Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Shuttle Espresso Machine Review


Domestic e61 heat exchanger machines have been on the market for quite some time now and for all of that time, they have been quite expensive. Lately, with the rise and rise of specialty coffee, we have seen an increased interest in these machines, part of which has coincided with an increase in prices of these machines as a consequence of the Australian dollar's fluctuation against the Euro. All of this has created a climate where there is a business case for sourcing out decent machines made in a country with a lower cost of labour and a more favourable exchange rate and bringing in a pricing model where the importer sells direct -as opposed to adding a markup to support a reseller network - in order to deliver a cheaper machine to the consumer. This is exactly what e61 has done in bringing the Shuttle into Australia from China. Of course, whilst this might be a recipe to cry "knock-off", none of these things
actually gives any indication as to the quality of the machine and the coffee that it creates. For this reason, I was interested and grateful to Matt from e61 to be given the opportunity to explore the machine.

This review is written with people who might be interested in buying this machine in mind. This means that I will make reference to other domestic espresso machines that I have used and even a few commercial machines. These references will be comparisons to tease out a little more about the Shuttle, seeing as this machine falls to be evaluated against a market of competing products, but are not intended to give any sort of insight into those other machines.

Finally, I want to touch on the issue of reviewer independence in this review. To Matt's credit, from the outset he accepted that I am only interested in writing this as a totally independent review and that I might not have anything nice to say about the machine. I have sent Matt a copy of the text of this review in advance so that he could comment on it; that resulted in one amendment, which was to correct my original error in saying that the machine was manufactured in Taiwan and not China. Our arrangement was basically this: I get to use the machine free of charge to me, but get nothing else. I cover all costs of coffee.


Espresso is the most difficult part to get right in any espresso machine. If I were in the market for an espresso machine, I would give the most weight to this part and little weight to the rest of it.

Espresso - Taste Test

To evaluate the machine, I tasted a few different coffees that I am fairly familiar with.

The first was a commercial espresso blend comprising Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, Kenyan and central american coffees at a medium to light roast level. This is a fairly difficult blend to work with, but is capable of delicious results. I chose this blend because the result in the cup would give me the most information about how the machine was functioning. The espresso was thin, sour, metallic and dominated by grapefruit flavours (presumably from the Kenyan component) at all dose levels, with the contribution from the yirgacheffe overwhelmed.

The second that I chose was a commercial espresso blend that was slanted more towards heavy body and chocolatey sugar browning flavours. I chose this because it is a coffee that has proven itself to have mass appeal. The espresso was a little bitterer and ashier than I expected, even at coarse grinds, high doses and fairly fast flow rates. The coffee also seemed to blonde out towards the end of the pour (but I note that this is something that I have noticed with a lot of domestic espresso machines).

I tried a few other coffees and struck gold with some home roast Tanzania Blackburn Estate Shade of September Microlot. This was a failed filter roast that went slightly too far. Too light for most espresso machines, on the Shuttle it produced a sweet, rich shot with loads of berry goodness and a lively acidity. The fact that this coffee performed well illustrates a good point about domestic espresso machines and most commercial espresso machines; seeing as people don’t tweak brew temperatures, people will tend to gravitate to blends that suit their machines, which is always a consideration to take into account when reading reviews and posts online.

These taste tests, together with the steam flashing from the group, made me suspect that the machine was running too hot.

Espresso - Numbers

I borrowed a Scace device and portafilter pressure gauge from Craig at 9 Bar Espresso Services in order to test out the machine. The first thing that I did when the machine arrived was to run the pressure gauge and see it settle at around 9 bar brew pressure. I used the brew pressure gauge before packing the machine up and got a reading of 11 bar. I should note that this was using a blind gauge.

The Scace device read brew temperatures between 104C and 99C. For reference, the Giotto at work put out brew temperatures between 94C and 89C.

Temperature measurements should be taken with a grain of salt, in that there are a myriad of factors that can give rise to inaccuracies. The Scace device does a fantastic job in creating a platform for repeatable measurements, but it is still important to be aware of sources of error, such as probe and multimeter error. In this case, the actual value of the reading may be out by a few degrees. For what it's worth, boiling water read 104C on the particular multimeter that I was using, which implies that the “true” brew temperatures were in the range of 100C to 95C. As an aside, the difficulty in measuring brew temperatures is something that people should consider when reading espresso machine reviews that give a passing reference to “temperature stability” or similar without giving any insight into their measurement process. Similarly, brew pressure measurements need to be taken with a grain of salt, as measurements taken from the gauge built in to the machine will vary depending on where the gauge sits in the internal plumbing on the machine - so two different models displaying the same brew pressure on the internal gauge might actually have different brew pressures when measured at the head. Measurements at the group head depend a little bit on the measurement device; I seem to remember that the rule of thumb is to subtract about one bar from the gauge reading for blind gauges.

