It has now been over a year since I made the step up to a "prosumer" class HX machine. During this time, I have tried not to say much about it online. After all, fanboy reviews are irritating enough, let alone reviews from someone who sells a product! (Avid readers will note that for the same reason I have never posted much about the blends that we sell at Veneziano)
I have decided to write this review for two reasons; first, I have had a few people politely nudge me towards doing it and, second, there is very little written on this machine online, with the exception of Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen's rather excellent review. However, Thomas' review concerns the Maver Marte as it was before David Makin got his hands on it. So if there's to be any sort of information available to people, it looks like I'm going to have to write something.
To be clear, readers of this review should note that:
- I work for a company that sells this machine and part of my job is selling it.
- I was given a discount on this machine (although I could have gotten a discount on basically any machine through work).
I will endeavour to provide as much hard factual information as possible. This is relatively easy for the milk steaming section, but the section dealing with espresso will necessarily have a lot of impression to it.
Also, readers should note that this review has been written bit by bit; it's quite piecemeal and generally could use a bit of editing. In fact, I might even do that at some stage in the future. For this reason, I have gone through and summarised each section under each heading. The first three sections are really just background information, so feel free to just skip right to the section titled "Espresso."
[Edit 1: Upon posting this review, I realised that it just looked incredibly long, so my first update has been to slash the first three sections down to the summaries, which really detail all of the important information.]The Machine's Story
EDIT: I have been asked to edit this section. Seeing as who manufactured, designed, shipped, etc. this machine has no bearing on anything that is said in this review, having this section here means much less to me than it means to the person who asked me to take it down. Part of the reason why I have been asked to take this down is, as far as I understand it, because the person who made the request felt that this review was commenting about more than the Maver. For the avoidance of doubt, I want to point out that I was at pains NOT to divulge the names of any of the other prosumer machines against which the Maver competes, specifically because the aim of writing this piece was to provide information about the Maver, not about other machines. However, I found it utterly impossible to write anything meaningful without making some reference to other machines. In addition, the veracity of what I had said in this section was questioned. Frankly, based on a fair bit of evidence, I think that what was here was true and correct. But the balance of convenience lies in favour of simply editing this section.
Anyhoo, I hope that the following edited summary is uncontroversial:
Summary: David Makin decided to import this machine after seeing it when passing through Italy on the way to competing in the 2006 World Barista Championships. David has had quite a bit of involvement in how this machine ticks.My coffee background
Summary: I have had a number of coffee gadgets, including the popular Rancilio Silvia and Rocky combination. I have also been lucky enough to use some very nice espresso equipment at my various jobs. Throughout this review, I make passing reference to the La Marzocco FB-80 that I currently use at work.
What I was looking for
Summary: This review does not take the paradigm frame of reference of someone buying their first espresso machine. Rather, I am interested in espresso machines that mirror what I am used to at work, both in terms of cup profile and convenience. Specifically, I was after a machine that would help me to build up my palate by making it easy to extract espresso with decent clarity of flavour.Deciding to buy the machineSummary: Despite my initial scepticism of a machine with a 1.3L boiler, the Maver performed well when used head to head with some relatively good commercial machines (a Linea and a WEGA Polaris). So I decided to buy it.Espresso
Summary: The machine produces espresso that is characterised by reasonable body and quite good clarity of flavour. Just as importantly, it does so quite predictably and with a minimum of fuss. The consequence is that the barista is left to focus on truly important factors, like the coffee itself and its grind size and dose. I had difficulty coming up with a reasonable way to give a qualitative impression of how it performs, but basically said that although top notch commercial equipment seems to me to deliver better shots, the Maver is surprisingly not outclassed.
Characteristics that I like in espresso
Without spending too much time on the subject, it is worth noting that there are lots of different styles of espresso. I like to think that you could almost put them on a continuum, with descriptors like full body, syrupy mouthfeel and low acid at one end and descriptors like acidic, fruity, sweet and watery at the other. In my mind, the difference is usefully summarised by examining the brewing ratio. A higher ratio of coffee to water results in shots with the first group of characteristics - I'll call them "body" - whilst a lower ratio of coffee to water results in shots with the latter group of characteristics - I'll call them "clarity." If you have an espresso machine, a useful experiment would be to extract 60mL of espresso in 30 seconds, switching cups so that you catch the first 20mL in one cup, the second 20mL in another and the third in the last cup. The first 20mL should have more body, whereas the second should have more clarity of flavour. (The final cup, to me, often ends up devoid of anything of interest and sometimes even sour.)
