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Espressing Their Opinions

What matters most in choosing an espresso machine? One might hope that it would be its ability to produce a great espresso on a consistent basis. That’s certainly important, but even more important than that is the reliability of the thing. A great machine can’t be great if it’s not working and most experienced espresso bar operators choose a machine that is dependable first, serviceable second and then…? Well no, great espresso’s not even the third category because, as well all know, very little espresso is actually sold in North America - most of it’s cappuccinos and lattes. Those drinks require a machine that can produce steamed milk basically full time. Only after a machine has passed the first three tests - reliability, serviceability and milk steaming ability, will it be seriously considered, or will someone ask, “Hey, can this thing make a great shot of espresso?”

This must be frustrating to most manufacturers of espresso machines, because their priorities, while not biased against reliability, are certainly slanted toward delivering a great shot of espresso. And while any reputable manufacturer (and there are many) will welcome its machines being judged on reliability, they would rather their machines be appreciated for the beauty of the coffee they produce. The idea that their machine’s extra features and fancy engineering might be overlooked for much more prosaic considerations is one that all manufacturers accept, but they would sometimes rather not spend a lot of time contemplating it.

Of course, operators themselves would rather be selling more espresso. They would also prefer to employ only baristas that treated their machines with tender loving care and never, ever abused them. But the real world calls for espresso machines that can produce oceans of steamed milk and hundreds of espressos per hour, day in and day out with barely a hiccup. These operators know, if their espresso machine is down, they’re out of business.

The following three interviews deal with primarily two specific machines. The preferences are coincidental and should now be read as recommendations. Rather, the process by which each operator selected their machine is far more important. Differences in clientele, location, proximity to qualified repair personnel for a given type of machine all play a role in making a decision as to which machine to buy. Buying that machine leads to the final and most important test, of course, and one that is specific to each and every business - affordability. Again, how each operator deals with this is more important than the specific machine each may buy.

Jeff Babcock, proprietor at Zoka Coffee Roasters & Tea Co. uses a La Marzocco espresso machine, which he describes as a “workhorse,” to churn out hundreds of espressos each day at his Seattle, Washington location. “It’s gotta be a machine that’s very durable and tough because your staff beats the hell out of them,” Babcock adds. “So that’s a very key element. And then another one in relationship to that is, can you get service quickly and locally? If you’ve got a part that breaks and you have to send away for it, you’re dead. You need service within an hour. If you’re down and if you are running an espresso cart and you can’t make espresso, you’ll lose hundreds of dollars a day.” In the seven years that Babcock has had this machine, he can’t remember a time that it has broken down. If it did break down, he said, “It’s just been one time when it was clogged or something.”

Babcock also notes that you have to choose a machine depending on the volume of business you have. “If you have an espresso cart and your average espresso cart is probably 20 to 40 pounds a week, then you need probably a two group machine, not a three or four group machine. If you’re burning up 300 pounds a week, then you need a three or four group machine so that you can handle the volume.”

Two, three or four group machines each have different characteristics. “The two group machine can have one boiler, which is adequate to make both the steam from the steam wand as well as keeping the heads hot enough so that the boiler water coming through is 197-203 degrees for the espresso and the pressure is being maintained,” Babcock said.

But Babcock quickly adds, “If you’re overusing those machines, if you are making so many, so fast, then your temperature drops in the heads and you don’t have the proper temperature and extraction rates, the quality of your espresso goes down significantly, say if it drops under 195. So you want a machine that will hold that temperature. The other things that I look for are, of course, quality of the espresso coming out. And that all relates to the temperature and how well is holds that temperature and the pressure that’s forcing the water through the espresso.” The right temperature will also allow for the proper extraction, which is between 20 and 30 seconds according to Babcock.

How do you find a machine that’s reliable, durable and makes great espresso? Babcock said it’s not that easy. “There’s probably only two or three on the market,” Babcock said of finding an espresso machine that meets his requirements. “There are two or three machines on the market and they’re not the cheaper ones.” And while they may be more expensive, “a couple, three more thousand dollars for a machine will pay for itself multiple times.”

Durability is also a key element for Babcock. “Most machines will last for three, four, five, maybe even six years and that’s not a very durable machine. The machines I want, I want them to last 10 to 20 years. We are well over the hundreds of pounds per week range. When have 30 people in line and I’ve got 60 espressos to cut in the next 20 minutes, that thing’s gotta have the same temperature coming out for every single one. And it has to be a workhorse.”

Babcock also wants a machine that will require very little service provided that his shop does its part to keep the machine running in good condition. “I don’t want to have to call more than once every two years for service,” Babcock said. “Although, we have the service people come to us about every three months to put in new gaskets and to take a quick look to make sure everything is copacetic. And then we maintain it every day and every night.”

He accomplishes this by having his employees clean out the filters and the group heads and then flush out the tanks. Babcock said it’s a quick 15-minute job every night at closing and the staff also does it if there is time during the middle of the day as well. “It has to be done consistently every day for the life of your machine,” Babcock explained the reason behind proper upkeep.

