Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
Not unlike Carmel, CA, Half Moon Bay is a smaller oceanside community that serves as something of a test of quality coffee penetration. Located only 30 miles from San Francisco, and possessing its own Peet’s and Starbucks (unlike Carmel), Half Moon Bay remains surprisingly isolated and remote from many of the coffee fads and baseline standards that the cityfolk up north have grown accustomed to.
Thus finding a solid espresso in town is a real challenge. Half Moon Bay is fraught with many wrong turns and dead ends that lead to an over-extracted, watery ash flavor that many San Franciscans might recognize from 1988. But there are some mild exceptions — such as Blue Sky Farms.
This roadside café, coffeehouse, and nursery (yes, nursery — the plant kind, that is) constitutes a rather dark wooden hut that you might miss if you drive up Highway 1 too quickly out of Half Moon Bay towards El Granada. There’s a parking lot with a main entrance to the rear of the building, right alongside the nursery and gardening supply.
Inside the simple wooden frame building, it has a typical rural café feel. It might seem a little like a family-run spot, but it’s more together than that. They serve baked goods, breakfast items (eggs, burritos, weekend waffles), and other light dining fare. There are several indoor metal-topped café tables — and some worn wooden picnic bench seating in the rear patio outdoors.
Using a three-group Conti machine in the service area, and Moschetti coffee (Moschetti makes their service area presence well-known in Half Moon Bay), they pull shots with a pale to medium brown mottled crema served short in a shotglass-sized cup (Romania ceramic from IKEA). It has a healthy body and a smoothed-out flavor of mild spices.
For milk-frothing, they can be a bit irregular and frothy — but they will ask if you want your cappuccino wet or dry. Their milk-based drinks are deceptively large-looking and come in white or blue IKEA cups. All things considered, you will hope for something better — but this is one of the better coffee options in this outpost town.
Read the review of Blue Sky Farms in Half Moon Bay, CA.
When not on my best of days, I’ll be the first to admit that I can sometimes be a sarcastic jerk. But even the most acrid sarcasm can be neutralized by a shocking dose of absurd reality. Case and point with this story in today’s Daily Mail: Grower’s Cup, World’s first DISPOSABLE ‘coffee machine’ lets you brew on the move | Mail Online.
You see, there’s long been a lot of consumer environmental angst when it comes to single serving coffee made from pods and capsules. That angst is not at all misplaced, but it’s largely viewed from the wrong end of the telescope. Virtually all discussions that cite the environmental impact of coffee pods obsess exclusively over recycling. Meanwhile, they throw “reduce” and “reuse” under the bus — completely ignoring them.
If we remember our Environmentalism 101, the ranked order of efficacy is this: reduce, reuse, and then recycle. Thus the great environmental atrocity of pod coffee machines isn’t throwing the pods away. It’s that, by design, these coffee systems seem to maximize the amount of materials extraction from the earth, materials processing, machine energy consumption, manufacturing waste by-products, excess packaging and shipping weight, and additional transportation fuel consumption with each and every serving of coffee. The introduction of coffee pods created incremental new demands for all of these, where none existed prior for “traditional” coffee formats.
To sarcastically illustrate this point over the years, I often go from zero to ridiculous in one sentence: that if they manufactured an entire life-sized, pop-up, disposable Starbucks with every coffee serving, the entire system would earn a green “pass” by most consumer definitions if the disposable Starbucks were made of recyclable materials. Imagine a cardboard Starbucks with 1,800 square feet of indoor space, including cardboard men’s and women’s bathrooms, thrown away with every serving of coffee. Can you recycle it? Say “yes” and planet earth and a choir of bluebirds will thank you.
So imagine my shock and horror — and the death of my sarcasm — when I learned that the first step towards creating the disposable Starbucks had already been made with the 2012 introduction of the world’s first disposable coffee machine. Sure, you could say that the proliferation of pop-ups marked the first introduction of the disposable café, but the holy grail here is the single serving disposable café.
Homer facepalm indeed…
As we noted last month, tonight on Rai 3 — a regional TV news network in Italy — they aired an investigative exposé on the state of espresso in Italy titled “Espresso nel caffè”: Report Espresso nel caffè. Rai 3 produced this as an episode of their Report program, which has been something of a platform for barebones investigative journalism since its inception in 1997. (Think a scrappier 60 Minutes on a shoestring budget.)
The 51-minute segment isn’t groundbreaking for either journalism nor for any awareness of coffee standards. That said, it is aspirationally legitimate coffee video and television. Far too often on the Internet, the idea of a good “coffee video” — with few exceptions — is equated with a sensory montage on YouTube or Vimeo packaged like a roaster’s wannabe TV commercial.
There’s never any storytelling (“Plot? We no need no stinkin’ plot!”) — just coffee porn close-ups of the stuff either roasting or brewing, complete with a coffee professional’s platitudes voiced over B-roll. Coffee fanatics have largely only encouraged these low standards by joining in on the self-congratulatory social media circle jerk that follows video after identical video.
