Home Brew

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Australia rates home espresso machines as the most unreliable appliances

Posted by on 05 Feb 2011 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Home espresso machines have been rated the most unreliable consumer appliance in a survey by Australia’s Choice: Brewing a great big cuppa strife | Herald Sun. Choice is akin to America’s Consumer Reports magazine — just without the bitter socialists at the Consumers Union behind it.

Over the years, Krups is responsible for more sponsored barista champions and more disgruntled home machine buyers than any other brand.One major contributor is likely the recent opportunistic flood of home appliance manufacturers: makers of toaster ovens and vacuum cleaners who suddenly smelled a cash cow in home espresso machines as Starbucks‘ stock price increased. (Okay, so that last part was way back in the Clinton era.)

Yet Australians aren’t that gullible; they’re some of the world’s most enlightened espresso consumers. But perhaps that very savviness is at the root of Australian’s dissatisfaction with home espresso machines: their standards are simply higher, and there are a lot of landfill-bound appliances on the marketplace that call themselves espresso machines in name only.

Another factor is undoubtedly the inescapable need for machine maintenance and tuning. The concept of regularly cleaning and tuning an appliance makes no sense to a lazy consumer who compares it to televisions, PVRs, and mobile phones.

Undoubtedly very few of us realize that we’re likely in violation of our refrigerator warranties if we do not dust or vaccuum the coils every month. Clearly no one does this. The difference being that a poorly maintained refrigerator still keeps food cool while it consumes more energy until finally blowing a compressor months or years later. A poorly maintained espresso machine makes foul espresso right away.

If your coffee ain’t broke, should you fix it?

Posted by on 24 Nov 2010 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

Thanks to friend of this blog, Shawn Steiman, for pointing out this somewhat amusing article from today’s New York Times: Loving Coffee Without Being a Drip – NYTimes.com. In something of an ode to the Mr. Coffee automatic filter drip machine, the author — Times food critic, Frank Bruni — laments the many overly precious methods of coffee-making he experiences as friends try to raise his coffee game.

'You call that a radar screen? No sir, we call it Mr. Coffee.' -- SpaceballsWe’re still at a loss for how someone could spray themselves in the eye with a Chemex brewer. The physics defies anything we can diagram and anything we have ever received in a college physics exam. (You know the kind: “Person A is driving a car at 55 mph on a surface with a coefficient of friction of 0.78. What color is his tie?”)

But even if you can make the argument that your choice of brewing method should factor in proportionate personal risks of scalding and blindness, far be it from us to dispute that coffee has become too fussy for its own good. Mr. Bruni cites “just how much self-identity and self-definition go into every aspect of ingestion these days.” He’s singing our song.

When does tricking out a Honda Civic imply a defective car?

Personal coffee travel suitcases aside, another telling example comes from a friend of ours who just returned after living a few years in London. He’s no coffee slouch, having used French presses for decades and a manual La Pavoni Europiccola while in London. In asking me about a home espresso machine, we concluded that a standard Rancilio Silvia would be a good fit.

Pimp My Silvia? Or defective espresso machine?What made him hesitate about purchasing one? All the Web pages dedicated to Silvia owners who outfitted their machines with PID controllers. A simple Google search produces 256,000 results. Here the coffee geek ethos of graduating from temperature surfing to PID-fitting created a potential customer who believed something was horribly wrong with the Silvia machine’s temperature control — something so defective that he wondered why it did not go through a necessary and massive product recall.

They say that good is the enemy of great, and that’s certainly true if you’re trying to improve your standards. However, that’s not the same as having an intolerance for good — which ironically, by definition, isn’t always a good thing. We love improved standards. But how enjoyable is a walk in the park when you’re always measuring it against Olympic speed records?

Trip Report: Saeco Caffè (Cape Town, South Africa)

Posted by on 28 Jul 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Roasting

This unusual, two-story café resides at the base of the ultra modern, five-star 15 on Orange Hotel. On the upper floor, it has a serving area with a two-group Saeco Steel SE 200 at a bar, a number of black tables and chairs, a branded lit display, a couple of Saeco home machines on display, a fashionable clothing and jewelry shop, and a few baked goods under glass. Outside there’s a patio with three plastic chairs and café tables under parasols advertising Saeco. Downstairs there’s more black tables and chairs and an array of several home Saeco machines for demonstration.

