Rancilio Silvia Rewards PatienceDo you dream of waking up, making a quick cappuccino before reading the paper or browsing facebook? If so, then the Rancilio Silvia is NOT the machine for you. What you're after is a coffee appliance, like a Nespresso machine, and not a robust coffee machine at the tail end of the prosumer market.
Coffee Machine or Appliance?output, which in my case are espressos.
For example, making a coffee using a Nespresso appliance involves placing in a pod, positioning a cup, and pressing a button. The variables such as water temperature, coffee type or flow control are usually quite limited. This is true even of expensive coffee appliances, such as the Jura bean-to-cup models.
Coffee machines, from the Rancilio Silvia to the high end prosumer models, such as the Slayer Espresso or La Marzocco Linea Mini, usually have a different, more engaging workflow. Often, although not always, the barista grinds coffee, fills a coffee filter basket in a portafilter, choses or controls brew pressures and temperatures, plus brewing time and, if possible, the volume of water passing through the coffee. Usually, the more expensive the coffee machine, the greater the control over variables - sometimes to astounding levels such as machines like the Decent DE1PRO .
All of which brings me to the Rancilio Silvia. If the Decent DE1PRO or La Marzocca are at the pointy end of the prosumer coffee machines, then the Rancilio Silvia is at the start.
What Do You Get in the Package?
The Rancilio Silvia v6's body is constructed from stainless steel, including the frame, which is an improvement over prior versions that used iron frames susceptible to rust. The Silvia has a single boiler and group made of brass, which means you can brew an espresso or steam; but not at the same time. The boiler has a 300ml capacity and is feed by a 2 litre water tank from the back. The group is designed for the same 58mm portafilter as expected from a commercial-grade machine.
Similar to the Gaggia Classic Pro, against which it is often compared, it has a 3-way solenoid valve to relieve portafilter pressure after pulling a shot. This prevents 'portafilter sneeze' and overly soggy used coffee pucks post-brewing. While the Gaggia Classic has two thermostats (brew and steam), the Silvia has three - brew, steam and safety (cuts the power if the boiler reaches 165°C). There are also three buttons; one for brewing espresso; one for steaming milk; and one to release hot/boiling water from the steam wand. On the body, there's also a tiny, but removable drip tray - more on this later.
The accessories are a hefty 58mm dual spout portafilter, 16gm and 8gm filter baskets, a metal 58mm Tamper and a plastic dosing spoon.
OK, Then - Just How Good Is It?
The main reason I replaced my Gaggia Classic Pro with the Rancilio Silvia is boiler capacity. This is the Silvia's strength and weakness over the Gaggia. Whereas my old Gaggia Classic Pro had a 100ml aluminium boiler, the Silver has a 300ml brass boiler. While the difference for one or two espressos is negligible, the Silvia's greater capacity comes in handy for steaming. The main problem with the Gaggia is it would run out of oomph steaming for more than two cappuccinos, but the Silvia will happily steam my 3-4 cup milk pitcher, which is ideal for the change in life style that approaching retirement gives (more dinner parties, like when we were younger; and most people like a cappuccino after a meal).
But the larger boiler also makes hitting ideal brewing temperatures an art. So much so, the term 'temperature surfing' is often applied to the Silvia -- and to an extent the Gaggia. This is where the home barista controls, through heating the boiler via the steam function or cooling it by passing water through the group, the temperature of the water coming through the coffee. Too hot or cold will often make the resultant espresso somewhat less.
If the Gaggia was challenging to temperature surf, the Silvia is the same challenge multiplied. Often, in order to maintain constant temperatures, people will install a PID (Proportional-Integral-Derivative) controller. This works in the same manner as the older cruise controls, which apply or decrease inputs depending on sensor readings of the output. There is a thriving aftermarket for both Gaggia and Silvia PID controllers; but I decided against both. In a similar manner to some who fly fish, I prefer to chase the correct temperature as part of the expertise of being a home barista. But, and just saying, you don't have to if you don't want to, and PIDs are available for the Silvia.
So, after watching a number of YouTube videos on temperature surfing, and a bit of experimentation, I found the routine that pulls good shots with plenty of texture and clarity. Whether they are better than my Gaggia is debatable. I suspect I wouldn't be able to tell the difference in a blind taste test; but this is good. It means I get more steam power without sacrificing espresso quality.
Finally, on the upsides, it's a weighty machine made from good quality components. The manual has instructions on how to adjust brew pressures by turning bolts attached to the OPV (over pressure valve), but the Silvia does not have a pressure gauge. So, if you want to reduce the pressure from 15 bars at the pump and (about) 12-13 at the group, to 9 bars at the group, then you will want to buy a gauge - I've a static pressure gauge - or estimate using the water volume/blind filter method.
Yeah, But What About The Downsides?
Earlier I wrote about the drip tray and this is a sore point. It is both smaller than the Gaggia's and the frame has a small lip one needs to raise the drip tray over. The Gaggia, for example, has no such lip and slids out with having to tilt the tray, but for the Silvia I nearly had two messy experiences. The small drip tray would not be so much of a problem if it slid out.
There is no level indicator for the water tank in the back. Again, the Gaggia's tank level was visible from the front, but unless you're in the habit of checking every time you use the Silvia, its lack of water level visibility may catch one out. This, by the way, is particularly important since the heating element is inside the boiler and will break if there's no water in the boiler.
To conclude on the downsides, the package is lacking a few items. The first is a proper blind filter for back flushing. Instead, Rancilio provide a plastic disk that one places inside the 8gm basket. The impression is one of cheapness and oddity, particularly since they include a 58 mm metal tamp. Likewise, the dosing spoon is laughably plastic and the less said the better.
If you get the Silvia from new or if it hasn't been used in a while, then you will need to prime the boiler. That is, fill it with water. The heating element is in the boiler itself and if there's not enough water then it will fail and require an expensive replacement. There are instructions that come with the Silvia, but in essence you fill the tank in back, open the steam valve, and run the pump for hot water until about 600mls of water passes through to a jug. You must also prime the boiler after steaming and, in the morning before I make my espressos, I run about 300mls through the group just to be sure.
There are routines to keep the group clean. After my morning espressos, I usually wipe the group and O-ring with a chux; pass about 100mls of water, and then do two back flushes without detergent. On the weekend, I will perform a back flushing routine with detergent. I bought some descaling powder for brass boilers, and intend to descale every 2 months as per my Gaggia. Canberra is a soft water area, so more frequent descaling is usually not required.
For my Gaggia I bought scales, precision VST coffee baskets, and a naked portafilter. The baskets and scales transferred to the Silvia, but I had to buy the Rancilio naked portafilters, which is shown on one of the photographs. None of these came standard with the Silvia, but are well worth it.
I've pulled some out-of-this-world espresso shots, and some duds, but 98% of the time I pull excellent, well textured shots with complex flavours and little, if any, sourness. This machine is not an appliance, it's a hobby, and an excellent choice for the newly minted coffee enthusiast. It will reward patience in learning a coffee craft, and will last many years with care and maintenance.
There's nothing wrong with a coffee appliances and I was very happy with my Nespresso. A difference, usually, is not in features or even coffee ability, but in the control a barista has over inputs leading to the coffee ... Read more