Lost in translation: A 20 year espresso-machine odyssey from the Sylvia to Nespresso to the DeLonghi Magnifica S

My father, Isaac, wrote this.

In Lost in Translation, Bill Murray seems equally confused by Japanese pop culture and a middle aged guy’s uncertain emotions upon encountering the achingly beautiful Scarlett Johansson. Since much of the dialogue was purportedly improvised, I don’t think Bill was acting on either front. Over the past 20 years, I’ve had a series of mostly Italian espresso machines and my experience with these has also been lost in translation.

In 1997, Starbucks had yet to metastasize across most of America and the independent coffee house movement was nascent. So the only effective way for a writer like me to get an espresso jolt in the afternoon was to buy a machine. This was in the early years of web shopping (more Ask Jeeves than Google), but after researching products, I decided to by a Rancilio Sylvia machine, along with a Rancilio Rocky “dosing” burr grinder. I have no idea why an Italian company would decide to randomly name these machines Sylvia and Rocky (see the Lost in Translation note above), but both are still sold and get great reviews. My experience was good—sort of.

The main problem with the Sylvia was (and is) that it was (and is) gigantic. It weighs about 50 pounds. The Rocky is also huge for a burr grinder. Since I’d ordered them online, I was really surprised by their height, weight, and girth. I was even more surprised to see that the instructions for both were only in Italian! In this case, I was lost without translation.

After a series of long phone calls to the vendor back east, I was finally able to make coffee. The Sylvia makes great coffee and an enormous mess. It’s a semi-automatic machine, which means the user has to grind the coffee (hence the need for Rocky), tamp it into the espresso holder, shove the holder back into Sylvia, brew the espresso, and hand steam/froth the milk with the machine’s steam wand into a stainless steel pitcher for a cappuccino.

The good news for us coffee junkies is that the milk can be heated to 200 degrees, since it’s a manual. But steaming the milk at home also means that I had to buy a coffee immersion thermometer, adding to the countertop clutter. While this process can be fun for one or two cups, it’s exhausting to make cappuccino for a crowd. I got pretty good with the wand and could produce far better coffee than Starbucks, but I also had to clean up dry and wet coffee grounds and milk splatter. I felt like I should wear a rubber apron or Ghostbusters jumpsuit when making coffee. Still, I used this combo for about ten years.

About ten years ago, I was in Paris and encountered my first Nespresso machine. Nespresso machines use proprietary pods. This was a revelation—shove a pod into the machine, press a button and coffee, cappuccino, etc., appear with little fuss and no mess.

When I got home, I gave Sylvia to friend with a boat to use as an anchor and bought a compact machine, called “The Cube” (this model is no longer sold). The Cube only made espresso using pods and one had to use a separate frother to create a version of cappuccino. It was easy to use and created very little mess; I no longer needed the hulking Rocky next to it. The Cube system, however, produces frothed, not steamed milk, which means a lukewarm drink. The Cube is also owned by Nestle, a Swiss company, and not only were the instructions in English, but there is a help line staffed by giddy customer service reps. No translation issues with the Cube.

After about another five years, I grew tired of lukewarm coffee that wasn’t quite as good as it should have been and bought my second Nespresso machine, a DeLonghi Lattissima+. This baby was light years better than the Cube, because it is not only compact and easy to use with little mess but also produces actual steamed milk at a hotter temperature (albeit not the scalding temp of the Sylvia).

After about ten years of using Nespresso machines, I got tired of their basic problems. First, the pods have become ever more expensive with time. The pods now cost between $.70 and $1/per pod. I go through at least 10 pods per week, so this quickly rises to the Gillette razor blade problem; Nespresso could actually give away the machines, like a heroin dealer passing out samples. They know you’ll be back. The second issue, however, is insurmountable—no matter which of the so-called “Grand Cru” coffee varieties I bought, the coffee inside the pods is entirely “meh.”

After much googling and a referral from Jake (who reads Megan McArdle’s holiday gadget guides), I decided to give up on Nespresso and dig a new hole with a DeLonghi Magnifica S machine. This is my first “super automatic” machine, which means that it does everything with “one touch.”

Pour the beans of you choice in the hopper, milk in the integrated pitcher, water in the tank, select your brew and voila, there it is. The Magnifica S arrived Saturday. DeLonghi is yet another Italian company. Unlike the Sylvia, the instructions came in English, along with about 20 other languages. Unfortunately, the manual came on a DVD, and as a Mac guy, I haven’t had a DVD drive in years. Also, the first thing you encounter on opening the box is a large warning sheet in 100 point type: PLEASE TO NOT RETURN THIS ITEM TO THE STORE, CALL THE TECH SUPPORT TEAM. Hmmmm.

Back to Google to find the instructions online. For those interested in a Magnifica S, note that DeLonghi makes at least a half dozen machines, all called the Magnifca S, but different is some critical ways and with slightly different model numbers (DeLonghi could learn about product lineup from Apple). More lost in translation: why didn’t just give each one a distinct name, like Sylvia. I bought the Magnifica S model # ECAM 24.462, which has a two line display, as opposed to the 24.262, which uses a forest of pictograms like a McDonalds cash register. Word to the wise: get the 462.

The Magnifica turns out to be almost as big as the Sylvia I started with 20 years. While the instructions I found online were in English, they’d been badly translated from Italian and were incredibly complex and confusing. Now I understood why the warning sheet is included. It took me about an hour and a half to set up the machine—longer that it took me to set up my newest MacBook Pro in December. I’m confident that, while this machine has probably not ended as many relationships as assembling IKEA furniture has, it must have ended a couple.

