Which of these 3 espresso machines is best for us?
November 27, 2006 11:28 AM   Subscribe

Which of these 3 espresso machines is most likely to make both my partner and me happy?

My partner and I are in the market for a semi-automatic espresso machine for our home, but we each have different needs or expectations.

We are trying to decide among these three options: Rancilio Silvia, FrancisFrancis!X5, and Gaggia Classic. Cold-press, french-press, etc. are not options we're going to consider.

I want fast, clean, fool-proof, and decent espresso that I can make at home to avoid stopping at the coffee shop on the way to work. I do not want to have to fuss over my espresso and am unwilling to spend a lot of time learning how to produce a perfect crema. I just want coffee that doesn't taste burnt, is quick, and doesn't leave a mess on the counter. I value convenience over coffee-perfection. I think I want the option of using PODS, even though some people think they are evil.

My partner wants a nice crema and is willing to take the time to grind his own and perfect his coffee technique. He doesn't need perfect coffee everytime, but he wants to be able to make perfect coffee when he wants it. He thinks POD coffee is probably as bad as that made with a cheap consumer espresso machine.

I have read all these ask MeFi threads.

My partner wants the Rancilio Silvia b/c it's old-school. But it doesn't have PODS. One good thing about the Silvia is that if we get the Rocky to go with it, my partner is likely to make less mess when he's grinding the beans/filling the portafilter. This is a plus for me.

My partner doesn't want the FrancisFrancis!X5 b/c he suspects it's style over substance and likely to break. I like it b/c it can do either pods or ground. The Illy deal looks good, too.

The Gaggia Classic also can use either ground or pods.

So my specific questions, to help answer my general question, are these:
1. Does anyone have first hand experience with POD coffee from the FrancisFrancis or Gaggia machines? How does it taste? Is it really less mess?

2. Is there some Rancilio model that will easily switch between loose ground and pods?

3. If we got the Rancilio Silvia and the Rocky, could a coffee neophyte (me) learn to make decent coffee quickly without a lot of fuss and mess? (To avoid the POD issue.)

4. Is the Gaggia a good compromise between my partner's desire for an old-school machine and my desire for a POD option? Could I use any PODs with it, or only certain brands? Is there a grinder that we could pair with the Gaggia that would load the portafilter and reduce mess?

Frothing milk is not important and won't affect our decision. We're willing to spend the $600 or so it would take to get a coffee/grinder combo or buy the espresso machine now and grinder later.

Thanks for your help, MeFites.
posted by mdion to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Life without coffee pods is not as difficult as one might think. ;) Expect to thrown a minimum of $150 for a decent conical burr grinder too when you buy this espresso machine. Once you taste the difference btween the pods and the freshly ground, you'll not even care about the pods. (I can tell you immediatley if I am getting pods or grind when I get coffee out and about. Pods taste like the filter the coffee is surrounded by.)

I have a La Pavoni Europiccala that I get to grind coffee for and tamp it in the basket. That's half the fun. PODS eliminate grind and tamp uncertainties, but it adds additional uncertainty of knowing when the coffee in them was roasted and ground.

On my 40th birthday I met my wife for lunch and we proceeded to have a conversation that I thought was a little odd. It was push button vs hand made. :) She was fishing for if I wanted a lever or push button espresso. I didn't know that at the time and came home to one very sexy chrome device with a big honkin' lever pull on it. (On the plus side of pushbutton, well, consistent pressure every time. On the plus side of the lever, well, you become a very important part of making your espresso. :) )

Given the choices you've shown me, I'd probably end up with the Gaggia Classic. It looks the most resilient of the three you are looking at.
posted by smallerdemon at 11:49 AM on November 27, 2006

Doh, I skipped the grinder question altogether!

