Archived Posts from this Category
Archived Posts from this Category
For the last installment of our three-part series on How future coffee “Waves” will come to disparage the so-called Third, we wrap up by examining two major social fads that have come to identify the Third Wave:
We’ll also touch on why, if quality coffee is to progress, we must get beyond through these and the qualitative fads of the times. For good coffee to continue proliferate in convenience, access, and quality, these qualities require a healthy, growing consumer market to support them. So the question is: are these fads helping or hurting those aims?
One of the hallmarks of these coffee times (call them Third Wave if you like) is that the barista has been promoted as the focal point and pinnacle of all things quality coffee. It’s as if we now expect our barista to be picking beans at origin. This despite the fact that many coffee preparations have no need for a barista.
If we promote the barista as not only the public face of coffee but its only face, we end up with representation by many of the least experienced, most novice members in the industry. Meanwhile, many in the industry still believe that barista competitions — themselves a decidedly Third Wave construct — are just as worthy as many cooking programs when it comes to TV-ready entertainment such as “Iron Chef” or “Top Chef.”
It only takes 20 minutes of sitting through an online video feed from the USBC to convince the layman consumer otherwise. Not only that, instead of promoting executive chefs at the height of their profession, barista competitions are more akin to Top Chef de Partie (or “Top Line Cook”): highly skilled and trained individuals at specific, technical tasks, but much less so the conductors of a great, comprehensive coffee offering.
Another reason that our barista competitions are more like drills for line cooks concerns the intense technical precision and narrow focus of these competitions. Specialty drinks add an element of creativity, but they are completely irrelevant to what a retail customer can purchase in a café. Then at the other extreme you have latte art competitions where the results are little more than eye candy: no more the hallmark of a technically gifted barista than a plating contest would be for a competitive chef.
Is that to suggest that the barista should be humbled more as a mere entry-level, high turnover position for the coffee industry? Anything but. Great baristas can make or break a café and often for reasons other than the amount of grinds left in their doser — i.e., abilities and skills that just don’t rank on the current barista competition scoresheets.
Earlier this week, I had dinner with New York-based Nicolas O’Connell, an owner and Managing Partner at La Colombe Torrefaction who earned his rank starting as a barista in one of their cafés. While talking about favorite coffee places in New York City, Nicolas was quick to cite Jamie McCormick of Abraço as NYC’s best barista. (Jamie is an alum of SF’s Blue Bottle Coffee.)
Nicolas waxed poetic about Jamie’s ability to connect with people in line, to engage with his customers by name and learn/know what they want — avoiding the you’re-a-waste-of-my-time attitude common among the staff at many NYC competitors. Nicolas even went so far as to say, “People love Abraço and think its a great place just because of the coffee. But the real reason they are great is Jamie, and most of the customers don’t realize that.”
You won’t find Jamie in a barista competition. Nor will you find many of the skills he excels at valued in the structure of a competition. And yet he is as critical as anyone in New York City at introducing people to better coffee standards.
We save perhaps one of more controversial points for last: the coffee geek ethos needs to go. (Apologies to Mark Prince of CoffeeGeek.com.) We not only mean it for the amateur enthusiasts, but also among the professionals.
You can argue that coffee geeks have existed throughout previous waves, from home espresso enthusiasts to their übergeek home roaster brethren. As for the professional trade, yours truly still sports a goatee he grew as a joke while taking a summer grad school class at the University of Washington in Seattle in 1995 — the old joke being that all Seattle residents must be flannel-wearing, Nirvana-moshing Starbucks employees. But the explosion of these social archetypes came after the 1990s, and in part they have come to define the Third Wave.
So why is losing the coffee geek ethos critical? Because we believe it will improve access to better coffee for everyone. The longer that high quality coffee remains the exclusive domain of coffee geeks, hipsters, and “uniformed” coffee professionals, the longer that mainstream accessibility and acceptance will be an uphill battle. We joke about coffee’s tiresome wine analogy, but the wine industry successfully figured out how to bring mainstream wine out of the Gallo era in part by circumventing the image of the elitist, self-absorbed wine snob.
