Case Study: An espresso setup tailored to a discerning home barista

I think it's the process of researching and finding the right thing for the demand that I really enjoy.  And those who know me know I have done my research on purchases or topics I'm interested in, so they often ask to participate in the process in finding the right item for them.  In the Case Study series, the posts are as much about how I got from point A to B, as they are about what point B ultimately ended up being.  You can read gear review posts almost anywhere, my hope it to help you learn how to go about doing the research.  Today's Case Study is finding an espresso setup for Brandon.

Brandon is a man of taste, the kind of guy who not only matches his bar tape and saddle to his bike, but also his shoes and helmet, he likes his setups “on fleek” as the kids say.  So when Brandon came to me looking for some guidance in purchasing a home espresso setup, I knew he wanted high quality, attractive equipment.  He primarily wanted to make espressos and Americanos, but admitted the reason he shied away from milk drinks in the past was the lack of capable equipment, so he still wanted to be able to steam and learn those skills as needed with a new machine.  He appreciated the hands on experience, thus why he was moving away from super-autos or capsule machines, but didn’t want to make things overly complicated either.  His initial budget was $1500 for grinder, machine, and accessories, a very common and decent budget for a more entry level, but fully capable home setup.

Because I knew he still wanted steaming capabilities and didn’t need to get overly complex, a lever machine was out, and I knew something more like a hybrid or a dual boiler would be preferred to an HX machine (although HX’s get a bad rap for needing a lot more work… future rant post to follow).  Options in that price range are few enough that the choice is fairly easy.  I recommended the Baratza Vario ($480) or Forte AP ($899) for grinder, and the Crossland CC1 v1.5 ($600), Quickmill Silvano ($1075), and Breville Dual Boiler (BDB) ($700-1200) as machines options.  The prices I have listed are general retail prices, and do not take into account discounts that can often be found by calling the vendor and/or open box or buyer’s remorse/refurbished units.  And in the case of the BDB, the first version of it, the BES900XL, can still be sometimes found in the corners of a Bed Bath & Beyond or Macy’s for $700 or so, and even the current model, the 920, can a lot of times be had for less money due to coupons and discounts many of the large home-goods retailers offer.  There are other options in this price range, here’s why I went with these.

         Baratza Vario/Forte- I use this interchangeably because they are very similar, with the Forte being a more stout, stable, potentially longer lasting version.  I have a Vario and it’s a great grinder.  It does have some short comings, but I think some of those are improved with the Forte, which is why I include the Forte; if you can spend the few extra dollars, it’s worth it.  Especially if this will be your one grinder, and you will potentially use it for other brewing methods.  The Vario has the capabilities of grinding for a wide range of grind size, but does not do well with switching back and forth across the grind size spectrum consistently.  It does best when left in one range, and only micro-adjusted as needed.  Even then, the micro adjustments can be fickle at times.  BUT, I still feel that given the price, size, quality, customer service, and ease of use, these are some of the best grinders out. 

         The Crossland CC1 v.1.5.  Bill Crossland was an engineer at a major commercial espresso machine manufacturer and has a lot of machine know-how that he packed into this home sized unit.  This is a single boiler “hybrid” machine, in that instead of one boiler with two thermostats for dual uses, brewing and steaming, it has a separate thermoblock used for steaming.  This will provide fast, drier steam than a SBDU (single boiler dual use) machine, although its steaming capabilities will still fall a little short of an HX or true dual boiler.  The brew boiler is PID temperature controlled, to obtain temperature accuracy and consistency, two things that really plaque traditional single boiler units.  The machine also has a traditional, commercial sized 58mm portafilter and programmable pre-infusion.  What’s the downfall?  Well, it’s not a bad looking machine, but it’s not exactly striking either, IMO.

         The Quickmill Silvano is very similar in design and features as the CC1, in an arguably more stout and attractive, chromed steel box.  The fit and finish is very nice on the Silvano, and it has a great counter presence.  It still has the PID, but does not have preinsuion, but does pretty much everything else the same as the CC1, so I won’t repeat myself.  The toggle switch for the steam can potentially be a bit tricky as you cannot slowly open the steam valve up, it’s simply off or on. 

         The Breville Dual Boiler is a tricky beast.  A machine with this feature set, at this price cannot be ignored.  Many have argued that there is no reason this machine won’t match what’s in the cup to everything up to the $4000 range.  A true dual boiler machine, with steam boiler fed, PID controlled brew boiler, programmable preinfusion, even programmable auto-on time.   These are bigtime commercial-quality features!  What’s the catch – well it’s primarily made out of plastic, and it’s made by a consumer kitchen appliance company rather than one with a rich espresso making history, this calls into question its durability and longevity, versus the other machines being considered that should last for years with regular maintenance.  These machines have had some well documented teething pains, but it has also been well documented that Breville has done a good job of standing behind them.  Many of the complaints or concerns with the 900 model were remedied with the 920, with the addition of a descaling program, an adjustable steam boiler, and volumetric or duration based shot programming.  There are some concerns if the BDB just jumps on the present day mindset of use, throw-out, and buy new, versus something that is serviceable, repairable, and long-lasting, but that’s an issue best left to ponder on your own.  Bottom line is that this machine has a serious set of features that nothing else even close to this price has.  The question is how you rank those features with other considerations such as durability, build quality, appearance, serviceability, etc. 