Generally speaking, I think that it is more difficult to extract shots with clearly defined flavours than shots with lots of body. I used to find it relatively easy to extract a gooey, chocolatey shot on my silvia, but significantly harder to extract a sweet and acidic shot. However, this wasn't the case with the Synesso or the FB80. I didn't find it much harder to extract a full-length, flavoursome espresso on those machines than it was to extract a short and potent espresso. Ristretti were usually pleasant, rich and chocolatey. In fact, they were invariably pleasant, rich and chocolatey, regardless of what coffee I was using. By contrast, a proper espresso had an interesting and elusive element to it - I found it easier to taste the differences between different blends and origins at this brewing ratio.
I don't think that an espresso or a ristretto is necessarily better; usually the choice will depend on the blend or origin being used. But I do think that it is more difficult to extract a decent espresso than it is to extract a decent ristretto. This meant that in deciding to buy the Maver I was particularly concerned to avoid the following traits:
Espresso From The Maver
- Excessive pre-infusion: I found that a long time between flipping the switch and seeing the first drops usually seemed to result in a shot that was either burnt or high in body and low in clarity of flavour, regardless of the extraction time and volume.
- Accelerating extraction rate: Some machines seemed to start off at a trickle and quickly move to a gush. This made it difficult for me to stop the extraction at the point that I wanted.
- Difficult temperature management routines: It is difficult enough to find the right grind setting. If you have to worry about the machine being at wildly fluctuating temperatures, all of a sudden you are chasing two variables around when trying to dial in a new coffee.
I am sitting here, cappuccino in hand, and I find myself with very little to say. I think that this is because much of my concern in brewing espresso is in liberating the coffee from negative flavours imposed by an espresso machine. That is what struck me and continues to strike me about this machine.
Going back to the espresso flavour spectrum, the Maver's shots strike me as having a good balance between body and clarity of flavour. Different blends and origins taste like different blends and origins. At the same time, I have never felt that my shots have been lacking in body or mouthfeel because of the machine. However, I have had shots that have been unpleasant because I have roasted the coffee badly. On the Silvia, the difference would not have been quite as marked, simply because most of the best extractions that I got on that machine were of the type where increased body obscured the actual flavour of the coffee to some extent.
Having this machine around has certainly helped me to develop my palate quite a bit. For example, during October I can honestly say that the various beans that I used had hints of blueberry (or cantaloupe), rose and nuts.
Yes, but how good is it?
Now, I guess that I ought to try to quantify how good the espresso actually is. This is something that every review that I have read has struggled with. Part of the difficulty is the fact that most espresso machine reviews seem to either declare the machine being reviewed as the "best" or they try to use some sort of numerical rating. Whilst I appreciate those that try to use the latter method, even at the top of the specialty coffee tree, cuppers disagree about how coffee should be rated. Accordingly, I have tried to focus more on describing the espresso rather than evaluating it. Nonetheless ...
... drawing on the machines that I have used, I would have to say that I like coffee from the Maver a lot more than coffee from the Silvia, but I find the FB80 to be the best of all - to my mind the good shots have similar body and greater clarity of flavour. The Maver is a lot closer to the FB80 than it is to the Silvia. So much so that, on occasion, I have actually either been at work or visited a friend's cafe and come home to have a nicer shot. I am not sure how helpful that is to anyone, but I can't think of a better way to do it!
Ease of Use and Tricks
The internet is overflowing with articles about how machines that use heat exchangers are difficult to use; evidently the importers/manufacturers dropped the ball and did not tune the thermosyphons as their markets required. The result, for those machines, is that one needs to develop a meticulous routine of running a certain amount of water through the group head at a certain time before brewing in order to get the water to the right temperature to brew the coffee - this is commonly referred to as the "cooling flush." Since David made sure that this machine was tuned how he wanted it in the factory, the cooling flush is a simple exercise. I simply flush water through the group head for two or three seconds, then extract my espresso. Sometimes I will do my cooling flush before grinding my coffee; it doesn't seem to make too much difference. The water that comes out almost never seems to hiss and splutter. Indeed, shots brewed without a cooling flush often taste fine - although I would always flush just for cleanliness.
