The Last Great Espresso Machine

June 4, 2011

This is the first guest post of hopefully many more to come from Pierce Young of Visions Espresso in Seattle. 

The world of coffee equipment is littered with work horses, turds, diamonds in the rough, and a plethora of machines that could have changed your life, did change your life, and ones you wished hadn’t changed your life. It seems as if, the only certification you need to pass if you wish to make coffee equipment, is that you’ve tried a cup of coffee before. However, I think that most of us can agree that we’ve had some sort of experience where a piece of equipment blew our minds. In fact, it seems that we keep searching for that piece of equipment all the time–even in a time where we know how much depends on, not the equipment.

Working for a machine distributor and service company, I am often faced with the difficult-to-answer question, “Which coffee machine makes the best coffee?” And as much as I strive to tell the consumer how much the outcome cup depends on the barista and their skills, I think that we all have an innate understanding of how much the equipment really matters. In fact, I would venture to say that we can only hold our third-wave attitude up on the good equipment crutch. When you think about it, the Linea was released far before the term “God Shot” was ever invented. And yet, you still see almost every Stumptown and Intelligensia account (or any other self-respecting coffee-slinging shop for that matter) with a La Marzocco at the forefront of their display.

You could say that Kent Bakke and his team of technical geniuses were responsible for the massive boom in espresso which the industry saw in the early 90’s. After all, Starbucks was founded on the back of the Linea. One might go as far to say that, without the Linea, Starbucks could never have delivered the level of quality espresso which made them famous. Sure, interject your own opinions about the Jolly Green Giant here. But at the time, Starbucks was leading the industry in consistency and quality. American coffee was just getting started, and the Linea provided a consistent tool to work on, while Duane Sorenson and Doug Zell were still having their “Ah Ha!” moment with coffee.

La Marzocco boomed, and Kent Bakke had found the espresso machine which made good coffee better. The industry was poised for the taking, and LM was poised to take it. Still, aside from the Swift, LM was still just a one trick pony. It was time for a new machine on which Americans could rely for great coffee. Then, the GB5 came out. The GB5 was everything the Linea was not–bulky and ostentatious. It was supposed to be the cornerstone on which a cafe could support itself, demonstrating to the customers that the cafe had a tradition in quality. But quality it wasn’t. A few key design errors made the GB5 nothing more than a glorified Linea with a whole new set of nuances for the barista to deal with…It wasn’t exactly what the industry had been anticipating. And furthermore, it wasn’t exactly what the people at the USA faction of LM were pushing for.

Then, Synesso was formed. Synesso is a company who’s inception was more like the cutting of the corporate fat, rather than a new idea. The founders of Synesso, Mark Barnett, Dan Urwiler, Eric Perkunder and with additional help from David Schomer, made the machine that La Marzocco USA had been trying to make for years. Cue instant success. Not only did the company have the industry cred to give their dreams of profit wings of stainless steal, but the machine was as sexy as the GB5 wasn’t. Where the GB5 was just an iteration of the Linea, Synesso was able to deliver quality on a new level the industry needed. It was more stable, more flexible, and definitely better looking than it’s GB5 competitor. For a while it was the only thing worthy of a quality oriented cafe. Until Slayer Professional Espresso had a thing or two to say about making coffee.

Being a company formed by an inspired few who were on the Synesso and La Marzocco teams, Slayer took what Synesso was doing to the next level. They created a machine which was able to take the amazing coffee which had emerged from the sparks of the Linea, and make it taste better. I’m not sure that any machine can teach a roaster more about their coffee than a Slayer. With it’s unique flow restrictors, and sleek sex appeal, the Slayer created quite a buzz about what coffee could be for your cafe. But, not every start-up coffee shop was ready to dump the $18,000 required into an espresso machine, when you could still buy a sweet heat exchanger for a cool $6,000. Could the difference really be worth the money?

At this point, I have to take a step back and say a thing or two about our ol’ buddy the heat exchanger. Now, while it may sound all fancy and technical, the heat exchange machine really isn’t. Tube inside a tube is a more fitting name for the machine, which is controlled in a very Rube Goldberg sort of way. I mean, the temperature system is based off of a spring activated micro-switch, which turns on a heating element for Christ’s sake (pardon my French). The thing is about a bowling ball and a ramp away from making it into the next <aOk Go! video.

