20 years later - the Rancilio Silvia Story

P 20231220 094137 1By Marcin Masłowski


I recently bought a used Rancilio Silvia espresso machine from 2007. At first, I had a lot of problems with it and in search of help I came across this blog, which - 17 years ago - described exactly this make/year. I hope you would find it interesting to see how it works after all this time.

First, I love and appreciate a good espresso. In this regard, I consider Italy to be heaven on earth. Even if I ask for an espresso at the smallest gas station in the middle of nowhere, I will receive a cup of divine nectar. However, I am not a connoisseur who can recognize (and name) thousands of aspects and aromas. Without reading the label, I cannot distinguish (horrors!) Honduran coffee from Kenyan coffee. But I know that I like espresso that is deep, oily, not too sour, and with a thick crema. Unfortunately, I have never been able to make such an espresso in any popular/budget automatic espresso machine. So it's time to negotiate with the rest of the family: should we spend the money on a decent (Italian) pump-driven espresso machine or on a two-week vacation in Sicily (comparable amounts, I was afraid). On the other hand, why go to Italy if you can make Italian espresso at home?

I didn't want to spend a few days researching the right model, so I asked a few friends for their recommendations. From their feedback, Rancilio Silvia emerged as the top candidate. My online search also turned up a few dozen used machines, including a few that were listed as "damaged." Eureka! Since spare parts are readily available, and I have basic manual skills from my school days, the possibility of buying my dream espresso machine without giving up my vacation in Sicily began to take shape. I chose the most well-maintained model, even though it was a few years old, for about $200. The only problem, according to the owner, was that it made "terrible" espresso. It sounded like a challenge! I ordered it, and after 4 days I could start unboxing (I didn't record it, because anticipating a terrible disappointment, I did it in solitude). The set included: a complete espresso machine (version v2), the original portafilter with a 14g coffee basket, and a steel tamper. At first, I limited myself to simply cleaning the shower/head from the outside and descaling the machine. Decent ground coffee from a local roaster, ground on the spot, and the first attempt (all based on a thousand YouTube videos). The result: actually terrible espresso. First, the brewing lasted a maximum of 5 seconds, the crema was practically invisible, the consistency was as thin as americano, the taste was flat, mostly bitter. So the previous owner was right. I had to move on to advanced maintenance procedures. After unscrewing the group, the cause of the problem seemed obvious: someone had assembled the components incorrectly and then tightened the shower too hard, causing the center of it to be turned around and the shower to be crumpled inside. Simple enough, luckily I had bought the basic spare parts in advance, namely the aforementioned shower and the group gasket, so I replaced them both. I also cleaned all the group parts of the greasy deposit, reassembled them correctly, and with a trembling heart made a second attempt. The result: really terrible espresso, so basically nothing had changed.

In a slight panic, I waded through thousands of discussion forums, blogs, manuals, etc. Most of the advice mentioned the probable cause of too low pressure (paradoxically, too low pressure is too fast flow). This sounded like a death sentence, because replacing the valve or boiler would already cost a significant amounts of money. After a day of doubt, however, I checked the pressure in a simple way by using a 'blind filter' and measuring the amount of water directed through the return valve. It turned out that the pressure was most likely fine. I ignored the next group of advice describing problems with the quality of coffee and the grind size, because they seemed to be irrelevant and non-technical.

The next suspect was the filter in the portafilter. It is said that it wears out over time, and our suspect was over 15 years old. So I ordered a good quality filter and replaced it. The next attempt almost made me give up: the espresso was still worse than from a moka pot. I spent four more sleepless nights (not even from worry, but from the amount of caffeine I had consumed during the next attempts) checking increasingly unlikely causes of the problem: too much or too little coffee, boiler temperature, portafilter temperature, worn-out group nozzle, incorrect "temp surfing" procedure, I even asked the roaster to grind the coffee very finely, all to no avail. In desperation, I thought about selling the espresso machine for parts and moving to Italy.

Finally, without hope, I also tried to do what all Rancilio Silvia owners seem to recommend, which is to grind the coffee VERY VERY finely. And you know what? It worked - I ground 14 grams of ground coffee in my grandmother's hand-crank grinder, first setting it (with the help of a screwdriver) to grind it into powder, literally. And a miracle happened: after 25 seconds of brewing, I had 30 grams of wonderful, dense, and velvety espresso with a layer of crema that a spoon stands vertically in.

To sum up:

A high-quality espresso machine that is over 15 years old can still work great, as long as it is properly maintained.
You can buy a used one and, with a bit of luck, have a fully functional machine by replacing parts for about $15.
If you are having problems with the extraction time in your Rancilio Silvia, start with the simplest thing: buy good coffee and grind it very, very finely.
Don't trust coffee roasters: what they consider to be a fine grind is definitely not enough for a Rancilio.
You don't need to buy a $700 electric burr grinder; a good old manual burr grinder will do just fine - as long as you can set it to grind the coffee to a powder.
Hario manual grinders won't work (oddly enough), because they can't be set to grind that fine.

Looks like Rancilio knows how to make good espresso machines that will last for many years if you know how to use them.
Here's how it looks now:


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