Together the place is wrapped heavily in Saeco red & black branding, giving it a Segafredo Zanetti-like feel. But this café, currently unique in the world, is Saeco’s showcase for their machines and coffee — a sort of counter to the Nespresso showrooms planted all over the world.

Branding outside the Saeco Caffè in Cape Town Inside the Saeco Caffè in Cape Town

Home espresso machine demo counter inside the Saeco Caffè What's a café without high-fashion retailing? Inside the Saeco Caffè.

Despite the hip, modern feel of the place, the friendly barista leaves the portafilter handles cooling in the drip tray. But when the machine is in service (there are few customers ever in here), they pull shots of Saeco coffee (also sold here in kilo-sized bags) into plastic, transparent, double-walled Bodum cups. You can see a good 2mm layer of even, medium brown crema.

But despite the rich aroma and good looks, the flavor is a bit of a disappointment: flat, a little tarry, but otherwise pungent cloves. Served on a silver platter with a large glass of water. R12, or about $1.55.

Read the review of Saeco Caffè in Cape Town, South Africa.

Branding and Saeco machine inside the Saeco Caffè The Saeco Caffè espresso

Trip Report: Hollow

Posted by on 29 May 2010 | Filed under: Café Society, Home Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

Another installment in SF’s series of “espresso bars in strange places,” this one — open since 2009 — is located in a sort of gift shop. It’s a very small space identified by its bright green exterior, and there are a couple of small chairs for sidewalk seating. Inside there are mirrors, planters, birdcages, bath oils, glassware, candle holders, and other odd home gifts — with two small tables in front and an espresso bar in back.

Here they use a two-group La Marzocco Linea to pull shots of Ritual Roasters coffee. They were pulling shots of Ritual’s anniversary Five Candles blend when we visited — recently replacing months of their Evil Twin seasonal blend. The barista identified their Evil Twin blend as being much more forgiving than the two-second extraction range that the Five Candles could tolerate. And they do time their shots here: she sank (as in sink shot) a 17-second shot before letting a 24-second shot pass.

Hollow's modest exterior Tight quarters inside Hollow

The espresso had a mottled medium and darker brown crema, poured rather short in white Nuova Point cups. It was bright, fruity (sour green apple fruity), and a touch thin – likely reflecting the new espresso blend more than anything else. Regarding the fruity descriptor, Ritual even uses the phrase “golden apple” – though it was more green apple. And that kind of sourness just doesn’t have a place in the flavor profile of espresso shots we like very much. Perhaps others will find it interesting.

Hollow is generally known for making some of the best espresso in the Inner Sunset, but the Five Candles blend didn’t let them shine. This is a case where a coffee bean roaster/supplier changes up their blends with the growing seasons and sometimes gets too clever — producing underwhelming results for the retail café.

Read the review of Hollow.

The rest of Hollow's interior - with La Marzocco Linea in back The Hollow espresso

Coincidentally, this afternoon we were looking for a decent espresso in Yountville following the fantastic release party of a winemaker friend of ours. Walking up to the nearby Yountville Coffee Caboose, we asked what Ritual blend they used for their espresso pulls. When they answered “Five Candles,” we instead walked over to Bardessono.

The woman working the Caboose’s register may have been surprised at our reaction, but the Five Candles blend really is that disappointing. It carries many of the signature problems we’ve created when we’ve overweighted more lightly roasted Central American beans in our own home-roasted espresso blends.

Bialetti announces an Italian exodus

Posted by on 08 Apr 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine

In today’s, er, tomorrow’s news from London’s The Independent, classic Italian stove-top/moka pot coffee manufacturer, Bialetti, announced that they are closing shop in Italy and moving their operations to Eastern Europe: Rivals too hot for Italy’s classic coffee pot – Europe, World – The Independent. In Italy — where the Bialetti has enjoyed decades of near-ubiquitous home coffee use — opinions on the matter have apparently heated up, as Bialetti claims modern coffee maker competition necessitated the move.

