on July 19, 2013
I've had the Breville BES870XL for about a week now, and I'm thoroughly pleased with the product and the quality of the espresso it can make. I upgraded from a simpler machine and a separate burr grinder, and one of the attractive features of the BES870XL was the integrated grinder. The other thing that appealed to me was the ability to adjust lots of features.
In the first few days, I experimented a lot with grind fineness (it can grind VERY fine - I'm quite pleased with the grinding function), the amount of grounds, and how hard I tamped the grounds. These three things, along with the amount of water (pre-programmed or manually controlled) can affect the extraction of the espresso. Since I like to obsess over coffee, I was quite happy to spend a few days figuring out just the right balance of these various things. My partner, however, was quite agitated that she couldn't simply make a decent espresso like we had been able to do with our previous machine. If you're impatient and don't like to experiment, this might not be the machine for you. However, after a few days I have now made some of the most delicious espresso I've ever drunk, and certainly the most delicious espresso I've ever made at home.
Initially, we had problems with the pressure. The gauge never went past "pre-infusion" stage, into the ideal espresso extraction range. The espresso came out too runny and had little to no crema. Even at the finest setting, filling the portafilter as much as possible and tamping as hard I could, I couldn't get that gauge to get above the pre-infusion stage. If this happens (or has happened) to you, don't give up, just read on here. I called Breville and got great customer service. I was told to test the pressure so that we'd know if the machine was defective or if I could adjust things to get the outcome I wanted. They had me use the single-walled, single-cup filter basket, insert the cleaning disk (a rubber disk that comes with the unit), and then fill the portafilter with foil. This would essentially block the basket and allow the pressure to rise. Then I hit the single espresso shot. After 3 or 4 times of this, the pressure went into the gray (espresso extraction) range, so we knew the machine was okay. But my next few shots of espresso still came out liquidy with hardly any crema.
Here's what I now do to get a delicious cup of caramel colored, sweet, thick espresso with a beautiful crema: I set the grinder to grind espresso that's the consistency of table salt (as Breville recommends), then I manually grind a bit of espresso into the portafilter, tap it on the counter a few times to settle the grounds (do NOT tamp in between - this will create air pockets), grind some more, tap some more, and so on, until the fourth time I finally have enough grounds in the portafilter that I can then tamp. In my experience, this technique compacts the grounds enough to remove the air space, and now the pressure gauge enters the proper region and I'm quite often able to make a fantastic espresso.
If you're not a perfectionist, you can still make a decent espresso with this machine, but I probably wouldn't bother spending the money. You can get a machine for $150 and a burr grinder for $100 and still make a good cup. But if you want an excellent cup and you don't want to spend over $1000, then this machine (and a little experimentation) will do the trick.
The Breville BES870XL is well engineered, well made, has lots of things you can adjust (grind fineness, grind amount, water amount, water temperature, pre-set or manual shot length), and looks nice besides. I'm quite happy with my purchase. And even though my partner was initially impatient and started questioning whether this was a good purchase, she's now a convert and is quite happy to have delicious espresso at home.