“I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years now,” Babcock said of his time spent in the coffee industry. “Longevity and toughness of the machines are really key issues and consistency. The machines that we use accomplish that. We consistently get spectacular coffee from them. Everyday, day in, day out. If there is a problem, it isn’t going to be with the machines, it’s going to be with some other element.”

Kathi Zollman, owner and roaster at a Pendleton, Oregon retail store called Dark Canyon Coffee Roasters looked for ease of use when choosing her Conti Twin Star, two-group Espresso machine, six years ago.

She also wanted a machine that was reliable because her shop is miles from any kind of repair service. “We are really, really isolated. So one of the things that we have to really be careful of when we put something in is that it is something that is relatively low maintenance and easy to you. Something that doesn’t take a lot of tweaking because there is just not access to having a repair man come within 24 hours,” she said.

“Seattle is really the closest place that has parts,” Zollman explained. “What we have to do is call a Conti distributor there and what they’ll do is help us troubleshoot and come up with what kind of part we need. Generally they can overnight it. If something really goes wrong, we could be out of business for a couple of days just because of the distance that we are from people.”

Zollman continued, “And we generally always buy semi-automatics so that we have some consistency, but we are still able to do the latte art. We look at the size of the boiler, recovery time, so that during our rush times, nobody is having to stand around and wait. We like the twin boiler, we like the fact that we always have plenty of steam pressure and the water is nice and hot and it’s very consistent.” Zollman also likes to be able to adjust the temperature, so they have it perfect for the shot they like to brew.

“We always like to find the machines with the steam levers rather than the knobs, things like that,” she said. “We try to make it as easy for the operator as possible. Because when we are first training people, we find that they are a little bit intimidated by the machines anyway.”

Because of their remote location, Zollman may have had a few trade-offs when selecting a machine, but she is happy with what they ended up with. “We’ve had a few challenges as far as giving things up. But what we finally decided on, for our own shop, we’ve been able to pretty much come up with a combination that we think is fairly reliable.”

In addition to the retail shop, Zollman roasts on the wholesale level for the local area and they also help other people put equipment in, such as the college and mini-marts. “When we put machines out and make decisions for other customers that we have and help them get set up with their bars, a lot of times, they will be able to give up some things and a lot of times they are not aware of it. They don’t know what they are giving up, so the simpler and the fewer options, sometimes it’s better when you’re putting it out in an environment that you’re not going to have control over.”

Like Babcock, Vince Piccolo also uses a La Marzocco machine at his Vancouver, British Columbia shop called Caffe Artigiano. This retail outfit is also the home of manager Zlatan Lakic who just won gold in the latte art competition at Seattle’s 12th annual coffee trade show. Piccolo, the owner of the café, began to explain why, he too, uses a La Marzocco machine, and “I can’t use any other machines because it’s the most versatile for the North American market in my eyes I feel that we’re in a milk-based market and you’re filling a lot of grande cups or tall cups, I feel with the one boiler system you just can’t keep up.”

“We have designated boilers just for steaming and we have a designated boiler just for espresso extraction,” Piccolo explained the advantages of using a double boiler. “So when I steam a lot, I don’t lower my group head temperature and my espresso extractions don’t suffer. With the La Marzocco, you also have the luxury of adjusting your group head temperature.” Using this feature, the machine allows baristas to adapt to what’s best for the roast.

“Before, when I used to have a one boiler system, the first coffees would be great, and the last coffees, we’d be struggling to make sure that they were great,” he said.

Piccolo sang the praises of his three-year-old La Marzocco machine (he also owns a newborn which is only six months old). “We have line ups out the door all day. So we are doing at least a thousand milk-based or latte or espresso-based beverages a day at this one location. That’s a lot of coffee between, say six in the morning and 5 o’clock at night. And we never, ever have problems with it. It’s a workhorse. I never run out of steam. My espresso extractions are as good as the first shot of the day, towards the last shot of the day. I’ve never ever had problems.”

“The biggest thing is what’s going to work best for customers and, in my eyes, this is what works best for customers,” Piccolo continued. “It allows me to make coffee efficiently. It allows me to make adjustments. It’s simple enough that I can make my own adjustments. I can do whatever repairs I need to do.”

Piccolo noted that as long as you’re a little handy, La Marzocco customers should be able to fix anything on the machine with a little guidance from a La Marzocco tech guy over the phone. “You don’t need to be a technical genius in order to fix it. I basically don’t even have a service tech, that’s how easy these machines are to work with. I just basically do it all myself.”

Again, the process is more important here than the specific decisions reached. The operators interviewed for this article each run unique businesses. Each of them obviously feels very passionately about the specific equipment they have chosen. And that, of course, brings up the most test of an espresso machine’s caliber - after reliability, serviceability, milk-steaming ability, the quality of the espresso shots produced and the affordability of the overall machine. There is, evidently, another, less tangible factor - its lovability.

Timothy J. Castle is the president of Castle Communications, a company specializing in marketing and public relations for the coffee and tea industries. He is also the co-author (with Joan Nielsen) of The Great Coffee Book, recently published by Ten Speed Press, and the author of The Perfect Cup (Perseus Books). He may be reached at: (310) 479-7370 or via E-mail at: qahwah@aol.com.

Tea & Coffee - February/March, 2003


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