If you've got a caffeine habit- and we mean multiple espressos or espresso drinks a day- then it might be time to start thinking about brewing your own rather than paying through the nose at a coffee shop. If your beverage of choice is coffee- drip or iced, flavored or single-origin- then today's piece of gear is not for you. You can get great coffee from a French press or a pour-over filter. But great espresso is a serious business, and requires some major investment. Unless you're ready to spend around $1000 on gear, or already have some of the pieces, then we suggest backing away slowly and continuing to visit your local barista.
Over the past month, we've been obsessing over the Rancilio Silvia. The machine itself has an interesting story, which we can't recount in detail, but goes something like this: over a decade ago, the machine was created as sort of a gift for vendors, and never originally intended for commercial sale. But eventually it's gone on to several revisions, has become one of the best-selling espresso machines above $300, and has spawned lots of commentary and pages and groups dedicated to hacking and modifying the machine. We've tried out lots of coffee gear and gadgetry over the years, but we're thrilled to have the chance to pull some shots with the best machine in this class, a lovely lady who will reward your efforts, even if she initially appears intimidating and even a bit moody.
Silvia looks, at first glance, like a cross between a small commercial unit and a home espresso machine. The switches are large and sturdy and the fairly plain exterior doesn't offer much character. But it's easy to spot the differences- this one weighs 30 pounds, and check out the side profile! You can't miss the seriously durable, easily grabbable and ergonomic handle on the filter basket. Hidden inside the unit are a solid brass boiler and a solid brass head unit, all clearly taken from industrial-quality models that Rancilio is known for.
There aren't any electronics here, and we had read reports of Silvia's temper, where results could vary wildly based on room temperature and humidity and especially based on the grind of your beans. And it's true- we prepared over a dozen shots before settling on something we were truly satisfied with. Because the fact is that espresso requires great beans and a great machine capable of pressure (nine bar here) and temperature, but also requires a capable grinder and some other bits and pieces as well. Having a burr grinder is absolutely necessary here- do not purchase a machine like this without investing in a burr grinder first. We suggest using a Baratza, like our top-reviewed Vario-W, which mitigates the need to get an additional kitchen scale as well (also important for consistent results). You'll also want a heavy tamper; this machine comes with one that is practically useless. And finally, most folks will want a good milk frothing pitcher and a thermometer, as it can be hard to get your steamed milk quite right for lattes or cappuccinos without one.
There are lots of things to like about the design and construction of the unit, primarily it's durability. You won't have to wait forever between shots, and you can expect impressive results once you've figured out the nuances of the Silvia and worked around (and with) her foibles. For an automatic, less romantic but far simpler process, you can always try a machine like the Jura ENA Micro 9 One Touch… but every staff member preferred shots and drinks from the Silvia, especially after the first couple of days of testing. If you don't have the wallet- or patience- then convenient pod machines like those from Nespresso are a good option, and illy's machines are lovely and a great value. There are even interesting portable solutions, like the unusual mypressi TWIST. But it's hard to argue with the results- you're unlikely to be able to get quite the crema and taste from any of the others as you can from a commercial-quality machine like the Silvia. We're not Italian, or even European, but certainly feel a little more so when drinking from tiny cups of the wonderful nectar possible thanks to Rancilio's well-built darling.
The two-liter water tank, compact footprint, and a milk frother that rivals the ones at your local Starbucks? We're keeping the Silvia, and continuing to experiment and learn new things. If you don't trust a barista, or simply want to impress guests, then the Rancilio Silvia is one of the best ways to get coffeeshop-quality without spending a fortune. It still isn't cheap, and she's certainly not a forgiving lady, but is well worth the investment. Expect to spend around $640, but make sure you save up enough for the other necessary accessories (like a decent burr grinder and scale) as well.