Temperature management deserves a brief mention. The machine has a hole for easy access to the pressurestat. This allows you to change the boiler pressure which, in turn, ought to change the brew temperature. In practice, whilst changing the boiler pressure a few tenths of a bar does seem to have an impact on flavour, the difference has never struck me as large enough to be worthwhile bothering with the pressurestat. Accordingly, after about a year of experimentation I basically leave the boiler pressure at 1.25 to 1.3 bar at the top of the cycle. Letting a lot of water run through the group head - something like 10 seconds' worth - does seem to alter the flavour slightly. Again, I don't do it much. This is odd, because I tend to muck around with brew temperature a fair bit on the FB80.
As I said in the introduction, evaluation of espresso is necessarily quite subjective. To try and work out whether or not my impressions were fair, I grabbed half a kilo of coffee and made 12 shots in a row, including a few sink shots. The results confirmed my impressions above:
That experiment isn't particularly good science - the sample size is too small to be statistically significant and I knew what variations I had made - but I find it comforting.
- Three shots made with my normal routine were identical.
- Two shots made without flushing at all tasted the same as the normal shots, but one of the two had a slight bitterness to it.
- Two shots made with a ten second flush were similar to the normal shots, but slightly sourer and with a slightly more watery mouthfeel, which was offset by a vaguely more floral flavour.
- One shot made with a lower dose tasted both more floral and more sour than the normal shots. I also extracted less volume and it was more watery.
- Two shots were thrown away in dialling everything in and one was thrown and two shots after that were thrown away due to errors in dosing. (I'm not particularly embarrassed to say that; indeed, I think that it underscores the often overlooked importance of consistent dosing in the whole espresso process.)
Photo: Not actually from this round of testing, but the mess was similar!
Important and Unimportant Considerations in Espresso Brewing
A brief digression. There are a myriad of factors that make a difference in making a decent shot. Some make a huge difference. Some make no difference. Some will make a difference only in some circumstances. There is a whole galaxy of writing out there on the internet that deals with various factors in isolation, but very little that gives a reasonable account of the relative importance of each of the factors under the barista's control, hence this short note.
Let's remember that the most important thing is the coffee. Not just the freshness, but also the roast level, roast profile and the blend used. Garbage in = garbage out on any machine. Factors that are also of great importance are consistent dosing of coffee, machine cleanliness and the volume/time of the extraction (determined by grind and dose). I think that these are the important factors for anyone to focus on. These factors are the difference between an acceptable and an unacceptable shot.
There are then a number of factors that will make a huge difference if they are way off, but only a considerably smaller difference if they are taken care of within the tolerances that you would expect of a reasonably competent barista with reasonable equipment. These include tamping, amount of coffee dosed, brew temperature, brew pressure, portafilter baskets, preinfusion and a whole plethora of other things. These are the difference between a good shot and a great shot.
Finally, there are some oddball factors that either make no difference, or very little difference, or are only of relevance to correct something else. This category covers a number of elaborate techniques that are discussed all over the place.
So the point of saying all of this is to highlight that the Maver holds up its end of providing a consistent point for the barista to work from. The machine does not take care of things like the coffee, the dose and the grind, but it means that the barista can focus on those things rather than worrying about the machine.
Summary: The current Maver steam tip seems to work best when the steam wand is aimed almost straight down and positioned half-way between the centre of the jug and the edge. The tip is suited to producing microfoam and is very easy to clean, but I have a bee in my bonnet about it; I am more comfortable with steam wands that perform best when on an angle. My nominal steaming times are 16 seconds to make a single cappuccino and 26 seconds to make two. For reference, the La Marzocco FB-80 at work takes 11 and 16 seconds, respectively, to texture the same amount of milk. Those who want to experiment can change the steaming characteristics of the machine by changing the steam tip.
I have always thought that it is much easier to get decent milk than it is to make good espresso, so I basically completely ignored milk steaming for the purposes of deciding to buy the machine. That said, the way that this machine steams milk is the aspect of this machine that I least enjoy.