Brandon decided to proceed with a Vario and the BDB900 he found for $700, although the BDB order ended up falling through.  The additional time spent sorting that out, allowed Brandon to reconsider his budget and if perhaps, he wanted a machine with the BDB’s features but in a more robust, higher-quality, longer lasting package.  With the Vario now in hand, he was looking at the La Spaziale S1 Mini Vivaldi ii and the La Spaziale Dream T.  Based on what he was looking at, I confirmed that his budget was now around $2000 for a machine, which brings a whole realm of possibilities with it, many of which being HX machines.  However, in this go around I learned he did NOT particularly care for the chrome box of nearly all of the machines in this price range.  The three reservoir operated La Spaziale models became the obvious choice.  The basic differences between them are primarily in aesthetics or features with the pump, boiler size, and basic capabilities being the same.  I had him contact two of the vendors I recommended to see what they could do on price, and one of them came through big and Brandon has a brand-new, not shiny chrome, La Spaziale Luca A53 Mini.  Clive Coffee is the exclusive retailer of these Lucca machines, working directly with the manufacturer to refine the standard models for today's home barista even further.  Ben, who is the guy you see on their site, is someone I've known on the home-barista forums for years.  As far as people that I've never met in person go, he's a super nice guy, very knowledgeable about espresso equipment and process, and easy to deal with.  

The beautiful Lucca from Clive Coffee

The beautiful Lucca from Clive Coffee

The standard plastic side panels offered by Clive Coffee, photo from Clive.

The standard plastic side panels offered by Clive Coffee, photo from Clive.

The looks and shape of the La Spaziale machines can be somewhat polarizing to many, but I can say that even with the plastic side panels that make some skeptical, the machine is much better looking in the flesh than in pictures.  And these machines with the aftermarket wood panels are downright beautiful.  Another level of refinement and character gets added to the unique lines of these great machines, and they look fantastic on the counter.  The Mini Vivaldi II/Luca A53 Mini/Dream T all pack a lot of features into a counter-friendly, tank fed machine.  A temperature controlled dual boiler, known for its steam power, with all of the gauges, control, programmability, and features you could need.  In my first meeting with Brandon, it took a little bit of recalibrating the Vario, and we were pulling great shots right away.  The Vario paired very well with the Luca Mini and proved to be very forgiving with the pre-infusion chamber installed.  Brandon was pulling perfect looking and tasting bottomless shots right away without any channeling or spritzers.  The machine’s vibratory pump is probably about the quietest I’ve heard too. 

I had long heard the La Spaziale machines packed a lot of steaming power, but I was shocked by how true that was.  This thing steamed like a beast.  It might actually prove to a be a somewhat more challenging machine to learn to steam milk on because of its power, although different steam tips are available to make it more manageable, something I would definitely look into when ordering, especially if you’re steaming small quantities of milk.  For larger milk drinks, the Lucca A53 was perfect and makes great microfoam in little time. 

Lucca A53 Cappuccino

The last bonus I will say about the La Spaziale machines is that the two main retailers in the US are known for their customer service and support, and the machines are well laid out internally such that servicing should be easy.  There is also a lot of information and dedicated forum groups to the machines, should you need to seek specific info in the future. 

Finding out what Brandon's aesthetic preferences, what drinks he wanted to make, and what was most important to him in the Budget / Performance / Price hierarchy allowed me to find an option that proved to be his Goldilocks.  If you have questions about finding the right machine for you, don't hesitate to contact me, I'd love to help. 

The TL:DR would come down to the La Spaziale machines which, I do recommend.  They are about the least money you can get into the DB market with (besides the outlier BDB), and offer some unique design features, which could be a positive or negative depending on your tastes.  The quirks are that you have to specify a water tank fed or plumbed machine, they do not offer a switchable model, and they use a non-standard 53mm portafilter size so accessories like baskets, tampers, gaskets, screens, and not as common, but this is really a minor issue now that these machines are so well supported by multiple vendors.  The machine is particular great for someone that doesn’t switch coffee too much or doesn’t particularly tinker, as they can program the volumetric dosing and temperature for repeatable results.  It’s also a great steamer for those making a lot of milk drinks.  The closest alternative will all be E-61 chrome box Dual Boiler’s, that are generally more expensive, so that can sway you one direction or the other based on looks or budget.  

Brandon's excellent home espresso setup

Brandon's excellent home espresso setup