Rancilio Epoca

I had the pleasure to use the beautiful Rancilio Epoca espresso machine. Rancilio Epoca. It's a significant step up from the already amazing Vibiemme Domobar Super I have at home. 

There are a few things that make a commercial espresso machine stand out from a prosumer, which makes it stand out from a consumer espresso machine. We'll start with the consumer espresso machines and work our way up to the engineering marvel that is the Rancilio Epoca. At the end of the day, an espresso machine does two things: Brew Espresso and Steam milk.

Standard consumer espresso machines (sub $600) are single boiler machines. They share a single boiler, essentially a store for hot water, for both brewing espresso and steaming milk. Brewing espresso involves injecting 200F water through coffee grinds fine enough to build up 10 PSI of pressure. The water is pushed through the coffee grinds to make delicious espresso. Steaming milk involves generating steam from water in the boiler and shooting it out of a steam wand. Every feature in an espresso machine helps one or both of these functions.

In the sub $600 range, you're really looking at two factors. First is the turnaround time between brewing espresso and steaming milk. Since there is only one boiler, if you switch from brewing espresso to steaming milk, it takes some time for the boiler to generate steam. If you generate steam then brew espresso, it takes some time to cool the water in the boiler down to condense steam back into water. Swapping between the two functions usually takes a few minutes. Second is how much steam / espresso can be brewed continuously before a drop in temperature or pressure occurs. A perfect espresso is 200F for all 20 - 25 seconds of the shot. Cheaper machines drop temperature as hot water leaves the boiler or produce inadequate steam pressure to create latte art as steam is being used.

As you go up in price in the single boiler arena, the amount of steam that is generated or water the boiler can hold increases. Latte art quality milk milk becomes feasible. Drops in pressure as espresso is brewed become smaller or non-existent. The best single boiler machine money can buy is the Rancilio Silvia.

Between $600 - $900 there is a real gap. At the $900 - $2000 range, you're entering the prosumer market. The biggest feature you're getting is a heat exchanger (HX). A single boiler machine with an HX allows you to simultaneously brew coffee and steam milk at the same time. Most of these machines also have a large enough boiler capacity that you can steam milk and coffee for over a minute without a significant drop in pressure. A single cappuccino or latte only needs to steam milk for 30 seconds or so. If you're entertaining guests, this is a must have. At this level, there is no downtown in the machine. The limiting factor is the barista (so you :)).

Above the $2000 range, you enter double boiler territory. The espresso machine has a two independent boilers: a dedicated boiler to brew espresso and a dedicated boiler to generate steam. Now you can brew espresso and steam milk essentially forever. All commercial machines are usually dual boiler machines. Finally at the $3000+ range, instead of manually having to refill the water tank, the espresso machine can directly plug into the water pipeline like your sink. 

Now, after ALL that, something like the Rancilio Epoca costs $5000. What do you get? You get all of the above, but as you pay more, you get more boilers so you can have multiple people work at the same time. Multiple brew heads, multiple steam wands, all independent of each other that can steam gallons of milk while pouring shots across all the brew heads at the same time. What does it feel like?

Overwhelming.

At the push of a button, hot water pours out of the grouphead at a precise and steady pace. The steam wand shoots steam at such high velocity that you can feel the air the steam is displacing. You can steam forever. Steaming a cappuccino with silky smooth latte art quality milk is almost automatic. Creating latte art requires steaming the milk so that foam is integrated into milk. This requires enough steam power to force the milk to violently tidal wave into the milk pitcher creating a blissful mix. Imagine dropping a spoon into a glass of water consistently. The Rancilio Epoca not only does this, but can force the milk to jump out of the pitcher if you're not careful. Beautiful.

Let's not forget our end goal though. How does the espresso actually taste? Does it produce any noticeable difference in quality? That, I'm not so sure. At the espresso machine side, what you're really looking for is an E61 grouphead, a boiler that can keep a steady 200F temperature, and a steam wand that can create latte art. Even at the $500 level, you already get those three features. You're really buying more fine tuning and a faster turnaround time between drinks. Past that point, the biggest differences come in from a) the freshness of the beans and b) your coffee grinder. 

With my short little time playing with the machine, I can't tell if it produces a better drink. However, I can say, it sure is fun as hell to use.

The Refinery

The Refinery is supposed to be a "concept" coffee shop. I'm not really sure what that means, but I was walking by the coffee shop and it intrigued me. They boast that they won one of the best coffee shops in Los Angeles. I know at least 5 really great coffee shops, so I thought that this place must be good.

The ambiance is modern with large amounts of empty space. Seating is generous with tables spaced far apart. The whole place has a very industrial motif. 

As I walked in, I looked along the walls and didn't see any coffee bags for purchase. My first coffee sense alert went off, what coffee are they brewing? All the great shops have coffee bags for sale. Welp, I'm already here so I ordered my typical cappuccino and a few minutes later it was ready on the bar.

