Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Proud Father

I am a proud new dad...

Of an espresso machine. Same deal, really. It takes forever to go to sleep at the end of the day, produces lots of brown stuff, requires a lot of cleaning, cost a fortune, and I have to put it through college. I'm so happy. My very first pro-level espresso machine. And to think that it cost a cool grand less than the Jura Capresso Z5 I had been using.

Now, you may not know it, but you're looking at an incredibly special machine. This is one of the very few pro-sumer espresso machines that are generally available that rock TWO boilers. Usually, high-end consumer espresso machines will use a heat exchanger, where the boiler only heats the steam boiler, and hot water for espresso extraction passes through pipes that pass through the steam boiler, thus flash-heating water as it heads towards the group head.

That's actually a really great way to wedge everything that's needed to make good espresso into a compact package while also making it affordable. It does have some disadvantages, such as a long recharge time between drinks. After pressure and temperature drop in the steam boiler from both a pulled shot and steamed milk, it could be multiple minutes before you can do anything else. Conversely, if the steam boiler sits for awhile, all of the metal around the boiler heats up, thus dumping too much heat into the water as it heads to the espresso.

It's a complication that is pretty easily dealt with once you understand your machine, but if you plan on hosting guests or run a light commercial operation, that extra time and effort is unacceptable. Thus, we have the wonders of the dual-boiler machine.

These have their own problems, as many in the recent past who have tried to run a pro-sumer dual-boiler machine in their home have discovered. In theory, it's perfect. In practice, though, there are some serious issues. First, there's the weight and cost. Dual-boiler machines can be upwards of twice as heavy as a comparable single-boiler machine, and they can cost an equal percentage more.

Worse still, even if your wallet and biceps are up to the task, your house may not be. Dual boilers draw an enormous amount of power, and usually require 20-amp socket to function correctly. Even if the manufacturer claims that the machine can run on a standard 15-amp socket, it probably does so poorly.

But my machine is different. My machine is special. Somehow, through some weird, Italian magic, La Spaziale has made a 15-amp dual boiler machine that actually works. Better still, if you ever install a 20-amp socket, all it takes is a small switch inside to turn the machine into a 20-amp monster.

I've had the machine for a few days, now, and all I can say is "WOW!" I'm loving it. Freaking loving it. The extraction is what you would expect, but the steam power out of this bad boy is just incredible. The joys of a dual boiler are not lost on me. Without a doubt, this is the best at-home steam machine I've ever used. It's the absolute equal of a commercial machine.

The drip tray is deep and large. The accessibility of the water tank is just fantastic. Unlike other pro-sumer machines that are basically rejiggerings of pro setups, the design details of the Vivaldi reveal a machine truly meant to be used in a kitchen, and the water tank is the jewel of those details. You can access the tank by simply taking out the drip tray and then removing the water tank. Piece of cake.

Conveniently, the machine actually streamlines my drink production for tea and coffee. The hot water spout produces buckets of 195 degree water for pour-over or french press coffee, and is the perfect temperature for black tea. Previously, I had a kettle on the stove and a large Brita water filter on a shelf. I now have it all in one machine that takes about eight minutes to start up. About that, that's eight minutes on 15 amps. That's great! I'd imagine that 20 amps would reduce start up time to a mere five.

despite my accolades, the machine isn't perfect. I would have liked manual controls. The auto function is nice, but sometimes I want to call a shot as I make it. Worse, there is no way to get a pre-infusion option on any given shot. You can either install a pre-infusion piston, and thus get pre-infusion on every shot, or uninstall it and get pre-infusion on no shots. It's annoying to say the least, especially when the plumbed version of the Vivaldi II gets the option automatically. I understand why this is the case, but I wish they could have managed something, anything, to give me the feature.

I would have also liked a rotary pump. Usually, rotary pumps require pressure to work. That's why they're usually found in direct-plumb machines. But I've seen quite a few machines that use a reservoir and still manage to use a rotary pump. As far as performance is concerned, the end result is similar. I've heard that rotary pumps create a more even pressure and thus produce better crema, but I've never noticed a difference. The biggest difference is noise. The video I've posted makes the machine sound a lot louder than it actually is, but it's still louder than the quiet hum one gets from a rotary box. It's a bit comforting to me, since my old Jura Capresso Z5 sounded identical.

I was aware of these limitations before I bought, but I wanted ease of operation, and this was the only machine that offered that sort of push-button operation at this price and still provided everything else that I wanted. I could have gone for a machine with a full E61 group, but since my most important drink is the one that I make in the morning, being able to press a button and immediately fall asleep on the floor for a few minutes was important.

The machine comes standard with a four-hole nozzle for milk steaming, which is wildly overpowered for my small milk carafe. I steam the milk in five to ten seconds. Needless to say, but I will anyhow, that's way too short to develop good milk foam. If the machine had a standard steam valve, as opposed to the lever-operated version, I could set a smaller amount of steam. But as it is, the machine is basically all or nothing.

This is the only part of the machine that I regret. I didn't even think about it. So, sadly, the only way I can control steaming power is via different nozzles. It certainly gets the job done, but it's not exactly convenient or user-friendly.

Long story short, I'm very glad I bought it. The limitations of renting a house were what drove me to this machine. If I had my own kitchen, I would have bought a direct-plumbed machine and integrated the machine in with the kitchen. But since maintaining mobility of the machine was important, and I wanted that push-button functionality, this was the machine for me. I think it's swell.

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