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In a similar vein to my other thread on grinders, I thought I would put up a thread on machines and what you will get for your money as a little helper for new members and those of us considering an upgrade, I am by no means a standing authority on machines but I have had my fair share of both pump and lever machines. Firstly I will delve into the different types of machines that are available for you to get your mitts on. Single Boiler : This is a pump driven machine that’s characterised by the fact that it only has one boiler to brew the coffee and most of the time the steam function as well (some machines may have a thermo block to take care of steaming), so the forum favourites that sit firmly in this bracket are the Gaggia classic and the rancilio silvia. (There are many others and I will list more when specifically looking at price) Now these machines are generally regarded as the entry level into decent espresso, they will tend to have small brew boilers (although some like the Vibiemme Domobar have much larger brew boilers) and require some form of temperature surfing in order to get to the correct brew water temperature for a great extraction. (There are loads of threads available on temp surfing) The single boilers can be modified Using a PID ( Proportional – Integral – Derivative temperature controller) which will essentially keep the temperature much more constant. A down side to single boiler machines in general is the fact that you have to do both the brewing and the steaming in the same boiler. This means that there is a lag when the machine has to switch from the brewing thermostat to the steaming thermostat to get the temperature up to 135 Celsius for steaming; conversely you have to cool the temperature down if reverting back to brewing. The accepted methodology when using these machines is to do your espresso first then steam your milk second. Single boiler machines are often more compact and more kitchen friendly due to the size and usually pass the significant other test much more easily, they are also the least expensive of the machines out there (in general) and are therefore much more affordable especially when starting out on your coffee journey. Heat exchange machines (HX): Again a pump driven machine either by vibratory or rotary pumps, these machines are characterised by the way that they get the water to the correct brew temperature. This is achieved via a pipe running through a steam boiler that is constantly sitting at steam temperature (usually indicated using a pressure gauge on the front panel, accepted ranges are between .8 and 1.5 bar pressure in the steam boiler). Cold water is fed into the base of the integral pipe via the pump, and is forced through the pipe to the group head, simply put, once the water reaches the brew head it has been sufficiently heated from the steam boiler water to give the correct extraction temperature. One issue with HX machines is that if left to idle for long periods of time the water contained within the HX pipe will get up to steam temp and thus too hot for brewing espresso, so you are required to do a small cooling flush of the group (which means pumping enough water through the group to ensure only fresh water is going through the group) this will stabilise brew temperature again. A great advantage of HX machines is that you can extract espresso and steam milk at the same time which makes multiple drink preparation much easier, they are also much more temperature stable than the single boiler machines (in general). They tend to be bigger in size (some are very compact e.g the simonelli oscar) and as such take up more counter space, they are also more expensive than single boiler machines and thus are harder to get past the significant other test. Dual Boiler: Once again a pump driven machine either by vibratory or rotary pumps, these machines are characterised by having independent boilers that control brew water and steam. One boiler is assigned to steaming as per the HX machines, the other usually PID controlled for temperature stability, control the water for the espresso extraction. The advantages of these machines is no cooling flush as the temperature in the brew boiler remains optimal because of the PID, also temperature is a lot more controllable, so you can play with the temperature that suits different roast profiles. Steaming and brewing can be done at the same time, although because the steam boiler tends to be smaller on DB machines (pro-sumer machines not commercial) you tend to get less steam power. These are usually the more expensive of the machines out there but tend to be similar in size to the hx machines so take up a similar amount of counter space. These tend to be the most sought after pump machines of the home enthusiasts. With the introduction of the Vesuvius, you can now have complete pressure profiling in a dual boiler as well. Lever machines: In general there are two types of lever machines, sprung levers and hand pressure levers. Hand pressure:- the user exerts the pressure on the puck by pushing down on a lever, these tend to be direct fed systems, whereby