Coffee in the US has a bad rep, but if you walk into a good coffee shop that serves espresso, you will likely see a machine from one of these companies sitting on the bar: La Marzocco, Synesso or just maybe, Slayer. And they basically all come from one place: Seattle. I took a trip behind the scenes a little while ago and filmed a bunch of cool stuff.
La Marzocco has been making espresso machines for 85 years, and it’s the 485-pound gorilla of commercial espresso machines. While you might see any of the above three in your local excellent coffee shop, there’s like a one billion per cent chance it’s going to be a La Marzocco. La Marzocco builds all of its machines in Italy, but before they’re distributed in the US, they run through its factory in Seattle, where they’re inspected and cleaned. (Or busted ones repaired.) Maybe more to the point, the company’s latest dream machine — the pressure-profiling Strada — was basically designed in the US, down to the laser-etched portafilter baskets.
Synesso, on the other hand, is pure American. The company was founded by former La Marzocco engineer Mark Barnett in 2004, who was looking make technically superior espresso machines — with features like PID controllers, improved temperature stability — that were more just more precise all around. Clad in stainless steel, they look like they belong in industrial kitchens or the home of a really ambitious (and rich) wannabe-chef. Unlike, say, La Marzocco’s Mistral, which looks more like a sports car.
The newest company of the bunch, Slayer, was looking to more radically re-invent espresso machines and what they can do, though you if you’ve heard of it, it’s probably because its namesake machine put pressure profiling — the ability to control and radically change pressure during the pulling of a shot using paddles on top of the grouphead — front and centre. Also, the machines are gorgeous, covered in sand-blasted metal and wood. Unlike Synesso, which broke away to deliver more precision, Slayer’s pushing back in the opposite direction. A co-founder told me once the point was for baristas to have to “feel” it when they’re pulling a shot.
Espresso machines like these, which can run up to $US20,000 or so, depending on how tricked out they are, are all still built by hand. (Which is part of the reason they’re so expensive.) I hit all three of the companies’ factories in a single day. It’s funny how much a factory can ultimately say about its proprietor: La Marzocco’s is filled with history, positively littered with gorgeous espresso machines from the past century, the centrepiece being a wall of historical espresso machine glory. Barnett’s Synesso plant is efficient, straightforward, workman-like, much like its creations. Slayer, which sort of epitomized what some would call Third-Wave coffee in espresso form, occupies the absolute hippest space of the bunch, holed up in an old warehouse in front of tracks, where co-founder Jason Prefontaine would love to tell you about the Peruvian wood used in the handles of the Slayer 2.0 machine he’s working on, just as a train barrels by.
Video edited by Woody Jang