Home Brew

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The Pod People — and their less than magnificent brewing machines

Posted by on 04 Nov 2007 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine

Today’s New York Times Magazine published an article on the declining design aesthetic of the espresso machine: The Pod People – New York Times. As the author puts it, “Cape Canaveralesque control centers that have replaced those great machines.” And she blames the meteoric popularity of Starbucks, which inspired a great wave of ensuing greed by machine manufacturers and roasters targeting the home market.

In particular, she points out the design demise from the espresso pod and pod machine market — citing its inherent packaging wastefulness, the ugliness of the new wave of pod-friendly machines, and the irritation of over-designed machines that only work with a select kind of overpriced coffee pod. (The last phenomenon being so bad that there is a market for “ghetto pods” — echoing the days of do-it-yourself inkjet printer cartridge refills.)

Coffee pod freshness

If poor design were their only drawback. The author takes a pass on criticizing espresso pod quality, stating, “Admittedly, Nespresso and E.S.E. do taste rather good. (The premeasured grounds are fresh, thanks to the hermetically sealed capsules.)”

It’s clear the author is a designer and not necessarily a coffee geek, but this is an old soapbox topic for us. Virtually all the coffee you purchase today comes in some sort of hermetically and/or vacuum-sealed container — including Folger’s and Maxwell House. (Even setting aside that pre-ground coffee is far more unstable than whole bean.) If that were necessary and sufficient to keep coffee supplies fresh, there would be little advantage to home roasting or purchasing roast-dated coffee from the likes of Blue Bottle, etc.

But the truth is that freshness matters a lot, and it matters immensely when it comes to espresso. No matter how well you mummify pre-ground, roasted coffee for shipment around the world and storage in warehouses, it is always more stale than local, recently roasted supplies. In espresso, it always produces a thinner, lighter, less healthy looking crema. I’ve never encountered a single exception to this rule. Just look at the photos and ratings from our Nespresso tests. So unless she’s comparing these pod machines to the home Krups models of the 1990s, coffee freshness remains a negative for these new machines/systems.

New York espresso redux

Also in today’s New York Times Travel section is an update on a familiar topic: where to get a decent espresso among Gotham City’s terrible standards: Weeknd in New York – Coffee Bars – Travel – New York Times. In addition to some of the usual suspects, they also mention Zibetto Espresso Bar — a relative newcomer of note.

High-end restaurants raise the Nespresso white flag: The cult of Nespresso

Posted by on 05 Oct 2007 | Filed under: Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

An article in yesterday’s Dublin Independent perhaps thought it was exalting the Nespresso espresso. However, it did more to underscore how clueless high-end restaurants are when it comes to espresso quality: The cult of Nespresso – Food & Drink, Lifestyle – Independent.ie. Pre-ground coffee that has aged for weeks in plastic pods since the second crack of roasting, idiot-proof brewing systems run by barista idiots, packaged coffee “flavors” such as “ristretto” or “cosi” (as in “sto così così”, or “I’m feeling so-so, but it’s better than when Mussolini was dictator”) — that’s the hallmark of quality in a £7 ($14) cup at heralded UK restaurants such as Fat Duck and Sketch.

Mmmmm! Grapey.

Mmmmm! Grapey.

Forget the Fair Trade controversies in the article for a moment. Despite the clean and convenient system, the Nespresso espresso tastes very bland and comes with a thin, monochromatic crema and a body just this side of tea. But as long as the designators of good restaurant food taste believe their superpowers naturally extend to coffee service as well as amuses bouche, restaurant patrons are doomed to bland, underwhelming coffee at exorbitant prices. It’s surprising they haven’t hired sommeliers who choose the finest boxed wine selections to go with their $400 prix fixe meals.

Oddly enough, this was one of the things I appreciated about Coi restaurant in SF. I took my wife there for her birthday last week, and they didn’t even bother with espresso service. Instead, they served Blue Bottle Coffee in individual French presses — that’s it. They scored points for acknowledging what they didn’t know and couldn’t do well, instead of merely pretending that they did (and failing miserably) like so many other high-end restaurants.

Idiot-Proof Espresso Machines End Excuses, Target U.S. Market

Posted by on 01 Oct 2007 | Filed under: Home Brew, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

Today Bloomberg published an article about the latest generation of restaurant and home espresso machines, designed with the idiot in mind: Idiot-Proof Espresso Machines End Excuses, Target U.S. Market – Bloomberg.com: Spend.

