Steam Wand Technology and Maintenance
What’s a wand and how does it work?
If you have an espresso machine, odds are it has some type of steam wand used to heat milk. Depending on the type you have, it may release steam into milk, or it may dispense milk into your cup. You may or may not be on speaking terms with yours, but we are here to help. In order to better use or maintain your steam wand, you need to understand what kind you have. The usual suspect behind an unhappy relationship is a gummed up wand or brew line or user error. Here’s what to look for:
Commerial Type Wand
The most common type of steam wand in the espresso world is found on machines like the Rancilio Silvia or Nuova Simonelli Musica. These are solid metal wands controlled by a mechanical valve that you open and close by hand. Depending on the size of the espresso machine's boiler (or design of the wand itself), the metal tip of this wand will have 1 or more holes for steam to exit from. From a purist's standpoint, this is the best type of steam wand to have because it is usually found only on very well-built equipment and creates the best microfoam milk froth. That being said, there is a learning curve, which you can read about here.
Froth-Assisted Steam Wand
Most entry-level espresso machines such as the DeLonghi EC270, and even many mid-to-low range Super Automatic Espresso Machines like the Saeco Odea Giro feature a froth-assisted steam wand. The wand itself usually looks somewhat like the commercial type but have a more complex tip at the end of it. These froth-assisting tips are used to compensate for a machine that does not possess the raw steam power needed for a commercial type wand. The valve can be mechanical or electronic, and the frothing process is much easier and more consistent, but typically gives results just shy of the microfoam you achieve with a commercial type wand. Some machines, like the Ascaso Dream UP offer both a froth-assisted and commercial tip to allow owners to transition from beginner to pro.
Automatic Milk Frothers
The nicer Super Automatic Espresso Machines incorporate automatic milk frothing systems that take the user out of the equation all but entirely. Each brand has its own preferred method, but the concepts are similar in that they use the steam power of the machine to siphon milk from a vessel, blend it with the steam and air, and dispense it directly into the cup you drink from. This luxury feature is highly sought after by those who want a cafe drink such as a cappuccino or latte without making a mess or spending much time on it. It makes for a quick and painless process, but does not provide the control of other frothing methods. Here are a few examples:
The Jura-Capresso J6 uses their patented FrothXpress system. It siphons milk from any vessel, even a Thermal or Refrigerated container and has a dial with positions for cappuccino, latte, and cleaning. Each setting has a range which offers some control. The higher end Jura-Capresso units offer the automatic system exclusively. The mid-range units like the J6 offer both the automatic and froth-assisted. Entry-level units like the C5 come standard with a froth-assisted wand but can accept the FrothXpress sold separately.
Automatic milk frothers found on the DeLonghi super automatic machines like the Gran Dama 6700 attach directly to the face of the machine, and can be removed for storage in the refrigerator. These devices need not be connected when you want coffee without milk. They feature a selection switch for cappuccino or latte, and do a very good job at frothing the milk. The settings have little wiggle room, but we have found you don't need to tinker with them anyway. Each lid has a cleaning button that purges steam through the components without siphoning milk.
Saeco has tried different automatic frothing systems, and has settled on the two that they believe offer the user the best function for the money. Machines like the mid-range Talea Touch Plus offer the Saeco Milk Island for automatic frothing as well as a froth-assisted wand for hands-on frothing. The Milk Island offers the most control over milk temperature compared to all other automatic frothers. It connects to the bottom of the appliance and includes a switch for cappuccino or latte. You control the steam flow by opening or closing the valve on top of the machine. We recommend using a thermometer to prevent scalding of the milk. Frothed or steamed milk is then poured into your cup. The newest Saeco super automatic, the Xelsis SS includes a similar automatic frother to DeLonghi models with 2 great upgrades: automatic cleaning cycle after frothing, and a manual steam wand for the ultimate precision.
Maintaining Your Wand or Frother
Whatever sort of wand you have, it is essential to keep it clear of solidified milk which can gum up the tip and even the wand shaft. (In the worst-case scenario, milk can even be drawn into the boiler.) This is not only for functional reasons, but also sanitary ones. Dried milk goes sour and harbors bacteria that is not only unhealthy, but also putrid to the taste of milk. Here are some symptoms of a clogged wand:
- Little or no steam comes out of the wand
- Hot water drips from the tip of the wand instead of steam
- A squeal or whistle comes out of the wand when the steam function is selected
Clean It After Frothing
You should always purge steam out of your wand or frother immediately after frothing your milk to keep the tip clean and to prevent milk from being sucked up the wand shaft. In fact, some machines like the Rancilio Silvia require that you fill the boiler right after steaming to keep from damaging the heating element. This is a good time to flush some water out of the wand to keep it really clean. Also, wipe down the outside of the wand with a cold, wet rag as soon as you can to keep the milk from drying on it. Be careful not to burn yourself, but the longer you wait, the hard it will be to get the milk off. Again, some automatic frothers have cleaning settings or buttons to purge steam through the internal components. Make this a part of your routine if you are not lucky enough to own the Saeco Xelsis, which does it for you automatically.
A good preventative measure against the clogging of a steam wand is regular rinsing in warm, soapy water of the tip and any other removable frothing part. You can never do this too often, so if you have time to do it after you are done with your machine for the day, please do so. If your machine has a FrothXpress, it is important to clean all of the hoses, valve, and connectors (be very careful with the plug, however, because it is delicate). You may also use cleaning agents specifically designed for frothing systems, such as Urnex Rinza or Jura Liquid Cappuccino Cleaner.
Heavy Duty Cleaning
If this article did not find you in time, or you just need to do some more thorough cleaning, read on, my friend. Some devices can be disassembled in part or completely. First, remove the tip, if the tip is removable. Sometimes you need a little extra grip to get it off, but try not to damage the chrome plating or the plastic, or you'll be cursing later. Now you can clean the hole or holes of the tip without pushing crud back into the wand itself. The holes are usually big enough to run a pin or even a small paperclip through to remove the gunk. IF IT DOESN'T FIT, DON'T FORCE IT! Next, the metal wand itself can have a pipe cleaner run up into it. Start out by putting just about a half inch of the pipe cleaner up the wand, rubbing it around, then pulling it out. Gradually work more of the pipe cleaner up the wand, but never let the length of pipe cleaner in the wand exceed the wand length. We recommend the pipe cleaners with the stiff barbs attached, as opposed to the mostly soft ones. Purge water or steam out of the pipe before reattaching the tip, but be careful not to burn yourself. If this doesn't clear up your problem, consult a technician or local service center to remove the entire steam assembly. If you follow all the preventative instructions above, you won't ever get to this point.