Some believe the Third Wave can build a supporting market for better coffee through an intense public education campaign. But too often, we’ve made it harder for consumers to relax and just enjoy a simple cup of coffee — without feeling the pressure to make a lot more decisions nor feeling burdened by educational materials and processes. And instead of tearing down walls to get more people asking for better coffee, we’ve instead built up a few walls.
While it’s hard for readers here to fathom the idea of Starbucks being elitist, nearly every online post that mentions Starbucks attracts a heavy level of venomous contempt for the company and its patrons. (Google it — we dare you.) This contempt seems to originate from staunch defenders of the mainstream and the “prudent” — people who take great offense that their cheaper, mainstream tastes are no longer “good enough.” Now just imagine the shock-and-awe bursting of aneurysms if these same people encountered an army of coffee geeks that look down their noses at Starbucks and its patrons?
We don’t envision a Tocqueville-like an end to stratification. And there may always be people so insecure as to feel threatened by another person’s beverage choice — as if it were a personal judgment of their self-worth — where only professional therapists stand to have any hope of changing them. But there are also many coffee geeks, amateurs and professionals alike, who would prefer to keep quality coffee as “this thing of ours.” If for no other reason than irrational fear that the mainstream popularization of quality coffee would devalue their own identities and/or constitute a commercial sell-out.
Every advancement “Third Wave” coffee has brought to bear — from the varieties of single-origin beans to roast-dated coffee to public cuppings to barista competitions — would not have been possible if not for the development of an economic market to support them. But more mainstream coffee consumers — the ones who will help build sustainable economic markets for even better coffee — will not get over their apprehension of delving deeper into coffee as long as its image is that of the self-celebrated coffee geek or judgmental coffee snob. Even the very word “geek” defies social acceptance.
If quality coffee remains trapped in its insulated niche, standards across the board will be stuck. And even we coffee geeks will eventually be stifled by Third Wave coffee’s conformity of non-conformity.
Just a few years ago, for a variety of reasons, we were avid and regular home coffee roasters. Today we still occasionally roast our own coffee at home, but we find far fewer reasons to do so — and we find ourselves doing it much less often. The reasons for this change are partly personal. But they mostly reflect significant shifts over the past few years behind the motivations for home coffee roasting.
Home roasting remains something of an oddity in the world of quality coffee, akin to the high school chess club even among coffee geeks. For example, there are several online communities for home roasters — most have been around for years — and yet rarely do they interact with the many other online communities devoted to baristas, consumer coffee, and the coffee trade (and vice versa). We’ve found meatspace communities to operate much the same way.
Why? We can only guess that many home roasters tend to dwell in the odd margins of prosumers: too esoteric for most layman consumers, and yet not commercial enough for the professionals to take notice. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, in many countries home coffee roasting was the norm up until World War II. In America, the convenience of coffee pre-roasted outside the home didn’t even catch on until the late 1800s.
When we started home roasting around the turn of the millennium, we did so because it uniquely solved a big problem with home espresso. With espresso being particularly sensitive to the age of the roast, we needed a small-but-steady supply of fresh-roasted coffee beans that were less than a week old.
Because we consumed most of our espresso shots outside the home at the time, our home coffee turnover ran as low as a pound every 2-3 weeks — making small-batch (micro-batch?) lots rather attractive. The few roasters with relatively fresh supplies often sold by the pound. As for the decent roasters that allowed you to purchase smaller supplies in bulk? They typically stored their roasts in open bins that visually looked good in retail locations but fully exposed their coffee to days of rapid oxidation (and hence rapid staleness).
Like many other home roasters, we took the plunge for freshness, variety, and small batch sizes. And since you can typically buy green coffee beans at about half the price of their roasted versions, other home roasters pursued it as a way to save money. Or do you?