Andrea Illy of Illycaffè has to be very careful not to speak out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, today Illy is big on promoting a retail line of restaurant and home espresso machines designed for idiots and incompetents. On the other hand, he has to keep tight-lipped about the shortcomings of super-automated home espresso machines. Because the very safeguards that prevent espresso system owners from doing something terribly wrong or stupid are often the very same things that prevent these devices from producing great espresso.

“In the U.S., they don’t clean the machines correctly, they don’t heat the cups, they serve it with lemon peel,” Illy is quoted in the article. His answer? Illy’s push-button ESE system (for “Easy Serving Espresso”), which uses pre-measured capsules of pre-ground coffee — not unlike their Nespresso competition from Nestlé.

The article’s author was impressed by these ESE devices, saying they produce “not only an impeccably made espresso with a lingering taste of delicious, complex coffee on the palate, but after several minutes the crema had not dissipated”. The crema that wouldn’t die? I’m not sure if I should be excited or mortified.

And while the retail claim is that these machines make it hard for anyone to screw up a good Italian espresso, the fact remains that by “good” we’re still only talking Starbucks quality. A gold standard in 1995 suburban Virginia, perhaps, but irrelevant to anyone who has developed an espresso palate to know better. Or at least a palate for something capable of being a revelation espresso.

Coming Trip Report: Piemonte

And although I don’t expect to be blown away at the high end of the espresso scale, I am off to Piemonte this week — armed with Gambero Rosso’s Bar d’Italia. Lucky you that my postings should slow down a bit while I’m travelling.

The Piemontese town of Alba, for the white truffle obsessed

Re-Engineering Espresso: introducing Illy’s Hyper Espresso machine

Posted by on 31 Aug 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Machine

Today’s Wall Street Journal features an article on a new home espresso machine/system being introduced by Illycaffè next month: Re-Engineering Espresso – WSJ.com. Illy’s new coffee-pod-based machine/system is called Hyper Espresso — ‘hyper’ being a sort of European equivalent of ‘super’ (as in hypermarket shopping). The system consists of a custom machine (produced by Illy for about $600-$800 for the home version). Instead of coffee pods the machine will use coffee-filled plastic capsules developed, and sold, by Illy for about 75¢ each (or about $50 per pound of coffee!).

Unlike other single-serving, home espresso systems, Illy’s new system promises to enable the home barista to tweak their espresso shots — for example, allowing owners to alter brewing temperature and pressure to produce different espresso strengths and nuanced flavor changes. While the ability to alter espresso shots is a step in the right direction, the system will still be constrained by using only stale, pre-ground coffee roasted weeks earlier, it is obviously beset by high coffee prices, and it will still create a huge amount of environmental waste per shot. You can read more about these capsules on the Illy Web site.

The article concludes by reviewing Illy’s research on all the complex variables and factors that go into making a quality espresso.

Illy's Hyper Espresso machine Illy's bag o' capsules -- only $495!

Vienna’s coffee makers take on the convenience cup

Posted by on 30 Aug 2007 | Filed under: Café Society, Consumer Trends, Foreign Brew, Home Brew

Today Earthtimes.org published an article on the evolving consumer coffee market in Vienna, Austria: Vienna’s coffee makers take on the convenience cup : Health. While Vienna is steeped in a long tradition of contemplative coffee-drinking in elegant cafés, modern trends such as espresso drinks, big international coffee chains, “to go” coffee, and home espresso machines are changing the landscape and competing for the hearts and minds of the local Weiners (Vienna being “Wein” in the local language).

Vienna’s roots are in filter coffee, but some of the traditional cafés have seen the exploding interest in espresso drinks as a growth opportunity. Small, local roasters also have to contend with the proliferation of home espresso machines and the coffee pod/single-serve-coffee phenomenon. However, they also cite the limited quality these pods often provide — not to mention the extensive environmental waste they produce.

And while many local cafés were thought to be under threat when Starbucks first arrived in 2001, to date Starbucks represents only 11 of some 2,600 coffee outlets in Vienna.

Inside Café Central, Vienna

Trip Report: Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park

Posted by on 22 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Home Brew

A Peninsula people-watching Mecca, typically filled with large crowds throughout the day and skirmishes over available outdoor tables. It’s been that way here since I first entered this place 15 years ago. They have large indoor and outdoor seating areas, local art, occasional musicians, and obligatory patrons in bike shorts.