Mr. Bialetti is now thumbing a ride to somewhere east of the DanubeThe article suggests that “the little pot has helped to see off the threat of the ubiquitous, high-volume offerings of the mass-market chains.” We don’t see that at all. Mass-market chains have failed to catch on in Italy because the market for decent espresso has long been saturated with local cafés on every corner that reliably produce a good shot. The moka pot largely seemed to survive because of its simplicity: there’s no reason for a family to purchase a hulking espresso machine for home use when good stuff is always available nearby.

However, the article notes the recent popularity of coffee capsules for home use — even in places like Italy: “millions of coffee drinkers in Italy and beyond bought into the hype that the capsules provide an espresso virtually as good as one served in a coffee bar.” We agree with their use of the word hype, given that we’ve found that the best of these superautomated, capsule-based home machines produce espresso shots on par with McDonald’s quality.

That said, European consumers want to look forward to the modern. Four years ago we questioned how Nespresso shops could succeed in Europe. Sure enough, today European consumers are at least buying the coffee.

Drip Bar, a Mobile Blue Bottle Café, coming to Los Angeles

Posted by on 31 Mar 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine

The coffee culture export trade is in high swing, whether it is Stumptown Roasters opening in Amsterdam or Blue Bottle Coffee following Intelligentsia‘s footsteps and invading L.A.: Drip Bar, a Mobile Blue Bottle Café | NBC Los Angeles. Yes, that last article cites the tiresome caffeine-riff cliché abused by many an unimaginative coffee writer — calling Bay Area Blue Bottle fans “caffeine-starved locals” — but the article notes a second attempt to bring Blue Bottle to the tanned, spackled, and collagen-injected masses down south.

Drip Bar, a mobile/portable café concept scheduled for introduction in L.A. this May, plans to pour Blue Bottle Coffee using Hario V60 drippers. Should we be surprised that in a town where you have to drive everywhere, your coffee should now come on wheels?

Instructions for our Hario V60 cloth filter - e-mail us for details on the translationAs we wrote last October, the spiraling Hario V60 dripper became all the rage at Intelligentsia as a Clover brewer substitute. Many other coffee shops have since followed suit in declaring the Hario V60 dripper as the greatest thing since the double boiler — including SF’s Ritual Coffee Roasters, who was among the first in the Bay Area to offer a Hario V60 drip bar.

We have our own Hario V60 and Buono drip kettle for home use. We even got a friend to translate all the Japanese instructions for us. Good coffee, to be sure. But the professional coffee world seems to chase short-attention-span fads on a level that rivals many Japanese consumers — with a heavy copy-cat hype that ebbs and flows with the coffee growing seasons.

When we first encountered a Hario V60 drip bar, last December at Intelligentsia’s Monadnock location in Chicago, we asked the barista if he liked it that much better than a Chemex brewer or a typical Melitta bar. While continuing his pour with a Buono kettle, he slowly responded with a resounding, “Well…?” So while the V60 is a fun new coffee toy, and it produces great coffee, let’s just say we’re not ready to throw our old Chemex brewer out the window just yet.

High-quality espresso from low-end machines?

Posted by on 12 Jan 2010 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Machine

The Boston Globe published an article today (OK, technically tomorrow) about making great espresso with cheap home equipment: High-quality espresso from low-end machines – The Boston Globe. The author experimented by buying cheaper, used home espresso machines, and he claims to have achieved decent results. The key to his results were a good grind, good beans, and good portafilter packing.

Home espresso gone ghettoGiven some of the wretched espresso we’ve subjected ourselves to from the supposed “professionals,” how bad could it really be? While we haven’t tried going ghetto with home machines, we agree with the writer’s advice: grinders are often where home espresso first goes wrong, and you need a high-end one to produce a decent espresso grind. That’s a nice change from the endless supply of home espresso machine pushers who criminally neglect the importance of a good burr grinder.