Steam Tips and My Comments
When it comes to milk steaming, the $15 steam tip at the end of your many thousand dollar espresso machine is basically determinative. The first thing that I did when I got the machine was to get hold of a few different steam tips to try them out. The machine seems to have a standard 10mm thread, so there are a fair few different steam tips available. Whilst lots of different steam tips will fit, they will not all necessarily fit flush against the steam wand, which can make them difficult to clean.
The various steam tips performed as follows:
- Old Maver tip (ie. now obsolete): Suited for what the "dry" cappuccini that Italians seem to like. This means that it could produce a lot of bubbly foam easily, which obviously rendered it fairly difficult to create the smooth microfoam that is popular in Australia. Very easy to clean.
- Generic four-holed commercial tip (seemed to me to be the same as what Synesso use): Made great microfoam with two of the four holes plugged up when inserted into the jug at an angle, but I thought that it let the steam out quite quickly, making it relatively difficult to control what was going on. Lots of straight sides making it relatively difficult to wipe down, plus it didn't fit flush with the steam arm.
- Generic two-holed domestic tip (possibly used by Isomac): Easy to get microfoam with, but exceptionally slow. Seemed to cut the steam flow to a trickle. Ridges on the tip were magnets for caked on milk, making it almost impossible to clean.
After the first batch of machines landed, David organised for the machines to be switched to this tip:
Despite my dislike of the current Maver tip, I'm forced to admit that it is what I am currently using. The inconvenience of sometimes forgetting what I'm doing and starting to steam with the tip on the wrong angle is outweighed by both the ease of cleaning the tip and the fact that I would have to put effort in to find some other tips to try!
- Current Maver tip: Sensibly matched to this machine and designed for microfoam, not "dry" foam. Because the tip is designed to go with the machine, it fits on to the steam wand so that it can be cleaned very easily, with a single wipe. BUT, like a few of the common steam tips on domestic machines, it seems to be designed to work when the wand is aimed straight down. I am used to steam tips that work when the wand is put in the pitcher on an angle. As a result, I have suggested to David that he should source a different tip that will allow the same technique to be used as on a La Marzocco, et. al. David likes the current steaming action and thinks that it will suit most people; ie. I'm in the minority. One oddity with this steam tip is that if you introduce too many large bubbles at the beginning, it is best to let them sit on the surface whilst you continue steaming and then to pop them by rapping the jug on the counter. With a commercial machine, it is usually best to move the wand slightly to suck them under. For some reason, I never really got good results doing that.
A quick note; whilst it is, of course, possible to brew and steam at the same time, I tend to brew first, then steam immediately after. That way, if I want to do the shot again I do not also have to throw out a jug of steamed milk. Instead of steaming, I tend to pull out my pastry brush and clean up my bench whilst the espresso is pouring.
Milk Steaming Times
For the results below I timed how long it takes me to steam milk for a single coffee in a 350mL jug and two coffees in a 600mL jug. I didn't measure the amount of milk in each case, but I filled each jug to the same level, being the level that I usually would fill it to. The 350mL quantity is sufficient for a 210mL drink with not much milk left over or a 170mL drink with a little bit of milk left over.
Maver Marte Makin Espresso Edition:
350mL jug - 16 seconds
600mL jug - 26 seconds
La Marzocco FB-80:
350mL jug - 11 seconds
600mL jug - 16 seconds
There is one final number that I think is of use; the amount of time that it takes for boiler pressure to drop below 0.7 bar with the valve fully open. This is important to me because I find it difficult to steam milk well with less than that much pressure. On my Maver, it took about 1 minute and 25 seconds for the boiler pressure to fall from about 1.25 bar to 0.7 bar.
Next up was the photo challenge. The idea was to photograph nine coffees in a row to give y'all some idea of what I typically am producing at home, including embarrassing coffees like the middle one in the top row. Note that that coffee was a result of me starting to steam with the wand on the angle that I would use at work.
Obviously I'm not a pro photographer, nor a latte art guru! The irony, of course, is that I have been pouring nicer looking latte art as a result of paying attention to my mistakes during this exercise. However, the idea was to present the reader with some photos of typical coffees, not the best ones, so there you go.
(nB: All of those cappuccini were about 170mL in volume.)