the water for the espresso comes straight out of the steaming boiler as per a la pavoni. When the lever is raised the piston goes past an entry hole in the group, steam pressure in the boiler then forces water into the cylinder and saturates the puck with water (pre infusion) pressure is then applied to the puck by pressing down on the lever, slow consistent pressure is essential to get a good extraction. A disadvantage to most hand pressure lever machines is that the machine relies on the group to reduce the temperature of the water, however after pulling a few shots the group will absorb more and more heat and eventually become over heated and thus needs to be cooled down by switching off or using a wet towel. They are the cheapest of the lever machines (in general, cremina excepted) and usually have a small footprint. A wonderful advantage of this type of lever machine is the connection to the process however they can be difficult to master, users often become more frustrated by hand pressure lever machines than any other machine. But once mastered is capable of amazing shots of espresso. Milk steaming is usually taken care of by an outlet valve and is usually done after the espresso has been pulled. This type of lever machine tends to be the entry level Sprung levers:- with these levers the pressure exerted through the puck is controlled by a spring in the group, when the lever is dropped down the spring is compressed, water again saturates the puck under boiler pressure (dipper) or via a HX or thermo syphon. When the lever is raised the spring applies pressure to the puck and steadily declines in pressure as the spring relaxes. This makes for a very repeatable process with many less variables and produces exquisite shots of espresso (I am a little biased here) These tend to be more expensive and cover a wide range of machines from classic ones like the faemina to modern elektra models. The more expensive they get the better they get. The Londinium 1 regarded by many as the ultimate in home lever machines is close to £2000. Declining pressure and temperature profiles which these machines do naturally are sought after by many of the top end pump machine manufacturers. Steaming and shot extraction can be done at the same time and usually the boilers are slightly bigger with bigger elements so plenty of steaming power, they tend to have a bigger foot print but not in all cases. The older lever machines are beautifully designed and still going strong (old examples can still be easily found). What do get for your money? Used or New? The time old dilemma! Do you want peace of mind in the form of a warranty or do you want more bang for your buck by getting used or do you want a complete bargain you have to put time and effort into restoring? Brand new machines will of course offer you a warranty which is more important with machines as there is a lot more to go wrong, especially the more complicated you go, a warranty will give peace of mind and usually back up when needed. Buying from a trusted source, i.e forum members, means you will probably get a machine that has been cared for and has many years of life left in it, it will come at a much better price and more machine can be had for your money. Buying from auction sites is a bit of a lottery when buying used but bargains and well looked after machines can be had, doer uppers can also be had, but be warned restoring machines can be very expensive and very timely, make sure you know what you are getting into before jumping in.
In light of the current trend for people going after better grinders and upgrading their grinders I thought I would put together a thread on what people are actually getting for their money. Firstly let’s examine what people actually want from their grinders. I will break this down into various areas and attempt to answer some of the common questions that get asked. 1. Grind quality 2. Retention/ single dosing 3. Doser or Doserless 4. New or second hand Grind quality So what does this actually mean? in my opinion it equates to the consistency of the grind i.e. the amount of fine grinds in a given dose and the particle size and eveness. Entry level grinders that are referred to on here i.e. the MC2, mignon, vario will give you a different quality of grind compared to the next level up i.e. mazzer sj, eureka zenith, brassilia rr55 etc or the next level up mazzer royal, mazzer major, eureka mdl, la cimbali magnum etc and again to the "titan class grinders (most expensive) Compak r120, mahlkonig ek43, mazzer robur, eureka mythos, compak k10 and hg1 etc. In general the bigger the burr size the better the quality of the grind and in general the slower the spin speed the better, so the smaller grinders with smaller motors have to spin much faster (hotter) in order to grind beans evenly, whereas the bigger motors that drive the bigger burr sets have the torque to grind at slower speeds and thus tend to treat the coffee kinder! In my experince the bigger grinders produce a much more consistent grind and the results are immediately apparent in the cup especially with espresso. A mazzer royal (83mm burrs 800 rpm) releases much more complexity