Living with the Rancilio Silvia

Greg Brougham
9 min readOct 31, 2020

These have been challenging times but access to good coffee has been one of the challenges. My solution has been to dust of my Rancilio and sort my technique out. These are my notes on have to live when the Silvia which can produce a great coffee.

One of the challenges I’ve found is there are lots of good articles on making a great coffee and also lots of articles on the Silvia but few, if any that bring this together and start at the basics.

The Modern Rancilio Siliva

Tools

One of the first things I invested in was a new basket for the portafilter and I went for 18g VST rimless basket. This gives around a 32–34 second pull and a great flat white. The basket is rimless and the reason for this is it means that it is easy to remove and rinse the basket after it has been used. I also have a bottomless portafilter but it doesn’t get used much.

On the tampers the plastic one that comes with the Siliva is not really practical so you need to invest in a decent one. I’ve tried both flat and curved and have settled on flat. Some say that a curved tamper reduces channeling but in my experience, if you get the grind and distribution right this is rarely an issue. I recently brought a dosing ring which helps with the distribution and tamping.

I also have a water filter as I live in an area with hard water. This is to reduce the limescale build-up in the machine and to ensure that the boiler and lines only need to be cleaned once a quarter. Ive recently brought myself a new Brita filter that takes the new Matrix+ cartridges.

To hold the beans I have a CoffeeVac which Bella Barista sell and this is large enough to hold 200g to so of beans. Again this is on the small side so it can Iive beside the grinder. I have a small knock box which is good for 4 or so pulls. This means that is quite small and can be put on the Silvia drip tray at the end of the day so it out of the way.

You also need group head brush for cleaning the group head on a regular basis. Just a cheap plastic one is fine.

Grinder

First of all you’ll need to invest in a decent stepless grinder and I tried a Eureka Mignon but ended up investing in a second hand Mazzer Mini Electronic A. The key difference is that I found that the Euraka tended to bunch and the grind was not as even as the Mazer. I brought the Mazer second hand on Ebay and it have provided to be a great investment (it was still more expensive than the Rancilio).

On the Mazzer I have a plastic laser cut calibration ring installed that provides for more control of the grind and I replaced the standard 1kg hooper with the short 320g one so it could sit under the kitchen cabinets. The spacing on the marks is smaller than the default which ensures that I can be a bit more consistent. As noted below you need to dial in the grind for the beans and although you can adjust the timing on the Mazer I have it setup for a fix value and then will top the grind up manually to ensure the dosing quantity is appropriate.

Grinding and Dosing

I address these together but you need to change the grind to reflect the coffee beans that you are using. I have a couple of shops that I use and more recently a subscription that provides some variety. The challenge with the subscription beans is the need to dial the machine in when a new batch arrives.

I know within a small margin where I need to be with most of the beans that I use but it is interesting the subtlety that is needed to get this right. I find that I need to pull a shot with the new beans and then tweak the machine adjustment based on flow to get it into the sweet spot and this may take a couple of shots (also see the comment below about the change for the first shot of the day).

For dosing I make use of a collar which was one of the things that I thought would be a vanity purchase but has provided to be extremely useful. It reduces the amount of coffee grinds that end up on the bench, so there is less tidying up and it also makes distributing the grinds easier before the tamp.

On the tamp, as noted I tend towards the Italian model of letting the grind do the work and target a low consist pressure. I tried a pressure mat but found that I get more consistency with the grind and lower a pressure.

The thing to note is the dose needs to be sufficient that portafilter fits into the group head and it presses up against the filter in the group head to ensure there is consistent pressure. If the portafilter will not go into the group head you’ve probably over-dosed (over filling) and if there is water or the grinds look wet with you take the portafilter out after a pull you have underdosed and need to add a bit.

Some people use a small scale to check the dosing but I find that I can get it there or thereabout based on experience. The key is feeling how far the tamper pushes into the portafilter when you are tamping. You should get a feel for this and this will help you dial in the dosing so it is okay nearly all the time.

Pulling

The key to a good temperature surfing with the Silvia and ensuring that you flash the group head over it has heated up to ensure the temperature is 93 degrees or thereabout.

Amusing that the heating light is turned out then you use the brew button to push cold water through the main boiler till the heating light comes on. You do this is a series of short bursts to allow for some delay in the temperature gauge kicking in.

I start with a count fo 12 to start with and then one to two short sprints of a count of 5 till the light comes on. When you start the pull you also need to flush the head to get rid of the steam and this takes around 7 seconds.

I pre-infuse with a short burst of 3 seconds and then start the main extraction with the length dependent upon the flow rate. The flow rate provides good feedback on the grind and tamp. You want the flow to start at around 8–10 seconds, to be even in the flow out of both sides of the portafilter and for the flow not to be too fast or too slow.