One of the most indelible memories I have of this place is from a dozen years ago. A friend of a friend, who was visiting fresh from her compulsory military duty in Israel, asked us about it as we drove by. My other friend, himself a native of India, answered her, “It’s our local Eurotrash hangout.” To which she replied, “Oh, I love Eurotrash.” It may not be as Eurotrashy anymore, but the cyclist motif is still in full swing here.

The throngs outside Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park on a fair weather day Long lines to the order counter; bring your bike shorts

They use Mazzer grinders and twin two-group La Marzocco Lineas at the heart of this operation. The coffee drink sizes here tend to be enormous, however, so bring a snorkel and fins.

They serve espresso with a very pale, blonde crema of mediocre thickness. Good Lavazza aroma. But with a pour to the rim of their Lavazza-logo IPA cups, it’s dominated by a weak body and a watery drip coffee flavor with some woody notes. Fortunately for most lactose-loving patrons, the milk frothing is much better — as everyone seems to particularly bathe in milk-based drinks here. The weak espresso can be hidden rather easily underneath it all.

Read the updated review of Cafe Borrone in Menlo Park.

Working the dual two-group La Marzocco Lineas at Cafe Borrone The Cafe Borrone espresso - filled high and watery

How’s your crapuccino?

Posted by on 04 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Add Milk, Home Brew, Quality Issues, Starbucks

This week, The Guardian (UK) posted an article on the elusive quality cappuccino: How’s your crapuccino? from Guardian Unlimited: Word of Mouth. While the Brits may disparage the “dirty dishwater” that is American coffee, even in London you’re helpless to find a cappuccino that isn’t served in a gargantuan bowl, filled mostly with milk, and gurgling with immensely sized bubbles (and yes, he includes Starbucks Coffee in this category).

The author suggests that home brew is the best option. But given the paltry pressures most home espresso machines can generate, I find good milk frothing to be one of the hardest things to produce at home.

Trip Report: Blue Bottle Coffee Co. @ Ferry Building Marketplace

Posted by on 02 Jul 2007 | Filed under: Home Brew, Local Brew, Roasting

One of the odder, and better, espresso adventures in San Francisco is the outdoor Blue Bottle Coffee tent that descends on the Ferry Building Marketplace every week like a traveling Burning Man exhibition. Starting in 2004, East Bay artisan roaster James Freeman of Blue Bottle Coffee brought his coffee cart out to the weekend farmers’ market at this location.

James has long (and accurately) recognized the dire neglect of quality coffee by restaurants and cafés, so he’s been big on freshness since the beginning of his days at the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets. He won’t sell beans roasted more than 48 hours ago, and he’s always bucked the local trend of charred roasts by promoting more moderate roast profiles. Not surprisingly, Blue Bottle was the 2004 coffee winner of the SF Bay Guardian‘s “Best of the Bay,” and they’ve received numerous awards ever since.

More controversially, before establishing a greater Blue-Bottle-branded footprint in SF proper, James also provided the original coffee service and training for the once-excellent Frog Hollow Farm inside the Ferry Building. Frog Hollow Farm’s espresso hasn’t been the same since they dissolved their business relationship, but more on that below.

Blue Bottle's circus tent at the Ferry Building Marketplace farmers' market Bags of Blue Bottle for sale

Blue Bottle operates two temporary locations here: one electrified kiosk on the West (arcade) side using a two-group La Marzocco Linea, and the other kiosk on the South side running off propane and marine batteries using two Astoria manual/lever machines (a four-group and a two-group). (Coincidentally, last week we hinted at James Freeman’s pragmatism this week, and his choice of Astoria machines in the field at this location speaks volumes.)

The lever machines give it the feel of the Toy Boat Dessert Café. Though the off-the-grid nature of this spot reminds me of perhaps my favorite lever machine espresso experience: in a fog bank atop Mt. Vesuvius, just before reaching the crater wall.

The lines here have always been long. But the fresh coffee pilgrims have made it so that I now recommend making up a unique, fictitious name for your order. I heard orders for ‘Greg’ called up four times within the 15-minute wait after ordering, which made things very confusing. This despite the larger pit crew James now fields here (James rarely makes appearances himself now). This location has a couple of benches, but most customers drink it standing up or order “to go”.

