Last week I stepped up my espresso game by upgrading to a more professional espresso machine. I ordered the Expobar Office Lever Semi-Automatic from Whole Latte Love. Previous to this machine I was using the Gaggia Baby Class semi-automatic machine. Before that, my first espresso machine was an $80 De Longhi from Amazon.com. That was three years ago and now that my espresso making skills have vastly improved, it was time to step into the big leagues.
The Expobar was recommended by a good friend and fellow coffee fanatic who owned one himself. At its $1,300 price point this is probably the best bang for your buck for a home user. Machines priced higher than this add additional features that come in handy more in commercial operations where shots are being pulled all day long. For those cases, far more expensive machines are available.
This machine has the features I really wanted, which include the E61 brew group, a hot water dispenser, pressure gauges and a large drip tray.
The E61 brew group is the whole assembly that circulates the water around and through the front of the machine, down through the grinds in the portafilter. It is made up of the group head. The manual lever, which activates the pump for the brewing process and the pressure release system. And the pressure relief valve. What makes it uniquely an E61 group head, is that the lever and valve are manual. The moment you put an electrical unit in, like a solenoid valve, it ceases to be an E61 brew group.
The hot water dispenser is very nice to have on the machine for use in preheating the cups prior to pulling a shot. Otherwise, I use, or used to use an electric kettle to preheat water since the Gaggia, nor the De Longhi have dispensers. Now I can get all the tasks done from one machine.
The drip tray on the Expobar is huge! It's like a small deep sink which is great because that means you don't have to empty it as often, or worry about over filling it when pulling shots and cleaning the machine. With the Gaggia, you really had to be aware of the drip tray filling up because it was very shallow.
The gauges on the Expobar help you ensure you're pulling the appropriate amount of pressure through the brew group, approximately 9 BARS of pressure is what you want. Lesser machines don't have this to show and will leave you wondering if you're getting the right amount of pressure through the portafilter.
Anyway, here are the unboxing photos, some with Puma in them doing his arrival inspections. Cassini (my new kitten) was in the area watching from a distance before approaching the boxes.
Here's the box with the new knock in it. Its much larger than the one I have and that it going to be very nice.
Here's the first look inside the box and the packing.
Below are the accessories it came with. Portafilter handle, extra water filter, a single and double basket, a rubber seal for use when cleaning/back flushing (I won't use that since I have a blind basket for this task) and a scoop. I'm not using the baskets it shipped with and instead am using the VST basket I bought which is a higher quality one. Same goes for the tamper; I have a very nice high quality tamper of my own. Though using the plastic one is very tempting. Not!
Here's the machine on the counter prior to taking the plastic off the stainless steel and getting the stuff out of the drip tray.
Here is the machine with the plastic off. It's really shiny and nice looking.
Here is the machine all set up and the Rancilio Rocky, Cafelat tamper, new knock box and scale.
Here is the first shot I pulled with the Expobar! The crema was much larger, but I waited a bit before I took this picture because I had taken a couple of sips first.
Even for the first pulled shot on the Expobar, it turned out quite nice. The shot extracted in the appropriate amount of time, 20 to 30 seconds, and poured evenly out of the spouts.
Everything I saw online about this machine said warmup time is about 20 minutes. The booklet that shipped with it said about 10 minutes. I can confirm that it only took about 10 minutes to get to temperature! The water coming out of the steam wand, group head and water dispenser was HOT!
As for noise, it's noisier than the Gaggia, but not by much really. It's not too bad at all, and it's only noisy when it's filling the boiler or extracting.
The reservoir is on the top of the machine, as you would expect, and you have to lift a stainless steel lid off the top to get to it. I bought a small funnel to aid in filling it up. I don't want to have to remove it from the machine to refill, and I don't want to risk spilling water into the machine if I refill it while its inside. A funnel will help protect and control the intake of water into it. Since I live in an apartment, I don't have the option to plumb the machine so I have to use the reservoir.
Invoking the emergency boiler shutoff feature
I just had a scare Saturday morning. As per my usual routine in which I wake up early and go to the gym, then go grocery shopping afterwards, I returned home with the groceries and put everything away. While I was putting things away I turned on the Expobar to get it warmed up. Once the groceries were put away and the machine warmed up I was going to pull a shot. I prepared everything, ground the coffee into the PF, tamped it, already had my cup pre-heated with hot water from the Expobar dispenser, the PF was pre-heated too from the group head, and I flushed the group head and the inserted the PF. I pulled the lever to begin the shot and the pressure went up as it should and I received a few drips of coffee and then it quit! The pump shut off, and the coffee stopped.
At this point queue the term "freaking out" on my part.
This brand new $1,300 machine that worked so well for the two shots I pulled the day before just broke! Instantly, I went over in my mind everything I just did to ensure I was doing everything properly, and as far as I knew, I had. I used 18 grams of coffee, tamped the usual 30 pounds and so forth. So I pulled the PF out and flipped the lever again. Nothing. No water, no pump or boiler running. Nothing.
Okay. The machine is broken. I have to call Whole Latte Love tech support or customer service when they open to exchange it for a new one.
Well, maybe it blew a circuit or fuse. It wasn't a circuit because the Rancilio is on the same one and that still works. Perhaps there is a fuse in the Expobar that blew because it pulled too much voltage.
I unplug the Expobar and pull it out so I can see where the housing screws are to open it up and look for a fuse. I'm going to have to take the reservoir out too, so I take the top lid off and grab the reservoir.
Queue the "Oh shit" moment.
The Reservoir is empty! That's what the problem was. The boiler's internal circuit sensed that the reservoir was void of water and engaged the emergency shutdown to protect itself. I had forgotten about that feature, a good and useful feature. When I put water into it Friday, I hadn't quite filled the reservoir all the way up, and maybe only filled up a third of it. Little did I realize that after two shots last night, and a little water usage this morning, I ran it dry already.
While I was at the store shopping, I picked up a funnel, to easily and safely fill the reservoir with water. I looked in the section with kitchen utensils and didn't like anything they offered. The spouts were too small, which is probably fine for general cooking, but I wanted something a little bigger since all I'm using it for is water. I strolled down to the automotive section where they offer motor oil and found a funnel to my liking.
After washing the funnel I used it to fill up the reservoir with clean, filtered water, all the way up and put the stainless steel lid back on, plugged the Expobar back in and situated it back in its normal spot on the counter. I turned the switch to 'On' and voilà the pump and boiler came on again!
I knocked out the coffee from the PF and began the process of creating another shot. This time it all worked and I pulled a decent shot and enjoyed it very much.
With that said, I think my biggest criticism of this machine is the lack of a water gauge to tell you how much you have in the reservoir. One would think that should be a standard feature on any machine that isn't plumbed and on any machine at this price point and higher.
The other criticism I have is the placement of the hot water dispenser. Its very close to the extraction lever and if you've used it, it will be hot to the touch and you either have to leave it pointed outward, which means not hanging over the drip tray or keep it inward, risking a mild burn to your hand when you reach for the lever. Of course, that is the compromise for a machine of this size. While it takes up a considerable amount of counter space, its still narrow by comparison to many other similar models.
All in all, I think I am going to be very happy with this machine for many, many years to come.
Download the pdf version with pictures here.