Rancilio Silvia - Four Year Review

  • Fri 17 April 2015
  • misc

This blog post was originally written for a friend who's contemplating buying a Silvia and has gotten all sorts of conflicting advice from multiple directions.

Kim and I have owned a Silvia for about four and a half years now. You don't have to pay full price for one; I got ours on CraigsList for $250, and I have a second one in the basement that was $75 (boiler gasket was bad from the factory; I have a replacement and need to install it). Deals are to be had...

The first thing you need to understand about the Silvia is that it was built as a bit of a novelty - a promotional item for dealers of Rancilio's professional espresso machines (I think the S line was current at the time) that turned into a real product. The biggest design compromise is that it is a single boiler machine. That means you have to throw a switch and wait if you want to steam milk vs. making coffee. It takes a while to go between the two. If milk drinks are on your radar, you will be unhappy with the Silvia - it can be done, but steamed milk put into a 10-minute-old espresso shot does not a top notch macchiato make. In that case, you really want to save your pennies and buy a heat exchanger or double boiler machine. On the other hand, if you're just making shots, you can be fairly happy with the Silvia. I am. Except for the whole bit about Jack and Sam both offering to teach me latte art and not having a machine of my own that is suitable for practicing on. Drat.

The people who tell you that you have to have a PID to pull good shots with the Silvia are full of it; I used my Silvia for over two years before buying and installing Auber's kit. I think it's worth paying a little extra for someone else to do your BOM and give you a kit so you can plug and chug and get down to pulling shots rather than having a science experiment on your hands (unless that's something you want). If you don't have a PID, you will probably want to learn to "temperature surf" in order to tighten up the temperature range at which you're pulling your shots; Google will reveal various writings and a Youtube video. Does the PID make things easier and help with your workflow? Absolutely. Do you need it? Absolutely not.

The machine is only part of the equation. The "Four Ms of espresso" are "Miscela, Macinacaffe, Macchina, and Mano".

Miscela is the espresso "mixture" or blend. Regardless of your preferences in origin and roast degree, freshness is huge (or stated another way, if you start with coffee that's stale you can expect uniformly bad results). At two and a half weeks post-roast, the machine starts to misbehave and you can't get decent crema without screwing around. Like letting good wine breathe after you open the bottle, you need to let most blends rest for 48 hours or so after roasting or you'll have annoying behavior too. You probably will want to find a local roaster. Vendors with "best by" dates instead of "roasted on" dates on their wares are disqualified.

Macinacaffe is "milling process", or the grinder. There are few general purpose grinders that are acceptable in espresso service. Baratza Vario is one. If you want a minimum of frustration you want a stepless grinder that is designed for espresso. The Rancilio Rocky is kind of meh but will do. I have a Mazzer Mini (in the kitchen) and a Mazzer Super Jolly (in the basement waiting to be fixed in my copious spare time). If you pick up a used grinder you should absolutely swap the burrs as a first order of business, so count in the price of a new set of burrs when you're figuring out what you're willing to pay for it.

The third M is "Macchina". Espresso machine. :-)

The fourth M is "Mano" - Manual skill (of you, the barista). It actually takes a fair amount of practice to get good at driving an espresso machine. You'll get a lot of "sink shots" at first, until you get your sea legs. Practice, practice. Don't get all worried about the wasted coffee. It's cheap in the grand scheme of things. You should be able to get good in well under two pounds. Ask yourself when the last time you learned a new skill with less than $40 worth of material investment was.

I've found that the four Ms are about equally important; you can make up for deficiencies in one by being good at the others, but only to a point - and novices should not stack the deck against themselves. The Silvia is "minimum passable" in the machine department; don't listen to the people who are pointing you in the direction of the DeLonghi or Saeco or similar stuff. If you are trying to get by with a substandard grinder, you'll really find yourself hating life.

Get a small scale that reads to a tenth of a gram and weigh your doses; don't try to do things volumetrically. That's for professionals. Don't put too much stock in the people who say they use X amount of coffee in such-and-such a basket; you'll doubtless discover that it's too high or too low. I don't use the bean funnel on the top of my grinder; I just weigh out a charge, pour it into the machine, cover the top with a single shot basket (you'll get one with your machine and they're mostly useless except for this application), and grind through.

Of course, there's little point in weighing out to a tenth of a gram if all the coffee doesn't make it into the portafilter. You want a funnel. Some people make their own. I like the one from OE (have had one for almost as long as the espresso machine). http://www.orphanespresso.com/OE-Aluminum-Portafilter-Dosing-Funnel_p_2415.html Keeps the mess in check too, though anyone who's a neat freak should just give up and get a superautomatic instead of a manual espresso machine.

You need to maintain the machine. The group head gaskets (what the portafilter seals against) are expendable maintenance items. They're $7 each give or take. Get a couple to keep on hand so you can replace the when they start to leak. The field expedient way to get the old one out involves a stubby screwdriver and twisting a drywall screw into the gasket and then pulling the whole affair out with pliers. A thin film of Dow 111 (food grade silicone lubricant) will ease getting the new one in. You can get the Dow 111 and the gaskets from espressoparts.com. (edit: Allon says "be careful about 111 on group gaskets...it can make it slippery enough that the portafilter unscrews from the group while pulling a shot. At the very least monitor it and be prepared to hold the portafilter handle to keep it in place". I think the idea of the PF popping out is hilarious, so I'll keep using the Dow 111.)

I think my vibratory pump is getting old and unhappy. The machine's seen four and a half years of very regular use in my hands and who knows what the previous owner did to it. A new pump is under $50 on eBay and easy to swap in. It's on my to-do list.

The Rancilio folks say that backflushing voids your warranty. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. It just means that idiots who destroy their pump by turning it on to backflush and leaving it to burn out are not going to get a warranty replacement on their pump. You need to backflush from time to time in order to de-cruft the 3-way valve and have things work smoothly. Get some Urnex Cafiza from Amazon and a blank portafilter and watch some youtube videos and you're good to go. Be prepared to make a big mess the first time you try this.

Periodically you need to descale. How often depends on how hard your water is. I do it 2 or 3 times a year, but we have 80 ppm total dissolved solids and I'm not blowing steam out of my machine all the time since I've basically given up on it as a steam machine, so the vast majority of the dissolved minerals that go in one end come back out the other. I bought a jug of some powder that is specifically supposed to be for descaling espresso machines. Others have reported using bulk citric acid crystals from Whole Foods, which is a lot cheaper. Not sure it makes a difference; I might have spent money needlessly on packaging and labeling.

I'm probably going to upgrade from the Silvia at some point because I want a steam machine. I don't know how soon that will be, since ultimately I'm pretty happy with the Silvia in the application for which we bought it. Yes, t comes up short a little bit if you're trying to rip out shots at a furious pace at a party or for feedstock for our homemade kahlua (PID does in fact help a lot for this), but overall, once you have a good sense for your limitations you can do pretty well.

I'm definitely upgrading from the Mini to the Super Jolly for my main grinder once I get it fixed. Faster grind, less hassle.