I was fortunate enough recently to have the opportunity to try out a Rancilio Silvia espresso machine, as well as a Baratza Vario grinder. Not only did I get to play with them, but I was allowed to take them home to see what they are capable of in a home environment. I brought the following home with me:
Rancilio Silvia espresso machine
Baratza Vario grinder
A 58mm tamper
An 8oz latte style stoneware mug
Two shot glasses
Once I got everything set up, I set to seeing how everything measured up.
First I took the resevoir lid off the back of the machine. I always use filtered water when brewing any kind of coffee at home. Bottled water is fine, as is Brita if you don’t have filtration on your water line. I filled the reservoir to the “Max” line and replaced the lid. Once this is done it is safe to turn on the machine.
Once the machine is on, I used the top rocker switch to run some water through the group head. If it’s the first time the Silvia is being used, the directions recommend that you run about 16 ounces through. I ran about 8 ounces through just to prime it. Once this is done, it’s time to wait for it to warm up. It takes about 15 minutes or so.
Now, to the grinder. I pulled some test shots to find the appropriate grind with the Baratza Vario. The model has been greatly anticipated prior to its release earlier in November. It is supposed to be one of the most versatile home grinders on the market, having a dual cam grind system. The macro setting controls general grind from ‘Fine’ to ‘Press’ depending on what brew method you are using. The micro adjustments are for fine tuning within the macro range you choose. It reminded me of tuning a stringed instrument. The lever on the right side is like the tuning pegs that get you in the close your pitch, while the left lever is like the fine tuners that narrow it down to the right tone.
Having never used it, I wasn’t totally sure what I would encounter. I will admit, I thought it was going to be like other home grinders that I had used- never as consistent as a commercial model with grind settings that are a ‘ballpark’ at best. A lot of times their version of an ‘espresso’ grind is just not fine enough. In my slight doubt of it’s capability I went ahead and shifted the macro setting to the finest it would go and put the macro setting somewhere in the middle of the window. Once the machine was warmed up I pulled my first set of test shots.
The grinder has a timed setting to help with consistency of dose. You can adjust this setting to 1/10th of a second depending on your dose. I was using about 18-19 grams which ended up being about 15 seconds of grinding total. I ground 7.5 seconds at a time and tapped the portafilter to settle the grinds into the basket. I added the second d
ose at 7.5 seconds, tapping as I went to settle and help distribute the coffee in the basket. After dosing, I set to leveling the coffee to ensure even distribution in the basket. Remember, water always takes the path of least resistance, so don’t give it any option but to soak evenly through the grounds.
I used my 58mm tamper to pack the coffee into the portafilter with about 40 pounds of pressure. The most important thing to remember in tamping is that you need to be as level as possible. Any angle to the tamp and the water will follow it. Once it was tamped a ready, I rinsed the group head, put the portafilter in and pressed the rocker switch. I watched and waited.
To my pleasant astonishment nothing came out. In that moment, I started to have a bit more faith in the little Vario. The fact that the grind was actually too fine gave me hope that it had potential to be dialed in properly. I didn’t get my hopes up quite yet, but I was more open to the device. All in all it took about 5-6 sets of shots before I settled in on a grind. And, impressively enough, it was actually the right grind. Working with ‘Bella’, the espresso blend I am most familiar with, I knew what I was looking for, and the Silvia delivered. It wasn’t quite am identical twin of what I get with commercial equipment but it was definitely a close cousin.
Now, as a bar barista, I only had one point of contention with the Silvia. You cannot pull shots and steam milk simultaneously. The machine has to be put into a different mode when you steam milk in order to generate enough pressure. It’s obviously preferable to have both your milk and espresso shots be used immediately after being prepared, but since it wasn’t an option, I decided to steam the milk first and let it sit for a moment while I waited for the machine to cool back down a little (about 30-45 seconds) and make the espresso. The espresso flavor would suffer the most from the exposure to the air, and there are clever ways around having foam separation.
When steaming the milk I followed barista protocol. You always want to purge the steam wand before steaming your milk to get any condensation out of the line. It’s especially important on the Silvia as it is how you determine whether or not there is enough pressure to steam. It only takes about 30 seconds for it to get up to temperature.
When steaming, always start with the tip of the wand just below the surface of the milk. I tend to put mine halfway between the middle and the sidewall of the pitcher. I have found this gets the best results, pushing the milk into a whirl pool as it infuses air into the milk creating a smooth and creamy texture. The end result, while taking a little longer due to lower pressure, is as good as working with an Aurelia or any other commercial machine.
After steaming, I wipe down the steam wand with a damp towel to get all of the milk residue off, then I purge the steam wand to get any residual milk out of it. It’s best to clean your wand in this order, as purging it before you get the milk off of the outside will lead to a baking effect of the milk. If you have ever gone to a coffeehouse and seen an off-white tinge on the steam wands, it’s because they are cleaning it backwards, if at all.
I set my milk aside for the moment and switch the machine out of steam mode and wait about 20 seconds before I start preparing the espresso. I follow the same procedure that I did when pulling my test shots, only now I know that my grind it right. I pull my shots and cut them off as soon as the crema starts to get pale.
Once the espresso is ready I turn my attention back to the milk. I intentionally have two pitchers so that I can use the second one to pour into, a trick to reintegrate milk and foam. It’s best to err towards gentle so as not to add unnecessary bubbles in the process. Once the milk looks smooth and creamy it’s time to pour!
Start slowly. You want to let your crema rise as you pour. The faster you pour in the beginning, the more likely you are to rupture it.
Once you get about halfway it’s ok to speed up the pour a little bit. This allows a little more of the foamier milk to enter the cup. With a little wiggling and a fair amount of practice you can pour a little rosetta or other form of latte art too.
The finished product was actually quite good. It was better than 99% of drinks I have had at a café. The milk was smooth with a subtle sweetness, and La Bella Vita’s chocolaty body melded with it beautifully. It was just as good as lattes I have poured in our training room. It just took a little different approach than I was used to.
As far as both pieces of equipment go, I would recommend either to a serious home barista, or a professional looking for something that will suffice at home. The Silvia is pretty easy to work with and, while it could never keep up with catering or a constant line, it never faltered during my testing. The Reservoir has a 2 liter capacity, which was more than I need to pull several sets of shots and make a few drinks. The portafilter basket is the same size as a commercial one and you can swap it out for Nuova Simonelli doubles, as well as La Marzocco. It was actually a fun machine to work on once I got over my barista-ness. We tend to have little faith in things non-commercial. The Silvia proved me wrong.
As for the Vario, it was the biggest surprise of all to me. I have never been able to figure out what kind of grinder I would want if I ever had a home set up. I had considered the Mazzer Mini, but have been frustrated in my encounters with it. It’s slow, messy, and a little hard to work with. The Vario, however, was simple to use, kept a good pace with me, and was enabling me to produce commercial quality shots. As far as messiness goes, it was better than most Super Jollys. As an espresso grinder alone, it’s quite amazing. The fact that it can be used to grind for both regular drip and French press is just a bonus. It is hands down what I will buy when I finally get my dream home set up.