Given these economic times where industry trade mags read like a dirge for the café and quality coffee, some of the apocalyptic retail coffee prophesies out there include suggestions of a mass movement towards home roasting (e.g., Coffee Talk‘s “State of the Industry” editorial [7.8Mb pdf, pg. 10] published this month).
Of course, we’ve recently ruffled quite a few feathers among the personal finance malpractice industry — calling the bluff of a bevy of personal finance
lemmings posters who regurgitated the home espresso machine savings myth. (Save that myth for the Starbucks marketing gurus hawking home espresso equipment on their cafés’ expensive retail shelf space. Someone has clearly done the math, and our money is on Starbucks determining their customer lifetime value long before any wannabe wonk thought about the economics of home espresso machines.)
Just as with the home espresso machine savings myth, the fly in home roasting’s economic ointment is labor: home roasting takes a bit of work and energy. This time investment is readily dismissed by those who love the craft, but then there’s a reason most of us don’t feel the loving zen of changing our own motor oil. Regularly flossing your teeth may seem like a small time commitment, but millions of people would gladly cough up a few bucks every month if there was a way to make the need simply go away.
As always, your mileage may vary. We started with a detailed database of each test roast (a system prototype for CoffeeRatings.com no less), adjusted various controls for time and temperature, etc. But these days, we’re more than a bit slapdash; we’re lucky to avoid getting distracted and burning the house down.
Over the past few years, the financial incentives of home roasting haven’t changed. However, the freshness and variety of roasted coffees available to consumers have changed dramatically.
We had a good conversation about this with Christian of Man Seeking Coffee fame — during our joint review of Dynamo Donuts. Before the advent of Blue Bottle Coffee, almost no one dared date stamp their roasts. So the only way consumers could be sure they were getting coffee roasted less than a week old was to roast it themselves.
Today, the practice of date-stamping coffee roasts is expected among the better roasters. A week ago we walked into the Bi-Rite grocer, and we could pick up a half-pound bag of Guatemalan or Ethiopian beans from Ritual Coffee Roasters — roasted just a few days prior. A small neighborhood café such as Cafe Bello offers a daily special of a same-day roast for a mere $8 per pound.
Healdsburg’s Flying Goat Coffee, for example, will take your order online, roast it to order, and ship it to you within a couple of days. Vancouver, Canada’s 49th Parallel Roasters will FedEx roasted-to-order coffee virtually overnight to most anywhere in North America. And some roasters, such as Ritual and Blue Bottle, even offer roasted coffee subscriptions, delivered to your door.
With roasted-to-order Cup of Excellence coffees now available with the click of a mouse, what upside is left to the art of home roasting?
Today the motivations for home roasting are far less compelling than they were just a few years ago — at least for most consumers. Still, there are still solid reasons why home roasting still makes sense:
Some coffee lovers want to experiment with different blends. And many coffee varietals contribute better to blends at different roast levels. This despite the current industry fad to roast most everything at a medium roast level, regardless of the type and origin of the bean involved. (If we hear one more roaster utter the brain-dead proclamation, “We only roast our coffee to medium roast, because that’s best,” we’re going to scream.)
This is one of the biggest motivators. Despite the greater variety of coffees available from quality roasters, their selection simply pales in comparison to the inventory at a Sweet Maria’s, for example. Some bean stocks, let alone roast styles, are clearly out of vogue among retail roasters. For example, today there’s a huge emphasis on single origin beans — leaving a major market gap for a variety of interesting blends to be used for espresso or other brewing methods.
One of our favorite varietals for home roasting is Maui Moka for its intense, unrivaled chocolaty flavor. This living dinosaur of a varietal may cost $23 a pound green, but it’s worth the extra cost and roasting effort on occasion, because it’s pretty hard to find — fresh-roasted or not.
Although fresh roasts are more widely available, you might not always want to rely on the postal service to get them. Furthermore, if your home coffee turnover rate is rather low, the expense of regularly shipping micro lots of the stuff suddenly makes the financial savings argument of home roasting much more compelling.
