I cannot imagine anyone finding this amusing - if anything, I suppose, I guess it builds tension...
Mark did a very complete initial look-see of the Nuova Simonelli Oscar... but no follow-up. And there was, most certainly, a hue and cry for the follow-up. And I am sure that he had lots of valid reasons...
What occured to me (after having a variety of interesting and positive experiences with the Oscar) was that a detailed review of the Nuova Simonelli Oscar would be kind of pointless - because there was noone to really direct all that information towards...
Sure, you could crack the thing open and critique the 2L copper boiler, the 3-way solenoid, the commercial quality pressure-stats... gazing fondly upon the commercial brass group and the brace of 58MM portafilters, the steam wand that looks more like a shifter on a 56 chev... alright, an upside down one... and so on.
The Nuova Simonelli Oscar's boiler does provide steam beyond your wildest dreams - and a heat exchanger is the key component in providing brew water that is more stable than your Silvia or Gaggia or la Pavoni etc. It's in the design.
If you are a latte or cappuccino nut (and have several other house hold members who enjoy same...)then this machine is the bomb. In my 2 weeks with the Nuova Simonelli Oscar, I got to sail through litres of milk steaming as effortlessly as pouring beer from the bottle. I have about 3 sizes of stainless steel milk foaming jugs - and it became quickly apparent that small was pointless. The Nuova Simonelli Oscar has steam fire-power unlike anything I have ever used outside the cafe. I could bring 12 fluid ounces of milk up to temperature in about 30s or so - which was often too fast. Because hey, foaming milk is not just about heat - it is also about pulling the milk... and I am no master at this (not being a milk drinker and being generally lactose intolerant makes me less of a cappuccino expert...)
The Nuova Simonelli Oscar surprised me on a couple of key points - Weight. It is not that heavy. And I imagine the ABS plastic shell makes all the difference as far as shipping is concerned - and consequently set-up and flexibility. The Nuova Simonelli Oscar is well packed and from box opening to first power-up took about 7 minutes - and that included a quick read of the manual. The one thing that jumped out at me was a label on the top of the Nuova Simonelli Oscar: On power-up make sure the steam wand is open for the pressure-stats to work properly... or something like that. No big deal. When you power it up, you open the steam wand - and when the Nuova Simonelli Oscar started to hiss, it is good and ready to be primed.
The Nuova Simonelli Oscar has a 2 1/2 litre water tank - a tad low for a machine of this calibre - but its not a deal breaker. The drip tray looks to be at least a litre - and that is a plus... and the Nuova Simonelli Oscar has a three-way solenoid (for depressurizing the portafilters after brewing a shot) and it drains into this swimming pool sized drip tray. Yay.
The Nuova Simonelli Oscar has an insulated copper boiler so it earns points in the energy department. You could hypothetically leave the Nuova Simonelli Oscar on 24 hours a day - but I totally frown on this practice or anyone that would advocate leaving anything on 24/7 just so it can be used for 10 minutes a day! The Nuova Simonelli Oscar heats up in about 10 to 15 minutes (and yes, you can probably trick it some - but I am not even going there!) - Naturally, if you gave it a bit more time, results would probably be slightly better.
The Nuova Simonelli Oscar has a heat exchanging brew head. Simply, the boiler runs with full charged steam on demand. The water for brewing is separate from the super-charged bolier water - but draws energy from the boiler. It is inherently more stable - it tends to produce brew water that is nearly perfect in terms of temperature - but can be slightly high if the machine has been on a while. Simple solution: Make you sure you give the brew group a quick flush before you brew shots - even with the portafilter off to take a quick peak at the water quality as it exits the shower head - I know, I know... Alpha behavior!
The Nuova Simonelli Grinta Grinder - When Reg James of EspressoTec.Com sent over the Oscar, he packed in the companion Grinta grinder - it looks like the Mazzer mini or similar commercial style grinder. My first instincts are to compare the Grinta to the Rancilio Rocky and I did use both while testing the Oscar. The difference right out of the gate is - the Grinta grinder has a very wide range in terms of stops - But: The Grinta is primarily an espresso grinder. I have been using the Rocky for years now and dialing in drip, espresso, turkish or french comes second nature to me. The Grinta is more of a calibrate and leave kind of grinder.
At 220 Watts of power, the Grinta edges out the Silvia in terms of torque - it grinds coffee about 10% faster than the Rocky if that is of any consequence - and it might even be a tad quiter than the Rocky. The Grinta also has a bigger hopper holding a whopping 1/2 a kilo of whole bean coffee. Personally, I never put more coffee into the hopper than what I am using during that session. And as far as using this grinder in a commercial environment? I have seen it running as a secondary grinder in some espresso bars (like decaf) or as a specialty grinder - like when you are doling out shots of Panama La Hacienda Esmerelda!
Summary - The Nuova Simonelli Oscar is a wonderful machine for those that cannot be bothered fussing and tweaking a more mainstream espresso machine. By design it is inherently more stable than the beloved Silvia - and as a result brews more consistent shots of espresso. Its steam power is remarkable and head and shoulders beyond the Silvia.
The Grinta grinder makes a good companion to the Oscar - but a Rocky could work in a pinch too.
Many, many thanks to Reg, Brenda, Don and the gang at EspressoTec.Com for providing me with the opportunity to play with these machines.
Colin Newell lives and works in Victoria B.C. - and feels generally blessed that he is buried alive with the greatest coffee equipment ever made... Yea, it's tough.