The writer also found that having beans ground for him at a local coffee shop never produced espresso as good as the canned stuff — which may surprise many (including us). That says something about the reliability of local coffee shop coffee grinding, the freshness of their coffee, or both.

Of the pre-packaged variety, he tested eleven different brands and suggested that Era Ora and Sant’Eustachio came out on top.

Equator Estate Coffees wins Roast Magazine’s 2010 American Roaster of the Year Award

Posted by on 22 Oct 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Local Brew, Restaurant Coffee, Roasting

San Rafael-based Equator Estate Coffees has long been a major enigma for us. They have heavy distribution among high-end restaurants in town — and quite a few on the low-end. But despite the occasional accolades among tastemaker chefs, we just didn’t “get it.”

Roast Magazine recently announced their roaster of the yearOver the years, we sampled the espresso at well over 30 different places serving Equator Estate coffees and purchased some roasts for our home use. We invariably found them to be too tepid in flavor depth, richness or “personality” to make them stand out from the crowd. It was only this year that we finally came across an example of their coffee we truly liked. To this day, it remains the lone exception, and we suspect that some of this has to do with a lack of quality control over their delivery chain (e.g., cafés/restaurants that let their coffee lose flavor and go stale, etc.).

But of course, we’re only one opinion with a taste palate that may radically differ from anyone else’s. For example, we’ve recently come to the conclusion that, pound-for-pound, we somewhat regularly produce better results at home with the coffee from Barefoot Coffee Roasters rather than, say, the celebrated Blue Bottle Coffee — an opinion that may count as blasphemy among so many Blue Bottle loyalists in the city.

However, there’s no question that our congratulations must go out to Equator Estate Coffees for earning Roast Magazine‘s 2010 American Roaster of the Year Award: Equator Estate Coffees and Teas Wins Coffee Industry’s Top Honor. Past winners have included the likes of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, Zoka Coffee Roasters, and Stumptown Coffee Roasters — which is great company in any context. Now only if we could find a way to appreciate their coffee in the way others obviously have.

The Nespresso CitiZ, or how McDonald’s has become the home espresso of the future

Posted by on 16 Oct 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine

A little over two years ago, we lamented the state of populist retail home espresso by reviewing what we thought was one of the better options at the time, the Nespresso C180 Le Cube: The Home Espresso Machine Blues: Rating today’s state of consumer espresso machines. Besides having a name that sounded regrettably familiar to Renault’s Le Car of the late 1970s, we found the Le Cube to be typical of superautomated, pod-based home espresso machines at the time: the overpackaged, overpriced convenience of consistently stale coffee.

Since then we’ve had a whopper of a global recession — and all the mathematically-precise/psychologically-ignorant cost-savings come-ons for home brewing that have followed. With the Fall 2009 release of Nespresso’s new product line, the CitiZ, we wanted to test if the populist retail home espresso situation had changed through all of that.

In case of earthquake, do not stand near the massive towers of Nespresso branding... CitiZ & Milk - our competitor from Nespresso

It’s not an espresso machine, it’s a lifestyle

We first wrote about the new CitiZ line a few months ago in a critique of Nestlé’s recent environmental chest-beating: Nespresso and the definition of greenwashing. If Nestlé’s primary product line goals were to deliberately maximize materials extraction, manufacturing production, and waste by-products with each coffee serving, it’s hard to imagine the Nespresso coming out much differently than it appears today.

As with the Le Cube, we approached one of these new Nespresso beasts in its native habitat: a mainstream kitchenware retailer. Upon entering the Sur La Table, we were accosted with the massive marketing expense of what looked like a cardboard Playland promoting the new CitiZ line. Nestlé is clearly wheeling up dump trucks full of money for their consumer retail marketing campaign. This flash of cash seems like Nespresso’s attempt to convince consumers of its “upscale” ambitions.

Choose your weapon: Nespresso continues to market coffee like Jelly Bellys The CitiZ starts off looking decent...

