The lament of many a home barista has always been that home espresso machines should be just as powerful and capable as their commercial counterparts. After all, what’s the point of a home machine if it can’t deliver cafe-quality coffee?
The Ascaso Steel Duo has heard their cries, and it’s here to provide just that kind of quality in a compact home machine. Veteran espresso enthusiasts will be pleased by the power of the steam wand and the level of control the machine affords. Newbies to espresso brewing might have to overcome a bit of a learning curve, though.
In this review, I’ll explain how the Ascaso Steel Duo provides total control over brewing, as well as how that control comes at the cost of the convenience that its home machine competitors offer.
Ascaso Steel Duo Review Product Overview
The Ascaso Steel Duo is a semi-automatic espresso machine meant to bring cafe-quality espresso to a home kitchen. The stainless steel construction is sturdy, and the dual thermocoils allow for high-volume output for both brewing and steaming. It uses a 58mm portafilter (the commercial machine standard).
The user interface features just four front-facing switches. Turning the machine on causes it to heat to brew temperature in as little as 90 seconds. Both the brewing and steaming thermocoils are equipped with PID control that ensures consistency across every shot. These controls are adjustable, so you can dial in both brewing and steaming temperatures to your liking. You can also customize the brew head pressure via the adjustable OPV next to the group head.
All told the features on the Steel Duo are designed to give the user total control over the brewing process and all its variables. For someone with lots of experience and confidence in their espresso skills, that’s a big plus. For an inexperienced barista looking for more programmability, the Steel Duo can be intimidating. It comes packed with plenty of features that make pulling shots a hands-on experience if that’s what you’re after.
Separate PID control for each thermocoil
Easy to maintain
Powerful steam wand
Lots of control over brew variables
Hard-to-read switch controls
Can be difficult to use for inexperienced baristas
Ascaso was founded in Barcelona, Spain in 1962 by Jesús Ascaso. Jesús got his start working on the Gaggia production line before founding his own company manufacturing spare espresso machine parts. It was his son, José Luis Ascaso, who first had the idea to build entire espresso machines, not just spare parts. It wasn’t until 1997 that José Luis’ idea was made a reality, and Ascaso has been manufacturing espresso machines ever since. In 2019, Ascaso sold its spare parts division and now exclusively sells espresso machines, grinders, and machine accessories.
Reviewing Features of the Ascaso
Design and Build
Frankly, the Ascaso Steel Duo is a beautiful machine. It comes in either black, white, or stainless steel, and all three look sleek and modern. The body is made of coated carbon steel and stainless steel, and the portafilter handle and steam dial are made of wood. The Duo has a 2 L water tank and the machine’s dimensions are 10.6” x 14.2” x 12.4”, so it should fit even on small countertops.
The design is very minimalistic, with only four small switches, a pressure gauge, and a temperature gauge on the machine’s front. It looks nice, but I wish they were easier to read. The switches are only labeled on the metal color surrounding them, so you either have to memorize which switch operates what or have really good eyesight to read them.
Internally, the Steel Duo features two PID thermocoil heating elements. This offers precise temperature control for both the brewer and steam wand and allows for simultaneous steaming and brewing. The downside is that these two heating elements draw a lot of power. To meet its power demands, the Steel Duo comes manufactured with a 20A plug, which not everyone has in their kitchen.
The control that the Acaso Steel Duo gives you over brewing leads to excellent espresso quality. The adjustable temperature control lets you customize your brewing preferences to suit a particular coffee or roast level. There’s also a programmable pre-infusion setting to help get the most flavor out of your coffee beans.
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The dosing controls are volumetric. This means that once you pull your first shot on either the single or double-shot setting, the Steel Duo will remember the amount of water used. Next time you brew, it will use the newly recorded volumetric setting.
You can also customize the machine pressure via a small screw just underneath the pressure gauge. This changes the OPV setting, meaning it affects the pressure at the brew head. It’s rare to see a machine that is this easily adjustable at home.
I’ve found the bars of pressure matter in a big way for espresso, and the easy change allows you to almost create pressure profiles for this machine. It’s something not available on almost any other home espresso machine aside from Decent.
All the hands-on elements of the Steel Duo, from the temperature control to the volumetric programming, give you enough control over brewing variables to consistently create rich, balanced, clean espresso shots.
