Home Brew

Archived Posts from this Category

Pursuit of the ‘God shot’ and the home espresso agnostic

Posted by on 25 Mar 2008 | Filed under: CoffeeRatings.com, Home Brew, Machine

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.

My home espresso setup for the past 5 years: a Gaggia G106 and Mazzer Mini

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.

Percolator Love: Or, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

Posted by on 16 Mar 2008 | Filed under: Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Restaurant Coffee

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.

Wanted for crimes against coffee: the GE percolator

The La Marzocco GS/3 comes home: Espresso-machine price leaves some steaming

Posted by on 25 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Home Brew, Machine

Today’s Seattle Times reported on how the exchange rate wreaked havoc on the American waiting list for the La Marzocco GS/3 — their first machine designed with home use in mind: Retail Report | Espresso-machine price leaves some steaming | Seattle Times Newspaper.

For two years, La Marzocco promised a hefty $4,500 price tag for the device. But when the device was finally unveiled for sale by the American distributor for Franke late last year, two years of Bush Administration spending like a drunken sailor on shore leave depressed the U.S. dollar enough to jack up the price of the Italian-manufactured machine to $7,500. Thus making the New York Times‘ exaggerations earlier this week seemingly rank a little lower on the hyperbole scale.

But like the confused Food Network viewers who insist upon commercial ovens in their home kitchens, regardless of the Byzantine building codes for ventilation systems required by these megaliths, somehow we doubt that the extra $3,000 is really going to stop someone that hell bent on consumption.

Time to upgrade the Hummer to a real Caterpillar dump truck while you're at it

The Espresso Gospel according to Martha Stewart

Posted by on 06 Jan 2008 | Filed under: Beans, Foreign Brew, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues, Roasting

Today we came across a New York Times-syndicated article that alluded to the shortcomings of most home espresso machines: Life: Get off to a healthy start in the morning | juice, cup, milk, divide, servings – OCRegister.com. What attracted us to it was some “unconventional” wisdom about home espresso machines — something we rarely find in mainstream media.

Instead of the typical “check out these $150, landfill-bound, plastic pieces of junk that will save you money over your daily Starbucks habit,” someone actually published a consumerism-unfriendly viewpoint: that joining the consumer chum floating amidst the shark feeding frenzy that is today’s quorum of entry-level home machine manufacturers — many just trying to cash in on the “Starbucks phenomenon” — might not be a good thing for every consumer.

Blood in the water with Martha

Oddly enough, we then quickly discovered that the article was attributed to none other than Martha Stewart. We say “attributed” because although the article rang with the bizarre style of Martha’s “voice,” we know that it is her handlers and underlings who do all her writing. Even down to the regular utterances of the word “perfect” on her TV programs, thus creating one of the more unusual drinking games.

But props to Martha’s underlings for questioning the wisdom of many a misguided home appliance purchase. In the article, “she” mentions, “I tried all sorts of machines – all-in-ones, stove-top espresso makers, frothers, drippers – but I could not duplicate the perfect cappuccinos or wholesome lattes I had imbibed.” (Now did everyone drink at the word “perfect”?)

So she apparently turned to a barista at New York City’s Via Quadronno for a segment on her TV series to demonstrate how to make a “perfect” cappuccino. The wisdom from that episode led Martha to purchase a professional-grade, dual-group La San Marco machine — which has since made regular appearances in her TV kitchen. Martha also deferred to Via Quadronno’s choice of Antica Tostatura Triestina coffee beans.

When New York espresso didn’t get much better than Via Quadronno

It’s not often we find common ground with Martha Stewart. Too often, the celebrity food types fawn over their own ignorance about coffee and treat it as if it were no more involved than purchasing the right batch of cilantro. Martha erred in opting for an imported roaster over a much fresher domestic supplier, and she may have turned to a relatively unremarkable espresso purveyor for advice on quality. However, she’s shown far more research and competency in her approach towards espresso than we’ve seen from most other heralded foodiscenti.

Of course, at the time Martha approached their barista, Via Quadronno was regarded as one of New York City’s best purveyors of quality cappuccino. Before the likes of Ninth Street Espresso and Joe the Art of Coffee reached critical public awareness, places like Via Quadronno were it for this (encouragingly improving) espresso backwater of a metropolis.

This post is also another excuse to highlight some non-San Francisco espresso reviews that we’ve been able to recently surface in our database: read the review of Via Quadronno in New York City, last updated in 2005.