If it is too fast then you are likely to over extract and the taste will be watery and the shot a waster. If it is too slow then you can extend the extract to get the 30ml shot that I am seeking.

Frothing

I don’t worry about latte art but I do like my flat whites. The key is again temperature surfing and to froth the milk only when the boiler is hot. Leave it 30 seconds and the boiler starts to cooler, leave it a minute or two and forget about it as you will not get the micro-frothing.

I have found that you don’t need to really stretch and then swirl and if you put the wand in the milk and keep the head buried it will result in a great flat white.

Temperature-wise, I heat the milk to the jug becomes uncomfortable and then count to three (this is a tip from Dave at Grind in Putney). You can check this with a temperature probe but the main issue with them is the delay and lack of sensitivity while your hand is a very good gauge.

Putting it all together

So the sequence I use is:

Turn the machine on after breakfast and let it heat up. I will do this around 30 minutes before I use the machine for the first pull.

Prime the boiler by putting the mug under the group head and then start a pull, counting to 12 and then turn off. If the heating light has not come on then I’ll repeat but only counting to 6 each time. I find that short circuits the delay at the start if the machine has been sitting for a while. I’ll then check the water level and fill the filter jug based on my estimate of how much the tank needs to be topped up.

Then on to the grinding and dosing. I single dose the Mazer and know where the level is so I don’t measure the beans. Since there is a small amount in the grinder first thing in the morning I back out the grind by half a step on the collar for the first pull as otherwise, the flow is over-constrained. I’ll then distribute and tamp with an even pressure since I prefer the Italian approach of using the grind versus a heavy tamp.

I’ll then flush the head for around 7 seconds (this tip came from running into Doctor Expresso in his Fulham shop one day), rinse the mug out, and install the portafilter with firm pressure. Again if the dosing and tamp is good then a lot of pressure is not needed.

Then this is the initial pull to wet the grind of 3 seconds and then the main pull. I am looking for a 32–34 second extraction with the 18g basket but will adjust this based on the flow that I am observing. If it too fast then I stop as soon as there is a hint of waterness to the extract and if it is slow then I’ll leave it a bit longer.

I’ll also take a sip of the expresso after the extract to ensure the quality is where I want it to be and then start the warm-up for the frothing. I just pour the milk into the jug and basically know what is needed for around a decent flat white. The frothing is a case of waiting for the light to go off and I use this time empty and clear the portafilter and if it is the first pull of the day I’ll also empty the drip tray. I have a small jug that I use for emptying the steam line to get the water out before I start frothing. It sits on the drip tray and ensures that the steam wand does leak onto the bench.

Once the milk is frothed and poured into the mug I’ll rinse the mug out, wipe the steam wand and then open the steam value clean the line, and also turn the brew button on to rinse the group head.

Then sit back and enjoy the coffee.

Maintenance

I have Puly Cafe powder for clearning the group head and Urnex Liquid Dezcal for cleaning the machine. I use Urnex as it supplied as a liquid and is simple to use.

For the group head, I’ll give it a clean once a week which is roughly ever 20 pulls or so since I’m doing only 3 or 4 pulls a day. If I miss a week this is not big impact given as I’m not doing 10s of pulls a day. I don’t have a blind filter and just use the Rancilio filter insert in the double shot filter for the back flashing. I’ll put around half a teaspoon of Puly Cafe in the filter and do 5 or 6 flushes counting to around 6 to 8 on each. I’ll then rise the filter out and repeat to flush the ground head with clean water. The group head and filter then go in a bowl which has a teaspoon of Puly Cafe dissolved on hot water (just from the tap). This is left for half an hour or so before being rinsed in freshwater.

Fro cleaning the boiler I do this only once every 2–3 months as the water is filtered. I’ll dissolve around 20–25ml of the Urenex in the water tank as the tank is around 2 litres in capacity and then run this through the system so that I get around a cup of water through the system and then stop. I’ll also open the steam valve and flush water through it. This is the key as you need to leave the water in the system for around 30 mins to clean the boiler.

Once the machine as stood for 30 mins I’ll continue to flush the Urnex and water through the machine. I’ll flush and clean the water tank and run two tanks full of filter water through the group head and the steam wand.

Annually I drain the machine down and clean the group head out. This is just to ensure that there is no buildup and just to check the machine over in general.

Reliability

I have a V4 machine that I brought in late 2014 and it has been remarkably reliable with no failures. I’ve have replaced the filter screen and the gasket in the group head. The only thing that has broken has been the group head screen and it was just a clip out of the plastic. It was only cosmetic in nature but I have changed the screen out and it now has one of the black screens as the silver ones are no longer made.

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