The Back Story
When it comes to coffee in our home, we're rather hardcore. In the fifteen years that my wife and I have been together, we've brewed, pressed, ground and steamed our way though about four drip machines, three or four french press pots, one department store-purchased espresso machine, one AeroPress, four grinders and one funky vacuum brewing thing that Starbucks was hyping about ten years ago. But, we've only had one "real" espresso machine, which has been in our family for almost four years at this point -- an Ascaso Dream, produced by the fine people of Spain to generally delight the espresso consuming public.
The Dream is available in thirteen colors and finishes, including the ever popular and/or questionable "The Cow" finish, which adds a bit of Holstein imagery to your every day espresso routine, should that be your type of thing. We went for the Polished Aluminum finish which, along with The Cow, typically adds approximately $110 to the cost of the unit beyond the base price.
The "standard" colors include:
List price, as of this writing, appears to be $829 for the standard colors, though it is not at all difficult to find Dream units available in the $500 - $650 range. Again, add on a premium of approximately $110 for the Polished Aluminum or The Cow finishes. The Dream has been around for a number of years, and the list prices seem to have mostly held steady for much of this time, though the actual retail prices appear to have dropped a bit to their current levels.
Prior to purchasing this unit, I'd done a fair amount of research on espresso machines and grinders. We live in Seattle, so we are fortunate to have a few local retail establishments where one can go to ask questions of highly caffeinated staffers while concurrently caressing and/or trying out the various machines. I knew that we'd be dropping some number of hundreds of dollars to do this right, and I also knew that it was easily possible to drop a few thousand dollars, which wasn't in our budget.
As a result, we narrowed the list down to the Dream and two other machines. We hadn't made our decision yet, when a fateful corporate decision by a Seattle-based coffee juggernaut -- yes, Starbucks -- essentially made the decision for us. For a period up until early 2008, if you visited a Starbucks retail location, you would usually find an array of espresso machines and burr grinders featured for sale, including a number of relatively high end and expensive machines. This list included the Ascaso Dream. Some machines were Starbucks branded, but some -- generally the highest end ones they sold -- were not.
But, Starbucks decided to exit that business. And we got lucky.
In the Starbucks downstairs from my office I noticed one day that the Ascaso Dream. . . the very machine that was on our short list of possibilities. . . the machine that in Polished Aluminum would set me back over $900 at that time. . . was available for $270.
I stood there. I stared at the price tag. I tried to figure out where the error was. Surely, somebody had switched the tags. No, there it was. Clearly stated. Starbucks was getting out of the espresso machine and grinder business and closing out their inventory, and the Dream could be mine for a relative pittance.
I snapped it up. It was mine! And, the barista offered that if I'd come back mid-afternoon, when the crowds were minimal, he'd give me a full lesson on how to use the machine, which I gladly accepted. He also threw in a steaming pitcher, some espresso shot glasses, two nice metal coffee scoops and a pound of espresso roast.
So, I got it home, and the fun began. My wife wavers between drip coffee and espresso-based drinks. I'm pretty much espresso all the way, so the Dream was pressed into immediate and relatively heavy action.
Observations About The Dream, Its Use, Durability And Quality
If you use the right espresso beans and grind them correctly, the Dream can make a phenomenal shot of espresso, with very good crema. However, this can be tricky, as pulling shots with the standard filter basket requires a relatively high-end grinder. Just after purchasing the Dream, we purchased a Baratza Maestro Plus grinder, which is a good burr grinder that produces a wide range of grinds in a convenient form factor. However, it turns out that the Maestro Plus, as good as it is, really isn't good enough to produce the consistency of fine grind required to produce a great shot in the Dream using the standard basket. No matter how hard we tried, our shots were flat and devoid of all but the smallest amounts of crema. In speaking with the people at Seattle Coffee Gear, which, by the way is I believe the only U.S. authorized repair location for Ascaso machines, they just sort of laughed and shook their heads at me as if to say, "Oh, you silly, silly man. What were you thinking pairing a Dream with a Maestro Plus?" Any of Baratza's higher level grinders (and a fair number of grinders by other manufacturers, of course) would produce the appropriately consistent grind. But not mine.
