Some History: In almost 20 years of reviewing every shape and size of espresso machine, one thing remains pretty constant: The ever strengthening link between engineers, manufacturers and consumers.
Baratza grinders are a superb example of this. First and foremost, they listen before they design. Their entire product line is based on consumer feedback - it is, after all, the perfect formula for customer satisfaction and smart marketing.
The Olympia Cremina is an example of the same kind of thinking that stretches back over 40 years.
Based on the original design from Achille Gaggia in 1945, the Olympia Cremina utilizes a classic engineering design: a piston forces water, heated to the ideal brew temperature, through finely ground coffee - resulting in perfectly extracted espresso coffee every time. It is an almost unbeatable formula. There are no moving parts beyond the lever itself and the parts internal to this manually operated mechanism. No pump. No solenoids. One power switch. The ultimate in reliability it would seem.
I was lucky enough to get a sample of the Olympia Cremina to run through its paces for 7 days.
And it was seven days of heaven. I have used lever machines before - particularly the Gaggia and the Pavoni. The big difference between those classic units and the Olympia Cremina is the price tag. At almost $4000, the Olympia Cremina is at the top of the heap.
It is simply the cream of the crop of espresso machines that have crossed my kitchen lab counters.
So, what makes this machine so special? Well, for starters, it is made in Switzerland. It is hand made from the finest and most suitable materials for coffee preparation; chrome plated brass, steel and stainless steel. The fundamental design of the Olympia Cremina has remained the same since its inception in 1967. And many of those machines made way back when are still in operation.
And the list of materials and discrete parts is kept to the minimum to get the job done right - each and every time. That and repairability and service over the long haul - as in expect to keep this coffee maker for 40 years or more and hand it down through the generations.
And when you think about it, that kind of flies in the face of modern manufacturing and marketing where stuff is made somewhere "overseas" and meant to die and be disposed of moments after the warranty expires. That is not the case with the Olympia Cremina and it's obvious from that first out of the box moment that this is serious coffee making!
Out of the box: Quality Coffee Systems of Vancouver, Canada was kind enough to extend me this loan during the beginning of the festive giving season - hence the narrow but comfortable window of running all of my tests.
The Olympia Cremina and accessory kit is packed as well as it is manufactured and prepared for a journey across country in my case it only had to travel 35 miles.
The Olympia Cremina comes with a concise multi-lingual manual, solid professional portafilter with dual and single spouts - it is, afterall, a 50mm basket (give or take a few mm - and if you are a Reg Barber fan, a custom 49.4 mm tamper would be almost ideal...) It comes with a pretty respectable (but light duty) solid one piece tamper that (I think) is made out of aluminum. A funnel is supplied for filling the stunning 1.8 L boiler -- enough water capacity for around 20 espresso before powering down and cooling for a refill.
Kick the tires, light the fires: Power up is no more complicated than filling the boiler (with a sexy sight glass port) to MAX, plugging into a suitable 110V or 220V outlet (Yes, you can get the 220 V model for the North American market -- faster heat up time!), hitting the power switch and waiting the 10 to 12 minutes for the Olympia Cremina to heat up (110V version).
According to the instructions, the P-Stat in the Olympia Cremina is set to top out at around .8 bar and a brew head temperature of 198 degrees (F). There is some surfing involved as I noted that the bar pressure on the pressure meter would peak at around 1.2 bar when the machine was hitting its temperature stride.
In my experience with the Olympia Cremina, I would lift the lever and flush the group with some hot water into my espresso (or cappuccino) cup.
I had a Baratza Vario and Rancilio Rocky grinder on stand by for the tasks and they were both ideally suited to the task. In reality, one can get away with a slightly coarser grind than what would be more typical in a pump driven machine. It is a good starting point anyway.
The taste experience: I was expecting a bit of a dial in cycle with this machine but, thankfully, I nailed it from the first shot and got wonderful 2.5 fluid ounce crema rich shots right out of the gate.
The beauty of the lever machine is, afterall, it is your pull down that determines the extraction. It is a very human connection to the process as any lever espresso user will know.
There is nothing else but you and the machine. With a pump machine, you are entirely at the mercy of your skills as a coffee grinder and coffee tamper.
Make a slight mistake and the shot is out the window. With a lever machine, you can "hold back" or "give more" in the pull quite literally moment by moment. It's all up to you to finesse the best of the bean as it were.
I found myself locking in on the "pull" pretty quickly -- and to be more specific, the actual brew came down to filling the brew basket with ground coffee, tamping at around 20 pounds, locking the portafilter into the group, lifting the lever (which actually pre-infuses the coffee in the portafilter), counting to 5 to 7 seconds and then pulling down on the lever to engage the brew process.
And despite what you might think, there is not a lot of work involved in hauling the lever down - I found a gentle and steady downward tug of the lever extacted some marvelous espresso.
But make no mistake, there is skill involved here and if you are entirely new to the process and the experience, you are going to need some practice... so work out on some cheap coffee beans!
I established pretty quickly that espresso came pretty easily and pretty consistently. So what about that critical ability to steam milk for cappuccino? I am no milk expert so I brought in food and drink expert Mark Engels of Bubby's Kitchen in Victoria B.C. Canada - he has made thousands of caps and lattes and understands milk in a way that I have never grasped. He was foaming and steaming up 2% milk for incredible cappuccino in short order - the Olympia Cremina has a lot of steam power thanks to a large and dense boiler that retains lots of heat and produces an almost endless supply of steam.
Foamed milk quality was very good and latte art was pretty effortless for Mark. I threw a lot of different beans at the Cremina with some variation in grind and got some very acceptable results time and time again.
Summary thoughts: The Olympia Cremina is a pretty amazing machine but is it worth the $4000 price tag? Well, the workmanship is extraordinary. The fit and finish is second to none. It is designed and built in a way to be reliable as the decades pass and be safe as well - there are way fewer scalding parts than what you would find on a Pavoni (a nice machine that has an exposed boiler...) It feels great to handle. It looks awesome on the kitchen counter and is a sure fire conversation starter. I had pretty much given up on espresso in my kitchen but after using this machine for a few days, I was in love again. Sadly, my pockets are not that deep. That said, few of us hesitate to buy a car for 25,000 bucks that might last us 10 years. So why hestitate on spending this kind of dough on something you might have to leave in your will!? For the folks that can afford a gem like this, keep in mind that this might be the last coffee maker you buy. The Olympia Cremina is available in Canada from Quality Coffee Systems - their e-mail address is email@example.com - In America you can buy the Olympia from here - CeriniCoffee.com
Colin Newell is a Victoria area resident and coffee lover - his equipment reviews have graced the internet since 1995 - we are coming up on our 20th anniversary online! Stay tuned for more reviews in the New Year!