The Report episode begins by covering the necessary espresso machine hot water purge before pulling an espresso shot — and by noting how few baristi know to follow this practice. A Lavazza trainer notes how 70% of the aromatic properties of coffee are lost within 15 minutes of grinding it. Comparisons are shown of a correct and incorrect coda di topo (or “rat’s tail”) pour from an espresso machine, showing how equipment can get gummed up without proper and immaculate cleaning. The program also reviews how few baristi know how much arabica versus robusta is in their blends, noting the resulting impacts on flavor and costs.
They visit cafes such as Gran Caffè Grambrinus and Caffè Mexico at Pizza Dante, 86 in Napoli. They interview some heavy hitters — from Lavazza to Caffè Moreno to Kimbo, from Biagio Passalacqua himself to Davide Cobelli of the SCAE (featured last month in Barista Magazine) to Luigi Odello of Espresso Italiano Tasting fame. And probably too many guys in lab coats.
Overall, the program is a bit condemning of espresso standards across all of Italy. But remember, this is a national news program that targets the general public: the goal is to educate and, in some ways, outrage the public about what they may be putting up with currently. If only one percent of the coffee porn videos in English would attempt something so high-minded as that.
Defensive posturing aside (he’s not alone), the commissioner also welcomes those interviewed for the program to visit local Napoli coffee shops and producers to witness the mobilization Napoli has mounted in response. As such, Andrej Godina has done God’s work: raising public awareness of lagging coffee standards, starting a dialog, and inciting action to improve these standards.
Last Friday, the Economic Times posted an interesting article concerning the history, fanatics and obsessives with South Indian filter coffee: How can filter coffee be so different, yet good? – Economic Times. The Economic Times is a business paper from the Times of India — and the world’s most widely read English-language business newspaper after the Wall Street Journal.
For Westerners without much exposure to the subcontinent, you might associate India with only tea. But the story of coffee in India is older than the USA itself and arguably larger (by capita) than its consumption of coffee. South India has grown coffee since the 1670s, and the article recalls how coffee consumption was particularly introduced to the Tamil households of South India by way of Britain in the 19th century.
Back then, “Tamil Brahmins resisted the tea campaign as too down-market, giving tea a working class (and Muslim) reputation it has never entirely shrugged off in the South.” The article even makes reference to a bottled coffee-chicory essence called Camp Coffee, first made by the Scottish company Paterson & Sons in Glasgow in 1876 and featuring a Sikh bearer on the label. By the 20th century, South Indians added sugar and milk, leading to its more widespread adoption.
We fell in love with the stuff on our first visit to South India. It’s made as a sort of strange middle-ground between the popular fast-brewed hot coffee of espresso/pour-overs/Mr.-Coffee-makers and the slow, slow brewing of cold press coffee.
Traditionally it is made with chicory root (the article mentions a magic 15-20% range), a coffee substitute and additive known more in the West by its affiliation with New Orleans and colonial America. Here, as in India, it was introduced as a means of more cheaply cutting the more expensive pure coffee. However, in New Orleans the introduction of chicory as a coffee additive was of purely French origin: instigated by Napoleon’s initiation of the Continental Blockade of 1808 that deprived the French of much of their coffee supplies.
All of this cutting with chicory, milk, and sugar and the common use of fine coffee “powder” naturally leads most Westerners to a rather downscale impression of South Indian filter coffee. And for many examples of it, they’d be right. But that’s also the case with most coffee served here in America. However, it doesn’t help that my few attempts to make a version of it here with one of the unique South Indian filter brewers I purchased (on Mahatma Gandhi, aka “MG”, Road in Bangalore) produced some of the most undrinkable coffee I’ve ever made.
Of course, there are those who truly love coffee in its many shapes, forms, and varieties available. And then there are others who only like a rarefied, elitist, mutant sliver of coffee extract that’s possible with exacting farm origins, brewing methods, precision equipment, TDS ratios, and when the lunar tides are just right for four days out of the calendar year. While I very much admire and appreciate what can come out of the latter category, it might come as a surprise that I am a complete softie of the former variety.
The Internet sags from a surfeit of posts from Do-It-Yourself (DIY) types. But at the risk of seeming like we’re piling on, we’re posting some of our bean-to-cup experiences with coffee grown quite literally in a family backyard.
But this coffee isn’t the result of an obsession where home roasting just didn’t take things far enough. Instead, it’s an isolated glimpse into a casual family production of green coffee — much in the same way your extended family might grow its own garden tomatoes or cucumbers. It arrived hand-delivered by a family friend in a Ziploc bag, some 5,000 miles from its origin.
While there have been multiple efforts to commercially grow coffee in California’s Santa Barbara County since the 1850s, the coffee for our story was grown on the island of São Jorge in the Portuguese archipelago of the Azores. The subtropical, volcanic islands of the Azores are the only real coffee growing region in Europe. Although bucolic São Jorge produces agricultural exports such as its famed cheese, its coffee production is dominated by personal rather than commercial use (with very rare and minuscule exceptions, such as Café Nunes in São Jorge’s tiny Fajã dos Vimes).