I have the Solis Maestro and I love it. It has a timer on the right hand side and a button on the front. So you can shove the basket directly underneath the outlet for the ground coffee and push the button on the front to get the coffee you need for the espresso. Or if you want to be precise you can put something under there to catch the coffee and scoop out exactly how much you need. I don't use the included coffee catch basket at all. I use a ramekin. :)

The Solis Maestro basically was the cheapest and best quality grinder I could find. I have had it 18 months now and it's working at good now as the day I bought it. I use it for espresso and drip grinds. I clean it about once every two months (meaning I take it apart and sweet out as much old coffee in it as I possibly can).

Good luck and good coffee!
posted by smallerdemon at 11:57 AM on November 27, 2006

I have a Silvia/Rocky combo and love it. Get doserless if you have the option. It's about as manual as they come short of pumping the steam yourself, but, that's why I like it. The combination is bombproof and would make a great, stylish boat anchor for something the size of the QE2.

I highly recommend wholelattelove.com.
posted by kcm at 12:00 PM on November 27, 2006

Oh, as far as random stuff to get, I found a $1 travel clock at IKEA that I ripped the minute/hour hands off for timing shots, and I keep a cheaper digital kitchen scale near the beans for measuring 16g (double shot). The grinder is handy for french press, too - just dial it from ~10 to ~20!
posted by kcm at 12:02 PM on November 27, 2006

Response by poster: What about mess? Our current grinder is very messy...leaves coffee spray all over the counter, difficult to scoop out ground coffee without spilling, etc. (or perhaps it's my partner?).

How does the Solis Maestro fare?

And the Silvia/Rocky combo? Is it less messy if you have them together? Will I be able to make decent coffee without being fussy with the combo?

posted by mdion at 12:05 PM on November 27, 2006

I haven't used one, but this thing looks great: Solis Master 5000 Fully Automatic Espresso Machine with Built-In Burr Mill
posted by duckstab at 12:24 PM on November 27, 2006

Full Disclaimer: I've worked for Illy in the past. I've sold the full FrancisFrancis! range of machines.

I've personally got an X1, and I like it a lot. The X1 and X5 are siblings, so quite comparable. It's indeed nice that you've got portafilters for ground and ESE servings. If you want the most convenience, choose one with a built in grinder though.

To answer your specific questions:

1. Does anyone have first hand experience with POD coffee from the FrancisFrancis or Gaggia machines?

Yes. I have a FrancisFrancis! machine, it uses ESE servings, which are available from different manufacturers, like amongst others Lavazza and illy.

How does it taste?

Good. Surprisingly good. Incomparable to Senseo (in a good way).

Is it really less mess?

Absolutely. Very nice when you've got five minutes left to get to work, but longing for that morning coffee.

3. If we got the Rancilio Silvia and the Rocky, could a coffee neophyte (me) learn to make decent coffee quickly without a lot of fuss and mess? (To avoid the POD issue.)

In general: don't be afraid. It's not that hard, and making nice coffee can be a lot of fun.

4. Is the Gaggia a good compromise between my partner's desire for an old-school machine and my desire for a POD option? Could I use any PODs with it, or only certain brands? Is there a grinder that we could pair with the Gaggia that would load the portafilter and reduce mess?

Don't know what Gaggia uses, but if you use a system like ESE you can choose the brand you like best. The newer portafilters have got some kind of screw on thingy you can click on to reduce the mess when using ground.

Frothing milk is not important and won't affect our decision.
Even the most basic machines are usually capable of steaming milk perfectly right, should you at one point in the future reconsider the frothing issue. The heating system can make a bit of a difference though. (If your machine has a boiler it will take longer to lower the temperature to be able to make coffee again after frothing the milk.) Even if the steaming pipe is not sufficient, there's always this cheap and super handy cheat toy ($1.99 at ikea).
posted by lodev at 1:12 PM on November 27, 2006

I bought a FrancisFrancis! X5 after a friend, who'd tried and rejected a handful of other highly recommended machines, recommended it. It's pretty but very solid and easy to use. I've used the Illy pods, and they're easy to use but I don't like the flavor at all. I'm getting fresh espresso ground to spec from Peet's till I commit to the grinder my friend recommended--name escapes me now. I don't know where you are, but Peet's delivers.
posted by tula at 1:29 PM on November 27, 2006

I have the FrancisFrancis X1 and love it.