The Acaso Steel Duo features a fully manual wand with plenty of steam power to create the perfect milk texture. As mentioned, the wand has a dedicated thermocoil heating system so you can prepare your milk and pull a shot simultaneously. The wand’s thermocoil is also PID-controlled with an adjustable temperature. This lets you use the temperature setting to dial in the exact pressure you want from the wand.
Another important feature of the steam wand is the ability to turn on the pressure before opening the steam valve. When you turn on most steam wands, there’s usually a dribble of water that comes out of the wand before the steam is generated. On the Steel Duo, you can turn on the steam pressure without opening the steam valve (i.e., turning the steam wand on). This way, when you do open the steam valve, you immediately get a full blast of steam without the trickling of water. There is no need for a 10-second purge, then pause, then start like most machines.
It should be noted that you will need to have a little prior experience with a steam wand to operate the Steel Duo effectively. It’s about the closest thing to a commercial steam wand you’ll get on a home machine. It’s fully manual and might prove a challenge to espresso beginners.
Ease of Use
If you have prior experience with espresso machines, the Acaso Steel Duo is easy enough to operate. For beginners, it can be a bit more challenging.
The front of the machine features just four switches for power, brewing, hot water, and steam. This simplistic setup seems like it would be easy enough to use, but it means that everything is manual. Brewing is done manually, and even the volumetric dosing requires manual programming. Steaming likewise requires complete user control. There’s no automatic shutoff or pressure control.
If you’ve worked as a barista or are looking to get a machine that gives you complete control over the brewing process, the Ascaso Steel Duo won’t be a challenge to use. If you’re a beginning home barista or have only used automatic machines, there may be a steep learning curve for you.
Cleaning and Maintenance
Regular maintenance and cleaning of the Ascaso is easy. The machine has an automatic cleaning cycle for the steaming mechanism, and the brewing components are maintained with regular backflashing.
The drip tray and water reservoir seamlessly slide out of the machine for easy cleaning and are even dishwasher safe. The outside of the Steel Duo is all metal, so Ascaso recommends using a 96% alcohol solution for external cleaning.
Depending on how much use the machine gets, you should descale the Steel Duo either monthly or every three months (three months is best unless you make more than five coffees a day).
The Ascaso Steel Duo is as easy to maintain as any home machine, and the removable drip tray, water reservoir, and automatic cleaning cycle make an already simple process even more convenient.
Opinions vary on the value of the Ascaso Steel Duo. For cafe-quality control and dual-thermocoils, I think it’s a steal at under $2,000. My Lucca A53 Mini, for example, is a similar caliber, mostly manual machine that costs about $500 more than the Steel Duo.
However, something like the Breville Express Impress, which has more automation and more features with self-tamping and an integrated grinder, costs about half as much as the Steel Duo. However, it has a single thermocoil and won’t match the precision of Ascaso.
For what it’s trying to be, the Ascaso Steel Duo is a great value compared to similar machines. If you prefer more automatic espresso machines, you can find much more affordable options.
Should You Buy the Ascaso Steel Duo?
If you’re a season espresso aficionado and want more control over brewing and steaming, the Ascaso Steel Duo is a great machine. It comes very close to replicating the cafe espresso experience in a home machine.
If you’ve only worked with automated machines or want your machine to do the heavy lifting of espresso brewing, I’d steer clear of the Steel Duo. It’s not a difficult machine to use by any stretch, but it can be intimidating for espresso newbies.
Alternative Options to the Ascaso Steel Duo
The Rancilio Silvia is like a sturdier, more basic Steel Duo. It looks and feels more like a small tank than an espresso machine. It’s about half the price of the Steel Duo, but it only has one boiler and doesn’t feature a hot water spout. It can hold a consistent temperature but has less control without a PID and very limited controls. It also can’t brew and steam simultaneously.
The Breville Dual Boiler features a dual-boiler system (surprise!). It’s closest to the Steel Duo in functionality but with a few extra features. There’s a tamper, better programmability, and (very importantly) it plugs into a standard 15A plug. The Breville Dual Boiler is also slightly cheaper than the Ascaso.
The Ascaso Steel Duo is a great machine for espresso veterans looking for a hands-on brewing experience, but you can go a step further. For a look at espresso machines that provide complete user control, read our manual espresso machine buying guide.