Our mini coffee lot originates from a few acres of property that stretches from the center of town in Urzelina to the Atlantic Ocean. More than once over the years, my wife and I climbed a ladder and sat on a wall of this property — located across the street of the Igreja de São Mateus church where my in-laws were married in the Sixties — safely observing one of the many crazy street bullfights in the central Azores, called touradas à corda, that took place below our dangling feet. Thus we’ll jokingly name the coffee’s origin as Fazienda dos Touros Loucos da São Mateus.
It neighbors similar lots where other families grow, pick, dry, and sort their own coffee for home use. Isabel graciously offered a few pounds of the stuff from her property, and we played no role in its processing nor pedigree. Thus the goal was to experience what home-grown coffee in the Azores might truly be like. I’m no botanist, so I can’t tell you if it’s Typica or Bourbon or Caturra (highly unlikely). It most resembles a Yemen-like Typica variant or a shortberry harrar, which also explains a little of why it is dry-processed rather than washed.
As for any screening and hand-sorting, well, this is, after all, a family farm operation. Fortunately the sorting was clean enough that I did not have to worry about my burr grinder gagging on any obvious stones or twigs.
The first thing you notice about the processed beans is how darkly colored and irregular they are compared to commercial coffees. This is hardly unique to dry-processed coffees, but this takes the commercial grade stuff a step further.
And the beans themselves are quite small, and the screening used on the family farm isn’t very stringent. But to their credit, there are few major irregularities in size. Everything is larger than a sunflower kernel and there’s only the occasional large and/or off-colored bean. Even so, we resisted the temptation to further sort the coffee to keep it true to its personal use in the Azores. Long before commercial buyers, processors, roasters, and coffeehouses existed, this is how most people experienced coffee.
Pan roasting is typical among families who grow their own green coffee beans. Even James Freeman started Blue Bottle Coffee with a baking sheet in his oven. Although I could have reverted to some of these very original and primitive roasting methods, I’m no good at any of them and have no real practice. All of which spells trouble if you’ve only got a couple of pounds of coffee to work through to get it right.
Instead, I made a slight nod to modern convenience and opted for my old, trusty Fresh Roast+ roaster. It is essentially a glorified hot air popcorn popper with a chaff collector that I purchased over a decade ago, and I’ve had years of practice making pretty decent roasts with it. And unlike the newer Fresh Roast models with larger roasting chambers (normally a big plus), its tiny two-ounce batch size lent well to dialing in a target roast profile quickly with a limited supply of green coffee beans.
The first thing I noticed is that the coffee lacked a real discernible first or even second crack. Without the sound or a temperature gauge on my roaster, I thus had to determine my target roast levels by sight (color) and smell (and smoke) entirely. The second thing I noticed is that the bean size inconsistencies and bean shape irregularities required a lot of post-roast culling to even out the result. The third thing I noticed was that the chaff looked a lot like bird food.
After a trial with several roasting levels and tasting the results (after a couple days rest for the CO2 to escape), I rediscovered what all commercial coffee roasters have known for eons: by roasting cheaper grade coffee more darkly, you can hide a lot of problems.
Which isn’t to say that we believe dark roasting is universally bad; there are some good body-heavy coffees from Indonesia that shine best under darker roasting conditions. But dark roasting is the lazy roaster’s shortcut to consistency. We could only imagine how uneven pan roasting would contribute to this effect.
Any bean and roasting irregularities of course came out in the resulting brew, as a few under-roasted beans would lend a grassy or sometimes downright wonky taste that could spoil the entire cup. (This is a big reason why Ernesto Illy was religious about Illy‘s screening process.) Fortunately the combination of a darker roast profile and post-roast bean culling mitigated these problems quite a lot.
So how best to brew this beast? Espresso would be too sensitive to the bean quality and irregularities. We tried a small French press pot, but the inconsistent beans somehow imparted a little too much grit in the cup to our liking. Not surprisingly, the Moka stovetop produced some of the best results — mirroring what many families have used for years to brew coffee in the Azores. But we also did have a little success with an Aeropress, which seems to lend well for this type of coffee profile: a body-centric cup with little to offer at the bright ends and a flavor of smoke, spice, and the unfortunate edge of ashiness.
The resulting cup was definitely drinkable, but far from anything we’d write home about (save for this post here I suppose). The experience served as both of an appreciation of what coffee was informally like for consumers before the advent of the commercial coffee industry. It was also an exercise in appreciating the many quality and process improvements we enjoy from that same coffee industry today.
Perhaps the biggest irony is that nobody should ever need a CoffeeCON.
As we posted last year, on the same day as the inaugural CoffeeCON 2012, we were instead attending the Grand Tasting of La Paulée de San Francisco: a $300-per-person consumer Burgundy appreciation event backed by a tremendous amount of wine industry support and name-brand chefs & restaurants. The event was packed.