The latte art was good enough, but the milk wasn't frothy and silky smooth cream. It had a lot of holes it in, which isn't really a problem but made me think the barista was new. As I started drinking, I was surprised at how little flavor the coffee had. It was very subdued, with barely any hints of nuts. The after taste was almost bland without much flavor coating the tongue. I prefer my coffees on the light side, but this espresso was too light, too flavorless, almost like water.

Maybe I just got a really bad shot, maybe the espresso was meant to be served pure without milk, or maybe the barista was just new. This is not one of the top 10 coffee shops in Los Angeles. Intelligentsia and Urth Cafe are strolling distance away and both serve superb coffee. But maybe, if you're in downtown Santa Monica and you don't want to wait at Starbucks, the Refinery is an option. Otherwise, head on over to Intelligentsia.

Simon's Coffee, Porter Square, Cambridge, MA

Every time I visit a new city, I try and find some awesome coffee. Great coffee is my version of chocolate. When I visited Boston three years ago, I visited Simon's coffee after hearing about it on CoffeeGeek. Back then, Simon's just opened, and I saw who I presume is Simon, working hard, crafting drinks to perfection. The coffee was pretty good, but not yet perfect because the Barista was also training.

As I was sitting there, a woman walked up to me and started chatting. She was apparently the owner's wife and just talking with customers. I found out she was from LA and we chatted about great places to check out in Boston and around the country. After an hour flew by, the owner came down and joined our table. We started coffee geeking out, and to my delightful surprise, he let me behind the counter. He showed me how to pull a shot, how to steam milk for latte art, and best of all, free coffee tastings! I left caffeinated and happy as a sailor. I should have written this three years ago.

Now that I'm back in Boston, I had to give Simon another visit. The place is successfully packed with people. and the coffee excellent. The milk is perfect, a little on the light side in terms of foam, giving it a lighter feel than usual cappuccinos. The coffee itself had a very subtle bittersweet chocolate body that suited a summer drink. It's not an espresso that punchs the tounge, instead coating it with deliciousness. If you are in Cambridge, make sure to visit Simon's coffee - Still the best coffee in Boston.  


The Cafeotheque of Paris

I've always heard that Americans don't know anything about coffee, sipping on our terrible Starbucks. However, Copenhagen, Zurich, and Paris have all had terrible coffee. I was really hoping for terrific coffee on every sidewalk, when in reality Starbucks was better than most. Then I found the Cafeotheque of Paris from CoffeeGeek.

These guys really know their stuff. They roast on site in small quantities. They change which coffee they serve in their bar everyday. The barista was hands down one of the top three baristas I have ever seen. He knew his craft, serving drinks with amazing precision and skill, you could tell he cared about his coffee.

Their espresso roast was fantastic, a top 5 espresso blend by far. It was fairly mild, with a very smooth finish. I started with the cappuccino which had a thick crema on top, latte art comes standard. The milk was steamed to perfection with smooth transitions between foam and milk. The espresso had a subtle taste that accompanied the milk, yet still powerful enough to deliever an amazing cappuccino.

Three hours later I had to come back for the best macchiato. The presentation perfect, the milk subdued by the taste of the espresso. Here the espresso was the dominant taste with a very mild and smooth finish. Not sweet, not bitter, not sour, but a very simple and crisp taste. The drink, another masterpiece.

I knew I was going to get a caffeine high, but I had to get an espresso shot, something I rarely do because they are usually too bitter. Thankfully, the espresso had the thick creamy consistency and still the perfect bitter finish that you pray for. The ristretto shot was incredibly smooth and had this incredibly delicious but so hard to describe taste, that left me yearning for more. 

After all the disappointing coffee I've had in Europe, the Cafeotheque instantly shoots up into the top five coffee shops I've been to. And for pure ambiance, presentation, and coffee, it's taken over Jones coffee in Pasadena as the best in cafe experience. If you're in Paris, you must visit this cafe.

Red Berry Coffee

Ever since I started working at Adobe, I've lamented one thing: The lack of really good coffee in downtown San Jose. Thankfully, Red Berry Coffee has solved that problem.

Red Berry Coffee is different than most coffee shops in that they have great baristas, but brew imported coffee. They brew from three different roasters: Barefoot Coffee, Ritual Roasters, and Ecco coffee. The fact that they don't roast on site is just fine because all three coffee roasters are local and have fantastic espresso blends.

I ordered my usual Cappuccino paired with Ecco coffee since they were the only roaster I have yet to try. Ecco is a very subtle coffee. It's somewhat plain up front, but has an excellent bittersweet finish. I'd say one of the smoothest espressos I've ever had.

 

Either way, all three coffee's are top notch. If you go early enough, the pastries are brought in fresh daily, and on weekends, Red Berry makes amazing waffles. What more could I want within walking distance from Adobe. If you're craving great coffee in downtown San Jose, checkout Red Berry Coffee.