The Blue Bottle hustle behind the Astoria lever machines Blue Bottle's drip coffee station

They pull shots with a speckled, textured mixture of dark and darker brown crema that is surprisingly thin — at least on warm weather. (James told me their favorite days for consistency are socked-in August Saturdays.) Double shot ristretti are the default, and so are the paper cups — so order it in the traditional brown Nuova Point cups before they run out. For a ristretto, the body is a bit too thin, however — at least with the warm day of my last spot check. It has a flavor of smoke and smooth tobacco combined with a little honey, nectar-like sweetness. The brightness in the coffee shines through, but not as much as their Hayes Valley location. They also offer custom drip filter coffees.

While the overall quality of the espresso here is quite good, this location has never matched Frog Hollow Farm‘s espresso at its best in 2003-2004 — before James pulled out. Frog Hollow Farm seemed to bring together the best of James’ coffee and training with a fixed location and great equipment. Independently, both have suffered a loss of quality at this location since the split.

Following my farmers’ market visit, I headed home to compare my morning Blue Bottle experience with my own home espresso setup — using an espresso blend I made from “micro batches” of four different beans I had roasted with my Fresh Roast+ three days earlier. While it was clear I couldn’t create anything close to the milk microfoam Blue Bottle could produce, my espresso shots had a richer, thicker, and more colorful crema, a slightly weaker aroma, but a more robust flavor profile, greater brightness, and a thicker body. The Bay Area espresso elite should always give my home espresso a run for the money, and in the past three years this cart service has yet to do that.

Read the updated review of Blue Bottle Coffee Co. at the Ferry Building Marketplace.

The Blue Bottle cappuccino at the Ferry Building The Blue Bottle espresso at the Ferry Building

What makes coffee bitter?

Posted by on 06 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Home Brew, Quality Issues, Robusta

Last week, C. Clairborne Ray of the New York Times answered this question as part of the paper’s Q&A feature: bookofjoe: What makes coffee bitter?. (I’m citing it on another blogger’s post instead of the original NY Times source — in case you are religiously opposed to NYT logins.)

As the article states, coffee is a “complex chemical soup”. So complex, in fact, that the answer they offer is a complex alphabet soup.

The digestible short of it is that a little bitterness isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the overall balance of coffee, as it cuts down on its acidity. However, you can cut back on the perceived bitterness of the cup by avoiding distilled water, by brewing at higher temperatures, and laying off the robusta. The Coffee Research Institute also recommends medium roasts, drip-brewed systems, and using a coarser grind.

NYC coffee needs to spend plenty of time in therapy

UPDATE: Aug. 21, 2007
It’s amazing what old stories get rehashed over and over again. Chemist Thomas Hofman presented findings today at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Boston, seemingly unaware of the fact that others have bothered to ask the very same question before, leading to prior research reported several times over already: Chemists Find What Makes Coffee Bitter | LiveScience (also: Physorg.com). How long before the next scientist reports on gravity research made by dropping objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

Turkish coffee, as explained by a Turkish expat

Posted by on 06 Jun 2007 | Filed under: Home Brew

Today’s Zaman is published in English in Istanbul. So when someone writes an article there about Turkish coffee, you better believe I’m going to pay attention: TODAY’S ZAMAN – Time for a coffee break!.

The article offers some excellent tips for brewing your own Turkish coffee … right at home, without risking Your Own Private Midnight Express: how to make it, the four degrees of sweetness (sade, az şekerli, orta şekerli, and çok şekerli for all you sugar junkies out there), Turkish customs for serving it, etc.

And to think I once had a Turkish housemate who never bothered to teach me this. But I’m not bitter. (You hear that, Levent?! And thanks again for all the times you accidentally dialed “9-1-1″ instead of “0-1-1″ when making calls back home to Diyarbakir at 6am on a Saturday morning…)

UPDATE: June 8, 2007
And in case the home version leaves you a little unsatisfied, today’s Turkish Daily News published excerpts from Grand Bazaar Guide 2007, offering a few Turkish coffee options in Istanbul: Satisfying the stomach at the Grand Bazaar – Turkish Daily News Jun 08, 2007. They report that Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı) is the largest and oldest covered shopping center of the world. Sure, the Mall of America may have its own rollercoaster, but just imagine the airspace you need for all the flying magic carpets.

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