The solution? Well, it was pretty simple, and it did not entail a new grinder. Upon the advice of the people at Seattle Coffee Gear, we switched to the pressurized filter basked and voila, we had some very nice shots of espresso. Now, if you're a purist about these things, you're laughing and/or gagging right now at the very concept of using a pressurized basket. But, it works very well for us and has allowed us to continue using the Maestro Plus to this day.
Much has been written about the lovely "clunking" sound that the switches make on the Dream. And, I'm in the same crowd. When you activate of of the three toggles, you know you've done it and so does anybody within a few feet of you. There's something psychologically delightful about the firmness of that sound. Speaking of the toggles, they form part of what is truly a rather retro looking machine. But, wow, it is a very nice machine to look at. It's received ifs fair share of comments from visitors to our home.
The middle switch is the main power. Turn it on and the single boiler inside the Dream begins to heat up. The analog dial on the front tells you when the temperature of the water has reached 100 degrees (Celsius, of course), at which point you're ready to brew espresso. The switch on the right activates the pump, which forces the water through your grounds-filled portatilter basked, producing the lovely brown liquid we all know and love as expresso. Simply flick the rightmost switch north to the off position and brewing stops.
A word or two about the portafilter. It's quite nice, but the handle on ours cracked after about two years of use. A month or two later, the crack spread further and some pieces of the handle fell off. The replacement handle was easy to obtain (again, from Seattle Coffee Gear -- no, I don't work there, and I'm not affiliated with them) and simply screwed on to the existing portafilter. The portafilter size, by the way, is apparently somewhat uncommon, so there are not many tampers on the market available to use with this machine. Those that are tend to be somewhat expensive.
We've found that the water tank is somewhat small for the level of use in our home. We generally refill it four times a week. This isn't a big deal, as it is very easy to remove, fill and reinstall, but it's worth pointing out.
The original Dream has been updated to a version called the Dream Up, which is very similar to the one we have. I believe the updated version has an improved boiler, and I know that it has a modified brew head, both of which are installable in the older version of the Dream. I know this because we've replaced both in our machine -- one by choice and one not so much by choice. The improved brew head changes the manner in which water is sprayed / distributed among the grounds in the portafilter, ensuring a more uniform use of the grounds. An added advantage is that, with the older version of the brew head, you usually ended up with a slurry of grounds and coffee in the portafilter, which could , of course be spilled if not handled with care. The new brew head creates that nice, dry "hockey puck" type of grounds , which can be removed using a knock box, a finger or whatever suits your style.
As for the new and improved boiler. . . well, after about three and a half years, one day the Dream didn't heat up. At all. It was stone cold. We took it in for repair and learned that it needed a new boiler assembly, gaskets and thermostat. We really can't complain too much, as we use this machine A LOT, but it was a rather painfully expensive repair -- a bit more than we'd paid for the machine in the first place! We were assured that the new components were the improved versions from the Dream Up model, and we have seen that the Dream heats up a bit more quickly than it ever did in the past.
You'll note that I haven't mentioned the steaming wand, which is activated by the leftmost switch on the front of the Dream. That's for a good reason. I think we've used it about five times in the almost four years we've had the Dream. We're either straight espresso or Americano people in our family, and the requests for steamed milk using the Dream have been so minimal that I don't feel justified or capable of reviewing it adequately. Suffice it to say that the wand definitely works and produces nice, hot, foamy milk. However, in the few times that we've used it, we have noticed that the steaming wand does leak a bit after use. Not a lot; just a few drops, but enough to point out. The Dream is a single boiler machine, meaning one boiler does all of the work for both steaming and brewing; if we were into drinks requiring steaming, this would have been a consideration, as double boiler machines are generally superior for this type of beverage crafting.
Do I recommend the Ascaso Dream? Definitely. It looks beautiful, can make very good espresso when paired with the correct grinder and is well built. It has its flaws, including a smallish water tank and expensive repairs, when necessary, but so does that $60,000 Lexus I covet.
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