in the cup than a mazzer super jolly (64mm burrs 1400 rpm), so you get what you pay for as the bigger the grinder the more they cost, a eureka mignon is £280, Zenith £500, mythos £2000 ek43 £1920, (new prices). Most members that have moved up in the size of their grinders have noticed significant improvements in the resulting cup and I feel as a community we understand the inherent benefits of getting the best grind quality we can afford! Retention and single dosing As we tend to just make one of two coffees, most of us prefer to have the ability to weigh the beans in at the start and get out roughly what we put in, however i the world of grinders there are very few that will give you an output very close to the input without modification (compak r120, EK43, HG1, versalab, Pharos, hausgrind) so we have to either consider modifying our grinders or accepting that we might waste a little in the process of making our coffee. On demand grinders like the eureka zenith, brassilia rr55, mazzer electronic versions or even the big conicals like the compak e10 WILL retain coffee in the grind path and also need a weight of bean to get the functions to work (accurate dosing) and to get the best grind quality, so a sacrifice has to be made if you are considering one of these type of grinders. This retention is largely due to path that the grinds have to follow. Grinder design has not evolved much over the past 30 years, most grinders have a flat grind path whereby the ground coffee is pushed out of the exit shute by the coffee coming along afterwards and as a result there will be coffee that will go stale, remaining in that path. Now the bigger the grinder the more retention, especially if you go up to the conical grinders, the grinders with the least retention have a more vertical grind path i.e. the ek43 or eureka mythos (45 degree), however if you are prepared to carryout modifications to your grinder you can create zero retention grinders through the use of lens hoods, sweep clean mechs etc, but these will tend to be dosered grinders. Doser or Doserless The convenience of pressing a button and having a lovely fluffy mound of coffee in your basket comes at a price. As mentioned before, one cost is retention, but the other cost is the extra money you have to pay for the delivery system of these grinders. Electronic doserless grinders cost more money than dosered equivalents either new or second hand, but are more convenient to use, in a busy environment the repeatability of pressing a button and having a portion close to your desired dose is invaluable, but is it so important in the home? I like using my robur as it is amazing grind quality (paramount for me personally) is quick and mess free, however I have to put up with 30grams of retention!!!! the equivalent dosered version has a lot less retention and cost a hell of a lot less to buy (especially second-hand) it can also have a timer added to it and sweep clean modifications done, it requires a little more effort but in the long term would cost you less (due to wasted stale coffee). So you have a choice, if you want to single dose (get out what you put in) you need to spend a lot of money or modify a dosered grinder which leads me onto my final point. New or second hand Buying a new grinder comes with its benefits, you get a warranty and ergo piece of mind, you get something that you wont have to clean or sort out, if you buy an on demand grinder you probably wont have to do any modifications as you would have already accepted the points above, however it will cost you twice as much(in most cases) than buying a used or reconditioned grinder. For the same money you spend on a brand new grinder you can get a much better used grinder, I will use a grinder i currently have as an example. For £1000 I could by a mazzer major electronic or a compak e8 (just) or an hg1 hand grinder all decent grinders in their own right, however for £800 I bought a used Versalab (£2000 new) which is zero retention, amazing grind consistency small and compact and beautiful looking (IMO). It knocks spots off all those other grinders (including the HG1). If I take this to the other end of the spectrum, for £375 I could buy a brand new vario, or I could buy a used and modified mazzer major or a brassilia rr55OD at a stretch I could find a dirty mythos ( i found one for £250 once) and spend some time bringing it back to perfect, all of which knock spots of the vario, however I will take a risk on having a warranty, but then if a commercial grinder is working perfectly the likelihood is it will continue to do so for many more years in a home environment. At the end of the day it is entirely up to you, but my advice is do your research, don’t jump into a deal because others tell you to, get some hands on with a grinder if you can, get the best that you can afford and enjoy the coffee you make with it!
So this is something that I have never really concretely understood. That being, the HX price range runs from £550 all the way through to near £2k, but machines like the Expobar Office Pulsar and Simonelli Oscar do a very admirable job, so what does 3x the price get you apart from a flashier machine?