If you’re out of work or school and are interested in the process, home roasting becomes more appealing. When considering the labor costs, in some situations your time might be worth the investment — especially when you compare it with the costs of having a coffee subscription delivered regularly. Even so, the margins are still too thin on inexpensive green coffee beans to justify home roasting purely for financial reasons. Hence we suggest that if you’re going to bother with home roasting at all, deal only with higher quality green beans.
These days consumers have never had so much interest in quality food and yet felt so distant from its production. If you’re the type that likes to get their hands dirty to learn something new once in a while, home roasting is worth a shot. At least as a short-term strategy until you move on to your next hands-on project.
A decade ago, many home consumers of quality coffee had no choice but to roast their own for freshly roasted coffee. Today, with so many quality options now stamped with roasting dates, the need has greatly diminished. This has lead to a long decline in the home roasting community, which is now dominated by a few new DIY curiosity seekers and a more limited handful of die-hards. Neither of which spells sustained growth for this community.
Not a day goes without us coming across a story about how the sky is falling on retail quality coffee. For example, ABC News laments, “How do you save on coffee in tough times?” Today the Chicago Tribune ran a semi-humorous column titled “Brother, can you spare (buying) a double latte?”
Each one of these stories reference both the tougher economic times and Starbucks‘ 97% decline in their most recent quarterly profits. Posters invariably comment on these articles, claiming that pricey coffee was just a faddish aberration akin to the Dutch tulip mania of the 1600s. All of which leaves us with the impression that the era of quality coffee is over now that we’re eating canned cat food. Right?
Except that this story is a load of crap. In fact, this is precisely what Starbucks’ PR team wants us all to believe: that “it’s the economy, stupid,” and that Starbucks’ problems are all external and not internal to the company.
The truth is far different from that. Starbucks is now paying the price for selling out its soul a decade ago — by making more automated, mass-produced, and ubiquitous coffee to meet its insatiable desires to grow as gargantuan as possible, as quickly as possible. But to believe Starbucks’ version of events, we need to conveniently ignore that rival Peet’s Coffee & Tea continues to grow — and that many other Starbucks competitors, such as Café Bustelo and Lavazza (both cited in today’s news), continue to expand their operations in this economic climate. And today, the future of quality coffee has less to do with Starbucks than ever.
And please — don’t get us started on the media myth that home espresso is the way for consumers to both have great coffee and save a lot of money. At least without spending a lot of time on it. We do propose that home espresso is about better quality, saving money, or saving time. However, consumers can choose at most two of the three — and quite often they can choose only one.
Talk about a Dickensian Tale of Two Coffee Fortunes…
One theory is that this represents more of a consumer backlash against large corporations — and that consumers are more judiciously spending their dollars on what they perceive to be higher-quality coffee beverages made by the neighborhood café’s well-trained barista. Given our longtime comparison between Starbucks and Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule of the Soviet Union, could the quality revolution among mainstream coffee consumers finally have reached a Boris Yeltsin phase?
Saveur is one among many “gourmet” food, wine, and travel magazines (as much as we hate that hackneyed 80’s word) — but with a specific focus on international cuisines. “Saveur” being French for “flavor”. Now whether “Saveur Sav” would be a clock-and-beret-wearing member of France’s answer to Public Enemy is still up for debate. (Oui, garçon!) But the cover story for their latest (October ’08) issue is “The Breakfast Issue.” And while many of us will take issue that “coffee: it’s not just for breakfast anymore,” they feature a series of articles on coffee in the print magazine and as Web exclusives.
The main print article reviews nine different coffees from nine different specialty roasters, representing a rather broad spectrum of roasted coffee available for home brew: 9 Great Coffees – Saveur.com. And we sure do mean “broad”. It includes the usual suspects — the likes of Counter Culture, Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and 49th Parallel. But there’s also the unorthodox choice of traditionalists Sant’Eustachio il caffè and even the “mass production” coffees of Green Mountain and Peet’s.
