Rancilio Sylvia: Two months of great coffee

A comment on my last espresso machine post reminded me that I never really wrote about how the new machine worked out. So here’s that post.

The new machine is fabulous

It took a few days to start getting the hang of consistently good shots, but those first few cups made me realize what great espresso was really all about. My first thoughts were, literally, “Oh my God, what have I been drinking?” This is real espresso. Much as I loved my now deceased Barrista machine, it didn’t make espresso. It made pseudo-espresso, a dopplegänger imitation of what espresso should be. Basically it was just really strong drip coffee.

With the new Rancilio Sylvia, I immediately began tasting many more levels of flavor between beans. I now know what stale beans taste like. With the Barrista I could distinguish and enjoy the differences between high east African, Central American or Sumatran beans, but it turns out those flavors were masked and muddied. The taste difference is sort of like how our TV looked pretty good before seeing what HD could do. Since getting this machine I’ve only use darker, oily roasts, but the next trip to the coffee store I’m going to get several smaller bags of various beans and roasts.

The gateway drug dispensing gateway drug

It only took a few weeks before I bought a grinder (Baratza Solis Maestro Plus). Before, I would have the beans ground when buying coffee (from Porto Rico on St. Marks). Since I burn through a pound of coffee pretty quickly, I wasn’t too concerned about the ground coffee getting stale and as it turned out, the Barrista was masking the increasingly stale taste anyway. But the main reason for the grinder was that different beans and different roasts of different beans requiring slight adjustments to the grind.


Much as I am loving the machine, there are a few areas where it could definitely be improved upon.

Noise. I haven’t opened it up yet to check if anything could be better dampened, but the machine is quite loud enough to make noise a concern.

Cooldown time. After steaming milk, there is a bit of a process to bring down the boiler temperature for espresso. What I do is flip the hot water switch and run the wand into the sink. At the same time I tend to run hot water through the empty portafilter. That makes sure the portafilter is at least somewhat heated, and clears leftover grinds from the inner screen. These steps are loud. Because of these steps, I’m not using the three-hole steaming tip I bought — it’s too much hassle to clear the wand into another container rather than the sink. I’m not sure about initial heatup times since my wife and kids tends to turn the machine on before letting me know it’s time to drag my butt out of bed. By the time I finally stumble into the kitchen, the machine is always ready to go.

A ball joint on the steaming wand would be welcome. I’m not the first person to bring this up, but there’s enough of a hacking community around this machine that I expect someone has already figured it out and will sell a kit eventually.

For some reason, if I don’t use enough coffee, my fancy 58mm tamper will bind the edges of the portafilter basket. I will probably buy some other portafilter baskets in the future. Unfortunately, after reading this, possibly more tampers too (those Pullman tampers are beautiful).

One more thing

While writing this, I stumbled across this super-modded Rancilio controlled by an original Nintendo gamepad. Wow.