Living with the Ascaso - Innova series of espresso machines and grinders

Innova Single Boiler in steam actionIt's a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll. Or so the classic AC-DC song goes. The same could be said for quality home espresso in your kitchen - but it is not entirely true.

Truth is, there are more ways to brew great coffee on the cheap. And I know cheap. And although one can brew a pretty bad-ass cup of drip, or French, or Stove-top, or Aeropress for a few dozen dollars... if you really and I mean really want to get into real espresso, the shock could be on the sticker.

And for those just joining us, a quick overview: Espresso coffee machines break down into a trio of options - The under 400 and over 99 dollar group, the 400 to 900 dollar cluster and the over $1250 set... also known as the Good, the Bad and the Ugly...

And that's just from your wallet's perspective!

Not surpisingly, in about 14 years of gathering data about peoples spending habits, there is a clear preference for spending as little as possible on espresso coffee for the home. That said, as times and economies have changed, and as people have become more saavy about specialty coffee - the expectations of the average person have taken one big uptick.

But know this: Expectations cost money. Be prepared.

Ok. Summary
. Most people buy home espresso machines priced under 400 dollars. Fair enough. Lots of people have machines that they are not entirely happy with too. The next tier of buyers spend slightly more on their machine and then a small chunk of change on a good grinder (grinders--learn more).

Innova Single Boiler in steam actionSo. Where does happiness begin? Well. Interesting thing: The single most popular espresso-cappuccino combo, the Rancilio Silvia espresso machine and Rancilio Rocky grinder fall into that no-man's land between 600 and 1000 dollars.
Rephrasing: Anyone that knows anything about great espresso-cappuccino (and a lot of people that do not) recognize the Rancilio as the machine to buy if you are serious.

Some history - Which brings us to the Ascaso and Innova series of quality espresso machines. It seems that Ascaso has been around for a good long time - in the espresso business, particularly in parts, service and support. Company's founder, Jésus Ascaso, started his career with espresso machines in the 1950s repairing Gaggia machines. Ascaso was founded in 1962, initially producing spare parts for popular machines of the day. By the mid 1990s, Ascaso started thinking about their own stand-alone espresso machines - the home market their primary and sole focus. The first efforts were revealed in Europe in the year 2000 and in 2002 in North America with the likes of the Arc and the Ellipse units. (paragraph source - CoffeeGeek)

My first experience with Innova was with the original grinder series - all solidly made with one bugaboo - the hoppers tended to self-destruct quite quickly; cracks appearing at the base and quickly winding their way through the whole plastic hopper body.

- Geir Oglend, of Drumroaster Coffee on Vancouver Island was kind enough to give me an extended loan of the Innova single boiler espresso machine (modified to include a PID Digital temperature controller) and the Ascaso-Innova Pro grinder. Geir is Vancouver Island's guru of all things coffee - he brought specialty coffee and espresso to Vancouver Island... so who better to provide equipment and mentoring on the subject!

The engineers at Ascaso (Innova) seemed to have targeted the sector of the market that considers the Rancilio Silvia the one and only machine to have in that particular price bracket - and afterall, Rancilio pretty much owns that price bracket. So, what about the Innova-Ascaso machines?

Ascaso, as mentioned above, has been making high quality components for commercial espresso machines for decades. So it was not much of a stretch to enter the lucrative home market in a place that would be competitive.
From our perspective at the CoffeeCrew.Com website, we feel that in order for a home machine to be really successful, it has to have all of the following going for it:
  • Steel construction, as little plastic as possible
  • Brass boiler, group and portafilters - the larger boiler the better
  • 58MM filter holders... 57MM being the smallest
  • Enough heating power (1000 Watts plus)
  • 3-way solenoid for quick change-over of spent coffee grounds

Some specs - Not too much to expect really! The above pretty much describes what the Rancilio Silvia has to offer and it is what the Innova and Ascaso series of machines offer. The Innova espresso single boiler unit I was loaned surprised me by not only meeting all my criteria for an intermediate machine - but actually exceeding it in overall build quality and weight. The Ascaso Uno prof is the current iteration of this series of single boiler espresso machines and it weighs in at 26 pounds. The venerable Silvia is 30 pounds. My sample of Innova single boiler had a digital control PID mod (worth about 300 dollars) tipped the scales at well over 30 pounds. Why do I make an issue with weight? Well, on one level, bulk translates to heat stability - and heat stability is everything in brewing quality espresso.

My sample Innova single boiler espresso machine (as described earlier) had some minor (and major) tweaks - which added some overall value to the unit. It had a PID controller which kept the boiler temperature within a couple of degrees of ideal - and the portafilters had been chopped to become bottomless portafilters.
Photo at left: With bottomless portafilters, you get a clear view of the brew action!
Let me say this about that... Bottomless portafilters are great for training but they are not for every day use. Go ahead hard-core readers! Contradict me! The bottomless units allow the user to see the shot develop - let's just say... very intimately - a view not afforded the standard set-up. And I promise, I will go into that in the forum area if asked... but not here.

- The Innova single boiler espresso machine keeps it simple with the minimum of switches and idiot lights. Warm-up time is a pretty typical 15 minutes. Water reservoir fill is about 2 litre which is very sensible. On top of that, there is a shut-off switch for when the water level runs down. Having the extra water capacity allows the user-barista to freely flush (and back-flush) and brew with impunity. Because the Innova single boiler espresso machine (and corresponding Ascaso machines) are actually all-steel, the tops actually work as real cup warmers - so stack them up!

My sample Innova has a gauge on the front - a pressure gauge... measuring bar pressure - Actually useful for determining whether or not your tamp pressure is spot on. Very smart feature indeed! Sadly, the new generation of Ascaso Uno prof machines have ditched the pressure gauge and substituted in a useless temperature gauge - time will tell whether they keep this. Truth is, you need neither... but having a functional pressure gauge on the front of the machine was quite useful in a small variety of ways.

Performance - The Innova-Ascaso espresso is an easy shoe-in for the Silvia. Espresso was consistent shot after shot - with razor sharp temperature stability (with the assistance of the PID). Steam power (PID preset at about 130 (C) or more was ballistic and sustained: 12 ounces of milk prepped in about 45 to 55 seconds. The Innova-Ascaso espresso is a very well built machine (like the Rancilio Silvia) with a ruggedless that puts it in that not highly populated region just under $1000. With a good grinder (like the Ascaso conical burr shown above), the Innova-Ascaso equals the Rancilio Silvia. In our tests, we used 4 different grinders; the Rancilio Rocky, the Baratza Virtuoso, the Bodum Burr and the Ascaso conical burr grinder - all with good results. Naturally, the Rocky and the Ascaso grinder seemed best suited to the task - and the Baratza Virtuoso had no trouble grinding suitable coffee for the Innova.

Verdict - Dollar for dollar, you really and truly get what you pay for in the World of espresso stuff. And the undeniable truth is - for reliability and consistently good performance, you have to dedicate at least 650 dollars for the good stuff (not including grinder, tamper, cups and beans of course) - and the Innova-Ascaso series of single boiler espresso machines have dropped some excellent product square in the middle of the Rancilio Silvia zone!

And for those in the know, this is the place to be!
Following this article with be a brief look at the Ascaso conical burr grinder - followed by the Bodum Living series, featuring the burr grinder, the stove-top espresso maker and the Bodum tea press. Stay tuned!

Colin Newell lives in Victoria B.C. Canada and been the primary writer at this coffee oriented web page for a long, long time. If you would like your favorite coffee product, process, gadget or bean reviewed - Well, send me a note!

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