And because who doesn’t love a good wine analogy, the closest consumer event that coffee has to offer is — well? — free admission to CoffeeCON in bustling, cosmopolitan Warrenville, IL. (Note: this year CoffeeCON introduced a $15 ticket price, so things are starting to get snooty.)
Not to throw the merits of CoffeeCON under the bus, but this very fact is outright shameful — a rather inexcusable embarrassment to the specialty coffee industry. We have legions of adoring coffee lovers who can hold their own waxing poetically alongside the world’s biggest wine snobs. We have many who work in specialty coffee giving plenty of lip service to phrases such as “consumer experience” and “educating the consumer.”
But heaven forbid that anybody employed in the biz open a legitimate dialog with their customers. Instead, coffee consumers have to take the reigns and do it themselves. Completely unlike the wine industry, the specialty coffee industry has been too incompetent, disorganized, and too focused on navel-gazing to hold an event about anything that ultimately isn’t directly about, or for, themselves.
Contrast this with the media coverage for events like the SCAA conference, which essentially operates as a bloated insider trade show. Magazine articles, blog posts, and tweets hype the event as the “center of the universe”, a don’t-you-wish-you-were-here type of thing. But mind you, it’s a universe that deliberately excludes the very customers who keep all the attendees employed. (Side note: CoffeeGeek’s Mark Prince recently showed off the long-defunct SCAA consumer membership on his Twitter feed. Mistake long since corrected.)
You could argue that coffee consumers shouldn’t take the industry’s apparent anti-social attitude so personally. Some people are just naturally too shy for eye contact, right? But meanwhile, some industry blogs promote a self-indulgent, Spring-Break-like image for the SCAA conference: complete with wannabe-frat-house tales of endless parties, binge drinking, and baristas covered in spray cheese. Yeah, party with Tina. How long before the competitive SCAA exhibitions offer up wet T-shirt contests in wet processing tanks? (Oh wait, we’re too late.)
All of us may tediously groan at the aloof and disgruntled barista stereotype, looking down on their customers. But unfortunately that stereotype is rooted in a little too much reality. Worse, it often seems deliberate and not just the result of a lack of social graces. Many customers can be self-entitled, acute hemorrhoids as well. But far too often than should ever happen, consumers feel the need to treat coffee professionals as necessary irritants that must be tolerated instead of allies and fellow coffee lovers. Can’t we all just get along?
Coincidentally, my brother is a long-time resident of Warrenville, IL and a big fan of quality coffee. He’s also a former next-door neighbor of Kevin Sinnott — half of a husband-and-wife professional video production team, a Second City improv school graduate, and a dedicated coffee prosumer who is the impetus (and personal possessive name) behind CoffeeCON. I just happened to time a long-overdue visit with my brother over CoffeeCON weekend, last weekend, and thus had to check it out.
CoffeeCON bills itself as follows:
CoffeeCON is a consumer event featuring tastings of the world’s great coffees roasted by craft roasters and brewed by an assortment of different brewing methods. Our goal is to present every bean, every roast and every method. The second goal of CoffeeCON is to present classes on brewing and roasting methods at all skill levels.
Heavy emphasis here on the consumer part of the event, which is what makes it an oasis in a vast desert. One thing it professes not to be is a trade show. Last year Mike White over at ShotZombies called it The Dubious Anti-Trade Show Trade Show, but I can say first-hand the event is a refreshing contrast from the SCAA conference.
Kevin may have gradually earned a modicum of respect at trade shows like the SCAA, but he lamented over stories where consumers/prosumers are looked upon as time-sucking vermin by some of the industry types: too many questions and not enough five-figure purchase orders.
Kevin also told me the story of once entering the SCAA show floor with a few fellow prosumers a few years back and overhearing whispers of, “Here comes the animals.” Of all the legends about wine snobbery, you just never hear of stories like this when wine consumers interact with the wine industry.
Back to what redeems CoffeeCON. Besides classes on everything from grinding to water to siphon brewing, plus a rear patio demoing various home roasting methods (even including the infamous “HGDB” method, a.k.a. “heat gun/dog bowl“), one of the aspects I much enjoyed about CoffeeCON was the opportunity to sample brewed coffee from many purveyors side-by-side.
The purveyors may have been primarily local, but they included River City Roasters, Dark Matter Coffee, FreshGround, Passion House, Counter Culture Coffee, Metropolis, I Have a Bean, Oren’s Daily Roast, Regular Coffee Company, Halfwit Coffee Roasters, and, well, Lavazza. Last year Starbucks operated a booth to coincide with the launch of their then-new “Blonde” roast. But to the credit of CoffeeCON attendees, word has it that the Starbucks booth was ignored like a leper colony. Starbucks didn’t show their faces at the event this year.