After much fiddling and attempts to discern the odd instructions and ever stranger illustrations, I finally produced a terrific cappuccino—assuming you use good beans. The machine is indeed one touch when finally configured and, unlike the Nespresso machines, it’s self-cleaning. I used the Streetlevel blend from my favorite coffee shop and roaster, Verve Coffee Roasters. It was roasted last week and is the blend used in Verve coffee shops. Nespresso pods are never quite as good as they should be because the time between roast and use is too long. With the Magnifica, one doesn’t have to suffer mystery coffee, roasted who knows when, in expensive pods.

Links: Goodbye theory, the artists’s lives, coffee, Dr. Strangelove, Divorce Corp., molly, and more

* “David Winters on Elegy for Theory: Bye, Bye, Theory, Goodbye.” Except that undergrad and grad classes on theory are still mandatory in many places and much dubious “theory” still gets cited in conferences or by editors and peer reviewers. Actual death would be an improvement.

* Most writers of books don’t make enough money to live from their writing; notice this: “Together, what these patterns suggest is that few authors are getting rich off of their writing or even earning enough from their writing to quit their day jobs.”

* In keeping with the above: “Entrepreneurs of the spirit;” I’d add that the number of people who write a blog, continuously, for at least a couple years is very small.

* In keeping with a theme: Barry Eisler and Robert Gottlieb debate the future of publishing; in the short term I buy Gottlieb and in the long term I buy Eisler. The challenge is defining the terms.

* “Almost Everything in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ Was True,” which you should remember anytime you see someone working for any branch of government move their lips.

* Divorce Corp: A Movie Review, which is really a society review that should scare you.

* Why is coffee in France so bad?

* “‘I say, Charles, don’t you ever crave…’“, or, the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death.

* Politicians and cops are essentially indifferent to many people’s deaths, although the story is titled very differently; see also Daniel Okrent’s Last Call.

Mid December Links: Marriage plots and incest, Seattle's tunnels, coffee and economic development, and Amazon.com and independent book stores

* “How Much Is Too Much Incest on TV?” I suspect TV and movie writers want to engage incest plots because there aren’t many taboo sexual relationships of the kind that fuel narrative fiction left. Until recently, it was pretty easy for narrative fiction (mostly novels, but eventually movies and TV) to fuel their plots by taking two people who weren’t supposed to be together and finding out what happens when they get together, especially in the face of families and societies that disapprove of their shocking actions.

When no one was supposed to have sex outside of marriage, this was really easy. Today, most people over 18 can do it with (pretty much) whomever they want, as often as they want. So you have to stretch a lot further for taboo subjects: hence the many novels dealing with student-teacher sex or age-of-consent boundaries. When even adultery isn’t that transgressive any more, you have to look further afield to fuel a plot.

* “It’s not an accident that the age of reason accompanies the rise of caffeinated beverages.” This is a video, but it’s mercifully short. I can’t find an equivalent essay by Steven Berlin Johnson and a cursory flip through Where Good Ideas Comes From doesn’t reveal a section about coffee, though I may have simply missed it.

* [Bill] O’Reilly Gets Ambushed, just like he does to other people. One definition of a bully might be someone who can’t accept what they do to others or say about them.

* Tunnels: Seattle’s boring past filled with thrills:

In a world where most work is done with a keyboard and dispersed into electronic ether, their work is refreshingly real, lasting, utilitarian. Workers seem also to share a frontier can-do spirit. Masters of a subterranean universe, not for nothing is their line of work called heavy civil: a good name for a grunge band, or a workforce that stops at pretty much nothing.

I’m not convinced work “done with a keyboard” isn’t necessarily “refreshingly real,” mostly because I tend to use badass keyboards that are tactiley satisfying.

* Speaking of tactiley satisfying, I got an e-mail about Design.Y notebooks, which are made by a Mr. Hiroshi Yoshino and are also exceedingly, insanely expensive but also look like the Platonic ideal of a notebook. I’m currently using the perfect fountain pen full-time—it’s a Sailor 1911, for those of you wondering—and I’ve lost interest in other pens since finding it.

Sailor and Design.Y are both Japanese companies and both websites linked in the preceding paragraph look straight out of 1998. That might be a kind of inverse marketing: our products are so good we don’t need or want to hire slick website designers. I wonder if both companies also suffer from Baumol’s cost disease, which may explain their prices.

* What Do Low Income Communities Need?:

Public policy can modestly improve the incentives and choice sets that poor people face–and it should do those things. But it cannot remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers. And it would actually be pretty creepy if it could.

* Don’t Support Your Local Bookseller: Buying books on Amazon is better for authors, better for the economy, and better for you. A couple thoughts:

1) Authors like indies because indies are more likely to promote quirky or offbeat books than Barnes and Noble, even if they choose self-consciously quirky and offbeat books that have been marketed as such.

2) In the medium to long term, Amazon’s dominance will backfire on authors if the company becomes in effect a monopoly and/or gatekeeper. Everyone paying attention to these things has seen how shittily Apple treats developers who write software for its “app store;” Amazon will treat writers the same way if it can. Amazon only looks so good right now because the company looks so good compared to conventional/legacy publishers. It is not fun to have no leverage: ask medical residents, PhD candidates, and unpublished or mid-list writers.

3) Current, famous writers like Russo have a vested interest in print books because he and similar writers are already being published by legacy publishers; this means that, the more people choose physical bookstores, the less likely they are to find random writers on the Internet.

4) I like independent bookstores. See also Megan McArdle on bookstores.

* This is a good time of year to read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning; consider its ideas during mandatory family gatherings.

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