A commonly question raised by many, “Should I get a double boiler or a heat exchanger?”.
In many cases, it depends on the user’s consumption level and expectation.
This is the double boiler.
A double boiler has two boilers on a single machine. Each boiler for a function. One will be the brew boiler, set at a lower temperature. One will be the steam boiler which is at much higher temperature.
By keeping them separate, the user will have full control on the brew temperature and is more consistent in the extraction.
This is the heat exchanger.
The heat exchanger has only one boiler, set at steam temperature. It has another smaller “boiler” inside, a heat exchanger rod that passes through.
When an extraction is required, the pump will push cold and fresh water from the water source, pass through the heat exchanger. By algorithm of thermodynamics and hydrodynamics, as the water travels along the heat exchanger rod, the water heats up. The water should have heat to a therearound sweet spot in the temperature, perfect for espresso extraction as it exits.
From the first look, we can understand that the double boiler should have a very stable straight line temperature profile. As there’s a dedicated boiler for its purpose. While heat exchanger should expect some fluctuations, as the cold water from your water source heats up in the heat exchanger and gradually cools down from the displaced cold water introduced in.
Here is an example of the heat profile comparing both systems
So the question is, which is better?
Shouldn’t double boilers be better with a consistent and accurate temperature control? To answer that, we must first understand the history of the heating systems and the science of coffee.
Double boilers were invented later than heat exchangers, and Italian manufacturers initially created them at the request from American cafes. As American cafes were expanding quickly around the nation and globally, and they are always lack of trained baristas. The Americans needed the machine to make consistent shots from amateur baristas, thus the double boiler was invented. No more flushing extensively, no more guessing the temperature. Big cafes were using them, and the name of the brands doing Double Boilers soon became popular globally.
In some heat exchangers machines, they are equipped with a PID temperature controller and regulator. Some will ask whether adding a PID works or is it useful in a heat exchanger. It does work by controlling the temperature of the steam boiler, which in turn influence how hot is the heat exchanger in the boiler. Raising or declining the temperature does have an impact on the water used for brewing. The deadband of temperature swing in a PID is also a lot more stable than the regular pressurestat controller.
Is a straight line profile better in taste? Before that, we refer to what’s the definition of a good espresso? Who else drinks espresso faithfully in the world other than the Italians?
Here is their definition according to the Istituto Nazionale Espresso Italiano.
On sight, Italian Espresso has a hazelnut-coloured froth, verging on dark brown with tawny hinges. This cream has a very fine texture, which means that its mesh is tight and large or small bubbles are absent. The nose reveals an intense scent with notes of flowers, fruits, toasted bread and chocolate. All of these sensations are felt also after swallowing the coffee in the long lasting aroma that remains for several seconds, sometimes even for minutes. Its taste is round, substantial and smooth. Sour and bitter are well balanced and neither one prevails over the other. Astringency is absent or barely perceptible.
In short, the espresso should be well balanced, with acidity and bitterness, with a lovely blossom of floral or fruity notes, along nutty profiles
From many test taste, it’s found that heat exchanger releases a wider spectrum of characters that are closer to the criteria. Why so?
It’s long been known that the pressure profiling machines or spring lever espresso machines, produce the best tasting espressos. These machines have a pressure that moves all the time. They are known to express a wider spectrum of flavours and tame the harsher astringents in espresso. These machines, don’t have a uniform extraction pattern, it’s dynamic.
Heat and pressure can play a similar effect. The higher the heat or temperature, the more energy it brings to the coffee during extraction, the more bitter and less sour the espresso gets. If the heat is hitting too high, it easily diminishes the delicate flowery and fruity aroma. So with a declining heat or pressure profile, it draws out a wider spectrum of flavours from the two ends. At the same time, balancing the bitterness and sourness as it doesn’t stay at one point.
It is actually not a bad idea for a machine to have a declining heat profile, like those from the heat exchanger. As the second phase of the extraction, normally after the 15th second, is more about adding volume than flavours. From that point on, colloid from the lipid oil in the coffee starts to run out. These colloids have an effect of being receptors to the bitterness, and every bit more overwhelms the flavours in the coffee. As such, a declining profile which bring less hot water and less energy to draw the astringents in the last part of the extraction may do well for a dark roast.
However, if your coffee is of a lighter roast, or you choose to dose at a higher amount. Increasing the temperature, having a straight line profile, might not be a bad idea. As the heavy dose of coffee you use, will mean an increase of existing colloids to withstand a longer extraction before releasing the astringents.
Does it mean anything about which heating system is more superior in the taste? Not really. It still depends on the coffee, your style and preference.
Water is the primary component in an espresso. To Italians, many believe that fresh water is essential to a good espresso. Many experienced baristas know that fresh water, release a wider spectrum of flavours in the extraction.
Where does the double boiler draw water for making its espresso? From its brew boiler. Water in the brew boiler has little movement and the same water gets reheated from the day it operates till the last time of its service. One can’t drain the boiler that easily, particularly for double boilers. To prevent a buildup of bacterial or microbial from nesting, most boilers are made of copper, which has natural anti-microbial properties. Double boilers made of stainless steel will require drainage of boiler more regularly.
For heat exchangers, it only draws fresh water from the water network or water tank for its extraction.
A heat exchanger only has one boiler to maintain. With one set of heating element, over-heating safety sensor, overpressure safety controller, low water sensor, safety valves, etc.
With a double boiler, the number of parts to maintain might be almost doubled, and maintaining them will be both challenging and expensive. Chance of having something malfunction will likewise be increased. Doing basic things like draining a boiler in a double boiler, is certainly more work. As such, descaling, a necessary cleaning procedure, is also a lot more complicated that requires professional assistance.
A double boiler will have a longer water circuitry. This means that troubleshooting will need to look for a wider coverage, and will be more tedious to find out which part has failed. In any case, it will definitely be more costly to maintain a double boiler.
Having two boilers, the double boilers will, of course, take a longer time to heat up.
A heat exchange E61 espresso machine can get properly heat up in 20 minutes; a double will require at least 30 minutes.
Both are used almost the same way. Except that you will need to flush some hot water out of the heat exchanger if it had been idling for some time. You will also need to flush some hot water out of the double boiler as you may want to clear the residual water in the grouphead and make sure that the valves and rods are uniformly hot enough. Many Italian heat exchanger models are designed in a way to be “cooler” than being too hot and require minimal flushes.
So who needs a Double Boiler?
Double boilers do have an advantage. There’s less difference in temperature between cups, so you are likely to have more consistent shots. When one draws a lot of hot water from the steam boiler, it also won’t affect the brew temperature as much. This might be something important to a large cafe where importance on consistency is above all. However, it’s worthy to note that in coffee making, maintaining consistency is hardly an achievable feat. As the condition of your beans changes all the time from deterioration effected by light, heat, humidity and oxidising. Particularly if you are in an environment where usage isn’t heavy. There are other things that are hard to be constant; Like the roasters can’t get it accurately consistent in their roast or the condition of their roaster. The farmers can’t get the same grade and size constant. The absorption of nutrient, the temperature and watering of the coffee plantation is irregular, fermentation and processing are hard to maintain constant, the condition of storage remains the same throughout the seasons, and much more.
To some cafes or baristas, they also feel more confident to look at exact numbers than to guess if they have done it right. This can be done via the PID temperature controller.
The main difference between a good coffee and a bad one, still depends on the barista.