On one end of the spectrum they’ve got Newman’s Own Organics, and at the other end they’ve got Intelligentsia’s Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda (a batch of which we reviewed last year as roasted by Peet’s). Though to once again invoke the ever-tiresome wine analogy, we’ve noticed a trend where Esmeralda has become something of the Silver Oak cab of the coffee world: i.e., a great product, but one burdened with a status symbol brand name that people commonly latch on to when they know little else about the beverage. (Well, at least it isn’t kopi luwak.)
In Saveur.com’s online exclusives, they review an additional 14 coffees (More of Our Favorite Roasts – Saveur.com) and offer a coffee glossary (A Glossary of Coffee Terminology – Saveur.com). There’s even a brief interview/book promotion piece from Counter Cult member and Third Wave choir girl, Michaele Weissman: A Flawless Cup – Saveur.com.
We know plenty of stories about coffee retailers and roasters going to origin, but here’s a story of origin coming here instead: Colombian coffee icon defies Starbucks doldrums – International Herald Tribune. As reported in today’s International Herald Tribune, the Bogota-based chain, Juan Valdez Cafe, is owned by thousands of Colombia coffee-growing shareholders.
We’ve written prior about Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers and their Juan Valdez-branded cafés. What’s also notable is that they are continuing their expansion plans — plans that seem to run counter to Starbucks‘ public lament that the current economy is a coffee retailer’s economic Dust Bowl.
Thanks to Starbucks, rumors of the demise of the quality coffee shop have been greatly exaggerated. And it’s not just the opinion of one Juan Valdez. Also in today’s news from London’s Evening Standard, reports that consumers aren’t retreating to the more economical options of coffee’s more recent Dark Ages: Coffee shop boom time as chains defy crunch | News. And just as some readers here suggested, consumers aren’t getting their preferred coffee fix by playing home barista more often either.
We previously wrote of our annoyance with the old and ever-popular yarn spun by wannabe personal finance gurus who constantly tell us we can become millionaires by quitting our daily coffee habit — or by replacing it with home-brewed coffee. For the record, we have a lot of coffee both out (as evidenced by CoffeeRatings.com) and in the home. But we’ve always thought that home-brewed coffee is hardly the magic path to champagne wishes and caviar dreams. This time we do a little of the math to show why.
Many of these personal finance hacks first fail to recognize that coffee, for at least some people, is one of life’s small pleasures. The idea of giving it up entirely makes about as much sense as giving up other “superfluous” things in life — such as haircuts, your child’s dance lessons, and cable TV. Once you get past that logic, the debate then becomes about the private jets you’ll be able to afford by making your own coffee or espresso at home instead of paying Starbucks each time for the mythical $32 coffee beverage. (Hey … inflation. OK, so we’re exaggerating about the $32 beverage to make a point. But then again, so are they.)
We recently came across a blog post, similar to the thousands of others just like it, where a “home savings tip” savant posted on how she saved a “small fortune” by switching from her thrice-weekly Starbucks habit to a stove top Bialetti coffee maker at home.
Small fortune, eh? Let’s do the math. A $4 bucket of Starbucks’ pumpkin-pie-flavored Cool Whip, purchased three times a week, will set our home-savings-tip heroine back about $12 a week — or about $600 a year.
A new Bialetti will set her back about $20 — which is nice and cheap compared to some of these ridiculous $1,200 hulking piles of home espresso machine plastic that typically produce shots inferior to even Starbucks’ dubious standards (Jura, anyone?). Then add a chop grinder for about $30, and her capital outlay comes out to be about $50.
Now since fresh roasted coffee is like fresh baked bread, the supply needs replenishing every couple of weeks before it goes stale. So if she’s buying Starbucks’ coffee (and it is pretty much already stale when you buy it), that should set her back about $6 for a half pound. Then add some incidental charges for milk, pumpkin pie flavoring, and tubs of Cool Whip — but for the sake of argument, we will consider it negligible (which it isn’t).