Heading to the back of the store, we opted to test with a Nespresso CitiZ & Milk — which sports a built-in milk frother that we had no intention of using. In case you’re not familiar, Nespresso takes a Jelly-Belly-style approach to the coffee varieties in its capsules. Some of these coffee capsules brandish Nespresso’s new, lofty “Grand Cru” designation. However, for consistency, we opted to stick with the scary “flavor” concept known as a Ristretto capsule.

We inserted the capsule and pushed the “espresso” button (represented with an icon of the smaller of two cups). The extraction started out promising enough: a laminar flow of medium-to-dark brown crema from the get-go. We were honestly impressed at first — maybe things have gotten better?

But then the pour kept coming. And coming. And as it did, the richer brown crema turned into a more turbulent flow of what looked like a milky, splotchy hot chocolate with uneven bubbles. Not exactly appetizing. In just several seconds, the shot rapidly turned into the meager espresso we experienced with our 2007 review of the Le Cube.

The CitiZ is now producing a more sickly, pale beverage with large bubbles it calls a 'ristretto' The final espresso product from a CitiZ: far from appetizing

The Taste Test

Tasting the shot, it had a much frothier and greater amount of crema than we experienced with the Le Cube. But the crema quality was a bit suspect in taste as well as appearance: thin, one-dimensional, and lacking any flavor richness nor depth. The shot was also too large, resulting in a thinner body and making us wonder what diluted mess the Nespresso would have produced if we pushed the “lungo” button.

The espresso itself had a tepid flavor still on par with an average Starbucks and not much better than a McDonald’s. Like most espresso shots made from stale, pre-ground beans packed for weeks in sealed capsules, it has a narrow flavor profile consisting primarily of some mild spices and pepper. And universally, it tastes like it is “missing something” when compared with the real thing. The company and its advocates like to point out the supposed “high-tech” vacuum-sealed freshness of these capsules, but vacuum-sealing ground coffee is a standard practice the likes of Sanka and Maxwell House have been performing since the 1980s.

Our verdict: more crema, but otherwise very little has changed from the last generation of Nespresso machines we tested. At a 5.80 coffee rating, it’s pretty much even with our C180 Le Cube review (a 5.90). We suppose something can be said for consistency. In the meantime, populist retail home espresso still seems stuck in the McDonald’s Dark Ages. (And here the McDonald’s comparison is actually a bit flattering, given that they at least grind to order.)

Read the review of the Nespresso CitiZ & Milk.

Nespresso and the definition of greenwashing

Posted by on 31 Jul 2009 | Filed under: Beans, Consumer Trends, Home Brew

How ironic that an organization called GreeNow is now affiliated with a product line, Nespresso, that has defined a consumer lifestyle centered around maximum environmental and manufacturing waste by individually wrapping every single serving of coffee that they sell: GreeNow Powers New York Launch of New Nespresso CitiZ Machine.

Nespresso 0.5 : Taster's Choice crystalsNespresso calls it “highest-quality premium portioned coffee”. We call it stale, pre-ground coffee left aging for weeks on trucks and shelves after roasting — and stuffed into excessive packaging.

It used to be enough to ridicule Nespresso’s parent company — Nestlé, a company that the UK Guardian once called “the world’s largest and most ethically questioned food and drink company” — for their Big Four coffee status and the quality of their product line, which includes the likes of Taster’s Choice and Nescafé Specialty Solutions’ bag-in-a-box system. Now we can add the “green” claim based on their use of bio-fuels to manufacture their product — when the very design of their product generated an excess demand for more fuel, more materials, and the creation of more waste by-products to support a newly defined disposable lifestyle.

This is akin to intentionally spreading swine flu, and then following up by publicly taking credit for distributing packs of tissues. You almost have to wonder if Nestlé’s product developers and engineers sat in the design room and thought up, “How can we make home coffee consumption far more environmentally wasteful than it is today? How can we get consumers to help us strip-mine and ship more raw materials, and produce more packaging in factories, with every cup of coffee?” The result was the Nespresso system.

Nestlé says: keep drinking our coffee. It’s good for you… and the environment!

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