We bought some of the Illy pods when we bought the machine and, as someone who really isn't that picky about the taste of coffee, found that they tasted somehow off. I thought maybe it was the batch we got, but I bought another to try, and same thing. I also like a double shot, and the pods ended up being just as much work anyway. Plus, by the time the machine has warmed up, I have the coffee ground.
posted by MarkAnd at 1:41 PM on November 27, 2006

I have the Gaggia, though I never use the pods. As far as I can tell, the pod just cuts out the measuring coffee into the yoke stage - like a tea bag instead of loose leaf.

As I use it, it's not automated at all. You load the coffee into the yoke that holds the coffee, that screws into the bottom of the machine just under where the water comes out, you flip a button to brew and then you have to switch it off when there's enough coffee in the cup (with implications obviously for strength). Not particularly messy, but it's a little bit of a palaver so I usually make cafetiere coffee first thing in the morning and save the machine for dinner parties and the like. Maximum number of coffees each go = two.

It's got a frothing pipe which basically produces steam which you use to froth your milk. Like lodev says, the same boiler is used for both functions so you flip another switch to bring the temperature higher, wait a minute for it to heat up, froth your coffee with the steam (controlled by a dial on the side), and then if you want to make another coffee you have to wait for it to cool down again or it'll taste burnt.

All in all, maybe not what you're looking for. Cracking coffee though, and a really nice machine, solid and shiny but not too big on your worktop. And it has a sum total of 3 switches including on/off and one dial which runs the whole operation. I've had it two or three years and it feels like it'll last forever.

Ah, i see from your link that the coffee-holding yoke is called a "portafilter handle". The blurb is right though - it has a lovely heavy quality and the whole thing seems like a compact commercial machine.
posted by tiny crocodile at 1:46 PM on November 27, 2006

My Solis Maestro is only messy in the "coffee everywhere" sense if I grind for drip and put a short water glass under it to catch the ground coffee. Then it does that little spray thing you're talking about.

But for espresso, seriously, I just a ramekin tucked at the bottom and grind just enough to measure out for espresso. You might have better luck than me grinding directly into the porta-filter, but I always ended up with too much coffee that way, thus the use of the ramekin to carefully measure two scoops out with.

Also, yes, the Solis Maestro can be messy if you just have it on the counter with nothing beneath it. I solved this problem simply by folding up a flat dishcloth and keeping that directly underneath the grinder. When it gets a little coffee dusty I just shake it off in the sink. I wash it about once a month. It keeps things relatively clean. I also do the transfer of coffee from the ramekin with the measuring spoon to the porta-filter over a dry dishcloth that I also subsequently use to put the porta-filter down on and then tamp directly downward to pack the coffee up nice and tight (a method born of particular grinds that want to be tamped a LOT no matter how fine you grind them), but I like VERY thick espresso, so your mileage may vary.

Also, you know, give yourself some time. You'll get better at pulling shots over time as you learn what grinds work best, how hard to tamp, what coffees work best (I do suggest you get espresso roasts) such as Intelligentsia's Black Cat (available online) or Blue Bottle Coffee Company's Roman Espresso blend. Peet's is definitely a great standby. For cheap and excellent in San Francisco, I go with Coffee To The People's Beatnik Espresso. (I also quite like their Peace & Love Blend for drip. That's what I had this morning. Yum.)

I can't emphasize enough giving yourself some time to get used to how the machine you end up with works. I thought I was terrible at using my La Pavoni at first, and sometimes my pulls are worse than others, but overall I can pull a great espresso from it now. It took me about a month to really get it down, though.
posted by smallerdemon at 2:18 PM on November 27, 2006

Ah, yeah, I do the folded-up washcloth under the grinder trick, too. It gets dingy looking day to day but if company comes over, it's a lot easier to hide/change than it is to clean the grounds up that would have been around the grinder.
posted by kcm at 2:30 PM on November 27, 2006

I highly recommend the Silvia. Mine has seen near-daily use for going on two years and still looks lovely and runs perfectly.

