Is a Rancilio Silvia the best home espresso machine?

So you’ve been dreaming of replacing your Silvia with a bigger, better coffee machine. How much difference would that make to your caffeine-infused life?

Is a Rancilio Silvia the best home espresso machine?

Is more always better with espresso coffee machines? Maybe. I upgraded last year from the widely enjoyed Rancilio Silvia to a more sophisticated design, and while I’ve no regrets, the change has come with downsides.

The Silvia has been available for more than 25 years, and it represents a big step up from cheaper espresso devices that use coffee bought pre-ground from supermarkets. Originally produced as a corporate gift, it is a toy that works ­– and it works very well.

Rancilio Silvia V6 home espresso coffee machine

For me, as for very many others, the Silvia was the first machine purchased that made proper espresso. After 12 years, I wanted more.

I replaced my Silvia with an Izzo Vivi, a machine that follows traditional commercial design much more accurately. Several manufacturers – perhaps most notably, Rocket Espresso – offer similar models.

The result is more delicate, complex and consistent espresso shots, and better and faster steaming of milk.

Izzo Vivi Flat home espresso coffee machine, heat exchanger design.

On the downside, the Vivi takes longer to warm up and is less involving to use. It’s also a lot of machine just to make coffee, especially if you’re mainly producing for one.

Tasty oils

The Silvia’s origins are relevant because espresso is at bottom a commercial technology. An espresso maker squeezes oily juice from finely ground coffee at a precise temperature under very high pressure, and it’s the squeezing and the temperature control that bring out the chocolatey flavours.

The tasty oils released under pressure don’t dissolve readily in hot water, and so plunger, filter, and stovetop machines leave most of those flavours behind – trapped in the wet coffee grounds you dispose of.

Espresso coffee model pour.

The brewing environment that espresso demands is most easily sustained by big, complex machines, and so espresso began as a drink sold in cafes.

When Rancilio shrank its commercial design so that the result could grace a home kitchen, it made a bunch of compromises that seemed right for home use.

Coffee for one

First, it gave the Silvia everything it needed to serve just one person. The trick was that such a dinky device could make espresso at all, and not that it could make drinks speedily for a table of six.

Second, it gave the Silvia enough temperature stability and steaming capacity to make an astonishingly good coffee if you took your time and knew what you were doing. But both were well beneath the standards of commercial machines.

Rancilio Silvia home espresso coffee machine side view.

The Silvia has a very small boiler – just 300ml – and it uses the same boiler for making steam and for brewing. Its group-head – the part that transfers the water to the coffee – is simple and, by commercial standards, light. All of that holds down costs, and makes the machine quick to get going: 15 minutes of warm-up is plenty.

The small boiler makes enough steam to foam milk for one cup, and can stretch to a second. After that, you need to pump in more cold water and wait 90 seconds or so while it boils.

Similarly, the boiler can supply brew water at an acceptably precise temperature for a single shot, replenishing itself from the cold tank as it does so. But it won’t stably pull several shots in succession, because that incoming flow cools it. For a great result, you need to wait half a minute between shots while it heats.

When bigger is better

The Vivi by contrast has a boiler six times as big, and a heavier, more complex E61 group-head that’s slower to heat but also slower to cool. As well, water in the boiler is always at steam temperature. Brew water is piped through a heat-exchanger inside the boiler, then circulates inside the group head.

Izzo Vivi home espresso coffee machine side view, heat exchanger design.

That’s all great for espresso, because you have a lot of water and metal holding the temperature of the brew water steady.

The boiler also provides enough steam for practically unending consecutive shots.

As well, because the boiler is always at steam temperature, you don’t need to wait for it to heat after pulling a shot. Or wait for it to cool before pulling a shot. Brewing and steaming are independent, and you could do both at once.

Too easy

Perfect, right? And yes, the Vivi is a more workmanlike machine than a Silvia. It feels much more robust. And if it’s set up right, and clean, it makes magnificent coffee – even with the low-end Lelit burr grinder I used with my Silvia. Melbourne is a coffee town, and while I imagine there are cafes that sell milk espressos as rich and complex as those I serve at home, I’ve not found one.

Two espresso lattes made with an Izzo Vivi flat espresso coffee machine.

The Vivi is also easier to get right than the Silvia, which needed careful attention paid to its thermostat-switched heating cycle. The Vivi is so straightforward that it took away several steps from my past coffee ritual: it made better coffee but wasn’t quite as much fun.

That alerted me to a previously hidden truth about making espresso at home. For some of us, it’s only partly about the drink. It’s also about engaging with a finely crafted mechanical device. And the Silvia is more demanding of skill.

If you like milk

More generally, a key strength of the Vivi is its steaming capacity. It is the heating of milk through the injection of steam that generates the velvety mouth-feel of commercial lattes. While the Silvia does a good job here for one, the Vivo does better and for as many as you’re serving.

Rocket Espresso Appartamento espresso coffee machine.

If your preference is for milk coffees, and if like me you often serve at least one other person, then a Vivi or a similar machine such as a Rocket Espresso Appartamento or Giotto, well set up by the supplier, will produce results that justify its complexity.

If you prefer black

However if you prefer your coffee black, and especially if you’re making coffee mainly for you, there’s a lot to be said for limiting yourself to a Silvia.

Like the Silvia, the Vivi will make coffee after just 15 minutes – but the shot from the Vivi will be slightly sour. It’s much better after 30 minutes, and I think better again after 45. That means more planning for your first cup, and more reluctance to turn off the machine.

How much difference can a superb morning espresso make to your life?

A Silvia gives you direct and fast control of brew temperature, by pulling your shots at different points of its heating cycle. You can also replace its thermostat with a precisely adjustable digital (PID) version. Its boiler is small and responsive. That makes it way easier to test different temperatures for special coffees that don’t go well with milk.

And while I’d not thought of this before I brought home my Vivi, a Silvia seems less extravagant. A heat-exchanger machine makes an eye-catching ornament for your bench-top, but it devotes a lot of space, metal and energy to producing a couple of beverages daily.

Finally, you may find an extra element of pride in what you can make a Silvia do, even if its flavours don’t hit as many colourful notes as those extracted by the bigger machine. Contrasting experiences, and questions, are welcome as comment.

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