Our first equipment review in a while - with thanks to EspressoTec.com
In 20 years of reviewing coffee equipment, there are things that change and things that do not change.
I'll preface that with the observation that the world of specialty coffee is always on the move and almost always moving forward. This is a positive thing.
We have seen so much growth and improvement in every aspect of the coffee experience; the actual coffee is light years ahead of where it was 20 years ago, the equipment is highly evolved, and our knowledge has come so far.
So, what hasn't changed?
People have not changed!
I mean that in the gentlest way possible.
Here is an example: "I have been going to the cafe now for years, paying for lattes and cappuccinos, and now I want to have this experience at home. Can I achieve this for under $300?"
When most people order their caps, lattes and drip or poured coffees, they don't really look beyond the counter or formulate a sound understanding of what is involved in making a great cup of coffee or decent espresso.
In 20 years of responding to e-mails from eager consumers, I have yet to receive an e-mail stating that the writer wanted the best possible kitchen solution within a reasonable budget. This is not a blanket condemnation of consumers by any stretch. It is a simple matter of consumers not knowing what goes into making a cafe grade espresso.
On a flip side, it is only in the last decade or so that a budget of $1000 could replicate the cafe experience (not including the cost of a grinder).
The Lelit Grace PID espresso machine is a good example of a well made and reasonably priced machine that has achieved this objective - particularly when paired up with the very affordable Fred espresso grinder by Lelit.
In this review of the Lelit Grace PID espresso machine and Fred grinder, we will reveal something special: This is a machine that delivers a cafe quality experience. This combo will not break your wallet. By and large, it all makes sense.
Out of the Box -
The Lelit Grace PID espresso machine (this sample loaned from EspressoTec.com out of Vancouver) came with everything needed to jump right into brewing; commercial grade portafilter with a variety of inserts for doubles and single shots, a 57mm aluminum tamper and a comprehensive multi-lingual instruction manual. For fans of exotic accessories you can get any number of fantastic Reg Barber tampers in 57MM over here.
The overall first impression is, this machine looks very much like a Gaggia Classic - tall and stately in brushed stainless steel. The height of the brew group is very mug friendly and there is a provided steel booster tray for espresso and Euro cap cups. Nice touch.
The Lelit Grace PID espresso machine comes with a heavy duty detachable power cord - handy when you want to store the unit or swap out a right angle cord to get a bit closer to a kitchen counter wall.
Front panel is dead simple with a left hand row of the most commonly used buttons; Brew, Steam and Water. These are all, what I call, "soft logic" buttons. And what I mean by that is: There are sensors and processes at work with the Lelit Grace PID espresso machine - conditions that have to be met before something happens.
For instance, the unit will not run if there is no water in the reservoir. The PID controller display lets you know if something is awry. More about that in a moment. On the right hand side of the front fascia is the brew pressure indicator or manometer. This only measures brew pressure and only gives a reading when you are brewing a shot. There is a sweet zone between 8 and 12 bar. That is where you want your brew pressure to be and why that is is beyond the scope of this review. Needless to say, when you are tamping each and every shot, you will discover what works and what doesn't when "dialing" in the perfect shot. Thankfully, the Lelit Fred grinder has more than enough "micro-adjustment" to it to find the perfect grind with any bean.
The Lelit Grace PID espresso machine has a 1/4L (250ml) brass boiler that, in combination with the PID controller and 1kw of heating power provides good temperature stability for quick recovery between shots and a fast ramp-up time for producing steam. And while on the subject of steam, our professional barista and cafe/bistro owner "Mark" found the single hole steam wand was very good for making cafe quality textured milk for producing wonderful lattes, cappuccinos and latte art!
Photo above Right - Lelit Fred micro-adjust
The Lelit Grace PID espresso machine has a 3-way solenoid. This device clears the portafilter pressure "post brew shot" and clears some of the water from the portafilter "post brew shot" making for a drier puck. The "puck" is the waste coffee that is ejected by the machine operator after extracting the espresso. The waste water drains silently into the drip tray after each brew cycle. The drip tray is stainless steel as well and can hold at least 1/4L of waste water if not more.
The LCC or "Lelit Control Center" - uses a digital display and a 2-button (+ and -) that accesses a menu system. More on this below.
The Grace has a pre-infusion option which splashes the coffee with boiler water and pauses while the espresso coffee gets a pre-soak to enhance infusion and extraction. The control center has a count down timer to remind you of how long the brew cycle has been running - perfect for getting that idea 24-25 second shot.
The Lelit Grace PID espresso machine has a boiler auto-fill feature that serves several purposes; boiler fill on power up and boiler re-fill post steaming session. This one feature will extend the life of the boiler elements and virtually eliminate the risk of pre-mature boiler failure from running the boiler dry.
The Lelit Grace PID espresso machine has an auto-standby or "sleep" feature. By all means, walk and away and forget about your machine.
The professional grade portafilter has 57MM inserts but I think there is also a 57MM bottomless handle that you can purchase and take advantage of the enhanced view that bottom-filter brewing can offer. The Lelit Grace PID espresso machine forward facing spouts on the portafilter also offer a superior view of the action. All of these features are credit to the Lelit engineers who were listening to consumers when creating this line of machines.
