July 2006

Monthly Archive

Machine tuning matters

Posted by on 31 Jul 2006 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

If there’s any wonder about the importance of machine service and its impact on the quality of espresso, look no further than the home version of the espresso making game.

Over the past several weeks, my home espresso machine was showing the telltale signs of failing gaskets and seals, which need replacement about once a year with regular use. The water pressure through the group head gradually went from a heavy flow to a trickle and then to a drip. Over time, though almost too subtle to notice, I was pulling my espresso shots differently to adjust to these pressurization changes.

I was taking more and more time to force sufficient water flow in the group head — compensating so I could generate the proper water pressure through the puck of ground coffee that I inserted into the portafilter. Because of this, hot water came into contact with the surface coffee for longer periods of time, changing the extraction of my shots to something much more than desired, and resulting in an uneven shot that contained more water-soluble, bitter elements in the cup.

Readying the home machine for disassembly Opening the group head for gasket replacement

The answer, of course, was to open up my machine and replace a number of seals and gaskets. This was my project yesterday. While a few gaskets were still in good shape (my machine contains nine different gaskets, six of which are in the group head assembly), the main pair of gaskets around the group head piston showed serious wear.

These seals were worn down from regular use and no longer held the tight pressure seal needed to properly control the water flow. In the photographs below, you can see the difference between the old, smoothed-down pair of rubber gaskets on the piston and what a new pair looks like in their place. The new gaskets “poke out” from the circumference of the piston, gripping the cylindrical piston wall with a much tighter seal.

Breaking out the wrenches, universal retaining ring pliers, and food-safe lubricant, it’s enough to make you feel like you’re rebuilding a car engine. But the bottom line is that my home machine makes a far better espresso once it has been serviced like this. Even so, such a fix still requires me to greatly adjust my espresso shot pulls to account for the improved pressure control.

So whether your favorite café uses a super-automatic, semi-automatic, or manual lever espresso machine, regular, professional machine service can make a huge difference in the quality of the espresso they produce. And if your home machine is making espresso that’s a lot worse off than it was a year ago, it’s probably time for a tune-up.

Notice the smooth, flattened two gaskets on the group head piston that need replacing Here's the same piston head with new gaskets - creating a much tighter seal in the group head cavity

The smoke, mirrors, and black magic of coffee marketing

Posted by on 31 Jul 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Starbucks

Today a press release from Eight O’Clock Coffee announced a new marketing campaign for the all-but-forgotten brand: Eight O’Clock(R) Coffee “Gets Real” about Coffee in New Advertising Campaign; Nearly 150 Year Old Company Announces Results of Consumer Taste Test. The new marketing campaign takes aim squarely at the Starbucks set — on a mission to convince Starbucks lovers that they’re paying a lot more for a brand name of arguably lesser quality.

Eight O’Clock is even playing the coffee snob card — having prepared a commercial TV spot featuring an avid coffee drinker, with the scientific name of “Java Snobicus,” who goes to great lengths to find the perfect cup of gourmet coffee. Eight O’Clock is even reaching for that pathetic marketing agency nod towards hip modernity: “your product will even have its own blog”.

This press release also coincides with the announcement of a study showing that consumers prefer Eight O’Clock to Starbucks in a blind taste test. (They don’t say “Brand X” anymore, do they?) This is where things get a little interesting, though not unusual. This study, which we otherwise know nothing about, is credited to Tragon Corporation. Who, with the simple research of visiting their Web page, we learn performs “custom market research”:

Do you have a product development or marketing challenge? We’ve helped businesses in diverse industries meet their challenges and successfully launch or reintroduce products, from sportswear to high technology equipment, food and beverage to pharmaceuticals and homecare. We can do the same for you.

In other words, Eight O’Clock Coffee came to Tragon with a problem and a cashier’s check. In response, Tragon designed a blind taste test they could use as part of a campaign they helped develop to reintroduce an otherwise forgetten brand.

It’s no wonder why we know nothing about this 2006 study. Apparently Tragon has been fine-tuning the methods for this study for years — given their research cited on the Eight O’Clock corporate Web site from 2004 that showed Starbucks clearly leading the Eight O’Clock brand in blind taste tests of the “strong” coffee segment: Join Eight O’Clock Coffee’s Unique and Valued Position in the Coffee Marketplace! (pdf file).