Our favorite coffee at the event had to be Oren’s Sumatra Mandheling — and we’re not normally Indonesian freaks — followed by their Burundi Kayanza Gatare. The best espresso on the day had to go to Counter Culture Coffee’s Finca El Puente Honduras pulled from a La Marzocco GS/3.
As for personalities at the event, George Howell lead an impressive 2-1/2-hour session on coffee from bean-to-cup with several breaks for interactive sensory evaluations along the way. He’s performed this routine many times before, but for lay consumers to soak in that wisdom is something special.
A couple of our favorite lines from his session? “Cupping is the only way to buy coffee, but it’s not the best way to taste coffee.” (Take that, Peter Giuliano!) His recommendation to freeze greens to allow a seasonal crop to last all year long runs counter to much of the conventional, “seasonal-only” wisdom of many coffee roasters. And I also liked his concept of “incredibly loud coffee” — i.e., coffee with flavors so acutely punctuated that they drown out any breadth or subtlety in the bean.
Last but not least, it was great to finally meet Jim Schulman in person. To most people in the coffee industry, where influential prosumers and home roasting are about as familiar as a Justin Bieber set list, Jim is probably only known as that troublemaker who got Extract Mojo inventor, Vince Fedele, worked up to a fine microfoam and threatening to sue him because Jim (somewhat justifiably) dismissed the device’s accuracy at measuring coffee extraction levels. Given that Jim was pioneering PID controller use in home espresso machines on Internet newsgroups over 20 years ago, Jim is a prosumer coffee legend when it comes to coffee science, invention, instrumentation, and measurement.
Would we travel hundreds of miles to attend the world’s biggest consumer coffee event? Definitely not. But we’re glad it exists. The event also manages to appeal to consumers at different levels of expertise and engagement. Kevin deserves a lot of credit for taking a big personal risk to help meet a gaping public need that the coffee industry has done nothing to address. And if we were in town visiting my brother again during the event, we would definitely attend again.
LaCoppa has had a strange history for such a relatively “young” espresso roaster and café chain. Owner/founder Arnold V. Spinelli is the one constant — as he developed this endeavor after selling off his 14-store Spinelli Coffee chain (founded in 1986 San Francisco) to Tully’s Coffee back in 1998. (Curiously enough, Tully’s Coffee has since run aground from a chronic lack of cash flow and recently turned to Grey’s Anatomy hearththrob Patrick Dempsey to either save or sink them faster.)
Arnold had a period where he collaborated with Sal Bonavita and where the combined enterprise shared Sal’s last name. But today it’s all Mr. Spinelli, and LaCoppa Coffee sits proudly on Mill Valley’s main Lytton Square off on a corner — roasting their own but also serving retail coffee drinks.
They sport outdoor bench and French café chair seating along the Throckmorton Ave. sidewalk for maximum people-watching. There’s also covered outdoor seating overlooking Lytton Square along Miller Ave. Inside it’s a small space with mostly bench seating and a couple of tiny, zinc-topped café tables. There’s a dessert counter and bean sales for their many blends (they use their Espresso Speciale for their espresso drinks). They also offer a true Melitta bar service, reminiscient of a time a decade ago when the few pour-over bars in the Bay Area were decidedly German and not Japanese — as current trends dictate.
Their four-group Pasquini machine at the entrance shows its age, and the staff show their unawareness by leaving the portafilters cooling outside of the machine’s group heads. (Doh!) Espresso shots are served as gargantuan doubles by default: with a thin, paltry layer of crema on a huge surface of a wide-mouthed, classic brown ACF cup. It tastes of tobacco smoke and some of that old-style dark SF-style roasting (i.e., Spinelli) with a touch of ash. The milk-frothing is generally decent, even microfoam. In any case, it’s not your best coffee shop but it’s a likeable one — even if it’s a complete throwback to espresso in 1980s San Francisco.
Read the review of LaCoppa Coffee in Mill Valley.
Trish Rothgeb and Nick Cho are coffee notables from the Northwest and D.C. area, respectively, and they’ve combined forces in recent years as the roasting/brewing partnership behind Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters. Nearly seven years ago on this Web site, Trish and Nick became a rather infamous pairing ever since Trish was first credited with coining the coffee term “third wave” — i.e., before it was immediately co-opted by coffee hucksters and carnival barkers.
The idea behind Wrecking Ball is that Trish — a former Director of Coffee for Seattle’s Zoka — focuses on the coffee roasting. Meanwhile, Nick — portafilter.net podcast host, former Murky Coffee owner, and famous wannabe cockpuncher — focuses on the brewing and coffee service.
While their roasting operations are near Redwood City, they have a lone retail café in SF in the Firehouse 8 event space. A former firehouse (there’s even a brass fire pole towards the back), it’s a vast, airy space that’s frequently inhabited by pop-ups that sell jewelry & clothing or weekend waffles. There are occasional display cases to show off some of these wares (giving it a slight museum feel), plus brick masonry at the entrance, stone floors, tall ceilings, and a row of simple café tables lined up at the entrance. Wrecking Ball is something of a permanent fixture here, however — just opening earlier this month.