Cleaning and Maintenance
Summary: The Maver ought to be treated like any other espresso machine - keep it clean and well maintained.
Photo: Why windex is good.
This section will be brief, seeing as I can't imagine that there is any real difference between the Maver and similar machines. Skip over it if you are familiar with cleaning and maintenance of prosumer espresso machines.
*Keep a cloth near your steam wand and wipe down after every use. I think that the microfibre cloths are really good for this; others like chux cloths.
*Clean water backflushing is never a bad thing. The machine came with two portafilters, so seeing as I don't have much interest in single espresso shots I keep the blind filter in the other permanently and it lives on the bench next to the machine. A clean water backflush is, thus, painless. Weekly
*Chemical backflush. The only hint that I have here is to leave the blind filter containing dissolved detergent sitting in the group for a few minutes to really dissolve all of the crud behind the shower screen - a tip that I learnt from Andrew. It ought to go without saying that the pump should be off at this time.
*Windex. Chrome = dirt magnet. It can get irritating. While the blind is sitting in the group soaking I tend to spray and wipe the drip tray and the panel on which the group is mounted. The sides tend not to get very dirty, so it's not usually necessary to clean them weekly. Apparently microfibre cloths are also really good for polishing chrome - but for crying out loud don't use the same one that you use for the steam wand!
*Scale (calcium carbonate) tends to build up inside espresso machine boilers at a rate dependent on the quality of your water. Scale forms preferentially at the water level line. I gather that autofill probes function by switching the machine off when the level touches the probe, allowing for current to be transmitted through the water and the probe and switching off the pump and boiler fill solenoid. Scale happens to form on the probe and I gather that it prevents this conduction, with the result that over time the boiler fills more and more. This, in turn, means that there is less steam in the boiler. (Someone correct me if I'm wrong and I'll update the post.) Then there's the fact that excessive scale build-up can eventually clog the various bits and pieces that water is supposed to flow through. So descaling when it is necessary is pretty important for all domestic espresso machines, unless you have a pretty hefty water filtration system. Descaling involves draining the boiler of as much water as possible, filling it with a descaling solution, running the descaling solution through the group several times, then draining and flushing the descaling solution out of the boiler and heat exchanger. Typically, the difficulty is that you need to open up the machine and do some shenanigans to get the machine to over-fill. I did that when descaling, but in doing so I noticed that tilting the machine 45 degrees or so will also make it overfill slightly. I imagine that this might be sufficient and, if so, it is a neat little shortcut.
*Wearing parts. The rubber O-rings in the steam and hot water tap and the gaskets will need to be replaced every so often. The teflon gasket between the steam tip and the tip of the steam wand might also need replacing - I'm not sure. I gather that pressurestats, pumps and brain boxes all eventually need replacing on most machines, although we are probably talking very long term there. Steam valves seem to need to be rebuilt every so often as a matter of course on commercial machines, so there's another thing to watch out for.
*Water filter. I gather that these things are supposed to be replenished occasionally by soaking them in a glass of brine, then running water through them. I have been completely negligent in this regard and will try to find out what the story is there.
Random Other Stuff
Summary: I talk about various things in this section that aren't of particularly great consequence to what's in the cup.
Forgive me, but I'm going to use bullet points to get through the random stuff that doesn't affect the cup and about which I have (comparatively) little to say:
- Information overload: I guess that the front of the machine might make it look unduly complicated, but everything serves a purpose. The various lights indicate the element being on, the machine being at temperature and the power being on. The power light goes out when the weight sensor beneath the water tank detects that there isn't much water in the tank. It would be nicer to have some sort of gauge that gave you a reading of how full the tank is, but so far no manufacturer of "prosumer" machines has managed to do what sunbeam et al find quite simple. I don't look at the brew and boiler pressure gauges all that much any more, but it is nice to know that everything is as it should be.
- Fit and finish: I think that it looks great, but, as I said, all of these shiny chrome things are hard to keep clean. I have dismantled the machine and put it back together a few times; occasionally a lack of care when putting the central piece of metal back in place will mean that everything doesn't fit flush.
- Cup warmer: The good part is that it is easy to lift on and off, thanks to the rails. The bad part is that the cups at the back, above the water reservoir, don't get as hot as those at the front. I wonder if any prosumer machine manufacturer has solved this problem.
