Review - Breville 'Fresca' BES860 Espresso Machine
In the rarified air of coffee snobbery the name Breville doesn't carry a lot of weight. This iconic Australian company is better known for it's range of consumer goods and as the inventor of the electric sandwich press but recent years have seen Breville making serious inroads into the domestic espresso market.
Coffee snobbery aside, our review of the Breville 'Fresca' BES860 Espresso Machine is more concerned with performance than espresso exotica and snob appeal.
Our time with the BES860 involved more than a cursory glance and test pour. We had the chance to spend a lot of time with this compact unit and pushed over 20 kilograms of beans through it. What we really want to investigate here is the Breville's suitability as a travelling companion - an espresso machine that can be loaded into a caravan or campervan and used as the daily brew maker.
If you've travelled the highways of Australia recently you will know that touring the country or 'doing the big lap' is no longer the reserve of the 'Grey Nomads' - the caravanning retirees who tread the open road travelling from one outback town to the next. These days you're just as likely to find European tourists, couples, backpackers and families taking a sabbatical from work and school in order to travel and explore.
Travelling methods are becoming more sophisticated and the list of domestic niceties is ever increasing, from satellite TV and the internet to dishwashers, ovens, onboard ablutions and yes, espresso machines.
The Breville BES860 fits an awful lot into one compact package. The innards contains the boiler, a 15 bar pump and the associated electronics to make it all work while the exterior boasts a generous array of buttons, a pressure gauge, a steam wand for frothing milk and a central portafilter locked neatly into the brewhead.
Crowning the package is a warming tray and a conical burr grinder - a necessity if you want to make the best coffee possible. The rear holds a generous 2 litre water container while at the front a removable drip tray sits ready to catch any stray water or coffee grounds. The drip tray doesn't hold a lot of water and we found we had to empty it every couple of coffees. We could see no way of increasing the drip tray volume without increasing the overall size of the machine so we contented ourselves with this minor tradeoff. The Fresca is well laid out. Much of the construction is satin-finish stainless steel interwoven with an array of plastic and accessories. It all contributes to creating an eye catching kitchen ornament.
The Breville is compact. The 380mm wide by 300mm deep footprint doesn't eat up much bench space while an overall height of 320mm means it can sneak under an overhead cupboard. We weighed the unit at around 12kg which is fairly light as far as espresso machines go. At 1450 watts the Breville doesn't present a huge load for generators or caravan wiring.
If you want to make great cafe style coffee such as espresso, macchiato, cappuccino, latte etc. you need three elements - 1. freshly ground beans, 2. an espresso maker (the basis of all cafe style coffee) and 3. frothed or 'stretched' milk. Breville has managed to combine all three functions into a single, eye pleasing package. We sat it next to an Italian espresso machine, an expensive thoroughbred we've been using in conjunction with a commercial grinder and the BES860 needed less than half the bench real estate and weighed 30kg less. The Italian combination retails for around $4000 while the RRP for the Breville is $799. Pretty impressive. The question is - can it make coffee?
The grinder resides to the top left, a shallow, rectangular container that's easily removed for cleaning the conical burrs. Espresso machines and maintenance go hand in hand so being able to access the burrs with the turn of a knob is a real plus. Next to the grinder is a cup warmer, essentially a flat plate, heated we assume by it's proximity to the boiler.
Coffee dosing is regulated by increasing or decreasing a rotary dial. Inserting the portafilter under the grinder activates a switch which delivers the prescribed dose into the portafilter. In practise we found the dosing system to be accurate and consistent and once we had determined the correct dose of ground coffee readjusting the dial was never necessary. Grinding coffee beans is a messy business. The Breville neatly contains any spilt grounds under the grinder dispenser so cleaning up requires a lot less effort than many commercial grinders.
Grind adjustment is managed by a large 15 stop rotating dial at the side of the unit. 15 stops doesn't give a lot of flexibility in regulating the coarseness of the grind, we would have preferred 40, but Breville have the opportunity to match their grinder to their espresso brewer and in use we found we could make adjustments in dose and tamp pressure to compensate for a lack of regulation in the grind.
We've heard reports that the grinder in the Breville can give a little trouble. We punched a lot of coffee through the unit we used and in all honesty we weren't as deliberate as we should have been in the maintenance stakes. Coffee grinders need regular disassembly and cleaning. At one stage the unit made a woeful straining noise and we're still not sure if something a little harder than a bean passed through the burrs or if the machine was simply protesting our negligence. A disassembly and clean got the grinder back on it's feet and as far as we know it's still going strong.
Making quality espresso means getting involved in the process and until you understand the relationship between grind coarseness, dosing and tamp pressure your espresso is likely to suffer inconsistent results. All manual espresso making machines operate along the same principles and while many purists proclaim that making true espresso is an art form, in reality it's a relatively simple science - a given quantity of heated, pressurised water must pass through a 'puck' of correctly ground and tamped coffee for about 25 seconds. The espresso machine takes care of the water temperature and pressure, the barista makes adjustments to the grind and tamp to get the balance right.