In a rear corner they sport Kalita Japanese brewers (Nick has long been quite a fanboy) and scales for measuring coffee grounds precisely. They also sport a two-group La Marzocco Strada and a La Marzocco Vulcano grinder. For their espresso they use their 1UP blend ($2.25 for a doppio) and pull shots with a dark, even, textured crema. There’s a strong herbacity to it, and fortunately it tastes more like coffee and less like blueberries and flower petals like many new roasters seem to profile too heavily.
Solid stuff: this is definitely one of the finer (if not quieter) places for an espresso in the city. And credit to Trish, as the take-home 1UP beans worked great on our home espresso setup as well. We only wish the roast dates weren’t approaching two weeks old when we bought it.
Read the review of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters.
Two months ago we reported on our trials with a superautomatic home espresso machine representing much of the state-of-the-art: the Philips Saeco Syntia Focus. Reading Saeco’s product literature and marketing communications, you’d be led to believe that this machine made “the perfect espresso” every time. But to most people who read our original post two months back, the Saeco committed unforgivable crimes against coffee.
The truth lies somewhere between those polar opposites. And now that we’ve had two months of regular use to better explore the machine’s merits and limitations, here we revisit this topic in greater detail.
First of all, it’s critical to note that there’s very little (if anything) uniquely problematic with the Saeco Synthia Focus that you won’t also find in many of its up-market, superautomatic home espresso machine bretheren — whether they are made by the likes of Jura, Capresso (and now Jura-Capresso), Nespresso, or the decidedly more dubious Breville, DeLonghi, or (*gag*) Krups.
However, when talking about superautomatics for the home, the source of their coffee is a major differentiator within these product lines: there are coffee pod machines, and there are machines that use real coffee. That we use the term “real” coffee — to differentiate what most people recognize as coffee from anything that comes packaged in a proprietary system of cartridges — is only partly facetious.
Pod machine coffee may be marketed and priced as if it were elite quality coffee, but in truth it is arguably just a step up from instant coffee. Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi may have signed on as ambassador to Nespresso. But since Nespresso is pre-ground coffee produced by the world’s largest food conglomerate, she may as well be the ambassador to Del Monte canned peas.
Any coffee brewing system with the option of using whole bean coffee, ground to order, and where the consumer can vouch for the coffee’s roast date, should theoretically have a massive freshness advantage over its pod machine competition. Except that’s not exactly what happens in practice. The Saeco Syntia Focus has this great advantage. But like many of its peers, it squanders it — producing espresso shots that hardly seem like an improvement over pod coffee. Most visibly notable is how sickly pale the crema is on the shots it produces.
To improve the shots, we took advantage of several machine adjustments: setting the built-in grinder to its finest grind, setting the volume of coffee deposited in its filter basket to its maximum, and reducing the overall volume of the shots. The first shot the machine produces after powering up is always a ghostly pale blonde and is rather insipid. So we let its built-in “Adapting System” tune itself to the coffee with a few successive shots, which do noticeably improve to a crema that’s slightly fuller, darker, and with more texture that might even include microbubbles.
Hence one of the myths we discovered about superautomatic espresso machines: despite their promise of robotic consistency, the shots are somewhat variable.
Yet despite all of our improvement measures, the best shots we could muster with the Saeco Syntia Focus quite literally paled in comparison to the routine shots we pulled with our Gaggia G106 Factory (with a new brass piston) + Mazzer Mini home set-up. Once we fixed our old home machine, we used a four-day-old roast of The Boss from Barefoot Coffee Roasters to run side-by-side experiments. The flavor and body of the Saeco shots didn’t measure up to the Gaggia pulls, but the visual difference was even more dramatic.
As if the question isn’t rhetorical, which of the two espresso shots looks more appealing in the photo at left? Hint: a friend pointed out that the shot made with the Gaggia “looks like cocoa”. The other shot looks like weak drip coffee mixed with milk. Meanwhile, a brochure that comes with the Saeco (called a “Passport”) states that the crema “should be hazelnut brown with occasional darker shades.”
Despite our Saeco machine adjustments, clearly something is wrong with its extraction. We managed to rule out the Saeco’s built-in grinder as a major problem, as the Saeco offers an option to bypass its grinder with pre-ground coffee. Using our Mazzer Mini, we poured fresh grinds of the same coffee directly into the machine and didn’t notice a significant difference in the resulting shots.
After a lot of trial and error, we narrowed down the Saeco’s failures to brewing times. After a pre-infusion of around 4.5 seconds, the machine runs an extraction for only about 10.7-11.3 seconds. This is significantly less than the 20-second-plus extraction times recommended in most reputable espresso guides. And unfortunately, extraction time is one variable that the Saeco machine does not let you adjust. (A Saeco customer support woman in Ohio attempted to follow up with us to help “correct” our problems, but she never returned our call.)