In terms of how these numbers scrub up, I think that we can infer fairly safely that the brew temperature is on the high side. I should note that there is no "correct" brew temperature; most espresso blends will perform well somewhere between about 89 and 96C, depending on roast levels. I'm a little more hesitant to draw conclusions about brew pressure; I think that this is not a variable that has been well explored, seeing as most machines are set at the "holy grail" pressure of 9 bar ... using whatever gauge is most handy! That said, I suspect that lower brew pressures might be a little more forgiving for the domestic e61 HX market.

Milk - Use

In contrast to espresso, milk performance is fairly straightforward and easy to evaluate. To test out the milk, I tried frothing on a few 350mL jugs in a row. There was certainly enough steam available, such that I actually found it a little difficult to control. My housemate, a professional barista, thought that the steam was great, which suggests that it might just be a matter of spending the time to get the right

I did notice that the "no-burn" steam wand got uncomfortably hot after steaming a few jugs in a row. This is consistent with the performance of other steam wands with inserts that I have used on domestic machines, such as the Giotto that I have at work.

Milk - Numbers

The Shuttle was able to steam enough milk for a single milk drink, using a 350mL jug, in 16 seconds. In comparison, the Makin Espresso Maver machine also takes 16 seconds and the Giotto that I have at work takes about 26 seconds. A La Marzocco FB-80 can do it in 10.

In my review of the Makin Espresso Maver machine, I noticed that a good predictor of steam performance is the amount of time that it takes for the steam boiler to drop to 0.7bar, seeing as at this boiler pressure the milk isn't being moved around enough to be worthwhile. When the steam valve is fully opened, the Shuttle drops to 0.7 bar boiler pressure after 33 seconds. In contrast, the Makin Espresso took 85 seconds last time I checked and the Giotto at work takes about 28 seconds.

The Machine

This section is just some brief notes on the build aspects of the the machine.

The Good:

Stainess steel frame - won't rust as compared with a powdercoat steel frame, which can rust where the powdercoat chips off. That said, I have to note that the courier dropped the machine that I used and as a result the section of the frame holding the drip tray had bent.

Stainless steel tank - makes sense, given concerns over the past few years of materials leeching from plastic. The tank has a valve fitted to the bottom so that it can be pulled out, filled and dropped back in, though the over pressure hose must be maneuvered back into place.

Wire grill over drip tray - you don't get as much crap collecting on the top of it and transferring to the bottom of the cup. Of course, the tradeoff for this is that you can see more of the muck that collects in
the drip tray. The opposite extreme is the metal plate drip tray cover of the giotto; see the photo below to see how much mess collects on top of it after a few shots. At work, I have to wipe the drip tray after
every use.

Internal components - whilst the machine is made in China, the components all seem to be components that have been used in other machines. The brain box is from gicar and the pressurestat is from CEME. I note, though, that I didn’t get to strip the machine down - instead, this is based on the tear-down photos sent to me by Chris.

Stainless steel body - seemed to polish up very easily.

Boiler is insulated - presumably a good thing in terms of energy savings, but query whether in this instance it isn't another factor making the machine run hot. Nonetheless, having the machine come with a boiler insulated from the factory means that there shouldn’t be any need to consider embarking on this task yourself.

The Bad:

Double portafilter spouts - these sit forward and, so, make it impossible to wedge the portafilter against the bench for tamping; they are also a little wide for pouring two both streams of a double shot into a single espresso cup. The Giotto has the same issue. See photo below.

Drip tray - the drip tray is far too small, particularly if you want to flush a large amount of water through it - I was emptying every shot or two, which is basically totally impractical unless you have your machine right next to the sink, in which case it is still annoying. I keep a bucket under the bench to empty the giotto drip tray into.

Water tank cover - the water tank cover has two holes punched into it for handles. Things like dust, dirt and ground coffee can fall through these holes. Again, the giotto has the same problem.

Stainless steel tank - the fit and finish on this was somewhat poor, in that some of the edges were fairly sharp. To my mind, this is a bit of a problem on the part of the machine that your fingers are going to get near the most often.

Drip tray grate - as great as it was to see a wire drip tray grate, it was irritating that the drip tray grate did not sit flat in the drip tray.

No brew pressure gauge.

Boiler pressure gauge - I found it somewhat hard to read, as the markings are not at the numbers that I am used to; eg 0.9 bar instead of 0.1 bar.


As I flagged before, for me an espresso machine purchasing decision should come down to espresso performance. In this case, I can’t honestly say that I was thrilled with most of the espresso produced by the machine. It may be that this is simply due to the machine running too hot, which is something that can be cured in a number of ways. I understand that E61 has requested modifications to the machine to address this problem. If these work, this machine might be worth revisiting as a good value