The Coffee Wars are getting more interesting all the time.


UPDATE: August 9, 2006
Just to prove how interesting things get, Eight O’Clock Coffee’s ownership has since switched to India: The Hindu : Karnataka / Bangalore News : Tata acquires Eight O’Clock Coffee.

Illycaffè introduces Espressamente cafés around the world

Posted by on 28 Jul 2006 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Starbucks

In the August 7 issue of BusinessWeek, there’s an article titled “Basta With The Venti Frappuccinos.” According to this article, Andrea Illy, the head of Illycaffè, is out to show the Starbucks of this world how espresso should be done. They have started rolling out hundreds of licensed cafés under the brand name Espressamente.

Espressawhat?, you might ask? Meaning “clearly” or “expressly” in Italian, these cafés are cropping up in Europe (and France, in particular, which could use some decent coffee), Asia, and some temporary locations in New York City. Illycaffè is being a bit cagey about the very un-European U.S. market, however, and suggested they will plan an arrival only after “careful study.”

Unlike Starbucks’ kumbaya community focus, Espressamente is an attempt to create a destination with a focus on coffee quality and aesthetics. However, it begs the question of just how different these will be from what we’ve already seen from, say, the American incursion of Segafreddo- or Lavazza-branded cafés. The concept of creating a themed chain of cafés from a well-known Italian coffee brand has been done before — and with decent, but not headline-worthy, results.

Which is a lot like their imported coffee: very high quality standards, but yet they must still vacuum-pack and ship their beans thousands of miles after roasting them — losing something in transatlantic translation.

Trip Report: NaS Coffee @ Rincon Center

Posted by on 28 Jul 2006 | Filed under: Local Brew

Deep inside Rincon Center One (now how apocalyptic does that sound?), this espresso counter serves coffee among the food court seating. It’s right next to the indoor, five-story “Rain Column” waterfall — so if you can find the insides of building, you won’t miss it. NaS uses a portable boom box of sorts to play cheesy pop music while you sip. Their baristas always seem extra-friendly, and they serve espresso at a somewhat high brewing temperature at times.

Approaching NaS Partly sunny with a 100% chance of showers in Rincon

From their three-group Nuova Simonelli machine, they produce an espresso with a crema that can vary from a deep, dark brown, and thin to something that barely forms a ring around a paper cup. It has a dark body and a slightly ashy, bitter flavor. The staff here are a bit secretive about their bean suppliers, though Adam’s Organic is clearly one of them. They do exclusively focus on Fair Trade and organic beans, however — which limits their suppliers.

This is the last remains of the NaS Coffee chain that has since folded every other location around town. In fact, their corporate Web site has even skipped town. Chances are this location kept the NaS name out of convenience, despite the chain’s failure at corporate expansion. But tasting the coffee, you can’t say that their failure is suprising. Newer chains like The Organic Coffee Company are trying to succeed where NaS failed, but good luck to them — they’re going to need it.

Read the updated review.

The NaS espresso: look no further for a cause for expansion failure Art Deco in the Rincon Center nearby

Coffee fans fill up on taste, location

Posted by on 27 Jul 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

Today’s Daytona Beach News-Journal cited a 2005 SCAA study in reporting that, “The coffee market is booming and expensive brands are the ‘in thing,’ but workers who drink coffee on the run say the less expensive ones stimulate their taste buds just as well as the others.”: Coffee fans fill up on taste, location — Daytona Beach News-Journal Online — Business.

The story here is that coffee consumers are concerned less about price and more about flavor and convenience. And as for those who prefer their coffee on the run, I’d argue that they’re predisposed (genetically or otherwise) to not notice much of a difference between coffees. Enough people buy, and enjoy, the Franzia box-o-wine (“The World’s Most Popular Wine”) where I question how discerning their palates must be.

Stanford’s Boulevard Of Broken Beans

Posted by on 26 Jul 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Local Brew, Roasting

Teri Hope, owner of the Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company, was interviewed for today’s issue of the Metro about how her successful Palo Alto Roasting Company was shut down this year: News & Culture in Palo Alto, CA | Stanford Shopping Center.

They may not have been the greatest local roaster in the Peninsula, but I’ve frequently sent many a new home espresso enthusiast to the Palo Alto Roasting Company for bean stocks. The institution was a local success story as a tenant in the Stanford Shopping Center. However, a recent change in mall ownership to Indiana-based Simon Property Group (an organization I’ve long despised for a variety of reasons, btw) meant that if you weren’t a megachain with deep marketing pockets out to homogenize America, you had to pack your bags.

