There are two schools of thought when it comes to espresso – the purists and the modernists. The Purists will tell you that espresso is a ritual. Modernists, on the other hand, would say that the end justifies the means. Both are correct. There is a lot to be said for the convenience you have with a super automatic, knowing that you can get great tasting espresso just by pushing a button. But for those of us who love the entire process of creating espresso, a semi-automatic is the best way to go. Semi-automatics offer the consistency of an electrical pump, but the grind, tamp and the extraction are totally in your control.
For the purists, the Rancilio Silvia is among the most popular machines on the market, and for good reason. The Silvia gives you the quality and durability you would expect from a trusted Italian brand like Rancilio, and its compact, stainless steel design adds quiet sophistication to your kitchen. Oh, and it can brew espresso with the best.
The Silvia is a charming, straightforward machine that is just about ready to brew when you take it out of the box. The portafilter and power cord are packaged neatly under the grouphead for safety. Plug the power cord into an electrical outlet, take the filter baskets and coffee scoop out of the water reservoir, fill it and power up. The Silvia has just four switches on it, so you should have no trouble identifying the power switch – it’s the one in the center with the lightning bolt on it.
Like most semi-automatics, the Silvia needs to be primed when you turn it on for the first time. Priming the machine will fill the boiler with water, and it should be done right away so that the boiler doesn’t heat up while it’s empty. To prime the Silvia, place a cup under the steam wand, flip the switch for the hot water—located in the center of the three switches on the front left of the machine—and open the steam knob to let water flow through the machine. The water will spurt at first, and when it runs steadily, the machine is primed. Okay, we’re ready to brew. Hold on to your seats.
Brew like there's no tomorrow
When you turn on the Silvia, it takes about three minutes to heat up. It has a shockingly large 12 oz boiler made of forged marine-grade brass and a three-way solenoid valve to regulate pressure. And, with the grouphead and portafilter also made of marine-grade brass, the Silvia offers supreme heat retention. The orange light next to the power button illuminates as it heats, and it will go off when the machine is at the proper brewing temperature.
Brewing with the Silvia is the same as any semi-automatic, but its heavy-duty brass brewing components and stainless steel housing set it apart. Press the top rocker switch with the cup icon on it and start counting. A proper espresso shot should take about 20-25 seconds, and with a semi-automatic it’s up to you to determine when enough is enough. Many espresso enthusiasts agree that you should throw the first shot away, but when we were doing the photo shoot, we couldn’t resist. The Silvia brewed an excellent first shot, even without any special preheating or running hot water through the grouphead.
For those looking for a more exact science than traditional brewing, the Rancilio Silvia has been redesigned with a pod-adaptable grouphead, which means you can purchase the Pod-Adapter Kit and brew E.S.E. pods. Purist or no, E.S.E. pods are a convenient and trouble-free way to brew espresso. If you do go the pod route you don’t have to grind, measure or tamp the coffee before brewing, so it’s a great option for espresso lovers on the go. While owning a Silvia is about enjoying the whole process, from grinding to brewing, it’s still nice to have the option.
The Daily Grind
Owning a semi-automatic inevitably means owning a grinder, or at least buying or having your coffee pre-ground. The purists will tell you again that the ritual of brewing espresso starts at the grinder, because the best espresso comes from freshly ground beans. That’s why the Rancilio Rocky goes hand-in-hand with the Silvia.
The Rocky is a high-grade burr grinder, and you really shouldn’t settle for less when it comes to espresso. The Rocky offers 55 grind settings and has a professional quality, direct drive motor. If price is a big issue, you can get a great quality burr grinder for less with the Gaggia MDF. The MDF can compete with many of the best home espresso grinders with a gear reduction motor and 34 grind settings to choose from. Still, Rancilio fans might say that Silvia and Rocky are meant to be together, and you can buy them as a pack and save. In any case, the choice is yours.
The other two buttons
While the Silvia’s controls may seem incredibly straightforward, the machine has a few subtle tweaks that make it stand out. First off, it has a hot water button that should not be taken for granted. Many semi-automatics are designed to dispense hot water when you press the brew button by diverting the water flow from the grouphead to the steam wand when you turn the steam knob. The Silvia has an independent hot water button to control the flow of water out of the steam wand, so there’s no double duty for the brew button.
The bottom button on the Silvia is the steam button, and when it’s turned on the Silvia quickly heats up to steam temperature. The orange light next to the power button illuminates as it heats, and it will go off when it reaches steaming temperature. The Silvia’s 12 oz boiler is among the largest in its class, so it can provide a steady supply of steam for frothing large pitchers of milk if you have guests.
A feature on the Silvia that purists seem to really love is the steam tip. The Silvia has a single-hole tip to deliver a fast, uninhibited flow of steam, giving the user complete control over the results. It may take a bit of practice to master the single-hole steam tip but the results are worth it. For added steam distribution, we designed a 3-hole steam tip specifically for the Silvia, and it is a popular alternative to the factory standard.
Cleaning can be fun... or at least painless
Embrace the simplicity of the Silvia, because when it comes to cleaning you’ll rejoice. The stainless steel housing is easy to wipe down, and the drip tray and grate are also made of stainless steel. Remove both of them and rinse them off in the sink when needed. The Silvia’s steam wand is easy to clean too – just wipe it off with a clean, damp cloth every time you use it and run some water out of it to get rid of any excess milk.
To keep the grouphead clean, you should invest in a cleaning brush to scrub away coffee grounds between brewing sessions. Apart from that, just be sure to descale every 2-3 months depending on the hardness of your water.
A job well done
While it may be easy to appreciate the Silvia’s quality construction and simplicity, don’t overlook its dedication to espresso. With upgrades like a large brass boiler and grouphead, stainless steel housing and a three-way solenoid valve, the Silvia has all of the essential tools that espresso connoisseurs demand. Over the years, this machine has gained quite a following in the espresso community, and if you want to see it in action yourself, check out the video. This compact, understated machine is designed to sit quietly on the corner of your kitchen counter, but when it’s time to brew, there's nothing understated about the Silvia's ability to help you unlock the true ritual of espresso.
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