While the pressure of espresso extraction certainly accelerates the necessary 3-4 minute brew times of proper coffee-to-water contact in a pour-over cup, a mere 11 seconds is far too little brewing time for espresso. We’ve recently seen reviews boasting of a coffee machine’s 45-second end-to-end brewing times, and here the Saeco Syntia Focus requires a mere 33 seconds from button-push to serving.
This is akin to a hospital’s maternity ward boasting that you can have your baby there in only 7 months. Premature babies are bad, and so is premature espresso. Is waiting 10 more seconds that unreasonable to get a properly extracted espresso? How is this a selling point?
Despite its obvious quality limitations, we honestly like the Saeco machine and have even grown somewhat fond of it. We still use it quite a lot and even look forward to the so-so espresso that it produces. Why we still use it is largely a matter of push-button convenience. Call it “laziness” or less time spent making acceptable espresso.
Because time is money, despite what the home finance trolls keep telling us. Even the pod machines aren’t quite as convenient as the Saeco, because you can go through several rounds of push-button espresso before having to empty out the tray of spent pucks.
The Saeco’s product designers clearly took some shortcuts on keeping it clean back there: the black plastic and embedded compartment make visibility of any coffee ground mess particularly difficult to see without a small flashlight, and the stuff accumulates in the oddest random corners. Let it accumulate too long, and the machine will jam up like a printer — continually spitting perfectly fine ground coffee into its spent puck dumpster, with only a momentary warning light flashing just before nothing comes out of its brew head. Then the lights proudly tell you the machine is ready to brew another shot.
This is perhaps the most aggravating thing about the machine: the “Saeco Adapting System” will waste multiple shots of your best new coffee beans — immediately dumping them in the spent grounds litter bin without even extracting so much as an ounce of coffee — while it tries to adjust itself to the new coffee. There are few things more agonizingly wasteful than seeing your prized, expensive coffee beans being ground up and spit out in a wet, dirty waste bin for several cycles with no indication of when it might decide to produce any espresso.
All things considered, we still wouldn’t pay more than $350 for the Saeco — despite its $1,000 retail price tag. And even for that money, we would rather have a simple, used Rancilio Silvia. Despite its obvious conveniences, we’re reluctant to put top-quality coffee in the Saeco. We certainly wouldn’t waste our best home roasting labors on the mediocre espresso it produces. Fresh roasted beans do make a difference, but beans of the highest quality are largely lost on this machine.
Thus there’s a sort of arrogant hubris to the Saeco Syntia Focus and virtually all of its $1,000 superautomatic home machine competitors. Consumers are promised the “perfect” espresso every time by these devices, and for a cool grand who wouldn’t expect that? But clearly these machines have not benchmarked themselves against what’s long been possible among home espresso enthusiasts.
Instead, what consumers get is closer to Starbucks‘ home Verismo machine — a home version of the automated push-button espresso experience that CEO Howard Schultz arguably said sucked the soul out of the company several years ago. Rather than offering technology and features that enable home consumers to enjoy the wealth of freshly roasted, top-quality coffee varieties now available on the market, consumers are given the bland, mass-produced experience common to any of 40,000 identical cafés. Worst of all, these home machine manufacturers tell consumers that this is perfection — and that consumers thus have no need to aspire for anything better than the mediocrity they offer.
This was a bit of a shock, given previous underwhelming results. Grand Cru coffees mark one of the true differentiators for whole bean machines like the Syntia Focus over their pod-based brethren: the world’s elite coffees simply do not have the supply volume to make them a viable option for packaging, mass distribution, and mass production in coffee pods.
The sad state of home espresso machines is a topic we’ve tried to avoid for long stretches. After our last depressing installment in 2009, we’ve been blissfully ignorant — ratcheting up the solid-but-rarely-outstanding shot pulls on our relatively decent home espresso setup of a Gaggia G106 Factory manual lever machine and a Mazzer Mini grinder.
That is until May, when disaster struck. After 10 years of abuse — where I tuned the coffee grind to the limits of what my “one-armed bandit” could handle before it choked — the central piston finally gave out with one fateful pull. Feeling the physical resistance of its lever vanish in one quick slip, I knew right away it was more than just the final, releasing grasp of an dying gasket.
Upon disassembly and inspection, part of the otherwise-durable Ryton plastic molding that holds the piston gaskets in place had clearly broken away. It’s no surprise that Gaggia discontinued this part and now only produces a brass version. While replacement parts are easy to look up, my replacement piston was put on back-order from Italy until who-knows-when.
Now I like my Hario V60 or Chemex as much as the next guy. But a steady and exclusive diet of coffee masquerading as tea — i.e., tasting primarily of berries and flower gardens and lawn clippings — is most unsatisfying. Sure, I had the perfect excuse to have more espresso out again, but sometimes you want your quality espresso without leaving the house. Fortunately, life’s misfortune sometimes creates the occasional unexpected opportunity. It arrived in June in the form of an email to coffeeratings.com from a Philips Saeco rep, with the subject-line come-on of “The Perfect Espresso from Philips Saeco”:
Searching for the perfect espresso? We believe you can make it yourself, in the convenience of your home. I’m working closely with my client, Philips Saeco, to share their espresso machines with coffee experts like you. If it’s a good fit, we’d like for you to send you one of these machines.