For good espresso and milk drinks, use the freshest roasted coffee you can find, or roast your own. Pods are abominable, although if you insist I think adapters are available.
posted by exogenous at 3:25 PM on November 27, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks all. Good stuff.

Seems that the messiness is not the grinder but my partner and his tendency to spill water/grounds about--no simple solution for that since he's nearly perfect for me in every other way. Will try to encourage him to put a dry towel under the grinder/espresso maker and learn to tolerate the mess with a smile.

You've (collectively) convinced me that perhaps it's not so hard to make decent coffee without pods. And the link exogenous offered has someone who put a pod in the regular Silvia portafilter and managed to get decent (though not perfect) coffee.

It seems the path of least resistance may be to let my partner have his way and get the old-school Rancilio Silvia-Rocky combo. (It really does get the most consistent raves on various forums.)

My last, lingering doubt....and questions for those with the Silvia-Rocky combo: Doserless or not? I'm not sure I understand the difference. And will the coffee grounds mess be minimized if we get both the Silvia and Rocky together?

Thanks a ton!
posted by mdion at 5:07 PM on November 27, 2006

Doserless. I got my Rocky with a doser and it's useless for the average single-serve type of home setup - you end up pulling the lever 10 times just to get the grounds through the system. I only grind a double shot at a time, weighed before I grind, so I'd rather it just dump it all at once. A doser would be nice if I was portioning and grinding shot after shot all day.
posted by kcm at 5:32 PM on November 27, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you, kcm.
posted by mdion at 5:43 PM on November 27, 2006

I was in much the same place, decision-wise, about 18 months ago, and after a lot of reading on coffeegeek, usenet coffee groups, etc., I finally decided I'd be much happier in the long run if I extended my budget a bit and got an HX (heat exchanger) machine with an E61 brew group.

There are a lot of these out there (I ended up wth a gently used Isomac Tea (pronounced "tey-ah" I'm told) that I'm still thrilled with), but the differences between them are slight.

The advantages are that the HX and the (huge, heavy brass) E61 keep the temperature very stable, and it can quickly shift back and forth between frothing and brewing (or both simultaneously, even). The E61 also adds a 3-way valve for a little cleaner operation, and preinfusion (that's at least supposed to be a good thing, but I have no idea).

The end result is no muss, no fuss, and it just works. Mine is on 18 hours a day, and the process of pulling a shot is grind, tamp, run a few ounces of water through the grouphead to bring the temperature proper (the HX stays a little hotter than desireable otherwise), latch the portafilter and pull the shot.

I also plumbed mine in (with an inline water filter) so that all I ever have to do, maintenance wise, is clean it and dump the drip tray occasionally.

It's about as much of a no-brainer as a semi-auto is ever likely to be.

As far as a grinder goes, there are many good choices (all starting at about the $400+ price range), but I went off the beaten path a little and got a La Cimbali Jr -- I'm very pleased with it. It likewise takes very little maintenance and gives me very predictable results. Unlike some others, I rather like the doser -- it gives me a bit less mess, and simpler operation in pre-caffeinated morning states...
posted by nonliteral at 6:13 PM on November 27, 2006

Er... don't think any of those are "semi-automatic" machines. Maybe the lingo is different over there.

The Silvia is the fussiest / biggest pain of those machines to use. If you want to make milk-based coffee drinks then you might want to look for something that doesn't require you to reheat the boiler for steam after making the coffee, and before steaming the milk.

I have a Rocky, and it's pretty messy still - you always want to brush out the stale grounds from your last coffee before making a new one, and there really isn't any way to do this without making a mess on the counter. Also there is a very, very annoying part that breaks with alarming frequency - a spring inside the dosing mechanism, that means the lever on the side doesn't dose coffee anymore. Very aggravating - good grinder overall though.

