In my survey of thousands of cafes around the world for my upcoming global guide to specialty coffee, I keep coming across a few particular superstar machines that everyone drools about or mentions with pride that they own. Having a machine like one of the below is a terrific indicator that good quality coffee could be present - because if a cafe is going to shell out over US$15K on a machine, they're probably going to invest in other places where it counts like training, wages for good baristas and quality beans. I'm going to focus on six machines - one machine from each of the dominant brands - the machines and brands I see coming up most often, and mention why they're special. In no particular order. If
Kees van der Westen Spirit
"I like fast shapes. Espresso is fast coffee, so the machine should look so fast." Kees Van der Westen, the Belgian designer behind some of the most gorgeous espresso machine designs out there, knows what he's talking about. All KVDW machines look hot. I could post many pics of their Mirage and recently re-designed Speedster machines, but let's limit ourselves here. The Spirit is the pinnacle of their development (KVDW's been building machines since the 90s), including all their technical and design prowess in one machine. What makes it special: Looks (can't ignore it), and super-friendly control of the double boiler system allowing on-the-fly adjustments of temperature via the PID in each group head (attached to the invidual boiler for each group head). But really, it's looks.
OK, fine. Here are some pics of KVDW's other stunning creations.
La Marzocco Strada EP
The La Marzocco Strada is another favourite of the espresso world. Handmade in Florence (what espresso machines aren't hand-made? Is there a factory producing 10,000 a month of something out there?). La Marzocco, like other Italian brands, has been producing espresso machines since 1927 and has a huge portion of the market globally - their machines are everywhere. The Strada is their current piece de resistance. What makes it special: Electronic pressure profiling. The LM Strada, particularly the E.P., was the one of the first machines (the Slayer being the first) to allow direct control of temperature profile - i.e. adjustments to the pressure applied to the coffee during extraction. It adds a whole new dimension to perfectionism in extraction. La Marzocco's dominance in the specialty coffee marketplace makes the addition of this feature a big deal, and makes it more likely for pressure profile to become an important part of barista training everywhere. There is another version of the strata that offers direct control of pressure via paddle - obviously great for manual control, but different to pre-programmed profiles that can be re-executed quickly.
Other La Marzocco machines seen pretty regularly but not as coveted are the FB80 (a curvy, shapely thing), the GB/5 and the Linea (an attractive if somewhat boxy thing). Honourable mention to the Mistral: a highly coveted (but not as much as the Strada) machine, sititng somewhere between La Marzocco and Kees van der Westen anyway (designed by the latter using parts from the former, later acquired by the former).
Just Slayer. No model names. These guys are the new kids on the block, having been producing machines commercially only since 2010. The brand name is almost synonymous for 'dedicated to amazing coffee here'. Along with Synesso, they're also hand-crafted in Seattle. These machines are very well loved, even though they can take months to fully understand and dial in because: What makes it special: it's totally manual. Slayer prides itself on 'notoriously, horribly, beautifully manual' machines, and believes this is where it is different to other brands. The manual nature of it means you can manually adjust the pressure of extraction by tweaking the paddles above every group head (to adjust flow rate). Slayer was the first to achieve this, and won't let you forget it.
Slayers aren't just functional, they're robust as all get-out. Watch the video below comparing Slayer's heating element to one from another high-end machine (don't know who). After only a minute, the other element begins to deform. Flames appear at 6 minutes. All this time, Slayer's element burns brightly and strongly. Virtually every espresso machine manufacturer uses copper heating elements to prepare water for brewing and steaming. Name any model: with only one exception, they're all copper. But if your machine loses water, these elements fail, often at the expense of other components.
They're gorgeous, too. See their media page for more pictures and get ready to drool.
The Synessos are a well-loved piece of kit, built by hand in Seattle. Like the La Marzocco Strada, they offer electronic pressure profiling that allows you to customise the extraction pressure profile on each group head. Another variable to obsess over. Apart from this, what makes it special: incredible temperature stability. With independent brew tanks and PIDs for each group head, Synesso has earned a reputation for the most stable brewing temperature of any machine. The Synessos are also said to be a dream to work on, with automated back-flushing and generally being hassle free.
The Synesso Cyncra is a slightly lower spec machine that's almost identical in form.
Nuova Simonelli Aurelia II T3
The Nuova Simonelli Aurelia T3 was the tool of choice for the World Barista Championships until the Black Eagle (below) took over, and has earned a loyal following since as a 'competition-grade' machine. Nuova Simonelli is a company that needs no introduction (to most) - they have been making espresso machines since 1936. What makes it special: The soft (pre-)infusion system (SIS). A graduated pre-infusion ensures that beans are properly soaked, and aims to provide more stable brews and smooth out errors in dosing and tamping.
Victoria Arduino Black Eagle
The Victoria Arduino Black Eagle is as hot as it sounds. The official machine of the 2015 World Barista Championships, taking over from the Nuova Simonelli T3 above, you can bet that it's built well. After being acquired by Nuova Simonelli in 2001, Victoria Arduino has being repositioned as a highly functional brand for style-conscious cafe owners. The innards of the VA Black Eagle are the same as the ugly but effective Nuova Simonelli Aurelia T3 above, with aesthetic design done in conjunction with influential coffee don James Hoffman, and a couple of technical features added. What makes it special: a gravimetric weighing system, i.e. scales built into the drip tray. Hoffman believes that 'beverage mass is the most important factor in extraction', more important that brew time or visual guides to extraction quality. Thus, the intelligent drip tray scales (that can distinguish between shot weight and the barista's hand hitting the tray) can be a real boon in the quantitative search for perfect espresso.