That comes to about a $50 capital outlay plus $6 every two weeks = about $200 in the first year.
Now let’s factor in labor costs. Starbucks’ costs are dominated by labor, not coffee. To say that your labor comes out in the wash is deceiving yourself: your time is money. The federal minimum wage is $5.85 per hour (in SF, it is $9.36) — and let’s say her time is only as valuable as the lowest fry cook at McDonald’s at $6 an hour. And let’s say that making these coffee drinks at home takes about 15 minutes of her time — between grinding, watching the stove, steaming milk, washing dishes, cleaning the espresso machine, etc. All the work that Starbucks pays someone else to do for you. Three times a week for a year comes to about 40 hours of labor a year = $240.
So in her first year, you compare her $600 Starbucks habit to $200 + $240 = $440. So she saved maybe a whopping $160 in the first year — minus her additional expenses for milk, pumpkin pie flavoring, and Cool Whip. And her coffee wasn’t probably nearly as good as the kind and variety she had buying out: the coffee supplies were probably more stale, the consistency wasn’t right, and she was using equipment and skills that were a fraction of what the pros have. (After all, a moka pot doesn’t even technically make espresso to begin with.)
Add that she had to put up with this inferior coffee for a whole year. Then add that she just valued her own time at the lowly wages of a fry cook working a burger joint fronted by a clown.
A small fortune? Indeed.
But at least she didn’t buy some $1,200 Jura (likely without a decent grinder, we might add) that will require her to grin and bear hundreds of inferior espresso shots before she breaks even on the purchase price alone. Or worse…
Home espresso machines, for most buyers today, are the home exercise treadmills of the previous decade. She could easily tire of the inferior shot quality she gets at home, and she could tire even more of doing all the labor herself. After all, we live in a society that can’t even be bothered to slice an apple or toss a salad because it’s too much effort. This means that not only does she return to her regular Starbucks habit, but she does so with an additional $1,200 hole burned into her pocket — now that her home espresso machine is gathering dust in the kitchen corner.
This is why we generally recommend a home espresso setup for less than five percent of the people who ask about one. Unless you’re in it for the pursuit of higher quality shots, you’re going to be gravely disappointed. Don’t even think that you’re going to save much money with a home espresso setup unless you can make the time commitment — and if your taste buds can’t tell the difference in quality.
Sipping a double espresso at Blue Bottle Cafe earlier this afternoon, I felt like a million bucks. In fact, that espresso shot of single origin, dry-processed, Ethiopian Sidamo was so good, it deserved its own post. (To be continued…)
All this talk about “doing the math”… You know who has done the math several times over, before any of us even considered it?: Starbucks’ marketing department, that’s who. You can bet your double-tall, four-pump vanilla caramel macchiato that they know the lifetime value of their customers. And if Starbucks is devoting expensive retail space to selling home espresso machines in their cafés, how naïve does one have to be to think they’re doing it at a known net loss of customers and profits?
Today the Daily Herald (Chicago suburbs) republished a Wall Street Journal story (no subscription required!) covering the growing consumer interest in home latte art: Daily Herald | Coffee drinkers show their latte love with artistic creations. The article notably takes a San Francisco bias in its choices for interviewees. However, it properly cites the founder of Seattle’s Espresso Vivace, David Schomer, as the father of modern latte art.
The article also notes how coffee shops are now offering classes in creating latte art designs and how the latte artists themselves are organizing contests (events that have been around for some time, but with new, prosumer players). But while the article fusses over the prices of home espresso machine models, it makes no mention of the equally important role of a decent grinder.
