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The Ultimate: La Marzocco
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La Marzocco Panel

For many North American espresso enthusiasts, cafe owners, and espresso professionals, "there can be no other" when it comes to espresso machines. That machine of choice is the La Marzocco, currently available in two flavours: the Linea and the FB70. It's a dream come true for an espresso nut to have such a machine in their home, and I'm doubly fortunate: not only do I have a La Marzocco Linea, but I have a one of a kind model: an experimental version that runs on 110V power.

The La Marzocco Linea
The Linea machine from La Marzocco is one you're probably familiar with - after all, almost every Starbucks up until a year or so ago had one of these in a 2, 3 or 4 group version as their centrepiece machine for making espresso.

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But that isn't a qualification on how good these machines are: what is a qualifier is the fact that the top Baristi in the US and Canada, and indeed in most of the world practice their art on La Marzocco machines. La Marzocco machines are the machines of choice for US Regional, US National, and World Barista competitions. The best Baristi I know wouldn't use any other machine.

What makes the machine so good? La Marzocco has a trademarked phrase: "There are reasons". The reasons the company lists might be taken as your prototypical marketing spiel, but you know what? There are reasons - here's mine.

  1. It's a dual boiler machine. The La Marzocco Linea and FB70 lines are machines that feature dual boilers - one for brewing, and one for steaming. Why is this a factor? La Marzocco machines feature more accurate thermal stability than almost any other machine on the market. They also are known as the best steaming machines on the planet, again because of the dual boiler system and how it isolates the two disparate water delivery needs.

  2. The grouphead is massive. Much has been said and made of the E61 grouphead, and it deserves all the kudos it gets. But, the La Marzocco patented grouphead is larger, with more metal, and more active heat ability than even the celebrated E61.

  3. The grouphead is actively heated. As mentioned in the previous point, the La Marzocco grouphead is an active-heat grouphead - a large volume of water flows through the La Marzocco grouphead directly from the brewing boiler. This is has serious advantages over heat exchanger machines that actively heat the grouphead because the grouphead is heated by brew temperature water, not steam temperature water. A La Marzocco grouphead is within 2 to 5 F of the boiler's internal water temperatures - very tight, but very right.

  4. 1.5 F tolerance in brew temperatures There's something that almost no other commercial machine can lay claim to: the La Marzocco machine, when operating in commercial use, maintains less than 1F variance plus or minus (1.5 to 2F total) in the brewing water temperature. In fact, the more the machine is used, the closer the variance is.

  5. It's the little things. Jam packed into the La Marzocco are features like back up systems for manual use of the machine (if any of the electronics or automatic controls go down), or the option to run the machine in brew mode only (you can service the steam boiler and still pull shots on the machine). That's just two, but there's a lot more.

  6. The Book. I can't show you the book, but any La Marzocco owner knows of it - the orange technical manual that is literally a work of art and completely unique in the world of espresso machines. It can turn anyone into a machine tech - even me, and I fear getting inside the machine. The book is extremely visual, and cost a lot of money to produce, but that's the kind of company La Marzocco is.

The 110V Linea Explained

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Interior of 110V Linea
Here's an interior shot of the 110V Linea, complete with labels. Warning, it's a 100kb picture.

So how did I get to possess a La Marzocco machine, and one that is custom built to be 110V? More importantly, why does a 110V La Marzocco machine exist? Let me cover the second question first.

Pretty much every true commercial espresso machine is based on the 220V or 308V power draw. The same stuff that may power your dryer or stove. Espresso machines need this kind of power because of what they do: they have to quickly heat up at least 6 litres of water (on up to 17.5 litres or more) very, very fast, and they have to maintain that kind of heat (something called quick recovery). It's the quick recovery that especially demands 220V or higher.

On top of that, the machines need to power things like rotary pumps, electronics, and in some machines, "way station" heaters that preheat the water going into the machine (between the pump and boiler).

With the current wave of "prosumer" espresso brewers that have been hitting North American shores in the last few years, the limitations of 110V (or the lack of redesign, or both) have shown up in some of these machines, especially in terms of recovery time and boiler performance. I've seen some 110V machines with 1.8 litre heat exchanger boilers that need a lot of time to cycle the boilers, and banging out shot after shot is next to impossible if you want each and every shot to be perfectly consistent. The wait time isn't long, per se - but it can be up to a minute or more. This won't hack it in the commercial, high volume situation true commercial machines are placed in.

But 110V is possible. The problem as I see it is that almost all the Italian designers and manufacturers of these machines don't consider 110V in their design except as a "concession" - as in they design their machines for Europe (which is predominantly 220V), then make concessions in the design to get it working for the North American market and its 110V household current. I've seen some dual boiler machines that have had horrible performance in their 110V versions, including the Schaerer Opal 110V, and the Solis Master Pro (the main reason why it hasn't made it over to these shores).

La Marzocco's engineers and designers decided to tackle this problem a few years ago. The reasons are varied (I'll get to those below), but the main reason is this: it's just what the company does - they get curious about a situation, or are told "no, it can't be done", so they set out to do it anyway. 110V was proving impossible for heat exchanger machines (1 boiler, and a flash heating pipe running through it), so it must be impossible for a large-volume dual boiler system, right? La Marzocco wanted to prove this wrong.

I won't profess to know what they had to tackle to get the wattage down from 2500 to 1500 (guessing), or 220V demands down to 110V, but I do know this: a lot of customized parts went into this machine. And some concessions had to be made, but not many.

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Mazzer Mini and Linea
The La Marzocco 110V Linea and a Mazzer Mini set up downstairs in our basement office at my home.