It’s one thing to accuse the Starbucks of this world of contributing to the bland sameness of every downtown in America. Having a landlord who insists upon that policy just adds insult to injury.

More To Coffee Than Just Beans

Posted by on 25 Jul 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Quality Issues, Roasting

WCAV TV in Charlottesville, VA published four video segments on the basics of coffee roasting: WCAV | More To Coffee Than Just Beans. These clips were taken from today’s Good Morning Charlottesville morning show.

Like many local TV news morning shows, the cast of characters generally proves these shows are local TV’s answer to radio’s drive time shock jock idiocy. But if you make it past the hairspray and the faux-friendly inter-anchor chit chat, they provide a decent visual representation of the roasting process.

All four segments were aired live from Charlottesville’s Shenandoah Joe roastery, and they each consist of the following topics:

  1. Green beans; the bean selection process
  2. The roaster (here a classic San Franciscan roaster), the roasting process, and the cooling tray; techniques for controlling the roasting process
  3. Coffee preparation: the waste of pre-ground coffee; French press preparation; espresso preparation (using an ECM Giotto machine and a Mazzer grinder)
  4. Review of the roaster; roasting for different flavors

Sorry, no Firefox.

Hilton Unveils Upscale In-Room Coffee System

Posted by on 25 Jul 2006 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends

As more evidence of the theory that people simply want greater access to better coffee, a Hilton Hotels press release reported today that, “Guest surveys revealed that premium coffee was the single most important in-room amenity in the upscale segment”: Hilton Unveils Upscale In-Room Coffee System; Coffee Offering Expands the Hilton Serenity Collection of Luxurious In-Room Amenities.

Hilton Hotels are just doing within their industry what McDonald’s had to do for theirs. Here the hotel chain is pursuing a greater upscale market share with quality coffee as a differentiator. In the press release, Hilton announced the launch of the “Hilton Serenity Collection in-room coffee system,” which features Lavazza coffee and a Cuisinart coffeemaker.

A cuppa perfection

Posted by on 24 Jul 2006 | Filed under: Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

Canadian Business magazine recently reposted a 2001 article on the deep and seemingly bottomless pit of home espresso perfectionism (something I can identify with all too well): A cuppa perfection | After Hours | Gotta Have It | Canadian Business Online. The article is even more accurate today than it was when first published.

It all innocently starts, of course, with a quality home espresso machine. Which is, quite naturally, wholly incomplete without also a high quality grinder and fresh beans. Next there’s roasting your own beans for the ultimate freshness in small batches. And then there’s often revisiting the espresso machine all over again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s this relentless pursuit of higher standards that has made me question the value of super-automatic machines in the big scheme of things. All the best baristas who have ever served me have invariably tossed out several shots during their preparations — because some of their pulls just did not meet their standards. Call me a Luddite, but I’m not so sure that level of quality control and perfectionism is something that will ever be automated.

Drink makers want America to buy coffee to go

Posted by on 23 Jul 2006 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Quality Issues

As a follow-up to Thursday’s post where we covered the coffee pod revolutionaries, yesterday’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an article on how Big Beverage is plotting the demise of any actual coffee brewing: Drink makers want America to buy coffee to go.

What’s puzzling is how many usually sensible industries are getting the new coffee equation all wrong. The battle over more convenient, brew-less coffee was fought many decades ago — the result of which was perhaps the darkest, deepest point in consumer coffee’s Dark Ages.

American consumers saw the elimination of coffee roasting, then freshness, and then brewing as a progression of modern-era conveniences for the nuclear home. We survived percolators optimally designed to perform the worst kind of atrocities to the quality of our coffee, and we prized freeze-dried coffee flakes in a can made from garbage-grade robusta beans roasted months prior.

What’s different now is that consumers are finally re-discovering what a good cup of coffee might actually taste like, and consumers are asking for more of it. To go back to the legitimate parallels with wine consumption, consumers are showing that they want better wines — not wine coolers that come in a convenient bladder-in-a-box. And meanwhile, the likes of all these purely convenience-minded coffee marketing pushes — oblivious to the flavor and freshness aspects — are completely missing the point.

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