As far as heat exchangers go, there are really only three kinds worthy of note. First is the CMA machine. Astoria, Rancilio, Wega, and a huge list of others make up a group of machines which all basically function the same. In fact, you can use almost all of the same parts to rebuild the key components in any of them. Aside from usability features, such as button pads, and steam knobs, these machines are all interchangeable as far as the cafe owner is concerned.

Then, comes the E61. The E61 is a group head which was invented by Faema. This group head is exceptionally good at retaining heat, and is so simple to maintain that they sell the rights to it for other manufacturers to use on their machines. Internally though, it’s pretty much the same as any CMA machine.

Finally, is the Nuova Simonelli. In my humble opinion, a Nuova Simonelli machine is a head and shoulders above any other HX machine there is. This has to do with a series of more intricate nuances which lend themselves to the retention of heat, the amount of brew water ready at any given time, and the recovery time of the boiler to stay at an optimum temperature when drawing steam from it. If I were to get an HX machine for my cafe, it would be an Aurelia, the pride and joy of the Simonelli line. Of all the HX machines out there, the Aurelia really delivers the quality that most cafes need without sacrificing their budget. Still, the Aurelia has been around for about two decades. And really, aside from minor improvements, it hasn’t changed much.

So, what I’m trying to get at is: out with the old, and in with the new. All of these machines were invented by people who were around at the creation of espresso in America. In fact, most of them pushed the industry to what it is today. However, there is a new group of people out there. I’m not talking about third wave, or fifth wave, or whatever wave we are on at this point. What I am talking about is a group of kids, who learned to make espresso on their custom Synesso Hydra. They learned about coffee from the accomplishments of people who have already put in 15-20 years of serious ground-breaking work. Most of all, they started with a clean palate, and no pre-conceived notions about what coffee was supposed to taste like. These are the people that are going to take coffee and push it to the next level. These kids are poised to create the new Linea and the new Synesso. But, as far as the American coffee scene is concerned, there have only been a handful of people who have done any legitimately innovative work so far, building espresso machines. They hold the most knowledge about the equipment we work on, and create more and more great innovations on all the old ideas. Can the new generation of coffee professionals acquire enough knowledge and insight on espresso to usurp the current oligarcy of equipment engineers? Or are we looking at perhaps the last innovative espresso machine having already been built. As with couture fashion, if you didn’t learn it from the people who were around when it was invented you can’t learn it.

Perhaps, all of the best work on espresso machines is about to be over. I would venture to say, that if I don’t see a innovative take on an espresso machine in the next seven years, we may only see iterations of the same idea. Now these iterations may get better and better. But, I daresay, that there may be nothing else as ground breaking as the Linea, Slayer, or Synesso.

5 Responses to “The Last Great Espresso Machine”

  1. aaronblanco Says:

    Thanks, Pierce and Collin, for posting this. I think you’re right, Pierce, to say that we may not see any huge game changer appear whole cloth. I believe it will be all incremental improvements over time. That is until we figure out how to economically use sound to shape shots. (Seriously.) (Mostly.) (Or something.)

  2. Alex Says:

    Espresso machines don’t teach roasters about coffee. They teach roasters about the effects of high pressure on their coffee. Espresso, despite all the hype, is one of the worst ways to evaluate quality in coffee. Cupping coffee, watching roast curves, going to Origen, learning how coffee is grown, harvested, processed, shipped, is what teaches roasters about coffee.

    • aaronblanco Says:

      Disagree, Alex. My espresso machine (among all the other good things you mentioned) teaches me regularly about roasting coffee. Maybe even more so than cupping, since nobody ever tastes coffee unfiltered as they do while cupping. They taste what I roasted through portafilter baskets. So should I. Not exclusively, but as part of the total learning curriculum of evaluating coffee. The better espresso machines get at mitigating brewing inconsistencies and delivering repeatable results the better, which I think may’ve been part of Pierce’s original point.

    • cmoody91 Says:

      I’m going to have to default to Aaron’s opinion on this as well. Espresso exposes a unique side of coffee, just like brewed coffee or cupping does. It’s a particular brew method that showcases coffee in particular ways. While the other things you mention surely are important, drinking coffee as it is actually served is an important part of QC.

  3. Matt Galyon Says:

    Very helpful post. I do believe there is a new game changer on the horizon, namely, the technology necessary to facilitate temperature profiling. The “kids” developing this technology are out there and I can’t wait to see and taste the results.


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