The normal Greg would have spewed out his home-roasted espresso blend across the kitchen table upon reading that. (“Perfect espresso“? Have they read my blog?) But home espresso beggars can’t be choosers. And if there was ever an opportunity where I could dedicate my time and attention to make an honest attempt at decent espresso with one of these dubious, hulking plastic, overpriced, and underachieving superautomatic home espresso machines, this was it.
So last week, without notice, a giant Saeco box arrived on my front porch. Opening it up, I felt a little like Darren McGavin in A Christmas Story. But inside wasn’t a glowing leg lamp. Rather, it was a Saeco Syntia HD8833. To my surprise, rather than sending a throwaway economy job, Saeco sent one of their better models — listing for about $1,000 retail.
If we are going to be outraged about the poor espresso quality from a superautomatic home machine, all the better not to dismiss the verdict on the basis of a cheap machine. We may have seen some of this machine’s siblings in the showroom at the Saeco Caffè in Cape Town, South Africa — and the espresso there may not have been too shabby. But our experience with superautomatic home espresso machines like it has been flattering to the Nespresso machine, and we don’t like Nespresso.
While I am no home espresso novice, the contents of the Saeco box seemed practically alien. What’s with all the plastic? Where’s the metal? You mean there’s more to today’s home espresso machine electronics than a heating element? And what’s that vibrating noise that sounds like a cheap home aquarium filter?
The device seems large, and yet it’s considered “compact” by many of today’s standards. Its side opens up like an ink jet printer — not exactly the mental analogy you want to be making for consumables. And it’s ridiculously robotic. Everything has been automated to death: coffee grinding, dosing, tamping, extraction. Hope still lied in the fact that a number of its automated tasks were adjustable: fineness of the grind, the volume of coffee, and the extraction time. But I am leery of any coffee machine that tries to be smarter than you.
I gained back a little confidence when much of its accompanying printed documentation emphasized the importance of descaling and cleaning. I’ve lost count of how many horrific, Exxon-Valdez-sized coffee oil Superfund sites we’ve stumbled upon in various Nespresso machine kitchens — with their delusional, convenience-obsessed owners believing that these devices also automated their cleaning and maintenance.
The machine required an extended “priming” operation, where the machine went through a series of button pushes, water cycles, and its display performed its best rendition of a Pink Floyd laser light show. Once primed and good beans (a nice Full City+ roast on Guatemala Antigua beans with ~ 1 week since roasting) were added to the hopper, we pushed the button for out first shot — with the maximum dosing (“aroma” in its manual’s parlance) and the smallest-sized shot from the factory presets.
The resulting shot was very large (at the rim of a regulation IPA demitasse), with a shockingly white thin crema, and a watery body. It tasted like what most horrible espresso shots tasted like in San Francisco back in the 1980s: overdrawn, over-extracted, and lacking any potency, body, or creaminess. The spent puck it spewed out was well-shaped but thoroughly soggy; gently touching the puck caused it to disintegrate into wet sludge.
Our immediate reaction was to head to the “Troubleshooting” section of the manual. It said much about the “Saeco Adapting System” and why your first shots might, well, suck. For example: “coffee is too weak” states that it is a “Rare event that occurs when the machine is automatically adjusting the dose. Brew a few coffees as described in section ‘Saeco Adapting System’.” Another measure of assurance was in the notes: “Note: These problems can be considered normal if the coffee blend has been changed or if the machine has just been installed.”
The first shot was followed by a second identical espresso shot … followed by a third identical shot. Yes, superautomatic consistency alright. Which is great if the espresso is good, but it’s a horrible curse and a waste of good coffee beans when the espresso sucks. We barely resisted the compelling urge to change practically every possible adjustment right away. Part of the reason was to let the machine invoke its “Adapting System” as advertised, and another part was to minimize the chaos of changing multiple variables at the same time.
Even so, how could an Italian company claim that such a machine is normally factory-tuned to produce “the perfect Italian espresso” right out of the box? I’ve been to Italy numerous times, and the espresso is never close to this bad — anywhere. Worse, Saeco’s documentation warns that you might find some residual coffee grounds on your new machine, as they have been put through testing before packaging. Testing for what? The taste of watery 1980s San Francisco espresso made by clueless minimum-wage employees?
It’s not just Saeco: we’ve found every other manufacturer of four-figure superautomatic home espresso machines guilty of the exact same failures. Yet despite this distasteful — but not unexpected — start, in our next installment we will write about the adjustments we made and how it may, or may not, have affected the quality of the resulting espresso shots.
“Secret, secret, I’ve got a secret. And it’s how to make decent espresso out of me.”