Honestly, machines don't make pod / non-pod coffee equally well without some mechanical tweaking - at the very least you will need to swap the portafilter handles over for pods (and then are left with a cold portafilter, which will lower the temperature of the coffee in your cup), and really many machines have a different shower screen inside for pods / grounds, which needs to be swapped out with a screwdriver. Can't imagine you'd want to bother with that every morning, depending on whose turn it is to make coffee, and if your significant other is sufficiently obsessive I doubt he'll want to risk suboptimal coffee by making espress from grounds with with pod screen fitted. Ground coffee can be made with the pod screen, but it makes it hard to get the pressure / temperature combo quite right for perfect espresso from grounds.

As others have said, getting the knack of making reasonable espresso from grounds isn't too tough. Cleanup though, can be a pain. You'll need to clean the portafilter pretty thoroughly with both pods and grounds, and with grounds you really want to be cleaning inside the seal and around the shower screen with some wadded up kitchen paper, and maybe some cotton buds too. Baked on grounds / coffee oils taste nasty. Even with a good cleaning regime (which will take you at least a couple of minutes after every time you make coffee), you will still probably want to backflush your machine with a professional cleaning powder at least once every couple of weeks. I have heard that Silvias and backflushing don't mix well, so you might want to check out what the suggested alternative is.

All of this is not intended to put you off, but if you already sound leary of the hassle involved in espresso, then I think I'd recommend caution. Your options to me would be i) let your partner get what he wants, under the understanding that he is in charge of coffee-making full time or ii) budget to get a grounds machine / grinder combo for your partner, and a bottom end pod machine too so that you can make acceptable coffee while he isn't around.

Personally I have a Nuovo Simonelli Oscar + Rancilio Rocky. Like it lots, but they're a fair bit more expensive stateside than they are here.
posted by bifter at 1:44 AM on November 28, 2006

Another vote for doserless Rocky and Silvia.
I love my Silvia, though I don't have a Rocky; I have an Inova grinder with doser and I wish I'd gotten the doserless model.

You'll need a nice knock box, too, by the way. There will be grinds around, that's just life, but keep a (dark-colored) rag around for general cleaning and wiping and all will be well.

I wouldn't use pods in Silvia on a bet. The whole point of making it at home is to grind your beans just before you make it.
posted by bink at 1:48 PM on November 28, 2006

I just made a coffee and was thinking of the complexity issue for you. I think Silvia is a good fit. Your house can be like ours, where one of us takes ten minutes to craft a God Shot each time, and the other takes a minute to pull a Pretty Damn Fine Shot. You can make it as complex as you want; your partner can geek out with naked portafilters and temperature sensors, where you can hit a button and have a nice double shot 27 seconds later. (Oh, and do get a double filter basket...the single one that comes with Silvia is useless.)

One other thing I thought of: Silvia needs to warm up in the morning. For us this is no big deal; whoever wakes up first just flicks the power switch and by the time you're showered she's ready. But it may be an issue if you are the kind of people who roll out of bed and straight out the door.
posted by bink at 3:02 PM on November 28, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks, bifter and bink. The list of accessories seems to be growing. The point about cleaning the screen and seal is a good one. My partner seems to be from the 'don't wash anything related to the coffee maker' school and our low end Krups espresso is caked with stuff. Perhaps that contributes to the bad taste. I see "his" and "her" portafilters/baskets whatever in our future.

Luckily he's the one up early, so I won't have to worry about warming up the machine.
posted by mdion at 6:42 PM on November 28, 2006

I'm late to the party, but I'll chime in anyway.

I was pretty happy with my FF X3. I upgraded to an HX machine, but if you're not ready to spend for HX, a FF should do just fine. Early FF machines did have serious problems, but AFAIK, newer machines (last 3 years or so) have resolved them.

You can't go wrong with a Rocky though. As has been said, doserless is probably best for single serve uses. I dose with the cap from a can of shaving gel and grind directly into the portafilter, which limits the mess. Also, if you want to clear grinds between brews, just give it a good whack. The Rocky is a tank and can take the beating.

Also with respect to warming up the machine before you use it, my machine is connected to a digital appliance timer so that it turns on and off without anyone having to do it manually.
posted by turbodog at 2:53 PM on November 29, 2006

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