Last year we expressed how latte art is about as relevant to coffee quality as, say, bathroom towels are to a good restaurant meal. (Unlike Wikipedia, at least we don’t liken latte art to a nuclear holocaust.) So what resonated with us most in the article were closing comments from Chris Baca — barista at SF’s Ritual Coffee Roasters and winner of the 2008 Western Regional Barista Competition. The article cites Chris saying that he’s “tiring of latte-art buzz”: “It’s part of what we do, but we like to focus more on the coffee. You could have a drink that’s totally beautiful with the most amazing design – and tastes like garbage.”
Don’t get us wrong: aesthetics do count. When my wife attended an advanced boot camp at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) last month (her class was also written up in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, btw), the instructors made a big point about how you eat with all of your senses — and that you typically always start with the eyes. This is why all our ratings have Presentation scores.
But coffee as a medium for art almost as an ends to itself? When we really want to perfect our art at home, we’ll skip the rosettas and leave the coffee as a drinking medium. For a legitimate art medium, paper and charcoal or pen and ink wash still do just fine.
Video: Taking the concept of latte art to its next natural (and ridiculous) stage of evolution…
Yesterday’s The Age (Melbourne, Australia) published an article on the growing business of home espresso education: Short, strong grounding in espresso – Epicure – Entertainment – theage.com.au. The author noted how cafés, roasters, and other retail locations are creating “coffee classrooms” for instructing consumers on how to “create the perfect coffee at home”. The reason for this? Citing the article: “Many of the classes around town grew from pressure by consumers who were disappointed with their home espresso making.” The Age has published essentially the same story before — so this was more of an update.
On the one hand, that consumers are seeking out better quality espresso is good news. It means they are becoming more aware of its potential beyond the bitter, over-extracted dreck that’s an American staple. And for many home espresso enthusiasts, scouring the Internet for forums and blogs isn’t their favorite method of self-education, so more formal training courses make sense.
However, there are multiple reasons why home espresso consumers are disappointed. For one, most home machines are ineffective slabs of future landfill that produce lame espresso. For another, there is a home espresso industrial complex actively convincing consumers that they all need their own home setup — when it’s actually inappropriate for many people. And they are luring consumers with false promises of convenience, quality, and cost savings as part of their pitch.
Although it is true that just about anyone can make great espresso at home, just because you can doesn’t mean you should. It depends on the person. For most consumers, we believe good home espresso is possible but impractical — as it requires a special combination of financial investment, time commitment, and a willingness to learn for the home espresso hobbyist to make it all worthwhile.
So what are your best options?
This option gets dismissed most often by personal finance columnists and home espresso machine hawkers, but it’s still one of the best options out there. Even those of us with decent home set ups still want the occasional retail espresso (CoffeeRatings.com is ample evidence of this) — for convenience when on the road or for the variety of trying something different.
New homes are regularly sold today with these ubiquitous appliances built into their kitchens — even if the appliances themselves are built more for convenience than quality. And the convenience vs. quality question is the major theme with this option — as consumers must pick one, and only one, of the two for it to work.
This is also really the only option if you are seeking the God shot. But for every home espresso zealot committed to the religious cause, there are dozens who are merely window shoppers enamored with the concept. (You know the type: copper pots in the kitchen that are never used, etc.)
For these reasons, this is the option we absolutely recommend least out of the three.
This is the option we recommend most often for people interested in a home espresso set up. Oh, sure, it’s not really espresso (as if the SCAA-awarded “Red Espresso” [sic] is any more so). But neither is some of the stuff poured at a lot of retail cafés — and even less so for what a lot of home machines produce.
This is the Italian family’s home coffee staple. Though in Italy, good retail espresso is around every corner. And if you’re buying a Moka pot larger than the 4-cup variety, you must either like stale brewed coffee or you’re throwing a Bar Mitzvah.
Last week, the Guardian (UK) published an article on a home espresso enthusiast’s journey to obsession: In pursuit of the ‘God shot’ | Food and drink | Life and Health. Having reviewed almost 600 espresso shots in SF proper ourselves — most of them pretty bad — we’d like to believe we know a thing or two (a thing or two too many) about obsession. But the pursuit of the “God shot” — the unachievable attainment of the perfect espresso — is a common story among home espresso enthusiasts.