Let's start with the pump: the pump is an experimental model from Procon. It doesn't sound like any other pump - the one on the 110V Linea sounds like a high pitched turbine. This pump trades off torque for speed, which in turn draws less power.

Next up, the boilers. The heating coils are essentially the same, but some tricks have been done to reduce their power draw while staying close to their spec performance, with some highly customized parts added to the machine. I can't say much more than this. This is where the most power savings were achieved.

Then there's the electronics. Again, a lot was played with here, from control boxes to the sensors and such. Power weight was trimmed.

A few things were "left off" the machine, but I can't go into details on this either.

The result? The machine takes longer to cycle (my guess, based on using off the shelf Lineas, is that they cycle time is about 20% longer on the brew boiler, and about 50% longer on the steam boiler), but in the home environment, this is still increadibly fast.

Another little trick was done to the machine to improve performance. The steam boiler is custom set up to run at 2BAR peak pressure - most commercial machines run their boilers at 1.5BAR max. My machine starts cycling at 1.75 BAR. What does this deliver? Well, it's safe to say I have one of the fastest steaming machines on the planet. I've tested this repeatedly, and I can steam about 10 ounces of milk in about 10 seconds. It's so fast that it required a major change in how I steam milk. It's so fast that, when I had the chance to work on a 4 group Linea about a month after I got my single group, I noted out loud "wow, this machine steams so slow!" which drew gasps from a couple of Baristi that were around me. The four grouper would steam 10oz in about 12 to 15 seconds at the peak of a steam boiler cycle.

There is a drawback to this - the cycle time for that kind of pressure is a lot longer than it would be at a 1.3 to 1.5BAR setting. And eventually, I can "beat the machine", meaning that if I run the steam wand long enough, it will drop below 1BAR, and take as much as 4 or 5 minutes to get back up to pressure. I did this test twice, and it takes about 80 seconds of full steam running to do this kind of drop. But that equals about 8 pitchers (hypothetically) or about 6 pitchers (real use) of milk.

Let me try to put those last few points into something more succinct. The machine has ample steam power, but once you pass a certain point, the 110V Linea cannot recover as you go on steaming - it can't keep up. The commercial versions can. This is the biggest tradeoff that LM had to accept with this machine's design.

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Lots of Room
Even though this is the smallest machine made by La Marzocco, there's ample room up top for cups and stuff. It also heats up an entire room!

The brewing boiler also suffers recovery time issues, but they are much less pronounced than the steam boiler's performance. The biggest "killer" to the brew boiler is flushing the grouphead. Rotary pump machines push a hella lot of water out of the grouphead if there isn't any restriction (like a bed of finely ground, tamped coffee). Running the brew switch for 3 seconds will dish out as much as 2.5oz of water.

Let me wrap this up by getting back on topic: why does this machine exist? Well, it exists because it was a challenge, and a learning experience for the company.

And how did I end up owning one? I'd like to say it's because I'm such a nice guy :) but that's not the reason. It's because the LM folks (and their parent company, ESI) are very, very nice. They knew for a long time that this machine needed some real world tests, and they figured that I'd be an ideal test bunny for it. And even though I never expected it or asked for it, they wanted to give me a thank you for being a big cheer leader for La Marzocco. I dunno if their level of confidence in me is justified, but I sure as hell am very honoured. And I'll tell you something - I don't cheerlead anything that isn't worthy in the extreme. Long before I took delivery of the LM Linea 110V, I thought the company was the best existent in the world of espresso machine manufacturers, and I'll be frank - this machine gift didn't change that thought - didn't increase it. Because it didn't have to.

Performance of the Machine

This section is coming soon.

So, How do You Get One?

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You may be asking yourself, how do you get one? Well, if you were to get a 110V La Marzocco Linea, the sticker price of the off the shelf version is around $6,500, and the customizing probably adds another $1,000 to the price.

But I got good news for you. There's another reason La Marzocco developed this experimental 110V version machine: there are some within the company who want to produce a prosumer grade machine with the La Marzocco lineage and quality. This machine was the experiment to see what hardware challenges existed.

There is nothing on the books yet, no concrete plans to build a consumer / prosumer / catering machine, but you can help convince La Marzocco that there is a market.

Email if you want to see a 110V, rotary pump, plumbed in (water bottle or actual plumbing), dual boiler machine specifically designed for the home, office, and catering market. The company is receptive to any kind of feedback or commentary. When you email, state why you are emailing, and tell them what you'd like to see from the company in terms of price, features, and availability.

Me? I'd love to see them come out with a dual boiler system based on a 1 litre brew boiler, 2 litre steam boiler, about half the size of the Linea (which is way too big for the kitchen counter), and with a very functional yet unique design and outer body. I'd like to see one of the new breeds of micro-rotary pumps (first seen at the SCAA show in Anaheim in 2002) right inside the machine, and the ability to run the machine on a 5 gallon water bottle or plumbed in. I'd like to see around 30kg total weight, and personally, I'd like to see the $2,500 price point breached. I can live with the longer cycle times if I can get the La Marzocco grouphead (or gasp, their old school paddle wheel grouphead!), portafilter, and technology inside.

You? That's up to you when you write the company!

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The experimental 110V Linea was originally an off-the-shelf 1 group, 220V, 2500w machine, with the following specs:

Height: 43cm
Width: 51 cm
Depth: 58cm
Empty weight: 64.2kg
Voltage: 220V
Brew boiler wattage: 1000w
Steam boiler wattage: 1300w
Other wattage: 200w
Brew boiler: 1.8litres
Steam boiler: 3.9litres

The experimental machine has all the same specs, except in the power draw departments.