Decorated Via Quadronno cappuccino, courtesy of their Web site

Unclear On The Concept: Specialty coffees become the new wine

Posted by on 17 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Beans, Home Brew, Machine, Quality Issues

In the “unclear on the concept” department, this weekend’s Toronto Star published an article that, in its opening paragraph, mentioned “coffee’s elevated status as the new wine.” However, it then proceeded to discuss coffee-pod-based home espresso machines in the same context: TheStar.com | living | Specialty coffees become the new wine.

This is as incongruous as all the luxury cars that now tout their mp3-compliant sound systems — given that the audio quality of mp3s is more like the vintage 78 rpm record when compared with their audio CD predecessor. Just because a technology is new and trendy doesn’t necessarily mean it has made the quality any better (orange-flavored Tang, anyone?).

Even if we buy this silly notion that coffee is the new wine, these pod-based espresso machines are the equivalent of distributing and consuming wine from single-serving juice boxes with straws. Between the pre-ground, stale beans; the inability to alter the time, temperature, pressure, coffee tamp, and other variables of the espresso shot; and the environmental waste of excess packaging — these systems are more akin to a step backwards towards our instant coffee/percolator dark ages.

And if coffee is really going to be the new wine, is there any chance we can please drink it out of something other than a paper cup?

UPDATE: Dec. 18., 2007
Curiously enough, today I discovered a very thoughtful post from a wine blogger who discussed some of his frustrations with espresso: cluelessaboutwine – wine blog: A Bad Workman Blames His Gaggia. As much as the blogger might think he knows little about making a good espresso, I wish more espresso “professionals” had just half his knowledge, awareness, and instincts about quality espresso.

Francis Ford Coppola: The Epic in a Demitasse Cup

Posted by on 16 Dec 2007 | Filed under: Consumer Trends, Home Brew, Machine

Today’s New York Times published a brief article on Francis Ford Coppola’s personal obsession with espresso machines, of which he’s apparently owned some 300 to date: The Epic in a Demitasse Cup – New York Times. Of particular note is a machine that is “an early favorite, a large, silvery old-fashioned machine for the first offices of American Zoetrope Studios, his production company”.

San Francisco’s Cafe Zoetrope uses a rather unique Bosco machine from Naples — a gift from Dr. Ernesto Illy presented to Francis Ford Coppola. But you can even check out his early favorite in the front display window along Columbus Ave.

One of Francis Ford Coppola's early favorite machines on display at Cafe Zoetrope

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the aesthetic and espresso quality spectrum, we have a story from tomorrow’s Crain’s Chicago Business News about downtown Chicago execs who are “treating” themselves to the art of the plastic pod espresso machine: Chicago Business News, Analysis & Articles | Finer Things: Controlling the office buzz | Crain’s.

Hold that Learjet time share! The way to impress clients these days is a watery espresso with a thin crema — squirted out of a plastic capsule of stale, pre-ground beans after shoving it into a hunk of self-heating plastic. Once again, it just goes to show that power and prestige still cannot buy good taste.

Nespresso isn’t just coffee … it’s an aspirational lifestyle marketing exercise by desperate lunatics

Posted by on 26 Nov 2007 | Filed under: Home Brew

Today’s Guardian (London) featured a humorous (or is that humourous?) piece on Nespresso and its lifestyle magazine: Nespresso isn’t just coffee … it’s an aspirational lifestyle marketing exercise by desperate lunatics | Food and drink | Life and Health. What’s not to like about the dry and wickedly clever British sense of humor?

The author describes how purchasing a Nespresso machine required him to practically join a cult. All replacement coffee capsules for the device must be purchased through a “mysterious club,” and with it comes a lifestyle magazine “as hateful as Tatler, but with an overbearing and whorish emphasis on coffee pods bunged in for good measure.” Yes, photos of George Clooney accessorized with Nespresso capsules in the various rooms of his Lake Como mansion — to hopefully take some of the sting out of their exhorbitant prices.

The aforementioned coffee-as-a-lifestyle marketing tactic is apparently alive and well. But for a device that so yearningly exhaults the necessary simplicity and convenience of home espresso making, its product marketing strangely turns it into one of the most complicated, life-altering decisions any consumer should reasonably bear.

UPDATE: Nov. 27, 2007
Coincidentally, today Bloomberg reported on some of the obstacles Nestlé is facing in taking Nespresso from Europe to America: Clooney’s European Espresso Is U.S. Risk for Nestle (Update1) – Bloomberg.com: Exclusive. George Clooney does not want his image used in U.S. advertising, and Europeans apparently spend three times as much making coffee at home than Americans — odd, given how much better the options are at cafés in Europe, despite Starbucks‘ ubiquity here. But as for the aforementioned magazine: “Nespresso claims the magazine has a bigger circulation than any other in Europe.”

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

« Previous PageNext Page »