As highlighted in the article, the story typically starts with a “starter” espresso machine — the gateway drug. It then soon leads to machine upgrades, grinder upgrades, and tampers. Conversations with fellow home enthusiasts via online forums (what they were known as before “social networking” became the phrase du jour — and the beginning of the end of the Internet’s second bubble) lead to more areas for obsession, lost kitchen counter space, and financial ruin. These typically include home roasting, naked portafilters, and the point of no return: PIDs.
PIDs, or Proportional-Integral-Derivative devices, are a programmable digital control unit, relay, and a temperature probe combined into one. They enable owners to control the temperature of a boiler to one-tenth of a degree for maximum brewing precision. Now I may be an electrical engineer by way of college degree, but I’ve always seen the PID as the first step of the descent into espresso madness. The point of no return.
Fact is that my home machine is a “simple” manual Gaggia G106 — the modest, illegitimate sister to the author’s original La Pavoni Europiccola. And OK, I also own a Mazzer Mini (pre-doserless model). I’m obviously part way to madness there. But why haven’t I been lured by the siren song of the “God shot”?
I could easily improve my home espresso set up. But there’s this thing called the law of diminishing returns. There comes a point where after every few hundred dollars of investment, how much better does your home espresso really get? And what is the dividing line between simply “enjoying coffee” — and enjoying only something that requires the equipment and budget of a high-energy physics lab that recreates the first few microseconds of the universe’s Big Bang? (My apologies to James: I like that you own a $20,000 siphon bar — so I don’t have to!)
I’m sure I’m missing out on something by not taking my obsession further. But then there’s a lot else in life I could be missing out on too.
Having a wife who runs her own private supper club (for which I am the front-of-the-house/”beverage guy”), I’ve been known to occasionally read the goings-on in the food world. This week, my wife introduced me to a post from a renowned food writer, Michael Ruhlman, who recently wrote about the virtues of percolator coffee: ruhlman.com: Percolator Love. It’s the thinking behind posts such as Mr. Ruhlman’s that are contributing to the Philistine state of coffee in American restaurants.
Mr. Ruhlman has made a culinary career out of “writing about food and the work of professional cooking,” including co-authoring The French Laundry Cookbook with Thomas Keller (himself representative of the odd food savant/coffee idiot phenomenon) and authoring The Making of a Chef, a narrative about life in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). (The CIA thankfully just announced a new coffee program to help dispel coffee quality ignorance among so many budding star chefs.) Combine this with a call this afternoon from Josh Sens, of San Francisco magazine — who asked for clarification on the issues with percolator coffee for his article deadline looming tomorrow — and the subject of percolator coffee seems worth a mention.
Mr. Ruhlman’s post laments the demise of the percolator, a 1940s and 1950s staple which fell out of favor once the prototype Mr. Coffee machine and the ensuing family of filter drip coffee machines rose to prominence in the 1970s. So why was the percolator brushed aside so abruptly? It wasn’t a manufacturing conspiracy — percolators were one of the greatest atrocities modern man ever committed upon good coffee. Coffee is cooking. It’s about using the right temperature, time, and pressure to extract the right flavors from the beans and to leave the nasty stuff behind.
And based on these merits, using a percolator on coffee is akin to baking a cake with a blow dryer. It’s surgery with a shovel. Take ground coffee; scald it with boiling water unevenly sprayed on some exposed grounds and not the rest; guess when the heating element kills itself off; hope for the best; serves 12.
Nostalgia makes some people long for the flavors and smells of their youth, but it also gets Communist Party members re-elected in Russia and sends divorcées back to bad marriages. While most home filter drip coffee machines even today suffer from temperature control problems (their #1 deficiency), they are still largely a step up from our culinary Dark Ages that were characterized by Potato Buds, instant Tang, instant coffee, and percolators.