- Drip tray: The Silvia had a drip tray that held about half a litre, but that was difficult to remove without spilling stuff everywhere when full. The Maver drip tray seems to hold something like a litre or a litre and a half and slides in and out easily. The wire grid supporting the cups is best removed before pouring the contents out. It is possible to pour the contents out through the grid, but everything will need a wipe down afterwards. Thanks to both the large capacity of the drip tray and the tiny cooling flush that this machine requires, I only had to empty the drip tray once, at the very end of the marathon shot-pulling session that I conducted for this review. That's including all of the water used to give the group a chemical back-flush before beginning!
- Hot water: The hot water wand on this machine is unusually long. It's really six of one and half a dozen of another as far as I'm concerned - I don't use it that much. The long wand seems to have the neat little consequence that the first little bit of hot water loses a bit of heat heating it up; if you stop after the first 30mL, you can actually put your finger in it. After the first 30mL, the water is very hot and splutters a little bit when it comes out of the aerator. I guess that this is kind of cool because it means that I don't get the water causing the crema on a long black/americano to fade away as quickly as it otherwise might. If I drank a lot of long blacks, I might consider keeping a bottle of water with a pour spout on it around - a nice trick that Corey from Epic Espresso used when he had LM Lineas. Within reason, the colder the water, the longer the crema will last. Letting the water sit in the cup for a while whilst grinding seems to work, too.
- Water reservoir: It seems to be pretty standard. It is clearly intended to be removed to be filled and it is pretty easy to do so. But I'm lazy, so I just pour water into it. This would be easier to do if the reservoir had a larger opening or if I condescended to use a funnel. That said, pouring isn't exactly rocket-science!
- Navigating through the machine: I am not a huge fan of the way that this machine is put together - there is a piece of metal that supports the reservoir and shields the boiler and electronics from errant water. I am told that this is a safety feature, and probably quite a sensible one. However, I like to tinker and this means that there are more bolts that I need to worry about than there would be on a commercial machine.
- Part replacements: It would be remiss of me not to mention that I have replaced a heating element, a pressurestat and have tinkered with the pump mount on my machine. It would be equally remiss of me not to mention that this was all because I am an obsessive tinkerer and I am too cool to actually read the manual. So if I you learn three things from this review, let it be these: (a) follow the machine filling procedure detailed in the obligatory poorly translated manual so as not to let the element melt when not properly immersed in water, (b) if your pressurestat adjustment screw won't turn further, it is because you have reached the limit and, finally, (c) if you tinker with the pump mount for no good reason you might well have to then try to reverse your tinkering for no good reason. Anyhoo, I had fun and I learnt a fair bit about how machines work ... or don't ... in the process!
- Version 2: David has talked to BFC and Maver to make a few changes for current models of his machine. The only one that is immediately apparent is that he swapped the old Maver portafilter for the same one that Peter is using on the BFC commercial machines that Veneziano imports. These portafilters have a sloped handle (like mine), a deep bowl and open double spouts. In fact, they are quite reminiscent of the La Marzocco portafilters. Inside the machine, the frame has been strengthened and the OPV has been moved to a more easily accessible location. These modifications join the other two that David made after receiving the first shipment; the hole above the pressurestat for easy access and the new steam tip. Of course, the thermosyphon and preinfusion characteristics haven't been messed with! Not to be outdone, I have a few ideas for random stuff that I might muck around with, but I won't have time to chase it up for a while.
It is customary to conclude a review with some sort of overall assessment. I presume that this is really for people who skip to the conclusion, rather than people who actually read the review and, so, know what the reader thinks of the machine. I guess that my one sentence evaluation would simply be that half an hour after coming home from using the FB80 at work, I make myself coffee at home. That probably doesn't sound like much, but I think that it is pretty impressive, considering that the FB80 is something like eight times the price!
In terms of my goal of improving my espresso palate, I am quite pleased with how this whole thing has worked out. I used to drink far more espresso at work than at home when I had the Silvia; at home I drank mainly milk-based drinks. Now, I drink about the same ratio of milk and black drinks at home as I would at work. And I'm a lot more confident in describing flavours in espresso.
This concludes my attempt at writing a useful review. I fear that it won't be that helpful, but you can always ask questions in the comments.