When you flip the power switch on the Lelit Grace, the first thing that should catch your attention is the "Control Center" display. By default, unless an error condition exists, there will be a temperature displaying the boiler water temperature. This temperature is in Celcius (once again by default I think). At the heart of this design is the PID controller - we see that tossed around a lot, but what the heck is it?
A proportional–integral–derivative controller (PID controller) - simply, it is an electronic control sub-system in the espresso machine boiler that helps maintain the ideal brewing temperature for the coffee.
I am not going to go into detail on how it does this because it is not that important. Suffice to say that it is vastly superior to regulating the boiler temperature with an old style thermo-couple or bi-metal temperature sensor which is "oh so wildly variable, inaccurate, unresponsive and prone to fatigue and failure..." Yes, I just quoted myself.
Photo left - Vintage 1948 Cimbali petite cappuccino cup - note the nifty front facing spouts! Great idea.
With the Lelit Grace PID espresso machine, the heart of this system is called the LCC or "Lelit Control Center" - with a series of symbols and a single + and - button system (yes, only two buttons) you can enter the menu system and turn on/off features like pre-infusion and boiler temperature.
Those two features (left out on most machines within this price point) make a huge difference in espresso quality - and as a result, the quality of your cappuccinos and lattes!
The LCC on the Lelit Grace PID espresso machine also warn you of a couple of error conditions, one of which is the water level alert. The plastic reservoir that tucks neatly in the back of the machine (only one way!) activates a micro switch and there is something else in there that senses water. I know this because I tried to fool it into thinking there was water present... and I couldn't.
The reservoir holds almost a litre of water. It is amazing how fast you can go through that when you are testing it but there should not be a worry that you can run it dry - because you can't.
I do have an advantage in that I have played with every imaginable espresso machine at every price point from $100 to $20,000. Consequently it does not take me long to get a sense of what a machine can and cannot do. Working with my cafe pro, Mark Engels of Victoria, we ran the Lelit Grace through its paces. It dialled in easily with the Fred grinder and within a few shots was brewing very passable shots of espresso for caps, lattes and double shots of espresso. Recovery time was very quick. Steam production is 1st rate on the Lelit Grace - in fact, the single hole wand produced textured 2% milk that made latte art effortless for our coffee pro. The only catch is - like every other single boiler machine in this price point: You need to brew your shot, set it aside, kick in the steam mode on the machine and wait the minute or so it takes to heat the water in the boiler to steam level heat. That is life with a single boiler machine - but for around $1300 (CAN) this machine does produce cafe quality shots of espresso and textured milk almost as good as it gets.
The Lelit Fred conical burr grinder.
At around $300, the Lelit Fred conical burr grinder is well matched to the Grace espresso machine. It has a set of steel conical burrs with a continuous (non stepped) micro-adjustment for the most precise dial in of your bean. As I discovered, a good read of the manual was in order because I found the adjustments on it a little stiff when the unit was not in operation. Unlike the venerable Rancilio Rocky grinder, the Lelit Fred grinder must be running when you are adjusting it. My professional grade Baratza grinders are the same - and I repeat: Read the manual! When you are adjusting the grind, make sure the unit is running, with or without beans in the hopper. Noted.
Photo Right - Illy cup on the "height boosting" grate
The other thing you will learn about all grinders is that while you are "tuning them in" or dialing in the right grind, there is lag. And that means, there is overlap between what you just ground at one setting and what your grind in the setting you are making right now will be like. If that isn't clear, send me an e-mail for a more confusing explanation. In other words, there is a bit of coffee often left in the hopper between shots so you will really know what the next espresso "pull" is like. Every grinder is different and this one is typically quirky that way. Another way of phrasing this (and it is important), the ideal grinder works like this: "Put 10g of whole bean coffee in, get 10g of ground coffee out of the hopper." That is only the case with the best grinders. The Lelit is somewhere in the middle. If you tap on the chute after you have finished running it, there will be a couple of grams of ground coffee "hiding". This is a design thing and the Rancilio Rocky and many Baratza grinders are a little like this. I have read (but I have not tested it yet...) but the Baratza Sette is pretty much 1 for 1 on coffee in and out. We will talk more about that in a future review (Hey Baratza!)
The Lelit Fred burr grinder is really at its best as a dedicated espresso grinder. I did not try it at any other grind settings nor was this practical. With the micro-adjust knob (technically a circular rack and pinion) it would take a lot of turns to shuttle between espresso and drip or French press. I think the range is there but I did not test for it.
At $300 or so, the Lelit Fred grinder represents good value; conical streel burrs, a fairly stable geared micro-adjustment for grind pitch and overall solid build quality. For those thinking about getting a pair of espresso partners like the Rancilio Silvia and Rocky grinder, the pairing of the Lelit Grace and Fred is a solid alternate choice (that is easier on your budget by a few hundred dollars) and it meets with my approval!
Thanks go to the team at EspressoTec.com in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada for their 10 day loan of this awesome pair. As always, if you have any questions on these or other machines or issues, you can always send me an e-mail.
You can see the Lelit Grace PID Espresso machine over at EspressoTec.com at this link and the Fred Grinder over at this link.
Colin Newell is a Victoria resident and long time writer on the subject of coffee culture. The CoffeeCrew.com website has been on the air in one form or another since 1995 - making us one of the oldest active coffee websites on the Planet and Canada's original resources for the coffee lover!