As we mentioned, espresso is made by passing heated water through coffee. Optimum temperature for this process is 94°C. The portfilter holds the basket of ground coffee and locks into the grouphead. All this metal needs to reach operating temperature to achieve a quality pour. Breville states that it uses a 'thermoblock' system to achieve this heating of the grouphead. Purists will decry this system as less than ideal but at this price point, with this many features, there has to be compromises made somewhere. Preheating espresso machines is a pain, especially if you simply want to throw the switch for an impromptu brew. Most machines produce their best coffee after at least 30 minutes of preheating and the Breville is no exception. Thankfully this process can be hastened by simply activating the brew function a few times until everything is good and hot.
The 'Fresca' arrives with plenty of filter baskets. A standard single and double shot basket are included as well as a single and double with a 'dual wall' design which provides a more forgiving option for people who would rather skip the fine tuning required with adjusting dose and tamp. The grinder dose selector has corresponding indicators for the single and dual walled baskets to help you get close to the correct dose.
We dispensed with the double wall filters and got straight down to business with the double shot, single wall basket. We wanted to know if the Fresca could make true espresso and we didn't want any gimmickery confusing the issue.
The Breville can be used in full manual mode or, with a bit of programming, in semi-automatic mode. In manual mode you decide how long to extract the espresso. The ideal range is 25 seconds for a 60ml double shot. By using the the automatic mode the machine automatically delivers the correct amount of water to the coffee puck, theoretically resulting in more consistent extractions. We mostly used the automatic mode. Fully manual machines give a feeling of involvement but it's nice to be able to stand back while the machine extracts the correct volume of coffee.
And the taste? The BES860 makes a really good shot of espresso. Flavour is full and the extraction exhibits the silky, syrupy consistency of properly made espresso. The crema (the thick tan foam that rises to the top) flows readily and remains in the shot glass after the pour, a sign of proper crema and not simply a frothy extraction.
Milk Frothing or Stretching
If the Breville exhibits a weak spot then it's the available steam on hand for frothing the milk. Milk based drinks like Cappuccino and Latte are created by infusing millions of micro bubbles into the milk under steam pressure. The Fresca's steam pressure could be stronger resulting in much faster stretching times. Milk is still able to be stretched correctly, giving a silky look and honey like texture but it seems to take an awful long time compared to machines equipped with bigger boilers. We found we could tip the frothing jug (supplied) and rest it against the tip of the steam wand while we carried on with something else while the milk was frothing. In fact this hands off approach led to some of the very best stretched milk we've ever created from any machine.
The Breville is supplied with a fluted sleeve that fits over the steam wand and reportedly aids in micro foam production. We tried it and found, logically, that the steaming time remained the same - after all, the attachment doesn't increase the available steam it simply increases bubble production. We preferred to steam without it feeling that the milk quality was better and cleaning was reduced.
The steam pressure isn't a major bug and it certainly doesn't bring about the downfall of the machine. It's a minor gripe and something you become accustomed to and work around. It pays to remember that this is an $800 machine, not $3000 and comes with an array of features missing from much pricier units.
Coffee snobs turn up their noses when considering consumer grade espresso machines - preferring esoterica with art deco levers and long Italian monikers. They also prefer coffee such as 'Kopi Luwak' which is made from coffee berries which have been recovered after they have passed through the digestive tract of the Asian Palm Civet - a cat like carnivore. We like our espresso machines to work and we prefer our coffee beans unprocessed. For our money we believe a machine needs to perform as advertised and function as per the design, both of which the Breville does with ease.
Roadhouse coffee tastes like rubbish and costs about 4 bucks a cup. 2 people buying 2 cups a day = $2920. A Breville BES860 and 26kg of coffee beans = $1340 for great coffee. That part is a no brainer. What we don't know is how well the machine can handle the bumps and lumps of the highway. The unit we used never missed a beat electronically. Every function worked faultlessly every time indicating that Breville have nailed the circuit design - something they specialise in.
The Fresca is designed as a one stop solution for the grinding of coffee beans, the production of espresso and the frothing of milk. The fact that it accomplishes all three tasks with a minimum of fuss, delivers an excellent cup of coffee and costs just under $800 makes it a hands down winner.
- Small, light and compact.
- Comparatively moderate power consumption.
- Inbuilt grinder.
- Large water reservoir.
- Semi-automatic programming or full manual operation.
- Attractive looking package.
- All in one solution.
- Low steam pressure for milk frothing.
- Grinder may be a weak point.
- Small drip tray.
- Doesn't have Ferrari-like snob appeal.
We take a look at a few portable methods of making coffee at ► Making Great Coffee on the Road
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